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Theory Explained

Practice from my Experience

Home > Sustainable Development > Theory Explained

Sustainable Development: Theory in brief

Simply stated, sustainable development (SD) is about balance. If seen as a recipe, balance is SD’s essential ingredient. Sustainable development aims to achieve a balance between the competing economic and social interests of human societies, alongside a balance with the ongoing workings of earth’s natural environment. This balance is striven for both for humans of today and generations of humans to come.

Sometimes this balance is called SD’s Triple Bottom Line. This is considered a business-friendly way of referring to sustainable development’s need to combine environmental, social and economic factors.

In another sense, SD is about species survival: both the human species and other species on earth. Essentially, SD recognises that humans are a part of, not separate from, nature. That as only one of many species on earth, humans must work in harmony with earth’s natural systems and many other species at any given local level and also at the bigger global level. By our doing so, humans self-interestingly then secure a healthy life for our species today while also helping continue our species’ existence in to the future.

Sustainable development also recognises that while the concept of economy has become important to modern human thinking, human development entails so very much more than mere economic matters.

SD understands that human societies are themselves essentially social: that being, explicit within the very idea of human societies are “humans” and how we as a species choose to live and interact amongst one another and our natural environment. That while the social well-being of homo sapiens is not by necessity tied in to economic concepts - and without question, the human idea of an economy is not at all part of nature’s own evolutionary pattern - our species’ ability to both survive and thrive is by necessity tied in to earth’s natural environment.

When I first came to learn of SD, I soon became surprised that humans have not yet embraced its practice. I say this for humans do have some scientifically recorded history of unsustainable living at local levels, including on the related harmful consequences to our species. And with this existing scientific knowledge in hand, I would think humans would fully embrace SD. Particularly considering when, in the last 250 years or so since the onset of the industrial revolution, humans have now become completely engrossed in our current global practices of scientifically-documented patterns of unsustainable development.

Sustainable Development is different from Sustainability

Yes, sustainable development is indeed distinct from sustainability. These represent two very separate ideas.

Sustainability can be achieved to some extent when any one of the social or economic components of sustainable development achieves some degree of singular equilibrium. In economics, companies and countries can achieve varying stages of financial sustainability. Human societies can achieve differing levels of social sustainability (however each individual society chooses to define this idea). Various grades of environmental sustainability can be achieved when humans, using their tool of science, closely monitor their impacts on earth’s natural environment.

However, for SD to be put in practice, this requires the achievement of some degree of collective balance between all three of the constituent parts of sustainable development.

Sustainable Development is for all

Sustainable development then is each of a concept, approach and practice for all parts of human societies, whether these are related to: business, government, industry, NGOs (non-profit organisations), any level of community (such as social groups and community clubs), even right down to the level of household, homes and individuals.

SD unites all humans - along with our diverse nations, cultures, beliefs, and activities - in to the common practice of balanced stewardship. This is a balanced stewardship of our individual and collective societies and economies, all alongside our necessary balanced stewardship of earth’s natural environment.

And why does sustainable development take such an approach in practice? It does so for the benefit of current and future generations of humans, and for other life forms.

Clearly, governments would be best to set the public example in sustainable development by creating and then demonstrating in action a societal balance between SD’s three parts. This way their citizens and institutional structures would have a public model to emulate and follow. For business and industry to practice SD, it need move beyond a general over-emphasis on economic sustainability (i.e. a concerted focus on profit) and give more equal consideration to SD’s social and environmental factors. NGOs and community groups, for achievement of an SD balance, need place a more equal emphasis on economic sustainability, alongside sustainable development’s environmental component and the social sustainability that NGOs are often seen as more commonly emphasising. (For more information on the practice of SD, see the Local Agenda 21s section of this web-site.)

No one said sustainable development was going to be easy. Some environmentalists even consider the concept, approach and practice to be a contradiction in term. However, what we do know through science is that human sustainable development is no longer an option: it is a necessity. Our species must embrace SD for our own long-term survival and that of other species. All theories and practices generally have imperfections. And, yes, so does SD. But why focus on the few negatives of a mostly positive concept? For what sustainable development does do is provide humans with a reference point from which we can begin to learn and live balanced relationships with earth’s natural environment and, as importantly, amongst one another.

