What Is Sustainable Development & Why Is Defining It Key to Our Future?

biking in barcelona photo

photo: Jaume Ventura via flickr

Even though it's at the center of environmental thinking, the concept of sustainable development is pretty broad; and considering how often the term gets thrown around and invoked these days, perhaps a quick bit of clarity is in order. There's a textbook definition of sustainable development (as well as plenty of interpretations of that), but let's go through the main components and how they all fit together.

Meeting the Needs of the Present & The Future

The current textbook definition of sustainable development dates back to the Brundtland Commission of 1983, which examined the impact of deteriorating environmental conditions of future economic and social development.

The definition which came out of that, and is probably the most-quoted one, is development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Which is a perfectly fine one, but it frankly still leaves a lot of room for interpretation both philosophically and practically. From what are needs and wants for development--let alone how to actually measure it--to what is compromising the ability to meet future needs. It all alludes to something quite well, but never states it outright.

The part that's not stated explicitly, but around which all of sustainable development revolves: All of human activity needs to stay within the ecological carrying capacity of the planet; it needs to not consume resources in excess of the ability of ecosystems (both planet-wide and more locally) to regenerate those same natural resources. Anything else compromises both the ability of the present generation to meet its wants and needs and the ability of future generations to meet theirs.

All of this takes place across a number of broad socio-economic areas: Business, Energy, Communities, and Environment

Sustainable Business & Sustainable Energy

Since energy and business are so intrinsically tied today--indeed as they have been for all of history even if the energy sources were different--it makes sense to lump them together.

When it comes to energy the most obvious thing which needs to occur is a transition from the norm being extractive non-renewable sources of energy to renewable sources. That part's obvious--move from fossil fuels to renewable energy--but this also has to be done at a scale and using materials which are renewable and expandable.

This has to be the starting point, how much energy can be generated in an ecologically sustainable manner for any given place on the planet, not how much energy do we want to use or do we need to use to maintain a certain standard of living. The ecological limits have to be respected first and foremost and then energy usage fit within that.

Essentially the same thing can be said of business: The first concern has to be what level of economic activity can be accommodated within given environmental conditions, without causing them to deteriorate. What level of economic activity can be extended relatively equitably to even person on the planet. Only within those limits can the conventional concerns of business be addressed.

Which, in many ways, runs entirely counter to the usual economic assumption that economic growth is a panacea--a plausible enough assumption when the scale of all human economic activity was still within the planet's ability to accommodate it without large-scale degradation, but one which no longer applies.

Sustainable Communities & Sustainable Environment

When it comes to sustainable communities things get much more subject to interpretation. How I think about it is this: At its most basic a sustainable community is one which facilitates human development and human happiness, and does so while respecting local environmental conditions.

That means the external aesthetics and composition is diverse--what makes up the physical conditions of a sustainable community in desert conditions is different than temperate and in tropical--all subject to the most appropriate materials for the environment, adapted to best enable comfortable habitation with a minimum of external energy inputs. Prior to the cheap availability of cheap energy, this diversification of building style was the norm.

The part about a minimum of external energy inputs also informs many of the other characteristics of sustainable communities and which TreeHugger has covered on many occasions. In most cases, this means highly walkable and/or bikeable spaces, an integration of retail, manufacturing and residential activity, public spaces which enable the interaction of diverse economic, age, and social groupings.

All of these factors contribute to a sustainable environment, but there's one other factor that is crucial and steps beyond many conceptions of sustainable development: The recognition that the planet and all species within it do not exist solely for human benefit and use. We may use them, within limits, but everything out there that is non-human is not rightly viewed through the lens of human utility.

We are part of the whole, not the sum of it nor separate from it. We cannot exist sustainably without it--in wonky terms, without the ecosystem services provided to us free of financial charge by clean air, clean water, clean and fully functioning habitats. Preservation of those, even at current levels (as degraded as they are based on what we know existed from historic record), is the big question that sustainable development attempts to address.

Unless we recognize this and ingrain it in our decision-making process, all the green technological change, all the green materials in industrial and consumer goods, will be just a change in window dressing.

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More on Sustainable Development:
India's Barefoot College Revolution: Hands-On, Bottom-Up & Community-Driven
Lobbying & Sustainable Development - A Question of Transparency
US Gov Launches New Agenda for Smart Growth and Sustainable Development

What Is Sustainable Development & Why Is Defining It Key to Our Future?
Even though it's at the center of environmental thinking, the concept of sustainable development is pretty broad; and considering how often the term gets thrown around and invoked these days, perhaps a quick bit of

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