How do you define Sustainable Development?

Part of a series on Concepts and Terminology in and for ESD. This time “Sustainable Development”.

Music suggestion while reading this text:
Spiegel im Spiegel with Arvo Pärt, Angèle Dubeau and La Pietà — can be found here:

Figurative image of people colored by nation flags.
Many voices want to define Sustainable Development. What does your voice say? Join the conversation and comment.

Defining a concept to fit a local linguistic or cultural cluster can be a challenge itself. Even more daunting is the task to define ideas and concepts to fit global consensus. Perhaps even impossible. After all, there are as many opinions as there are people. And more so, people have a tendency to change opinion with time and space.

In 1987, the Brundtland report faced the task head-on formulating a foundational dialogue about how Sustainable Development can be understood. It established a framework on the basis that development is sustainable when it accommodates the needs of both current and future generations (WCED, 1987). These are famous, often cited and easily claimed normative thoughts in academic fields related to Sustainability.

Sustainable development has furthermore been conceptualized to guide policies globally towards balance in social, ecological and economic circumstances (Seghezzo, 2009). These three dimensions are often referred to as the “triangle” of sustainability, also referred to as People, Planet, and Profit/Prosperity (European Commission, 2002) and their implications — at least in mainstream media — are often referred to as the most important dimensions. As this blog-publication will surely elucidate in the future, this has been and can be debated endlessly. For example, from a more systemic perspective, as put forward by the first GEM report (UNESCO, 2016), education also carries strong arguments for being one of the most important dimensions, in such a way that education leads to greater knowledge and practical sustainable outcomes for all dimensions of sustainability.

Climate change is in any case undoubtedly the direst issue reflecting both on the present and future well-being of Earth’s inhabitants. “[T]he planetary stability our species has enjoyed […] can no longer be relied upon ( WWF, 2016, p. 5)” — and with no habitable Earth, there will be no life as we know it. However, focusing directly and solely on climate change is unlikely to be the best solution. Accommodating a sustainable world, now and tomorrow, a holistic approach is necessary. The 2015 Paris Agreement and the instigation of the SDGs are commendable examples, with a clear presentation and explanations presented online (, of how different SDGs are to be interdependent, proving that no dimension of sustainability should be approached isolated, but rather with the mindset that they all relate and affect each other.

While the SDGs offer great material, we still need to evaluate our general approach in order to fit definitions of sustainability to an ever-changing world. Berglund and Gericke (2015) refer to Rauch who argues that “although the idea of SD is consensus-based, the actual meaning of SD needs to be established in specific situations, and the meanings applied by different groups must be distinguished” (p. 1117).

Seghezzo (2009) and Gottschlich & Bellina (2017) each propose important extensions to the understanding of, and approach to, Sustainability. In short, Seghezzo (2009) identifies limitations in the current discourse, especially by conceptually redefining the “People, Planet, and Profit” concept towards a broader and more inclusive approach: “Place, Permanence and People” (Seghezzo, p. 540). To me, there’s something almost shockingly obvious about why this translation is more suitable and I would be curious to hear what others think — feel free to comment below.
Gottschlich & Bellina (2017) offer another approach, namely that of justice, care and critical evaluation of power relations, concludingly leading them to the concept of “Sustainability to Come.” This is something worth looking into if you relate are interested in Critical Theory.

Adaptability for the language of sustainability
A concrete problem underlying all Sustainable Development dimensions is that of culture and language, i.e. how we talk, communicate and define sustainable development itself — as also discussed by both Seghezzo (2009), Gottschlich and Bellina (2017) and Arjen Wals (GlobalEE, 2016). Definitions might be understood word by word, but their interpretation and application are contextual to each interpreter. We are, when all is accounted for, individuals with unique perspectives. This is not a pessimistic observation but rather an encouraging one. With diversity and difference, great creativity and ingenious solutions can emerge. Arguing for process-orientated and adaptive approaches to sustainability, including definitions of concepts is important for both Seghezzo (2009) and Gottschlich & Bellina (2007). And wisely so, since the world constantly changes, thus demanding ongoing evaluation and adaptation. Change leads to change.

The discourse of sustainability must not stagnate but rather live vigorously and be intertwined respectfully for both human and non-human cultures. Gottschlich & Bellina state that “this situation necessitates ongoing critical reflection with regard to the effects of the dominant sustainability discourse, its opportunities as well as its limitations, with the goal of increasing its democratic and transformative potential” (2017, p. 942). Seghezzo at his end argues that “[t]he concept of sustainability is highly contingent to cultural and natural characteristics. Therefore, agreement on a single definition is not only impossible but also objectionable” (2009, p. 552). We need to be self-aware, critical, open-minded and adaptive in our approach to sustainability. We must adapt our language about sustainability continuously, as our world changes, to better accommodate the circumstances and needs for both current and future generations.

Defining concepts to fit multiple cultural and linguistic clusters is challenging. But nonetheless important. Concepts provide a framework for communication, thought and action, both locally and globally. The conclusion here is that concepts (particularly concepts of sustainability) themselves need to be sustainable with development, with the change, and thus not static, rigid or conservative but rather adaptive, receptive, and always contextually respectful. Thereby Sustainable Development must itself be a recursive, self-reflective and always contextual concept; anything else would be oxymoronic.

With an ever-changing world, we need to continuously adapt our approach, culture and language to sustain an ever-developing world. Or what do you think?

Where do you live, what do you do and what is Sustainable Development to you?
Comment below!
Remember you are also welcome to contact the admins to submit an article with your voice on this or other topics.

Berglund, T. & Gericke, N. (2015). Separated and integrated perspectives on environmental, economic, and social dimensions — an investigation of student views on sustainable development. Environmental Education Research, 0(0), 1–24.

European Commission, 2002. The world summit on sustainable development. People, planet, prosperity. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.

GlobalEE. (2016, September 28). Arjen Wals: Sustainability- a competence perspective [Video file]. Retrieved from (date?)

Gottschlich, D. & Bellina, L. (2017). Environmental justice and care: Critical emancipatory contributions to sustainability discourse. Agriculture and Human Values 34(4), 941–953.

Seghezzo, L. (2009) The five dimensions of sustainability, Environmental Politics 18(4), 539–556.

Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform. (2019). Retrieved from (date?)

UNESCO (2016) Education for people and planet: creating sustainable futures for all. Global Education Monitor Report, Introduction (pg 1–12) Chapter 2 Planet (pg 16–35), Chapter 3 Prosperity (pg 36–62). Paris: UNESCO

WWF (2016). Living Planet Report 2016. Risk and resilience in a new era. WWF International, Gland, Switzerland



A publication, consisting of reflections, papers, knowledge and experience produced as students of Gothenburg’s Master programme in Education for Sustainable Development

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