What Is Sustainable Development (SD)?


In olden times the survivors of dying communities could move on to less populated, more fertile areas, but today, there is no such place left to go! Do those living today owe anything to the future? If "Yes", then we must now determine what and how much we owe future generations, least our present course continues unabated too far into the twenty-first century, eventually to destroy options for all generations to come.

But, communities face enormous challenges as their social, economic, and environmental resources are damaged or depleted. Because these elements of communities are interconnected, there are no simple answers. In addition, whatever issues we find ourselves facing, be it disease, child abuse, crime, injustice, weakened economies, energy shortages, lack of good jobs, extinction of species, poverty, destruction of forests, pollution, breakdown of families, armed conflict, or nuclear power, there are some common threads and interconnected steps that will offer solutions to these seemingly diverse problems.

The interdependencies of the economic, environmental, and social justice elements of our world require new ways of thinking about things and taking action that will truly create a future where human society and nature coexist with mutual benefit, and where the suffering caused by poverty and natural resource abuse is eliminated.

Sustainable development calls for improving the quality of life for all of the world’s people without increasing the use of our natural resources beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity. While sustainable development may require different actions in every region of the world, the efforts to build a truly sustainable way of life require the integration of action in three key areas:

SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT (SD) is the parallel consideration of healthy environments, life, and human well-being. This includes issues of population, climate, economic prosperity, energy, natural resource use, waste management, biodiversity, watershed protection, technology, agriculture, safe water supplies, international security, politics, green building, sustainable cities, smart development, community/family relations, human values, etc. All these "pieces" are parts of the sustainable society puzzle, because they are the basic ingredients of everyday life.

Sustainable development is a multi-dimensional way of thinking about the interdependencies among natural, social, and economic systems in our world. It represents a process in which economics, finance, trade, energy, agriculture, industry, and all other policies are implemented in a way to bring about development that is economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable. Thus, the goal of sustainable development is to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

In practicing sustainable development over the long-term one will:

  1. not diminish the quality of the present environment;
  2. not critically reduce the availability of renewable resources;
  3. take into consideration the value of non-renewable resources to future generations; and
  4. not compromise the ability of other species or future generations to meet their needs.

The Characteristics of SD

Sustainable development is not merely about a series of technical fixes -- about re-designing humanity, or re-engineering nature in our continuing desire for globalized industrialization. Instead, sustainable development is about re-connection with nature, copying what nature does, and developing a profound understanding for the concepts of care that underpin long-term ecologic, economic, and social stewardship of the places we call home.

Likewise, sustainable development is not strictly a problem of science or engineering or economics or proper management. It is all of these, and also includes the passion found in the values, ethics, and cultural heritage of people.

Scientific data, laws, and economic incentives are not enough. Protecting the environment is inescapably a moral issue as well. Therefore, the process of sustainable development must remain flexible, because what works in one community may not work in another or may work for different reasons. For decisions and actions to be sustainable, they must be ever flexible, adaptable, and creative. You can plan and plan, but then also leave yourself open to discovery!

Thus, the major cornerstones forming the foundation of sustainable development include:

Most regions wanting an improved quality of life are economically driven, therefore, economics becomes the necessary vehicle for change. The roadway upon which we are driving is our economy's ecological base of nature and its resources; and society is the driver. This is most easily envisioned by examining our guiding principles shown in the sustainability model (Figure).

This diagram of overlapping circles illustrates the interconnectedness of modern society's economics within the dictates of its ecological and societal (human) bases of support. By this model we are guided to operate under the rubric of sustainable action in which any project that focuses its efforts in a sustainable context, means it strives to link economic, social, and environmental parts of the community to strengthen its overall fabric -- actions that simultaneously address issues of ecologic integrity, economic viability, and social equity, which equals well-being for all (darkened intersection of three circles in the Figure).

Projects that work in only one of these parts of a community are not good examples of efforts to achieve sustainability. All resources -- human, natural, and economic -- are interrelated, and therefore must be addressed in concert with one another. Each element of the overlapping circles diagram is interconnected to demonstrate the interaction between all parts of life and illustrate the need for their equal consideration. To isolate one from the others is not an accurate depiction of the process of sustainable development and the values used to implement it. Members of a sustainable community realize that long term economic security depends upon having a sound, functioning ecosystem, a healthy social environment, and full public involvement (suggested by the ring of people around the three circles).

