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Sustainable development is a pattern of resource use that aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for future generations. The term was used by the Brundtland Commission which coined what has become the most often-quoted definition of sustainable development as development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."[1][2]

Sustainable development ties together concern for the carrying capacity of natural systems with the social challenges facing humanity. As early as the 1970s "sustainability" was employed to describe an economy "in equilibrium with basic ecological support systems."[3] Ecologists have pointed to The Limits to Growth,[citation needed] and presented the alternative of a “steady state economy[4] in order to address environmental concerns.

The field of sustainable development can be conceptually broken into three constituent parts: environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and sociopolitical sustainability.


Scope and definitions

Three circles enclosed within one-another showing how both economy and society are constrained by environmental limits
A representation of sustainability showing how both economy and society are constrained by environmental limits (2003)[5]
Environment Equitable Sustainable Bearable (Social ecology) Viable (Environmental economics) Economic Social
Scheme of sustainable development: at the confluence of three constituent parts.(2006)[6][7]
The natural resource of wind powers these 5MW wind turbines on this wind farm 28 km off the coast of Belgium.

The concept has included notions of weak sustainability, strong sustainability and deep ecology. Sustainable development does not focus solely on environmental issues.

In 1987, the United Nations released the Brundtland Report, which defines sustainable development as 'development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.'[8]

The United Nations 2005 World Summit Outcome Document refers to the "interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars" of sustainable development as economic development, social development, and environmental protection.[9]

Indigenous peoples have argued, through various international forums such as the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the Convention on Biological Diversity, that there are four pillars of sustainable development, the fourth being cultural. The Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (UNESCO, 2001) further elaborates the concept by stating that "...cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature”; it becomes “one of the roots of development understood not simply in terms of economic growth, but also as a means to achieve a more satisfactory intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual existence". In this vision, cultural diversity is the fourth policy area of sustainable development.

Economic Sustainability: Agenda 21 clearly identified information, integration, and participation as key building blocks to help countries achieve development that recognises these interdependent pillars. It emphasises that in sustainable development everyone is a user and provider of information. It stresses the need to change from old sector-centred ways of doing business to new approaches that involve cross-sectoral co-ordination and the integration of environmental and social concerns into all development processes. Furthermore, Agenda 21 emphasises that broad public participation in decision making is a fundamental prerequisite for achieving sustainable development.[10]

According to Hasna Vancock, sustainability is a process which tells of a development of all aspects of human life affecting sustenance. It means resolving the conflict between the various competing goals, and involves the simultaneous pursuit of economic prosperity, environmental quality and social equity famously known as three dimensions (triple bottom line) with is the resultant vector being technology, hence it is a continually evolving process; the ‘journey’ (the process of achieving sustainability) is of course vitally important, but only as a means of getting to the destination (the desired future state). However,the ‘destination’ of sustainability is not a fixed place in the normal sense that we understand destination. Instead, it is a set of wishful characteristics of a future system.[11]

Solar towers utilize the natural resource of the sun, and are a renewable energy source. From left: PS10 and PS20 solar towers.

Green development is generally differentiated from sustainable development in that Green development prioritizes what its proponents consider to be environmental sustainability over economic and cultural considerations. Proponents of Sustainable Development argue that it provides a context in which to improve overall sustainability where cutting edge Green development is unattainable. For example, a cutting edge treatment plant with extremely high maintenance costs may not be sustainable in regions of the world with fewer financial resources. An environmentally ideal plant that is shut down due to bankruptcy is obviously less sustainable than one that is maintainable by the community, even if it is somewhat less effective from an environmental standpoint.

Some research activities start from this definition to argue that the environment is a combination of nature and culture. The Network of Excellence "Sustainable Development in a Diverse World",[12] sponsored by the European Union, integrates multidisciplinary capacities and interprets cultural diversity as a key element of a new strategy for sustainable development.

Still other researchers view environmental and social challenges as opportunities for development action. This is particularly true in the concept of sustainable enterprise that frames these global needs as opportunities for private enterprise to provide innovative and entrepreneurial solutions. This view is now being taught at many business schools including the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell University and the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan.

