Defining sustainability is as hard as “ nailing Jello to a tree.” There are already countless definitions of the word out there.
Around the U.S. and the world, groups define sustainability differently depending on their frame of reference. For instance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of sustainability is centered on the natural environment:
“Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”
In comparison, the American Planning Association looks at sustainability in relationship to human needs:
“Whether the Earth’s resources will be able to meet the demands of a growing human population that has rising aspirations for consumption and quality of life, while maintaining the rich diversity of the natural environment or biosphere.”
Today, the most common definition of sustainable development comes from the United Nations Brundtland Commission report, Our Common Future, from 1987:
“Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The Bruntland definition is widely used, and is much more general than the EPA and American Planning Association definitions above. The comparison raises a couple of questions.
- How specifically should one define sustainability? Is it important to be as inclusive as possible by using general terms and concepts? Or does generalization defeat the purpose of composing a definition?
- Does the Bruntland Commission definition elevate the needs of humans (“future generations”) over environmental needs?
Though it’s easy to agree that defining sustainability is difficult, it is still critically important. A shared definition of sustainability can help Greater Des Moines come together around a vision for the future, and can also help guide the policies and plans needed to get there.
How should The Tomorrow Plan define sustainability for Greater Des Moines? We have a lot of raw material and ideas that have been gathered from public meetings, through online surveys, and in conversations with leaders and the public, and are crafting a definition now.
What does sustainability mean to you? Add your voice to the comments.