Concept of Sustainable Development

Before the 1950s the prevailing viewpoint in the West was that humans could and should modify nature to their advantage and that the environment was Virtually limitless and resilient.

Nature was to be studied, catalogued, tamed, and exploited. The frontier was still open, with land to settle and relatively few signs of environmental stress, other than localized pollution and some loss of biodiversity.

The pre-1960s outlook, still not fully extinguished, was essentially mechanistic – that nature was relatively easy to understand, model and control – like ‘clockwork’, and there was little awareness of the complexity, vulnerability, and limitations of the Earth’s ecosystems.

In 1965 US Ambassador to the UN, Adlai Stevenson, popularized the catchphrase Spaceship Earth which became an icon for many. It represented the world as a fragile, unique, closed environment in which first-class passengers (the developed countries and other rich people) were greedy and profligate, and the more numerous lower-class passengers (the poor, mainly non-Western, nations – who each consumed far less, but en masse caused growing stress), were multiplying beyond the life-support capacity.

Neither first- nor lower-class passengers were in control and both were vulnerable to each other and increasingly to natural hazards.

Although the concept was first voiced in the early 1970s (e.g., by the World Council of Churches in 1974), serious interest in sustainable development was limited before publications such as The Limits to Growth in 1972 and Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful in 1973. After that it seemed to offer a way to heed limits and develop (have economic growth-preferable to ‘zero growth’.

Sustainable Development Three pillars

Economic development (especially poverty reduction)

Social development;

Environmental protection.

Sustainable Development Brundtland Report

The Brundtland Report greatly boosted interest in sustainable development (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987), and the concept is now so well established that it is unlikely to pass out of fashion.

Sustainable development is now a key goal for environmental management. A huge diversity of agencies and groups are now dancing to the same sustainable development tune (with varying degrees of sincerity and effort), following the greening of politics in Western countries in the 1980s.

Concept of Sustainable Development

This term was used for the first time in an UN-sponsored document called Brundtland Report’ in 1987.

Sustainable Development Brundtland Definition

This term is defined as, ‘Meeting the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.’

Later on, this term was first debated in the UN Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. The resulting document titled Agenda 21′ provided a roadmap for sustainable development. Follow up a conference of the Rio Summit was held in Johannesburg in 2002 which provided for the implementation plan of sustainable development. This concept is a middle ground that focuses on both economic development and environment.

Concept of Sustainable Development
Concept of Sustainable Development

Sustainable Development three pillars identified by UN World Summit 2005 are:

Economic Development

Social Development

Environmental Protection

This concept is opposite to Green Development’ which negates economic and cultural considerations, e.g., best water treatment plant irrespective of any other factor; but sustainable development takes this as optimum water treatment plant considering price as well as environmental effects.

Thus, sustainable development focuses not only on economic development but also on maintaining the quality of life. The unsustainable development has given rise to many problems especially in developing countries.

But sustainable development focuses on more equitable use of earth resources and removal of disparity among developing, developed and underdeveloped factions of society.

Sustainable Development Debate Topics

There are two overlapping areas of debate about sustainable development: one focuses on its meaning, the second on practical aspects (implementation).

A goal of sustainable development may be used to help integrate diverse interests that would probably not Otherwise co-operate. Even if it is achieved in only a limited way, it may nevertheless prove to be a valuable guide rail for development’.

There are parallels with judges seeking justice, Citizens wanting liberty, and philosophers and scientists pursuing truth – the goal may be elusive but efforts to reach it have to be maintained.

A more pessimistic view suggested that Sustainable development marks the end of the West’s faith in progress- a sort of post-industrial loss of confidence.

There are a huge number of definitions of sustainable development. It is many things: a goal, a paradigm shift, above all difficult to achieve and often complex.

Sustainable Development UN Definition

Sustainable Development UN definition becomes well known:

To meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987).

Some Sustainable Development UN definitions are as follows:

  1. Environmental care ‘married’ to development.
  2. Improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems.
  3. Development based on the principle of intergenerational (i.e., bequeathing the same or improved resource endowment to the future that has been inherited), inter-species and inter-group equity.
  4. Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
  5. An environmental ‘handrail’ to guide development.
  6. A change in consumption patterns towards more benign products, and a shift in investment patterns towards augmenting environmental capital.
  7. A process that seeks to make manifest a higher standard of living (however interpreted) for human beings… that recognizes this cannot be achieved at the expense of environmental integrity.

Most definitions stress inter-generational equity (passing to future generations as much as the present enjoys) and intra-generational equity (sharing what there is between all groups).

Sustainable Development vs Sustainability

Caution is needed: sustainability and sustainable development are not the same but are often used as if they were. The former is the ongoing function of an ecosystem or use of a resource (i.e., maintenance of environmental quality).

So, sustainability is the quantification of status and progress (environmental or social) and the goal of the sustainable development process. Ecologists, fisheries managers, foresters, and biologists developed measures such as carrying capacity and maximum sustainable yield by the 1940s – the idea being that an ecosystem can sustain a given level of demand.

It should be noted that, even if demand is sustainable, unexpected environmental changes may upset things. Those seeking sustainability often assume steady demands, which may not be the case.

Sustainable development to many implies increasing demands in order to improve well-being and lifestyles, and probably in the foreseeable future to cope with a growing population.