Another way of looking at this concept of sustainable development is to consider a three-legged stool, where each leg respectively represents one of the basic elements -- economic vitality, ecologic integrity, and social equity. If one of the stool legs is removed, the stool falls over -- emphasizing the importance of all three legs to maintaining the upright position of the stool. All three elements of the sustainable development model are equally important in establishing the foundation of sustainability.

In this context, the sustainability model of the three interconnected circles (Figure) not only embraces wisdom and stewardship in the management of natural resources, but also considers the responsibility of fulfilling basic human needs such as food, shelter, clothing, and the provision of economic means through which to achieve these needs for present generations, without compromising the ability of other species sharing our world or future generations to meet their own needs. In addition, the challenges humanity faces can only be met if people everywhere acquire an awareness of global interdependence. Then, as we identify with the larger world a sense of universal responsibility will follow suit.


Sustainability Objectives

What are the actual objectives of these three circles of Economic vitality, Ecologic integrity, and social Equity? To act in a sustainable development fashion includes a major transformation in society, focusing on the following:

It is worth noting that the first focus issue above involves the growth of human populations. The second, third, fourth, and fifth issues involve how humans consume materials and resources. In the minds of many who work in the arena of sustainable development, according to Dr. Albert Bartlett (University of Colorado) there are two primary "Laws of Sustainability" (Bartlett, A.A. 1998. Reflections on sustainability, population growth, and the environment. Renewable Resources Journal 15(4): 6-23).

  1. The First Law states that current population growth and/or growth in rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.
  2. The Second Law states that the larger the population of a society and/or the larger its rate of consumption of resources, the more difficult it will be to transform the society to a condition of sustainability.

The only hope for sustainable development is a radical shift in societal ethics and culture which considers population stabilization and more responsible consumerism. This shift in attitude and behavior is guaranteed to promote personal fulfillment and sharing, but will also reduce unfulfilling, unnecessary consumption.

Once the overlap and integration of sustainable development elements is identified, accepted, and practiced, people can begin working collectively, extending the area of overlap and integration demonstrated in the sustainable development model above. The key to success of this strategy, however, is that we always treat one another with dignity, compassion, and equality while we explore the hidden potential of the almond-shaped region of circle overlap (see the three circle diagram) and the progress to be gained from integration of the different issues that challenge us.

While this approach contributes to agreement (consensus-building), caution must be exercised so that it does not lead to policies rooted in ambiguity and misunderstanding. The intersecting circles model, if not understood, can obscure real imbalances, non-equivalencies, and moral issues critical to sustainability, and may encourage avoidance of hard questions, contributing to social denial.

Sustainable Development's Origin

The phrase "sustainable development" was defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987. They set forth that "sustainable development is improving people's life-enabling habits to meet our needs in the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs." Natural resources such as water, air, soil, plants, and animals are the basic assets upon which all life, human and otherwise, depends. Therefore, according to this definition it is unwise to use up these supplies, or we will be threatening the security of all people, in the present and future.

Without getting too complicated, we can think of sustainable development as the ability to co-exist in a way that maintains the natural environment, economic well-being, and an equal opportunity for all people on Earth to benefit from a better quality of life now and in the future. The three are interdependent. Nature is our life-support, there is simply no way around this reality. Only when we have a healthy natural environment, coupled with healthy social systems, can we truly prosper economically. Misleading answers to questions and solutions to problems will be the outcome by looking at any one of these elements in isolation. Consider the plight of many African countries now that are in continual states of poverty, upheaval, and warfare. Are we really addressing their problems in an integrated manner when we address the apparent symptoms instead of attacking the many common causes of these very diverse issues?

But, sustainability is not a "thing we do" or a "program we carry-out". Instead, it is a process by which we reason and a way we choose to live; a process that uses common sense and intuition as a baseline. Sustainability should be viewed as a philosophy, or ethic, affording people the ability to consider long-term consequences of actions and to think broadly across issues, disciplines, and boundaries. As a process, sustainable community development exposes citizens to the ramifications of their thoughts and actions on others, their local environment, and the surrounding landscape, as well as motivating and organizing people to direct change within the context of a responsible and shared vision for a collective future.

