Broadly, sustainability can be defined as the ability of a system – be it a business, an ecosystem, a government or a community – to endure. Sustainability can be used to describe all aspects of development: social and economic development, agriculture environmental conservation, infrastructure development, population growth and energy use. However, the term has evolved over recent decades.

In the 1980s, sustainability became a popular term among ecologists and scientists, used to argue for environmental protection. The WCDE (1987) defined sustainability as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The aim of this definition is to harmonize human development and the conservation of nature, and implies living within the limits of the environment.

The use of fossil fuels is a good example of living within the environmental capacity. Firstly, fossil fuels are a finite resource, requiring that we consume fossil fuels in a manner that will not deplete all stocks. Secondly, fossil fuels have impacts on the environment, including pollution and encouraging climate change. The environment can absorb these impacts to some extent, requiring that we only use fossil fuels within the capacity of nature to absorb there impacts.

More recently, researchers have worked to incorporate social and cultural elements into definitions of sustainability. Elkington (2002) introduced a social element, arguing that sustainable development involves “the simultaneous pursuit of economic prosperity, environmental quality and social equity”. Baumgärtner & Quaas (2010) build on this,defining sustainability as “a matter of justice at three levels: between humans of the same generation, between humans of different generations, and between humans and nature”. Baumgärtner & Quaas’s definition implies justice between people of different nations and people of the same nation, requiring attention to equitable distribution of resources and risks.

Climate change is a good example of sustainability requiring, economic capacity, requiring social equity and justice. Developing nations have had little hand in causing climate change, but will be disproportionately affected by climate risks, and also have fewer resources to deal with these risks. Sustainability requires attention to these inequalities, being faced by countries like Bangladesh. Further, there is also a need to address inequalities within developing countries, to ensure that the extreme poor can access information and resources required for adaptation and resilience.

The ultimate objective of sustainability is to preserve biodiversity and ecological functions, primarily for the benefit of present and future human generations (Rull, 2010). This also requires understanding and respecting cultural and social requirements of communities and societies.

The cultivation of rice in Bangladesh is a good example of sustainability having to take into account cultural and social capacity. Given the importance of rice to the Bangladeshi diet and culture, there is a need to find ways to cultivate rice that work within the capacity of the Bangladesh landscape – water, land, and labor – while meeting the consumption needs of a growing population.