Sustainability in a general sense is the capacity to support, maintain or endure. Since the 1980s human sustainability has been related to the integration of environmental, economic, and social dimensions towards global stewardship and responsible management of resources. In ecology, sustainability describes how biological systems remain diverse, robust and productive over time, a necessary precondition for the well-being of humans and other organisms.[1] Long-lived and healthy wetlands and forests are examples of sustainable biological systems. Sustainable ecosystems and environments provide vital resources and processes (known as "ecosystem services"). There are two major ways of managing human impact on ecosystem services. One approach is environmental management; this approach is based largely on information gained from educated professionals in earth science, environmental science, and conservation biology. Another approach is management of consumption of resources, which is based largely on information gained from educated professionals in economics. Human sustainability interfaces with economics through the voluntary trade consequences of economic activity. Moving towards sustainability (or applied sustainability) while keeping the quality of life high is a social challenge that entails, among other factors, international and national law, urban planning and transport, local and individual lifestyles and ethical consumerism. Ways of living more sustainably can take many forms from controlling living conditions (e.g., ecovillages, eco-municipalities and sustainable cities), to reappraising work practices (e.g., using permaculture, green building, sustainable agriculture), or developing and using new technologies that reduce the consumption of resources such as renewable energy technologies.

Euler diagram of sustainable development: at the confluence of three constituent parts.[3] The word sustainability is derived from the Latin sustinere (tenere, to hold; sus, up). Dictionaries provide more than ten meanings for sustain, the main ones being to “maintain", "support", or "endure”.[4][5] However, since the 1980s sustainability has been used more in the sense of human sustainability on planet Earth and this has resulted in the most widely quoted definition of sustainability as a part of the concept sustainable development, that of the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations on March 20, 1987: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[6][7] At the 2005 World Summit on Social Development it was noted that this requires the reconciliation of environmental, social equity and economic demands - the "three pillars" of sustainability or (the 3 Es).[8] This view has been expressed as an illustration using three overlapping ellipses indicating that the three pillars of sustainability are not mutually exclusive and can be mutually reinforcing.[9] The three pillars have served as a common ground for numerous sustainability standards and certification systems in recent years, in particular in the food industry.[10][11] Standards which today explicitly refer to the triple bottom line include Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade and UTZ Certified.[12][13] The triple bottom line is also recognized by the ISEAL Alliance - the global association for social and environmental standards. Sustainable development as defined by the UN is not universally accepted and has undergone various interpretations.[14][15][16] What sustainability is, what its goals should be, and how these goals are to be achieved are all open to interpretation.[17] For many environmentalists 'sustainable development' is an oxymoron - as development seems to entail environmental degradation.[18] Ecological economist Herman Daly has asked, "what use is a sawmill without a forest?"[19] From this perspective, the economy is a subsystem of human society, which is itself a subsystem of the biosphere, and a gain in one sector is a loss from another.[20] This can be illustrated as three concentric circles, though with economics treated as only one of a number of domains that includes politics and culture. A universally accepted definition of sustainability remains elusive because it needs to be factual and scientific, a clear statement of a specific “destination”. The simple definition "sustainability is improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting eco-systems",[21] though vague, conveys the idea of sustainability having quantifiable limits. But sustainability is also a call to action, a task in progress or “journey” and therefore a political process, so some definitions set out common goals and values.[22] The Earth Charter[23] speaks of “a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace.” To add complication, the word sustainability is applied not only to human sustainability on Earth, but to many situations and contexts over many scales of space and time, from small local ones to the global balance of production and consumption. It implies responsible and proactive decision-making and innovation that minimizes negative impact and maintains balance between social, environmental, and economic growth to ensure a desirable planet for all species now and in the future. It can also just refer to a future intention: "sustainable agriculture" is not necessarily a current situation but a goal for the future, a prediction.[24] For all these reasons sustainability is perceived, at one extreme, as nothing more than a feel-good buzzword with little meaning or substance[25][26] but, at the other, as an important but unfocused concept like "liberty" or "justice".[27] It has also been described as a "dialogue of values that defies consensual definition".[28] Some researchers and institutions have pointed out that these three dimensions are not enough to reflect the complexity of contemporary society and suggest that culture could be included in this development model.[29] One emerging alternative to the three pillars is the Circles of Sustainability conception. It asks firstly why economics is treated either outside the social (the three-circle venn diagram) or central to the social (the three-circle diagram). Secondly, it asks why other domains are treated as externalities to economic considerations.[30] This alternative approach is now being used by a number of agencies such as the UN Global Compact Cities Programme. The history of sustainability traces human-dominated ecological systems from the earliest civilizations to the present. This history is characterized by the increased regional success of a particular society, followed by crises that were either resolved, producing sustainability, or not, leading to decline.[32][33] In early human history, the use of fire and desire for specific foods may have altered the natural composition of plant and animal communities.[34] Between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago, Agrarian communities emerged which depended largely on their environment and the creation of a "structure of permanence."[35] The Western industrial revolution of the 18th to 19th centuries tapped into the vast growth potential of the energy in fossil fuels. Coal was used to power ever more efficient engines and later to generate electricity. Modern sanitation systems and advances in medicine protected large populations from disease.[36] In the mid-20th century, a gathering environmental movement pointed out that there were environmental costs associated with the many material benefits that were now being enjoyed. In the late 20th century, environmental problems became global in scale.[37][38][39][40] The 1973 and 1979 energy crises demonstrated the extent to which the global community had become dependent on non-renewable energy resources. In the 21st century, there is increasing global awareness of the threat posed by the human greenhouse effect, produced largely by forest clearing and the burning of fossil fuels.