What is Sustainable Development?

A look at the ideas behind this concept.


The official definition in the 1987 Brundtland Commission Report ‘Our Common Future’ states that:

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 organisation on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.

Let me pause here and examine an assumption raised by this definition. In one the two key concepts put forward, the environment is limited in its ability to provide for the needs of the present and future. That is, resources on earth are finite.This assumes that the idea of resources is a zero sum game, in the sense that one person’s gain is another’s (in this case, the environment’s) loss. However, is this really the case?

Yes we all know of species extinction and biodiversity loss. Non-renewable energy in the form of coal, oil and natural gas are exactly that because once used up, cannot be replaced. On the other hand, we have witnessed the Green Revolution, which enabled India to feed its booming population without the need for increased agricultural resources. We also know that more and more technology is available to allow us to harness the use of renewables. Thus, the reliance on finite resources can be compensated by developments in science and technology.

The Brundtland Report alludes to as such:

“A society may in many ways compromise its ability to meet the essential needs of its people in the future — by overexploiting resources, for example. The direction of technological developments may solve some immediate problems but lead to even greater ones. Large sections of the population may be marginalised by ill-considered development.”

So it seems that developments in technology may help to solve some problems, but may also create more problems, at the expense of the majority of the population. Furthermore, if development is not properly carried out, it might have considerable harmful impact on climate and the environment.

What, then, is sustainable development really about? According to ‘Our Common Future’,

  • Sustainable development requires meeting the basic needs of all and extending to all the opportunity to satisfy their aspirations for a better life.
  • Sustainable development requires that societies meet human needs both by increasing productive potential and by ensuring equitable opportunities for all.

In short, sustainable development is about eradicating poverty and closing the inequality gap both within countries and among countries. It recommends a certain course of action that governments and society can take to make this world a better place for all. This has been developed in subsequent processes and was most recently reaffirmed at the international level at the Rio+20 Conference 2012 in ‘The Future We Want’.

A more condensed definition would simply recognise that sustainable development is about integrating economic, social and environmental aspects, regardless of whether the outcome is to reduce poverty or to moderate consumption patterns. At the same time, it is not just about raising standards of living, but also about human rights, building on the Millennium Development Goals to achieve what could not be done previously and protecting the environment.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, in his excellent MOOC The Age of Sustainable Development, breaks this down into economic development that is socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable. The broad aim of SD is to reduce inequality and poverty worldwide while ensuring that human rights and biodiversity are looked after. This can be further broken down into specific goals such as sustainable cities, gender equality, universal health coverage and education, food security, curbing climate change, etc.

Sustainable Development Goals

The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals 2015 provide for specific targets that can be achieved in the next 15 years culminating in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The emphasis is on a “global partnership” involving collaboration between governments, the Major Groups (Women, Children & Youth, Indigenous Peoples, NGOs, Local Authorities, Workers and Trade Unions, Business and Industry, Scientific and Technological Community and Farmers), and other stakeholders such as volunteers, migrants, foundations and local communities. This calls for a concerted effort to solve the world’s problems.

At its worst, sustainable development is a critique of why some people/communities/countries are better off than others: “(t)he search for common interest would be less difficult if all development and environment problems had solutions that would leave everyone better off. This is seldom the case, and there are usually winners and losers. Many problems arise from inequalities to access to resources.”

Professor Sachs realised this early on in his work as a developmental economist. In his seminal book ‘The End of Poverty’, he explains that geography plays a significant role in a country’s economy. For instance, Bolivia, a landlocked country high in the Andean mountains, faced high transport costs and this accounted for much of its chronic poverty. Africa, similarly, faces huge problems of malaria in part due to its climate and the prevalence of human-biting mosquitoes, thus contributing to its continued impoverished state. Of course, geography is not everything and factors like history and politics come into play, as was the case with China and USSR.

At best, sustainable development attempts to come up with a solution to the problem of inequality where communism and socialism have failed. It envisages that in a world where democracy flourishes and governments are somehow able to hold their citizens accountable, societies will be better off because everyone’s interest can be equally taken care of and there will be no winners or losers. This is what sustainable development strives towards.

It is not that there is one set of villains and another of victims. All would be better off if each person took into account the effect of his or her acts upon others. But each is unwilling to assume that others will behave in this socially desirable fashion, and hence all continue to pursue narrow self-interest. Communities or governments can compensate for this isolation through laws, education, taxes, subsidies, and other methods. Well-enforced laws and strict liability legislation can control harmful side effects. Most important, effective participation in decision-making processes by local communities can help them articulate and effectively enforce their common interest.” — ‘Our Common Future’

What if, and this is purely a hypothetical question, there are some countries or communities that refuse to subscribe to this idea of development through the moderated use of resources and tempered growth? Libertarians and capitalists subscribe to the idea of free will with limited government — without having to consider the needs of those less well-off or marginalised. What if there are countries that reject the idea of democracy and citizen-participation as a form of governance? What if justice and the rule of law are viewed purely as “Western” concepts?

Perhaps it might be opportune to look to the genesis of the UN after the two world wars and evaluate how far the international organisation has come including its success in preventing future wars.

Chapter 11 of ‘Our Common Future’ identifies conflict as a cause of unsustainable development. This could be due to environmental stress such as drought and famine and resulting competition for limited resources in land, energy or raw materials. Going to war over these limited resources would only exacerbate the problem as precious human lives, money and effort are wasted and extinguish the cooperation required to solve global problems. However, this was precisely what happened in the Iraq War with the Bush Doctrine of pre-emption. Sadly, the UN was powerless to prevent this.

The credibility of the UN as an international organisation took a big hit with President Bush’s unilateral acts. This affirmed the notion of the US being a superpower — perhaps the only superpower. While this disconnect between the respective positions shows that the UN is not simply a mouthpiece for the US, it does beg the question of what the UN stands for. Is it really an institution of free and fair representation for all, or does it still involve subtle power play between the “big leagues”? What determines the success of ideas in the UN and beyond?

Going back to the question of sustainable development, the simple answer is that countries are free to decide whether they subscribe to the idea of sustainable development and choose whether they wish to adopt the SDGs. Using the analogy of the Bush Doctrine, what happens when there is a dissenting country or group of countries? While it might be too draconian to say that this would constitute a failure of the UN (if, after all, democracy is about freedom of choice and opinion), it would lead to greater difficulty in achieving sustainable development at the global level.

This might not necessarily be a bad thing. If preserving cultures and traditions or respecting different idiosyncrasies means isolating from the common goals, then this should be allowed. At what cost, though? This would depend on the nature of the disagreement and how far this departs from the idea of sustainable development as defined above. One country that easily comes to mind is North Korea. Long seen as an outsider, it has stubbornly held on to nepotism, nuclear arms, and totalitarianism while isolating itself from the rest of the world. Another example closer to home is that of Indonesia and its slash-and-burn practices, a long time culprit of the transboundary haze over South-East Asia.

My point, therefore, is that sustainable development is very much a theory. It is an idea put forward by well-meaning academics, heads of states and key personnel for the benefit of all living beings on earth. Its application in turn depends on many factors and would require much more research to evaluate.

What I can do is examine the different ways that sustainable development is interpreted and borne out. In the process, I hope to eventually find an answer to the question of (a) whether sustainable development is necessary and if so, (b) whether it is achievable or not.

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