This chapter will provide the reader with a background in sustainability and its numerous definitions. It also will talk about the history of sustainability, and when that term first started being used. It goes in depth into the “pillars” of sustainability and what each of those means. Finally, it will talk about what a Grand Challenge is and give some examples. This chapter will allow the reader to continue reading this paper and allow them to understand the topics being presented.



Sustainability is a complex subject with many different definitions. To many, it can be as simple as using and reusing resources in an effective way. The UN World Commission on Environment and Development defines it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The problem with many of these definitions though is that they do not include all aspects of sustainability, and most importantly the 3 pillars of sustainability.

The three pillars are Environmental Sustainability, Social Sustainability, and Economic Sustainability. Environmental sustainability focuses on the health of the earth, how do we best preserve our environment. Social sustainability focuses on making life equitable and fair for all, highlighting social justice and differences between socioeconomic groups. Economic sustainability aims to balance long-term economic growth with the environmental and social pillars. These pillars are interrelated as well, and many issues can be categorized into more than one category. By breaking up sustainability into three sections, or pillars, we can better understand how to tackle sustainability issues. Sustainability issues are very complex in nature, as they encompass many different disciplines and can have different effects on different individuals. They often don’t have a clear solution, or are so broad they can’t exactly be defined. The solutions may not always work for everyone as well, so it is important for individuals to work together to find equitable solutions.


Three Pillars of Sustainability

Social sustainability

Social is a human aspect of the three pillars of sustainability. Social sustainability looks at how humans interact together and how they approach sustainability issues. There are four aspects that contribute to social well-being in society.

Equity in Quality of Life:

Equity refers to everyone having equal opportunities no matter their demographic and a fair distribution of resources whether it be within a country or between countries. In an equitable society, the government is able to provide welfare goods and protection for the community they are governing. When moving towards creating equity in a community having access to education, clean water, healthcare and other welfare goods are necessary. Protection against discrimination is vital for a society to be considered equitable because it goes along the guidelines of fair and equal treatment for all citizens.

Participation in Governance:

Participation includes different groups of stakeholders coming together to form solutions and make decisions that instigate policy and affect citizens lives. Governance helps an institution implement strategies, maintain goals and improve relationships between stakeholders. Outcomes of participation are most successful when a diverse range of people and the government come together to solve a problem. Government relies on their citizens input when creating policy. Policy that comes out of participation is seen as more viable by the community that the decision is affecting. Power imbalances between participants must be noted because it can influence outcomes and may not take all participators thoughts and ideas into account during the decision-making process.

Social Cohesion:

Social cohesion consists of citizens forming social ties based off of the belief that they share a moral community which allows them to trust each other and remain integrated. Social integration allows for the creation of cohesion in a community. Trust, an indicator of social cohesion, shared between citizens is a resource that helps communities overcome basic problems. Social cohesion is a non-material phenomenon so it can be difficult to measure if integration and trust are taking place in a community. Social cohesion can strengthen citizen’s pride, creates better networking and allows people to feel more safe in their community.

Education and Awareness:

Educating communities on sustainability issues is the first step to awareness. This could include educational programs, community events, labeling on products and pamphlets. Formal education is curriculum taught in schools. Informal education can be conveyed through public meetings, pamphlets or formatting scientific studies so that non-scientists can understand the information. It is important for a community with little to no sustainability background to understand information so it needs to be formatted in a way that everyone can understand. During decision-making processes it is important that all stakeholders have access to available information. The main goals of these outreach methods are focused on spreading knowledge about sustainability challenges and solutions.


Environmental Sustainability

An ecosystem is a community in which there is a network of biotic factors interacting with abiotic factors. Ecosystems are complex and can be susceptible to human interaction or the introduction of a new species. The type of ecosystem is determined by a number of factors based off of geographical position. These factors could include average temperature, average annual precipitation, how much sunlight the area receives,  energy flow occurs in ecosystems through the passing of energy from trophic levels. Primary producers at the first trophic level take energy from sunlight and nutrients from soil courtesy of decomposers. Primary producers are then consumed by primary consumers at the second trophic level. Secondary consumers obtain energy from eating primary consumers and so on until the top of the food pyramid is reached.

As energy moves up the trophic levels, more of it escapes so there is less energy at the fourth trophic level than at the first trophic level.

Ecosystem populations of organisms preserve health when the carrying capacity of the ecosystem is maintained. Biogeochemical cycling is the process of elements getting cycled through an ecosystem. The most important cycles consist of water, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. Human activity has had negative impacts on biogeochemical cycles. For instance, humans have accelerated the nitrogen cycle by adding reactive nitrogen compounds to the atmosphere. When there are negative impacts on Earth systems our environment becomes less resilient to problems like loss of biodiversity and climate change.

