What is sustainability?

8 Minutes
Reaching back to when ancient civilisations and indigenous cultures practised and revered the harmonious coexistence of humans with nature.

Sustainability, a term that has become ubiquitous in contemporary discourse, is not a novel concept. Its roots trace back to ancient civilisations and indigenous cultures that practised and revered the harmonious coexistence of humans with nature. These early societies, through their wisdom and foresight, recognised the intricate balance of the natural world and the need for judicious resource utilisation. Their practices and philosophies, though varied, were underpinned by a common thread: the understanding that the well-being of future generations was inextricably linked to the decisions and actions of the present. This historical perspective provides a rich tapestry of knowledge, offering insights into the evolution of sustainability as a concept and its relevance in today's rapidly changing world.

From the Native American tribes who envisioned the repercussions of their choices on generations yet unborn, to the ancient Mesopotamians who ingeniously harnessed the power of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the essence of sustainability has been woven into the fabric of human history. The Iroquois Confederacy's "Seventh Generation Principle" and Japan's "Satoyama" landscapes are but two examples of how diverse cultures, separated by vast geographical and temporal distances, converged on similar sustainability principles. These historical antecedents, coupled with more recent developments in the 20th and 21st centuries, underscore the universality and timelessness of sustainability.

In the modern era, the urgency of environmental concerns, coupled with socio-economic challenges, has brought sustainability to the forefront of global agendas. The rise of environmentalism in the 1960s and 1970s, marked by seminal works like Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," set the stage for a paradigm shift in our understanding of human-nature interactions. Subsequent decades witnessed the institutionalisation of sustainability through international agreements, culminating in the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015.

As we delve deeper into the historical background of sustainability, it is imperative to approach it with a critical lens, recognising both its achievements and its shortcomings. This exploration will not only illuminate the past but also provide a beacon for the future, guiding us towards a more sustainable and equitable world.

Historical Background

The concept of sustainability has ancient roots, deeply embedded in the practices and philosophies of indigenous cultures and early civilisations. From the Native American principle of considering the impact of decisions on seven generations into the future, to the sustainable agricultural practices of ancient Mesopotamia, the essence of sustainability has been a part of human history for millennia.

The Seventh Generation Principle of the Iroquois Confederacy

The Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Haudenosaunee or Six Nations, consisting of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora tribes, is one of the oldest participatory democracies on earth. Their philosophy, known as the "Seventh Generation Principle," dictates that decisions should be evaluated for their impact on descendants seven generations into the future. This principle was deeply embedded in their governance system, known as the Great Law of Peace, and influenced their agricultural practices, hunting methods, and community planning. It was a holistic approach that considered the interconnectedness of all life forms and natural elements (Johansen, 1982).

Satoyama in Traditional Japanese Culture

The concept of "Satoyama" refers to a specific type of managed socio-ecological system in Japan. These are areas between mountain foothills and arable flatland where people have developed sustainable practices for hundreds of years. The Satoyama landscapes are characterized by a mosaic of different ecosystems, including woodlands, ponds, and fields, which are managed in a sustainable way to provide a variety of resources such as food, fuel, and water. The concept has been studied as a model for sustainable resource management and has influenced modern conservation efforts in Japan (Duraiappah & Nakamura, 2012).

Sustainable Agriculture in Ancient Mesopotamia

Ancient Mesopotamia, often referred to as the "Cradle of Civilization," was located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The Mesopotamians developed intricate irrigation systems that harnessed the rivers' waters for agriculture. They also practiced crop rotation, where different crops are planted in a sequence to maintain soil fertility and reduce the risk of disease and pests. These practices allowed Mesopotamia to become an agricultural powerhouse, supporting a complex society with a high degree of specialization (Adams, 1981).

Maasai Pastoralism in Africa

The Maasai people of East Africa have lived in harmony with their environment for centuries through a form of sustainable pastoralism. Their nomadic lifestyle allows for the natural regeneration of grasslands, which benefits both their livestock and local wildlife. The Maasai have a communal land management system, where decisions about resource use are made collectively, ensuring that no single group overexploits the resources. This has allowed both human and wildlife populations to coexist and even thrive in a challenging semi-arid environment (Homewood & Rodgers, 1991).

