The key trends of our time are towards deeper unsustainability. Our demands on biospheric carrying capacity are probably already over what the planet can continue to deliver and are rising quickly. Meanwhile many people lack the material sufficiency needed for health and reasonable opportunity and the gap between rich and poor is growing virtually everywhere.
Whatever else we may accomplish, if we allow these trends to continue they will take us into an increasingly ugly future. Among the necessary responses are steps to reform decision making on all significant undertakings – laws, policies, plans, programmes, technologies, projects – so that each one is designed to help reverse the prevailing trends and to make a positive contribution to a desirable and durable future.
Sustainability assessment is an approach to this reformed decision making. Conventional evaluations have presumed that maximizing economic gains will bring progress, aimed only to mitigate social and ecological damage, and relied on ingenuity or victims to deal with any nasty surprises. In contrast, sustainability assessment integrates the consideration and pursuit of economic, social and ecological objectives, accepts and accommodates uncertainty, and seeks options with the greatest promise of multiple, mutually reinforcing and lasting gains and the least risk of significant losses.