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  • Randy Rankin

What does the term “Sustainability” mean to you?

Updated: May 25, 2022

The term sustainability has been gaining popularity in recent years and seems to have as many interpretations as there are trees in this world. So, what is the definition of sustainability anyway? According to Cambridge Dictionary to be sustainable is the “ability to continue over a period of time”. That sounds like a pretty broad definition as a “period of time” could entail infinite possibilities. Some examples of not being sustainable include: spending more money than you earn requiring one to take on a large amount of debt and consuming natural resources at a greater rate than they can be replenished. However, I would like to talk about what sustainability means to me through the use of the three pillars or triads of sustainability: the environment, society, and the economy.

The diagrams below depict two ways to interpret the triads of sustainability. The diagram on the left, the Sustainability Venn Diagram, depicts overlapping environmental, societal, and economic needs. For example, if a system is optimized for sustainable societal and economic growth, equitable conditions are attained. If the conditions are optimized for the three pillars, sustainability is achieved. However, this method makes it seems that all three triads of sustainability are equally taken into account when determining a sustainable process, which is generally not the case. I like to use the diagram on the right, the Nested Sustainability Triad, which shows more of hierarchy of how each of the sustainability pillars interact with each other on Earth. Planet Earth supports a wide variety of environments, which in turn provides for a diverse group of societies and cultures to flourish, and societies allow for the development of economies.

I am going to go one step further and relate the nested sustainability triad to the concepts of objectivity, which I came across while reading a book on the topic of anthropology called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. An objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human belief; trees, rocks, and solar radiation all existed before people discovered or understood them. The Subjective is something that exists depending on the consciousness and beliefs of a single individual. Our societies are comprised of billions of people that have individual values, attitudes, feelings, and beliefs. The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals. Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective including: money, nations, law, governments.

My interpretation of sustainability is hierarchal. While we should do our best to make sure our economies continue to grow, the continual progress of our societies can only be achieved if the environment remains intact for future generations to meet their own needs.

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