What is truly sustainable?

What I always notice when we talk about sustainability is that some of it is not sustainable. Therefore, I try more and more to use the term regenerative.

My objective in this article is to study the history of the terms sustainable and sustainability, as well as the various definitions published thereby offering a set of five axioms to help clarify the characteristics of a sustainable society.

"That which can be maintained over time" is the essence of the term sustainable. This implies that no long can be maintained and will cease operating in any society or aspect of a society that is unsustainable.

It is likely that no society can be preserved forever: astronomers assure us that the Sun will have boiled away in several billions of years, and life on our planet will be finished. There is a great book called “After Collapse”. Sustainability is therefore a relative term. The lengths of previous civilisation, from several hundred to several thousand years, seem to be a temporal frame of reference. A sustainable/ regenerative society would therefore be able to remain in the future for several centuries.

In recent years, however, the word "sustainable" is often used only generally and vaguely to refer to practices that are considered more environmentally sound than others. The word is often used so unscrupulously that environmentalists and others advise that it no longer be used. However, I believe that the concept of sustainability, if we are to make some effort to define it clearly, is essential to understanding and solving our species' environmental dilemma. The only question is whether we haven't already corrupted the word and therefore need to form a stronger narrative.

How did the word come into being?

In fact, many indigenous people's viewpoints and traditions have incorporated the basic concept of sustainability; the heads consider the impact of their decisions on the seventh generation.

In 1712 German forester and scientist Hannss Carl von Carlowitz conducted the first well-known European sustainable use in the book Sylvicultura Oeconomica. Later, French and English foresters adopted trees as a way of 'sustainable forestry yields.'

Later, the Swede Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt had formulated a series of paraphrases for a sustainable society. It goes like this:

  1. Nature's functions and diversity are not subject to increasing levels of substances extracted from the crust of the Earth to make a society sustainable.

  2. Nature's functions and diversity will not be systematically subject to an increasing amount of substances manufactured by society in order to be sustainable in society.

  3. Natural functions and diversity are not systematically impoverished by physical removal, over-harvesting or other forms of manipulation of ecosystems so that a society may be sustainable.

  4. People are not systematically undermining their ability to meet their needs in a sustainable society.

Five self-evident truths of sustainability

I have tried to find points for myself that best define sustainability or regenerative to find out for projects or topics if it is something that is still relevant for a future in 100 years. I have formulated five self-evident truths of sustainability as a contribution to this continuous refinement of the concept. I have not introduced new notions to any of the axioms in essence; my objective is simply to distill and put in more precise and easier to understand ideas that have been proposed and explored by others.

I had the following criteria:

A statement must be able to be tested with the methodology of science to qualify;

Overall, there must be a minimum (no redundancies) of truths to define sustainability;

They must, at the same time, be sufficient, leaving no glaring breakthroughs and layers should be formulated.


Any society that continues to use critical resources in an unsustainable manner will collapse.

Exception: A society can avoid collapse by finding regenerative substitute resources.

The exception has a limit: In a finite world, the number of possible substitute resources is also finite.

A society that uses resources sustainably may collapse for reasons beyond its control (for example, as a result of an overwhelming natural disaster or conquest by another, more militarily formidable and aggressive society, to name just two possibilities), so it cannot be said that a sustainable society is immune to collapse unless many more conditions for sustainability are met. First argument focuses on resource consumption because it is an important, quantifiable, and, in theory, controllable determinant of a society's long-term survival.


Population growth and/or increases in resource consumption rates cannot be sustained.

For many decades, the world's human population has been increasing, and this trend has clearly continued to the present. How can we be certain that it cannot be sustained indefinitely? Simple arithmetic can be used to demonstrate that even small rates of growth, if sustained, add up to absurdly large—and clearly unsustainable—population sizes and consumption rates.


To be sustainable, renewable resource use must occur at a rate less than or equal to the rate of natural replenishment.

Renewable resources are finite. Forests can be over-cut, resulting in barren landscapes and a lack of wood (as happened in many parts of Europe in previous centuries), and fish can be over-harvested, leading to the extinction or near-extinction of many species (as is occurring today globally).


To be sustainable, the use of nonrenewable resources must be declining at a rate greater than or equal to the rate of depletion.

The rate of depletion is defined as the amount extracted and used in a given time interval (usually a year) expressed as a percentage of the amount left to extract.

There is no such thing as a sustainable rate of use for any nonrenewable resource. However, if the rate of use declines at a rate greater than or equal to the rate of depletion, the society's reliance on the resource will be reduced to insignificance before the resource is exhausted.


Sustainability necessitates the reduction of substances introduced into the environment as a result of human activities and their rendering harmless to biosphere functions.

In cases where pollution from the extraction and consumption of nonrenewable resources has been increasing at an increasing rate for some time and threatens the viability of ecosystems, the rate of extraction and consumption of those resources may need to be reduced at a rate greater than the rate of depletion.

Pollution should be reduced if explanations 2 through 4 are followed. Nonetheless, these conditions are not always sufficient to avert potentially collapse-inducing impacts.

It is possible for a society to cause serious pollution by wasting renewable resources (the use of toxins in agriculture polluted streams for decades), and such consequences must be avoided. Similarly, especially in densely populated areas, biological wastes from humans can cause serious environmental problems; such wastes must be properly composted.

However, in the present situation, where the extraction and consumption of non-renewable resources have been increasing for some time, leading to levels of pollution that threaten the basic functions of the biosphere, heroic measures are required. This is true, of course, for greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, especially as a result of the use of the non-renewable resource coal and soon rare metals used for solar panels and batteries; it is also true for the hormone-like petrochemical pollution that inhibits the reproduction of many vertebrate species. To begin with, simply reducing coal consumption by the global coal depletion rate would not suffice to avert a climatic catastrophe. The rate of coal depletion is slow, but the climate impacts of coal combustion emissions are increasing rapidly, and annual reductions in those emissions must occur at a rapid pace if ecosystem-threatening consequences are to be avoided. Similarly, in the case of petrochemical pollution, simply reducing the dispersion of plastics and other petrochemicals into the environment by the annual rate of depletion of oil and natural gas would not suffice to avert environmental harms on a large enough scale to threaten ecosystems and human societies. If a reduction in emissions or other pollutants can be obtained without a reduction in consumption of non-renewable resources, such as by using technological means to capture polluting substances and sequester them harmlessly, or by limiting the production of certain industrial chemicals, then a reduction in consumption of such resources need only occur at the rate of depletion in o However, society should be extremely skeptical and cautious of claims that untested technologies can safely sequester polluting substances for extremely long periods of time.

Will local, national, and international leaders ever formulate public policy based on these five assumptions? Clearly, policies requiring an end to population growth—and possibly even a population decline—as well as a reduction in resource consumption would be unpopular, unless the general populace could be persuaded of the importance of making its activities sustainable. However, if leaders do not begin to follow those points, society as a whole, or at least some aspects of it, will undoubtedly collapse. Perhaps this is enough motivation to overcome the psychological and political barriers that would otherwise stymie efforts toward true sustainability.