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Definition: sustainable development from A Glossary of UK Government and Politics

Development capable of being maintained at a steady level without exhausting natural resources or causing severe ecological damage. The term was first developed by the United Nations Commission on the Environment and Development 1987, in its report ‘Our Common Future’, in which a sustainable society was defined as one that ‘meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

Summary Article: Sustainable Development
From Green Politics: An A-to-Z Guide

Desertification, exemplified by this drying lakebed, is just one of the serious threats to the environment that have resulted from unsustainable development practices.

Sustainable development is a term that has come to define human and environmental interactions in the 21st century. Sustainable development is the promotion of developmental patterns that will enable current human generations to meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The most popular definition of the term was coined by the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development in 1987.

The report of the commission, Our Common Future, indicated that sustainable development was development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The concept embodies the consequences that the continued increase in human population and the uneven and inefficient use of natural resources have on the planet's environment. Sustainable development has become increasingly important in the last three decades in light of growing scientific acceptance that humanity's current developmental activities are having a detrimental effect on the global environment.

Examples of these environmental problems include global climate change, rising sea levels, pollution, desertification, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and more. Although the term initially represented environmental concerns, it has evolved into a concept that incorporates all facets of human and environmental interaction. The terms sustainable development and sustainability are often used interchangeably; however, the two terms have different meanings. Sustainability indicates only the desire to perpetuate something. By combining this term with the idea of development, a significant set of values, normative assumptions, and power dynamics are involved.

The way that sustainable development is interpreted will affect the debates surrounding how the concept is to be promoted and implemented. A useful way to understand the concept is to identify sustainable development on a linear scale that is strong on one end and weak on the other. Strong sustainable development indicates that there would need to be a significant reordering of current sociopolitical and economic structures. Such interpretations of the term are linked to ideas that are ecocentric in nature, where the environment is put first. In this interpretation the environment has an intrinsic value and should be protected at all costs.

The stronger form of sustainable development has been linked to the broader debates that suggest a reflexive modernity. Reflexive modernity suggests that current developmental patterns are so detrimental to the environment that a significant reordering of political and social processes should occur. In this interpretation sustainable development can only be achieved by altering the central tenets of industrial society. These include science and technology and the nation-state.

From the opposite end of the spectrum, a weak view of sustainable development maintains that the solutions to problems inherent within human environmental interaction can be found in the existing sociopolitical framework. A weak interpretation of sustainable development focuses on the ability of science and technology combined with fiscal, legislative, and educational mechanisms to encourage a sustainable form of development. The weak form of sustainable development can be said to be anthropocentric or human orientated in nature and linked to the more overarching idea of ecological modernization.

Ecological modernization foresees a future based within the present system of capital development, redefining the relationship between economy and environment in such a way that economic growth and environmental protection are seen as mutually reinforcing objectives. Ecological modernization relies on the underlying assumption that environmental crisis will necessitate innovation and technical development, providing the necessary tools to abate an environmental catastrophe.

Perspectives on sustainable development can exist in varying degrees on the scale between strong and weak interpretations. There is a general consensus that the pervasive nature of neoclassical economics has also come to permeate throughout thinking on sustainable development with a broad acceptance that intragenerational equity and intergenerational equity can only be achieved within the confines of economic growth. Intergenerational equity is concerned with equity between current and future generations. Intragenerational equity is concerned with equity between people of the same generation. Whether interpretations of sustainable development are strong or weak, one of the simplest and most popular ways of understanding sustainable development is through the metaphor of the three pillars of sustainable development.

The three pillars are society, economy, and the environment and are intended to represent the holistic nature of the concept. Although useful as a starting point for understanding sustainable development, the three pillars approach and the strong and weak interpretations are overly simplistic and reductionist. Sustainable development includes concepts such as democracy, justice, burden sharing, care, access, and more. Josef Jabareen provides a useful way of understanding the diversity of sustainable development by outlining seven areas to which the concept applies. The following outlines these areas.

First is the ethical paradox dimension. This represents the ethical dilemma that sustainable development produces; that is, the continued debate about the inconsistency between the terms sustainable and development. Second is the area of natural capital stock, which refers to the material dimension of sustainable development. In essence, this refers to the quantifiable natural assets of the Earth's biosphere on which development is based—a position that is frequently used in the natural sciences. Third is the idea of fairness, which refers to the social dimension of sustainable development. This includes issues such as social equity, equal rights for development, democracy, public participation, and empowerment. Fourth, the idea of eco-form or spatial design refers to the integration of sustainable development into planning frameworks. It focuses on human settlement in the built environment and includes both rural and urban dimensions. Fifth is integrative management, which refers to the overall management of sustainable development.

