Definition of sustainability

The definition of sustainability is heavily influenced by a pivotal report from The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), more popularly known as the Brundtland Commission. The report was published under the title 'Our Common Future' in 1987. 

Referring to sustainable development as 

“the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”

the Brundtland Commission establish the twin concepts of "needs" and the idea of “limitations” on the environment's ability to meet both present and future needs, and so defines economic development that could be sustained, perhaps indefinitely.

In short, supply societal needs without putting future needs at risk.

This is a big call. Allow development to support everyone now to supply their needs for food, water, shelter and betterment whilst keeping enough back to do the same in the future. Or at least leave future generations with the opportunity to do the same.

Step back from the rhetoric and the conditioning we have all had for generations and we realise that this definition is founded on an interesting premise — there has to be growth. Simply because of what we know about world population history and world population growth there will be more people in future generations.

Sustainability is about meeting needs indefinitely… thanks to growth.

We are force fed the vital importance of growth at every turn and so we take it as a given, an obvious necessity. All this definition of sustainability does is dress up that fundamental in green clothing.

The green tinge is understandable if we recall the times when this report was written. There was a cold war, global population growth, significant pollution [acid rain, smog filled cities] and a major spike in global oil prices that precipitated political crises in many countries.

It seemed prudent to ask the question if the dramatic and hugely beneficial post-war economic growth could be maintained. 

burning landfill, Gaborone, Botswana

Sustain | to keep going

These days when a new motorcar is purchased the buyer will expect that the engine in the car will provide power for several years of motoring with just the addition of fuel and an occasional service.

Most manufacturers are so confident they will meet this expectation that they provide 50,000 or 100,000 kilometre warranties on major components of the engine. 

Even the precision engineering of modern cars is reliable but not truly sustainable. At some point the engine will wear out for the seals, tappets or bearings will eventually succumb to wear and tear and fail.

All physical structures are the same. The pyramids of Egypt are old and seemingly permanent but no more so than any other rock that will eventually wear away in the wind and rain. 

Similarly there is a finite amount of coal, oil, gas and minerals in the earths crust and only a fraction of these amounts are accessible to us. So depending on how far into the future you want to look, these finite resources cannot be used sustainably. eventually they will run out.

Clearly sustainability does not apply to objects or reserves of resources. It is a property of processes.

A sustainable business

The dream of many an entrepreneur is to build a sustainable business, one that yields profit for years to come. Except that most businesses have a finite life too. The product or service they offer may sell well for some time until fashions change or a competitor brings out something new. To stay in business companies must reinvent their products or constantly update their service offerings.

There are very few companies that are more than 100 years old and those that are have all evolved with the times, often diversifying through R&D or acquisition to stay current.

So to be sustainable in business requires flexibility and innovation.

The companies that made the gas street lamps of 19th century cities in Europe don’t make them anymore. Just ask the directors of Nokia what they think of smartphones — after you give them a moment to put their iPhone away.

What is in the definition of sustainability?

The assumption we have is that the definition of sustainability is about longevity, the ability to keep going — ideally without compromising any future ability to do the same.

Except this is not what happens.

Humans change all the time. Our wants and needs grow and evolve. A few generations ago nobody wanted a television, until they were invented and supplied at reasonable cost. And a few decades ago people wanted a phone but not one they could carry around with them.

These changes to human needs and wants provide endless opportunity for new things and ways of delivering goods and services. 

Sustainability in the human realm is more about flexibility, the ability to change with the times. When something stays the same it tends not to last except in the hands of nostalgic enthusiasts or museums.

And so often change is rapid. No one eats, dresses or behaves the same as their parents did and nor will future children look like their parents. Each generation has and will be different.

Compound this ‘development’ with 7 billion and counting and the scope and scale of change is truly bewildering. 

Sustainable resource use

So we come to the implicit assumption in the definition of sustainability that ‘needs’ are actually about resource use.

It is not possible to “meet the needs of the present” without using natural resources.

And to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” implies that resource use will be from the yields of natural capital and not erode the capital itself.

This is a huge ask.

Evidence since the late 1980’s is that there are now 50% more people than there were then — 2.38 billion more — and every resource use metric has gone up whilst the indices of environmental quality have gone down. 

The pressure to meet the current needs will always outweigh the needs of the future. We care for ourselves and our families because if we fail with that then we wouldn't have grandkids anyway.

So even if we have a definition of sustainability we might not be able to use it.


The reality of the human condition is that we are not naturally aligned to sustainability.

We are far more adept at resource use and innovation than resource conservation. 

Fundamentally we believe that there is a solution to any challenge. So if a resource runs out we are confident that someone will find or invent a replacement. And it has happened so many tines before that there is no real reason to doubt this assumption.

Our economic systems are so successful because of this capacity.  Indeed, when a resource becomes scarce its value increases and anything made from it goes up in price. Good news for the seller until the innovation kicks in and a cheaper alternative emerges and the cycle repeats.

Arguably this is what the definition of sustainability really is, the cyclical pattern of exploitation and innovation. 

The pragmatists would expect that many of our fundamental resources will be used up in meeting the needs of the present. But as the squeeze begins so the impetus for the alternatives kicks in as an economic opportunity...

And one of the 7 billion brains will find a solution.

› definition of sustainability

Confused Confucius spurned the monastic life for the world of work, moral conundrums and mobile devices. His sayings, questions and incongruous idioms on the environment and modern life bring delight and bafflement in equal measure...  check out more Confused Confucius sayings.

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