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The literature on sustainability science is now vast. This article is an attempt to summarize current thinking as best I can, directing the reader to important sources. An international approach to global problems depends on a bedrock of shared values and objectives. The universal ethic advocated here is that of human wellbeing (happiness or flourishing) and management objectives that are backed up by the world’s best science. For a discussion of human flourishing, well-being, and happiness as a global ethic see here also morality and sustainability.

Concerns about sustainability arose out of the environmental movement in the 1960s when it became clear that the dramatic increase in human population (the Great Acceleration) was having an adverse effect on the biosphere. As globalization creates a world that is more interconnected and interdependent, so the need for international cooperation increases. Climate change is a prime example of a problem whose solution requires international cooperation .

What is sustainability?

The word ‘sustainability’ has been chosen by the United Nations to indicate global programs established to create the best possible future for planet Earth, the community of life, and future human generations. This requires international cooperation in the  management of three key interdependent components of our individual and collective lives – the environment, society, and the economy – what the United Nations refers to as ‘the three pillars’.

The blue planet

The Blue Planet
Image conveying the delicate and vulnerable intricacy of the earth’s biophysical system
Courtesy NASA

Balancing the sometimes conflicting demands of these three pillars is extremely difficult.

Economists point out that without flourishing economies such ambitious international programs could not proceed:  economies provide the jobs and growth on which all human flourishing depends.

Environmentalists point out that all human activity depends on natural resources, some of which are limited in supply. Our neglect of the environment is now evident at a planetary scale that poses an existential threat to humanity prompting the creation of a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene.

Sociologists know that without adequate governance and efficient, stable social organisation a united approach to the future is impossible.

Working together can be difficult. We each perceive the world from our own training and experience, and keenly defend our own interests – but working together is what we must achieve.


Managing sustainability

This is a difficult balancing act that depends on economic security, good governance and social stability. We want a global economy with an equitable distribution of resources that are not being harvested beyond the carrying capacity of the planet.

Managing sustainability is extremely complicated because it can and must be tackled at any scale from local and individual to global . . . from, say, international legislation to the way we conduct our individual lives.

This article will examine the individual, national, and global scales.

Environmental sustainability

For environmentalists the challenge is to protect the natural environment because it is our life-support system. All human activity uses resources that come ultimately from our planet. These resources are almost infinite in number but they can be conveniently divided into five simple interrelated and easily-understood physical categories: energy, food, water, materials, and biodiversity (nature).

These five physical building blocks may be cross-references with the five major anthropogenic pressures on biodiversity: habitat loss and modification, overexploitation, pollution, invasive alien species, and climate change.

The more complex the social organization, the more complicated the ways in which these resources are woven into the social fabric. So, for example, a hunter-gatherer would use largely unprocessed local resources with perhaps a few items obtained by trade. Today’s society often uses highly processed products whose components are obtained from around the world: consider the skills and materials needed to build a computer.

Consumption itself is not necessarily a problem. Environmental sustainability is about decoupling the strong link between consumption and negative environmental impact. We can reduce consumption by deliberately using less resources and we can manage the cycle of production, distribution, use and disposal in a more sustainable way by reducing resource intensity and maximizing resource productivity per unit of resource.

Ideally policy would be based on scientific evidence obtained by measuring and monitoring environmental impacts using the same rigour that we apply to economics.

The Global Footprint Network
Mathis Wackernagel explains the relationship between human population and resource use
see also:

Economic sustainability

If societies are to flourish then they need time to devote to activities other than survival – there needs to be time for leisure and the development of technologies and intellectual pursuits that reduce the need for physical labour and time spent on routine tasks. Major historical steps on this path were the Agricultural Revolution (Agraria) when the capacity for food storage in settled societies enabled population increase and the development of trade specializations and technologies of scale (armies, ships, metalworking, pottery) that widened trade. The vast amounts of energy made available from fossil fuels during the Industrial Revolution (Industria) meant that this process of increasing the complexity of social organization underwent a great acceleration accompanied by a huge explosion in population. In general terms those societies that were more efficient at these tended to produce the civilizations and empires that dominated others. Today this process of social complexification continues as a revolution in information technology, trade and communication.

