Sustainability is a complex notion that has many definitions.

'Sustainability' started coming into popular usage in the 1960s as people in industrialised countries began to appreciate that the effects they were having on their surroundings had global implications. It is a term which is used in a wide variety of ways.

One approach is to think of sustainability as having three dimensions ‘economy’, ‘society’ and ‘environment’, which combine in different ways at a range of scales from the local to the global. Those who favour ecological perspectives see sustainability as being an all-embracing context which frames all our other activities (Figure 1).

Others place equal emphasis on each of the three dimensions which they believe are complementary (Figure 2). However, it is also contended that sustainability has more than three dimensions and that factors such as power, politics and spiritual awareness are essential components of a more mature understanding.

Definitions Figure 1

Sustainability is often associated with development. Sustainable development was memorably described in the Brundtland Report (1987) as 'development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.'

By considering the needs of future generations, the Brundtland definition sets sustainability firmly in a forward-looking time frame. It draws on two fundamental concepts - the notion of needs and the notion of limitations. Striking a balance between these two concepts raises questions about justice and equity and reveals some of the hidden tensions and contradictions that lie beneath the sustainability agenda.

1) Find out more about different approaches to sustainability by watching these two videos:

Arjen Wals: Quality of Life


An Overview: Sustainable Learning and Teaching


2) Visit Canterbury Christ Church Univeristy's Sustainability website to find out about a range of current projects.

"Sustainable development involves a confusing discussion about where you fit into the bigger picture and the future of the world.

Group of trainee classroom assistants

"The definition that refers forward to future generations (ie looking after the biosphere including human beings and their needs) is a good one as I think that consumer capitalism is unsustainable."

Tutor in Initial Teacher Education

"I think sustainability is about living in the present so as not to foreclose on the future. This relates principally to living systems and has implications for individuals, communities, societies and the global community as they inter-relate with the natural world on which they are irreducibly dependent."


a) Does it matter that there are so many different ways of thinking about sustainability?

b) To what extent do you think we have a responsibility to the future?

Klein, N. (2014) This Changes Everything, London: Penguin

Thompson. E. et al. (2019) Letters to the Earth, London: Collins

Vane-Wright, R. (2009) ‘Planetary Awareness: Worldviews and the Conservation of Biodiversity’ in Kellert, S. and Speth, G. (eds.) The Coming Transformation, Yale: Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Forestry available online at

Visit the Hard Rain project for a photographic portrait of environmental problems set to music from Bob Dylan available at

Planetary Limits »

Find out more

Find out more about sustainability in practice at Canterbury Christ Church

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Last edited: 20/11/2019 07:44:00