Thesaurus of Sustainability

  • Professor
  • Director (2010-2016), Environmental & Sustainability Studies Program
  • Chemistry
  • Environmental and Sustainability Studies
347 Chemistry-Physics Building
859-257-7304 (office), 859-323-9985 (fax)
Other Affiliations:
  • Institute for Sustainable Manufacturing
  • Center of Excellence for Watershed Management
  • Center for Research on Environmental Diseases
  • UK Nanobiotechnology Center


Richard S. Levine, Michael T. Hughes, and Casey Ryan Mather
Center for Sustainable Cities, University of Kentucky

Thesaurus: Latin for “treasure house,” provides speakers, writers, and thinkers with the perfect word to fit the occasion

Sustain:to cause to continue (as in existence or a certain state, or in force or intensity); to keep up, especially without
interruption, diminution, flagging, etc.; to prolong.” (Webster's New International Dictionary)

*This page contains the Contents, Preface, and Introduction. Click here for the full PDF.

Thesaurus Contents
Preface 03
Introduction 05
1. Abstract Definitions of Sustainability (Descriptive) 06
1.1 Intergenerational Equity 06
1.2 Ecological Aspects 07
1.3 Ecological and Social Aspects 07
1.4 Ecological and Economic Aspects 08
1.5 Social and Place-Based Aspects 08
1.6 Ecological, Social, and Economic Aspects 09
1.7 Ecological, Social, Economic, and Political Aspects 09
1.8 Systemic Aspects 09
2. Tools for the Implementation of Sustainability: Sustainability Oriented Means 10
2.1 Natural Resource and Land Use 10
2.2 Energy 13
2.3 Industry 14
2.4 Built Environment 16
2.5 Sociology 17
2.6 Economy 19
2.7 Decision Making Process 20
2.8 Bureaucratic Structures 22
3. Sustainability as an Essentially Contested Concept 23
4. Operational Definition Of Sustainability (Prescriptive) 30

Sustainability is an emerging paradigm which must become the dominant worldview if anything approaching the Western standard of living is to persist into the future.  Because countless approaches to the question of sustainability emerging in numerous sectors and disciplines in different cultures, countries and climates currently exist, definitions and streams of research and application abound.  To date no recognized practice or common language in the sustainability movement has gained hegemony and consequently, no commonly accepted operational definition. It should be no surprise then, that the term sustainability is used (and almost universally misused) to mean a wide variety of often inconsistent and contradictory practices.  In attempting to craft a Thesaurus of Sustainability, the current authors cannot claim this resulting document to be exhaustive, comprehensive, or, much less, unbiased.

Two main contributions to the sustainability discussion are offered by the authors. One is that terms such as sustainable architecture, sustainable agriculture, and sustainable economics should be replaced by Sustainability Oriented Architecture, Sustainability Oriented Agriculture, and Sustainability Oriented Economics. With the use of this new term, “Sustainability Oriented,” a distinction is made between tools for sustainability, or practices that could become part of the larger process of sustainability, and a comprehensive civil society sustainable city-region process. Armed with this distinction, it is clear that the term sustainability, in common as well as professional use, almost always refers to sustainability oriented practices not the comprehensive practice of sustainability itself.

The authors’ second contribution is an operational definition of sustainability – the only operational definition we have been able to identify in all the discourse on the subject to date.  The criteria or characteristics of sustainability are present in all well known descriptions and definitions; however, what they lack is an accounting of how to get there from here, or how to design and manage the emerging sustainable city in dynamic and through-going way. Such an operational definition of sustainability will be presented as the culmination of this Thesaurus.  On the surface this operational definition would seem to be making a claim upon the spaces of the many other approaches to sustainability that this Thesaurus attempts to cover. Instead, the authors attempt to typify these individual approaches as potentially valuable tools for pursuing sustainability processes, but necessarily within the larger integrative operational definition.

