What is Sustainable Development?


What is Sustainable Development?

In the past, upon hearing the word “sustainability”, I would think of my high school sustainability club and the minor, everyday, environmentally friendly practices that we campaigned for by painting shiny, colorful posters. Things like recycling, riding your bike, taking public transit, eating less meat, and using cloth bags and reusable mugs. Simply “being green”, if you will.  I never really thought about what was being sustained by these practices. The dictionary meaning of the word “sustainability” is “the ability to support”, but exactly what is it that we are concerned about supporting?

Economy? Biodiversity? Resources? Culture? Environment?

Life as it is?

This is not an easy question to answer, as many people have different or even conflicting ideas of what needs to be sustained.

What, then, is sustainable development? During a class exercise last week, I was introduced to several perspectives. The Organization of American States defines it as “gradual change characterized by economic growth, increased social equity, constructive modification of ecosystems, and maintenance of the natural resource base,” while the Government of Canada claims, “Sustainable development has three dimensions: (1) economic sustainability, which means holding investment at rates sufficient to maintain stocks of capital ; (2) environmental sustainability, which means husbanding and recycling natural resources and limiting flows of air, water, and land pollution to amounts that can be assimilated by the environment; and (3) social sustainability, which means promoting social justice and human well-being across the entire population.”  The most prominent difference between these two views seems to be the goal of change and growth sought by the Organization of American States, while the Government of Canada appears to be more concerned with limiting growth and maintaining a balanced economy.

My sustainable development series Professor, Dr. Christopher Ling, defines sustainable development as the process required to reach the goal of sustainability. Obviously, this is not a conclusive definition due to the fact that the goal of sustainability is so abstract and is continually evolving.  Different individuals and economic, social, industrial, and business sectors all have different ideas of what needs to be developed and what needs to be sustained when this development occurs.

Personally, I believe that a mindset of very limited growth needs to be adopted. Economic growth requires an increased input of energy and other resources and results in an increased output, which in turn causes increased carbon emissions. We cannot go about “Life as it is” if we wish to reach sustainability. We must cut back our output if we want to support biodiversity and our natural resource capital. This does not mean that we cannot find economic prosperity by reaching a balanced economy that will sustain our basic needs while also sustaining our natural capital as well as our social diversity. I see sustainable development as a process of cutbacks, investment in efficient technologies, and campaigns for the paradigm shifts needed in order to reach this state of sustainability. We must adopt a “less is more” view in order to harmonize human activity with the capacity of the environment and the needs of future generations.


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