The modern conceptualisation of sustainability has undergone significant transformations since the 20th century, shaped by a series of pivotal events, publications, and social movements. While the term itself may have ancient roots, its contemporary understanding is largely a product of evolving social, economic, and environmental paradigms.

The Rise of Environmentalism

The 1960s and 1970s were particularly transformative decades for the concept of sustainability, primarily due to the emergence of environmentalism as a potent social and political movement. One of the most influential works of this era was Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," published in 1962. Carson's meticulous research and compelling narrative exposed the devastating environmental and health impacts of chemical pesticides, particularly DDT. Her work not only ignited public awareness but also catalysed legislative action, leading to stricter regulations on pesticide use and eventually to the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 (Carson, 1962).

The First Earth Day and Its Global Impact

Another watershed moment was the celebration of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Spearheaded by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson and inspired by the student anti-war movement, Earth Day mobilised an estimated 20 million Americans to participate in peaceful demonstrations advocating for environmental protection and conservation. The event transcended political and social divides, uniting people from diverse backgrounds in a common cause. Its success led to the creation of environmental protection agencies and the enactment of environmental laws in various countries, including the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts in the United States. The global impact of Earth Day cannot be overstated; it has evolved into an annual event that engages more than 1 billion people in nearly 200 countries, making it the largest secular observance in the world (Earth Day Network, 2020).

Institutional Responses and Global Agreements

The 1980s and 1990s saw the institutionalisation of sustainability through various international agreements and organisations. The Brundtland Report, officially titled "Our Common Future," was published in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). It popularised the term 'sustainable development' and provided a framework that balanced economic growth with social equity and environmental protection (WCED, 1987). This report laid the groundwork for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), commonly known as the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The summit led to key international agreements, including the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which have shaped global sustainability policies for decades (UNCED, 1992).

The term "sustainability" itself gained international prominence with the publication of the Brundtland Report, formally known as "Our Common Future," in 1987. Commissioned by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), the report provided a definition of sustainable development that has since become canonical: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (WCED, 1987). This definition served as a catalyst for international dialogue and cooperation on sustainability issues, influencing a range of policies and initiatives.

The turn of the millennium saw the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), were a set of eight international development goals that were established following the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in 2000. These goals were designed to address a range of pressing global challenges with a target completion date of 2015. The MDGs were the first-ever global framework for poverty eradication and social development and served as a benchmark for measuring progress.

The Eight Goals

  1. Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger: Aimed to halve the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day and those who suffer from hunger.
  2. Achieve Universal Primary Education: Targeted to ensure that all children, both boys and girls, complete a full course of primary education.
  3. Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women: Sought to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education.
  4. Reduce Child Mortality: Aimed to reduce the under-five mortality rate by two-thirds.
  5. Improve Maternal Health: Targeted to reduce the maternal mortality ratio by three-quarters.
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and Other Diseases: Aimed to halt and begin to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS and other major diseases.
  7. Ensure Environmental Sustainability: Included targets for integrating sustainable development into country policies and programs and to reverse the loss of environmental resources.
  8. Develop a Global Partnership for Development: Aimed at developing an open trading and financial system, dealing comprehensively with debt problems, and cooperating to develop decent and productive work for youth (United Nations, 2000).

The MDGs had some notable successes. For example, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty was halved five years ahead of the 2015 deadline (United Nations, 2015). Similarly, significant strides were made in increasing access to clean water and improving gender equality in education (Vandemoortele, 2011).


  • Narrow Focus: Critics argue that the MDGs were overly simplistic and failed to capture the complex interplay between social, economic, and environmental factors (Fukuda-Parr, 2004).
  • Top-Down Approach: The MDGs were often criticized for being too "top-down," with goals and targets set by international organizations without sufficient input from the countries and communities most affected (Easterly, 2009).
  • Limited Scope on Environmental Sustainability: Goal 7 was the only one that directly addressed environmental sustainability, which was seen as a significant limitation (Sachs, 2012).
  • Lack of Accountability: The MDGs did not include mechanisms for holding governments or international organizations accountable for their commitments (Hulme, 2009).

