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Why Should We Care About Sustainable Development?

This section explores some of the main reasons why sustainable development is so important. It outlines the ways in which sustainable development relates to every individual's life and the reasons why change is needed. The information is provided under these headings:


Unsustainable actions will lead to 'social and ecological crises'

The world's current ecological, demographic, and economic trajectory is unsustainable, meaning that if we continue with 'business as usual' we will hit social and ecological crises with calamitous results.

Jeffrey Sachs

Sachs's statement summarises the practical need for sustainable development - if we continue with our unsustainable actions and do not change our current practices we can expect social and ecological crises. Unsustainable actions include (but not limited to) the over-exploitation of resources, unfair trading, etc. Sustainable development incorporates facing the causes of these potential crises. Sachs identifies the following areas as the key issues that need to be addressed:

  • Human pressures on the earth's ecosystems and climate
  • The world's population rising at a dangerously rapid pace
  • One sixth of the world remains trapped in extreme poverty despite global economic growth
  • Cynical, defeatist attitudes and old-fashioned institutions standing in the way of developing global solutions

The future of the human race is at risk

Continued unsustainable actions will prevent future generations from meeting their needs. The Indian philosopher and environmental activist Vandana Shiva raises the point that current practices are putting the human race at serious risk:

While wide-ranging wars, colonial expansion, and slavery - among other things - have long resulted in human-generated misery and destruction, never before have the actions of one part of humanity threatened the existence of the entire human species.

Vandana Shiva goes on to identify three major crises that, if combined, are likely to threaten the survival of the earth:

  • Climate - global warming and the consequences of climate change
  • Energy - the dependence on cheap oil to fuel the industrialisation of production and the globalisation of consumerism
  • Food - climate change and depleting oil reserves are combining with the impact of globalisation on the rights of the poor to food and livelihood

We have a moral obligation to support sustainable development

Economists and scientists have highlighted the financial, scientific and practical reasons why unsustainable practices need to change. However, what about the ethical considerations?

Climate change is one of the most serious ethical issues facing humanity in the 21st century.

Fr. Sean McDonagh, SCC

Sean McDonagh, noted author and speaker on environmental issues, raises the importance of moral and ethical principles in relation to climate change. As previously discussed sustainable development involves considering the needs of future generations in the decisions we make now. This aspect of sustainable development incorporates our moral obligation to care for future generations. The UNDP Human Development Report 2007/8 makes the following statement regarding our responsibility to engage with climate change:

The moral imperative to tackle climate change is rooted above all in ideas about stewardship, social justice and ethical responsibility.

To put sustainable development ideals into practice, it is important to integrate ethical principles with practical actions. In relation to climate change and sustainable actions, consider the ethical answers to these questions:

  • Who is responsible for putting pressure on the Earth's ecosystems?
  • Whose duty is it to reduce carbon emissions?
  • Is a country that continues to engage in unsustainable practices, but currently unaffected by serious climate change, responsible for the chaos of climate change in another country?
  • Is it morally acceptable for lifestyles to continue that require the resources of more than one planet?

Many systems in the world today have a strong focus on profit and growth - and not sustainability or business ethics. It is important that the ethical principles behind sustainable development play a stronger role in policy making. Through the analysis of ethical questions, such as those raised above, lifestyle choices, business decisions and government policies can embrace the ideals of sustainable development in a practical manner.

To read more about the issues and challenges facing the implementation of sustainable development check out the section on Sustainable Solutions.


We only have one Earth

If everyone in the world consumed as many natural resources as the average person in the UK we'd need three planets to support us. If we all lived the average American lifestyle, we'd need five planets to support us.

One Planet Vision

On a global scale humans currently use the equivalent of 1.5 planets. Moderate UN scenarios suggest that if current population and consumption trends continue, by the 2030s we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us. The following diagram shows the difference, or "overshoot", between the Ecological Footprint of global human activities and the Biocapacity of the earth if unsustainable development continues. (To find out more check out www.footprintnetwork.org)

ecological-overshoot

The earth currently provides us with the basic resources we need to survive. Everything that is produced and consumed can be traced back to raw materials from the earth. As such, it is crucial that the earth's resources are protected from human over-use. The current systems of consumption, land use and pollution - particularly in the First World - are far greater than the earth can support. Sustainable development aims to limit the strain on the earth's resources to within its capacity and ensure the survival of, not only humans, but the planet itself.


Climate change is causing major problems

The damage wrought by climate change has the potential to extend from vulnerable populations today across generations to the whole of humanity in the distant future

UNDP Human Development Report 2007/2008

Climates are changing and scientific research has shown how rising temperatures, changes in precipitation and other changes in climatic variables are having increasingly serious and negative consequences. Sustainable development embodies development that does not contribute to climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimate that since the beginning of mass industrialisation in the western world the global surface temperature of the planet has risen by 0.74°C. The latest IPCC assessment report predicts that global temperature increases by 2100 could range between 1.1°C and 6.4°C. These predictions are based upon 6 different Greenhouse Gas and aerosol emission scenarios. Shockingly, even if concentrations are kept at year 2000 levels, a rise of 0.3°C to 0.9°C is expected this century. These small increases are creating big problems, a few of which are described below:

  1. Climate change & rising sea levels

    During the 20th century sea levels rose between 15cm to 20cm with the rate at the end of the century greater than over the earlier part of the century. The IPCC estimate that the global average sea level will rise a further 18cm to 59cm in the next century. These rises will have dramatic impacts on the 600 million people living in coastal areas that are less than 10 metres above sea level. To consider one example - a one-metre rise in sea levels would see 12 per cent of Egypt, home to more than 82 million people, disappear under water. Whole communities will be forced to relocate and storm surges will have far greater destructive effects.

  2. Climate change & animals

    Climate change has direct implications for animals. It is affecting their habitats and food sources. Habitats are being lost due to changing environments, from rising sea levels in coastal areas to fires in areas of drought. As animals relocate, those remaining are left with fewer prey. Disruptions in rainfall, change in temperature and increases in pest infestations pose significant threats to vegetation growth which will affect animals and humans alike. Agricultural production is expected to drop in many parts of the world which would lead to a growth in the 'Bushmeat' black market as human's turn to illegal hunting to survive. The number one concern for animals and climate change is extinction. The U.N.'s IPCC estimated that if global temperatures increase more than two to three degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 - 1.65°C) above current temperature levels, up to one-third of the species on Earth could be at risk of extinction.

  3. Climate change & disease

    Infectious diseases, especially those transmitted through insects or water, are sensitive to climatic conditions. Water bodies are rising in temperature providing suitable conditions for the growth and spread of disease-causing bacteria. Disease carriers such as ticks, mosquitoes and rats are moving into warmer climates, spreading diseases as they go. These factors contribute to the greater potential for epidemic outbreaks as climate change continues. For example an additional 220 - 400 million people could be exposed to malaria annually and dengue fever is being recorded at higher levels of elevation than previously encountered, according to the UNDP Report 2007/2008. The greatest health impacts of climate change are expected to be felt by countries with high poverty levels and limited public health care facilities.

There are some who argue that climate change is not being significantly affected by human contributions. Their objections are discussed in the section Debating Climate Change. Whatever the human contributions may be, it is clear that efforts must be made to reduce climate change and its potentially devastating consequences.


This section has summarised the key reasons as to why sustainable development needs to gain worldwide support. It has outlined some practical and ethical issues and provided a number of real world examples. By addressing the core reasons as to why we should support sustainable development, it is possible to gain a better understanding of how our individual actions have global implications and the need for change in order to avert potential crises - ecological, social and economic.