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what actually is it?
© 2006

I was asked the other day just what is sustainable development, how does it affect me?
What follows is a basic look at what sustainable development is where it came from and why it is important.

The 1987 United Nations Commission on Environment and Development, sometimes referred to as the Bruntland Commission, highlighted the fact that economic development often meant deterioration in the quality of many people's lives, not improvement. The Commission's Report, Our Common Future, states that Sustainable Development is:

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

It is intended to highlight that sustainable development is not about aiming for huge profits, that what we should aim for are higher standards of living for all, not the few. In essence, take what we need without exceeding the natural capacity for renewing the resources we use, and not polluting the planet beyond what nature can absorb.

The Commission's Report prompted the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro where the nations of the World agreed the Global Action Plan for the 21st-century: AGENDA 21.

Agenda 21 recognises that humans depend on the Earth to sustain our lives. This might appear obvious, but human behaviour over the last few centuries seems to indicate that we have forgotten this important fact.

Think Global :: Act Local

Agenda 21 also recognises that environmental stress is linked to human activity and that if we act at a local level to rectify matters collectively local actions will have global impacts.
Another important feature of sustainable development is social inclusion; local people must be involved in local decision making pertaining to the development of their own communities otherwise these developments will not be sustainable. In Scotland, every local authority has, or should have, a Local Agenda 21 officer.

Key Issues
Depleting and degrading natural resources. In time, nature will renew important resources. Using resources more quickly than they can be renewed is unsustainable. Many of the natural resources important to us rely on the planet's biological diversity to aid the natural cycles, therefore a diminishing biodiversity is not conducive to sustainability. Protecting biodiversity is crucial to sustainable development.
There are many key issues pertaining to development that need to be resolved:

  • Use of Energy Resources
  • Water Resources and stress through pollution and mismanagement
  • Land Use and Soil degradation
  • Fisheries, aquatic and marine
  • Minerals and Extraction

Forest and Timber issues
Pollution is another key issue; this affects:

  • The Atmosphere
  • Land and Soil
  • Rivers, Lakes and Groundwater Aquifers
  • Oceans.

Pollution has many sources most of which are anthropogenic (man made), and it can have direct health effects on humans too.


There are Social Issues that also need to be addressed such as:

  • Population Growth
  • War and Social Unrest
  • Poverty and Hunger
  • Water Stress
  • Impacts of Globalisation (Free Market Economy)
  • Social Justice
  • Education
  • Urbanisation
  • Disease

These are all huge problems some must be resolved at a global level; many others locally.

There are three main pillars to sustainable development: Environment, Society and Economy. Each of the three is required to serve the other two equally if sustainability is to be achieved and all of us are to live in relative comfort. Too often, however, economy appears to take precedence over the other two. It needs to be reiterated that sustainability and affordability are not the same. Economically, one may not follow the other. The economist, Lester R Brown, puts it quite succinctly in his book, Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth.

Ecological Footprinting (EF) as a sustainability tool uses economic terms of reference such as Capital and Interest. Earth's resources are the natural capital and the renewability of these resources are the interest we get from them. Mathis Wackernagal and William Rees (originators of EF) use the analogy of the water barrel. The full barrel of water being Earth's natural capital which is renewed by natural precipitation - rain. If we put a tap on the barrel to drain off the water for our own use, then where the tap is situated will determine whether or not or use of the water is sustainable. For instance if we put the tap near the bottom of the barrel we will take out more water than nature puts in. However, if we put the tap near the top we would be restricted to use only what nature can replace and therefore get sustainable use of the water - the barrel won't run dry, especially if we maintain and look after it so it doesn't leak.

This is just a simple and basic view of economics, but it does highlight how we approach our use of natural resources. We must re-learn to live off the interest on our capital, not the capital itself.
Sustainability requires us to pass on, at least, the same amount of natural stock we inherited to the next generation. Wherever possible we must seek to enhance this natural capital stock as the next generations will be larger than ours.

Today we are witnessing more and more the effects of being unsustainable: changing climates due to carbon releases, increased frequency and intensity of storms, hurricanes and typhoons, photochemical smogs in cities, land, waterways and seas poisoned by agricultural chemical runoff, desertification of land, soil erosion, famine, water stress in many countries, wars for oil - wars over water rights are not far away; large scale species extinctions and huge reductions in biodiversity; greater urban sprawls, poverty, lack of social and environmental justice; oceans under stress, and the complete collapse of fisheries.

All of the above are caused by humans and our societies. Too often we may say to ourselves: "it's only me, no-one will notice". Well, there are six and a half billion "only me's" on the planet and we are all beginning to notice.

We have many of the answers, we just need to act on what we know and live our lives in a sustainable manner.

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