While the MDGs made significant progress in several areas, they were not without their shortcomings. The narrow focus, lack of inclusivity, and limited attention to environmental sustainability were some of the key criticisms. However, they served as a crucial stepping stone for the development of the more comprehensive Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015.

In 2015, the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals provide a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, aiming to address a range of global challenges, including poverty, inequality, environmental degradation, and peace and justice (United Nations, 2015).

The 17 Goals

The SDGs are far-reaching and ambitious, covering a broad spectrum of issues:

1.No Poverty

Significance: This goal aims to eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere.

Objectives: To reduce the proportion of men, women, and children living in poverty, and to ensure equal access to economic resources.

Challenges: The persistence of systemic inequalities and the lack of access to basic services make this goal challenging.

2. Zero Hunger

Significance: The objective is to end hunger and ensure access to safe, nutritious food.

Objectives: To double agricultural productivity and the incomes of small-scale food producers.

Challenges: Climate change, conflict, and market inefficiencies are significant barriers.

3. Good Health and Well-being

Significance: This goal aims to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being at all ages.

Objectives: To reduce global maternal mortality, end preventable deaths of newborns, and combat diseases.

Challenges: Inadequate healthcare infrastructure and unequal access to medical services.

4. Quality Education

Significance: The focus is on inclusive and equitable quality education.

Objectives: To ensure that all children have access to quality early childhood education and development.

Challenges: Lack of funding, outdated curricula, and social inequalities.

5. Gender Equality

Significance: This goal aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Objectives: To end all forms of discrimination and violence against women.

Challenges: Deep-rooted cultural norms and systemic inequalities.

6. Clean Water and Sanitation

Significance: The goal is to ensure access to clean water and sanitation for all.

Objectives: To achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water.

Challenges: Pollution, climate change, and lack of infrastructure.

7. Affordable and Clean Energy

Significance: The aim is to ensure access to affordable, reliable, and modern energy.

Objectives: To increase the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.

Challenges: Energy poverty, reliance on fossil fuels, and technological limitations.

8. Decent Work and Economic Growth

Significance: This goal focuses on sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth.

Objectives: To achieve higher levels of economic productivity through diversification and innovation.

Challenges: Automation, inequality, and unstable economic conditions.

9. Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure

Significance: The goal is to build resilient infrastructure and foster innovation.

Objectives: To develop quality, reliable, and sustainable infrastructure.

Challenges: Lack of funding, technological gaps, and environmental concerns.

10. Reduced Inequalities

Significance: The aim is to reduce inequality within and among countries.

Objectives: To empower and promote the social, economic, and political inclusion of all.

Challenges: Systemic discrimination, economic disparities, and political instability.

11. Sustainable Cities and Communities

Significance: The goal is to make cities inclusive, safe, and sustainable.

Objectives: To ensure access to safe and affordable housing and basic services.

Challenges: Rapid urbanization, lack of planning, and social inequality.

12. Responsible Consumption and Production

Significance: The aim is to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

Objectives: To achieve the sustainable management of natural resources.

Challenges: Overconsumption, waste, and the linear economy.

13. Climate Action

Significance: The goal is to take urgent action to combat climate change.

Objectives: To strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards.

Challenges: Political resistance, economic costs, and global coordination.

14. Life Below Water

Significance: The aim is to conserve oceans, seas, and marine resources.

Objectives: To prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution.

Challenges: Overfishing, pollution, and climate change.

15. Life on Land

Significance: The goal is to protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems.

Objectives: To combat desertification and halt biodiversity loss.

Challenges: Deforestation, land degradation, and illegal poaching.

16. Peace and Justice Strong Institutions

Significance: The aim is to promote peaceful and inclusive societies.

Objectives: To reduce all forms of violence and related death rates.

Challenges: Political instability, corruption, and lack of effective institutions.

17. Partnerships to Achieve the Goal

Significance: This goal aims to strengthen the means of implementation through global partnerships.

Objectives: To enhance international support for implementing effective and targeted capacity-building.

Challenges: Unequal power dynamics, lack of transparency, and differing national interests.

