What is Sustainability, and Why Does it Matter?



Meeting human needs now and in the future in a fair, equitable, and socially just manner, and in a way that protects and maintains healthy ecosystems in perpetuity.

Why it Matters

“The major problems in the world are the result of differences between the way nature works and the way people think.”

    Gregory Bateson

“Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.”

    Thomas Jefferson

These two observations explain in large part why the concept, discipline, and ethic of sustainability is so necessary at this point in human history. Because of the differences between the way nature works and the way people think and act, global ecological and social systems are under significant and growing stress.

In recent decades, scientific and social research has produced a more accurate picture of the way the world works, but human laws and institutions are not keeping pace with this new learning, they are not moving “hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.” As a result, human laws, institutions, and societies remain for the most part mired in outdated, misinformed structures and behaviors, based on inaccurate worldviews, that are making things worse.

Included in these worldviews are perceptions of separateness and disconnectedness. They support the belief that humans are generally above and separate from nature, that economic activity is independent of ecological systems and processes, and that economic growth can continue forever outside the context of planetary limits. They include the related beliefs that, as economic inputs, natural resources exist to be consumed, and that land, air, and water have an unlimited capacity to absorb waste byproducts of economic activity.

As human understanding has revealed more about the true nature of life on earth, we have come to see that our planet actually works as a complex, interdependent, and dynamic living system. Making possible virtually everything that happens on earth is energy from the sun, which fuels the global ecosystem. The earth’s biological, chemical, and physical processes and relationships create and maintain our atmosphere, renew supplies of fresh, clean water, produce a wide range of renewable and nonrenewable resources, and generate the extraordinary and interdependent diversity of life on our planet.

Nested within and utterly dependent upon the global ecosystem is the complex and diverse human social system of peoples, cultures, and social structures. And within the global human social system is nested the economic system, created to meet the needs (and wants) of people across the globe. The growing awareness of the limited and interconnected nature of all things on earth –and the need to transform human behavior to reflect this more accurate understanding– underlie the principles and practices of sustainability.

Sustainability is an ethic to embrace, a concept to practice, and a goal to achieve. It is about recognizing and understanding relationships within and between social, economic, and ecological systems. Sustainability requires an abiding sense of community and acknowledging shared responsibility. It means living within the limits of nature, and being conservative and efficient with earth’s renewable and nonrenewable resources. It requires long-term thinking and seeing systems: the connections and interactions between and among all things. It is the practice of living off the interest, and not the principle, of the earth’s living systems, and making sure that all waste can be safely absorbed or become a resource for another use. Sustainability requires treating others as we would like to be treated, and ensuring that there is fairness, justice, and equity in sharing wealth generated by economic activity. Ultimately, sustainability is the intentional effort to create a future that is healthy, safe, and flourishing for all of earth’s inhabitants.