Demystifying the term “Sustainability”

The first question you should ask yourself before we go any further: what is sustainability? Take the time to really think about what this really means to you. The chances are your definition is completely different to your colleague or friend sitting next to you.

Some people have no idea what it means, while others are aware of the term but have a vague understanding of what it actually entails. Then, there are others who have some insight into what sustainability is but leverage this knowledge to make an organisation appear to be something it is not.  Let me shed some light on some commonly used definitions so that we are all on the same page.

DEFINITION 1: “The ability of an ecosystem to maintain ecological structure, processes and functions, biodiversity, and productivity over time” (The State of Zimbabwe’s Environment, Chenje, Sola, Paleczny, 1998)

This definition seems loaded with big words and honestly, the average, normal person on the street may need some time to dissect and understand what is happening in that definition. Lets take a look at a couple more definitions:

DEFINITION 2: “The potential for long-term maintenance of well being, which has ecological, economic, political and cultural dimensions. Sustainability requires the reconciliation of environmental, social equity and economic demands – also referred to as the “three pillars” of sustainability or (the 3 Es). (Wikipedia, 2013)

This is a more rounded definition that incorporates 3 very important elements we need to consider in sustainability. The first is the economic or financial sustainability of any entity whether it is a company, an organisation or even society itself. The second element refers to the surrounding physical environment and how that can be sustained for future generations. The last and probably the most important, the social aspect of society and how that is maintained. It focuses at what is needed to sustain human life and basic human needs.

DEFINITION 3: “Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment.  Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.” (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2013)

I like this definition, as it highlights something very important, “creating and maintaining the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony”. This leads me into something I would like to share with you, whether you are in the private or public sector; a corporate or just an individual living his or her life. I would like to share my understanding or definition , which is broken down into what we termed the “sustainability principles” at my university. These are four basic principles or conditions that must be met in order for us to work towards a sustainable society, underpinned by scientific laws (I won’t get into those) and knowledge.

The diagram below summarises the principles in both the scientific jargon and a simplified explanation of how these principles occur in our lifes.

(The Natural Step, 2011)

Sustainability Principle (SPs)

SP1: This looks at all the violations we do as humans, to the environment through mainly digging and mining. The extraction of minerals or substances that do not replenish or regenerate are usually the main concern. As humans we rely so heavily on oil and mineral wealth. What will happen when this all runs out? How will this affect an economy that is so reliant on fossil fuels for energy and minerals for economic sustenance? One can even go further and ask will a sustainable society even have mining as an economic activity?

SP2: This SP refers to all the substances, materials and chemicals that society produces. We produce so much waste in an effort to be more “advanced” and “progressive”. However, we end up producing so much waste or substances that are harmful to the environment from some of these activities. For example, methane, which is a greenhouse gas that can be emitted from landfills or through the transportation and production of coal, contributes to Global Warming. As society we need to look into how we can reduce the concentrations of such gases.

SP3: This principle is one that affects Zimbabwe and every other country significantly. Processes such as mining are having a drastic impact on the country’s landscape and the destruction is usually not mitigated. People are constantly cutting down trees that eventually leads to large-scale erosion. Society needs to take responsibility for their actions, and we need to work together to ensure that this physical degradation does not happen or is at least reduced for now.

SP4: The other three SPs dealt more directly with physical violations to the environment. SP4 is probably one of the most important, because if this one is not managed properly society will resort to violating the other three in a means to survive. Social sustainability is key and is at the heart of ensuring environmental sustainability. Social sustainability refers to ensuring that people’s basic human needs are met. We can use Max Neef’s hierarchy of needs for example. These basic needs include subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, idleness, creation and freedom. If a human being does not have some of these needs met, he or she may venture into other means of survival.

In closing, I would like you to think about how we as a nation can move towards a more “sustainable society”. The first and most important step strategically is to ensure that we all have the same understanding and the same vision of what a Sustainable Society looks like for Zimbabwe. As a nation we need to know and understand where and what we are working towards.


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