What is Sustainable Development?

The following blog post was written by guest blogger Claire Seigworth.

“Sustainable development” increasingly is discussed and becoming part of our daily lexicon.  It is also part of Global Brigades mission, so as many of you embark on your brigade you should take some time to reflect on these two questions: where did this idea come from and what does it really mean?

Concerns about population and consumption began as early as the twelfth century with forestry management[1].  These concerns moved to the forefront of everyday life with the publication of the book “An Essay on the Principle of Population” by Thomas Malthus.  Since population increases exponentially and agricultural production increases geometrically, he predicted that famine, wars, etc would lead to drastic decreases in population once the resources could not support the population.  Obviously his prediction fell incorrect, but his scholarly work is still relevant.  Neo-Malthusians believe that while technology has staved off Malthus’s dire predictions, soon we will no longer be able to use our environment to satisfy our consumption.

The term rose to the global development stage when the Brundtland Commission released their report in order to notify their findings about how to preserve the environment and meet human need at the same time.  This report also led to the widely accepted definition of sustainable development:

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 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.[2]

Sustainable development is generally categorized into three metrics: economics, environmental, and social[3].  Others, such as the Agenda 21 for culture and the United Cities and Local Governments Bureau argue that culture should also be included in the term sustainable development since it is necessary to explain society and that it is necessary to incorporate sustainable development into culture in order for it to occur.  Also, other cultures, such as indigenous ones, are a way to find possible solutions for sustainable development.[4]

As with anything, nothing is without controversy.  There is leeway with the definition and what should be included in sustainable development.  Others say that it is unrealistic since achieving a more equitable way of living that will not supersede the world’s environmental capacity requires a drastic lowering of the standard of living, especially in the developed world[5].  However, just like every other global goal, sustainable development will evolve and while perfect sustainability is not a realistic goal, changes can be made to achieve a more sustainable future.

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[1]  Ulrich Grober: Deep roots – A conceptual history of “sustainable development” (Nachhaltigkeit), Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung, 2007; pp. 8–9

[2] Brundtland Commission. (1987). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. New York: United Nations.

[3] Brundtland Commission. (1987). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. New York: United Nations.

[4] Smith-Asante, E. (2013, March 12). Indigenous knowledge holds key to sustainable community development – Daannaa. Retrieved March 12, 2013, from Ghana Business News: http://www.ghanabusinessnews.com/2013/03/12/indigenous-knowledge-holds-key-to-sustainable-community-development-daannaa/

[5] Bruno Clémentin et Vincent Cheynet, Contre le développement durable

Global Brigades

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