The United Nations Division for Sustainable Development lists the following areas as coming within the scope of sustainable development:[13]

Sustainable development is an eclectic concept, as a wide array of views fall under its umbrella. The concept has included notions of weak sustainability, strong sustainability and deep ecology. Different conceptions also reveal a strong tension between ecocentrism and anthropocentrism. Many definitions and images (Visualizing Sustainability) of sustainable development coexist. Broadly defined, the sustainable development mantra enjoins current generations to take a systems approach to growth and development and to manage natural, produced, and social capital for the welfare of their own and future generations.

During the last ten years, different organizations have tried to measure and monitor the proximity to what they consider sustainability by implementing what has been called sustainability metrics and indices[14].

Sustainable development is said to set limits on the developing world. While current first world countries polluted significantly during their development, the same countries encourage third world countries to reduce pollution, which sometimes impedes growth. Some consider that the implementation of sustainable development would mean a reversion to pre-modern lifestyles.[15]

Others have criticized the overuse of the term:

"[The] word sustainable has been used in too many situations today, and ecological sustainability is one of those terms that confuse a lot of people. You hear about sustainable development, sustainable growth, sustainable economies, sustainable societies, sustainable agriculture. Everything is sustainable (Temple, 1992)."[15]

Environmental sustainability

Water is an important natural resource that covers 71% of the Earth's surface. Image is the Earth photographed from Apollo 17.

Environmental sustainability is the process of making sure current processes of interaction with the environment are pursued with the idea of keeping the environment as pristine as naturally possible based on ideal-seeking behavior.

An "unsustainable situation" occurs when natural capital (the sum total of nature's resources) is used up faster than it can be replenished. Sustainability requires that human activity only uses nature's resources at a rate at which they can be replenished naturally. Inherently the concept of sustainable development is intertwined with the concept of carrying capacity. Theoretically, the long-term result of environmental degradation is the inability to sustain human life. Such degradation on a global scale could imply extinction for humanity.

Consumption of renewable resources State of environment Sustainability
More than nature's ability to replenish Environmental degradation Not sustainable
Equal to nature's ability to replenish Environmental equilibrium Steady state economy
Less than nature's ability to replenish Environmental renewal Environmentally sustainable

The notion of capital in sustainable development

The sustainable development debate is based on the assumption that societies need to manage three types of capital (economic, social, and natural), which may be non-substitutable and whose consumption might be irreversible.[16] Daly (1991),[17] for example, points to the fact that natural capital can not necessarily be substituted by economic capital. While it is possible that we can find ways to replace some natural resources, it is much more unlikely that they will ever be able to replace eco-system services, such as the protection provided by the ozone layer, or the climate stabilizing function of the Amazonian forest. In fact natural capital, social capital and economic capital are often complementarities. A further obstacle to substitutability lies also in the multi-functionality of many natural resources. Forests, for example, not only provide the raw material for paper (which can be substituted quite easily), but they also maintain biodiversity, regulate water flow, and absorb CO2. Another problem of natural and social capital deterioration lies in their partial irreversibility. The loss in biodiversity, for example, is often definite. The same can be true for cultural diversity. For example with globalisation advancing quickly the number of indigenous languages is dropping at alarming rates. Moreover, the depletion of natural and social capital may have non-linear consequences. Consumption of natural and social capital may have no observable impact until a certain threshold is reached. A lake can, for example, absorb nutrients for a long time while actually increasing its productivity. However, once a certain level of algae is reached lack of oxygen causes the lake’s ecosystem to break down all of a sudden.


Market failure

Before flue gas desulfurization was installed, the air-polluting emissions from this power plant in New Mexico contained excessive amounts of sulfur dioxide.

