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FOUNDATION CONCEPTS: What Is Sustainability

FOUNDATION CONCEPTS: What Is Sustainability

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To be sustainable, the use of renewable resources must proceed at a rate that is less than or equal to the rate of natural replenishment.
To be sustainable, the use of renewable resources must proceed at a rate that is less than or equal to the rate of natural replenishment.

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Published by: Post Carbon Institute on Mar 15, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The Post Carbon Reader Series: Foundation Concepts
What Is Sustainability?
By Richard Heinberg
About the Author
Richard Heinberg is widely regarded as one of the world’s most effective communicators of the urgentneed to transition away from fossil fuels. He is the authorof nine books, including 
The Party’s Over: Oil, War  and the Fate of Industrial Societies
 Powerdown:Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World 
 Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis
 (2009). He has authored scores of essays and articles,is featured in many documentaries, and has appearedon numerous television and radio programs. Heinberg is Senior Fellow-in-Residence at Post Carbon Institute.Post Carbon Institute© 2010613 4th Street, Suite 208Santa Rosa, California 95404 USAThis publication is an excerpted chapter from
The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’sSustainability Crises
, Richard Heinberg and DanielLerch, eds. (Healdsburg, CA: Watershed Media, 2010).For other book excerpts, permission to reprint, and purchasing visit http://www.postcarbonreader.com.
The essence of the term
is “that which canbe maintained over time.” By implication, this meansthat any society that is unsustainable cannot be main-tained for long and will cease to function at some point.Unfortunately, in recent years the word
hasbecome widely used to refer merely to practices thatare reputed to be more environmentally sound thanothers. Often the word is used so carelessly as to leadsome environmentalists to advise abandoning its use.
 Nevertheless, the concept is indispensable and shouldbe the cornerstone for all long-range planning.It is probably safe to assume that no human living arrangement can be maintained forever. Astronomersassure us that in several billion years the Sun will haveheated to the point that Earth’s oceans will boil away.Thus
is a relative term. It seems reason-able to use as a frame of reference for the durations of  prior civilizations, ranging from hundreds to thou-sands of years. A sustainable
society, then, would beable to maintain itself for many centuries at least.
How o We efine Sustainability?
The concept of sustainability has been embodied inthe traditions of many indigenous peoples; for exam- ple, it was a precept of the Iroquois Confederacy’s
, or Great Law of Peace, that chiefsconsider the impact of their decisions on the seventhgeneration to come.The first known European use of the word
) occurred in 1713 in thebook
Sylvicultura Oeconomica
by German forester andscientist Hans Carl von Carlowitz. Later, French andEnglish foresters adopted the practice of planting treesas a path to “sustained-yield forestry.”e term gained widespread usage aer 1987, whenthe Brundtland Report from the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Developmentdened
 sustainable development 
as development that“meets the needs of the present generation without com- promising the ability of future generations to meet theirown needs.”
is denition of sustainability has provedextremely inuential and is still widely used; neverthe-less, it has been criticized for its failure to explicitlynote the unsustainability of the use of nonrenewableresources and for its general disregard of the problem of  population growth.
Also in the 1980s, Swedish oncologist Dr. Karl-HenrikRobèrt brought together leading scientists to develop aconsensus on requirements for a sustainable society. In1989 Robèrt formulated this consensus in four systemconditions for sustainability, which in turn became thebasis for an organization, the Natural Step. Subsequently,many businesses and municipalities around the world
The word ‘sustainable’ has becomewidely used to refer merely topractices that are reputed to bemore environmentally soundthan others.

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Jed Diamond added this note
We all know that we need to live sustainably. But what does that really mean in practice? Leave it to Richard Heinberg to make it clear, interesting, and engaging.
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