Debate: Is Sustainable Development Still Relevant?

2011•01•28 Jacob Park Green Mountain College

It is hard to believe but sustainable development will celebrate its 25th birthday in 2012.

The World Commission on Environment and Development, commonly referred to as the Brundtland Commission, defined the concept as development “that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, and at the same time takes into account the needs of the poor in the developing world.

Even if it might still be next to impossible to come up with a user-friendly consensus definition of an idea as complex and complicated as sustainable development, it may be worthwhile to reflect on its relevance as a concept almost a quarter of a century after the term was coined with the release of the Commission’s Our Common Future report in 1987.

What important trends in global environmental governance might we highlight as we reflect on this question?

I would first start with the fact that we will have added two billion people to the planet since the Brundtland report. The seven billionth person will be born sometime in 2011, despite falling birthrates in many industrialized countries. As a recent issue of National Geographic Magazine points out, the less developed world will account for more than 95 percent of future population growth. Perhaps we need to discuss equity between the rich and poor in the present time rather than framing sustainable development as inter-generational equity as we did 25 years ago.

Another critically important trend has been the emerging economic footprint of China, India, Brazil, and other emerging economies in the global economic landscape. China, most notably, replaced Japan as the second largest economy in the world. This is a bit ironic given that at the time of Our Common Future’s publication, Japan was regarded by many observers as the economic superpower that was bound to challenge the United States and Europe for global economic and business supremacy. China is widely expected to overtake the US as the largest economy in the world within two decades (or less if China continues to grow at nearly 10% a year and the US continues to have an anaemic 2.5% annual growth rate).

What may arguably be more dramatic than the changes in the global economic landscape in the past 25 years is the scientific consensus over the global environmental, social, and yes, even economic, impacts of climate change.

Buried amidst the floods in Australia and Brazil and the historic drought that continues to plague parts of Africa and the Middle East was the news that 2010 was the planet’s wettest year in the historical record, and tied 2005 as the hottest year since record-keeping began in 1880.

Perhaps it is unrealistic for any single concept to fully capture the complex array of global environmental governance dilemmas, and maybe it is not even worth trying.

But, what do you think?

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Author

Jacob Park

Associate Professor Green Mountain College

Jacob Park teaches at Green Mountain College in Vermont and is a senior fellow at the Environmental Leadership Program and associate fellow at the Asia Society, among others. E-mail him at .

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  • RLS

    I think this is the crux of the argument: “Perhaps we need to discuss equity between the rich and poor in the present time rather than framing sustainable development as inter-generational equity as we did 25 years ago.” Can the concept of equitable development also encapsulate development that holds as its standard a limited impact on our planet–including climate?

  • http://www.ourworld.unu.edu/ Carol S

    Thanks for this great topic Professor Park. I’m no expert on sustainability science or development but I have the feeling that maybe it’s not the concept itself but our obsession with it that needs to be rethought. I think a new concept is quite overdue since after all, most of what’s ailing the world is not how sustainably we’ve developed but rather how unsustainably we are wont to consume after we’ve achieved development.

    • Parkj

      Thank you for your question and raising your point, Carol.

      I think part of the problem with the sustainable development concept is that it is a “discussion” or maybe even a “debate” within a relatively small circle of academics (such as myself), policy makers, etc. and the concept has not really entered the consciousness of the billions of people (mostly poor) on this planet.

      Will “sustainable development” become acceptally globally as “human rights” (even if we disagree on that means precisely) or be tossed into the linguistic waste basket?

      Jacob

      • Rocky Rohwedder

        I’m hosting a Facebook page and currently writing a book called “Ecological Handprints: Lifting Humanity While Lowering Our Footprint.”  By building on the elegant simplicity of the ecological footprint I hope to bring the essence of sustainable development to those who aren’t currently in the relatively small circle that Jacob refers to above. Lots of specific examples. Feedback welcome.
        http://www.facebook.com/pages/Ecological-Handprints/140372822649748
        http://www.ecologicalhandprints.org

  • http://satoyamaspirit.org Alan Zulch

    I think the idea of sustainable development has been overtaken by what I’d consider to be the key drama of our time: Our world is increasingly split along two divergent and ultimately irreconcilable paths, and is becoming two worlds – two competing stories really. One is the story we moderns essentially take for granted. It portrays a world of desperately-promoted endless economic growth, of savior technology, and unquestioned assumptions of progress as our path to salvation. It is the dream of our continued status quo cast nervously upon a backdrop of another world, natural and with hard limits.