If the degradation of natural and social capital has such important consequence the question arises why action is not taken more systematically to alleviate it. Cohen and Winn (2007)[18] point to four types of market failure as possible explanations: First, while the benefits of natural or social capital depletion can usually be privatized the costs are often externalized (i.e. they are borne not by the party responsible but by society in general). Second, natural capital is often undervalued by society since we are not fully aware of the real cost of the depletion of natural capital. Information asymmetry is a third reason—often the link between cause and effect is obscured, making it difficult for actors to make informed choices. Cohen and Winn close with the realization that contrary to economic theory many firms are not perfect optimizers. They postulate that firms often do not optimize resource allocation because they are caught in a "business as usual" mentality.

The business case for sustainable development

The most broadly accepted criterion for corporate sustainability constitutes a firm’s efficient use of natural capital. This eco-efficiency is usually calculated as the economic value added by a firm in relation to its aggregated ecological impact.[19] This idea has been popularised by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) under the following definition: “Eco-efficiency is achieved by the delivery of competitively-priced goods and services that satisfy human needs and bring quality of life, while progressively reducing ecological impacts and resource intensity throughout the life-cycle to a level at least in line with the earth’s carrying capacity.” (DeSimone and Popoff, 1997: 47)[20]

Similar to the eco-efficiency concept but so far less explored is the second criterion for corporate sustainability. Socio-efficiency [21] describes the relation between a firm’s value added and its social impact. Whereas, it can be assumed that most corporate impacts on the environment are negative (apart from rare exceptions such as the planting of trees) this is not true for social impacts. These can be either positive (e.g. corporate giving, creation of employment) or negative (e.g. work accidents, mobbing of employees, human rights abuses). Depending on the type of impact socio-efficiency thus either tries to minimize negative social impacts (i.e. accidents per value added) or maximise positive social impacts (i.e. donations per value added) in relation to the value added.

Both eco-efficiency and socio-efficiency are concerned primarily with increasing economic sustainability. In this process they instrumentalize both natural and social capital aiming to benefit from win-win situations. However, as Dyllick and Hockerts[21] point out the business case alone will not be sufficient to realise sustainable development. They point towards eco-effectiveness, socio-effectiveness, sufficiency, and eco-equity as four criteria that need to be met if sustainable development is to be reached.

Critique of the concept of sustainable development

Deforestation and increased road-building in the Amazon Rainforest are a significant concern because of increased human encroachment upon wilderness areas, increased resource extraction and further threats to biodiversity.

The concept of “ Sustainable Development ” raises several critiques at different levels.


Various writers have commented on the population control agenda that seems to underlie the concept of sustainable development. Maria Sophia Aguirre writes:[22]

"Sustainable development is a policy approach that has gained quite a lot of popularity in recent years, especially in international circles. By attaching a specific interpretation to sustainability, population control policies have become the overriding approach to development, thus becoming the primary tool used to “promote” economic development in developing countries and to protect the environment."

Mary Jo Anderson suggests that the real purpose of sustainable development is to contain and limit economic development in developing countries, and in so doing control population growth.[23] It is suggested that this is the reason the main focus of most programs is still on low-income agriculture. Joan Veon, a businesswoman and international reporter, who covered 64 global meetings on sustainable development posits that:[24]

"Sustainable development has continued to evolve as that of protecting the world's resources while its true agenda is to control the world's resources. It should be noted that Agenda 21 sets up the global infrastructure needed to manage, count, and control all of the world's assets."


The retreat of Aletsch Glacier in the Swiss Alps (situation in 1979, 1991 and 2002), due to global warming.

John Baden[25] views the notion of sustainable development as dangerous because the consequences have unknown effects. He writes: "In economy like in ecology, the interdependence rule applies. Isolated actions are impossible. A policy which is not carefully enough thought will carry along various perverse and adverse effects for the ecology as much as for the economy. Many suggestions to save our environment and to promote a model of 'sustainable development' risk indeed leading to reverse effects."[26] Moreover, he evokes the bounds of public action which are underlined by the public choice theory: the quest by politicians of their own interests, lobby pressure, partial disclosure etc. He develops his critique by noting the vagueness of the expression, which can cover anything :   It is a gateway to interventionist proceedings which can be against the principle of freedom and without proven efficacy. Against this notion, he is a proponent of private property to impel the producers and the consumers to save the natural resources. According to Baden, “the improvement of environment quality depends on the market economy and the existence of legitimate and protected property rights.” They enable the effective practice of personal responsibility and the development of mechanisms to protect the environment. The State can in this context “create conditions which encourage the people to save the environment.”[27]

