A brief exploration of the meaning of sustainability, and directions it might lead Rotary.

Over recent years the use of the word’ sustainability’ has come to be applied to broader meanings than just the environment such as the economy and business. In this piece only the environmental application is considered.

However, within these definitions we must look for a framework enabling us to work towards a common good. I might ask the question “Can we see common threads to satisfy our needs?”

Starting with the definition of sustainability in report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: The Brundtland Commission. 20th March 1987.

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[1]

The Oxford dictionary:

“The property of being environmentally sustainable; the degree to which a process or enterprise is able to be maintained or continued while avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources”.

The NSW government states:

“Sustainability in the NSW public sector means addressing the needs of current and future generations through the integration of social justice, economic prosperity and environmental protection in ways that are transparent, accountable and fiscally responsible.”[2]

Sustainability refers to the ability to continue an activity or maintain a certain condition indefinitely … can be applied to economic and social systems, as well as ecological.[3]

Environmental sustainability.

“Environmental sustainability is defined as responsible interaction with the environment to avoid depletion or degradation of natural-resources and allow for long-term environmental quality.”

“Environmental sustainability is the meeting the resource and services needs of current and future generations without compromising the health of the ecosystems that provide them, and more specifically, as a condition of balance, resilience, and interconnectedness that allows human society to satisfy its needs while neither exceeding the capacity of its supporting ecosystems to continue to regenerate the services necessary to meet those needs nor by our actions diminishing biological diversity.”[4]

Ecological sustainability.

Ecological sustainability means that, based on a long-term perspective, we conserve the productivity of the waters, the soil and the ecosystem, and reduce our impact on the natural environment and people ‘s health to a level that the natural environment and humanity can handle.[5]

Ecological sustainability is “meeting human needs without compromising the health of ecosystems.”


Social Sustainability.

In “Social Sustainability: towards some definitions,” McKenzie identifies several attempts to define social sustainability and concludes it generally to be, “a positive condition within communities, and a process within communities that can achieve that condition.”

This definition is supplemented with a list of corresponding principles, including:

  • Equity of access to key services.
  • Equity between generations.
  • A system of relations valuing disparate cultures.
  • Political participation of citizens, particularly at a local level.
  • A sense of community ownership.
  • A system for transmitting awareness of social sustainability from one mechanisms for a community to fulfill its own needs where possible.
  • Political advocacy to meet needs that cannot be met by community action.

Some common elements from these definitions are:

  • ‘Needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor.
  • The environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.
  • Social justice.
  • Burden on future generations.
  • From an economic standpoint, sustainability requires that current economic activity not disproportionately burden future generations.

It can now be said:

  1. No single blueprint of sustainability will be found, as economic and social systems and ecological conditions differ widely among countries and geographies. Each nation will have to work out its own concrete policy implications.
  2. Irrespective of these differences, sustainable development can be seen to operate over a wide range of social domains.
    1. At a home level,
    2. A local level,
    3. A national level, and
    4. A global level.
  3. Thus the goals of economic and social development must be defined in terms of sustainability in all countries – developed or developing, market-oriented or centrally planned. Interpretations will vary, but must share certain general features and must flow from a consensus on the basic concept of sustainable development and on a broad strategic framework for achieving it.
  4. No country can develop in isolation from others. Hence the pursuit of sustainable development requires a new orientation in international relations. Long term sustainable growth will require far-reaching changes to produce trade, capital, and technology flows that are more equitable and better synchronized to environmental imperatives.


Submitted by Patrick Longfield

Rotary Club of Ryde District 9685

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[1] https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/5987our-common-future.pdf
[2] Ref: Sustainable Development. Briefing Paper No. 4/2009 by T. Edwards.
[3] Richard Eckersley 1998, Measuring Progress.

[4] Morelli, John (2011) “Environmental Sustainability: A Definition for Environmental Professionals,” Journal of Environmental Sustainability: Vol. 1: Iss. 1, Article 2.

[5] University of Gavle, Sweden.