The notion of sustainability derives from 1987, when UN (United Nations Organization) defined sustainable development – which is often cited as ‘sustainability’ since then – as follows: development that „meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The development is sustainable for example if we do not use all non-renewable raw materials up or we do not pollute our natural waters irreversibly in the course of producing and consuming.
Like sustainability itself, the interpretation and practical implementation of the definition also has led to non-agreement and debates among experts. The main reason behind is the general character of the UN definition, i.e. the definition itself is too general and leaves considerable space for setting the exact objectives and tools. For many environmentalists sustainable development for example is a kind of oxymoron (contradiction by itself) since there is no development without having effects on the environment. They believe that the economy is a subsystem of human society, while the latter is a subsystem of biosphere (the sphere of life). The cooperation of the two can be regarded as a kind of zero-sum game where gains realized by the one will be lost by the other, while the overuse of any components of the ecosystem (biological environment of organisms including their place of living) would have a drastic effect on the whole ecological system.
On the other hand, a number of environmentalists believe that the essence of sustainability is to exploit win-win possibilities and to find and make use of the tools and solutions that are to the advantage for both the society and the environment, and that help us to live in harmony with the environment after decades as well. In this approach sustainability is an elusive phenomenon. On the one hand, we expect it to be scientific but, on the other hand, sustainability itself calls for activity – in most cases to change our habits –, thus its practical role is determinant as well. As a consequence, independently of the interpretation of the objectives and tasks and to make it very simple, sustainability includes all the notions and activities that make our future life on Earth to be very similar to that of today. However I believe that this definition should be regarded as a kind of minimalist approach as globally – regarding certain areas or group of people – the current situation can be improved as well. Though – taking account of the current economical and social trends – maintaining the current level seems even to be an excessive objective…
Though for many people sustainability may equal to environmental protection, the idea of sustainability cannot be limited solely for environmental issues. In practice sustainable future can be realized only by harmonizing economical, social and environmental interests. These three pillars of sustainability – economy, society and environment – include the following topics and challenges, which at the same time are the focus areas of the issue. (It should be noted however that the below list reflects a subjective judgment, but there exist other grouping possibilities and topics depending on individual values and temperament.)
Environment, i.e. ‘attention’ (environmental responsibility):
- Environmental awareness, environment-ethical behavior, protection of our environment including aspects of climate change and conscious consumption as well;
- Maintaining biodiversity, i.e. protection of flora and fauna;
- Sustainable use of natural resources, economical use and spreading of renewable energies.
Social dimension, i.e. ‘acceptance’ (social responsibility):
- Sustainable society: handling health and feeding problems, as well as problems deriving from overpopulation and ageing societies;
- Social justice, equality and differences;
- Social diversity, solidarity, peaceful living together.
Economical dimension, i.e. ‘responsible company’ approach:
- Fair and transparent operation, „fair trade”;
- Decrease of environmental burden, e.g. minimizing CO2 emission and paperless office;
- Humancentric approach both in case of colleagues and customers;
- Importance of social roles.