Perhaps there will be some leeway if new technology, altered tastes, and substitution of resources enable increasing demand to be met without greater environmental impact many hopes so.

Extremes of sustainable development debate topics

Environmental economists often split sustainable development into two (unsatisfactory) extremes: strong and weak:


The belief that the existing stock of natural capital should be maintained or improved.

Rejection of strategies such as substitution (e.g., not burning oil, which is non-renewable, and then invest some of the profit in sustainable energy sources such as wind generators). The same amount of natural capital is passed on to future generations.

Human misery is acceptable as a cost of reaching sustainable development.

This means that development must be based on natural capital that can be regenerated.


The costs of attaining sustainable development are carefully weighed in human terms unpleasant impacts are resisted, even if sustainable development is delayed or endangered.

Substitution is possible – i.e., if need be, it is permissible to trade natural capital through substitution (future generations receive about the same total capital, but it may have been changed).

What cannot yet be substituted is protected? Broadly, this viewpoint concedes that existing economics and development strategies may be used.

Variants of the latter (weak) interpretation are currently dominant (mainstream), and in reality, few hold to strong sustainable development.

There is also a split in opinion as to whether sustainable development can be achieved gradually, or demands rapid and radical change (e.g. of ethics, habits, economics). Sustainable development may be pursued at local, regional, national, and supranational levels, the approach being top-down’ or participatory.

It is possible for a region, city, country, or company to win a false sustainable development at the expense of somewhere else.

For example, a town improves its sewage pollution by dumping it far away; or a poor nation may bear the environmental impacts of resource processing, while rich consumers do not this is a sort of export of unsustainable development.

What Sustainable Development Goals are?

Sustainable development is widely held to have three goals:

  1. Economic growth,
  2. Environmental protection, and
  3. The health and happiness of people.

Plenty of academics have noted the conflict within the concept of sustainable development- between wishing to remain within environmental limits and seeking growth or development. Supporters of Sustainable development do not pursue environmental quality in isolation from addressing social disintegration and poverty. Tough environmental standards are not acceptable if they Cause poverty or for richer people a resented decline in well-being. The question is:

Can the ambitious goals of sustainable development be achieved in real-world situations and within environmental limits?

It might be argued that it is better to set sights a little lower and Pursue survivability rather than sustainability (i.e., a development approach which does no risk human survival).

Importance of Environmental Management to Sustainable Development

Sustainable development is a prime objective of environmental management, but it is a challenge to find effective and workable strategies.

Such strategies will frequently overlap and interact, so it is vital to ensure that they do not interfere with each other and, if possible, are mutually supportive-which necessitates both local knowledge and strategic coordination, ultimately at the global scale.

There have to be supportive human institutions, which must be resilient and adaptable to meet unforeseen challenges; there must be adequate information about the past, the present, and the future (environmental, social, technical, and cultural) and a drive and willingness to make sustainable development work.

It is highly unlikely that all constraints and challenges will ever be fully assessed in advance, so resilience and adaptability are crucial to any strategy.

Forum for Sustainable Development

There has been no shortage of international meetings, agencies, and NGOs promoting sustainable development since 1990.

The UN Commission on Sustainable Development was established in 1993 by the UN Economic and Social Council to follow up proposals made at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio ‘Earth Summit’ – widely seen to have had limited success); it is now promoting sustainable development but lacks teeth’. Other bodies include the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

The former is also widely considered to be ineffectual. Agenda 21 (a 500-page-plus publication released in 1992 at the Earth Summit to act as a framework for achieving sustainable development), and derivative initiatives have helped promote sustainable development.

Support is also provided by the Commission on Sustainable Development. In 2002 a World Summit on Sustainable Development was held at Johannes burg (WSSD, 2002).

Poverty is getting worse in some countries and the problems it generates undermine chances to achieve sustainable development. The factors leading to impoverishment are complex and the way forward is unclear – certainly part of the struggle will be to spread ethics which value sustainable development, foster productive social interaction and make better use of knowledge.

Environmental management can support sustainable development by:

Environmental Management & Sustainable Development

  1. Identifying Key Issues
  2. Monitoring to reduce the Chance of surprise
  3. Establishing feasible strategies & boundaries
  4. Clarifying threats, opportunism & limits

Strategies Required for Sustainable Development

Strategies are needed to ensure the development process results in sustainable development.

Key elements are supportive and sustainable institutions; the use of appropriate ethics; and motivation. So, institution building and replacement of non-sustainable ways play an important role.

Many would argue that this should all be based on careful observation, ongoing learning, and management by those in touch with or even working with citizens (it may be that more top-down and authoritarian approaches also work).

The range of tools and approaches for the measurement, management, and promotion of sustainable development is growing.

Promising approaches include strategic sustainable development; integrated appraisal; and industrial ecology.

Concluding Concept of Sustainable Development

The satisfaction of human needs and aspirations is the major objective of development.

The essential needs of vast numbers of people in developing countries for food, clothing, shelter, jobs- are not being met, and beyond their basic needs, these people have legitimate aspirations for an improved quality of life.

A world in which poverty and inequity are endemic will always be prone to ecological and other crises.

Sustainable development requires meeting the basic needs of all and extending to all the opportunity to satisfy their aspirations for a better life. In essence, sustainable development is a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development; and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations.

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