This form of management is representative of the three pillars approach to sustainable development. Sixth is the idea of global discourse, which highlights the political dimension of sustainable development. As a starting point, this can refer to the unifying discourse of the need to alter developmental patterns, as well as a vision of a single Earth and one world. However, it can also refer to the fractured and disjointed global discourses that are inherent in political discussions of sustainable development. Finally, there is the idea of the Utopian vision of the achievement of sustainable development. More than actually achieving an end state, with society in harmony with its environment, this dimension of sustainable development highlights the need to promote altered developmental patterns. This element can also reflect the possibility of a dystopian society, in which appropriate developmental patterns are not achieved.

By outlining the weak and strong interpretations of sustainable development, introducing the three pillars of sustainable development, and then discussing the various metaphors of sustainable development, a picture has developed of the complexity of the issues involved. These perspectives are of course not exhaustive, with many complex interpretations of sustainable development existing.

Because of the complex set of issues that sustainable development embodies, including environmental, social, and economic factors, new forms of governance structures are developing based around the ideas of sustainable development. Global environmental issues such as global warming and transnational global pollution mean that sustainable development cannot be achieved by a single nation-state. Instead, what is needed is multinational cooperation on a global level, as well as active involvement at the regional, local, and individual levels.

Considering the significant inequalities in the global political system, substantial barriers exist. With this said, a significant network of international regimes has been established over the past three decades that has provided a framework from which sustainable development can address the various environmental phenomena. This section explores sustainable development at the international and national scales. At the international scale, the United Nations has been pivotal in establishing the concept on the world stage, and therefore there is a focus on the main United Nations events that have promoted sustainable development.

The concept of sustainable development in its modern guise can be said to have developed and been galvanized through four main events. The first event of considerable significance is the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm in 1972. The Stockholm Conference became a key symbol of political acknowledgement for the growing worldwide awareness of the environment. Although this conference produced little in the way of state policy, it was pivotal in raising awareness on environmental and developmental issues. The Stockholm Conference also resulted in the commissioning of the United Nations Environment Programme.

The second event toward the advancement of sustainable development was the World Commission on Environment and Development, popularly known as the Brundtland Commission, in 1987. The commission provided a common and easily identifiable definition to a previously faceless concept. The report Our Common Future established sustainable development on the political stage and raised awareness of the concept on a global scale.

More than raising awareness, however, the report arguably represents a convergence between the processes of modernity and the effect that these processes have on the environment. The commission elaborated on this initial concept by maintaining that sustainable development is a process whereby the exploitation of natural resources combined with the way financial investment is directed should affect technical development and institutional change that should apply to both current and future generations. The World Commission was ratified in 1983 by the United Nations General Assembly and was designed to exist in a supranational political space beyond the control of nations.

The third event, and the most publicized, was the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and popularly named the Earth Summit. The summit was seen as a milestone in political history for creating a political space in which the world's political leaders were able to focus on global environmental issues. The summit represented a common recognition by many nations and relevant organizations of the world that issues of development needed to be tempered with effective environmental measures.

Substantively, a number of agreements emerged from the conference. The Framework Convention on Climate Change set out international targets for reducing the anthropogenic causes of climate change. The Biodiversity Convention established broad aims to conserve international biodiversity, with the aim of making use of the components of biodiversity in a suitable manner and enabling an equitable distribution of the benefits of using these resources.

The Desertification Convention was designed to create localized action frameworks to address the degradation of dryland environments. Most notable was the production of Agenda 21, which mapped out a blueprint for sustainable development by outlining the main issues implicated in global environmental change and how they might be tackled. The rhetoric contained within this document has had far-reaching implications for the advancement of sustainable development discourse in a multitude of ensuing negotiations and meetings.

Agenda 21 is a legally nonbinding program of action for sustainable development. Adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, it is a document comprising 40 chapters and is intended to guide the actions of governments, aid agencies, local government, and other actors on environment and development issues. Agenda 21 covers four broad areas for the promotion of sustainable development. The first is social and economic dimensions to development. This includes issues such as production and consumption, health, human settlement, and the promotion of an integrated decision-making process. Second is the conservation and management of natural resources.

This includes the atmosphere, oceans and seas, land, forests, mountains, biological diversity, ecosystems, biotechnology, freshwater resources, toxic chemicals, and hazardous radioactive and solid wastes. Third, Agenda 21 aims to strengthen the role of groups and actors involved in promoting sustainable development. This includes youth groups, women, indigenous populations, nongovernmental organizations, local and regional authorities, trade unions, business groups at all levels, scientific and technical communities, and farms. Fourth, Agenda 21 attempts to outline areas for implementing sustainable development.

Areas identified include finance, technology transfer, information coordination and public awareness, capacity building, education, legal instruments, and institutional frameworks. In essence, Agenda 21 establishes a framework, or package, of long-term goals. It has been seen as the most comprehensive document negotiated between governments that considers the interaction among economic, social, and environmental trends at every level of human activity.

