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What is sustainability?

In 1987, the Brundtland Commisions of the United Nation defined sustainability as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." To become a sustainable, we must find a balance between the three aspects.

The three ring design breaks up sustainability into three distinct but overlapping aspects. Let's look at each individually first.

Environmental

The environmental aspect of sustainability involves taking care of our surroundings. This includes everything from picking up litter and reducing pollution to wildlife and rainforest conservation. This is the only planet we have, so we'd better take care of it.

Social

We should all aspire to treat ourselves and each other with fairness and respect. This is as simple as letting someone merge into your lane during heavy traffic to respecting the views and opinions of people who disagree with you to working towards social justice in far away countries. We don't have to like everyone we meet, but we all have to share the planet.

Economic

In today's world, it's very difficult to get by without money. We need to live responsibly and within our means so that we aren't a burden on others. This is as true for you and me as it is for cities, states and countries around the world. No one can prepare for every situation, but we can still do our best to make sure we can support ourselves.

Overlap

As stated above, each of these aspects overlap with each other. We don't live in a vacuum; everything we do has an impact on the world and the people who live on it. The same can be said for sustainability. Often, a single aspect, say environmental, can interact in various ways. Let's look at some of these interactions.

Environmental-Social

This blending of environmental and social aspects of sustainability deals with how we interact with our environment. This can include how we plan and design our homes and cities, how we take care of the resources we have available to us, and the ways we interact with the environment. We also have to contend with the natural patterns of nature and how they can affect us. Drought, wildfires and threats of hurricanes and flooding need to be considered when planning new construction projects.

Environmental-Economic

When it comes to looking at how environmental and economic aspects interact, we need to look at both how economics affects the environment and how the environment affects economics. Environmentally friendly products are becoming more common, making it easier to purchase goods with less packaging, cleaners that are less hazardous to us and our environment and foods that are grown in ways that are better for the environment. However, fossil fuels are becoming harder to come by, and the cost to purchase refined fuels will become more expensive as time goes on. Companies are looking for ways of harnessing renewable sources of energy and in time, these will become more common and less expensive. We need to develop ways to maintain positive economic development that can support itself without negatively impacting the environment.

Social-Economic

The overlap between social and economic aspects deals with fair and equitable treatment of people everywhere. Purchasing fair trade goods, where the growers receive a livable wage for selling their crops, is a way to give people in developing areas of the world a chance to earn a better life. Boycotting companies who have an unfavorable environmental track record can send a strong message that can result in positive change. Supporting local businesses helps your friends and neighbors and can keep money in your local economy. Likewise, some large companies work to protect the environment and support communities around the world with donations and social betterment programs while providing employment for people all over the country or even around the globe.

Where the Three Meet

Sustainability is made up of all three aspects, environmental, social and economic, meet. Striving to buy nothing but organically grown fair trade goods is laudable, but if you can't afford to do so, it's not economically sustainable. Likewise, spending millions of dollars on wetland and wildlife conservation will benefit the species that live in these protected areas, but if we don't have any resources to feed our own people then we're not being socially sustainable.

 

Brundtland, G.H., ed. (1987). Our Common Future: The Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press