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Sustainability is both a term and a concept that is widely used in conjunction with environmental issues. This is no surprise as the term often refers to the use of natural resources, in a way that aims not to harm the environment, and ensures that they last for a very long time, if not for ever. It is often tied in with promoting human development and prosperity, both today and into the future. However, the definition of sustainability can be quite broad, encompassing many dimensions that reach outside of the environmental sphere, and highlighting different ways of being sustainable.
The most frequently used – or referred to – sustainability definition derives from the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (UNCED), which in 1987 defined it as ‘meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. Many definitions of sustainability stem from this, defining it as living within the limits of our resources, in order to allow the human race to thrive in perpetuity within the Earth’s natural systems. However, this sustainability definition can be expanded on, and related to other dimensions outside of the environmental sphere.
The University of California, Los Angeles expands on the original UNCED sustainability definition, describing it as a ‘balance between the environment, equity and economy’. They argue that sustainability is an approach that must consider ecological, economic and social dimensions when trying to map out a prosperous and sustainable future. All three dimensions must be taken into account and integrated with one another in order to create ‘thriving, healthy, diverse and resilient communities’, thus allowing the generation of today, and future generations, to meet their own needs and to thrive. As set out by the United Nations General Assembly (2005), each dimension can be described as follows:
Environmental – the Earth’s natural resources must only be consumed at the same rate that they can be replenished. The Earth’s natural systems should be kept in place and not altered, while he natural ecology of ecosystems must be preserved.
Economic – human communities should be financially independent, with access to the resources required to meet their needs. This ensures that all human communities have a secure livelihood.
Social – universal human rights and basic necessities must be attainable by all people, with enough resources to keep families and communities healthy and secure. Personal, labour and cultural rights should also be protected.
This approach not only uses the original sustainability definition stated in 1987, but expands on it in a way that can be applied not just to the environment. It recognises that the world is a rather complex place, and takes into account three very important areas that should be taken into account when mapping out a sustainable future.
Generally speaking, the most common sustainability definition hinges around the idea of using resources at a rate which they can be replenished, and only using them to the extent required to fulfil our needs, without any excess. More modern definitions bring economic and social dimensions into this. It is often emphasised that sustainably is essential in allowing humans to thrive, and to continue the growth and development of societies, without making it harder for future generations to live, and without harming the natural environment.
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