Understanding Sustainable Development

See also: Understanding the Circular Economy

During the 1960s, ecologists started to suggest that individual and community interests differed. In particular, they noted that individuals rationally wanted access to the maximum possible amount of resources. However, if every individual had access to everything they wanted, then the world would soon run out of resources. A study in the early 1970s suggested that if there were no limits imposed on population and economic growth, then the world would run out of resources sometime in the late 21st century.

This galvanised the United Nations into action, and the first conference on the environment and sustainable development was held in 1972. Since then, the broad principles of sustainable development have been agreed, and goals set at global level. This page outlines those principles and explains the ideas behind the goals.

Defining Sustainable Development

The concept of sustainable development was first defined in the 1987 Brundtland Report. A clear definition has since been agreed at global level (see box).

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

United Nations

The definition is absolutely clear: development is only considered sustainable when it both meets current needs, and does not compromise the ability to meet future needs.

In other words, going short now is not a way to achieve sustainability. We must be able to feed, clothe and house the world both now and later.

Principles Underpinning Sustainable Development

The key principle underpinning sustainable development is the idea of balance.

The key is to balance different and often competing needs, rather than simply taking one set of needs into account.

These needs must also be balanced with the economic, social and environmental constraints that we face as a society.

This is not a question of ‘now or later’, ‘us vs. them’ or ‘developed vs. developing world’. The concept of sustainable development requires a balance between all these issues—and every other issue as well.

Three pillars of sustainability

In the early days—and even now, sometimes—sustainable development was painted as ‘all about the environment’ by its detractors.

Yes, climate change is an important element of sustainable development. The natural world also features in the overall picture. However, these are not by any means the only aspects.

There is now general agreement that sustainability is about balancing three pillars: social, environmental and economic issues. Some people add ‘people’ to these, and others incorporate the needs of individuals into the ‘social’ pillar.

There is more about the three pillars in our page on Understanding Sustainability.

Sustainable development is a very broad concept, encompassing the needs of all of us—and the whole planet.

Examples of moving to a more sustainable approach include:

  • An individual choosing to walk or cycle instead of driving for local journeys

    This has benefits for your health (and see our page on the importance of exercise for more). It also has benefits for the environment, because there are fewer carbon emissions from  your journey. Your car will also have less wear and tear on it, so it will last longer—which again is good for the planet, because it means you are consuming fewer resources. Finally, given the level of traffic in some areas, walking or cycling might even be quicker overall.

  • A business planning a delivery route to make it as short as possible

    This has multiple benefits for the business. First, the route is more fuel-efficient, which is cheaper. It is also more economical with the driver’s time, which means that more deliveries can be made by the same number of drivers. However, it also results in fewer emissions, and therefore has a lower environmental impact. As with walking or cycling, it reduces the wear and tear on the vehicle, which will therefore last longer.

Sustainable Development at a Global Level

Since the early 1970s, much progress has been made towards a more sustainable approach to development.

Much of this work has been led by the United Nations, through conferences, frameworks, declarations and campaigns.

In 2015, the United Nations set out 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were designed to act as a ‘call to action’ for people around the world (see picture below).

The goals cover five crucial areas: people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership.

The goals start with fundamentals: eliminating poverty and hunger. They move on to the means by which these will be achieved, including good health for all, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, and access to clean and affordable energy, as well as improving economic conditions around the world through industry, infrastructure, work, and sustainable cities. They also cover the natural world, including climate change and responsible production and consumption. Finally, they move to the structures required to achieve these, including justice and strong institutions, and the partnerships required for the goals.

These 17 SDGs are associated with:

  • 169 targets
  • 3847 events
  • 1344 publications
  • 7593 actions
17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Source: United Nations

The thinking behind these goals is that you cannot eliminate global poverty without the underpinning elements of economic growth, and access to work. You cannot eliminate hunger without responsible consumption from everyone. You have to look holistically at the world, and see development as a whole.

These goals have been agreed by all member states—but action will not just be taken at governmental level.

Instead, progress towards goals may be made by anyone, including individuals, companies, non-governmental organisations and governments. You may therefore see mention of one or more goals on websites of international bodies, multinational companies and other corporations, and non-governmental organisations such as charities or lobbying groups.

The ambition was that the SDGs would be achieved by 2030, and the Secretary General reports each year on progress against the goals. The reports highlight areas of achievement, and also gaps that need urgent attention.

Minding the Gap: The Importance of Spreading Awareness

Publishing reports has an important function: to spread awareness about both the SDGs, and the progress that has been made towards them.

This is important in ensuring that progress continues to be made.

The independent Swedish foundation Gapminder has a test about knowledge of the UN SDGs (https://upgrader.gapminder.org/t/sdg-world-un-goals). It is worth a look if you have a spare 10 minutes.

The quiz contains multiple choice questions about each of the SDGs, and then provides information about the correct answer, and what most people respond.

Interestingly, most people are far too pessimistic about the state of the world. They tend to think that we have made little progress to date, and that there is a huge amount still to do to ‘put the world to rights’.

There are, of course, still huge inequalities and gaps in the world. However, it is worth remembering that, for example:

  • In the last 40 years we have made huge progress in reducing extreme poverty, so that now only around 10% of people live in that state, compared with 40% in 1980;

  • Around 70% of people in the world now have access to clean water in their homes; and

  • In the last 100 years, the number of people who die each year as a result of natural disasters has decreased to less than a half of the original figure.

Why do these figures matter? More importantly, why should we care that so many people are pessimistic about the state of the world?

Research shows that we tend to give up when we perceive that a task is too difficult.

In other words, if we perceive that the SDGs are going to be too hard to achieve, and that there is far too much to do, we are likely to believe that there is no point in trying.

Instead, the reality is that we have already made a huge amount of progress. Yes, there is much to do—but the size of the task is not insurmountable if we all work together.