What does sustainability mean?

What does sustainability mean? In short, keeping it all going. It means that the processes that deliver the goods and services we require and enjoy can be kept going indefinitely. So to sustain something means to ‘keep it all going’ and sustainability is the ability to do it.

Now it only takes a moment to realise that this is not how the world really works. Nothing in nature is permanent, except perhaps the weather. 

Running is not sustainable for soon enough the runner tires and must eventually stop running. Fire consumes the dry grass, mountains eventually erode, continents drift to be subsumed into the earth’s mantle and along the way species come and go. 

Nature is in constant flux as plants and animals respond to ever changing conditions. It is a myth that the world is static and stable. 

It moves all the time.

The Brundtland Commission

Our common definition of sustainability is about how we use natural capital that is the source of our food, fibre and water is maintained at levels that allow for regular flows of environmental services. It started with a report from The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) known as the Brundtland Commission and published as Our Common Future in 1987 that talks about sustainability as

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

‘What does sustainability mean’ becomes ideas of human ‘needs’ and ‘limitations’ on the environment's ability to meet both our present and future needs. Nobody on the planet gets by without using the products of natural capital each and every day.

It also introduces the notion that there is a kind of economic development that could be sustained, perhaps indefinitely.

clearing of land for the timber, to provide grazing for livestock or to grow crops changes the capacity of the natural capital


The real idea behind sustainability is one of security. 

If the provision of goods and services are maintained then so are we. Unsustainable does not bear thinking about where food, water, fuel and building materials are concerned. We don’t even want to imagine the chaos if food ran out because we have seen the consequences.

Images of famine torn regions scare us because at some level we know how close every human society is to the consequences of food and water shortages. 

Instead we see natural capital as infinite and endlessly renewable. The soil has always grown crops, water has flowed down rivers and forests have yielded timber and any number of useful materials. 

And in the early days there was reason to believe natural capital was inexhaustible. This excerpt from Awkward News for Greenies by Mark Dangerfield and Ashley Bland…

It is easy to argue that we didn’t need rules for most of our past. There just seemed to be endless resources; the environment was not constrained. When the early European explorers reached Africa they must have believed natures bounty to be endless. It would have seemed crazy to think of restraint and impossible for the resource base to be affected by our actions. Lance Armstrong, an old farmer from the central west of NSW, Australia, talks about what happened in the area in the 1930’s, some 100 years after the first Europeans arrived.

“We never thought it would end. There were bloody trees everywhere. You couldn’t see the sky. We just used to clear a little bit more each year and all of a sudden there wasn’t much left”. 

Yet there have always been some who were concerned. Dick Bland, a beekeeper from western NSW was passionate about over-clearing of the inland. Not just because clearing removes good honey country but because of the decline in what we now call ecosystem services. On a visit to a property east of Bourke in 1997 we stood on a bridge after driving past thousands of hectares of bushland poisoned or cleared to run sheep or to grow cotton. 

“We used to drink water from that creek when we were chasing honey in 1954. Now it looks like pea and ham soup.”

What those early farmers knew was that ‘what does sustainability mean’ was hard to pin down when the landscape was changing so fast. 

All of a sudden there wasn’t much left because many land management practices are unsustainable. They alter the natural capital and its capacity to renew itself. But they did [and some still do] make money.

Pragmatology for what does sustainability mean

What does sustainability mean? It means a major reality check. Just because a specific land use makes a dollar does not make it sustainable any more than a T-shirt business is sustainable. 

Sustainability means taking the use of natural resources into context and recognising that some uses make the resource finite — they use up natural capital faster than it can be replenished.

Sustainability is not a green issue, it’s an economic one.

what does sustainability mean

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