Sustainable development is the use of resources in such a way as to preserve the environment in order to continue to meet future needs as well as present needs. In the words of the Brundtland Commission that popularized the term, it “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The simplest example is harvesting the seeds from tomato plants in order to replant them every spring so as to continue to have tomatoes every summer; as each plant produces more seeds than necessary, even bad weather or other incidents make this a sustainable system without the need of external involvement or even a reduction of tomato usage.
Sustainability is the ability to maintain an activity or the availability of a resource like those tomatoes. Sustainable development calls for the “long view,” asking not just what is best now, but what is best now that will remain the best choice in hindsight, and with respect to the impact on the future. Sustainability is not something that is achieved so much as something that is continually maintained, and perhaps adjusted. A relatively new concern, it encompasses a broad range of prescriptions and interpretations as to the best course of action.
The 1992 Earth Summit
The Brundtland Commission, named for its chair Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Norwegian prime minister, was invited in 1983 by the United Nations (UN) to establish a World Commission on Environment and Development. The commission’s findings were published in 1987, in a report entitled Our Common Future. The report was notable for its evenhandedness, placing environmental concerns square in the mainstream of political thought—indeed, doing everything possible to make “environmental concerns” as a notion not tied to any segment of any political spectrum, any more than is the notion of “economic concerns.”
The publication of the report helped to stimulate the organization of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, or Earth Summit, where 172 governments sent representatives (most of them sending the head of state) to address environmental and sustainability issues. In particular, the summit discussed the production of toxic by-products in industrial nations; the possibility of alternatives to fossil fuels; the reduction of vehicle emissions; and water scarcity.
The Earth Summit produced the legally binding Convention on Biological Diversity and the Framework Convention on Climate Change, along with other nonbinding “principles” pertaining to the issues at hand. The Convention on Biological Diversity was the first document of international law concerned with biodiversity, naming it “a common concern of humankind.” While emphasizing the preservation of biodiversity—then becoming a prominent issue due to the destruction of the highly biodiverse Brazilian rain forest, and it is no coincidence that the Earth Summit was held in Brazil—this is also a key legal document for sustainable development. The convention calls for the fair and equitable sharing of all benefits of genetic resources and biotechnology, and approaches conservation from a sustainability-minded point of view.
The Earth Summit also led to the creation of the Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD), which has remained the UN’s forum for sustainability discussion since, and meets annually at the United Nations headquarters. CSD works to implement Agenda 21—the 21 stands for the 21st century—a series of principles composed at the Summit. Agenda 21 is a 900-page document divided into four sections: Social and Economic Dimensions (exploring consumption patterns, the impact of environmental and sustainability issues on health and poverty, and demographics); Conservation and Management of Resources for Development (protection of atmosphere, forest, and biodiversity); Strengthening the Role of Major Groups; and Means of Implementation (devoted to scientific and technological issues, as well as institutional and financial ones).
The Precautionary Principle
The Earth Summit built on Our Common Future by emphasizing the role of the precautionary principle in sustainable development. The precautionary principle is increasingly important in international business, having been adopted as a compulsory principle of law in the European Union, with all indications of inevitable adoption in some form in legal systems throughout the industrialized world. Under this principle, if a policy or act has the potential to cause severe environmental damage or bring harm to the public, the burden of proof falls to policy advocates. In other words, if it is unclear whether a company’s planned actions are safe, it must be assumed that they are not until the company can prove otherwise. This is related to the “duty of care” concept in English common law, which states that if you can foresee that your conduct will cause harm, you are responsible for preventing that harm. What the precautionary principle introduces is a “better safe than sorry” carefulness, because of the history of vast environmental damage caused as science lagged behind industry, too often unable to say for certain whether an action would be safe or not. It is the sort of attitude one takes when recovering from a severe stomach upset, eating with the greatest of care, giving the benefit of the doubt to nothing but the blandest pieces of toast and lukewarm glasses of flat Coca-Cola.
One reason for the necessity of the precautionary principle is that market forces will not necessarily recreate it. The precautionary principle says that in the face of uncertainty, precautionary actions must be taken regardless of cost, and therefore regardless of cost-benefit analysis—requiring seatbelts even if they cost more than the medical bills incurred by not wearing them, in a sense, because of the unacceptability of accidental death, which cannot simply be paid for after the fact. The necessity of clinical trials for medication reflects the precautionary principle, though specific invocations of the principle are generally concerned with climate change issues, biodiversity, and threats to public health. The regulations concerning cloning, genetically modified organisms, and biosafety issues certainly fall under the purview of the principle, though some charge that GMOs are underregulated from a precautionary standpoint.
Interestingly, the recent slippery-slope arguments surrounding same-sex marriage and similar social change initiatives strongly resemble the precautionary principle, invoking as they do the uncertainty of the societal impact of social change rather than the uncertainty of scientific consensus vis-à-vis environmental change.