Vagueness of the term

Some criticize the term “sustainable development”, stating that the term is too vague. For example, both Jean-Marc Jancovici[28] or the philosopher Luc Ferry[29] express this view. The latter writes about sustainable development: "I know that this term is obligatory, but I find it also absurd, or rather so vague that it says nothing." Luc Ferry adds that the term is trivial by a proof of contradiction: "who would like to be a proponent of an “untenable development! Of course no one! [..] The term is more charming than meaningful. [..] Everything must be done so that it does not turn into Russian-type administrative planning with ill effects."


Sylvie Brunel, French geographer and specialist of the Third World, develops in A qui profite le développement durable (Who benefits from sustainable development?) (2008) a critique of the basis of sustainable development, with its binary vision of the world, can be compared to the Christian vision of Good and Evil, a idealized nature where the human being is an animal like the others or even an alien. Nature – as Rousseau thought – is better than the human being. It is a parasite, harmful for the nature. But the human is the one who protects the biodiversity, where normally only the strong survive.[30]

Moreover, she thinks that the ideas of sustainable development can hide a will to protectionism from the developed country to impede the development of the other countries. For Sylvie Brunel, the sustainable development serves as a pretext for the protectionism and “I have the feeling about sustainable development that it is perfectly helping out the capitalism”.[30]


The proponents of the de-growth reckon that the term of sustainable development is an oxymoron. According to them, on a planet where 20% of the population consumes 80% of the natural resources, a sustainable development cannot be possible for this 20%: “According to the origin of the concept of sustainable development , a development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, the right term for the developed countries should be a sustainable de-growth”.[31]

Sustainable development in economics

The Venn diagram of sustainable development shown above has many versions,[32] but was first used by economist Edward Barbier (1987)[33]. However, Pearce, Barbier and Markandya (1989)[34] criticized the Venn approach due to the intractability of operationalizing separate indices of economic, environmental, and social sustainability and somehow combining them. They also noted that the Venn approach was inconsistent with the Brundtland Commission Report, which emphasized the interlinkages between economic development, environmental degradation, and population pressure instead of three objectives. Economists have since focused on viewing the economy and the environment as a single interlinked system with a unified valuation methodology (Hamilton 1999[35], Dasgupta 2007[36]). Intergenerational equity can be incorporated into this approach, as has become common in economic valuations of climate change economics (Heal,2009)[37]. Ruling out discrimination against future generations and allowing for the possibility of renewable alternatives to petro-chemicals and other non-renewable resources, efficient policies are compatible with increasing human welfare, eventually reaching a golden-rule steady state (Ayong le Kama, 2001[38] and Endress et al.2005[39]). Thus the three pillars of sustainable development are interlinkages, intergenerational equity, and dynamic efficiency (Stavins, et al. 2003).[40]

Arrow et al. (2004)[41] and other economists (e.g. Asheim,1999[42] and Pezzey, 1989[43] and 1997[44]) have advocated a form of the weak criterion for sustainable development – the requirement than the wealth of a society, including human-capital, knowledge-capital and natural-capital (as well as produced capital) not decline over time. Others, including Barbier 2007,[45] continue to contend that strong sustainability – non-depletion of essential forms of natural capital – may be appropriate.

