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What is "Sustainable?"

Loggers in Kenya harvest Mexican cypress. The modern concept of sustainability dates to the 18th-century work of German forester Hans Carl von Carlowitz. Photo courtesy of William M. Ciesla, Forest Health Management International,

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Sustainability, and its adjective form, sustainable, are being used in new contexts and in new applications. What was once a technical term in forestry and agriculture has evolved into a catch-all implying design and policy that are enduring, non-polluting and environmentally-sensitive.

A survey of mentions in English language newspaper articles shows that the word's use is on the rise. Its use is expanding to other nations and languages as well.

Over the past 12 months, the Proquest Newspapers database records a total of close to 49,000 uses of the term "sustainable." That compares to a total of about 26,000 for all of 2001, and just 10,400 for 1996. A portion of the rise may be attributable to a larger number of publications added to the database, but clearly, the term's use is growing.

While sustainability is a laudable goal, the word's wider use may have the effect of diluting its precise meaning in the environmental planning and design world.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines sustainable simply, as "Capable of being maintained at a certain rate or level." Clearly, the word has a fuller meaning and wider connotations.

Will the wider use of "sustainability" and "sustainable" dilute the meaning of a useful concept for design professionals? Or do the words' use herald greater awareness of sustainable design and sustainable public policy?

The answer to these questions remains to be seen.

??" Erik Skindrud

The History of the Term

Put in qualitative terms, sustainability seeks to provide the best outcomes for the human and natural environments both now and into the indefinite future.

The word sustainability (German: Nachhaltigkeit) was used for the first time in 1712 by the German forester and scientist Hans Carl von Carlowitz in his book "Sylvicultura Oeconomica." French and English scientists adopted the concept of planting trees and used the term Sustained Yield Forestry.

The modern concept of environmental sustainability goes back to the post- World War II period, when a utopian view of technology-driven economic growth gave way to a perception that the quality of the environment was linked closely to economic development. Interest grew sharply during the environmental movements of the 1960s, when popular books such as "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson (1962) and "The Population Bomb" by Paul R. Ehrlich (1968) raised public awareness.

The 1987 Brundtland Report, defined sustainable development as development that " meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs." This is very much like the seventh generation philosophy of the Native American Iroquois Confederacy. Chiefs were charged with bearing in mind the effects of their actions on their descendants for seven generations.

Basic Principles

Despite differences, a number of common principles are embedded in most charters or action programs regarding sustainable development.

These include:

  • Dealing cautiously with risk, uncertainty and irreversibility.
  • Ensuring appropriate valuation, appreciation and restoration of nature.
  • Integration of environmental, social and economic goals in policies and activities.
  • Equal opportunity and community participation/Sustainable community.
  • Conservation of biodiversity and ecological integrity.
  • Ensuring inter-generational equity.
  • Recognizing the global dimension.
  • A commitment to best practice.
  • No net loss of human capital or natural capital.
  • The principle of continuous improvement.
  • The need for good governance.

Source: From

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December 7, 2019, 4:28 am PDT

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