Sustainable development is the idea that human societies must live and meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The “official” definition of sustainable development was developed for the first time in the Brundtland Report in 1987.
The term first came into use in 1980 in the World Conservation Strategy held under the aegis of the International Union for Conservation and Development. The term was popularised by the study by the World Commission on the Environment and Development, Our Common Future (1987), also known as the Brundtland Report.
The idea of sustainability is rooted in utilitarian resource management, i.e., the technocratic notion of sustained yield. It refers to the exploitation of renewable resources which can be maintained without endangering the future flow of the same resource.
Specifically, sustainable development is a way of organizing society so that it can exist in the long term. This means taking into account both the imperatives present and those of the future, such as the preservation of the environment and natural resources or social and economic equity.
However, the prevalent concept of sustainability continually requires an alteration in the face of change in the quantity of resources brought about by technological upgradation. Critics argue that sustainable development has become a convenient formula for solving difficult issues related to growth and distribution. There has thus been much confusion regarding the concept of sustainability.
The notion of sustainability also integrates issues of ecological conservation with those of livelihood, particularly in the developing countries of the world. Indeed, the definition of sustainable growth and development is characterized by a great divide between developed and developing countries.
The primary concern of the developed world is the economic and technological aspects of development. In contrast, the developing countries face their greatest problems in poverty and in the fulfillment of the basic needs of the poor.
Nevertheless, both the developed and the developing nations have a common belief in the role of science and technology in the solution of the emerging problems related to development, urbanization, and industrialization.
The idea of sustainable development is dynamic; hence the definition varies in different countries in tune with their cultural political and economic traditions.
Historical Background & Idea of Sustainable Development
The industrial revolution is connected to the rise of the idea of sustainable development. From the second half of the 19th century, Western societies started to discover that their economic and industrial activities had a significant impact on the environment and the social balance. Several ecological and social crises took place in the world and rose awareness that a more sustainable model was needed. Here are some examples of the economic and social crises that shook the world in the twentieth century:
1907: the American banking crisis
1923: the crisis of American hyperinflation
1929: the financial crisis of the 1930s begins
1968: the worldwide protests against bureaucratic elites
1973 and 1979: oil shocks
1982: the debt shock of developing countries
And some examples of ecological crises:
1954: Rongelap nuclear fallout
1956: Mercury crisis of Minamata
1957: Torrey Canyon oil spill
1976: Seveso disaster
1984: Bhopal disaster
1986: Chernobyl nuclear disaster
1989: Exxon Valdez oil spill
1999: Erika disaster
But also: global warming, air pollution, the issue of the ozone layer, the loss of biodiversity.
In 1968 the ecologist and philosopher Garret Hardin wrote an essay entitled the tragedy of the commons. He argued that if individuals act independently, rationally, and focused on pursuing their individual interests, they’d end up going against the common interests of their communities and exhaust the planet’s natural resources.
In this way, human free access and unlimited consumption of finite resource would extinguish these same resources. Hardin believed that since man is compelled to procreated unlimitedly the Earth resources would eventually get overexploited. To his eyes, mankind needed to radically change its way of using common resources to avoid a disaster in the future – this would be the way to keep on a sustainable development track.
A few years after Hardin’s essay, in 1972, Meadows et al., commissioned by the Club of Rome, ran a computer simulation that aimed to predict the consequences of what could happen in a planet with limited resources.
The interactions between 5 different dimensions – world population growth, industrialization, pollution generation, food production, and nonrenewable resource depletion – were analyzed, considering a scenario where these variables grew exponentially and technology’s ability to increase resources was linear.
The strongest ending scenario was that an economic and social collapse would happen by the end of the 21st century if man imposes no limits to growth. After more than 4 decades, these predictions seem to be right when it comes to pollution and its consequences – threatening sustainable development.
As the world’s knowledge of global politics evolved the first historical conferences were organized. In 1972, it took place in Stockholm the UN Conference on the environment – the first big world leaders meeting organized by the UN to discuss the human impact on the environment and how it was related to economic development. One of the main goals of this gathering was to find a common outlook and common principles to inspire and guide the world’s population to preserve the “human environment”.
Once the idea that our planet had limits that needed to be respected grew, together with the idea that progress isn’t only about economic growth, integrated solutions started to develop – as is the case with the Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI is nowadays a statistical tool that measures countries’ economic and social achievements.
To do so, it uses dimensions such as health, education, financial flows, mobility, or human security, among others. Every year the UN Development Programme ranks countries based on the HDI report released together with their annual report. It works as a periodic way of monitoring the development levels of countries.
