Sustainability encompasses the economy, the environment and our social responsiblity.
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
(Brundtland Report, World Commission on Environment and Development)
The idea of sustainability, or sustainable development, first became popular in the 1970s, when questions about the capacity of planet Earth to sustain us into the future were first raised at an international level. Our current take-make-waste approach cannot continue indefinitely in a world where resources are finite, without impacting on the future of mankind. If we do not alter our thinking and behaviour, the planet which has sustained us since humans first appeared, may not have the capacity to do so in the future.
In the 1980s the Brundtland Report (Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development) defined sustainability as "development that meets present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". And that definition has been widely accepted around the world.
In 1992 the Australian Government expressed sustainability as: "Using, conserving and enhancing the community's resources so that ecological processes, on which life depends, are maintained, and the total quality of life, now and in the future, can be increased." (National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development)
These definitions generally mean the same thing – enough for everyone, forever.
In 2012 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned in its Global Environment Outlook Report that:
- The Earth’s systems are being pushed towards their biophysical limits, which in some cases have been exceeded.
- The condition of coral reefs has declined by 38% since 1980.
- The last two decades have seen unprecedented deterioration in fish stocks through overfishing.
- Groundwater supplies have deteriorated since 2000, while global water withdrawals have tripled over the last 50 years.
- More than 90% of water and fish samples from aquatic environments are contaminated by pesticides.
- Around 20 per cent of vertebrate animals are threatened with extinction.
- Humanity seems unable to meet some of its basic needs. One billion people are hungry every day.
- Two and a half billion lack basic sanitation, and every 20 seconds a child dies as a result of that poor sanitation.
And all this, before we are dealing with the long-term effects of climate change.