What is Sustainability?According to the Brundtland Commission, sustainability is defined as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This definition represents the ethical obligation of current generations to uphold the inherent "right" of future generations to natural resources and ecological services. A truly sustainable human system is one that is environmentally responsible, economically viable, socially equitable and educationally sound.
Managing natural resources sustainably means only consuming your "fair share" of resources and producing your "fair share" of waste. Your ecological footprint is the amount of land that it takes to produce the resources you consume and absorb the waste you produce. We live on a finite planet with over six billion people. In the long term, our current behavior is clearly unsustainable.
Sustainability in Complex Systems
Environmental responsibility, economic viability, social equity and education create a system that cannot be understood by breaking it down to its smallest parts for analysis. Sustainability must be explored as a complex system with interacting parts and emergent properties. Emergent properties are characteristics that are a result of interactions between multiple pieces within a system. When a system is analyzed by breaking it down to its smallest parts, through reductionism, the analysis of emergent properties is lost and the sustainability initiative is oversimplified. Sustainability is not black or white.
When working on sustainability issues on a college campus, it is paramount to approach each issue in the context of the larger system. This allows for the consideration of emergent properties as well as feedback loops that develop as a result of the interacting parts of the system. Systems theory is gaining wide attention as an important tool for analyzing complex systems, like sustainability, global climate change, corporations and the economy. By recognizing the hidden qualities of complex systems (emergent properties, feedback loops, interrelationships etc.) we are offered a more accurate picture to help guide our actions.