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What is Sustainability?


"Sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development


Definitions of the word 'sustainable' include "to keep in existence; maintain" and "to supply with necessities". The idea of sustainability has often been applied to the area of resource management. Considering a resource in finite supply, that resource must be managed in a manner that will allow its use for an extended period of time if it serves an extremely valued purpose. Examining fossil fuel usage, one might consider higher fuel efficiency and increased use of renewable fuels as methods to reach a sustainable fuel demand such that fossil fuels will be available for generations to come.

The concept of sustainability can be expanded beyond the use of just one resource to include an entire community. If a community wishes to continue its existence, it must be supplied with adequate resources at a rate which is sustainable. Otherwise the resource base would eventually dry up and the community would be forced to disassemble or change radically. The question then becomes what kinds of resources must be managed in order to provide a sustainable atmosphere for a community. While energy resources are important, housing, sanitation, social welfare, education, infrastructure, human health and economic resources must also be considered. If these community elements break down, the community will eventually be stressed by an imbalance of resources.

Sustainability is an extraordinarily complicated idea to implement. The elements that influence sustainability in a community are probably too numerous to ever compile an entirely comprehensive list. Therefore, sustainability is generally approached using a top-down model. In other words, if the concept of sustainability consisted of only three overarching themes, what would they be? In this sense sustainability is typically thought to be described by the three interrelated areas of 'economic vitality', 'social justice' and 'environmental quality and human health' such that all elements of a sustainable community can theoretically be categorized under at least one of these three areas.



Typically, communities are not examined to study their sustainability (since it is doubtful that any community is truly sustainable at this time), but communities are concerned with sustainability as a goal to reach through development and growth. Sustainability considers development in a way that takes into account the interdependence of environmental and human health, economic vitality, and social justice, which serve as the primary benchmarks of community wellbeing. It focuses on incorporating the needs of the current citizens as well as impacts to "unseen" stakeholders (future generations of citizens) into the decision making process. As such, sustainable development hopes to achieve appropriate awareness of all factors contributing to the overall wellbeing of a community in any decision making process.

While all definitions of sustainability emphasize this kind of all-encompassing consideration in decision processes, the specifics of the definition may vary between theorists. It is important to become familiar with the many working definitions and methods of application in order to understand the specific applications and particular nuances of this abstract idea.


UNC Chapel Hill: Enst 94/Envr 95 Capstone, Fall 2005

Last Updated: December 17, 2005 (K.N.Baer)