See also

Organizations and research


  1. ^ United Nations. 1987."Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development." General Assembly Resolution 42/187, 11 December 1987. Retrieved: 2007-04-12
  2. ^ Smith, Charles; Rees, Gareth (1998). Economic Development, 2nd edition. Basingstoke: Macmillan. ISBN 0333722280. 
  3. ^ Stivers, R. 1976. The Sustainable Society: Ethics and Economic Growth. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
  4. ^ Daly, H. E. 1973. Towards a Steady State Economy. San Francisco: Freeman. Daly, H. E. 1991. Steady-State Economics (2nd ed.). Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
  5. ^ Ott, K. (2003). "The Case for Strong Sustainability." In: Ott, K. & P. Thapa (eds.) (2003).Greifswald’s Environmental Ethics. Greifswald: Steinbecker Verlag Ulrich Rose. ISBN 3931483320. Retrieved on: 2009-02-16.
  6. ^ Adams, W.M. (2006). "The Future of Sustainability: Re-thinking Environment and Development in the Twenty-first Century." Report of the IUCN Renowned Thinkers Meeting, 29–31 January, 2006. Retrieved on: 2009-02-16.
  7. ^ UCN. 2006. The Future of Sustainability: Re-thinking Environment and Development in the Twenty-first Century. Report of the IUCN Renowned Thinkers Meeting, 29–31 January 2006
  8. ^ Our Common Future, Chapter 2: Towards Sustainable Development
  9. ^ 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, World Health Organization, 15 September 2005
  10. ^ Will Allen. 2007."Learning for Sustainability: Sustainable Development."
  11. ^ Hasna, A. M. (2007). "Dimensions of sustainability". Journal of Engineering for Sustainable Development: Energy, Environment, and Health 2 (1): 47–57. 
  12. ^ SUS.DIV
  13. ^ United Nations Division for sustainable Development. Documents: Sustainable Development Issues Retrieved: 2007-05-12
  14. ^ Boulanger, P. M. (2008) “Sustainable development indicators: a scientific challenge, a democratic issue”. S.A.P.I.EN.S. 1 (1)
  15. ^ a b What Is Sustainable Development?
  16. ^ Dyllick, T. & Hockerts, K. 2002. Beyond the business case for corporate sustainability. Business Strategy and the Environment, 11(2): 130-141
  17. ^ Daly, H. E. 1973. Towards a Steady State Economy. San Francisco: Freeman.
  18. ^ Cohen, B. & Winn, M. I. 2007. Market imperfections, opportunity and sustainable entrepreneurship. Journal of Business Venturing, 22(1): 29-49.
  19. ^ Schaltegger, S. & Sturm, A. 1998. Eco-Efficiency by Eco-Controlling. Zürich: vdf.
  20. ^ DeSimone, L. & Popoff, F. 1997. Eco-efficiency: The business link to sustainable development. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  21. ^ a b Dyllick, T. & Hockerts, K. 2002. Beyond the business case for corporate sustainability. Business Strategy and the Environment, 11(2): 130-141.
  22. ^ Aguirre, M.S., 2002. Sustainable development: why the focus on population? International Journal of Social Economics, vol. 29, 12: 923 - 945
  23. ^ Anderson, M.J., 2002. Sustainable development, WFF Voices Online Edition Vol. XVII, 1.
  24. ^ Sustainable development, Agenda 21 and Prince Charles
  25. ^ chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE)
  26. ^ [1] L'économie politique du développement durable, John Baden, document de l'ICREI
  27. ^ « L'économie politique du développement durable », John Baden, document de l'ICREI
  28. ^ « À quoi sert le développement durable ? »
  29. ^ « Protéger l'espèce humaine contre elle-même », entretien avec Luc Ferry dans la Revue des Deux Mondes, octobre-novembre 2007, pp.75-79
  30. ^ a b « Les enjeux internationaux », entretien avec Sylvie Brunel sur France Culture, 11 juin 2008
  31. ^ Bruno Clémentin et Vincent Cheynet, Contre le développement durable
  32. ^ Visualising Sustainability. Posted by Samuel Mann under Computing for Sustainability, visualisingsustainability
  33. ^ Barbier, E.,1987. The Concept of Sustainable Economic Development. Environmental Conservation, 14(2):101-110
  34. ^ Pearce, D., A. Markandya and E. Barbier,1989. Blueprint for a green economy, Earthscan, London, Great Britain
  35. ^ Hamilton, K., and M. Clemens,1999. Genuine savings rates in developing countries. World Bank Econ Review, 13(2):333–56
  36. ^ Dasgupta, P. 2007. The idea of sustainable development,Sustainability Science, 2(1):5-11
  37. ^ Heal, G., 2009. Climate Economics: A Meta-Review and Some Suggestions for Future Research, Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, 3(1):4-21
  38. ^ Ayong Le Kama, 2001 A.D. Ayong Le Kama, Sustainable growth renewable resources, and pollution, Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control, 25:1911–1918
  39. ^ Endress,L., J. Roumasset, and T. Zhou. 2005. Sustainable Growth with Environmental Spillovers,"Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization," 58(4):527-547,
  40. ^ Stavins, R., A. Wagner, G. Wagner Interpreting Sustainability in Economic Terms: Dynamic Efficiency Plus Intergenerational Equity, Economic Letters, 79:339-343
  41. ^ Arrow KJ, P. Dasgupta, L. Goulder, G Daily, PR Ehrlich, GM Heal, S Levin, K-G Maler, S Schneider, DA Starrett, B Walker. 2004. Are we consuming too much? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18(3):147–172
  42. ^ Asheim, G. 1999. Economic analysis of sustainability. In: W.M. Lafferty and O. Langhalle, Editors, Towards Sustainable Development, St. Martins Press, New York, p. 159
  43. ^ Pezzey, J. 1989. Economic Analysis of Sustainable Growth and Sustainable Development, Environmental department Working Paper No. 15, World Bank.
  44. ^ Pezzey, J. (1997). "Sustainability constraints versus 'optimality' versus intertemporal concern, and axioms versus data". Land Economics 73 (4): 448–466. Retrieved 2009-06-16. 
  45. ^ Barbier, E. 2007 Natural Resources and Economic Development, Cambridge University Press