    At least here in Silicon Valley, the story of the built world – taken to its logical denouement – ends in technophilic liberation from the messy and unpredictable earthly bounds. We’ll fly around in Jetson-style cars, seamlessly and happily relying upon digital devices and AI to do our daily labor, relaxing during interstellar travel to distant planetary outposts. We may even shed our bodies altogether in a final severing from messy biological servitude. Ours will be a managed and ordered existence of seamless biotech symbiosis.

    Except, in our hubristic dreams we forgot that we live in a finite physical existence, unequally distributed, with rapidly decreasing resources and degrading ecosystems, and increasing population and material demands. And where meaning and fulfillment is ultimately derived from deep, conscious engagement with and stewardship of the natural world.

    When and how will a reconciliation between these two stories occur? Must we experience a a giant tearing sound as these two divergent stories rip apart at the seams? Sustainable development is part of the equation, for sure, but to live up to its promise I think efforts must be made to step back and take a wider view of who we are, what stories we’re living by, and what assumptions we must shed if we are to arrive at our goal of true sustainability.

    • http://www.facebook.com/PAGKABA0 Chris Vetrano

      Well said my friend…I have nothing to add ;-)

  • BrendanBarrett

    Sustainable development seemed like a great idea at the time. That was back in the 1980s. It represented the classic “have your cake and it” approach to tackling environmental issues. So we could continue to have development as long as it was sustainable in terms of conserving the environment and respecting the rights of future generations. However, we quickly dropped the inter-generational equity element from the debates and we rarely implemented development in anything near a sustainable manner. Mostly, we simply added a “green gloss” to our project proposals. That may seem harsh but would you agree that it is true?

    If we had been considering “sustainable forms” of development from the 1980s onwards, we would have high speed trains between all cities already, we would have renewable energy everywhere, we would have fewer airports, we would have more food grown near where we live and so on. Instead, we have used the notion of sustainable development as a tool to simply keep the debate going on and on and on about what a sustainable society might look like.

    I believe that the authors of Our Common Future had the best intentions. They were considering how it might be possible for the developing world to avoid the mistakes of the developed world. They felt that somehow we could find another development path. So they were on the right track. But unfortunately ideas are open to misinterpretation and abuse. I recall one government official explaining to me that sustainable development was about building more and more roads, because that way he could sustain development. Well, I guess that is one valid interpretation. Sustainable development means different things to different people. That is the beauty of it.

    My greatest concern is that sustainable development distracted us from the fact that we live in a finite world with physical limits. We were just beginning to get to grips with this fact in the 1970s (i.e. Limits to Growth) but we put it aside from the 1980s onwards. Now its coming back to haunt us.

    So I fear that “sustainable development” will be remembered as a “dead end” idea that resulted in our loss of three decades of valuable time that could have been spent addressing our fundamental problem of how to live in a resource constrained world, more fairly.

    I understand now that in the run up to Rio +20 next year we will see renewed emphasis on this concept and the end result may be the same… more talking, debating and little practical change. That worries me deeply.

    I agree with Alan that we currently live in a world shaped by two divergent stories, but I am not sure that sustainable development is the bridge between them anymore. But perhaps someone in this discussion can convince me otherwise.

  • Elizabeth Lerer

    Mr. Park,

    Do you get paid to advise businesses?
    Have you offered to pay the people who are commenting here?

    • http://www.ourworld.unu.edu/ Carol S

      Ms. Lerer, it is not quite clear what you’re implying here. Care to expand?

      • Elizabeth Lerer

        It seems as if the article was written in an effort to solicit for suggestions that would help businesses come up with more palatable marketing strategies.

        I apologize if I misinterpreted the intent of the author.

        • http://www.ourworld.unu.edu/ Carol S

          Interesting misinterpretation… If you feel like it, an explanation of the link you see to marketing strategies could be enlightening.

          • Elizabeth Lerer

            Ok, I’m an idiot… I actually wasted time looking for a “link” button to click.
            I find this extraordinarily thought provoking and maybe or maybe not complicated.
            Please give me a little bit of time to gather my thoughts. I’m not a very skilled writer and also a bit impetuous. I’d like to offer a temperate response to this worthy topic.

          • Parkj

            Hi, Elizabeth and thank you for your thoughts!

            Per your question, I have advised/am advising a number of organizations and companies on business and sustainable development issues as part of my on-going research/engagement efforts.

            But I wrote this particular article as a way to introduce and highlight sustainable development/sustainability as a concept.

            I think that the relevance of sustainable development as a concept is firmly rooted in many ways the organizational relevance of U.N. since sustainable development and U.N. are so intimately linked.

