In Environmental Terms, what does Sustainability Mean?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
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  • Last Modified Date: 05 September 2019
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The term “sustainability” is often thrown around in public discourse, especially in discussion about the environment. However, not everyone is certain about the meaning of sustainability, and different people think about it in different ways. The etymology of the word “sustainable” incorporates Latin words meaning to hold up from below. Most dictionaries define “sustainability” as the ability to continue an action without the risk of failure or collapse. A strong building is sustainable, because it is able to hold up a load indefinitely. Clear cutting is not sustainable, because it strips an area of trees which cannot be replaced, and exposes the environment to additional repercussions, because the ground is exposed.

In environmental terms, sustainability implies that an action can be continued indefinitely with little, or manageable, impact on the environment. Because the health of the environment is closely linked with the health of society in general, sustainable practices ensure that the Earth's resources will be available for future generations to enjoy, and that there will be an Earth to enjoy them on. For this reason, many companies focus on sustainability, either as consultants to other companies or as part of their corporate mission.


As an environmental concept, sustainability has been around since the 1700s, when European forestry began to face a crisis due to logging. Foresters realized that timber needed to be managed with more care, and that trees would need to be replanted after significant harvests. Cooperative effort was undertaken to restore the forests of Europe, in Germany especially, and the concept of Nachhaltigkeit, or sustainability, was born. Timber harvesters understood that if they continued with their current practices, the forest would disappear, so they changed them to make them sustainable.

Sustainability aims to balance the needs of human societies with the needs of the environment, preserving both for all creatures on Earth to make use of and enjoy. Sustainability promotes biodiversity, the preservation of unique ecosystems, the health of the environment, and a high quality of life. Most governments have official agencies which promote sustainability; in the United States, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency, among many others, works to create a clean and healthy environment through regulation, inspection, enforcement, and education.

In the twentieth century, many scientists began to realize that in order to survive as a species, humans needed to be aware of their environment. Furthermore, it was understood that the world is a giant closed ecosystem, and that damage to one part of the Earth can have an impact on other parts of the Earth. As a result, the human race needs to work together to promote sustainability and minimize its impact on the globe if it wants to continue existing. Sustainability is important from the neighborhood to the international level, and every citizen on Earth can contribute to the global effort to live more sustainable, healthy lives.


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Post 2

I have been reading about Sustainability being labeled as an actual science. There are universities that have schools of sustainability. Universities can also be ranked based on sustainability, much like they are ranked for everything else. From what I understand sustainability programs are similar to environmental science programs, except they add aspects of engineering and economics to the curriculum.

Many companies now have managers with titles like sustainability officer, or sustainability divisions. These divisions are tasked at looking at the long-term prospects of a business' operations. Even companies like Pepsi Co. are claiming to be leaders of sustainability within their industry. I guess in a sense, sustainability is the common ground between the ideologies of capitalism and environmentalism.

Post 1

This article was great in establishing the premise that the human environment refers to the earth as a closed system. Basically, sustainability looks to join the social and physical sciences. Sustainable practices create a compromise between the needs of society and the planet. Essentially sustainability implies that the cause of a problem within one of our environments systems did not result as the effect of an action in another system.

Let's take sustainable energy for instance. Energy is necessary for our species to flourish, but to be sustainable it cannot come at the expense of other species. In the process of creating and sourcing our energy, we cannot create external problems that negatively impact other ecosystems to the point that

they cannot recover.

Sustainability is about trade-offs. Every species will have to make some sacrifices for all to survive, and some will certainly not make it. Sustainability just means that we cannot be the ones to decide which species survive or perish due to our actions.

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