Is Sustainable Development and Oxymoron?

But, the term "sustainable development" itself can be ambiguous. Many identify with the "sustainable" part and hear a call for ecological and social transformation, a world of healthy environments and social justice. Others identify with "development" and interpret it to mean more sensitive economic growth, a significantly reformed version of the status quo.

The minute one equates growth with the word development, however, a deeper insight allows us to begin seeing immediate problems. Sustainable growth implies increasing endlessly, which can also mean the growing quantity will tend to become infinite in size. We all understand how this is not possible, especially when the term "sustainable growth" is composed of words that are truly contradictory to one another (an oxymoron).

To change the world we must meet head-on the differences between growth and development -- quantity verses quality. General failure to distinguish between true development and mere growth is the basis of much confusion in our efforts to operationalize ideas about sustainability. Clarifying this confusion is essential in understanding sustainable development's true definition.

Growth is an increase in physical size through quantitative material increase. In contrast, development is the realization of a fuller and greater potential -- qualitative change, realization of potentialities, and transition to a fuller or better state. In short, growth means getting bigger while development means getting better. Therefore, sustainable development is progressive social betterment without growing beyond ecological carrying capacity.

Even those at the center of the sustainable development debate often tend to forget the difference between growth and development. Having grown to the maximum, it is time that humanity began to concentrate on developing its full potential. In theory this should not be too difficult. Each of us does much the same thing in the course of our individual lives. We grow early in life and when we reach adult maturity we develop mentally, socially, and culturally, instead of continuing to physically grow. Growth during maturity is either obesity or cancer.

Additionally, in trying to get ahead, or as we say "grow," we often find ourselves in the unfortunate position of preventing our development from reaching its full potential by the discrimination we attach to gender, race, class, religion, or ideology. Because of these attributes, in essence half of the world's population is in one way or another excluded from taking initiatives to contribute their skills and work to the collective global society. If instead we could take full advantage of the potential co- development activities from all these different parts of humanity, we might not feel so pressured to "keep growing" our economies.

The planet Earth will not get larger. Earth is finite, one size, not growing. Thus, there is no such thing as "sustainable growth" because growth will inevitably hit physical limits. But development can continue endlessly as we seek to improve the quality of life for humans and for the other creatures with which we share the planet. To fulfill these aspirations, we must recognize that human development is not about having more, but about being more. Financial security does not necessarily correlate with happiness.

It seems then that "more is better" is an inherently frustrating game. A game that has been promoted by the fallacy of confusing the quantity of things with quality of life. A game that now has too many losers and so few winners. The idea of development must be separated from an economic and reductionist dimension of life. If we think of development as assuring a dignified level of existence -- that is serving human basic needs, such as food, clear water, shelter, clean air, cloth, friendship, diversity of tastes, beliefs, preferences, etc. -- we would offer a great step toward constructing a better world: healthier, happier and less unequal. Through the actions of sustainable development, a new win-win scenario is being born.

The Sustainability Debate

Sustainable development is a dynamic process which enables all people to realize their potential and to improve their quality of life in ways which simultaneously protect and enhance our Earth's life-support systems. These, however, are the main poles of tension. Social inequity, the material disparity that accompanies it, as well as the question of why consideration for nature should come before the welfare of humans, are at the center of the sustainable development debate.

Ecological sustainability is the simple part of the sustainable development concept. While there is considerable debate over where exactly the limits are, there is general consensus that we must learn to live together within the means of nature. Socioeconomic sustainability, however, is a more difficult and potentially contentious concept. The question of "who gets what (and how)" raises the specter of potential conflict both within and between nations. The need for shared justice and the associated latent conflict is the most scary and politically taxing part of the sustainability question.

But instead of this polarity, think about sustainable development as achieving economic health, environmental protection, and social equity objectives in an integrated, comprehensive way. It is about equal consideration between economic development and environmental quality, between technological innovation and community stability, and between investment in people and investment in infrastructure. Because it is broadly based -- cutting across all dimensions of human life, including such issues as energy shortages, species extinctions, pollution, disease, breakdown in families, armed conflict, child abuse, poverty, and corruption -- sustainable development requires participation by all of society in moving beyond the conflicts of debate.