            Case in point: the first Intersessional Meeting for the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) convened from 10-11 January 2011, at UN Headquarters in New York (http://www.iisd.ca/uncsd/ism1).

            I wonder how many people even knew that?

            Look forward to your future contributions,

            Jacob

  • http://twitter.com/schuschny Andres Schuschny

    I think we should change the concept behind the Sustainable Development to a new one that I used to know as “Responsible Development” i.e. introduce the subject as an actor that builds development for this and future generations.

    • Distefanom

      I very much agree with this. I too, feel that it’s a matter of changing how we ideologically define the term. In a traditional sense, sustainable development represented a form of development that could maintain growth over a long period of time. Now, I think we need to emphasize the sustainability aspect of the concept to reflect an ecological sustainability- not just an economic one.
      Also, along the lines of developing responsibly- we should consider the decision not to develop in some situations an equally viable solution to the predicament we’re in…and of course other responsible decisions involving new energy technologies and climate design principles.

  • hakimi

    Hi All,

    Thank you Mark Notaras for introducing the ‘Mekong Folks’ to this group.

    Well I see that as long as the global Fiat dollar based ‘money’ is still the basis for all economic
    evaluations, I don’t think Sustainable Development talk is relevant at all.

    The point is the dollar is itself not a sustainable currency hence you can’t expect SD to be sustainable. Worse is the fact that it is the unsustainability of the value of dollar which is being sustained to sustain the dominant culture of the financial and monetary hegemony.

    The rate at which they print the dollar means they can buy as many worlds as they want – as if there are that many worlds existing! To them there is no such thing as a finite world. They have infinite money.

    It is sustainable currency before sustainable development.
    SC before SD.

    Best regards.
    Hakimi

  • Sikder

    Okayy….
    ‘Is sustainable development still relevant?’ is the debating title here framed within a unplanned housing picture leads the debate confined within a narrow circumstances, I think. But the contents here written by ‘Jacob Park’ is really interesting and think provoking. However, I would like to direct your sight into another way regarding sustainability. All aspects of sustainability will be achieved within short time if can make equity or balance the world power. We already passed 25 years to achieve sustainability and to do so we did a lot of efforts, research, conference, aggregation and so on. But, no one seen the light of success because of the lack of power equity. We become frustrated in every sphere of negotiation and in development planning. ‘Jacob Park’ mentioned the story of China becoming the world’s largest economy that threatening the sustainability to be relevant after 25 years of talking. Yes, its almost like so, but indirectly an advantage is coming out that is the equity of power. I have a dream today that USA is not interfering in any issues of Asia. But, China have to realize their next doings and to get the experience of of Soviet Union. Regarding sustainability, the most deprived continent is Asia next to Africa. Top of this issue, I think its the high time to change the structure of sustainability campaign all over the world.

  • hakimi

    if ‘money’ is something that can be freely created or digitalized, then there is no point talking about SD. SD becomes sustainable growth since development is about growth. Trees, flora and fauna are not things that can grow overnight whatmore in the fashion of the current ‘money’ … they can just say ‘be’ and walla the money ‘is’ already there in bank’s account. Just like topping up your cell-phone.

    yes money doesn’t grow on trees
    but they can make ‘money’ even by speculating about the trees.

    digital money versus real trees?
    it is also toilet paper-money

    we can forget the SD without SC

    Hakimi

  • Elizabeth Lerer

    True sustainability will always be relevant by definition. Won’t usury “sustainability” prove to not only be irrelevant but passé? When the goal of development is financial riches above quality of life, won’t all economies eventually suffer? Isn’t greed the problem?

    Maybe ever more clever marketing strategies are encouraging the opposite of sustainability.

    Is there a single concept that can fully capture the environmental governance dilemmas? Yes, and that is that it is worth carefully considering as many options as possible.

    From my view point the most offensive and unsustainable development concepts are war, corporations creating junk to sell and not honoring the elder populace.

  • hakimi

    Yes Lerer, in fact words of wisdom wrt true sustainability has always been there in whatever culture that we come from. Thus it is not Brundtland Commission who first know about sustainability. The practice of the people of the past has always been ON sustainability. I think Brundtland Commission made it worse by combining sustainability with the word development.
    They want to develop, grow bigger and sustain ability to grow bigger. Sustain getting something from nothing.

    With that you can do anything under the sun and just add the word sustainable to it.
    Well you can have sustainable war, sustainable corporations, sustainable junk, sustainable government, sustainable usury, sustainable banking, sustainable greed …you name it, they can easily adapt and adopt …the list will get very long and we will find ourselves wondering what to go for first…..I think I am getting sustainability fatigue.

