Thinking About Sustainability

President's Environmental Sustainability Council


Since the PESC is charged with "developing and implementing environmental stewardship and sustainability principles and practices across the College", it important to think about what environmental stewardship and sustainability mean. As the following information suggests, however, there are varied and sometimes competing ideas about environmental sustainability. Fortunately, there are many aspects of sustainability where there is a broad understanding of what principles and practices we should follow, and the PESC will be pursuing those without waiting for the ultimate definition of environmental sustainability. None-the-less, the varied perspectives on environmental sustainability can guide and shape what we do in a beneficial way. Here is some background to help the Gustavus community consider aspects of environmental sustainability.


The most frequently cited explanation of what sustainaiblity is comes from the 1987 UN report, Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development:

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Within that definition are two ideas that capture the essence of sustainability, but also many of the challenges of implementing sustainability:

  1. We have essential needs in the present and the future that must be met.
  2. The implication that the needs of the future are justification for limiting actions in the present.

From these two ideas come both the promise of sustainability-a framework for shaping action for the greater good-and the challenge of defining that action.


The definition of needs leads, of course, to discussions of economic, political, and social systems; and debates about the adequacy or inadequacy our current frameworks to define needs and meet them. Indeed, the term "sustainable development" in the definition is not only a nod to the inherent dynamism of social, political and economic systems, but also comfort to those fearful that the definition disregards current systems.

A common graphical definition of sustainability acknowledges these issues and attempts to balance these various perspectives:

Sustainability diagram


This presentaton outlines some ways to think about applying these perspectives in day to day activities for both individuals and organizations.