Among the published formal statements of the conditions for sustainability, two are notable for their clarity and urgency:


The first is from The Natural Step, which argues that the services provided by the natural world, and on which human society depends are:

1. The provision of the resources we need;

2. Absorption and recycling of wastes, making them available for reuse; and

3. Maintenance of ecological services such as a benign climate and pollination.

In order to sustain those conditions in good order, a further set of conditions must be met:

1. Minerals (including fuels) must not be extracted from the Earth’s crust without effective provision to supply substitutes when they are depleted.

2. Waste must not be produced which nature cannot quickly break down into harmless forms, or in quantities which cannot be absorbed or broken down.

3. Natural capital such as forests, soil and fisheries must not be degraded.

4. The assets of nature are used with fairness and efficiency, enabling the needs of all to be met.S136


The second statement of sustainability is in the form of Richard Heinberg’s “Five Axioms of Sustainability”:

1. Tainter’s Axiom: Any action that continues to use critical resources unsustainably will collapse.

2. Bartlett’s Axiom: Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.

3. To be sustainable, the use of renewable resources must proceed at a rate that is less than or equal to the rate of natural replenishment.

4. To be sustainable, the use of non-renewable resources must proceed at a rate that is declining and the rate of decline must be greater than or equal to the rate of depletion (see Depletion Protocol).

5. Sustainability requires that substances introduced into the environment from human activities be minimised and rendered harmless to biosphere functions.S137


Sustainability is not the same thing as sustainable development.

Sustainability consists of meeting a set of conditions; sustainable development is an aim.S138


Related entries:

Wheel of Life, Closed-Loop Systems, Natural Step.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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