    Best regards
    Hakimi

    • Elizabeth Lerer

      Hakimi,

      You think you are tired? My head and heart hurts… as the US White House deals with the mayhem in the Middle East, our Congress is battling over a poorly written health bill. This legislation is trying to redefine rape in an effort to control the reproductive rights of women.

      There is a remedy for fatigue, take a nap. Personally, I’d have a cocktail first. When rested, back to work.

      Cheers,
      Elizabeth

      • hakimi

        Elizabeth,
        Appreciate your reply.
        Actually it is not tired or fatigue on the part of the body or the spirit. It is just the word sustainable is overused or in fact already capitalised. That is sickening. And here we are debating over something which is their trojan horse. And in the process getting us trapped in academic capitalism while they are really making money capitalising on us.

        I do take pity on the american people but not the system running the banking-dollar capitalism. And this system is duplicated all over the world. We are in the same boat as people trapped in a system. I don’t think the americans voted to get themselves involved in egypt, afghanistan, iraq and even in vietnam then. The Federal Reserve and IMF know better why they need to push for ‘ Sustainable Wars’ or ‘Sustainable Interference’ in such places without asking permission from the american public. The state can even Sustain the wars or bombed the iraqis or afghanis in the name of democracy. Will not this spell well for the dollar, the Federal Reserve and the IMF? Again I am not blaming the great american people since this is something voting rights are not meant for. As you rightly pointed health bill can be poorly written, rape can be redefined to please the capitalists. Well capitalism in this sense is already a religion.
        So they want to sustain capitalism?
        Best regards,
        Hakimi

        • Elizabeth Lerer

          I’m not business minded nor do I place much value in owning excessive amounts of money. While I’m not good at making large amounts of money, that has never been my goal. Luckily I do not require a lot of it… I’m frugal.

          Some might find the worshiping of gold or silver worthy endeavors. To each his or her own. While abusive capitalistic practices are unfortunately proving to be dangerous and deadly, I do think that not all capitalism is without merit. Some products made by capitalist are actually helping to bring awareness to many people in many places and good work is happening. Like right here at “OurWorld 2.0″

          Hakimi, may I ask where you live?
          I’m in California.

          Elizabeth

          • hakimi

            Dear Elizabeth,

            I am from Penang, Malaysia. Teaching at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

            I have nothing against people producing good products for the community.
            My concern is about a special kind of capitalists – the one manufacturing unreal money.
            We have to accept them as real.
            The one creating banking notes (digital bleeps) without any earthly backing. No governments can control them but they can control governments. We saw during the 1997 currency crisis how Camdessus with hands folded telling Suharto of Indonesia to sign the IMF loan agreement. A banker with hands folded telling an army general to surrender Indonesia. After that the timber, oil and minerals are to be exchanged with paper money. Is that an ecological exchange? So much for sustainability in the words of the dollars.

            The indonesians get poorer by the day where their banking-notes money getting devalued by the day.
            Can governments do anything? Never! All banks in the world are related to central banks. All central banks are tied to the world bank. By extension to IMF. They have a mechanism to sustain the banks and their banking notes system. Of course gold is not a vocab with them. A prohibited word. A NO NO.

            Can the people do anything? YES! How? That is a topic for other days.

            Meanwhile, those wondering about me can check my website at:

            http://www.ppti.usm.my/hakimi

            Best regards.
            Hakimi

          • Elizabeth Lerer

            Dear Dr. Hakimi,

            I have been looking at your website, you are a very impressive person!
            Why is gold a “NO NO” ? It does seem hard to find and it probably does not taste very good.
            I look forward to reading more about your work.

            I wish that I could say something kind in your language, but I do not even know what your native language is. I am trying to teach myself Thai and Japanese… this is difficult when I can barely speak english properly.

            With respect,
            Elizabeth

  • Fran K.

    While I appreciate everything that has been said so far, I do feel that a few key, concepts have been overlooked. Sustainable Development in the Brundtland commission’s definition is vague, perhaps on purpose to take into consideration varying global circumstances and future changes in the global context? The forward states:

    “Due to the scope of our work, and to the need to have a wide perspective. I was very much aware of the need to put together a highly qualified and influential political and scientific team, to constitute a truly independent Commission.”

    The Commission does, however, go on to describe ways to achieve sustainability. In the forward of the commission, it is stated, “Perhaps our most urgent task today is to persuade nations of the need to return to multilateralism.” This task did not come with an instruction manual, as was the case with many of the other tasks prescribed.