Ecosystem services are the resources we receive from our ecosystems. For instance, clean air, water, nutrient cycling and spiritual benefits. We also receive energy resources from Earth that are renewable and non-renewable. Non-renewable resources include coal, oil and natural gas that will inevitably run out at the rate in which they are being consumed. These non-renewable resources also contribute a considerate amount to climate change as they release greenhouse gases into the air. Renewable energy includes things like sun and wind that will always be able to provide energy based on the geographical location and are considered to be green energy.


Economic Sustainability

The third pillar of sustainability is economic sustainability. Economic sustainability is the practice of responsible economic growth in the long-term, that does not negatively affect social and environmental pillars. One of the largest drivers of change is economics, and in the past, society has been focused on economic growth without necessarily understanding the externalities of it. Economic sustainability is not well defined, and can be understood in two main threads. The first thread concerns economic development in the “Global South”. The main focus of the “Global North” were efforts in environmental protection in sustainability, as these nations are typically more developed and economically better off. Nations in the “South” are not as developed, and focused more on economic development. This model focused on improving the well-being of the people in these nations, while protecting and using natural resources efficiently. The second thread has to do with a shift from linear economies to circular economies. Circular economies emphasize the reuse of products. In a circular economy, products will be manufactured in such a way that can be reused, or upcycled at the end of their lifespan. This type of economy requires a major shift in product design and production, but will be more sustainable in the long run.


Economic Growth

The most common measure of economic growth is by using Gross Domestic Product (GDP). GDP is defined as the total value of goods produced and services provided in a country during one year. However, it is not a good representation of economic well being. GDP falls short in identifying externalities, and does not represent progress or well-being, especially in middle and lower socioeconomic scenarios. Instead, the United Nations uses the Human Development Index (HDI), which also takes into account health and longevity, knowledge, and income. Another measure of economic growth is the Genuine Progress Indicator, which also factors in consumption, income inequality, underemployment, pollution, habitat loss, value of household services, costs of crime, costs of accidents. GPI helps highlight that economic growth does not just rely on goods and services, but rather a collection of complex factors.


Economic Growth v. Sustainable Development

Economic growth is defined as the increase in the quantity of economic activity (spending, production, etc.). Sustainable development is defined as the increase in quality of life or environment well-being, and is not dependent on economic growth. It is also essential in many areas, where people cannot meet basic needs. Economic sustainability tries to find a balance between these two. Some ways to encourage sustainable development and economic sustainability include to promote and support sustainable business practices and models, and to buy products that support environmental and social sustainability. Another way is to encourage lawmakers to pass policies and regulations that protect our natural environment while promoting economic growth.


History of Sustainability


Each pillar of sustainability: environmental, economic, and social, originated as its own movement often running parallel to each other but never interacting or collaborating. Only within recent history have the three different sectors started to work together, and they all come together under the concept of sustainability. In order to understand the present-day meaning of the word sustainability it’s important to look at the history behind the development of each pillar and ultimately the concept of sustainability itself.


The Environmental Movement

Although individuals have been concerned with the degradation of their surrounding environment for thousands of years the modern-day environmental movement as we understand it today began in the 19th century with the poets and writers of the American Transcendentalist movement. Writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau promoted the idea that humans experience a better life when surrounded by nature. By the early 20th century, the US environmental movement had split into two groups, conservationists and preservationists, with differing opinions on the motivation for protecting nature. Conservationists, like the first head of the US Forest Service Gifford Pinchot, believed that nature should be used for human benefit as long as human activity is regulated to prevent serious degradation. Preservationists like naturalist and Sierra Club co-founder John Muir, thought that nature should be preserved due to its own inherent value. Regardless of the specifics about environmental protection, by the 1960s a greater public environmental awareness emerged. This was sparked in part by Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring which increased concern about the impact of pesticide use on the environment. As a response to their concerns, the public staged protests and forced debates about the negative impact of technology that hadn’t been considered before. This led to the creation of the US Environmental Protections Agency, as well as the federal ban on the pesticide DDT. Other major US laws that were passed during this time period include the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.


