Key Concepts

Key Concepts


Thinking more.
Taking less.

Systems Dynamics: Social systems and environmental systems are linked. Changes in any part of any system have multiple consequences or cascading effects that reach far beyond the initial change. While some of the consequences of the decisions that we make are intended, unintended consequences, both positive and negative, are common.

Equity: Whether all people have similar rights, opportunities and access to all forms of community capital.

  • Inter-generational Equity—The U.N. Millennium Goals, the Brundtland Report, and the Johannesburg Declaration reinforce the notion that we are ethically responsible to not use so many resources that we jeopardize the quality of life of other people in future
  • Intra-generational Equity—We are ethically responsible to not use so many resources that we jeopardize the quality of life of other people in this
  • Inter-species Equity—Recognizes the rights of other species.

Scale: Sustainability problems exist across multiple spatial scales. Solving a problem at a local level is a very different thing than solving a problem across international boundaries. Local activities might have impacts on other regions and even on the global scale.

  • Spatial Scale—Geographical region (where). The role of spatial scale in sustainable development is assessed by dividing the world into multiple spatial units at different levels on a socio-political spatial scale. Sustainability problems caused at one level don’t just stay there. If you generate greenhouse gases, it creates a problem everywhere, not just where the gasses are generated. Similarly, solutions at a local level may not be feasible to scale over wider region.
  • Temporal Scale—When thinking about sustainability, we must think over a long-time period. Problems that don’t seem great now may magnify over time.

Tradeoffs: There are rarely perfect sustainability solutions with no costs, and there are often winners and losers. Solving almost any sustainability problem involves tradeoffs among the socio-economic needs of multiple stakeholder groups and environmental capacities.

Collaboration and Participation: Sustainability problems are caused by, and affect, multiple stakeholders with specific experiences, resources, perspectives and preferences. Therefore, collaboration and participation among many and diverse stakeholders is necessary to reduce tradeoffs.


Glossary Click the button above for a full list of sustainability terms and concepts.

sustainability glossary