"Sustainability," shorthand for "sustainable development," has become a guiding principle of public policy. One of its most widely used definitions is "Improving the quality of life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems." Another is "Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."*
The concept of sustainable development originated in the 1970s in the international environment and development communities. In the United States, the concept is generally not well understood. In some quarters, it has even been twisted into "sustainable growth," an oxymoron. One reason for this misunderstanding has to do with different meanings of the word "development": In the international arena, the word relates to improving the quality of life in poorer, "developing," countries. In the United States, "development" often brings up visions of bulldozers.
In the mid-1990s, the Institute, then called the California Institute of Public Affairs, conducted two projects on sustainability under the auspices of IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
One project aimed at removing the ambiguity surrounding sustainability and looked at how the concept could be put into practice. It included an international workshop in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and resulted in a seventeen-author book, A Sustainable World: Defining and measuring sustainable development (CIPA/IUCN/Earthscan, 1995). Choice (American Library Association) said the book "should be read by anyone interested in the future of the world’s human/economic/environmental interactions." Lynton Keith Caldwell, then the dean of environmental policy scholars, wrote in Environmental Conservation that "This book provides perhaps the most coherent answer we have yet had to clarifying the concept of sustainability.”
The other project explored how the sustainability ethic could be built into the policy process. See Raising Annoying Questions: Why Values Should Be Built into Decision-making in this website.
Sustainability requires an integrated approach to policy-making that brings together political, social, cultural, economic, and ecological dimensions of public problems, an approach the Institute started using and promoting long before the term "sustainable development" gained currency.
InterEnvironment Institute has a strong interest in how the idea of sustainability can be translated into practice. Several examples of the Institute's work along these lines are described elsewhere in this website.
In addition, two of the Institute's Senior Fellows have produced books built on the idea of sustainability. The late Lamont (Monty) C. Hempel of the University of Redlands wrote Environmental Governance: The global challenge (Island Press, 1996). Daniel A. Mazmanian of the University of Southern California edited Toward Sustainable Communities: Transition and transformation in environmental policy (with Michael E. Kraft, MIT Press, 1999).
*The first definition comes from the World Conservation Strategy (IUCN / United Nations Environment Programme / World Wide Fund for Nature, 1980) and the follow-up document, Caring for the Earth: A strategy for sustainable living (IUCN/UNEP/WWF, 1991). The second definition comes from Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report (Oxford University Press for the World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987).