Nexus of Sustainability and Equity

Individual and collective economic vitality is an important element of any sustainable community. In order to advance economic security extant economic opportunities must be preserved and new development encouraged. Generally, economic vitality is founded in "a healthy...economy that diversifies and co-develops sufficiently to create meaningful jobs, reduce poverty, and provide the opportunity for a high quality of life for all in an increasingly competitive world" (President's Council on Sustainable Development PCSD, 1996:15).

Further, sustainable development cannot be achieved unless jobs are environmentally "clean" in that they do not contribute to air or water pollution or create toxic wastes. Ecological integrity ensures "that every person enjoys the benefits of clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment at home, at work, and at play" (PCSD, 1996:14). This goal is met, in part, through conserving natural resources and decreasing exposure to toxic substances and environmental hazards.

Social equity refers to fairness among community members; that is, evenhandedness both economically and environmentally, as well as in all aspects of social well-being (PCSD, 1996:16). Sustainable development requires an equitable distribution of economic and environmental costs and benefits, critical community services (e.g., education, health care), and opportunities to participate in decisions which affect the community. Advancement toward social equity requires particular attention to the progress made by those who are most disadvantaged in the community, usually women, youth and children, indigenous people, and/or racial/ethnic minorities.

In essence, we are practicing sustainable development when we find the means to equally and simultaneously address economic development with environmental protection, while also insuring that the most disadvantaged people in our society are provided the ability to improve their quality of life. If disproportionately impacted community members aren't able to improve their well-being, the best designed plans will not meet with success and future generations will not enjoy a high quality of life. This is the nexus of sustainable development and equity -- without equity and justice considerations sustainability objectives cannot be achieved.

In this context therefore, we are affirming that sustainable development not only embraces wisdom and stewardship in the management of natural resources, but also considers fulfillment of basic human needs such as food, shelter, clothing, and the provision of economic means through which to achieve these needs for all peoples in present generations, without compromising the ability of other species sharing our world or future generations to meet their own needs.

Features of Sustainable Communities

Economic Security (measures - disparities, local wealth, mutual assistance)
A sustainable community possesses a healthy and diverse economy that adapts to change, provides long-term security to residents, and recognizes social and ecological limits. Prosperity of a community's economy is based upon preservation of its assets and natural resource wealth by maximizing income generation while also maintaining or increasing the assortment of assets that yield these benefits and are key to its productivity. A more sustainable community has a variety of businesses, industries, and institutions which are environmentally sound (in all aspects) and financially viable, while retaining residents' money within the community. These businesses and institutions provide training, education, and other forms of assistance to adjust to future needs, furnish jobs, and enable employees to have a voice in decisions which affect them. Sustainable communities concentrate on qualitative development rather than quantitative growth and reduce the use of incentives that reward excessive consumption while failing to reflect losses in natural capital.

Ecological Integrity (measures - functional capacity of natural systems, environmentally-sound utilization of natural systems)
In sustainable communities environments and ecosystems are maintained both for their own essential natural functions, their beauty, their livability as a landscape, and their ability to provide sustainable supplies of natural resources and waste assimilation. Sustainable communities emphasize the importance of healthy, diverse ecological systems that continually provide life sustaining functions and other resources for humans and all other species. A more sustainable community is in harmony with natural systems by reducing and converting waste into non-harmful and beneficial purposes, and by utilizing the natural ability of environmental resources for human needs without undermining their function and longevity.

Social Equity and Well-Being (measures - respect for self/others, caring, connectedness, meeting basic needs)
A more sustainable community recognizes and supports people's evolving sense of well-being which includes a sense of belonging, a sense of place, a sense of self-worth, a sense of safety, a sense of connection with nature, and provision of goods and services which meet their needs, both as they define them and as can be accommodated within the ecological integrity of natural systems. A community that is truly sustainable provides for the health of all community members, respects cultural diversity, is equitable in its actions, and considers the needs of future generations. In this regard social equity implies that diverse social and cultural systems are preserved and that tensions are able to be resolved by distributing costs and benefits equitably. Sustainable communities consider intra-generational equity (e.g., elimination of poverty, viable levels of welfare, protection of public health, provision of education) and inter-generational equity (e.g. leaving the world in a better condition than we found it, protecting future generations' rights to opportunities of present generations).

