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Sustainability – some thoughts on the term and its meaning

The term ‘sustainability’ appears to be confusing and trite. Yet it stands for a great deal. We explain where the term comes from and what it means.

Sustainability – what does the term mean? It provides ample food for thought. Although we are constantly surrounded by the word, it is vague and not very specific. In fact, if you ask other people what they understand by the term, you get a wide variety of answers.

Sustainability surely means being viable for the future, maintaining a balance or acting responsibly. Other people understand it to mean humility, mindfulness or even being fit for generations to come. Or simply ‘doing the right thing’. And if something is sustainable, it is lasting, sensible, conserves resources, maintains stocks, and is environmentally sound. But also effective, perpetual, long-lived or even symbiotic. Or persistent, weighty or pervasive.

Dominant sustainability debate in business

What should we make of all that? In view of the large number of meanings, it is easy to understand why many people are reluctant to use the term. Some people even believe it is dishonest. A great deal of greenwashing takes place under the banner of sustainability – above all as part of the biggest sustainability discourse  that exists: in business, where many media simply jump on the bandwagon without questioning the term themselves.

There are still minor sustainability debates in the world of politics, but the oldest and most intensive debate is taking place in the scientific community. If we look at this debate, we will be able to see more clearly what the term can mean, where it comes from and what it covers: a fascinating, diverse world of research into our future. A world about which much too little is known by the outside world. Introductory works on the topic include Die Entdeckung der Nachhaltigkeit. Kulturgeschichte eines Begriffs (‘The discovery of sustainability. Cultural history of a term’) by Ulrich Grober and the series Mut zur Nachhaltigkeit (‘Encouraging Sustainability’) published by the foundation set up by Klaus Wiegandt, Forum für Verantwortung (‘Forum for responsibility’).

Lively discussions about the term ‘sustainability’ among researchers

There are many definitions of the term in the scientific community. One researcher told me that for her, sustainability was primarily about participation, justice and the limits of the planet. That sounds convincing to me. But what was it about right at the beginning? The term ‘sustainability’ originally comes from the field of forestry in Germany: in 1713, Hans Carl von Carlowitz  from Saxony, the Chief Mining Administrator in Freiberg, thought about how to guarantee a permanent supply of timber, which was needed to build silver mines. His idea was not to fell more trees than could grow back. He spoke of nachhaltende Nutzung, a term that began to be used in works on forestry and was translated into English as ‘sustainable’. From this economic standpoint, an independent discourse developed within the scientific community. It began with the key work on sustainable development, the study on the Limits to Growth, written by Dennis Meadows and co-authors in 1972 for the Club of Rome. The book caused a great stir across the globe and created a completely new audience for environmental and development topics.The term ‘sustainability’ did not really catch on until 1987, however, when the former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland submitted her Brundtland Report for the United Nations. The report contained a definition of sustainability that many politicians and scientists still agree with today, namely that development is sustainable if it ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

From science to politics

Since the mid-1990s, the topic of sustainability has also been discussed outside the scientific community – politicians and a broad section of the population now use the term. The most important driving force behind these developments was the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, at which Agenda 21 was adopted as a global action plan for sustainable development. Today, thousands of Agenda 21 groups are still working at local level throughout the world. The Rio Summit thus had a very concrete impact: many institutes, university chairs and other bodies were set up in the years that followed.One such body was the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE), set up in 2011. RNE defines sustainability as follows: ‘Sustainable development entails treating environmental aspects on an equal footing with social and economic aspects. Future-oriented management means that we have to leave our children and grandchildren an intact ecological, social and economic system. One cannot be achieved independent of the other.’

The three pillars of sustainability

We can thus see that there are several aspects to the term ‘sustainability’. Researchers claim there are three aspects and have therefore drawn up a three-pillar model involving economic, social and environmental aspects as equal elements. Sustainable development must take account of all three areas. Some people refer to this as ‘weak sustainability’. Most of the economic definitions of the term are derived from this concept.

Scientists who criticise this concept and believe that environmental aspects take precedence talk of ‘strong sustainability’. They argue that all other aspects depend on intact natural resources. That makes a great deal of sense to me, which is why I tend to favour the idea of strong sustainability.

But does that solve the basic problem of trying to understand a well-worn term more precisely? Only partially, because I think the goal of intact natural resources is aptly expressed in a definition that is thought to originate from an African tribal chief, who apparently said that sustainability means ‘always enough for everyone’. There is no better way to put it!

March 2013

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