Creating a Sustainable Society


There is no Planet “B”

As there is no Planet “B”, society needs to create an awareness of environmental sustainability. In order to understand this concept, a definition is both essential & beneficial.

Environmental: “relating to the natural world and the impact of human activity on its condition”

Sustainability: “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level”

Sustainability is made up of three pillars:  economy, society & the environment.

In the 21st century, environmental sustainability refers generally to the capacity of the biosphere and human civilization to coexist.

According to the UN’s ‘Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future’, sustainable development is defined as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Sustainable development may be the organising principle of sustainability, yet others may view the two terms as paradoxical (ie. development is inherently unsustainable)

While these are a couple of definitions, what’s more important than definitions is how to measure progress towards a more sustainable society and future: How can society measure projects that are intended to deliver a more sustainable future…faster?

One method of measurement is to ask questions against The Natural Step Four System Conditions of a Sustainable Society.

While written to be clear scientifically, the specific wording of the four system conditions can be confusing to non-scientists who try to put them to work.

Fortunately, the system conditions can be reworded as basic sustainability principles that provide explicit guidance for any individual or any organization interested in moving towards sustainability.

The table below contains the four system conditions on the left and the reworded the basic sustainability principles on the right.

In most instances, we refer to the basic sustainability principles.

The Four System Conditions…

. . . Reworded as The Four Sustainability Principles

In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing:

To become a sustainable society we must eliminate our contributions to…

1. concentrations of substances extracted from the earth’s crust

1. the systematic increase of concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust (for example, heavy metals and fossil fuels)

2. concentrations of substances produced by society

2. the systematic increase of concentrations of substances produced by society (for example, plastics, dioxins, PCBs and DDT)

3. degradation by physical means

3. the systematic physical degradation of nature and natural processes (for example, over-harvesting forests, destroying habitat and overfishing); and…

4. in that society, people are not subject to conditions that systemically undermine their capacity to meet their needs

4. conditions that systematically undermine people’s capacity to meet their basic human needs (for example, unsafe working conditions and not enough pay to live on).

    • Do the design outcomes of any project meet the four system conditions? ie. do they follow a pathway that aims to eliminate substances and conditions listed in points 1 to 4?


    • Do the design outcomes of any project meet the four system conditions? ie. do they follow a pathway that aims to eliminate substances and conditions listed in points 1 to 4?


    • Ask “What is a sustainable vision” in this situation?


    • With any project, start with the end in mind: What does it look like when it’s done?


    • Determine the first step and start with the “low hanging fruit”, eg What can be done with the least amount of effort to attain the maximum result?


    • Measure progress and success with collected data. eg. Tonnes of CO2 reduction, reduced quantity of plastic bottles produced, number of trees planted (CO2 sequestered over the life of the tree)


  • Always consider waste as a consequence of action eg. Energy (human and other) gases, liquids, solids.

Remember: “What gets measured gets managed”.

John Green: The Rotary Club of Redcliffe Sunrise – District 9600