It is remarkably difficult to define sustainability in a way that is actionable. It is an expansive topic, given that one can apply the basic principle of sustainability to all areas of human activity, from energy to all manner of consumer products, and from agriculture to housing and urban planning. The stakes can be very high, especially concerning the issues of sustenance and global climate change. Uncertainty is an unavoidable feature of models assessing sustainable practices and policies because it is often hard to gauge their impact on such a complex and adaptive system as the intersection of the human and physical environment. Cultural values and norms are important because they affect people’s preferences, relationships, and behavior toward the environment. Technology is critical because the only certainty is that we don’t fully appreciate the complex impact of technologies in place today on the physical environment. The innovation of various kinds will radically alter the costs and benefits of various policy responses to environmental externalities. Action-oriented progress toward sustainability typically involves multiple actors with often incompatible assumptions about causal mechanisms as well as preferences as to
goals and means. There are many economic, political, and ethical issues related to sustainability, especially given that the impact of our present business and other social practices extends deep into the future and affects generations of people who have not yet been born.
The growth in human population and in economic production and consumption since the dawn of industrialization has placed enormous pressure on Earth’s resources. Over the last three decades, finding a balance between the sustainable development of human societies and the fragile ecosystem in which it unfolds has become one of the most important items on the global agenda. High energy prices, air, and water pollution, and the specter of global climate change have attracted considerable attention from policymakers, business leaders, academics, grassroots activists, and the general public. Rapid economic growth and the rise of a new middle class of hundreds of millions of consumers in emerging economies has greatly augmented the urgency of tackling the issue of sustainability in all of its different manifestations so that improvements in standards of living are not threatened by growing environmental problems. Broadly speaking, sustainability refers to making decisions and adopting courses of action about the use of natural resources that support life on the planet at the present time without placing onerous limitations on the availability of those resources in the future. Thomas Jefferson put it well in 1789: “Then I say the Earth belongs to each generation during its course, fully and in its right, no generation can contract debts greater
than may be paid during the course of its existence.” The key idea, as the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission on Environment and Development put it in 1987, is to “meet the current needs without destroying the ability of future generations to meet theirs.
Globalization TrendLab 2012