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About Sustainability

The most common definition involves "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

~Brundtland Report, U.S. EPA, 1987


The Three Components of Sustainability

Sustainability and the related concept of sustainable development address the overlap between environment, economy, and social justice.


Manage natural resources and develop materials and processes into order to decrease the impact on the natural environment.

Relevant concepts:

  • Consumption/waste
  • Reduce/reuse/recycle
  • Waste/byproducts
  • Ecosystem function
  • Species and habitat protection

Real world examples:

  • Green construction
  • Endangered species act-successes and failures
  • Challenges for environmental organizations (Sierra Club is in Charlottesville, Resources for the Future in D.C., Greenpeace, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, etc.)
  • Calculating carbon footprint and carbon offsets
  • Global climate change and its implications
  • Deforestation
  • Tragedy of the Commons (overfishing, African elephant, etc.)


Ensure that economic activities and institutions promote healthy economic growth that lead to a permanent increase in productivity, standard of living, etc.

Relevant concepts:

  • Employment (living wage)
  • Investment in human capital (education)
  • Productivity/Efficiency
  • Economic growth
  • Trade
  • Regulation

Real world examples:

  • Global efforts for sustainable development/international agreements
  • Role of World Bank, International Monetary Fund in economic development
  • Fair trade practices (such as coffee, clothing, etc.)
  • Environmental Economics (using markets and economic incentives to promote good resource stewardship)
  • Businesses and adoption of environmental ethic/green practices
  • Ecotourism

Social Justice:

Uphold the right of all, without discrimination, to a social environment supportive of human dignity, respecting social diversity and ensuring that we all put priority on social capital.

Social capital represents the active connections between people, behavior that bind people together, the groups, networks and communities that make cooperation possible; some definitions address the norms and relations embedded in social structures that enable people to coordinate action to achieve desired goals.

Relevant concepts:

  • Gender parity
  • Access to water
  • Race
  • Class
  • Health care
  • Disability rights
  • Corporate accountability
  • Equity
  • Income distribution

Real world examples:

  • Human rights issues
  • Ecojustice (NIMBY principle)
  • Intercity poverty
  • Is prevalence of environmental resources necessary and/or sufficient to make countries wealthy?
  • What we can do to be active in our communities

The idea of sustainability connects the three themes and the ideas are not mutually exclusive. For example, if we were talking about rainforest destruction, there are many topics related to sustainability.

 Environmental issues:

  • Habitat destruction
  • Impact on species
  • Impact on ecosystems
  • Impact on air quality

Economic issues:

  • Poverty is one explanation for the phenomena (people trying to make a living from farming/ranching
  • Often government tax incentive encourage destruction
  • Lack of secure property rights (associated with squatters) makes problem worse
  • There is no value of living trees to rural villagers that cannot meet their basic needs (wood makes cheap fuel, construction materials, etc.)

Social justice issues:

  • Is it fair for developed nations to dictate use of other country's resources (especially when we did the same thing as our country developed Westward)?
  • How do you get low income people who cannot address their basic needs to care about protecting rainforests?