What’s the meaning of ‘sustainability’?

Before starting to write a blog about sustainability, I first have to get something out of the way: the definition.
Sustainability indeed is a buzz word – but is its meaning really as widely known as the term its widespread use might suggest?

The expression sustainability is rather old, its German equivalent ‘Nachhaltigkeit’ was already used about 300 years ago in the area of forestry: Hans Carl von Carlowitz postulated that the amount of wood logged in a forest should not exceed the amount which is grown back. In this sense, sustainability means that the goods of an ecosystem (=ecosystem services) should be exploited in a way that allows the system to recuperate and thus ensure its survival.

In 1987 the meaning of the term was stretched by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) (a.k.a. Brundtland Commision) in order to describe a viable development of humanity:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future)

A notion which was – in my childhood – often paraphrased as ‘We have not inherited Planet Earth from our fathers, we have borrowed it from our children.’

cc by atomicShed


In my opinion, the best definition of the term sustainability can be found on the website of the EPA because it stresses how much our health and wealth are based upon a healthy, balanced and diverse natural environment:

“Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. 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.” (United States Environmental Protection Agency)

What I also like about this definition is the fact that it seems to claim inter-generation fairness as well as equal opportunities for the present world population. Or is this only my interpretation of ‘present generations’?

For further reading please refer to the English Wikipedia definitions of “sustainability”, “sustainable development” and “triple bottom line”

Additional sources: Nachhaltigkeit, Lexikon der Nachhaltigkeit