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Sustainability is a popular, but vaguely defined ideal. At its broadest level, environmental or global sustainability refers to Earth's ability to continue functioning in a manner that supports humans and other ecosystems. When it comes to climate change, many different issues relate to sustainability. It is common to hear about sustainable agriculture, business, development, education, lifestyles, policies, and sustainability science. The United Nations Division for Sustainable Development eb site (2007) lists more than forty different issues of current concern to sustainability, including atmosphere, climate change, demographics (i.e., population growth and structure), energy, international law, poverty, sanitation, and toxic chemicals.

Sustainability includes a host of environmental, economic, and social issues, but the necessity for choosing policies and processes that are more sustainable, and purchasing items that are made with more sustainable practices, is becoming important to more and more people given recent climate changes and the resulting

pressure on both natural and anthropogenic (caused by human activities) ecosystems. Although the debate over what constitutes sustainability continues, the importance of exploring alternatives to current unsustainable practices is paramount.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Following the growing environmental concerns of the 1960s and 1970s, the United Nations established the World Commission on Environment and Development (the WCED, sometimes referred to as the Brundtland Commission) in 1983, with Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland as its chair. In 1987 the WCED issued its influential report, Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report), which defined sustainable development as: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” As Jennifer Elliot pointed out in An Introduction to Sustainable Development, this document popularized the term sustainable development, made its somewhat vague definition preeminent, and made environmental concerns more important to international relations, trade, and business than ever before. Although the environment was an important issue in the 1970s and 1980s, the business and logistics of sustainable practice (in all of the fields described earlier) really accelerated in the decades that followed.

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, commonly known as the Earth Summit, took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, and was larger and more widely reported than any previous environmental meeting. Biological diversity, toxic patterns of production, alternative and renewable energy sources, the importance of public transportation, water shortages, and the rights of indigenous peoples were all discussed. Some of the noteworthy results of the Earth Summit included: Agenda 21 (referring to the twenty first century), a comprehensive plan for achieving worldwide sustainable development, and the UNFCCC (the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), a treaty and associated secretariat (U.N. department) working toward the reduction of the emissions that produce greenhouse gases. The Berlin Mandate (1995), the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change (1997), and the Delhi Declaration (2002) all followed as “COPs” or “Conference of the Parties” from the 1992 Earth Summit.


BIOFUEL: A fuel derived directly by human effort from living things, such as plants or bacteria. A biofuel can be burned or oxidized in a fuel cell to release useful energy.

CHLOROFLUOROCARBONS: Members of the larger group of compounds termed halocarbons. All halocarbons contain carbon and halons (chlorine, fluorine, or bromine). When released into the atmosphere, CFCs and other halocarbons deplete the ozone layer and have high global warming potential.

GREENHOUSE GASES: Gases that cause Earth to retain more thermal energy by absorbing infrared light emitted by Earth's surface. The most important greenhouse gases are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and various artificial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons. All but the latter are naturally occurring, but human activity over the last several centuries has significantly increased the amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in Earth's atmosphere, causing global warming and global climate change.

GREENWASHING: Environmental whitewashing, or the practice of presenting information that makes the purveyor appear to be environmentally sensitive or to seem to be taking action toward sustainability in the absence of any substantive change.

KYOTO PROTOCOL: Extension in 1997 of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international treaty signed by almost all countries with the goal of mitigating climate change. The United States, as of early 2008, was the only industrialized country to have not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which is due to be replaced by an improved and updated agreement starting in 2012.

RENEWABLE ENERGY: Energy obtained from sources that are renewed at once, or fairly rapidly, by natural or managed processes that can be expected to continue indefinitely. Wind, sun, wood, crops, and waves can all be sources of renewable energy.

SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT: Development (i.e., increased or intensified economic activity; sometimes used as a synonym for industrialization) that meets the cultural and physical needs of the present generation of persons without harming the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

In 2002, the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development was held in Johannesburg, South Africa. Business leaders and non-governmental organizations played a large role in this conference, reflecting their growing involvement in issues relating to sustainability, though U.S. President George W. Bush declined to attend on behalf of the United States. An editorial in the New York Times stated that “the simple recognition that economic development and environmental protection can work in tandem may be the summit's greatest contribution.” Notably, one of the U.N.'s recent millennium development goals is simply “Ensure Environmental Sustainability.” Progress indicators include the proportion of land covered by forest, measures of energy use, carbon dioxide emissions, and ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The United Nations has also declared 2005 to 2015 to be the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.

In addition to the international efforts described earlier, national and local organizations of many sizes (with many different spheres of influence and special interests) have adopted principles of sustainability aimed at transforming economic decisions and reducing waste, especially among the members of developed nations, whose patterns of consumption and pollution contribute the most to anthropogenic climate change and can thus be seen as the most unsustainable.

Many different methods of measuring sustainability have emerged in the last few decades, including indices for sustainable development, the measurement of ecological footprints, and sustainable checklists, scores and ways to rank businesses, homes, companies, and countries. The evolution of sustainable (and unsustainable) societies in the past has become popular literature (e.g., Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed [2005]). In addition, academic research and popular works on the philosophy, economy, and practice of sustainability have flourished (e.g., Michael Grosvenor's Sustainable Living for Dummies [2007], Thomas Princen's The Logic of Sufficiency [2005], and Alex Steffen's World changing: A User's Guide for the 21st Century [2006]).

Impacts and Issues

Addressing problems inherent in existing unsustainable systems is overwhelming. So many factors play a role in the culture and economy of industrialized nations— agriculture, diet, construction, energy use, pollution, natural resources, transportation, technological advances, and social beliefs and habits are all intertwined, and all have been targeted for change in order to promote sustainability and reduce the speed of climate change.

