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What is Sustainability? Four Principles to Define Sustainable Systems.

Updated on September 20, 2012

"Sustainability" has become a buzz word. It gets thrown around the conference room and shows up in mission statements in a variety of industries: agriculture, business, energy, trade, resource consumption. It is often an avoided term in politics, and some still view it as hippy-talk.

But more and more businesses are developing sustainability policies. Consumers are looking for products that leave less of an ecological footprint. Towns, nations, and individuals are slowly becoming aware that business-as-usual is not working in a world where population and consumption is increasing and natural resources are decreasing.

We're beginning to ask: how can we make this all work for our grandkids? How can we make human society sustainable?

And what would that society actually look like? The word sustainability may evoke for many people a whole other series of buzz words and phrases: green, carbon footprint, save the rainforest, biodiversity, organic, conservation...but few can actually define it.

If we're going to work toward a sustainable future, it's important that we agree on a definition.

It is important to remember that the Economy and Society both lie within the confines of the Environment. They are not separate, but are a part of the Environment.
It is important to remember that the Economy and Society both lie within the confines of the Environment. They are not separate, but are a part of the Environment. | Source

Some definitions

  • The EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency) defines sustainability as such: "Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations. Sustainability is important to making sure that we have and will continue to have, the water, materials, and resources to protect human health and our environment."
  • An oft-quoted definition of sustainable development comes from the 1987 international Brundtland Commission Report: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The problem with these definitions is that they are broad, and do not provide specific guidelines that allow us to turn the principles of sustainability into actions.

The Natural Step: A Complete and Specific Definition of Sustainability

The Natural Step (TNS), an international non-profit with Swedish origins, has developed a definition of sustainability based on four principles. In it's beginning, TNS founder Karl Henrik Robèrt circulated the principles amongst ecologists, economists, chemists, and doctors to get consensus on what is the complete definition of sustainability. It took 21 drafts, but they came up came up with four conditions necessary for a sustainable system.

And while the language may seem scientific or obtuse, each word was carefully selected to capture the full and precise meaning of sustainability.

What are the Conditions found in a Sustainable System?

"In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing...

1. substances extracted from the earth's crust

2. concentrations of substances produced by society

3. degradation by physical means

4. and, in that society, people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs."

At this point you might be saying "Whaaaaaaat...??" What the heck does the earth's crust have to do with it all? And what does the rest of it mean anyways?

The Amazon river flowing through the Amazon rainforest.
The Amazon river flowing through the Amazon rainforest. | Source

Why is the phrase 'Systematically Increasing' important?

Note that the principles do not say that we cannot do any of these things. It is not calling for a halt on all extraction of resources, demanding that we stop driving cars entirely, never cut down another tree nor eat another banana.

Rather, it says that these activities should take place only to the extent that they do not overwhelm natural systems to the point that they cannot replenish themselves. When natural systems cannot replenish themselves, then we also face the inability to meet our food, energy, security, or other needs.

Also, note that the fourth principle says: do not undermine people's capacity to meet their needs. Thus, a sustainable society is not a utopia where everyone's needs are met. It does not describe a society without hunger or unemployment. Rather, a society must not discriminate against people or allow situations to exist that block people from finding the health care, food, education, shelter, etc...that they need.


1. Substances Extracted from the Earth's Crust

Fossil Fuels

Our modern industrial society is built upon the phenomenon of cheap fossil fuel energy. Fossil fuels are organic material that were formed hundreds of millions of years ago in the earth's crust (most reserves were formed even before the dinosaurs!). Organic matter such as plants and animals take carbon from the atmosphere into their bodies, thus acting as a carbon sequestration source. When they die, they usually decompose, releasing carbon back into the atmosphere. Fossil fuels are made under unusual circumstances in which the organic matter decomposes in swamp-like conditions and is stored underground, unable to return to the atmosphere. By dredging up fossil fuels from underground and burning this ancient organic matter, we are releasing carbon back into the atmosphere that had been sequestered long ago. Nature cannot then take that carbon from the atmosphere and re-sequester it fast enough as fossil fuels - creating two sustainability challenges: (1) fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource and cannot support civilization indefinitely or even in the near future. (2) Our factories and vehicles are overloading the natural system with carbon dioxide - a greenhouse gas that causes climate change.

Heavy Metals

Aside from fossil fuels, this sustainability principle also applies to the extraction of heavy metals - natural resources that also cannot be replenished, that are not being properly recycled, and when released into the environment can cause great harm to living things. People often associate use of heavy metals with industry, but individuals have a hand in it too; our cars pollute the environment with heavy metals such as zinc, copper, and lead.


2. Concentrations of Substances Produced by Society

Through the wonders of modern science, chemists have created substances that do not exist in nature, or do not exist in large quantities. Examples include DDT (a highly poisonous chemical used as an insecticide - Rachel Carson spoke out against it in her book Silent Spring), PCB (a type of plastic), and dioxins (some natural sources do exist, but most come from humans burning fuel sources or using chlorine).

These substances have no place in the natural system, and thus cannot be broken down or turned into something else. Ecosystems and our own bodies are harmed by the build up of such unnatural substances.


