What Is Sustainability? and Why It’s Important

Sustainable is a word that gets thrown about a lot. But what does it actually mean?

The easiest way to explain is to assume there are finite resources on our planet. Being sustainable means ensuring we leave enough for future generations.

Diving deeper into the concept of sustainability can be complex. I will be using the report form the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development to try and explain further.

The report highlights 2 main points: “environment” where we all live, and “development” what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. These are the keys to future sustainability.


Our environment is a consequence of the way we live.

Forests are being destroyed, productive land is turning to desert and sea levels are rising.

There is a fine balance to maintaining our environment so that we can continue to survive.

Threats to our sustainability and ultimately our survival include, the reduction of the greenhouse effect, damage to the ozone layer, loss of forests and toxic waste dumping.

Greenhouse effect

The greenhouse effect is a process where the atmosphere prevents the heat from the sun leaving earth. This makes our planet habitable. Without the greenhouse effect earth would be too cold to live on and plants would not survive. Excessive use of resources such as fossil fuels damages this system, and potentially raises the temperature of the earth to unsustainable levels.

The ozone layer

The ozone layer is a thin layer of the earth’s atmosphere. This layer protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Plants need this protection to survive. Without this protection plants would not be able to photosynthesise and provide oxygen. It also protects humans from cancers and cataracts.

Loss of forests

Loss of trees and plants reduces the amount of carbon dioxide removed from the air. Clearing forests also produces greenhouse gas emissions. Replanted forests take decades to start absorbing the same amount as an established forest. In its early years a new forest actually emits more carbon dioxide than it absorbs.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that deforestation is the second-leading cause of climate change.

Toxic waste

Toxic waste is defined as chemical waste that is capable of causing death or injury to life.

Mainly produced by manufacturing with 13 tons being produced every second. The majority of toxic waste is being deposited in our lakes, rivers and oceans. Short term our water and soil are polluted, long term, plant growth cycles can be disrupted. Resulting in animals and people getting sick.

At the current rate of activity the above are unsustainable for our planet.


According to the report there is “a growing realization in national governments and multilateral institutions that it is impossible to separate economic development issues from environment issues. Many forms of development erode the environmental resources upon which they must be based. Environmental degradation  undermines economic development. Poverty is a major cause and effect of global environmental problems.”

Countries can not develop in isolation.

To achieve long term sustainable growth, there needs to be world collaboration and fair distribution of resources. The world needs to be treated as whole managed by all nations to the equal benefit of all nations.

The deepening differences between people cause political unrest,  international tensions and increasing inequalities. These issues all directly affect sustainability.

There needs to be quality economic growth, fairly distributed. Any negative effects of growth need to be considered equally to the positive. The report outlines conditions that should be met for sustainable and economic development.

  • Basic human needs need to be met globally.
  • Ensuring a sustainable level of population.
  • Natural resources should be conserved or enhanced.
  • Investment in alternative technologies and improvements of current technologies.
  • Make the environment a key part of policy and decision making.

Sustainability is a complex issue to understand. 

However it’s a vital part of our future, and it’s important that we get it right. The future of our species and life on our planet depend on it.

In essence sustainability is all about equity, leveling out the differences in the world. Not using more than we need and keeping the environment at the heart of global decision making.

If you would like to find out ways to make your local environment more sustainable please click here.

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