In 1987, on March 20th to be exact, the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations came up with this definition for sustainable development, “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In 2005, at the United Nations World Summit in New York City, it was duly noted that sustainable development requires the reconciliation of environmental, social, and economic demands, and were deemed the “three pillars” of sustainability. This view has been used as an illustration that uses three overlapping ellipses which indicate the pillars of sustainability and that they are nor mutually exclusive but can be mutually reinforcing.
The term sustainability has failed to produce a widespread common definition because it is considered to accomplish many different things together. The Earth Charter, which is a diverse global network of people, organizations, and institutions promotes sustainability with it’s rendition: “The Earth Charter is a declaration of fundamental ethical principles for building a just, sustainable and peaceful global society in the 21st century.” Their mission statement is as follows: “The mission of the Earth Charter Initiative is to promote the transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework that includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace.”
Environmentalists believe that the concept of sustainable development is an oxymoron, in that development typically involves environmental harm or destruction. Herman Daly, and ecological economist phrased this phenomenon by asking the question “what use is a sawmill without a forest?”. We need go no further than Easter Island for a perspective on this analogy, as they ruined their environment and cut down the last tree as their civilization was already collapsed into mass starvation, war and cannibalism.
A commonplace widely acceptable definition for sustainability is hard to achieve due to several factors. First of all, as we mentioned earlier, it is expected to accomplish many different things simultaneously, which is not easy by any means. For starters, it needs to be scientific and factual in nature, with a clear statement of a specific goal or destination. If we define it as improving the quality of life while living within the ability of the environment to support that livelihood gives the definition of setting actual limits on what we can use. Sustainability, however, is also a call to action and is deemed a task in progress, so, it becomes a political process, which delivers a set of common goals and values to the task. We could really get complicated here, and go on to explain sustainability as it can be applied over many scales of space and time, from your local garden to the planets balance between production and consumption, and may also imply future intentions, or goals for future production and consumption. Because of the perplexity of sustainability, many times it is perceived as a feel-good buzzword with little value and, or, substance. On the other end of the spectrum is deemed an important concept, albeit unfocused, and can be likened to liberty and justice. Another description of this term is that it is a “dialogue of values that defies consensual definition.”
Consumption is a primary factor is determining sustainability, and our impact on the planets ecological systems when gathering these resources typically results in the destruction of the biophysical resources, or ecosystems. There was an attempt to express the human impact on the planet mathematically, and in the 1970’s the I PAT formula was developed. This formula attempts to emulate human consumption in terms of three primary components which include population, levels of consumption (Affluence), and impact per unit of resource, or technology. The formula translates to I (Environmental Impact) = P (Population) * A (Affluence) * T (Technology). As the population continues to grow, it creates more of a demand on resources, and also raises the environmental impact of these. The population is expected to reach 7 billion in early 2012, and to exceed 9 billion by 2050, with it peaking near the year 2070 at 9 to 10 billion people, and then experiencing a slow decrease to 8.4 billion by the year 2100. With India’s and China’s growing economies emulating that of the Western world, as does the non-industrialized world in general, it creates a larger issue in terms of sustainability, in that with the population increase in developing nations along with the unsustainable consumption levels in the developed world, it poses a serious challenge to maintaining sustainability.
We can simplify the whole sustainable development issue with one key phrase, ‘live within our means’. If we continue to use beyond what the capacity of Earth can handle, we will lose the fight for sustainability. We can reduce, re-use and recycle to help. we can cut back on non essentials and begin to live within our means. A simple analogy is that of a household budget, if we cannot afford something, we do not buy it. The same holds true for sustainability, if the planet cannot maintain our consumption levels, then we should not be able to afford it, as the cost is too high, maybe not in terms of dollars and cents, or other obvious tangible reasons, but for intangible reasons which are not immediately distinguishable.
Lets take the Colorado River for an example, and it’s importance. It supplies water and power for millions in the American Southwest, and is the lifeblood for many communities there. Demand has grown beyond capacity with all the unsustainable development that region has experienced over the last few decades, and continues to grow. The river has shrunk, and Lake Mead is at it’s lowest level, 1,087 feet above sea level, since 1956, and is projected to drop another 3 feet this year. This is due to excessive use and a prolonged drought in the region, which is projected to worsen according to climate models for climate change over the next several decades. Now there are conservation efforts in place in both Nevada and Arizona to delay the potential rationing of water, should it get desperately low. This new consciousness of water conservation is more in tune with sustainability than that of the past with the expansive growth in the area, and the lack of concern over water supply deletion.
This brings me to one more point I would like to add, which is our atmosphere, and how sustainability fits into our relationship with it. When we were at 1 billion or 2 billion population, we had pollution, CO2 gases, and other environmentally unfriendly gases and toxins that were released into the air. We also had much less consumption of oil, gas, coal, and other energy supplies used to energize and transport that population. That has significantly changed at nearly 7 billion population, and has exponentially increased our consumption of carbon based fuels. It also has significantly increased the amount of pollutants that we spew into our rivers, streams, air, land, and ultimately, ourselves. We need to treat our pollution of the planet just the same as any other sustainable development, and take serious precautions on what we do in regards to the release of toxic, eco-unfriendly substances into our environment. Just as we can run out of non-renewable resources, we can ‘over-pollute’ and destroy eco-systems which we have seen, only in smaller scales up to this point, but that could change just like the weather. So we must take into account earth sciences and environmental science when we deploy new developments, and consider the harm we may irreparably do to our environment when considering sustainable development.
If we progress from here on out with sustainability and sustainable development principles in mind, we should be okay, and be able to make do with what we have, and develop creative new ways to help sustain that which we are lacking. We can also create a sustainability plan for our atmosphere, water, and land resources that includes the negative impacts of our consuming these resources, like oil and coal. Change and adaptation are terms some of us may not appreciate, but they are truly essential in any species survivability. If we are to survive without any cataclysmic events which force us to adapt and change quite rapidly, then we need to do so willingly, and in a timely fashion, and practice sustainable development and implement sustainability practices in every endeavor we partake in. Just think of the Earth as your home, which it is in essence, and the better we take care of it, the less we have to worry about it! Peace my friends.