Sustainability is a fuzzy concept. First gaining widespread attention in the Brundtland Commission’s report Our Common Future, the terms has become wildly popular: it’s used in nearly 9 million websites.
The term may be a victim of its own success. It is so elastic that all sorts of environmentally destructive behavior can be safely covered under its vague umbrella. The Bruntland Commission famously defined sustainability in the following terms:
Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable—to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
The key term in this definition – needs – is of course highly fungible. One person’s need is another persons rampant luxury.
The term sustainable may, however, still have some traction. There’s a good history of the term available here, which links it to the fight against fascism and nuclear annihilation in the mid-20th century.
In addition, a group of progressive NGOs just published a document that contains provisions such as the “Polluter Pays” principle that, when applied to entities such as big banks and financial organizations, offers quite a radical redress to the inequities of neoliberal capitalism. Their draft paper, Towards a Framework of Universal Sustainability Goals, offers some food for thought, as well as an interesting snapshot of the limitations of even the most progressive environmental NGO discourse.