Cultural Vitality (measures - existence of cultural values, ability to preserve history & culture for future generations, use of culture & history to advance societal learning)
The measure of institutions and means communities implement to retain their cultural heritage are a significant part of indicating a community's sustainability. Although the term may be new, sustainable development is not a new phenomena or concern. On the contrary, ideas of interdependence, self-sufficiency, celebration of unique skills, and longevity of civilizations date back thousands of years. It is not widely recognized but the seeds of our present concern with sustainability were first sowed around the beginning of the twentieth century with the conflicts that erupted in response to the widespread destruction of natural resources during the settlement of the U.S. There is much to be learned from society keeping a constant eye on the history of past civilizations, the cultural attributes that have developed in different societies through time, and the way their ancestors went about living, playing, working, and growing.

Citizen Engagement and Responsibility (measures - reaching out, equal/fair playing field, civic capacity, accountability)
A more sustainable community enables people to feel empowered and to take responsibility based on a shared vision, equal opportunity, ability to access expertise and knowledge for their own needs, and a capacity to affect positively the outcome of decisions which influence them. Public engagement is a participatory approach to managing a region in order to foster sustainability. It blends the concepts of good governance, participation, consensus building, the taking of civic responsibilities, and participatory strategic planning, which implies cooperative problem solving and the willingness of citizens to accept joint responsibility for actions that are sustainable. Although the sustainability movement is enjoying increasing visibility, it is for the most part restricted to circles populated by the converted. This is hardly a mass movement, and its political utility remains, in most regions, unproved. There is growing energy and enthusiasm, but proponents have still not succeeded in creating a broad-based movement.

Institutional Effectiveness (measures - effectiveness of governance, activities of non-profit organizations, influence of special interest groups)
One of our biggest challenges in trying to achieve sustainability is related to the limited understanding public officials and citizens have regarding principles and practices that provide the foundation and "springboard" for a place attempting to be sustainable. If decision-makers are expected to embrace "sustainable" economic development and promote this philosophy as a long-term view, whether it be for activities such as tourism that rely on quality natural environments, or it be some other form of business that is encouraged to be conducted in a sustainable fashion, these decision-makers must have a set of guiding principles (game rules) upon which they rely in making decisions and policy and seeing these policies are implemented in a way to encourage community sustainability. Community proponents must make citizens' voices heard in governance to achieve greater transparency in government decision-making and programs. Businesses, neighborhood and community groups, the media, and citizens, as well as governments, influence governance through participation.

Communities Practicing Sustainability

Issues associated with sustainability speak to values of future, of relationships, of ecosystems. The framework or foundation for sustainability is community. The economic development of any place is very closely linked to that place's stewardship of natural resources, environments, and people. In order to achieve a sound means of connection and support between development and stewardship, there must be a strong foundation of community capacity. In the process of trying to achieve this community capacity, groups and organizations are encouraged to identify and discuss their particular Community Needs that they believe will improve human well-being without degrading environmental health. Examples of some can be seen by going to this link.

If communities are focused on changing their economy and doing it in a way that seeks equal consideration for modern society, economics, and nature (the three circle sustainable development model above), then communities will follow the guidance of the community development triangle (Figure). According to this model the economy of a place is very closely linked to the locale's stewardship of natural resources, environments, and people. Furthermore, in order to achieve a sound balance between economy and stewardship, there must be a strong foundation of community capacity upon which to enact identified actions.

Achieving sustainability involves connecting the sides of the triangle. Traditionally, ligaments connecting these sides have been torn and one side gets worked on without considering the others. Targeting change in economic development and accepting we will achieve sustainability only by linking of social, economic, and ecological concerns, we must work to reconnect the triangle sides of economy, stewardship, and community capacity (Figure).

In building community capacity, we need to address things in common if they are to be addressed at all. "It takes all of us and it takes forever." Everyone is needed and everyone has a contribution to make, irrespective of one's background, age, gender, or economic status. By becoming involved, citizens can help shape the future of their community in positive ways, and change will happen. This requires attainment of a civic critical mass (maximum community member participation), upon which to enact sustainable actions. In other words, a small number of the potential total participants from a community will not get the job of sustainable development done.

