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One commonly sited definition of sustainability can be found in a report created by a commission for the United Nations. The report of the World Commission on Environment and Development is officially called "Our Common Future" but is often referred to as the Brundtland report. Section 27 of the overview speaks to sustainable development and reads: "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 needs. The concept of sustainable development does imply limits - not absolute limits but limitations imposed by the present state of technology and social organization on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities. But technology and social organization can be both managed and improved to make way for a new era of economic growth. The Commission believes that widespread poverty is no longer inevitable. Poverty is not only an evil in itself, but sustainable development requires meeting the basic needs of all and extending to all the opportunity to fulfil their aspirations for a better life. A world in which poverty is endemic will always be prone to ecological and other catastrophes."
The most commonly quoted segment of this one section is the sentence that refers to meeting "...the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs". Reading the whole section gives context to the basic concept and depth to the social implications of sustainable development. It serves us all to be reminded of the complexity of sustainability and the interrelated social aspects which seem often to be the most ignored.
It's also interesting to note that all three parts of the triple bottom line are mentioned in section 27. Reference is made to economic opportunity, social impact, and environmental capacities. It is common for the term "Triple Bottom LIne" to be used almost like a synonym for sustainability. As I see it, triple bottom line principles of balancing the economic, social, and environmental effects of our behavior are a tool to help us achieve sustainable living.
As we look at sustainability in terms of our relationship as humans to the environment, it means that we will live in a way that makes it possible for natural ecosystems to function properly and for the world to continue supporting life. Looking up the definition of sustain in a dictionary, you might find the term "to keep from ruin". Obviously, keeping from ruin is the lowest possible goal for sustaining the environment. Yet, the concerns about global climate change bring to question just that. Have we ruined that which we depend upon for survival, our planet's most basic support system; its ability to regulate an appropriate temperature? Of course we must do all that we can to change the catastrophic outcomes now predicted. Giving ourselves a higher goal, we could say that we must learn to integrate ourselves into the natural world and imitate its processes. The planet can sustain us as long as we in turn live in a way that sustains it.
Environmentalists have long been shouting out for mainstream America to listen and hear messages about the damage we are doing to the environment. They have steadfastly included issues of social justice and economic inequities that have always been a part of the bigger picture. And people all around the world have been pursuing similar work in their countries. It is time now for all of us to join in and see that the lifestyles we have created are damaging the world we depend upon for our health and the needs of future generations.
We can accomplish much together. The cumulative effects of all of the positive steps taken in our lives, including our design projects, can help reverse global environmental degradation, eliminate social injustice, and help balance economic opportunity. We'll do all we can here at Easy to be Green to support designers in their work to create projects that meet the needs of clients while respecting triple bottom line principles. As we travel this journey together, shifting both our attitudes and actions, we'll help create a more sustainable tomorrow.