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A Working Definition of Sustainability

Sustainability broadly reflects the recognition that our actions today affect our prospects for tomorrow, and increasingly, these actions will affect the quality of life and prospects for future generations.

We take sustainability to be an attitude, a world view, a holistic way of thinking about ourselves in the context of the ecosphere.  At it’s heart, sustainability is a reaction to the single-bottom line thinking that undergirds the vast majority of our societal decision making–in that we tend to show an inordinate deference to monetary value, and often disregard the social and ecological costs of our decisions.  In this sense, sustainability is about triple-bottom line thinking, a way of making decisions that gives due consideration to profit, people and planet.

At it’s heart, sustainability requires that those resources which contribute to human welfare be managed such that they are conserved or improved for future generations .Many of the natural resources we consume are finite and non-renewable on human time-scales (e.g., fossil & nuclear fuels, minerals), whilst some renewable resources are becoming non- renewable due to unsustainable use (e.g., fisheries, water, forests, soils). Sustainable development must convert the currently unsustainable practices in industrialized nations to sustainable ones, as well as improve standards of living in developing countries in a sustainable manner. Lifestyles which minimize needless consumption and waste are essential for sustainability.

Ecological sustainability centers on stewardship of resources, ecosystems, the preservation of biodiversity, and natural processes (e.g., ecological succession, microevolution). A sustainable global economy will be achieved when ‘rates of use of renewable resources do not exceed regeneration rates; rates of use of nonrenewable resources do not exceed rates of development of renewable substitutes; [and] rates of pollution emission do not exceed assimilative capacities of the environment’. Socially, sustainability reflects actions that promote community, relationship to place, cultural diversity, and maintenance of local knowledge, equity, environmental justice, self worth, and non-violence.

Sustainability is a Guiding Principle for Ramapo College1

“All strategic goals and objectives must be consistent with the commitment to environmental, social, and economic sustainability by the College.”


1. From: Ramapo College of New Jersey, Strategic Plan 2007-2012.
2. Sources:

  • D. Kennedy (2007). Sustainability. Science 315;573
  • Committee on Ecosystem Effects of fishing: Phase II (2006). Dynamic Changes in Marine Ecosystems: Fishing, Food Webs, and Future Options. Washington, D.C: National Academic Press.
  • L.R. Brown (2006). Plan b2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. New York: Norton.
  • J.P. Holdren (2007). Energy and Sustainability. Science 315:737
  • E Karlin (2001). Dynamic Aspects of Sustainability. In R.C. Dorf (ed.), Technology, Humans, and Society. San Diego: Academic Press.
  • H. Daly (1996). Beyond growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • M. Edelstein (2007)