Sustainable development can best be thought of as a balanced approach to achieving a better quality of life for more people – while minimizing the impact that the associated development has on the natural world.
It is widely agreed that there are three primary aspects to sustainable development:
If any one of the three key components of sustainable development is not properly addressed by society, the other two will suffer as a result. For this reason, all three parts are equally important.
Although steps are being taken, in Europe for instance, towards sustainable materials management, most of the modern world is a long way from achieving any sort of truly sustainable development. We can see examples of deficiencies in any one of the three areas listed above, and how it affects the others.
United Nations statement
The United Nation’s Division for Sustainable Development or UN DSD in its text on human health and development concisely summarizes this cyclical problem, where it states: “Health and development are intimately interconnected. Both insufficient development leading to poverty and inappropriate development resulting in over-consumption, coupled with an expanding world population, can result in severe environmental health problems,” said UN DSD in 2009.
What’s critical to keep in mind is that while sustainable development is often thought of as an issue for poorer nations, the concerns and the problems that result from development are just as prevalent in a developed nation like the United States.
I believe it’s best to view the components of sustainable development starting with the issue of environmental degradation. While damage to the natural world and resource depletion directly affects human well being, the health of the environment and how we solve environmental problems are good ways of gauging how well sustainable development efforts are working.
Three levels of eco-challenges
Norman Vig and Michael Kraft differentiate between three levels of environmental problems:
– First is straight-forward point source pollution issues affecting air, soil and water which are often addressed by regulatory measures
– Second is pollution from smaller, dispersed sources
– Third is the global problems that are far more complex, without an easy or affordable solution
Societies that have achieved what we might consider a high level of economic and social development (such as the U.S., Europe or Japan) are also the ones with the resources to address the first two levels of environmental effects. While these consumption-driven economies have created a comfortable lifestyle for many, e.g., allowing citizens to have large homes and time for relaxation and recreation, these economies have also resulted in significant pollution to our surroundings.
Thus there is an imbalance in the big picture.
So far so so-so
Until now, our economy and our will to address this problem have allowed our society to successfully set regulatory limits on the amount of some types of toxic pollution through such tools as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.
However, we fail miserably in the goal of sustainable development when it comes to the third level of global environmental concerns: the global problems that are far more complex, without an easy or affordable solution.
Climate change is the most publicized, and perhaps the most serious problem facing us over the next century, but it is far from the only problem to result from our failure to strive toward sustainable goals. Because of our economic affluence and lifestyles that are driven by the accumulation of more material goods, we are unsustainably consuming and destroying fossil fuel resources along with forests, biodiversity, farmland and water resources.
These complex and widespread ecological problems reflect not only the Western world’s inability to develop sustainably, but it puts at risk sustainable development in other regions, where our over-consumption makes attaining a better quality of life more difficult.
Clearly sustainability involves sharing limited resources in a more balanced, equitable fashion, and we have failed to do this.
While in the short term, the status quo may work to the advantage of societies that already have a high standard of living (i.e., the United States), in the long term we will be faced with problems of our own making. As resources decline, so will our ability to live the kind of lifestyles to which we’ve grown accustomed. And then what?
(Part II of this serial will be published next week.)
Chris Watts currently serves as an Environmental Regulation Expert at Actio Corporation in Portsmouth, NH. He is pursuing advanced studies in Environmental Science at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD.