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Five axioms of sustainability

Complete essay is posted at Global Public Media.

My aim in this essay is to explore the history of the terms sustainable and sustainability, and their various published definitions, and then to offer a set of five axioms (based on a review of the literature) to help clarify the characteristics of a durable society.


1. (Tainter’s Axiom): Any society that continues to use critical resources unsustainably will collapse.

Exception: A society can avoid collapse by finding replacement resources.

Limit to the exception: In a finite world, the number of possible replacements is also finite.


2. (Bartlett’s Axiom): Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.


3. To be sustainable, the use of renewable resources must proceed at a rate that is less than or equal to the rate of natural replenishment.


4. To be sustainable, the use of non-renewable resources must proceed at a rate that is declining, and the rate of decline must be greater than or equal to the rate of depletion.

The rate of depletion is defined as the amount being extracted and used during a specified time interval (usually a year) as a percentage of the amount left to extract.


5. Sustainability requires that substances introduced into the environment from human activities be minimized and rendered harmless to biosphere functions.

In cases where pollution from the extraction and consumption of non-renewable resources that has proceeded at expanding rates for some time threatens the viability of ecosystems, reduction in the rates of extraction and consumption of those resources may need to occur at a rate greater than the rate of depletion.


Will local, national, and international leaders ever shape public policy according to these five axioms? Clearly, policies that would require an end to population growth—and perhaps even a population decline—as well as a reduction in the consumption of resources would not be popular, unless the general populace could be persuaded of the necessity of making its activities sustainable. However, if leaders do not begin to abide by these axioms, society as a whole, or some aspects of it, will assuredly collapse. Perhaps this is sufficient incentive to overcome the psychological and political resistance that would otherwise frustrate efforts toward true sustainability.

Editorial Notes: Previous MuseLetters by Richard Heinberg are available at his website. -BA

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