Sustainability has become a buzzword in environmental conversations, one that is applied to everything from business practices to energy and agriculture. But where did the word come from? What does it actually mean for something to be sustainable?
The concept of sustainability is one that has been around for as long as humans have: a concern for the future of our resources. Food and water have to come from somewhere, and even the earliest cultures would have had to be thinking about what to do in the lean times, and what would happen if the animals or plants they depended upon were to disappear. The word itself, however, has more recent origins. Coined in German, the original term was Nachhaltigkeit, meaning “sustained yield.” It first appeared in a handbook of forestry published in 1713, and was used to mean never harvesting more than the forest can regenerate. The translated term appeared in English beginning in the mid-19th century.
Over time, the meaning of words can evolve and change to fit specific needs. Once ecology became a discipline, the concept of sustainability became more inclusive, referring now not just to forests, but to all biological systems. Ecological sustainability, then, is the ability of an ecosystem to maintain its essential functions and to retain biodiversity over time.
Yet another shift in definition occurred in the later part of the 20th century. Throughout this century, awareness of our overuse of resources and dependence on fossil fuels had been growing. In the 1980s, the word sustainability began to be used more in terms of the sustainability of how humans live on the planet. Today, the most common definition of sustainability is that of sustainable development, defined by the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations in 1987: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
So for something to be sustainable by today’s most common definition, it must balance how it meets human needs without degrading the natural environment. Sustainable development has three goals, set forth by the 2005 World Summit on Social Development, and they are: economic development, social development, and environmental protection. Ideally, the first two should be constrained within the third. This would ensure that we don’t take more than we need, so that something of our resources remains for our descendants. It seems simple on paper, but putting it into practice is a problem we haven’t yet managed to solve.