Defining sustainability

Photo of a green forest

Sustainability has become a buzzword that is used in all sorts of different contexts: in politics, in science, in advertising. But is the term even clearly defined, or does it mean something different depending on the situation? To shed light on this question, we will look at how the term ‘sustainability’ and the concept of sustainable development evolved.

Much of the confusion stems from the fact that the word ‘sustainable’ can be used either as a synonym for ‘lasting’ – something that can continue for a long time – or as a political concept referring to the need to reconcile ecological, economic and social interests. This second definition is what the Science Year “Project Earth: Our Future” is all about.

Understanding the term is all the more difficult when the different levels of meaning are conflated, either consciously or subconsciously. Some critics even argue that the word has become devoid of all meaning – that it can mean anything or nothing. In fact, a recent study found that only only one in three Germans can define sustainability. Twenty-four percent do not understand the word at all. To almost half of all 14-to-19-year-olds, the term has no associations whatsoever. However, if you ask people about specific issues related to sustainability, such as conserving the environment or taking responsibility for future generations, almost everybody will understand what you mean.

Sustainability as an instinct

These findings are not particularly surprising. After all, the basic principle of sustainability existed long before the term was coined and then adopted into people’s active vocabulary: as an instinctive sense that one should take precautions for the future. “Sustainability is our original world cultural heritage”, the journalist Ulrich Grober writes in his book on the discovery of sustainability. What he means is the desire to live in harmony with nature, and to use resources sparingly and intelligently with a view to the future. “Baked bread is savoury and satisfying for a single day; but flour cannot be sown, and seed-corn ought not to be ground”, Goethe wrote in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795/1796).

Although Goethe did not explicitly mention sustainability, he meant the same thing as Hans Carl von Carlowitz, who “invented” the concept of sustainability. Carlowitz was the chief mining administrator in the silver-mining town of Freiberg in Saxony. As such, he was responsible for supplying the timber needed for mining. At the time, forests in the area were severely overexploited, and the increasing shortage of timber was becoming more and more of a problem. In Sylvicultura oeconomica (1713), which became a standard work on forestry, Carlowitz described the “consistent, lasting and sustainable” use of timber and argued that the rate of deforestation should not exceed the rate of reforestation.

From forest use to ‘earth politics’

This simple principle, which has been applied in the area of forestry for three hundred years, is summed up by the term ‘sustainability’, which entered the scientific, political and general vocabulary much later down the line. The Limits to Growth, a 1972 report commissioned by the Club of Rome, was the first to formulate the principle in its broader meaning. While Carlowitz’s treatise merely addressed the scarcity of timber, the authors of the Club of Rome report described the far-reaching dangers of uncontrolled economic growth and population growth and the resulting food crisis, depletion of natural resources, and increasing pollution. The solution proposed was to find a ‘world system’ that is “(1) sustainable without sudden and uncontrollable collapse; and (2) capable of satisfying the material requirements of all its people”.

Sustainability as a world system refers to the careful use of resources – and this does not just refer to mineral and renewable resources, but to all local, regional and global ecosystems, and, in times of global warming, to Planet Earth itself. The Limits to Growth did not just give birth to the discipline of sustainability research, but also ushered in a new era of world domestic policy. A “sustainable development” towards reconciling economy and ecology became part of the United Nations agenda.

Sustainable development as an international responsibility

The United Nations commission headed by former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland provided the following definition of sustainable development in 1987: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Following the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, it became the guiding principle of the international community, the world economy, and national governments and societies. The three dimensions identified in the report, also commonly known as the three Es, are economic development, environmental integrity, and social equity. Specific UN programmes such as the Framework Convention on Climate Change and Agenda 21 (both of 1992), the Kyoto Protocol (1997) or the Millennium Development Goals (2000) formulate requirements for achieving sustainable development.

The German Council for Sustainable Development was established by the Federal Government in April 2001. It includes fifteen individuals from the worlds of business, nature conservation, agriculture, social policy, research and development cooperation, as well as representatives of trade unions and churches. The Council’s mission is to contribute to the realization of the national sustainability strategy to which Germany committed in Rio in 1992.

The Federal Government first agreed on a national sustainability strategy in 2002. Entitled Perspectives for Germany, it postulates the use of creative solutions and technological innovations to help promote production and consumption patterns that are environmentally sustainable and treat resources with care. This is a key task for sustainability research. But society as a whole also needs to take responsibility for sustainability. As Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the 11th annual conference of the Council for Sustainable Development in June 2011, “The more people we inspire with our work, the easier it will be to continue to promote the idea of sustainability.”


Overview Science Year 2012 "Project Earth"

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