Recognition of the following basic beliefs help communities achieve critical community capacity and maximum participation toward sustainability:

Sustaining a community is a choice, not something you back into. Sustainable communities don't happen by accident; they happen by design with a sense of place. It comes down to a function of the community and how it chooses to tackle problems. A sustainable community is one that moves beyond subsistence, to an ability for making choices.

In seeking full community participation, sustainable development requires the constant and equal consideration of actions at all levels (personal, professional, and governmental). Only in this manner can we achieve community economic security while maintaining environmental integrity in ways that are fair and equal to all members of society and that attack the underlying causes of problems, instead of the symptoms we most easily see. In applying sustainable development principles, one must link economic, societal, and environmental issues on a sound foundation of citizen capacity and will, to strengthen the overall community fabric and realize it's long-term.

How To Obtain Real Solutions

Sustainable Development is a process to define our problems and solve them in a way that is long-lasting. By following principles of sustainability we can overcome unanticipated consequences of short-sighted solutions, that deal only with the symptoms of our problems rather than the underlying causes. Acting sustainably allows us to think and function outside our own boxes (disciplines, organizations, communities), and is a means that will encourage us to think in an integrative way (ecology, economics, equity). It is important to recognize a sustainable development framework as an essential way to organize our work on problem-solving. It is about hard work; it is not a "quick- fix" or simply jumping on the "band wagon". It means rolling up our sleeves as a community and saying we are not going to be with this for a year or two, but rather for the next generation or several generations.

The best approach to discussing sustainable development is to talk about the things we all know about and are comfortable with: such things as our homes, our children, our jobs, nature, the air we breathe, and the food we eat. These topics are what sustainability is about and believe it or not they are all interconnected. Sustainable development is the simultaneous consideration of environment, life, and human well-being.

Actually, these are the exact things that sustainable development hopes to improve. In this sense, sustainability implies long-lasting, continuing far into the future (generations). These topics and their continuing quality, are the basics of our life and what enables us to live in the manner that we have become accustomed -- or, what floats this huge capitalistic boat we seem to be on. Thus, in discussing further the concept of sustainable development in truly meaningful ways, relevance is vital -- that which we will pay attention to.



It's Only an Environmental Thing!

And to further cloud our view, the discussion of sustainability is often driven by environmental (ecologic) viewpoints, usually at the irritation of skeptics. Why does environment play so strongly in our sustainable future? Because the socio-economic spheres are inside of the ecosphere, there is no economy outside of society!

Think about it -- we are the only inhabitants of the planet who have strained its resource so critically. Most species of plants and animals have built-in controls. They don't truly have an economy that they must continually grow. Their supply of food limits their expansion, and if they become overburdened, their numbers suffer. Since most life forms are somewhere on the food chain, they often are rescued by predators that help to regulate their population, influenced by the many coincidences that shape their lives.

Not so with humans. Human populations through history always tended to outgrow subsistence, so disease and famine in the past would even things out. Technology and the growth of cities, however, have thwarted this pattern of balance. Ultimately our present population could become stable by increasing the death rate beyond the human birth rate. This seems to most people, however, to be an untenable solution! Instead, we must begin assuming the stance that humans will always be affected by their surrounding environment, natural or artificial. Envision a series of circles, where the economy circle lies inside the society circle, and both these lie inside the environment circle (Figure). Once we understand this hierarchy, sustainability begins to become more clear.

Thus, sustainable development must always consider environmental change, because in the co-evolution of human and natural systems, humans are directly related to and affected by the environment around them. Changes in the human system and its support system, and changes imposed upon humans by the environmental system, must be slower than corresponding adaptation processes in the human system and the natural system it depends upon.

For example, global change reminds us that the economy is embedded in the ecosphere, and human life is dependent on the maintenance of ecological life-support. Consider all the press now about world climate change and potential resulting dangerous economic and social impacts. If weather and global climate significantly change faster than life can adapt, major extinctions will occur, as when the dinosaurs disappeared from the Earth. Likewise, if changes in our environment affect our climate, evidence suggests these climate alterations will for example, impact coastal cities with flooding, change the makeup of whole bio-regions around the world, and directly affect the economies and comforts of society. This consideration for the well-being of all life is not only extended for those to enjoy in today's world, but for future generations as well.