What is Sustainability?

You’ve heard the word a million times and now you’ve seen that almost any corporation or company that you can imagine is interested in operating sustainably.  But what does it really mean?

To sustain something means to prolong it or to continue.  When we talk about sustainability as a noun we are often referring to sustaining the environment in a way that continues to support life, as we know it.  Let’s take a minute to find out what you want to sustain.

Is there something you want to sustain?  What about it is important to you?

Made with Padlet

I would guess that you responded by saying you want to live in a world with clean water and clean air, and in an environment that supports a rich diversity of wildlife and plant species just to start.  I would also guess that you would like to support your families (or future families) and that you are taking courses at this university to ensure you can get a job, or a better job in the future.  Could we say that economic sustainability is important to you?

For those of you who grew up on a farm, you might want to sustain your lifestyle and the farm business.  To do that, you would be interested in a sustainable market economy and running the farm in a way that sustains your business long into the future.  You might also be interested in sustaining your community.  This is particularly important in Saskatchewan as more people move into the cities leaving insufficient populations to sustain rural schools and medical facilities and thus, communities in general.

Additionally, I’m guessing that some of you mentioned you would like to sustain your family traditions and your culture.  If you speak more than one language, you might be interested in sustaining your ability to communicate in that language and to pass on those skills to your children.

So, you can see that when we talk about sustainability, we are talking about more than just the environment.  This is important because in a world in which we must make decisions, we have to take into consideration not only production and business decisions but also how they affect values that relate to society and the environment.

The world started to pay close attention to sustainable development, and of course, sustainable agriculture in the 1980s.  During that decade, the eponymous group known as the Brundtland Commission led by Gro Harlem Brundtland developed a report to address the rapid decline in environmental and natural resources.  The report titled, “Our Common Future” defined sustainable development to be:

… development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

  • the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs.

If you were to evaluate this definition using your economic knowledge to date, what could you say?  It’s very similarly worded to the definition of economics in that it addresses scarcity (limitations) and unlimited wants (needs).  In this sense, economics and sustainability are very closely related.  Economic theory is all about making decisions under these two conditions and when we consider the longer term, making decisions that consider our future well being and the well being of future generations.