Even in the SUCCESS project, whose very structure was aimed at maximizing integration, manifested a tendency toward disciplinary isolation that hindered the pursuit of a synergistic collaboration toward sustainability. In these early years of the study of sustainability, many researchers have in fact developed their own operational definitions that are strictly contained within their disciplinary boundaries. Thus, sustainable agriculture, sustained yield forestry and (much to the dismay of the current authors) sustainable architecture, have emerged as practices that are not much concerned with interfacing either with other disciplines or with the larger question or practice of sustainability. The positive side of this is that many different disciplines have developed excellent Sustainability Oriented Tools that are useful within their own disciplines and may well become useful in larger interdisciplinary, civil society processes.  The negative side of this is that specialists are often much more comfortable employing their Sustainability Oriented Tools within their own disciplines than they are in working with other disciplines, or indeed with the actual citizen stakeholders who should be the focus of any eventual sustainability process.

This dynamic unfolded within the SUCCESS project in sometimes frustrating, but always interesting ways. Three sorts of actors emerged.  The physical scientists, in their relentless pursuit of data, calculations and applicable theory, for the creation of coherent models of resource, material, energy and sometimes economic flows, had a deep distrust of the social scientists whose loose, abstract, qualitative, and sometimes touchy-feely methods did not look to them as very scientific. Then there were the social scientists, who were developing all sorts of often innovative methods for teasing out the needs, desires, feelings, and problems of the local villagers in attempts to establish new civil society processes focusing upon the questions of “what to change” in the villages and “what to maintain.”  The social scientists were perhaps more open to the work of the physical scientists than vice-versa, but they were deeply suspicious of the latter’s methods, which appeared to
omit any real consideration for the local culture, traditions, and aspirations of the villagers. Indeed it sometimes seemed that cultural considerations might well be a hindrance to the application of any scientific recommendations. Still, the role of social and cultural considerations in the pursuit of sustainability has been frequently marginalized in the pursuit of the scientific, technical and economic aspects of sustainability practice.  Such oversight “misses the forest for the trees,” as the practice of sustainability, whatever else it may also be, is primarily the pursuit of a way of life in a local place and a local culture within the limits of nature. It needs to be acknowledged that a community of people negotiating how they will choose to live within their fair share of the earth’s resources, assisted by technical means, will be the basis of the future sustainable city-region.

Finally, the third set of actors were the villagers themselves operating through the local, so-called, “critical reference group.” This group was in many ways the liaison between the villagers and their culture, and the research team. The establishment of these groups represented the hope of anchoring civil society processes within the villages. But as this form of local democracy was, in effect, a new and somewhat alien institution to the local culture, it was never clear how representative, how effective, or how empowered these teams of villagers could become.

The Thesaurus that follows, then, is neither comprehensive nor unbiased. Rather, it is, first of all, an attempt to present an overview of the current state of sustainability practice as it exists largely in the West. Secondly, it serves as an immanent critique of those practices, often drawing upon the obscure meanings and unrealized possibilities of clusters of concepts organized around the core term, sustainability.  Finally, it strives to offer a comprehensive alternative through which the sustainable city-region may be realized.  Along the way, it challenges conventional ways of thinking and opens up a window onto fields of inquiry and pathways of social action that in concert provide the best hope for affecting that paradigm shift so essential if the twenty-first century is to be the Age of Sustainability.

This Thesaurus is a collection of terms and concepts that survey the broad discourse on sustainability.  Most definitions of sustainability, and the various disciplinary attempts to put it into practice, are not well suited in and of themselves for the actual achievement of sustainability.  These definitions are descriptive of a future state of sustainability but lack a prescriptive process that presents how the transition from the present state of unsustainability to a future sustainability process may occur.  The first section of this Thesaurus presents various attempts at defining sustainability. These abstract definitions have provided just enough information to inspire many different and often times conflicting attempts of reducing the level of unsustainability, which are categorized in the second section of this Thesaurus.  Recently, social constructivists have entered the fray and have deemed sustainability “an essentially contested concept,” because of the many diverse approaches to the subject.  The third section of this Thesaurus explores this debate and offers a way out of the unworkable conundrum in which social constructivist analysis places sustainability. Finally, the fourth section presents a definition of sustainability that describes an operational process through which sustainability may be achieved in practice. The information in this Thesaurus is no way exhaustive, but it largely represents the major issues and approaches of the sustainability debate. This document seeks to clarify the language surrounding sustainability, place current approaches in what the authors interpret as their proper contexts, and present a process that integrates scientific disciplines and local stakeholder participation into an ongoing balance-seeking process well suited to the achievement of sustainable city-regions. The Thesaurus is organized so that by reading the chapter headings as a first pass the reader will get a sense of the more detailed content within.


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