Environment and Society in a Changing World

Sustainable Development


Sustainable Development

The ideas behind sustainable development can be traced back to early works of scholars such as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), Garrett Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons (1968), and Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb (1971). Despite the different focuses of these classic works related to population and environment, all raised public concerns over environmental problems resulting from human activities and highlighted the importance of systems thinking.

Consider This: Sustainable Development Timeline

In Module 3, we learned that there is no single definition of sustainability or sustainable development. The most famous definition is from the United Nations Brundtland Commission Report Our Common Future (1987):

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

So what progress have we made in the decades since the idea of sustainable development was popularized?

Read the Sustainable Development Timeline authored by IISD (International Institute for Sustainable Development) and think about your answers to the question.

Note: The timeline was published in 2012. A few more milestones have been reached since then. One salient milestone is the Paris Agreement on climate change, which was signed in 2015 and entered into force in 2016. Among other things, the Paris Agreement requires all signatory parties (regardless of their industrial development status) to commit to a nationally determined goal of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. You will read more about international climate change negotiations in Module 9.  

Some tremendous efforts and notable achievements have been made towards sustainable development, but is our contemporary civilization sustainable? It turns out that in many ways, it is not. The basic idea of unsustainable development is that there are some things that we are doing today that we cannot continue doing forever. Much of our development depends on natural resources that either cannot be replaced or are not being replaced as fast as we are depleting them. Some major examples are:

  • fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas) used for energy
  • fresh water supplies used for irrigation and drinking
  • minerals used for manufacturing
  • trees used for construction and fuel
  • fish used for food

Each of these resources is becoming increasingly scarce. We cannot continue using them as we do today. Either we will need to shift away from them on our own, or shortages will force us to change our ways.

There are other reasons why some aspects of contemporary development may be considered unsustainable. Development is changing the global climate system and affecting biodiversity in ways that could have very perilous consequences. We’ll learn about these topics towards the end of the course, but, for now, just note that if we try to continue with development as we have been, then the ensuing changes to climate and biodiversity could eventually prevent us from maintaining our state of development. Finally, as we saw on the previous page, development even today is not necessarily something to be desired. On the other hand, development involves much of what is important to us and thus is not something we can easily walk away from. Achieving development that is both desirable and sustainable is a major goal for our lives and our society.

In the next two modules, we’ll examine some important aspects of sustainable development in greater detail.