Social sustainability

The increase in social complexity needed for any community to provide security and a comfortable material existence for its citizens requires social stability and this is obtained through good governance – the integration of social, economic and environmental requirements in a way that protects society from unrest. Complex networks of government, trade, communication, and environmental protection that take so long to build up can be rapidly broken down. Of course the more complex a society, the more complex will be the governance needed to integrate its many activities.

Human impact on Earth’s ecosystems now threatens the well-being of both humans and the community of life. Alteration of the world’s biogeochemical cycles by human activity has prompted scientists to refer to the current geological epoch as the Anthropocene.[7] Creating a sustainable future for planet Earth requires a common international purpose expressed as a shared global ethic,[5] combined with an effective management strategy that integrates shared environmental, social, and economic values and goals. This ambitious international program has been in operation since the 1980s as the United Nations Program for Sustainable Development[4] and it deserves both our attention and support.

‘Sustainability’ means many things to different people. It is at once a value system, program for the future, and philosophy for life. Such a diffuse concept has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that it is an open, democratic, flexible and stimulating source of ideas for discussion. The disadvantage is its imprecision, opacity, and apparent lack of direction, opening it to the accusation that it is more about goodwill than effective administration.

Though the idea of sustainability has its detractors, it is the nearest we have to a global rallying call for the future management of planet Earth. The general character and intention of the word ‘sustainability’ are now well understood and acknowledged world-wide. The goal of sustainability can only be reached by a process of measuring and managing – by employing sustainability accounting at all scales, from the global to the local and individual.

Global scale

World Citizen Badge

Badge displaying the World Citizen symbol
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons


As a general biological principle populations (and economies) will grow until restrained by factors that limit access to resources – e.g. famine, disease, and conflict.

The historical demand for biophysical resources has been managed by increasing supply which provides the stimulus for more population growth. Today, as economic growth has demanded more and more resources with corresponding demands on the environment the equation has shifted to regulating demand by curbing population growth and making existing processes, technologies, and products more sustainable.


Consumption can be tackled by managing the supply and demand of resources, and technology can be used to both increase and decrease environmental impact.

Ideally we need to consider the environmental impact of each product we consume from its design to its production, use, and disposal (lifecycle analysis) but this is an extremely costly and complex process, not least because impacts will vary according to local circumstances but we begin with an awareness of the situation. This can be illustrated at the global scale. Different regions of the world have different resources and biocapacities. Global trade is a way of distributing resources from those regions that are rich in a particular resource to those that are poor in that resource but producing a resource like wheat has substantial environmental impact so when a country imports wheat it is, in fact, exporting the environmental cost of producing that wheat. Countries with ecological recerves become ecological creditors while those that depend on the import of these ecological services become ecological debtors.

Ecological debtor-creditor

Global ecological debtor and creditor countries[6]


The complexity of environmental impact & environmental accounting

Environmental impact is measured using a toolbox of indicators, indices, and benchmarks among which are the Living Planet Index, Sustainable Society Index, and Ecological Footprint, Environmental Performance Index. Similar indicators exist in the social domain including the Human Wellbeing Index and Human Development Index. All these indicators look beyond the Gross Domestic Product which is the traditional measure of social achievement expressed in purely economic terms. Quantifying sustainability is sometimes referred to as sustainability science.[8]

Another way of addressing the environmental impact of resource consumption is to distil resource use into its simplest practical elements. In the simplest terms this boils down to our use of energy, water, materials, and food, and the impact this use has on biodiversity. We tend to think of negative environmental impact as wilful destruction but it is mostly just the result of our unchallenged need for housing (building materials, heating, appliances) transport (infrastructure and vehicles) food (mostly meat and dairy but also plant crops) and water. All activity (work) requires energy and the more energy that is readily available the greater the potential impact. Fossil fuels have transformed the planet.

Use of these methods is illustrated in two examples, one at national scale and one at the scale of the individual.