The Economic Movement

A global history of colonialism left many countries that had been stripped of their natural resources struggling to ensure their people had access to basic resources required for survival and human well-being. For decades, there was a lack of concern for developing countries needs because many people believed that natural human progress would improve everyone’s well-being as global society modernized through advancements in technology and continued economic growth. In the 1950s two frames of thought emerged to attempt to provide a solution for the gaps in economic equality between developing and developed countries. The first is modernization theory which argues that developing countries should imitate the development model of industrialized countries by opening up their domestic markets to the global market, allowing wealth to trickle down to poorer countries and alleviate poverty. The second theory is dependency theory which claims that the solution to alleviating poverty is for these countries to become independent and self-reliant by closing their markets to the world and transferring market control to their governments, thereby preventing the pattern of colonialization from repeating itself. Both of theories at the time relied on gross domestic product (GDP) to measure the economic success of developing countries. However, in the 1990s criticisms of GDP emerged, with many saying it only measured economic growth which is not a true measure of poverty or well-being. With these criticisms came the development of other metrics used to measure true economic growth. These include the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) and the Human Development Index (HDI) which both measure more holistic economic well-being. A shift towards caring more about economic well-being than economic growth fostered the growing movement of business systems trying to employ a circular economy to encourage profits while recycling and reusing their resources. An example of one of these systems is Certified B Corps which consists of over 3,000 businesses who aim to balance purpose with profit who are legally required to measure their business’s environmental, economic, and social impact.



The Social Movement

The social pillar of sustainability is largely concerned with social equity which is equal opportunity for all through fair access to education, democratic participation, and other resources. The social equity movement became relevant with the citizen movements of the 1960s and 70s. The most well-known being the civil rights movement which used civil disobedience and protests to improve legal protections for African Americans. Another example of the mobilization of the people is the United Farm Workers movement where Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta mobilized Hispanic California field workers into this labor union. They used worker protests and consumer boycotts to advocate for safer working conditions and better pay. The Environmental Justice movement emerged during the civil rights movement in the United States. Environmental Justice activists were concerned about how power and privilege lead to unequal access to environmental resources, like clean water, and unequal exposure to pollution. It was through this increased awareness and protest of inequalities that people began to demand equity for all and participation for all in governance and decision making.



Global Sustainability Movement

Increasing global concerns in the environmental, economic, and social movements led to global action. While the histories of the above movements are US centric, each country has its own in-depth history of sustainability. All of these histories come together on the international scale to provide more global sustainable action. The first international sustainability meeting was the United Nations (UN) Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972 where environmentalists joined together with economic development advocates to alleviate poverty. As a result of this alliance, several organizations formed, like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), to align development needs with environmental issues. The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) was formed and it published on of the most important reports in sustainability called Our Common Future also referred to as The Brundtland Report which defined sustainability for people worldwide as development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the needs of future generations. This report led to the UN holding several conferences over the next few years aimed at global sustainability. These meetings produced the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) which were eight international development goals, like to promote gender equality and empower women, with the goal of greatly improving all eight by 2015. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) followed the MDGs and were developed by the UN to be more comprehensive than the MDGs, with an emphasis on the collaboration of all three sectors within sustainability. The UN publishes an annual report on the current status of the SDGs and areas that could be improved with the aim of creating clarity on complicated issues and encouraging more action.


Sustainability Grand Challenges

Sustainability grand challenges, sometimes also called wicked problems, are issues that can be difficult to solve due to incomplete, contradictory, and morphing conditions that often can be complicated to recognize. Unlike other challenges in our lives, such as preparing for a final exam or changing a tire on your car, grand challenges can not be solved with one single solution. They require multiple perspectives and methods to achieve success due to the complex nature of the problem. Grand challenges can also be defined by the following characteristics:

  • No definitive formula or template
  • Hard to measure success due being nonlinear and existing within multiple regimes
  • Solutions to wicked problems are good or bad, not true or false
  • Always more than one solution
  • All wicked problems are unique
  • Wicked problems require systems thinking to discover solution

When looking at tackling grand challenges, we have to take a systems thinking approach to help us avoid making decisions that are helpful in the short term, but can be problematic in the long run. One concept of systems thinking is that we are a part of social-ecological systems and changes that we make to one part of the system can have an effect on another. An example of this concept can be seen with our production of greenhouse gas.  As we continue to produce more CO2, this has an effect on how our oceans thrive and the viability of marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs. Without coral reefs, this can cause more wave action along the shore and allow more tropical storms to hit our coasts harder, resulting in a greater potential harm to people. By recognizing that we are a part of systems thinking, we can see that each response has a feedback that can be seen throughout the whole social-ecological system, rather than focusing on one part of the system separately.

