Sustainability Meanings & Issues

Sustainability often has different variations in definition and application when the phrase is used globally. A common definition seen from groups like the Brundtland Commission, or the Seventh Generation Principle of the Iroquois, defines sustainability as meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (Hart 2010, 16). This common use of sustainability focuses primarily on natural resources, however, there are many different forms of capital resources like economic, intellectual, and social capital for example. Sustainability to me is a measure of the ability of a system to have the system’s behavior lead to input, output, and feedback relationships that provide opportunity for the system to persist into the future indefinitely. This broader systems-perspective version of sustainability can then be used as a lens to view other forms of capital in addition to natural resources. Sustainability practices can then be applied to a person’s finances, nutrition and health, social interactions, and all other facets of life.  Sustainability becomes the actions that optimize a dynamic system for long-term health.

Sustainability Issues

When evaluating large-scale environmental sustainability issues, a common theme begins to emerge that highlights the most important elements holding back optimization. Issues like sea-level rise, habitat loss, drought, and catastrophic storms are being exacerbated by climate change that is directly caused by human emissions from fossil fuel combustion (NASA 2021). These issues lead to or exacerbate many of the social and governance issues seen globally as well. However, humans continue to emit carbon dioxide and methane as limited regulations are enacted due to lobbying and money from businesses influencing politics and the media. With an ever-growing global population, humans will need to confront the issues of greenhouse gas emissions and money in politics to be able to minimize more issues regarding unsustainable systems across the globe.

Impacts to Sustainability

In an ideal world science would form the basis of understanding and data needed for decision-making. Politics would utilize that scientific information to inform value-driven actions to improve current systems. Technology would be used as tools to accomplish the changes and improvements required from policy changes as societies move towards more optimization of systems. The media would help translate complex scientific topics and policy decisions to the average citizen so they can understand the role they play in improving societal systems as well. Unfortunately, things are not so simple and often politics and media misrepresent science for financial gains and technology enables a lack of action on critical sustainability topics. Similar to the large-scale issues to sustainability, the influence of lobbying and money from businesses to politicians and the media creates an unbalanced system that resists optimization of the whole for the benefit of the few.

Sustainability Considerations

Environmental, Social, and Governance categories include most of the diverse sustainability issues occurring globally. However, an additional topic that is rarely covered in those categories is privacy. Privacy would be a social issue and one that ties strongly to human rights but is distinct enough to warrant its own category in my mind. Privacy is a critical and emerging issue as our world becomes more technologically connected and more data becomes available to be analyzed with robust tools. Many sustainability issues can be helped with technology solutions; however, these types of solutions can also lead to privacy erosion. Privacy should be placed as an important element in the social category of sustainability issues to ensure solutions provide the necessary balance in solving issues without creating new ones.

Author: Logan Callen


Hart, Stuart L. 2010. Capitalism at the Crossroads. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

NASA. 2021. “The Effects of Climate Change.” NASA. September 1. Accessed September 15, 2021.

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