What is Sustainable Development?
Sustainable development has been defined in many ways, but the most frequently quoted definition is from Our Common Future, also known as the 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 ofneeds, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
the idea oflimitationsimposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”
All definitions of sustainable development require that we see the world as a system—a system that connects space; and a system that connects time.
When you think of the world as a system over space, you grow to understand that air pollution from North America affects air quality in Asia, and that pesticides sprayed in Argentina could harm fish stocks off the coast of Australia.
And when you think of the world as a system over time, you start to realize that the decisions our grandparents made about how to farm the land continue to affect agricultural practice today; and the economic policies we endorse today will have an impact on urban poverty when our children are adults.
We also understand that quality of life is a system, too. It’s good to be physically healthy, but what if you are poor and don’t have access to education? It’s good to have a secure income, but what if the air in your part of the world is unclean? And it’s good to have freedom of religious expression, but what if you can’t feed your family?
The concept of sustainable development is rooted in this sort of systems thinking. It helps us understand ourselves and our world. The problems we face are complex and serious—and we can’t address them in the same way we created them. But we can address them.
It’s that basic optimism that motivates IISD’s staff, associates and board to innovate for a healthy and meaningful future for this planet and its inhabitants.
UN Backgroundpaper: Sustainable Development: From Brundtland to Rio 2012
The term, sustainable development, was popularized in Our Common Future, a report published by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987. Also known as the Brundtland report, Our Common Future included the “classic” definition of sustainable development: “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Acceptance of the report by the United Nations General Assembly gave the term political salience; and in 1992 leaders set out the principles of sustainable development at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development
in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
It is generally accepted that sustainable development calls for a convergence between the three pillars of economic development, social equity, and environmental protection. Sustainable development is a visionary development paradigm; and over the past 20 years governments, businesses, and civil society have accepted sustainable development as a guiding principle, made progress on sustainable development metrics, and improved business and NGO participation in the sustainable development process. Yet the concept remains elusive and implementation has proven difficult. Unsustainable trends continue and sustainable development has not found the political entry points to make real progress. As a result, climate change has become the de
facto proxy for implementation of the sustainable development agenda; but the framework of the climate change negotiations are not always the appropriate forum for broader strategic discussions of sustainable development.
While sustainable development is intended to encompass three pillars, over the past 20 years it has often been compartmentalized as an environmental issue. Added to this, and potentially more limiting for the sustainable development agenda, is the reigning orientation of development as purely economic growth. This has been the framework used by developed countries in attaining their unprecedented levels of wealth, and major and rapidly developing countries are following the same course. The problem with such an approach is that natural resources are in imminent peril of being exhausted or their quality being compromised to an extent that threatens current biodiversity and natural environments.
Addressing this challenge calls for changes at the consumer level in developed countries. Developed countries have the wealth and technical capacity to implement more sustainable policies and measures, yet the required level of political leadership and citizen engagement is still a long way off. The lack of action in developed countries is compounded by economic growth in developing countries that follows the resource-intensive model of developed countries. Without change and real action to address levels of consumerism and resource use in developed countries, one can hardly expect a receptive audience among developing countries when attempts are made to direct attention to their economic development practices. More sustainable development pathways
are needed in both developed and developing countries; which require a level of dialogue, cooperation and, most importantly, trust that simply is not reflected in today’s multilateral institutions or regimes.
There is a huge gap between the multilateral processes, with their broad goals and policies; and national action, which reflects domestic political and economic realities. A huge constituency around the world cares deeply and talks about sustainable development, but has not taken serious on-the-ground action. Deep structural changes are needed in the ways that societies manage their economic, social, and environmental affairs; and hard choices are needed to move from talk to action.
While some would argue that we have failed on sustainable development, 20 years is a relatively short time frame to implement the required changes in such a daunting area. The needed systemic changes will require a revolution in the way the world does business. This will have an impact on lifestyles and consumption patterns— especially so in developed countries, but also for the growing middle class in developing countries.
The recent financial crisis and the beginning of the decline of trust in the liberalization and globalization model could mean some renewed receptivity for a new sustainable development paradigm. A new model could chart a development path that truly is concerned with equity, poverty alleviation, reducing resource use, and integrating economic, environmental, and social issues in decision making. The opportunity is ripe to move beyond incrementalism to real systemic change.