Can You Define Sustainable Development?

by Nicola Temple on December 1, 2011

The terms sustainability and sustainable development are used every day, in the media, by governments, corporations…you name it. Yet, despite seeing and using these terms regularly, how many of us can actually define sustainable development?

Unfortunately, short of doing a survey, I can’t answer this.

However, I do have the utmost faith that if asked, most people would get to some version of the definition eventually.

The most commonly used definition for sustainable development is the one provided in the United Nation’s Brundtland Report:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

  • the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”

Simply put, it is the concept of passing on an undiminished future to the next generations.

define sustainable development

In the simplest terms, one can define sustainable development as being able to feed your family and have a fulfilling life without compromising the environment now or for future generations. CC image courtesy of Jessica Ridgewell on Flickr.

Balancing social, environmental, and economic needs:

The concept of sustainable development sits in the centre of balanced social, economic and environmental needs. Some indigenous groups have argued that there should be a fourth pillar included also: culture.

Individuals may be biased in believing that one of these pillars is more important than the others, which can skew one’s interpretation of sustainable development.

While most people would likely agree to the concept of sustainable development, when it comes down to setting out targets and goals, things can start to fall apart.

For example, in the development of our coastal resources, environmentalists may argue strongly for the establishment of marine reserves to safeguard the marine environment. Others make their livelihood from the sea and highlight the economic importance of these resources. Meanwhile, indigenous and local communities may argue that limiting access to the ocean would diminish their quality of life.

The goals for development of the coast would be very different within each of these groups, even though they may agree to the definition of sustainable development. This is why marine plans often include a patchwork of areas defined for different uses that try to balance all these needs.

Nobody said sustainable development is easy!

Working towards sustainable development:

Right now, our current demand on the world’s resources is unsustainable. Have a quick watch of this cartoon for an overview:

So, what do we need to change in order to be able to sustain ourselves and future generations on this planet?

Though we can’t expect to know the future and what is fully required to achieve sustainability, we do know things we can do right now to change our current path.

Dr. Paul Raskin of the Tellus Institute has thought a great deal about sustainable development and he and his colleagues wrote a comprehensive report entitled Bending the Curve: Toward Global Sustainability.  I recommend having a read if you’re interested.

He believes that a fundamental shift in how we understand our relationship to and with this planet lies at the core of our transition to a sustainable future. If we don’t believe that our actions in one part of the planet affect another part, we are kidding ourselves.

For example, the ocean produces roughly half of the oxygen we breathe in the atmosphere. So, even if someone lives nowhere near the ocean, their carbon emissions are affecting our atmosphere, which in turn is acidifying our oceans, which will ultimately affect one in every two breaths we take. It’s all connected.

We must think of ourselves as part of this system that is our planet and that includes our economic, social, and cultural well-being also.

Bending the Curve paints a vision of sustainability as including:

  • eradication of absolute poverty, malnutrition and famine, and universal entitlement to basic social services such as health care and education;
  • improving quality of life everywhere and expanding possibilities for fulfillment;
  • declining economic and social disparities;
  •  increasing environmental quality, with critical biological resources recovering, pollution under control, and climate stability in sight;
  • infrequent violence and armed conflict; and
  • stable global population.

This is a tall order and policy reform will be required to facilitate this movement.

However, policy reform will not happen without political will, and this must be generated by the people.

Transition towns are an excellent example of a local opportunity for working toward global sustainability.

We do not need to compromise our environment nor the quality of life of ourselves and others in order to allow development. So, now that you can define sustainable development, think about taking action.

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