What Is Environmental Sustainability?

Definition & Examples of Environmental Sustainability

Sustainable energy

Michael Betts / Getty Images

Environmental sustainability is responsibly interacting with the planet to maintain natural resources and avoid jeopardizing the ability for future generations to meet their needs.

A walk on the beach or a hike in the woods reminds us that our forests, coral reefs, and even our deserts act as examples of sustainable systems. Learn more about environmental sustainability to see its importance and what role you can play.

What Is Environmental Sustainability?

According to the United Nations (UN) World Commission on Environment and Development, environmental sustainability is about acting in a way that ensures future generations have the natural resources available to live an equal, if not better, way of life as current generations.

While it may not be universally accepted, the UN's definition is pretty standard and has been expanded over the years to include perspectives on human needs and well-being, including non-economic variables, such as education and health, clean air and water, and the protection of natural beauty.

  • Alternate definition: Environmental sustainability is the capacity to improve the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of the earth's supporting ecosystems.
  • Alternate definition: Environmental sustainability is about stabilizing the currently disruptive relationship between earth's two most complex systems: human culture and the living world.

The first alternate definition comes from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the work of which is driven by the fact that global production and consumption patterns are destroying nature at persistent and dangerously high rates.

As populations have increased and we have relied on the Earth's natural resources—such as minerals, petroleum, coal, gas, and more—the Earth's biodiversity and creatures, from birds to insects to mammals, have declined in number.

The second alternate definition was provided by environmentalist Paul Hawken, who has written about the realization (and the science behind it) that we are using and destroying the earth's resources faster than they can be regenerated and replenished.

How Environmental Sustainability Works

The varying definitions of environmental sustainability generally lead to more questions about what role humans should play. For example, as an evolutionary species, how should we change the way we live and conduct business on this planet to ensure it's sustainable for future generations?

Many also wonder if it's possible to utilize business as the catalyzing force behind this change because financial success can be tied to ecological and societal success, and vice versa. Individuals have a role to play, but so do institutions that contribute to the cause on a larger scale. The ways in which we can all live more sustainably can take many forms, such as:

  • Reorganizing living conditions in the form of eco-villages, eco-municipalities, and sustainable cities
  • Reappraising economic sectors (permaculture, green building, sustainable agriculture) or work practices, such as sustainable architecture
  • Developing new technologies (green technologies, renewable energy, etc.)
  • Making adjustments in individual lifestyles that conserve natural resources

Environmental Regulations

Since ecological conditions and economic and social systems differ from country to country, there is no single blueprint for how sustainability practices are to be carried out. Each country has to work on its own concrete policy to ensure that sustainable development is carried out as a global objective.

In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for setting and enforcing regulations that involve environmental sustainability and protection. These regulations cover:

  • Air quality
  • Water quality
  • Soil quality
  • Plant life
  • Animals and wildlife habitats
  • Hazardous waste
  • Greenhouse gas emissions

Environmental law violations are considered white-collar crimes, with violators facing the possibility of fines, jail time, probation, or a combination. Most corporations, however, generally only incur fines for violations.

Key Takeaways

  • Environmental sustainability is responsibly interacting with the planet to maintain natural resources and not jeopardize the ability for future generations to meet their needs.
  • Governments, industry, non-profits, and environmental agencies all have different definitions of environmental sustainability and approaches to the issue.
  • Individuals and institutions both play a unique role in environmental sustainability.
  • In the U.S., the EPA is responsible for enforcing environmental laws.