Sustainable development is not the same thing as environmentalism or “green” concerns. That is, it is not focused solely on ecological issues, climate change, and the physical environment; it is just as interested in social and economic issues, from the prescription of proper business practice from a sustainability-minded perspective to the interrelationship between poverty and environmental issues. Not only is environmental impact most likely to affect the poor, for instance, who will be forced by circumstance to live in the least healthy neighborhoods and who are least able to fight back if victimized by negligence that impacts public health, but in the broad scope of things they are the least able to minimize their environmental impact. Alternative energy is priced too high even for most of the middle class, let alone the poor; for various reasons, recycled products and environmentally safe products, while within the price range of the middle class, are not competitively priced with respect to the lowest-priced products in their category, and so are rarely if ever purchased by the lower class. A similar problem has long been recognized in the field of nutrition, due to the low cost and high calorie content of junk food compared to fresh produce, whole grains, and safe lean meat.
The global discussion of sustainable development has articulated a number of primary objectives:
- The prevention of irreversible ecological damage. The damage to the ozone layer and other atmospheric change is one obvious example, and climate change can be considered irreversible given the glacial pace at which it transpires.
- The prevention of long-term human health consequences, including but not limited to the impact of pollution, air and water quality, the handling of toxic products and by-products, the spread of disease, and the public health impact of genetically modified organisms and other biotechnology.
- Finessing the relationship between economic growth and environmental impact, which especially since the Industrial Revolution has essentially been negative. Ideally, the technology exists or can be developed such that economic growth can be environmentally positive or environmentally neutral, without the long-term necessity of government incentives to encourage “green” business. In other words, in the long run, businesses will ideally operate in environmentally friendly and sustainable ways, not merely because it is the right thing to do or because legal and tax codes have forced them to, but because it is the profitable thing to do.
- The integration of environmental, economic, and social concerns such that they are developed in tandem rather than independently or in inadvertent opposition.
- The achievement of intergenerational equity: avoiding present benefits at the expense of future generations.
- The achievement of distributional equity, avoiding the placement of the burden of negative impact on the poorest or most vulnerable populations, either regionally or globally.
Social, Natural, And Economic Capital
The three kinds of capital involved in sustainable development—social, natural, and economic—cannot be substituted one for another. We will undoubtedly find an adequate substitute for fossil fuels, but we will not find one for water, not least because natural resources are very often multifunctional. The Amazon rain forest contains trees that represent one sort of resource for the making of paper and wood products, but they also process CO2 into oxygen, and the forest as a whole because of its size and unique characteristics contributes to the conditions of the global climate and the world’s biodiversity. And diversity, unlike trees, is essentially nonrenewable. Even if eradicated species could be replaced with new species, it is debatable whether that constitutes replenishment of the resource.
In the social sphere, cultural diversity is sometimes discussed in the context of sustainable development, as a similarly nonrenewable human resource. The European Union has adopted this attitude faster than other bodies, perhaps made aware of the importance of cultural diversity in light of the cultural institutions that the Union has replaced, such as national currencies—and perhaps sensitive to the issue because of the history of groups like the Basques who have coexisted with the French and Spanish but had to fight for the survival of their culture. Because biodiversity is necessary for the survival of life on Earth, it is argued—not least by indigenous peoples and their advocates—that cultural diversity is similarly necessary for the survival of humankind, that there must be significant variation among human cultures. This opens up a difficult argument: It is problematic to argue against cultural diversity, and virtually untenable to argue for the eradication of any culture in particular. But that does not mean everyone agrees that cultural diversity itself is necessary in the same sense as biodiversity; a family with six members will, certainly, consider each member to be a necessary part of the family, but this does not support a position that the good of family, in the abstract, is furthered by the condition of having at least six members.
Cultural diversity is also harder to quantify. Biodiversity can be quantified to a certain extent by counting species, though this is much less clear-cut than the general public thinks: The difference between two species or one species with two mild variations is a thin one, and because there is professional and political cachet in identifying a new species, there is a certain amount of species inflation in the field. Even so, it is far simpler than quantifying cultural diversity, because there is no discrete unit of culture. Countries can be counted, ethnic groups can be counted, languages can be counted, but culture is not purely a product of any one or any particular combination of the three. Furthermore, the relationship between cultural change and cultural diversity is much more complicated than between extinction and biodiversity. The loss of a culture does not necessarily mean the death of its members, and though it can be tricky to argue that a member of one culture who becomes a member of another represents a loss to the first culture, on some level we must consider that to be what is happening if that process is repeated by enough members. Further, even when members do not switch cultures, the change within a culture still represents an abandonment of the culture being left behind, just as the evolution of a species leaves some traits behind in favor of others. Is that a loss of diversity? Clearly it is not always. Life on Earth is not less biodiverse as a result of evolution. But if globalism leads to cultures evolving closer and closer together, even if they never meet, they might be said to be less diverse.
- Susan Baker, Sustainable Development (Routledge, 2006);
- Herman E. Daly, Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development (Beacon Press,1997);
- Andres R. Edwards, The Sustainability Revolution: Portrait of a Paradigm Shift (New Society Publishers, 2005);
- Chad Holliday, Stephan Schmidheiny, and Philip Watts, Walking the Talk: The Business Case for Sustainable Development (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2002);
- Peter Rogers, Kazi Jalal, and John Boyd, An Introduction to Sustainable Development (Earthscan Publications, 2007).
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