“Sustainability implies that the critical activities of a higher education institution are (at a minimum)
ecologically sound, socially just, and economically viable, and that they will continue to be so for future
generations. A truly sustainable college or university would emphasize these concepts in its
curriculum and research, preparing students to contribute as working citizens to an environmentally
sound and socially just society. The institution would function as a sustainable community, embodying
responsible consumption of food and energy, treating its diverse members with respect, and supporting
these values in the surrounding community.” – Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future
Sustainability is a framework or lens that is used to view virtually any system of specific issue through.
Examples such as climate change, collapse of societies, biodiversity loss, basic human needs, ecosystem services, natural capital, energy use, social justice, externalities, and more are viewed through the lens of sustainability in order to better understand where we are and how we need to realign our systems in order to sustain them.
(CC Image (right) by KTucker (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Sustainability seeks truth, and the mechanisms most appropriate in order to reconcile and maintain the systems we rely on into the foreseeable future. Doing so often requires a sensibility that defy's the normalcy bias and institutions that would be harmed by doing so.
Sustainability's definition is often quoted from the 1987 Brundtland Commission's report that defined sustainable development as, "... development that meets the needs of the present without compromising theability of future generations to meet their own needs." Many augment that definition to broadly state that sustainability means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
While the definition of sustainability is often seen as three pillars, or intersecting rings (see figure at bottom of page) that represent social justice, ecological integrity, and economic viability, there are different views of sustainability that exist. Many view these three categories as superimposed circles (see figure above) that are subsets of one another. The environment is largest, because without it there would be no society or economy. There are other concepts that portray the macro idea's of sustainability in images and frameworks. The sustainability DNA is another (see figure left).
While defining sustainability is important, it is also important to not get hung up on trying to impose one lens to see all these issues through. As economic, racial, social, political, and educational differences can impact the message of sustainability and its effectiveness.
For example, the message to middle class Americans will probably not be similarly applicable to indigenous South Americans or any other distinct geo-political/cultural group.
Sustainability is not a one size fits all dictate. Sustainability is a manner of approaching issues that relies on that expertise of all academic fields; that approach scientific evidence in a manner that seeks truth above dogma or traditions to apply knowledge to problems and future problems.
Sustainability seeks to preemptively act in a manner that avoids pitfalls and harmonizes with systems that we all rely upon for various basic needs and wants. Doing so in a way that respects the value of each interconnecting system and applies all base knowledge to most appropriately align these systems in a way that is not only most efficient economically, but socially, and environmentally as well.
Sustainability has no real and clear-cut definition. It is a loosely bound concept that requires applying broad base knowledge with a new lens of perception that forces long-term analysis of all that we do. Applying this view within the various frameworks is key to seeing how sustainability affects all systems around the planet; an important understanding if we are to forge a future that maintains the many planetary systems that are in decline.
(CC Image by Andrew, Sunray, based on "File:Sustainable development.svg" by Johann Dréo (created in Photoshop) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)