Technological advances—especially in energy efficiency, biofuels, hybrid electric vehicles, recycling, and renewable resources (including solar, wind, nuclear, and geothermal power)—are being considered more seriously (or have already been adopted) to a much greater extent than in previous years. Organic farming has become more widespread, and books on the importance of local food production and the hidden costs of conventional agriculture have become bestsellers (e.g., Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life [2007] and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals [2006]). Public awareness of the links between unsustainable economies and climate change is growing, but the idea that their gasoline consumption affects the amount of rainfall in Africa is still far from mainstream thought for many Americans.

In the next decade, ecological literacy and environmental education may become as important for environmental change as any technological advances contributing to sustainable systems. However, the word “sustainable” has become used in so many contexts that its meaning has become somewhat eroded. The American physicist Albert A. Bartlett, who accepts overpopulation as the greatest challenge to humankind, notes that the word is used “as though the belief exists that the frequent use of the adjective ‘sustainable’ is all that is needed to create a sustainable society.” Corporate and government green-washing makes it even more difficult to understand competing economic and political interests in regard to issues of sustainability. Transparency in reporting and standard sustainability measures for industrial practices may help counteract deceptive advertising.

Population growth, the distribution of resources, and patterns of consumption are key factors in developing and promoting sustainable ways of life. Several researchers, including Bartlett, argue that “sustainable growth” is an oxymoron, and that Earth is already at or above its carrying capacity (the population that can be supported in area without permanent damage to it). Unlike some Green activists, however, proponents of sustainable development are deeply concerned with social, cultural, and economic issues (especially health, diversity, and education), as well as environmental matters. In a period when national security, international trade, and the divisions between the nations of the developed and developing world are of increasing concern, with potentially high repercussions for climate change, sustainable development offers the only reasonable solutions for both people and their environment.

Researchers Roger Pielke Jr. and Gwyn Prins describe the growing importance of cultural adaptation in a 2007 article in the journal Nature. Popularized by the Delhi Declaration of 2002—which urged nations to integrate sustainable development more fully with climate change objectives—adaptation, or actions that groups of people take in response to climate change, such as irrigation, relocation, and changing diet, must be considered carefully in terms of sustainability. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) attempts to do this in its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007 by focusing on practical actions that promote both adaptive capacity and sustainable development, such improving water resources, agricultural ecosystems, disaster mitigation plans, and coastal infrastructure.

For both industrialized and developing nations, the lag time between the realization that current systems are unsustainable and the adaptation of practices that are more environmentally balanced is a problem, especially given the current climate crisis. This is especially true when the cost of alternatives to “business as usual” is high for individuals or societies. There is concern that the global cost of anthropogenic climate change, however, is so great and so grave, that in the years to come, sustainable alternatives are likely to become the only viable choice rather than a fashionable luxury.

See Also Adaptation; Agriculture: Vulnerability to Climate Change; Automobile Emissions; Berlin Mandate; Biodiversity; Biofuel Impacts; Biosphere; Carbon Credits; Carbon Dioxide Equivalent (CDE); Carbon Footprint; Carbon Tax; Cow Power; Delhi Declaration; Desert and Desertification; Drought; Economics of Climate Change; Economies in Transition; Energy Contributions; Energy Efficiency; Environmental Policy; Erosion; Ethanol; Fisheries; Forests and Deforestation; Geothermal Energy; Green Movement; Industry (Private Action and Initiatives); IPCC Climate Change 2007 Report: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability; Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development; Kyoto Protocol; Lifestyle Changes;Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); Renewability; Renewable Energy; Social Cost of Carbon (SCC); Solar Energy; Sustainable Energy Policy Network; United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); United States: Climate Policy; United States: State and Local Greenhouse Policies; Waste Disposal; Wastewater Treatment; Water Shortages; Wind Power.



Brundtland, Gro, ed. Our Common Future: The World Commission on Environment and Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking, 2005.

Elliot, Jennifer A. An Introduction to Sustainable Development. New York: Viking, 2005.

Grosvenor, Michael. Sustainable Living for Dummies. Milton, Qld: Wiley Publishing Australia, 2007. Kingsolver, Barbara, with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. New York: Harper Collins, 2007.

Knauer, Kelly, ed. Global Warming. New York: Time Books, 2007.

Pearce, Fred. With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2007.

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

Princen, Thomas. The Logic of Sufficiency. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.

Steffen, Alex, ed. World changing: A User's Guide for the 21st Century. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2006.


Bartlett, Albert A. “Reflections on Sustainability, Population Growth, and the Environment.” Focus 9, no. 1 (1999): 49–68.

Edward, David. “Greenwashing—Co-opting Dissent.” The Ecologist 29, no. 3 (May-June 1999): 172–174.

“Keeping Earth Fit for Development.” New York Times (September 6, 2002).

Martens, Pim. “Sustainability: Science or Fiction.” Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy 2, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 36–41.

Pielke, Roger, Jr., Gwyn Prins, et al. “Lifting the Taboo on Adaptation.” Nature 445, no. 7128 (February 8, 2007): 597–598.

Sachs, Jeffrey D. “The Secretary-General's Agenda: Indispensable for Sustainable Development.” UN Chronicle 44, no. 1 (March 1, 2007): 20–21.

Web Sites

“The Delhi Ministerial Declaration on Climate Change and Sustainable Development.” United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; Eighth Session of the Conference of the Parties, 2002. <> (accessed November 9, 2007).

“Integrating Sustainable Development and Climate Change in AR 4.” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, August 10, 2003. <> (accessed October 29, 2007).

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs: Division for Sustainable Development, October 26, 2007. <> (accessed November 9, 2007).

U.S. Partnership for the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. <> (accessed November 13, 2007).

Sandra L. Dunavan

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