Environmental Sustainability

Environmental sustainability iconTo define environmental sustainability we must first define sustainability. Sustainability is the ability to continue a defined behavior indefinitely. To define what environmental sustainability is we turn to the experts.

Herman Daly, one of the early pioneers of ecological sustainability, looked at the problem from a maintenance of natural capital viewpoint. In 1990 he proposed that: 1

1. For renewable resources, the rate of harvest should not exceed the rate of regeneration (sustainable yield);

2. [For pollution] The rates of waste generation from projects should not exceed the assimilative capacity of the environment (sustainable waste disposal); and

3. For nonrenewable resources the depletion of the nonrenewable resources should require comparable development of renewable substitutes for that resource.

This list has been widely accepted. It's an elegant abstraction, one that made me pause and read it three times when I first encountered it.

The list can be shortened into a tight definition. Environmental sustainability is the rates of renewable resource harvest, pollution creation, and non-renewable resource depletion that can be continued indefinitely. If they cannot be continued indefinitely then they are not sustainable.

Why this particular definition is important

This is discussed on the glossary page for sustainability.

Basically the world's standard definition of environmental sustainability is sustainable development, which means sustainable economic growth, which is an oxymoron. No form of economic growth can be continued indefinitely. Furthermore, all economic growth today is terribly environmentally degrading.

Thus it's impossible to be sustainable and achieve economic growth at the same time, now and for at least the next 50 years or so. That's why definitions like the one on this page must replace the world's standard definition of sustainability.


(1) From Daly, H. E. 1990a. Boundless bull. Gannett Center Journal 4(3):113–118. —Daly, H. E. 1990b. Toward some operational principles of sustainable development. Ecological Economics 2:1–6.

The recycle logo in the environmental sustainability icon is from Xavier University. This is the same logo we've got on our recycling bins.

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Three pillars of sustainability
The Three Pillars of Sustainability

The principle of The Three Pillars of Sustainability says that for the complete sustainability problem to be solved all three pillars of sustainability must be sustainable. The three pillars are social sustainability, environmental sustainability, and economic sustainability.

Of the three pillars, the most important is environmental sustainability. If this is not solved, then no matter how hard we try the other pillars cannot be made strong because they are dependent on the greater system they live within, the environment.

Our Most Popular Pages

These average 9 minutes. They give a quick introduction to the Dueling Loops model and how it explains the tremendous change resistance to solving the sustainability problem.

The most eye-opening article on the site since it was written in December 2005. More people have contacted us about this easy to read paper and the related Dueling Loops videos than anything else on the site.

Why are large for-profit corporations so dominant? What are the side effects? What's the root cause of corporate dominance? What's a solution that would work?

The answers are all here.

Do you every wonder why the sustainability problem is so impossibly hard to solve? It's because of the phenomenon of change resistance. The system itself, and not just individual social agents, is strongly resisting change. Why this is so, its root causes, and several potential solutions are presented.

The most astonishing short read (7 pages) on the site, if you've never heard about it. The memo was written in 1971.