Back in 2009 when I was completing my book Sustainability Management and preparing it for publication by Columbia University Press in 2010, I was also working with colleagues at Columbia’s Earth Institute and School of Continuing Education (now Professional Studies) to develop a new master’s program in Sustainability Management. I remember struggling to provide a meaningful and bounded definition for sustainability, and in the end, we decided our focus would be on “environmental” sustainability. It’s difficult to believe that a decade has passed since that time, but not hard to believe that we continue to struggle with boundaries and definitions. What was common to our thinking then and at least as typical today, was our desire to ensure that we were focusing on substance rather than symbols.

Sustainability is the mantra of the moment, a word used by many people for many purposes. Over a decade ago I was at an Earth Institute meeting with Jeff Sachs and Bill Gates, whose foundation had helped fund the Millennium Villages Project, and we discussed the concepts of “sustainability and sustainable development.” Mr. Gates did not like the concept of “sustainability” since he thought we ought to be about improving our conditions, not simply sustaining them. In other settings, I’ve participated in intense discussions contrasting the concepts of sustainability with sustainable development. The term sustainability seems to be a word in search of a modifier. Development is preferred by some.

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