Origins and Expansion of Sustainable Development

Origins for the concept of “sustainable development” are generally credited to the World Conservation Strategy: Living Resource Conservation for Sustainable Development, published in 1980 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Simon Dresner, in his book the Principles of SUSTAINABILITY (2002, published by EARTHSCAN in London, UK), suggests that early development of the concept goes back even further in history to 1974 and a World Council of Churches (WCC) ecumenical study conference on Science and Technology for Human Development, which coined the phrase ‘sustainable society’.

Generally speaking, however, sustainable development as a concept, approach and practice became popularised and given greater clarity through the United Nation’s World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED - The Brundtland Commission) and their 1987 final report, Our Common Future. (You can access this report for free from:

(1987). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future [online]. UN Documents Cooperation Circles. Available from: http://www.un-documents.net/wced-ocf.htm [Accessed: 02 May 2008].)

The definition of sustainable development as crafted by the WCED and earlier noted in the introduction to this web-site remains earth’s most popular:

Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Additionally, the WCED developed the now-standard description of the essential ingredients of sustainable development: a description that has become the benchmark for the United Nations system and for national governments of earth. These essentials are that, to be in play as any of a concept, approach or practice, SD must include some degree of balance between each of the environmental, social and economic components of human societies.

The Brundtland Commission had so very many important things to say to earth’s humans. Thus, Our Common Future is well worth a thorough read. However, in my own interpretation, one of the unread beauties inherent within Our Common Future is that prominent human politicians and scientists unanimously, publicly and even bravely acknowledged that established human development patterns were having scientifically-quantifiable impacts on earth’s natural environment. Related and as bold, these same prominent people publicly stated in their Report that these same established development patterns were creating social and economic inequities amongst humans on our planet: inequalities which themselves served to cause further negative impacts on earth’s natural environment. Our Common Future so courageously advised humans that our established development patterns are without doubt detrimental to other species of life, to humans ourselves, and to the very earth we collectively inhabit.

One of humanity’s highest ideas

In one clear sense, what The Brundtland Commission proposed was ground-breaking: an idea equal in stature to any of those great human ideas that are credited with arising from the period now-termed as the European Enlightenment.

In my own words, what the WCED publicly stated through sustainable development is the need for earth’s humans to care: to care for one another, to care for other species beyond our own, to care for our earth as a collective whole, and to care for future generations of humans.

The Commission recognised that the zero-sum, win-lose, type of dynamics that have been so prevalent in human relationships on earth need to change. These need to be replaced with win-win-win types of relationships if humans want to ensure our long-term existence as one of the many species living on our fragile earthly home.

A person only has to read any of the extensive and publicly-available science on global warming or fresh water stress or biodiversity loss - amongst science reports related to so many other environmental subjects including desertification, the oceans, and more - to realise that humans cannot continue to develop as we are without causing irreparable damage to our little planetary home and thus, by extension, to our very selves.

In my mind, there are two guarantees that sustainable development as a concept, approach and practice will one day eventually become commonplace in human societies of earth, even when today a person often has to search hard to find evidence of this. These two guarantees I place in to a negative guarantee and a positive guarantee.

My non-preferred negative guarantee is the realistic scientific fear of earth’s systems simply collapsing in on themselves from human overuse and neglect, resulting in SD being forced upon those remaining humans who survive such a catastrophe.

My preferred positive guarantee is that 178 national governments all agreed to and supported the concept and practice of SD at the United Nations’ 1992 Earth Summit - the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) - held in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil.

My hope rests with the positive for, back in 1992, most of earth’s human national governments knew then that they must move their societies toward sustainable development and so they supported the SD concept and approach. Now all that remains is for these same governments to find the inner courage and strength to seriously begin to require that sustainable development be put in to practice throughout their countries. Our human species’ ability to survive and thrive will depend on this required courage and strength being found and harnessed.

(For more information on the history of sustainable development and related subjects, see the: Sustainable Development Glossary - Selected Important Terms, Concepts and International Agreements document found in the documents area of this web-site. For information on the practice of SD, see the Local Agenda 21s section of this web-site.)

(To personally ask me questions about SD, you are invited to contact me through the Contact Tom section of this web-site.)