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It’s time to redefine sustainability

It’s time we should be able to explain sustainability to a 5-year-old — in five words or less.



It’s time we should be able to explain sustainability to a 5-year-old — in five words or less.

There really aren’t many simple definitions of sustainability. This matters because if we want more people to contribute to a sustainable future, they would first need to know what to do, what the goal is. As expressed by social and environmental leaders recently, people need to become their own problem solvers — and doers — in their communities. Outside-in, top-down solutions alone won’t do it.

Therefore, wouldn’t it be more effective if people could just glance at a good definition of sustainability, easily retain it in memory and know exactly what to do from there?

Any definition first needs to clearly explain its target word. A very short definition runs the risk of not containing enough words to meet that goal. But what if we could distill the essence of a target word so that a few keywords containing enough meaning could accomplish both goals?

Wouldn’t it be more effective if people could just glance at a good definition of sustainability, easily retain it in memory and know exactly what to do from there?

Upon hearing any new statement, our short-term memory gets triggered first. As Christopher Poppas stated, this area temporarily stores information, but can only hold up to seven "items" at a time, for roughly 10 to 60 seconds. For this information to enter your long-term memory, however, your brain filters through it and only keeps the key points.

Therefore, the shorter definition will stay with you longer, because your brain doesn’t have to filter out information because every word within a small definition counts.

Existing definitions

Let’s begin with the most well-known definition of sustainability, from the Brundtland report:

"Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs […] Sustainable development requires meeting the basic needs of all and extending to all the opportunity to fulfill their aspirations for a better life."

Although comprehensive, this definition is too long, even for sustainability professionals to try to recite. I looked at over 70 of the top schools, corporations and organizations in hopes of finding shorter but equally comprehensive definitions. Unfortunately, some definitions were too complex; others, not comprehensive enough. For example:

  • Only 42.7 percent of the definitions mention "people" and "coexist." Fewer, 22.7 percent, discussed our planet, resources and nature. And only 13.6 percent of the definitions included words such as "future," "permanent" or "forever."
  • But nearly no definition explained what people should actually be caring about in terms of sustainability. Only 6.4 percent of the definitions used the word "fulfillment" while 8.2 percent discusses "meeting needs."

Fortunately, when we consider all these definitions in aggregate, we can see three essential themes:

  • we want to include everyone;
  • we want to enable people to lead the fulfilling lives they want; and
  • we also want to enable future generations to do the same.

The Brundtland definition above includes all three themes. So, if most of the other definitions do not include all three themes, or they do, but not in significantly fewer words, why are they useful? They do not offer anything new nor are they more effective at delivering the same message.

To be transparent, I did find a few short definitions, but here is why they don’t work:

  • "People, profit, planet" is a definition by John Elkington and was very powerful and useful when it first came out, partly because of its alliteration and partly because it does seem to allude to the essential elements of sustainability. However, it is open-ended; you still have to explain to your audience what each word means.
  • "Healthy people, healthy planet" has a few problems. For one, is "being healthy" equivalent to "leading a fulfilling life"?
  • "Enough for all (or "for everyone") forever" is the closest definition we found to adequately and simply define sustainability. It implies that people have needs to meet, that everyone should have access to resources and that these resources must be maintained. But the word "enough" is limiting. Having "enough" may not lead everyone to a fulfilled life.

If mankind is to reach a truly sustained level of prosperity, we must recognize that fulfillment is a key goal to accomplish. Life is not only about meeting material needs but also about pursuing joys and aspirations.

Redefining sustainability

Just how much yet another definition will help? Be the judge yourself:

"Fulfillment… For everyone… Forever"

These 4 words ("The Three Fs") contain all three essential elements and are very easy to remember:

  • Fulfillment: everyone should feel confident to live the lives they dream of, not just aim for sustenance
  • For everyone: all of mankind is included; no one should be left behind
  • Forever: expresses the desired endless continuation of this world and encourages everyone to treat it — and each other — the best possible way to ensure future generations can enjoy life, too

And this definition is actionable — you can begin acting on sustainability by contributing anything you can on any of the three dimensions:

You could focus on leading a truly better life.

You could help your current and future loved ones do the same.

Or, you could help ensure we better (re)use resources to enable the above.

That’s it. You don’t need to be an expert. Anything that you do, to fulfill yourself and everyone else, forever, helps.

The next step

Now that you have an easy and actionable definition, ask yourself:

  • What’s keeping people from living more fulfilling lives?
  • Why don’t we have full inclusion throughout everything?
  • When will we start acting on forever instead of just the near term?

Additional research will show that we need to bring about three things: empowerment; empathy; and embracing — "The Three Es."

By using each of these words as actionable verbs (empower, empathize, embrace), we can begin to evolve the current socioeconomic system at a faster rate into one that finally delivers fulfillment, for everyone, forever — for certain.

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