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Editors: Katherine H. Nemeh and Jacqueline L. Longe
Date: 2021
The Gale Encyclopedia of Science
From: The Gale Encyclopedia of Science(Vol. 7. 6th ed.)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)

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According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, “to pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.” Sustainability, in its root form, is often referred to as a positive psychology theory based on environmental, economic, and social principles. In its modern form, the term sustainability has mobilized into a global call to action for the human race to address variables that are increasingly harming the day-to-day way of life, the majority of which often relate to the impact of a changing climate. Embedded in the pursuit of sustainability is the practice of planning for the future with regard to the foundational aspects of society, that is, agriculture, business, growth and development, education, cultural practices, and policies.

The United Nations Division for Sustainable Development lists more than 40 different issues of current concern relating to sustainability, including atmosphere, biodiversity, agriculture and food security, climate change, demographics (population growth and structure), energy, international law, poverty, sanitation, and toxic chemicals.

Regarding human life, the concept of sustainability became widely circulated with the 1972 publication of A Blueprint for Survival, a special issue of the Ecologist journal that was later released as a book, and the publication of The Limits to Growth report written that same year by a team of scientists, economists, and public officials at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The United Page 4347  |  Top of ArticleNations (UN) established the World Commission on Environment and Development (the WCED, sometimes referred to as the Brundtland Commission) in 1983. In 1987, the WCED issued its influential report, Our Common Future also known as the Brundtland Report), which defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Though the definition of sustainability is often associated with ecological terms for environmental protection and mitigation-or-adaptation strategies for the long-term survival of humans and the biosphere, climate scientists and conservation biologists are increasingly using the rapid loss of the planet's biodiversity as an indicator for the future viability of the human species, calling for nonhuman life as a central component of sustainability problem solving.

Global developments

The UN's Millennium Development Goal Seven was to “ensure environmental sustainability.” By encouraging countries to integrate the principles of sustainability into their policies and programs, the UN aimed to help citizens around the world decrease, then reverse, the loss of Earth's natural resources. Goal Seven called for protecting biodiversity by reducing deforestation, lowering carbon dioxide and ozone-depleting emissions, safeguarding threatened fish stocks, slowing marine habitat loss, conserving water resources, and reducing the number of species threatened with extinction. Goal Seven also related sustainability directly to human health by calling for an increase in the number of people who have access to sanitation and clean drinking water, and a reduction in the number of people who live in overcrowded urban slums. The most successful achievement of Goal Seven was met years ahead of schedule, when 2.6 billion people gained access to improved drinking water from 1990 to 2010. Challenges remained for other sectors of Goal Seven, especially unmet environmental targets in sub-Saharan Africa, western Asia, and South America.

When the Millennium Development Goals expired in 2015, they were replaced by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a series of 17 goals with more than 160 targets with a deadline of 2030. The main SDGs cover a range of issues, including clean energy, clean water, climate change, economic growth, education, energy, gender equality, health care, hunger, inequality, infrastructure, jobs, justice, poverty, sanitation, and more. Other international efforts include the Paris Climate Agreement, which required commitments by most of the world's nations to form comprehensive plans that outline strategies to mitigate harmful environmental impacts and address the planet's increasingly variable climate.

Fresh water is one of the most precious and dwindling resources on the planet. Efforts to make drinking water more accessible to water-scarce communities focus on sustainability, i.e. solutions that are maintainable and manageable without impacting the environment. Fresh water is one of the most precious and dwindling resources on the planet. Efforts to make drinking water more accessible to water-scarce communities focus on sustainability, i.e. solutions that are maintainable and manageable without impacting the environment. (Wisnu Purnomo Sidhi/USAID IUWASH East Java.) (Wisnu Purnomo Sidhi/USAID IUWASH East Java.)

The 2019 UN SDG report, create to evaluate intermin progress on the goals, indicated that global hunger is on the rise, the ocean's acidity has increased, each new year is the warmest year on record, and that “extreme poverty declined from 36 percent in 1990 to 8.6 percent in 2018, but the pace of poverty reduction is starting to decelerate as the world struggles to respond to entrenched deprivation, violent conflicts, and vulnerabilities to natural disasters.” Other metrics in the report demonstrate that sustainability practices and an increased quality of life go hand in hand. For example, the report cites reduction of greenhouse gas emissions as leading to cross-goal linkages by furthering the creation of jobs, improving health, and increasing prosperity and livability of cities.

In response to the concern over current global trends and the increasing availability of data/metrics, the sustainability sector of the business realm has grown exponentially. Project Drawdown 2020, the world's leading resource for climate solutions, presents strategies for critical sectors in which public, private, and intergenerational action and education can promote positive sustainability based on two different climate action scenarios. These sectors include electricity, industry, food, agriculture and land use, transportation, buildings, health and education, land sinks, coastal and ocean sinks, and engineered sinks.

Issues and applications

Incorporated businesses, professional service industries, and organizations of many sizes have pledged sustainability by setting targets for cutting carbon emissions, bolstering equitable practices in the workplace, and reducing waste and environmental impact. Page 4348  |  Top of ArticleEvolution of social and cultural thought in the early twenty-first century has also brought human rights, race, and gender equity into the conversation to illustrate how sustainability principles are not only for the benefit of nature but also for cultural preservation. Existing policies, future regulations, and actionable commitments regarding equitable access to public infrastructure, clean water, arable lands, and healthy live/work environments directly influence what the term sustainability can infer for current communities affected by environmental justice issues. The emphasis on inclusive justice, education, health, and well-being is part of the UN SDGs, applying to all countries of every socioeconomic status as they work to improve overall quality of life.

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Literally, life diversity: the number of different kinds of living things. The wide range of organisms—plants and animals—that exist within any given geographic region.
Reduction of amount or effect.
Practices that preserve the balance between human needs and the environment, as well as between current and future human requirements.
Sustainable development—
Development (i.e., increased or intensified economic activity; sometimes used as a synonym for industrialization) that meets the cultural and physical needs of the present generation of persons without damaging the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Sustainable resource—
A resource that can be renewed or maintained indefinitely.

In December 2015, with 197 other nations, the United States committed to the Paris Climate Agreement, agreeing to climate action for the prevention of increased global warming by the end of the 21s century. US President Barack Obama (1961–) issued an executive order that all federal agencies were required to report and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, purchase sustainable and environmentally preferable products, promote sustainable work-related travel, and to improve the performance of their buildings through the use of green infrastructure and third-party approved certification processes such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), the Sustainable SITES Initiative, and the Living Building Challenge. Following the tides of domestic US partisan response, the Trump administration and other entities have overturned many sustainability commitments tied to federal funding. The majority of the US ratification instruments operate under individual state or university commitments, or within private entities that invest in or pursue research for clean energy, water quality, conservation, and climate neutrality.



Bovill, Carl. Sustainability in Architecture and Urban Design. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Chrispeels, Maarten J., and Paul L. Gepts. Plants, Genes, and Agriculture: Sustainability Through Biotechnology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Jacques, Peter. Sustainability: The Basics. London, UK: Routledge, 2015.

Mancebo, Francois. Transitions to Sustainability. New York: Springer, 2016.

Mossop, Elizabeth. Sustainable Coastal Design and Planning. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2019.


Scientific American. “Sustainability.” (accessed June 28, 2020).

United Nations (UN). “Sustainable Development Goals.” (accessed June 28, 2020).

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “Sustainability.” (accessed June 28, 2020).

United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Sustainability.” (accessed June 28, 2020).

World Bank. “Global Program on Sustainability.” (accessed June 28, 2020).

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Adeline Wilmoth Lerner

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX8124402400