It’s on everyone’s lips. We can’t deny the imperative. And yet, like the elephant in the room, more often than not we ignore it. So what is this thing that is sustainable development? This series will explore the idea and the practice of sustainable development. It is necessarily an ongoing conversation. Add your contribution. This week – the first of five encounters with the idea.

Sustainable development as a contemporary problematic.

The concept of sustainable development has arisen from our reflections on contemporary socioeconomic endeavours and us not entirely liking what they reveal. Some have traced first use of the term sustainable development to the 1930s, but it is probably more useful to see our current concerns as being about 50 years old, prompted at that time by concerns about the natural environment – the beginnings of the modern “environmental movement”.

Rachel Carson, an American biologist who described the destructive impact of pesticide use on bird and insect life, in graphic but accessible language in her 1962 book The Silent Spring, is often cited as being in the vanguard.

Other, more visible, events could also not be ignored: mass poisoning of fish stocks; rivers spontaneously catching fire due to overload of pollutants; loss of forests in northern Europe due to acid rain; and smog events in major cities leading to loss of life.

Combined, they led, in 1970, to two international expressions of concern – a massive worldwide demonstration, the first “Earth Day”, held in 1970; and in 1972 the United Nations’ Conference on the Environment convened in Stockholm. In that year, also, the results of computer modelling that simulated the pattern of global growth were published under the challenging title of The Limits to Growth.

The prediction was a collapse of existing systems due over-population, excessive resource use and pollution. These events also need to be understood in the context of another: the first manned space flights beyond Earth’s orbit. As well as illustrating the potential of our technological achievements, they also revealed a paradox: a vulnerability that could not be denied of a life necessarily confined to a single Earth isolated in space.

Tellingly, this event was used, two decades later (in 1987), to introduce another United Nations’ initiative – the landmark publication Our Common Future by the World Commission on Environment and Development. It was this commission that gave peak international recognition to the importance of environment and development.

To this end the modern use of the term sustainable development was born and the progression away from the “simplicities” of the environmental movement had begun. It is worthwhile remembering the definition it included – simple, direct and unarguable:

Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable – to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The concept … does imply limits – not absolute limits but limitations imposed by the present state of technological and social organisation on environmental resources and the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities.

But while the idea of sustainable development is simple, its practice could hardly be less so. In the years since Our Common Future, our attempts have resulted in expanded understandings.

One is that environmental problems are invariably interconnected, often mutually reinforcing, and addressing them as single issues is not sufficient (a classic example of the notion of the ‘wicked problem’, coined in the 1970s to describe those tasks that are fundamentally unamenable to traditional problem-solving techniques).

Another understanding is that amendment of our attitudes and behaviours towards the natural environment requires both a change to our (hard) socioeconomic endeavours and a (softer, more woolly) re-establishment of connections between human and non-human nature.

Still further is that sustainable development, rather than being a definable end-state (a notion that fits with our current predilection to shy away from complexity, uncertainty and open-endedness), comprises more a continuous process of transformational change.

This expanded realisation has not, however, made the task any easier. And now, nearly a decade into the new century there is still evidence that we have not made these deep societal and economic changes.

Yes, there are environmental improvements that we can all point to and which can serve to confirm that we do have the ability to instigate true, lasting and beneficial change. However, wider indicators still show a diminution of resources and an increase in degradation.

Here it is also true that our focus is often misdirected: to transactional adjustments rather than to the transformation of our complex web of environmental, social, economic, and political interactions that ‘Our Common Future’ identified as critical. And rather than being deflected from the task of making such changes by our current economic dilemmas, these dilemmas really only serve to emphasise, as will be discussed in our next edition, that our social, economic and natural worlds are, indeed, truly integrated.

Greg Paine is an environmental planner with extensive experience in Government decision-making. These articles draw on a research degree that explored both the concept and the practice of sustainable development from the point of view of a group of people who had “put
their hand up” and said “we would like to contribute to sustainability through our own lives”.
This is the first of a series of articles.