One of the most significant advancements of the SDGs over the MDGs is the inclusive and participatory process through which they were developed. This involved extensive consultations with governments, civil society, and the private sector, aiming to create a sense of shared ownership and accountability (Kanie & Biermann, 2017).

Challenges and Criticisms

Complexity and Breadth: The SDGs are far more comprehensive than the MDGs, which makes them more challenging to implement and measure (Hickel, 2016).

Lack of Implementation Mechanism: While the SDGs are universally accepted, there is no robust mechanism to ensure their implementation, leading to concerns about their feasibility.

Systemic Issues: Critics argue that the SDGs do not sufficiently address systemic global issues like economic inequalities and unsustainable consumption patterns, particularly in developed countries (Raworth, 2017).

The concept of sustainability has thus evolved from being a set of traditional practices to a complex, multidimensional framework that encompasses environmental, social, and economic aspects. It has moved from the periphery to the centre of global policy-making, shaping international agendas and commitments.

Environmental Sustainability

Environmental sustainability is perhaps the most widely discussed aspect of sustainability. It focuses on the preservation and restoration of natural ecosystems, advocating for the responsible use of natural resources. The concept gained traction after the publication of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" in 1962, which highlighted the detrimental effects of pesticides on the environment (Carson, 1962). In recent years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports have further underscored the urgency of environmental stewardship (IPCC, 2018).

Economic Sustainability

Economic sustainability is concerned with creating a stable economy that meets the basic needs of all citizens while maintaining the natural and human capital for future generations. The seminal work of economist Herman Daly laid the foundation for the concept of a 'steady-state economy,' which aims for stable or mildly fluctuating levels in population and consumption of energy and materials (Daly, 1977).

Social Sustainability

Social sustainability focuses on creating and maintaining social systems that promote equality, diversity, and social cohesion. Amartya Sen's capabilities approach has been influential in shaping the discourse around social sustainability, advocating for the expansion of human capabilities as a means to achieve social justice (Sen, 1999).

The Interconnectedness of Sustainability Dimensions

The 'Three Pillars of Sustainability,' first conceptualised by John Elkington in 1997, posits that true sustainability can only be achieved when there is a harmonious balance between its three pillars: economic viability, social equity, and environmental sustainability (Elkington, 1997) and has gained widespread acceptance and usage for several reasons:

1. Simplicity and Ease of Understanding

The model's straightforward structure—economic, social, and environmental—makes it easy to grasp. This simplicity has helped it gain traction among policymakers, business leaders, and the general public.

2. Broad Applicability

The three-pillar model can be applied across various sectors, from government and corporate strategy to community development and education. Its versatility has contributed to its widespread adoption.

3. Alignment with Existing Frameworks

The model aligns well with existing frameworks and metrics, such as the Triple Bottom Line in business, which also focuses on economic, social, and environmental performance.

4. Early Adoption and Promotion

Being one of the earlier models to gain attention, it benefited from first-mover advantage. Prominent organizations and thought leaders, including Elkington himself, have promoted the model, giving it more visibility and credibility.

5. Inclusion in Policy and Legislation

The model has been incorporated into various international agreements and policy documents, such as the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), further solidifying its status.

6. Serves as a Starting Point

While criticized for being reductionist, the model's simplicity makes it a useful starting point for more complex sustainability assessments and discussions.

7. Facilitates Communication

The model provides a common language that enables different stakeholders to engage in meaningful dialogue about sustainability. It helps bridge the gap between different disciplines and sectors, each of which may have its own jargon and priorities.

8. Public and Corporate Acceptance

The model has been widely taught in educational institutions and is often used in corporate sustainability reports, making it familiar and accepted among both the public and private sectors.

Nonetheless, the model's simplicity, broad applicability, and alignment with existing frameworks have contributed to its status as the most commonly used model for understanding sustainability.However, scholars like Jeffrey Sachs argue that this model is overly reductionist and fails to capture the complexities and interdependencies between these dimensions (Sachs, 2015).

The concept of sustainability has evolved over time, and various models have been proposed to capture its multifaceted nature. Here are some alternative models to the 'Three Pillars of Sustainability':

1. The Five Capitals Model

Concept: This model expands on the three-pillar concept by adding human and manufactured capitals to the existing pillars of natural, social, and financial capitals.

