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Defining sustainability

In this step, Dr Maro Triantafyllou defines sustainability.
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0

In this step, you will be introduced to the concept of sustainability, examine how it has evolved over time under changing social, economic and environmental conditions, and explore various applications across different sectors.

Sustainability is living on nature’s income rather than living on its capital.
(Murray Gell-Mann, 1969 Nobel Prize Winner in Physics)

The historical roots of sustainability

The concept of sustainability goes back a long way and its understanding has evolved over the years.
It has been used since ancient times to refer to the capability of a system to endure and maintain itself and describe the relationship between humans and nature. Its roots can be traced back to Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek and Roman civilisations, when problems such as deforestation, salinisation and loss of soil’s fertility occurred and the first environmental concerns began to appear. Ancient philosophers such as Plato (5th century BCE), Strabo (1st century BCE) and Columella (1st century CE) researched the environmental degradation caused from farming, logging and mining activities, and recommended ways of maintaining the ‘everlasting youth’ of the earth (Du Pisani 2006).
In the coming centuries, the intensive use of wood, both as fuel and construction material, led eventually to its shortage and brought to the fore the negative impacts of mining and forestry on wildlife and even humans’ existence (Agricola 1950). Wood shortages stimulated a new way of thinking about more responsible use of natural resources for the benefit of present and future generations. In 1713, Hans Carl von Carlowitz made the first reference to the term ‘sustainability’, highlighting the need for afforestation and the regeneration of growing timber (Van Zon 2002).
In the 1800s, concerns about population growth and the depletion of resources started surfacing. These were reinforced by the industrialisation of production processes, which marked a shift to coal-powered mass-production of goods and an increase in their consumption. At the time, many believed that environmental protection would increase unemployment and impede economic development, but the danger that crucial resources such as wood, coal and oil could be depleted intensified environmental concerns as a result of the fear that present and future generations would become incapable of maintaining their living standards. In the first half of the 20th century, scientists started warning people against wasteful consumption, while others called upon using resources in a responsible manner to ensure the continued existence of civilised society (Van Zon 2002).
Following the Great Depression (1929-1939) and second world war (1939-1945), the developed world entered an unprecedented period of drastic growth in production, consumption and wealth, which increased urban sprawl and the demand for greater mobility of people and goods. Trends in freight logistics included a shift from sea and rail to road transportation, and the construction of complex road networks. Technological innovations such as plastics, synthetic chemicals (eg fertilisers and pesticides), nuclear energy and the over-exploitation of fossil fuels started having devastating consequences on human health and rural wildlife, and paved the way for the oil and energy crises of the 1970s.

The Green Movement and modern definitions of sustainability

The fear that the continuation of such practices would lead to the deterioration of living conditions and destroy the ability of the Earth to support life, stimulated a new mode of thinking that was expressed through the Green Movement of the 1970s (Dubos et al. 1970). The term ‘sustainability’ became related to the human capability to exploit natural resources that were essential for people’s survival and wellbeing, while creating and maintaining the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations (EPA 2011). This required all systems and processes to:
  • Be based on resources that wouldn’t be exhausted in the long-term
  • Not generate unacceptable pollution
Based on these principles, the term sustainability is nowadays applied differently by different disciplines. For example:
Ecology Sustainability characterises the ability of biological systems to remain diverse, healthy and productive over time (Rosen and Kishawy 2012)
Agriculture Sustainability refers to resource-conserving, socially supportive, commercially competitive and environmentally sound farming systems that are capable of maintaining their productivity and usefulness to society indefinitely (Duesterhaus 1990).
Transportation Sustainability refers to systems that provide affordable access to freight and passenger service in an environmentally sound and equitable manner (Bell, Delaney and Lewis 1997).

Your task

A growing number of businesses launch Sustainability Data Initiatives. How do you think that such initiatives help businesses to become more sustainable? What challenges do they face?
Share your thoughts with your classmates in the comments area at the foot of the page.


Agricola, G. (1950) De Re Metallica: Translated from the first Latin Edition of 1556. Hoover, H. C., and Hoover, L. H. (eds). Dover: New York

Bell, D., Delaney, R., Lewis, R. (1997) A Proposal for Sustainable Transport: A National Framework. Ottawa: Transport Canada

Du Pisani, J. A. (2006) ‘Sustainable Development – Historical Roots of the Concept’. Environmental Sciences 3 (2), 83-96

Dubos, R., Cole, L. C., Jacobs, J., Carter, L. J., Temko, A., Bowen, W., Wylie, P. (1970) The Environmental Crisis. Washington, DC: United States Information Service

Duesterhaus, R. (1990) ‘Sustainability’s Promise’. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 45 (1), 4

EPA (2011) Sustainability and the U.S. EPA [online] Washington, DC: United States Environmental Protection Agency. The National Academies Press: USA. available from [8 July 2019]

Hawken, P. (2007) Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw it Coming. New York: Viking 172

Rosen, M. A., Kishawy, H. A. (2012) ‘Sustainable Manufacturing and Design: Concepts, Practices and Needs’. Sustainability 4 (2), 154-174

Van Zon, H. (2002) Geschiedenis En Duurzame Ontwikkeling. Duurzame Ontwikkeling In Historisch Perspectief: Enkele Verkenningen. Nijmegen/Groningen: Werkgroep Disciplinaire Verdieping Duurzame Ontwikkeling

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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