Essentially, it establishes a framework within which a number of long-term goals are presented. This said, however, Agenda 21 has been criticized for promoting a vision of sustainable development that does little more than perpetuate the Enlightenment goals of progress through economic growth and industrialization at all costs. Moreover, it has been suggested that Agenda 21 advances the neoliberal goals of the wealthy Western societies. Despite the criticisms, Agenda 21 is a pivotal document that deals with a diverse range of sustainable development issues. Since the publication of Agenda 21 there has been a substantial movement in the way that sustainable development is perceived. This is best represented by examining the role of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in this process.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development is the most recent event to represent the importance of sustainable development on the world political stage. The resultant document, the “Plan of Implementation,” specified a number of commitments to the nations of the world. There were commitments to reduce the loss of biological diversity by 2010, halve the proportion of people without access to drinking water and sanitation by 2025, restore world fish stocks by 2015, and promote the production of chemicals that are harmless to human health and the environment by 2020.

There was also a reiteration of the important role that sustainable consumption plays in the future of sustainable development. However, many commentators have noted the real absence of any substantial international agreements, particularly from the United States. Importantly, however, eight core action themes for achieving sustainable development at the national level were identified. These included poverty eradication, sustainable production and consumption, protection of the natural resource base of economic and social development, globalization, health and sustainable development, small island developing states, and Africa and other regional initiatives. Overall, the United Nations and the above-mentioned events have established sustainable development on the political stage.

Sustainable development has become a central element of European Union policy. Although this remains somewhat fragmented and contested, it nonetheless is a concept that, as with the United Nations, has infiltrated the mechanisms of the European Union. Evidence of sustainable development at the European level can be found in commission white papers, European Action Plans, and legal and legislative reform documents. In 1998, the Cardiff process was initiated. The Cardiff process requires the council of ministers on a cross-sector basis to integrate sustainable development into their policy areas. At the Helsinki Summit in 1999, a commitment to sustainable development was reinforced, and the European Commission outlined its priorities toward promoting sustainable development.

In 2001, the sixth environmental action plan was released, which set out substantive action plans in areas such as climate change and environmental and human health. Four priority areas were identified. These included climate change, nature and biodiversity, environment and health and quality of life, and natural resources and waste. The main avenues for action identified in the Sixth Programme include the effective implementation and enforcement of environmental legislation necessary to set a common baseline for all European Union countries; the integration of environmental concerns, in which environmental problems have to be tackled where their source is—frequently in other policies; the use of a blend of instruments that offer the best choice of efficiency and effectiveness; and the stimulation and participation of all actors from business to citizens, nongovernmental organizations, and social partners through better and more accessible information and joint work on solutions. All of these are closely tied to the framework outlined in Agenda 21 for the achievement of sustainable development.

Sustainable development at the national level has been integrated into state practices to varying degrees. Agenda 21 called for the development of national sustainable development strategies in line with international recognition that sustainable development requires a realignment of governance processes. There is a move away from a model that focuses on central planning to one that focuses on creating enabling conditions that should be based around making or improving strategic connections between existing strategic planning frameworks. These connections should be made at all levels of government and on a cross-sector basis, as well as incorporating the needs of other actors that are active in sustainable development governance.

At a very fundamental level, sustainable development is considered to be a contradiction in terms, with sustainable and development representing opposing ideals and hence being unobtainable. It has been argued that there are so many different interpretations of the term that its use in any effective way to address contemporary social economic and environmental issues will result in a waste of time and resources. Conversely, it has been suggested that the very quality that forces a criticism of sustainable development—ambiguity—is also a strength, as it enables the concept to be versatile and to respond to multiple perspectives in multiple arenas.

Sustainable development and the issues that it encompasses have had a profound effect on the way that research agendas and academic work have developed. The interconnected nature of the issues has involved both the natural and the social sciences. This article has provided a brief introduction to the concept of sustainable development and outlined the multiple interpretations of the concept while providing a tangible guide as to how it is being translated into governance structures.

The defining characteristics of sustainable development are that the term is ambiguous, vague, and often contested. There is continued debate not only on how best to integrate sustainable development into dynamic, nonlinear, and complex social and environmental systems but also how the term should be understood in the first instance. To understand such a multidimensional term there has been significant collaborate work among the social and natural sciences with the establishment of stronger cross-disciplinary networks, as well as the establishment of multidisciplinary research centers. Sustainable development is a term that is constantly evolving.

See Also:

Agenda 21, Future Generations, Globalization, Kyoto Protocol, Precautionary Principle, UN Conference on Environment and Development

Further Readings
  • Baker, Susan. Sustainable Development. London: Routledge, 2006.
  • Borne, Gregory. Sustainable Development: The Reflexive Governance of Risk. Lampeter, UK: Edwin Mellen, 2009.
  • Division of Sustainable Development, United Nations Department of Social and Economic Affairs. (Accessed October 2009).
  • Jabareen, Yosef. “A Knowledge Map for Describing Variegated and Conflict Domains of Sustainable Development.” Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 47 (4) : 623-42, 2004.
  • Lafferty, William, ed. Governance for Sustainable Development: The Challenge of Adapting Form to Function. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2004.
  • Borne, Gregory
    University of Plymouth
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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