    The commission and its definition can not be blamed for a lack of sustainability today, nor should the concept of sustainability be abandoned. It explicitly states:

    The Commission has taken guidance from “people in all walks of life.” It is to these people – to all the peoples of the world – that the Commission now addresses itself. In so doing we speak to people directly as well as to the institutions that they have established.

    The Commission is addressing “governments”, directly and through their various agencies and ministries. The congregation of governments, gathered in the General Assembly of the United Nations, will be the main recipients of this report.

    The Commission is also addressing “private enterprise”, from the one-person business to the great multinational company with a total economic turnover greater than that of many nations, and with possibilities for bringing about far-reaching changes and improvements.

    But first and foremost our message is directed towards “people,” whose well being is the ultimate goal of all environment and development policies. In particular, the Commission is addressing “the young.” The world’s “teachers” will have a crucial role to play in bringing this report to them.

    I have placed in quotes the bodies who should have acted on the commission more strongly, many of them who possibly were unaware of the existence of the commission at all. How many people today are aware of this commission- twenty five years later? It is a failing in the global political system that the people who need to understand what is happening politically the most are the most out of the loop. Why is that, I wonder? In any case, the commission was demanding participation and creativity from the world, which it possibly did not get. Group work is not always the easiest to coordinate on a large, even global scale. However, if everyone is waiting to be coordinated, who will do the coordinating and the creative thinking?

    That said, I do not think the term sustainable development should be dismissed, but rather approached more closely. The scope of it is outlined in the commission. It is a theory that needs its practice to be seen, or else it will disappear… and then? I’m not going to avoid finishing that sentence. And then the global changes we will see could be catastrophic.

    Separation is the problem in this supposedly globalized world. Another term that deserves a look is globalization. We’re definitely in an economically and therefore politically globalized world, but what about socially? I think this is a key concept that is overlooked. The problem is people with money have the option right now of dismissing anything unpleasant they decide to dismiss because we have political power or just simply a choice- our life is not hanging by a thread, day to day, or we are not living downstream. We even have the option of being hypocritical. And this is because we do not see the direct effects of our choices.

    While the monetary system is something I would love to see edited, it is also something that many people are firmly attached to, to the point that taking it away could cause global political unrest. I would, even more, love to see people living off of the land that is in front of them and returning to the barter system so that the illusions we in America practice would not affect the global population negatively. Unfortunately, people are reluctant to give up what they already have. Here is my compromise (perhaps as equally unlikely given the fragmented state of many governments and the people in democracies that supposedly run those governments): I would love for people who drive cars, both gas guzzling and efficient, to have to pay for every ounce of carbon that comes out of their tail pipe and for the labor- the true price of the labor in terms of global value- that went into making the car or truck. I would like to see people more invested in their food systems, with food education including who grows the food and with what means. And I would like to see people appreciating the people and places in front of them rather than living off of some distant dream. Can we have an article discussing the distress of the term “American Dream” and how that has become a global necessity for many?

    I will offer one more comment, and that is that as long as governments shelter ignorance to important issues and unsustainable choices behind a coat of rights, it will be impossible to make positive changes in the economic, environmental, and social arenas that will take into account what works for a specific locality. It is the shared interest, the social globalization, that beyond any government will lead to a sustainable society. Yet again, it is easy to highlight issues, easy to vaguely state how those issues can be solved, and very difficult to organize and educate enough people to address the issues on a massive scale.

  • morganj

    Sustainable Development:

    I enjoyed this question because of its broadness and complete relevance to current political, economic, and social climate. Thank you Jacob.

    Sustainable development is a phrase which has generated a large paradigm shift since the 8Os because the idea been very challanging to the status quo. While I am grateful for the shift it has enacted, I feel it is time to move on from this concept due to its ambiguity. Many organizations across the world rally behind the idea of sustainable development, but it has been so vaguely defined that it is easy for conflicts to arise, as a result of varied interpretation, under this single banner. Instead it would be more useful for specific regions, topics, and issues to create more concrete ideas to define them. For example, what specific needs does an area’s human community have and how can they be met in complement with the surrounding ecological community. Clarity and specificity is needed in a era where we have evolved from considering a new paradigm, to enacting it.

    • Fran K.

      “Many organizations across the world rally behind the idea of sustainable development, but it has been so vaguely defined that it is easy for conflicts to arise, as a result of varied interpretation, under this single banner. Instead it would be more useful for specific regions, topics, and issues to create more concrete ideas to define them.”

