Sustainable Development - Definition

Definition

In 1987, the United Nations released the Brundtland Report, which included what is now one of the most widely recognised definitions: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

According to the same report, the above definition 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.

The United Nations 2005 World Summit Outcome Document refers to the "interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars" of sustainable development as economic development, social development, and environmental protection. Based on the triple bottom line, numerous sustainability standards and certification systems have been established in recent years, in particular in the food industry. Well-known standards include organic, Rainforest Alliance, fair trade, UTZ Certified, Bird Friendly, and The Common Code for the Coffee Community.

Indigenous peoples have argued, through various international forums such as the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the Convention on Biological Diversity, that there are four pillars of sustainable development, the fourth being cultural. The Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (UNESCO, 2001) further elaborates the concept by stating that "... cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature”; it becomes “one of the roots of development understood not simply in terms of economic growth, but also as a means to achieve a more satisfactory intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual existence". In this vision, cultural diversity is the fourth policy area of sustainable development.

A useful articulation of the values and principles of sustainability can be found in the Earth Charter. It offers an integrated vision and definition of strong sustainability. The document, an ethical framework for a sustainable world, was developed over several years after the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and launched officially in 2000. The Charter derives its legitimacy from the participatory process in which it was drafted, which included contributions from hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals, and from its use since 2000 by thousands of organizations and individuals that have been using the Earth Charter as an educational instrument and a policy tool.

Economic Sustainability: Agenda 21 clearly identified information, integration, and participation as key building blocks to help countries achieve development that recognises these interdependent pillars. It emphasises that in sustainable development everyone is a user and provider of information. It stresses the need to change from old sector-centered ways of doing business to new approaches that involve cross-sectoral co-ordination and the integration of environmental and social concerns into all development processes. Furthermore, Agenda 21 emphasises that broad public participation in decision making is a fundamental prerequisite for achieving sustainable development.

According to Hasna Vancock, sustainability is a process which tells of a development of all aspects of human life affecting sustenance. It means resolving the conflict between the various competing goals, and involves the simultaneous pursuit of economic prosperity, environmental quality and social equity famously known as three dimensions (triple bottom line) with the resultant vector being technology, hence it is a continually evolving process; the 'journey' (the process of achieving sustainability) is of course vitally important, but only as a means of getting to the destination (the desired future state). However, the 'destination' of sustainability is not a fixed place in the normal sense that we understand destination. Instead, it is a set of wishful characteristics of a future system.

The concept has included notions of weak sustainability, strong sustainability, deep ecology, and just sustainability. "Just sustainability" offers a socially just conception of sustainability. Just sustainability effectively addresses what has been called the 'equity deficit' of environmental sustainability (Agyeman, 2005:44). It is “the egalitarian conception of sustainable development" (Jacobs, 1999:32). It generates a more nuanced definition of sustainable development: “the need to ensure a better quality of life for all, now and into the future, in a just and equitable manner, whilst living within the limits of supporting ecosystems” (Agyeman, et al., 2003:5). This conception of sustainable development focuses equally on four conditions: improving our quality of life and well-being; on meeting the needs of both present and future generations (intra- and intergenerational equity); on justice and equity in terms of recognition (Schlosberg, 1999), process, procedure and outcome and on the need for us to live within ecosystem limits (also called one planet living) (Agyeman, 2005:92). Open-source appropriate technology has been proposed as an approach for reaching just sustainable development.

Green development is generally differentiated from sustainable development in that Green development prioritizes what its proponents consider to be environmental sustainability over economic and cultural considerations. Proponents of Sustainable Development argue that it provides a context in which to improve overall sustainability where cutting edge Green Development is unattainable. For example, a cutting edge treatment plant with extremely high maintenance costs may not be sustainable in regions of the world with fewer financial resources. An environmentally ideal plant that is shut down due to bankruptcy is obviously less sustainable than one that is maintainable by the community, even if it is somewhat less effective from an environmental standpoint. However, this view depends on whether one determines that it is the development (the plant) which needs to be sustainable, or whether it is the human-nature ecology (the environmental conditions) in which the plant exists which should be sustainable. It follows, then, that an operational but heavily polluting plant may be judged as actually 'less sustainable' than having no plant at all.

Sustainability educator Michael Thomas Needham referred to 'Sustainable Development' "as the ability to meet the needs of the present while contributing to the future generations’ needs." There is an additional focus on the present generations' responsibility to improve the future generations' life by restoring the previous ecosystem damage and resisting to contribute to further ecosystem damage.

Read more about this topic:  Sustainable Development

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