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What is Sustainable Development?

Author: Clíodhna Denny. Year: 2011

...there can be no doubt that consumer cultures are behind what Gus Speth has called the "Great Collision" between a finite planet and the infinite demands of human society. More than 6.8 billion human beings are now demanding ever greater quantities of material resources, decimating the world's richest ecosystems and dumping billions of tonnes of heat-trapping gasses into the atmosphere each year. Despite a 30% increase in resources efficiency, global resource use has expanded 50% over the past 3 decades. And those numbers could continue to soar for decades to come as more than 5 billion people, who currently consume one tenth as many resources per person as the average European, try to follow the trail blazed by the world's affluent.

Christopher Flavin, President of the Worldwatch Institute
State of the World Report 2010

The world's current model of development is unsustainable. For some considerable time now we have been living well beyond our means and our present manner of living (more especially consuming) is placing an increasing (and impossible) burden on the Earth in which we live and which future generations will inherit. The main goal of sustainable development is to create new understandings and possibilities that allow all people worldwide to satisfy their basic needs (as distinct from wants!) and enjoy a good quality of life. It is not only possible, but necessary for people to do this for a wide variety of reasons (explored throughout this section) including the rights and responsibilities of future generations. Sustainable development seeks to enable all people to recognise their potential to improve their quality of life in ways that will both protect and enhance the Earth's life and support systems.

The most common definition for sustainable development comes from 'Our Common Future ' - a report published in 1987 by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), which is also known as the Brundtland Report.

The WCED define sustainable development as 'development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs' . It essentially contains two key concepts:

  • The concept of needs - "in particular, the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given"
  • The idea of limitations - limitations which are "imposed by the state of technology and social organisation on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs".

In order for sustainable development to work, it must encompass a number of areas, such as environmental, economic and social progress and equity, but all within the limits of the world's natural resources. If we all want to live within our environmental limits and achieve a just society, then we must address the issues of a sustainable economy, good governance and sound science.

This section covers some of the fundamental issues surrounding sustainable development and climate change. We look at why we should care about sustainable development. We explore sides of the climate change debate, how development and the environment are interlinked, as well as Third World perspectives, from activists to government ministers to teachers. We also discuss sustainable solutions that can be undertaken at global, national, community and individual levels.


This module was written by Clíodhna Denny