      I love this idea and am interested in ideas people have that might encourage people on the local and regional level to address the issues that have been tapped as global issues- and also sustainable solutions people have to unsustainable problems. I can think of many movements, like food not lawns and buy local, that are already happening in my region of the United States. If we’re talking local and we’re talking concrete, let’s talk local and concrete. I agree- it is time for more concrete approaches. I do think that SD is such a familiar term, though, that it would be a shame to discard it completely from the process. Its substance could be the canopy of the tree where fruits are discovered as more nuanced ideas become more clearly defined and applied.

      • morganj

        I like your tree analogy and I also agree with you; to completely discard SD would be to lose much of the momentum it has generated

  • Frank Segro

    To assign such great meaning to any one statement seems troublesome. However, in the case of “sustainable development”, I think the term is strong and versatile enough to contain all that we fill it with. If we look at the words in the connoted sense versus the etymological one, we know that this term belongs to environmentalists. When we use this phrase, most of us are thinking of environmentally sound development or ecologically sustainable development.

    So I argue that we make the term our own. The beauty of language is that we can change and shape phrases and ideas into whatever we want. Lets not be confined by the definition of the term, but lets mold it into something beautiful. I would be proud to live in a world where people applied more foresight and responsibility into their growth. To me, it’s that simple.

  • Blankk

    The term is subjective to begin with. Whether you think you know it or you don’t there is some idea that allows you to identify “sustainable development”. There should be some general knowledge of the term but because there are so many opinions and ideas of what it may actually be there is no way to determine what is correct.
    This could mean then that there are many sub-categories, of sustainable development and we all apply it to this one broad category. This is also because of the varying ethical and economic views and capabilities of people around the world that allow for sustainable growth.
    This makes me even question myself, because the term “sustainable growth” I’m not even sure what I mean by that.
    It may be just that when speaking of whatever people think is “sustainable development” one has to be incredibly specific in what they are meaning to “develop”.
    This may cause a linguistic revolution!

  • Sam Tajirian

    Personally, despite the lack of visible results, I believe SD as imaged by the Commission was and remains to this day a relevant and worthy goal. I think the Commission got it right when defining and making prescriptions about the problem and I feel that the objectives set by the Commission are still a meaningful basis for action. I think the hold-up has taken place because, as the Brundtland members clearly knew, the changes necessary for SD require so much commitment and sacrificing of the status quo. But they are still changes that need to be made. Now I know many would argue that the goals set for SD, in maintaining the current global economic system, do not change the status quo enough to produce successful outcomes, but I don’t believe this to be the case.
    According to Conca and Dabelko, the Brundtland Commission SD approaches are “predicated on the premises that poverty and economic stagnation are themselves environmentally destructive and that all forms of economic organization and activity are not equal in their environmental impact” (GPB 201). Believing in those premises, I agree that social and environmental sustainability can be achieved by reworking the current economic system and ideas of development; we don’t have to radically challenging the entire economic system or dismiss all types of development as ‘contradictory to sustainability’. Personally, it is my belief that, were a more radical paradigm- challenging the very basis of our economic system- to be prescribed in SD’s place, we would never be able to overcome the selfishness and stalemates that have long plagued our global environmental debates.
    The way I see it, the potential for SD to create a better world lies in its feasibility. We need to develop and we need to do it sustainably, and it is possible to do both. Yes, we have not been able to muster the necessary political will as of yet, but as Gro Brundtland explains in her interview, public understanding and acceptance of sustainability issues are mounting, initiating action and putting pressure on leaders. It may be gradual but action will be taken to tackle SD objectives. And this will only be expedited by the growing pressure exerted on societies by resource depletion and climate change, which, as increasing oil costs, recent floods and record heat have shown, we are already starting to face.
    Now one factor that may potentially hold SD back is the economic crisis facing much of the world today. There is definitely a danger that the frenzy to promote jobs and economic revival at home will distract developed nations from the need to reorient their growth and consumption. This would not be good. However, there is great opportunity present in this situation as well, and I believe that should be the main focus at the international level right now; with this economic crisis developed countries have the opportunity to start new programs and initiatives merging economic and environmental goals to ultimately send their societies in a sustainable direction. If at the international level now, we can get an agreement going between developed countries that will leave them working together to take advantage of economic problems for sustainable development purposes we might find ourselves in a great place to change the nature of our growth and our ecological impacts. Then we can begin to significantly help the developing world reduce their footprint, pursue social equality and ultimately take on their own ‘differentiated’ SD responsibility.
    The massive responsibilities of industrialized nations have to be implicit in the concept of SD. And the way I see it playing out, it will be up to the developed countries to make the first move and take big action. And it should be this way, as the developed countries have the historical responsibility for the situation and need to gain the trust of the South. As it stands currently, the leaders of developed countries are too impeded by self interest and a lack of pressure to take this first step. But many current issues today are prodding us forward and presenting us with rational opportunities to take action, prove our accountability to the developing world, and then get on track with the goals of SD.

