What is Sustainable Development?

‘Sustainable’ is used a something of a buzzword these days, employed as a handy prefix for everything from fashion to washing-up liquid to fish to economics. From some of the branding and back-of-packet claims that are commonplace, you’d be forgiven for thinking ‘sustainable’ was synonymous with ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’. It’s not. Very simply, it means ‘can go on and on, maintained at a constant level or rate’. Plenty of natural processes, like childbirth and volcanic eruptions, are not sustainable as they happen and then end reasonably quickly. So it doesn’t mean natural or green, it just means it can continue. I want to say ‘can continue forever’ but obviously nothing can continue forever. ‘Continue for the foreseeable future’ perhaps.

Confusingly though, ‘sustainable development’ is a much more complex concept than simply ‘ development that can carry on for nearly forever’. The most widely accepted definition comes from Our Common Future, better known as the Brundtland Report, in 1987: 

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising future generation’s ability to meet their own needs.
Brundtland Report, 1987 

Notice two things about this definition.

Firstly, it’s very anthropocentric. It’s about meeting human needs, both now and in the future. It’s not about protecting the environment for it’s own sake, but for our benefit. Although it’d be nice to generate policy goals based on an altruistic love of nature, I suppose the human focus and practicality of the definition allows a wider range of people to agree with it. You hardly need to be an environmentalist to agree that meeting our own needs while allowing our children and grandchildren to do the same is a good idea. It suddenly becomes less about ‘tree-hugging’ and more about commonsense. This is one of the great achievements of sustainable development as a concept: the way it’s stopped being a niche idea and become a mainstream policy goal, embraced by the UN and national governments around the world.

This is at least in part because secondly, it’s a very vague definition. ‘Needs’ are key to the concept, but aren’t defined. Are we talking about the basic needs, like food, clean water and shelter? More advanced needs like good healthcare and education? Nice clothes? Democratic rights? Love? Working kitchen appliances? The iphone 5? It’s important we’re all on the same page here. The definition can – to a certain extent – mean pretty much what you want it to mean. This is a weakness in that people can talk past each other and may not be working towards the same things. But it’s also a strength, because it allows everyone to at least agree on something and beyond that it sparks a discussion about what is sustainable, what our needs are, and even what our descendants needs might be. It starts a conversation.

But if we just take the definition at face value, assuming only quite basic needs, we see that globally we are failing quite astoundingly. Billions of people don’t have clean water, decent food, healthcare and education. So we’re not even meeting today’s basic needs. What about future generations? Well what with climate change, finite resource depletion, rapid species loss and land degradation, we’re not leaving them much to work with either. Despite all the amazing technologies and astounding economic expansion, we’re failing dismally on both counts. Sustainable development is about putting that right, and that’s why it’s such an important, indeed vital, concept.

It’s not just government officials and policy makers that argue over what is and isn’t sustainable development, academics and sustainability theorists do it too. My lecturer says the field is ‘highly contested’ and ‘fraught with opinion’. But despite this controversy, Waas et al (2011) completed a large meta-analysis of literature on the subject and managed to draw out four main principles of sustainable development, where there is consensus between almost all movers and shakers in the sustainable development world. They are:

  • Normativity. This means issues of justice, ethics, values and subjectivities. Sustainable development is not an physical science, it is socially constructed. This means the contestation and debate is always going to be there, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s one of the core strengths of the concept.
  • Equality. Sustainable development is very concerned with both intragenerational equity (around the world today) and intergenerational equity (future generations). A more equal distribution of wealth, the eradication of world hunger and stopping discrimination are all central to sustainable development. Interspecies equity has also been discussed to a lesser extent – the idea that other species have a right to life, even if they’re not useful to us.
  • Integration. This is where the familiar graphic of the three entwined spheres comes in, representing the environment, the economy and the society. Before sustainable development, environmentalism and development were very separate. Similarly, bringing economics and sociology in helped massively to mainstream the concept. Also elements of politics and psychology are evident in this multidisciplinary field.
  • Dynamism. This means that sustainable development changes and evolves with time. This relates to the normativity principle as well. It’s not a hard and fast set of rules, it’s constantly being developed by everyone involved. Like an ecosystem, it is resilient and adapts to what’s needed.
The three spheres of sustainability. Not my image.

The three spheres of sustainability. Not my image.


To me,  sustainable development is so all-encompassing that it’s nothing short of the most important thing ever.

2 thoughts on “What is Sustainable Development?

  1. It confuses me why people can’t find some interest in nature and want to protect it. I believe it has to be a lack of knowledge on how all life is interconnected. Although, in truth I know many out of fear of a particular insect will try to eradicate them regardless of knowledge.

    I mentioned last week on my blog that I had a conversation with an individual who loves his tech gadgets what he would do if the resources to make his devices ran out. His response was I hope I’m dead. So, for some, I don’t think how we phrase the situation they won’t care enough to make even the simplest changes to preserve nature or the lands resources.

    1. Yes I think you’re right, people don’t realise how everything is connected and interdependent, ecologically and also socially. That’s why I think environmental studies should be taught in all schools. And sadly yes – the selfish mindset of “oh well I’ll probably be dead by the time all the problems get heavy” is widespread. I don’t understand it at all. I guess I have what’s called an universalist attitude – I assumed everyone did when I was younger but sadly no! Thanks for reading, as always :)

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