National scale

The associated graph gives us a perspective on global sustainability by country. One axis plots the United Nations Human Development Index which considers life expectancy, literacy, education, standard of living and GDP per capita as measurable parameters of human well-being. The USA, Europe, Australia, and other ‘developed’ nations have high scores while Africa, India, parts of the Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean do not meet desired standards. The other axis plots the Ecological Footprint as a measure of the environmental impact of different nations. Here the consumption of the ‘developed’ nations far exceeds the carrying capacity of the Earth. In the bottom right hand corner of the graph is the virtually empty box for countries that maintain human wellbeing without their consumption exceeding the Earth’s carrying capacity extrapolated across the global population.

The principle of seeking maximum wellbeing while living within the means of the planet is just as true of the individual as it is of a nation.

Meeting the global ecological sustainability challenge
Countries on the lhs of the chart are living within global sustainability limits but below acceptable living standards
Countries on the rhs have high living standards but are consuming beyond planetary capacity
At the global scale we need to reduce the ecological footprint of affluent countries and raise the living standards of poor countries without increasing resource use beyond globally sustainable levels
Chart adapted by Rob Cross from Living Planet Report of 2006 (essentially the same in 2019).

Individual scale

Each of us has a role to play as a global citizen contributing to the improved management of planet Earth. We can minimize our environmental impact by being discerning consumers and by trying to understand the environmenta impacts of the goods and services that we use. The chart showing the average individual resource consumption in Australia gives a breakdown of those consumer products that contribute to individual emissions, water consumption, and Ecological Footprint.

Key sustainability criteria & finite resources

Articles on this web site attempt to assess sustainability through history, a difficult task as we have seen, with so much depending on scale and context. The creation of any taxonomy of sustainability (which encampasses all physical human activity as well as the mental component of welllbeing) will be extremely difficult and contentious. For example, Living Planet Report of 2014 suggests nine key limiting planetary boundaries that must not be crossed while at the same time they must meet the human desire for health, wealth, power, and participation (general well-being) on the path to inclusive and sustainable economic development: climate change, land use change, phosphorus and nitrogen, freshwater use, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, chemical pollution, ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosol loading. At the chemical level there are the vital constituents of life itself and their place within global biogeochemical cycles: water, oxygen, carbon, phosphorus, nitrogen.

However, in assessing sustainability I have placed emphasis on the following key criteria for sustainability analysis: social organization, Ecosystem Services, The reasons for this selection are discussed in following articles.

Social organisation

See social organization
The formula I = PAT provides a simple static mathematization of consumption but it lacks a social and temporal dimension: it does not explain how, over time, societies became organised in a way that facilitated population growth, new and more efficient technologies, and increasing affluence – this is a question for historians.

Social organisation (social development)[1] can be measured using a social development index that allows us to compare one society with another: it can be loosely defined as ‘the capacity to get things done’ (this does not necessarily imply that ‘getting things done’ is a good thing) whether intellectually, physically, technologically or in any other way. Although this capacity can be attributed to a host of factors (see social organisation) the point is simply made here that, over the course of history societies have tended to get more done, at an ever increasing rate, and with increasing environmental impact.


See population
We know that every human places an additional burden on the world’s resources. By recycling and careful management of consumption this burden can be minimized but never eliminated. Population size impacts sustainability in many ways that cannot be ignored.

Consumption of biophysical resources

The quantitative use of biophysical resources by any society can be described as the total ‘throughput’; a measure of economic activity. For simplicity global biophysical resources have been divided into five categories: materials, energy, food, water an biodiversity (animals and plants, their ecology and [ecosystem services] to humanity). These categories are not mutually exclusive but each is critical to human existence and therefore warrants special consideration. Of course the many ways in which these basic biophysical resources are used by any particular society depends on the social organisation of that society. In theory by careful sustainability accounting it is possible to relate expenditure (national, institutional, individual) to resource use and environmental impact. In practice this is complex, costly, and impractical but there are many ways in which it can be applied. For example, energy (or water) intensity is the amount of energy needed to produce a particular product, provide a particular service, or perform a particular task. We can measure and reduce the energy and water (and other) intensities of our activities.