3. Degradation by Physical Means

This sustainability principle has to do with environmental issues such as deforestation or overfishing, two cases in which natural stocks are currently being depleted faster than they can grow back. Because nature is an interconnected web, the result of diminishing one natural resource has a domino effect on other systems. Cutting down the rainforest endangers many species of animals and plants. Overfishing salmon causes a disruption in the food chain, leading to bigger problems than the disappearance of one species.

It is in society's best interest to use natural resources within nature's capacity to replenish itself, so that we can continue using these resources in the future.


4. People are Not Subject to Conditions that Systematically undermine their Capacity to Meet their Needs

This does not suggest that in a sustainable society there is no hunger, unemployment, or violence. Rather, a sustainable society does not discriminate against people or cultures making it impossible for them to meet their needs.

(The Natural Step does, after all, have Swedish roots where the government provides universal health care, unemployment benefits, and free education. However, this sustainability principle does not suggest that government or society must satisfy the needs of individuals. It is more open to different governance systems, by saying that society must simply not block individuals from meeting their needs.)

What Does This Have To Do With Me?

That's all fine and good, you say, but how can one seek sustainability in their own life on an individual level?

The following table takes the four sustainability principles, relates them to factors in an individual's life, and offers "solutions/actions" that if taken will start us on the path to sustainability.

The Four Sustainability Principles Applied to the Personal Level.

Principles: Nature is not subject to systematically increasing....
Examples in Personal Life
1. Substances extracted from the earth's crust
Fossil fuels used to drive your car. Heavy metals in your electronic devices.
Negate your fossil fuels by planting trees, driving less, driving a hybrid. Recycle your electronics.
2. Concentrations of substances produced by society
Usage of plastics and other unnatural products that don't break down in nature.
Surround yourself with natural materials that will breakdown and not "build up" in nature.
3. Degradation by physical means
Buildings, roads, water use, materials used from trees that lead to deforestation.
Find ways to conserve water in your home. Support wildlife conservation efforts. Plant a garden to encourage biodiversity. Buy from small ecological farms instead of industrial.
4. People are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs
Work place conditions. Access to good schools, fresh local food available. Access to health care.
Look at whether your work place or local politics are preventing people from meeting their needs. Is the neighborhood lacking supermarkets? Are the schools underperforming? Does your work place have discrimination issues?


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    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Tara, this is a great hub about sustainability and how to adapt it to your own needs for the planet. So resourceful and useful, too. Voted up!

    • profile image

      Exfloration 5 years ago

      Tara, in the last few years I've become interested in sustainability issues, ecology, and the relationship between agriculture, public health, and the environment. I'm looking into grad school and work/volunteer options at the moment. I have no background in any of these subjects--I majored in English. Do you have any suggestions when it comes to choosing and applying for graduate programs, or volunteering/finding an internship at a sustainability-focused organization?

    • Tara McNerney profile image

      Tara McNerney 5 years ago from Washington, DC

      Rich, I totally agree with your vision. It would help to keep these resources from "systematically decreasing." Because again, sustainability doesn't mean we have to stop using energy and resources entirely, but that it needs to be done in a renewable way.

      I'm in favor of putting in place laws that reinforce this, because I don't have enough faith that the market represents accurately the scarcity of resources.

    • Rich McKelvey profile image

      Richard McKelvey 5 years ago from Coram, LI, NY

      Tara, Great presentation, and very clear. I feel that the (downward) sustainability cycle will never be resolved until laws are enacted to compensate for the imbalance. That is to say that global oil companies that reap billions annually from our resources must be liable for replacing what they take and profit from. Of course we all know that they cannot replace oil, but they can be made to pay a percentage of their profits into alternate energy research. The same would apply to all industries, metals, forestries, sea harvesting, etc. A law that would say that for every 50 million barrels of oil sold, the company would be required to build a wind farm to support 10,000 people, and a company that cuts down 5,000 trees must replant 6,000 new trees would go a long way to ensure that future generations survive and prosper. We must stop the insanity of stripping our planet and thinking that this will last forever.

    • Tara McNerney profile image

      Tara McNerney 5 years ago from Washington, DC

      JCielo, thank you, that's what I was aiming for - to keep it to plain english.

      I do feel that I know the topic quite well, because I actually got my Master's on exactly this subject! =) The Founder of The Natural Step started a Master's program at a university in Sweden called Strategic Leadership toward Sustainability. I was lucky enough to be accepted and spent a year studying sustainability in a country that is quite far ahead in the field.

    • JCielo profile image

      JCielo 5 years ago from England

      Very informative hub. You've obviously researched the subject very well and transcribed the techno-speak into plain English, giving the reader a better appreciation of what 'sustainable' really means and their place in it. Voted up and useful.

    • Tara McNerney profile image

      Tara McNerney 5 years ago from Washington, DC

      Thanks Debby, I'm glad to hear the concluding chart was helpful. It's kind of an academic hub, but my goal was to make it as readable as possible.

    • Debby Bruck profile image

      Debby Bruck 5 years ago

      Dear Tara ~ Very well written explanation of sustainability and the concluding summary chart helps to put everything in its place. Everyone needs to know what they can do as part of the chain of life here on earth. What part do they play to be a driving force for everyone to have the basics without destroying the earth in the process. Blessings, Debby


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