Sustainability theory

Multispecies sustainability: a new definition

The sustainability concept in its current form suffers from reductionism. The common interpretation of ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ fails to explicitly recognize their interdependence with needs of current and future non-human generations. In our initial paper in Global Sustainability, we argue together with our group of nineteen colleagues that the focus of sustainability on human well-being – a purely utilitarian view of nature as a resource for humanity – limits its conceptual and analytical power, as well as real-world sustainability transformation efforts. We propose a broadened concept of ‘multispecies sustainability’ by acknowledging interdependent needs of multiple species’ current and future generations. We develop the concept in three steps: (1) discussing normative aspects, fundamental principles underlying the concept, and potential visual models, (2) showcasing radically diverging futures emerging from a scenario thought experiment based on the axes sustainable-unsustainable and multispecies-anthropocentric, and (3) exploring how multispecies sustainability can be applied to research and policy-making through two case studies (a multispecies stakeholder framework and the Healthy Urban Microbiome Initiative).

Here’s our proposed, preliminary definition:

Multispecies sustainability means meeting the diverse, changing, interdependent, and irreducibly inseparable needs of all species of the present, while enhancing the ability of future generations of all species to meet their own needs.

Rupprecht et al, 2020, Global Sustainability

We see our new proposed definition of “multispecies sustainability” as the start of a long-term re-evaluation of sustainability theory, and hope to develop it into a strong and useful concept that also lends itself to operationalization.

Visual model of multispecies sustainability focused on interdependence. Elements depend on those containing them, and are affected by those they contain.

Visual model of multispecies sustainability emphasizing shared agency in shaping the earth system.