    So I think it is still relevant, I think it sets high but reasonable objectives, and I think its provides us a good framework going forward, which thanks to growing public support, imminent environmental pressures, and the opportunities presented by our current economic problems, we might just be able to pursue with some degree of commitment.

  • Emily Kresky

    The global environmental dilemmas are absolutely complex, but that is exactly why we need to understand all of the issues and how they are all integrated. Sustainable development can never be achieved without focusing on every issue that creates the whole of the problem. All of the issues including environmental, economical, political, and social are evidence of disease in the Earth both on the land and in the inhabitants. Disease, quite literally, can also be read as dis-ease, and these four issues just mentioned are symptoms of dis-ease in Earth and dis-function of the systems within the Earth. It is worth investigating these different issues and creating solutions and strategies to fix them one by one, in order to restore the synergistic relationship between humans and the Earth in which they inhabit.

  • N. Soto

    More often than not, the term “development” renders images of third world countries where “poor” people struggle to make it day to day. People in more developed parts of the world regard developing these countries as important (or perhaps romantic). The focus remains mostly on these poor countries. However, I believe focusing only on such countries relieves, in a way, the developed countries from having to deal with their own issues of sustainable development, even though they (we) also have several problems to handle. Hence, I believe the term “sustainable development” as defined by the Brundtland Commission as an inter-generational issue remains just as pertinent to the situation in which we find ourselves, and it is not just an issue of equity between the poor and rich.
    To frame the problem between the economic differences of the North and South also implies that the problem is the connection between poverty and environmental degradation. As Lele argued in “Sustainable Development: A Critical Review,” other factors like sociopolitics also affect the situation.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_BZU7DO6AKR6DDL6BXEJJ46WX5Y sarah

    When more people exist , there is more competition over natural resources and less food to feed the people; one can see how problems escalate. Economy is one trend that challenges sustainable development. China recently replaced Japan as an economic superpower and with countries competing over economy; sustainable development is not the biggest priority. For instance, the 1987 definition of sustainable development was goaled at protecting the future while the current needs were met, but when George W. Bush refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol that would agree to lower the emissions he was more concerned with protecting the United States leading economy from China whom would get ahead (( China would not have to make the same restrictions on industry that the United States would need to make)). This is one point where sustainable did not fit development because the now was more important. Relative to the Kyoto protocol that aimed to reduce emissions that contribute to climate change, it was not taken so seriously in 1987 as it is today, after much more clear evidence that it does in fact exist. Letting industry thrive and bring money into ones country is more a priority than stalling industry to fight against global issues like climate change. Althought the term sustainable development has been termed, is has not made a neccessary impression, perhaps it needs to be reiterated.

  • Katie Hennessey

    The term sustainable development as defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development provides a general definition of the term that can be applied on the global scale to include developed and developing nations. Although the meaning of the term has good intention with respect to future generations, it is very broad and the specifics should vary from region to region. Development in the North is very different from development in the South because of unequal distribution of wealth and resources. To some extent, the term is relevant in today’s society because the world’s population will continue to grow and we must build and create structures in a manner that does not leave future generations with very little resources. However, the term should include more specific directions for developing nations and separate instructions for developed nations. The South needs an education system to inform the youth of the problems they are facing and encourage them to change their consumption patterns, while the North should focus on investing time and money in renewable energy technologies.

  • Provonshae

    The relevance of sustainable development has not declined since its establishment as a concept nearly twenty-five years ago. Without a doubt, the idea of sustainable development has become more relevant in the realm of global politics, non-profit international organizations, and also in various technological fields. Sustainable development’s growing importance at a global scale in wealthy and powerful sectors has been the reality, but as much as it has been prioritized, what sustainable solutions have actually resulted? I would argue that due to the fact that values, cultural beliefes, and the very definition of sustainability differ around the world, any one initiative or implementation of sustainable development cannot begin to fully capture the complex array of global dilemmas. As a concept, sustainable development is capable of inspiring effective localized and collaborative action, but action is mistakenly attempted at a global-scale. To make sustainable progress, people must focus on grassroots, collaborative, and place-based solutions at a local scale.

