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What is Sustainable Development?

How it's defined by the United Nations.

Sustainable development serves as a guiding principle with the dual objectives of achieving human development targets and allowing the natural environment to continue providing essential resources and ecosystem services. The goal is to create a society in which living standards and resource use are aligned with human needs while preserving the integrity and stability of the Earth's ecosystems. Sustainable development aims to strike a harmonious balance among economic growth, environmental preservation, and social well-being.

The 1987 Brundtland Report offers the most widely accepted definition:

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Presently, the focus of sustainable development encompasses economic growth, social inclusion, and the safeguarding of the environment for the benefit of future generations.

The United Nations puts it this way:

"It’s a bit of a juggling act. Three different balls must be kept in the air at once: economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection. If one or two fall to the ground, the act is over. An economy might grow rapidly, for instance – but only for so long if most people remain poor and all the natural resources are used up. Where development is sustainable, everyone has access to decent work, quality health care and education. Natural resource use avoids pollution and permanent losses to the environment. Public policy choices ensure that no one is left behind due to disadvantages or discrimination."

In 2015 the United Nations came up with a blueprint containing 17 sustainable development goals:

  1. No Poverty: End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

  2. Zero Hunger: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.

  3. Good Health and Well-being: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

  4. Quality Education: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

  5. Gender Equality: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

  6. Clean Water and Sanitation: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

  7. Affordable and Clean Energy: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all.

  8. Decent Work and Economic Growth: Promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all.

  9. Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation.

  10. Reduced Inequality: Reduce inequality within and among countries.

  11. Sustainable Cities and Communities: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.

  12. Responsible Consumption and Production: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

  13. Climate Action: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

  14. Life Below Water: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.

  15. Life on Land: Protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

  16. Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels.

  17. Partnerships for the Goals: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.

In my opinion, these are all worthy goals, but collectively they are hard to remember, partially redundant, and a bit vague.

Sustainable development is not the same as sustainability. Sustainability is a broader concept that describes a condition in which human civilization can continue to exist indefinitely, in harmony with the natural world, without depleting resources or causing environmental degradation. It is the long-term goal or outcome that sustainable development seeks to achieve.

The concept of sustainable development raises the question of what is to be sustained. What level of naturalness is the baseline we should aim to maintain? Some argue that there is no such thing as sustainable use of a non-renewable resource since any positive rate of exploitation will eventually lead to the exhaustion of Earth's finite stock.

In essence, sustainable development is the pathway to achieving the broader goal of sustainability. It involves specific, targeted efforts to address immediate needs and challenges, while sustainability is the ideal state of environmental balance, economic well-being, and social justice that those efforts aim to achieve and maintain over the long term.

Questions for you:

  • What are your thoughts on the UN's 17 sustainable development goals, and would you change anything?

  • What are the critical areas of sustainable development we should be investing in?

  • Can any development be sustainable? Why or why not?


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