Further reading

External links

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Study guide

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Simple English

Sustainable development is a way for people to use resources without the resources running out . The term used by the Brundtland Commission defined it as development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."[1]

Everyone wants a better place to live. Some people want better homes and housing, while other people want better schools, more jobs, better shops, or cleaner and safer streets. Others may want all these things. Whatever the problems in any neighbourhood, they can usually be grouped into three issues. People need:

  • a better environment – that means green spaces, play areas, no litter, nice gardens, decent houses, less noise and pollution
  • a better economy – that means jobs, reasonable prices, cheaper heat and light, no loan sharks
  • better social conditions – that means good leisure facilities, lots of community groups offering sports and arts, friendly neighbours.

But many people now realise that if we are to tackle one issue, then we’ll probably have to tackle the others as well. For instance, new shops are unlikely to open in an area where crime and poverty levels are very high. Similarly crime is unlikely to fall in an area where the housing has been improved unless there are jobs to be had. People may move into an area where housing and jobs are available, but if the surroundings are run-down and public transport is poor, they may well not want to stay.

This is not just a local issue. The same problems are faced at a national level. If the governments of the world are to deal with poverty, they don’t just need to provide money and food aid, they need to help local people get educated and get jobs. People also need a safe environment with adequate homes and drinking water. To make these things work, governments also need to make sure that people have an effective voice in deciding what happens where they live.

They call this approach ‘sustainable development’. While this phrase can be confusing, it’s now used in many government documents and in funding programmes.

At the core of this idea is the matter of meeting people’s needs – for a home, for a decent job, for education for their children, for good health care, and for a safe and healthy neighbourhood to live in.

Most people in the rich nations have most of these needs, but there are still many people living in poverty and in poor quality homes. Even if these basic needs are met there are still plenty of ways in which their ‘quality of life’ is under threat: from crime, from pollution, or from living in neighbourhoods where no-one in authority seems to care.

Many areas have programmes to promote ‘local sustainability’: many are called ‘Local Agenda 21’ plans, named after the international Agenda 21 action plan for sustainable development agreed at the United Nations Earth Summit held in 1992.

Notes and references

  1. United Nations. 1987. "Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development." General Assembly Resolution 42/187, 11 December 1987. Retrieved: 2007-04-12

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