    I personally believe that what the future holds for sustainable development is more of the same: continued emphasis on global governance, NGOs to carry out their ideas and discussions over prioritizing funding to solve global problems. Do I think this is effective? No. I think that sustainable development must begin at a local-level from local ideas, values, and resources. Technology and financial aid should be given from the developed world to the third world, but the third world should not be dependent on wealthy Northern nations. Rather, they should be empowered! Lastly, the developed nations should focus on more strict regulations to change their lifestyles and behaviors.

  • BrendanBarrett

    It is great to see this topic attracting so much interest and debate. The general impression I get is that most contributors still hold out hope that sustainable development will become increasingly relevant or be re-invigorated somehow. That is certainly the intention of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in the run up to Rio +20 to be held in Brazil next year. I would also like to see this happen.

    However, I think that there is another term that may become even more prominent now and in the future – and that is “resiliance.” Sure, it has been around for a while but a few years back I began to notice more and more people shift from using the term “sustainable societies” and start to talk about “building resiliant societies.”

    The reasons are pretty obvious. More and more people consider that we have gone beyond the sustainable limits of our planet and as a result we will see a kind of “reset” taking place more frequently. This takes the form of climate change impacts, food scarcity, energy scarcity, resoruce scarcity, and so on. In order to deal with the shocks associated with this kind of reset, communities across the world need to become resilient. The idea is that the frequency of the shocks could be increasing from now on.

    OK, you may not agree with this interpretation. You may argue that the food riots and subsequent public protests in Northern Africa at the moment are temporary phenomena. Or that the floods hitting Australia and Sri Lanka this year, and Pakistan last year are part of normal cycles. But it is worth reflecting upon and perhaps looking more into the idea that we are shifting from sustainability and toward resiliance.

  • http://twitter.com/waiphyomyint waiphyomyint

    People might feel lost in finding one ‘perfect’ concept for decades to address all global environmental issues and public concerns are paramount over recent erratic patterns of climate changes. At the same time, in the global economy, many people are still feeling the aftershock of China, by passing Japan, emerging as the world’s second largest economy in the world, and challenging the economy of the United States, which is currently seated as the world’s largest economy. However, it is not the first time that we experience a paradigm shift in the global economic landscape and the outbreaks of natural disasters are unstoppable. In fact, when we look back the history of the environmental movements, we find that people are never immune to the threats of climate changes breaking out as a consequence of the ongoing environmental degradation in every region of the world. In these recent developments of the global economy and green movements, I find that “the issue attention circle” is up again. But, this time, it sounds romanticizing, but environmentalists will find an unlikely partnership in business firms who are promoting green business because of its growing market demand. Down the road, people will find ways to make the cycle stopped repeating.

  • http://twitter.com/waiphyomyint waiphyomyint

    People might feel lost in finding one ‘perfect’ concept for decades to address all global environmental issues and public concerns are paramount over recent erratic patterns of climate changes. At the same time, in the global economy, many people are still feeling the aftershock of China, by passing Japan, emerging as the world’s second largest economy in the world, and challenging the economy of the United States, which is currently seated as the world’s largest economy. However, it is not the first time that we experience a paradigm shift in the global economic landscape and the outbreaks of natural disasters are unstoppable. In fact, when we look back the history of the environmental movements, we find that people are never immune to the threats of climate changes breaking out as a consequence of the ongoing environmental degradation in every region of the world. In these recent developments of the global economy and green movements, I find that “the issue attention circle” is up again. But, this time, it sounds romanticizing, but environmentalists will find an unlikely partnership in business firms who are promoting green business because of its growing market demand. Down the road, people will find ways to make the cycle stopped repeating.

  • ~SaRaH~ E

    I was hoping for another great depression. I feel that if that were to occur, it would be an incredibly humbling experience for most. Those that are in the upper middle class-upper class of society would be broken down financially and (hopefully) finally understand what it’s like to be part of the poorer society. Then perhaps when the economy recovered, they’d be more willing to help those in need across the country and the world, especially those in 3rd world countries. It’s those in the developing countries that need the most help. Perhaps if more sustainable life options were offered to them, the people of those countries wouldn’t have to leave and go to bigger countries just to survive. For example, if solar panels were donated, the country would have more access to electricity and eventually more access to technology which would bring more jobs. The distribution of wealth across the world would eventually be dispersed more evenly.

  • http://twitter.com/jdevoo JP de Vooght

    Great question! This last week UN Global Pulse organized a number of Open UN debates around engagement in the age of real-time. I believe this is timely and related to the challenges faced by environmental governance agencies. There’s a need to review the models of organization in times where participatory action outside the boundaries of the organization becomes a critical element to address many of the complex problem hiding behind the simplifying term “sustainable development”. My post is at http://citizensensing.posterous.com/napkin-model