References: Forum for the Future has been a proponent of this model, emphasizing that all five forms of capital are essential for sustainability (Forum for the Future, n.d.).

2. The Circles of Sustainability

Concept: This model categorizes sustainability into four interconnected domains: ecology, economics, politics, and culture.

References: Developed by Paul James and his team, this model has been used by cities like Melbourne and São Paulo for urban sustainability assessments (James, 2015).

3. The Doughnut Model

Concept: Proposed by Kate Raworth, this model visualizes sustainability as a doughnut-shaped space where the inner circle represents the social foundation and the outer circle represents the ecological ceiling.

References: Raworth's "Doughnut Economics" argues that the space between these circles is the "safe and just space for humanity" (Raworth, 2017).

4. The Nested Model

Concept: This model suggests that the economy is nested within society, which is in turn nested within the environment, emphasizing the foundational importance of environmental sustainability.

References: John Fullerton's "Regenerative Capitalism" discusses this nested interrelationship and its implications for sustainable development (Fullerton, 2015).

5. The Quadruple Bottom Line

Concept: This model adds a fourth dimension, "Purpose," to the traditional Triple Bottom Line of "People, Planet, Profit."

References: John Elkington, who originally coined the Triple Bottom Line, later suggested that a fourth 'P' for Purpose could be added to address the ethical dimension (Elkington, 2018).

6. The Sustainability Helix

Concept: This model represents sustainability as a double helix structure, where the two strands represent human and nature, and the steps represent the interdependencies between them.

References: Proposed by Simon Bell and Stephen Morse, the model is detailed in their book "Sustainability Indicators" (Bell & Morse, 2008).

In summary, the concept of sustainability is far from a modern invention; it is a timeless principle that has been integral to human civilisation for millennia. From the ancient wisdom of indigenous cultures to the cutting-edge policies of the 21st century, the journey of sustainability has been marked by both continuity and change. It has evolved from a set of localised practices and philosophies to a global framework that seeks to balance the intricate interplay of environmental, social, and economic factors.

The modern era has seen a proliferation of models, frameworks, and international agreements aimed at operationalising sustainability, each with its own merits and limitations. The Sustainable Development Goals, for instance, represent a landmark achievement in the global commitment to sustainability, yet they are not without their criticisms and challenges. Similarly, various models like the 'Three Pillars of Sustainability,' the 'Doughnut Model,' and the 'Five Capitals Model,' among others, offer diverse perspectives on how to achieve a sustainable future. These models, while contributing to the richness of the discourse, also highlight the complexity and multifaceted nature of sustainability.

As we stand at a critical juncture in human history, facing unprecedented challenges ranging from climate change to social inequality, the lessons from our past and the innovations of our present offer valuable insights. They serve as both a cautionary tale and a source of inspiration, reminding us of the urgency and the possibility of creating a more sustainable world. The concept of sustainability, deeply rooted in our collective history and continuously refined through modern thought, serves as a compass guiding us towards a future where the well-being of all life forms is not just an aspiration but a reality.

Thus, the historical background of sustainability is not merely an academic exercise; it is a vital narrative that shapes our understanding of where we come from, who we are, and where we ought to go. It is a narrative that invites us to act, to innovate, and to collaborate across disciplines, sectors, and borders. In doing so, it challenges us to reimagine and redefine what it means to live sustainably, not just for ourselves but for the countless generations yet to come.


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What is the concept of sustainability?

How do you define sustainability?

How do you measure sustainability?

What does sustainability mean for work?

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How do I engage employees in sustainability?

What does sustainability mean for stakeholders?

What is sustainable development?

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Sustainability in practice: mini case studies of successful implementations

What are The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals?

How do I localise sustainability?

Sustainability in the post-pandemic world

How do I measure the impact of sustainability?

What is the role of governments in meeting sustainability goals?

What is ESG?

How does sustainability affect businesses?

Why should I invest in sustainability?

How do you balance sustainability vs short-term initiatives?

What is green entrepreneurship?

What is the Triple Bottom Line?

How are companies affected by greenwashing?

What are sustainability strategies for startups?

How do you balance People, Planet, and Profit?


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