The Brundtland report, also known as Our Common Future, gave the most recognized and widely accepted definition of the term sustainable development in 1987. Following this report, “the human ability to ensure that the current development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” was the first widely accepted definition of sustainable development.
The World Commission on the Environment and Development also stood out that sustainable development needed to consider that developing has limitations. According to the organization, the “present state of technology and the social organization on environmental resources, together with the limited ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities” impose limitations on sustainable development.
As the consciousness about the impact that climate change could have on the planet and on human life grew, the International Panel on Climate Change was created by the UN Development Programme and the World Meteorological Organization. Its purpose was (and still is) to develop and share knowledge about the impact of human activities on climate change. It also aims to explore the causes, consequences, and ways of fighting climate change.
CO2 and methane are gases that exist to help the Earth keep its ideal temperature and guarantee life as we know it. Nonetheless, the excessive production of these gases leads to an increase in the planet’s temperature. This happens because part of the heat the Earth irradiates and that’d go to space keeps trapped in the atmosphere.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was a 4 years-long investigation that started in 2001 and was requested by the UN. Over 1200 researchers gathered to assess the consequences that ecosystems’ changes had on human well-being. Finding the scientific basis for action needed to improve the conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems was another goal.
The main findings of the investigation were:
Humans have changed ecosystems more quickly and widely than ever before. This resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible biodiversity loss;
The changes made to ecosystems improved human well-being and the economy but have harmed the planet and society. It wasn’t only biodiversity decreasing at a high rate. Poverty was also still affecting many communities and climate change increased the risk of nonlinear changes;
The degradation of ecosystems services would probably get worse over the 21st century;
The changes needed to preserve the ecosystem’s degradation and meet the increasing demand for services could still be met. Nonetheless, it would involve significant changes in policies across the public and private sectors.
Concept of Environmental Sustainability:
The human-environment relation must be a symbiotic one that calls for the protection, conservation, and improved management of the natural resources of the earth. It emphasizes that the restoration of vital resources should continue along with the exploitation of resources. A change in attitude towards the restoration of the environment is vital for the sustainable growth and development of our society. Ecosystems require a long time to reach their climax.
The ecosystem has four characteristics— complexity, stability, diversity, and resilience. The integrity of an ecosystem can be maintained, provided we have enough knowledge about its carrying capacity, it’s capacity of assimilation, and its renewability. Due to its integrated nature, harm caused to any one of the components may endanger the whole ecosystem.
It is necessary to conserve biodiversity by taking adequate conservation measures to restore natural as well as modified ecosystems.
The population is an important aspect in the study of environmental sustainability because the quality of human life is inseparable from the quality of the environment. The Man-land ratio indicates the carrying capacity of land as well as the assimilative capacities of the ecosystem. This ratio should be stable.
The four objectives of environmental planning are
protection of the environment,
rehabilitation and restoration of the ecosystem,
enhancement of the carrying capacity of both natural and man- controlled ecosystems, and
creation, expansion, and improvement of new ecosystems.
Dr. Kamal Taori, in his book Sustainable Human Development: Issues and Challenges, views the issues related to sustainable human development as linked to the question of happiness, historical lessons, role and attitudes of planners, resource organization, and impacts of hopeless and hopeful situations.
As long-term measures, appropriate technologies, judicious implementation of policies, women’s participation, rational economic behaviour, and a right blend of the material and the spiritual are put forward by Dr. Taori for sustainable development and thus saving the earth for future generations.
Sustainable Development Today
Today’s framework on sustainable development is quite strong although there is still a huge way to go. The latest IPCC report demonstrated that big changes will need to happen quickly regarding the reduction of CO2 emissions to keep the Earth’s temperature below 2ºC and prevent its devastating impacts.
There are many actors working with different audiences in different areas of sustainability. They share the same goal – to raise awareness on this topic and to create conditions for it to grow and develop. One of the main players is the United Nations, where different teams actively work on multiple campaigns such as #beatplasticpollution or #solvedifferent, apart from organizing the meetings between the world leaders.
On the business side, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) helps its member companies to accelerate their businesses transition to create a sustainable world. There are also some certifications that reward (mostly through stamp recognition) the businesses with the best practices for the planet, such as the B-Corp movement, the Rainforest Alliance, the Fairtrade Foundation, or the Conscious Capitalism Movement.
At the same time, entities like the Elen MacArthur Foundation are opening the way when it comes to the circular economy and how societies and businesses can align how they use natural resources with the way nature does it. Aligning businesses’ operations across their supply chains is also allowing different and ecological business models to develop – such as growing mushrooms from coffee leftovers.