Definitions of Sustainability


Here are just a few commonly used definitions of sustainability:

  • "Sustainable means using methods, systems and materials that won't deplete resources or harm natural cycles" (Rosenbaum, 1993).
  • Sustainability "identifies a concept and attitude in development that looks at a site's natural land, water, and energy resources as integral aspects of the development" (Vieira, 1993)
  • "Sustainability integrates natural systems with human patterns and celebrates continuity, uniqueness and placemaking" (Early, 1993)
  • “Sustainable developments are those which fulfil present and future needs (WECD, 1987) while [only] using and not harming renewable resources and unique human-environmental systems of a site: [air], water, land, energy, and human ecology and/or those of other [off-site] sustainable systems (Rosenbaum 1993 and Vieira 1993).”
  • “The quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long term ecological balance”
  • ‘Sustainable Development is more about new ways of thinking, than about science or ecology. Whilst it involves the natural sciences and economics, it is primarily a matter of culture.’ (UNESCO 2002 p.4)


As can be seen, most commonly cited definitions refer to the ‘need to improve quality of life for all without depleting the earth’s natural resources’ – pointing to inter-generational equity, legacies for the future and responsibilities to the natural world (

However, when we speak of ‘the future’ in the context of a ‘sustainable future’, what do we mean? Next year? One or two decades hence? The end of the twenty-first century? The end of the third millennium? Forever?

Ideally, in view of the Brundtland Report's injunction that humanity should not compromise the needs of future generations, we should judge sustainability on an indefinite time scale – far into the very distant future. In practice, however, this might be realistically interpreted as endeavouring to ensure that systems become sustainable (or at the very least, much less un-sustainable) over the next century or so – with the additional proviso that, even beyond that time horizon, few substantial difficulties can presently be envisaged. Future generations will be justified in blaming us for creating problems that were foreseeable; but can they hold us responsible for eventualities that none of us could have anticipated?

above text sourced from OpenLearn under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Licence

However appealing sustainability is conceptually, it remains open to a variety of interpretations, ideologies, and practices. For this reason the terms is beginning to loose its power and meaning:

For instance, I have mentioned to several colleagues that I am creating this module and it is met, nearly always, with eye rolling. This suggests that popular opinion is essentially that summarised by social commentator, Jonathan Meades, in his recent BBC 4 series On France:

“That universally preached, seldom practiced, utterly trite and entirely unrealistic doctrine of sustainability”

And there is a growing number of examples that satirise ‘sustainability’

Above image sourced from under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.5 license.