Grand Challenge #1: Climate Change

One grand challenge we can recognize is climate change. Climate change is the most pressing challenge that is facing our current generation. Not only is it causing damage to ecosystems across the planet by decreasing the biodiversity of species, changing the timing of seasonal life cycle events (migration, blooming, reproduction), and shifting the ranges at which species can thrive, it is also causing social and economic difficulties. Cities along coasts are experiencing increased flooding due to sea level rise, as well as increase in the amount of severe weather events, causing risk to human life. Other locations experience prolonged periods of high temperatures that bring drought, large wildfires, and longer fire seasons that will force communities to relocate. Certain municipalities without adequate access to resources and infrastructure will find themselves stranded, creating an unequal capacity for adaptation and a decrease in social well being. Similarly, our economy will experience some strain due to damage to agriculture, marine fisheries, and forestry. Consider all these factors and many others not mentioned, it is extremely challenging to work toward solutions because there is no definitive formula to solve climate change, solutions that might work in one location will not be transferable to another, and the necessary approach of systematic thinking when tackling the issue. It is key to remember that no one solution will be able to solve this challenge.

Photo credit: https://climate.nasa.gov/effects/




Grand Challenge #2: Poverty

Another grand challenge we face is caused by the large gap of monetary income between the rich and poor. While the rich continue to get richer, the poor continue to get poorer and head deeper into poverty. Due to labor markets experiencing unparalleled changes driven by globalization and new technical advances, workers who do not have the proper education are being forced into situations where they do not have any marketable skills and left with either a poverty level wage or unemployed. This gap has caused fairness, justice, and basic human rights to be undermined within many societies while also robbing society from achieving the fullest productivity and efficiency possible. Poverty also caused environmental issues such as overexploitation of natural resources and increased deforestation to meet the demands of people in needPoverty is a grand challenge due the issue being complex, unpredictable, and unique. There is no set formula to solve poverty and there is more than one solutions that can be used to help combat the issue.


Grand Challenge #3: Environmental Injustice

We can also find another grand challenge within the way we see urban development of some municipalities. When looking to establish a location that will serve as a dumping ground for pollutants, some governments will seek areas that are near people who are from a different race, lower income level, and/or lack of an English language proficiency. This injustice does not allow for those facing the dumping of toxins to have a voice in whether the dumping ground should be placed within their community, encourages the continuation of institutionalized racism, and takes advantage of the lack of money or power individuals of low economic value have. Environmental injustice is a grand challenge because the solution the issue, is either good or bad, not true or false. Any decision made needs to require a systems thinking approach to recognize that one change within the system will have effects on of components of the structure. Environment injustice is also hard to measure due to the being nonlinear and existing at multiple regimes.


Sustainability Development Goals:

One way we have collaborated to make us more aware and actively work toward finding solutions to our grand challenges has been the international effort from the United Nations. In 2015, the United Nations created the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the SDGs. By following these goals, the United Nations members are committing to creation development that incorporates a balance of social, economic, and environmental sustainability and making sure that no one is left behind as we transition into this new way of life.  The SDGs are considered by the United Nations to be a global plan to building a better world for people and the planet by the year 2030. The goals are helpful because it gives countries a frame of mind for where they should focus their efforts with the assistance of integrated solutions from the United Nations. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals are as follows:

  1. No Poverty               10. Reduced Inequalities
  2. Zero Hunger              11. Sustainable Cities and Communities
  3. Good Health and Well-being                12. Responsible Consumption and Production
  4. Quality Education               13. Climate Action
  5. Gender Equality                14. Life below Water
  6. Clean Water and Sanitation               15. Life on Land
  7. Affordable and Clean Energy               16. Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions
  8. Decent Work and Economic Growth 17. Partnership for the Goals
  9. Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure


By having members of the United Nations use the Sustainable Development Goals, not only are countries setting a precedent for the direction society should currently be heading in, but they are constructing a planet that will be better for future generations to use. Members of the UN are not the only ones who should be following these goals. If governments, private sectors, NGOs, and citizens all stepped forward to accept these ambitious goals, a new era of safer and sustainability humanity would endure.


Chapter Summary

         Sustainability is a complex, ever-evolving topic that touches each and everyone of us. It also can mean very different things to different individuals involved in the process, and does not have one single definition. The definition of sustainability must however relate to the three pillars of sustainability, Environmental, Social, and Economic. Environmental sustainability relates to how humans are changing ecosystems and affecting our climate. Social sustainability is one of the harder ones to define, and talks about equity among individuals, social cohesion, and the importance of participation in governance in sustainability. Finally, economic sustainability is the practice of responsible economic growth in the long-term, that does not affect social and environmental pillars.  Most sustainability issues will relate to each pillar on some level. We call these issues grand challenges, as they are complex, don’t have a clear solution, and often take collaboration across many disciplines and multiple perspectives to address.


Chapter Questions

  1. What are the three pillars of sustainability? Define them.
  2. What is the goal of sustainability education and awareness?
  3. How is climate change a grand challenge? Explain.
  4. Can you think of another grand challenge that affects you?




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