What is Sustainability? The Practice Makes the Ideal, the Critical 4th Component

  • Published on April 6th, 2009

What is sustainability? It is, in one sense, leaving the world in the same condition as it was when we arrived in it. This is a fairly common definition of the word: “the property of [being continued with minimal long-term effect on the environment]” (Dictionary.com); “forms of progress that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development).

Nonetheless, something is missing here. This is the practical component of sustainability. As we all know, practicing sustainability is the difficult part. The definitions above are all the end result of sustainability. They are the goal. But the practice of sustainability is part of the word as well, not only the result.

If we delve into sustainability theory, we immediately find the sustainability triangle — economy, environment, and equity. It is the appropriate balance of these that many people say is the “practice” of sustainabilty.

Nonetheless, as I think many of us know, intuitively, there is another component of this — there is a personal component. I would call it happiness, or, perhaps, peace. A professor of mine in graduate school coined the phrase “sustainability prism” — he called this fourth critical component “quality of life,” a phrase commonly used in the city planning field we were studying. My problem with that term is that it focuses on the external more than the internal, but it captures the same fourth category as well, the missing category in “sustainability theory.”

Following articles will delve into what this fourth component of sustainability is, but, in this introduction, I just wanted to introduce the concept and how it fits into “sustainability” as a theory of practice, not just as a goal or result.

As many of you notice, and many may also wonder why, these “sustainability” networks and organizations often include personal health with politics with ecological practice (in various ways). The following articles try to explain why this happens. An obvious, simple idea is that there is a lot of overlap between the type of people interested in the different topics. But this is a superficial statement. Why is there overlap?

Personal happiness is at the crux of the “sustainability prism,” I believe. And the following articles make the connection between this phenomenon and the external conditions of ecology, equity, and the economy, and, naturally, sustainability. Stay tuned! And contribute to the ongoing ocean of thought through your own comments. Participate in the ocean. Be the practice!

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