Transport & communication


Ecosystem Services



About 10,000 years ago at the time of the Neolithic Revolution humans and their domesticated animals made up about 1% of the world’s vertebrate biomass. Today, after about 500 generations, this has risen to 98%, mostly as cattle and livestock.

To understand how social development has resulted in the aggregation of people into populations and how their use of technology for the consumption of resources (expressed in the simplest terms as water, food, materials, energy, and biodiversity as ecosystem services) and facilitated by transport and communication systems and this has in turn affected human impact on the physical environment.

Individual Ecological Sustainability
Breakdown of resource consumption of the average Australian
Food accounts for 46% of water use, 28% of emissions, and 48% of the Ecological Footprint.
Total environmental impact depends on the sum of the environmental impacts of the individual items of consumption.

Global environmental commitments

Ideas and analyses are all very well but progress is unlikely without international programs, cooperation, and action.

It is from the United Nations that the we have the idea of ‘sustainability’ as a collective program for the future. International commitment was expressed through the Brundtland Report (1987), the Millennium Declaration (2000), Millennium Development Goals, Agenda 21, Agenda 2030, and the Earth Charter – all accentuating the need for an international response to address social, economic and environmental concerns as the world community aspires to high-consumption western lifestyles.

Biodiversity loss is addressed by the 196-nation Convention on Biological Diversity and the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 which includes the Aichi Biodiversity Targets and Nagoya Protocol.

Finding accepted evidence-based research on which to base international policy decisions has also proved difficult. Statements on the condition of the planet have been produced by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and other organisations. Climate change, being a contentious issue, is a good example. Ultimately it is the combined opinions of the world’s best climate scientists, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that carries the most authority.

A similar consortium of international scientists was formed in 2012 to produce policy advice on global biodiversity, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, the IPBES. In May 2019 there were 132 signatories. The latest summary policy recommendations released in May 2019 (see

Specifically on plants there are global initiatives to safeguard plant diversity through the 2020 Global Strategy for Plant Conservation and Global Taxonomy Initiatives. Part of this involves biosecurity concerns and threatened plants addressed by the IUCN, CITES/TRAFFIC and other institutions like the FairWild standard and the BGCI Red Listing of European trees. Botanic gardens can encourage the protection of natural habitats and maintain germ plasm in seed Banks and conservation collections while guarding against the international spread of disease and dispersal of potentially invasive plants through incautious exchange. The effects of climate change are being monitored through the International Phenological Gardens Network and other initiatives.


Though not a conventional approach to history Sustainability Analysis draws attention to the biophysical resources underpinning human activity and the role that these have played in our history and that they will play in the future. Without these resources history would have been very different.

However, it does give focus to the factors that have influenced sustainability in the past and ways of thinking about it in the future. In particular it should give us insights into the way that past human activity has created our current situation and how we might use this knowledge to create a more sustainable future.

Sustainability analysis on this web site begins by comparing in broad terms the interaction of environmental, socio-political, and economic factors as they individually and collectively impact on sustainability governance. More precisely this is related to human governance ([social organisation]) and its relationship with consumption through population numbers, technology, and affluence through the use of basic resources expressed in simple terms as: materials, energy, food, water and biodiversity (animals and plants) together with the effects of transport and communication systems on resource distribution.

Sustainbility, its meaning and implementation is a complex matter that cannot be addressed here except in the most general of terms. The following statement attempts to encapsulate a number of the key ideas. The following statement is not intended as a definition but an attempt to draw together some of the key ideas.

Sustainability attempts to understand and quantify the way socio-economic organisation has (through population number, technology, affluence, transport and communication systems and other social factors) influenced the consumption of biophysical resources (water, food, materials, energy, and biodiversity) to affect future planetary sustainability.

Key points

Climate change, loss of biodiversity, north-south poverty divide, rainforest destruction, proliferation of synthetic chemicals, depletion of freshwater aquifers, agricultural and industrial pollution, depletion of ocean fisheries

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