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Reclaiming the Definition of Sustainability

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Posted by: Karl Ramjohn

An interesting paper on the definition of sustainability, and how the meaning, scope etc. has gradually changed over the past 20 yr…

Johnston, P., Everard, M., Santillo, D. & Robert, K.H. 2007. Reclaiming the Definition of Sustainability. Environmental Science and Pollution Research 14 (1): 60-66.

Article Link:


Background and Scope. Since its inception two decades ago, the concept of sustainable development has suffered from a proliferation of definitions, such that it has increasingly come to mean many things to many different people. This has limited its credibility, called into question its practical application and the significance of associated achievements, and, overall, limited the progress in environmental and social developments which it was designed to underpin.

Goal. This viewpoint article is intended to re-open the concept of sustainable development for discussion, 20 years on from the Brundtland report, in the context of the current state of the world, our growing understanding of ecosystems and their response to stressors and the parallel increase in recognition of inherent limitations to that understanding.

Approach. Following a brief review of the diverse manner in which the concept has developed over time, we present the case for application of a series of simple conditions for sustainability, originally developed by The Natural Step in the early 90s, which nevertheless still provide a sound basis on which progress towards sustainable development could be monitored. The paper also highlights the unavoidable links between sustainability and ethics, including those in the sensitive fields of population and quality of life.

Discussion. Overall we argue the need for the concept of sustainable development to be reclaimed from the plethora of economically-focused or somewhat vague and un-measurable definitions which have found increasing favour in recent years and which all too often accompany relatively minor progress against ‘business as usual’.

Recommendations and Perspectives. The vision encapsulated in the Brundtland Report was ground-breaking. If, however, true sustainability in human interactions within the biosphere is to be realised, a far stronger and more empirical interpretation of the original intent is urgently required. To be effective, such an interpretation must encompass and guide developments in political instruments and public policy as well as corporate decision-making, and must focus increasingly on addressing the root cause of major threats to sustainability rather than just their consequences.

Keywords: Ecosystems; ethical standards; over-exploitation; pollution; public policy; resources; sustainability; sustainable development; uncertainty.

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2 Responses

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  1. Hey Karl!

    I found your blog via your profile at EcoPanas…you hit the mark when you say that in order for true sustainability to be realized there must be collaboration between all the major players at the governmental, corporate and personal levels.

    You can also post a copy of your blog at…we welcome everyones perspective and hope that we can bring about awareness that can enact change!


    Julie Mattern

    August 25, 2008 at 8:50 pm

  2. […] defined". If anything, there were perhaps what would seem to be, too many definitions of "sustainability" and "sustainable development" since it became a mainstream concept in 1987 subsequent to […]

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