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Definition: Sustainability

Note: This was originally published in 2009 in the Dictionary of Ethical Politics - a Project of Resurgence + Open Democracy.


Sustainability is a wide umbrella that can be attributed to many socio-political or ecological concepts. Practically, it is the ability to maintain balance of a certain process or state in any system. Fundamentally, it is an ethical construct about human beings and our relationships to one another and the Earth. Sustainability as an expression of worldview connotes the values we hold as a collective humanity about our shared purpose on Earth. It refers at once to development praxis and a critique of economic globalization.


Sustainable development attempts to resolve contradictions between meeting basic [sic] needs and adverse impacts on the environment. As critique, “sustainability” asserts that the carrying capacities of earth’s ecological life-supporting systems are being irrevocably harmed by economic globalization, i.e., development. Prompting in 1989, the Brundtland Commission’s seminal report, Our Common Future, to define sustainable development as “(d)evelopment that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future.” The sheer proliferation of sustainability definitions is a fascinating social phenomenon potentially agitating the emergence of a globally distributed philosophical understanding of our responsibility vis-à-vis the natural world and one another.


“Development” grew into an industry post-WW2. By this time, hegemonic impacts of colonialism had systematically undermined cultures and displaced people around the world causing rampant poverty and social malaise that then necessitated this idea of “development assistance” to meet people’s subsistence needs toward a Western ideal of civilization. Interestingly, and in contrast, the original definition of development circa 1850 was the “biological unfolding toward maturation.” There is a distinction between a Maslow's approach to needs satisfaction, which has a linear sequencing versus a whole being approach that Max-Neef articulates. Human development is inherently complex and not divisible to a single truth, need, template or “best practice”.


How we view development and needs respectively embody the values that define what we are sustaining.


The question of what ought be sustained is critical to defining sustainability. If, for example, we are sustaining the Western notion of civilization structurally coupled to modern “development” this has different ethical implications than sustaining, for example, conditions that support individuals and communities to “unfold toward maturation.” The moment we engage an ought we engage people’s subjective truths about what is real in the world and herein lies the challenge in creating an ethical definition.


Sustaining conditions conducive to life and life-supporting systems ought be a priori in all human endeavors, not for environmental ideology – merely pragmatic for sustaining human life. In terms of a shared purpose for development, this is more contentious. Taking the largest possible frame with the intent that the definition of sustainability is meaningful to the largest number of people, we may find consensus sustaining conditions that support the widest possible number of human / cultural aspirations, languages, traditions, sacred places, spiritualities and epistemologies.

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