Exploring the Definition of Sustainable Development

What has become the standard definition of sustainable development was published in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission, a World Commission on Environment and Development convened by the United Nations.

The Commission report, aptly titled "Our Common Future," said sustainable development "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Therefore the definition of sustainable development is contributing to environmental sustainability of the earth, economic prosperity, and social equity among peoples over multiple generations.

So this Brundtland Commission was created to work for nearly three years on the issues of global environmental pollution and rapid natural resource depletion, and how ecological disaster could be avoided.

Assessing the impact of one's actions out to the seventh generation, an idea attributed to some Native American groups, also fits well with this concept.

Now we will discuss this definition for the presumed visitor to this website, a person active in his or her own community.

Idealists around the world are interested in the concept of sustainable development and in forming green communities to help slow global warming, desertification, industrial pollution, and other huge environmental shifts that would produce massive social and economic changes.  Resulting need to relocate large populations of people, some of them very poor and many of them children, would cause massive human suffering that none of us want to face.

Supporting the Planet's Capacity to Support Us

Back in the 1800s the word sustainability was used in Europe to refer to whether forests would run out of wood. In the 1970s counter-culture, sustainability evolved into an economic, political, or social term as much as an environmental one.

A host of United Nations work since 1987, including the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio and the U.N. Agenda 21 program, continues to tie environmental sustainability back into social and economic factors, with cultural diversity increasingly thrown into the mix. The European Union has a similarly diverse program.

These efforts are concerned with the carrying capacity of the earth to support an ecosystem friendly to human life, without compromising economic and social conditions.

Just to confuse you further, of course, some people argue this is too people-centered, so they want to talk about the earth's ecosystems with no special regard for humans above other species.

So just be aware that when we Americans talk about a definition of sustainable development mainly as a "greener," more environmentally conscious way of undertaking real estate development, the rest of the world may mean something quite different.

Definition of Sustainable Development in "Developing" Regions of the World

The word "development" on much of the world stage is a Cold War era idea about eradicating poverty and disease to the point that nations can become equally wealthy, self-sufficient, and intelligently self-governing.

Thus the economic, social, and now indigenous cultural overtones of "sustainable development" linger in global circles.

Many would say that development of a nation means an increase in human quality of life, indicated by increased health, more education, better nutrition, increased wealth for individuals and in the form of the GNP (gross national product) for the economy, and a fair distribution of that wealth.

Within that same world context, the definition of sustainable development may mean a greater emphasis of preserving and caring for the built, natural, and cultural environment.

Often the connotation of sustainable development includes equity among individuals in the society, and also that the current way of life is not robbing resources that will be needed by future generations.

Sustainability is closely linked with long-range thinking, rather than day-to-day thinking, which is why the conversation arises when people move out of a hunter-gatherer society into more centralized methods of producing wealth.

The acceptability of the notion of sustainability thus is linked to optimism as opposed to nihilism. In the Western nations, educated people may be more capable of comprehending this long time horizon than those without as much formal education. But many indigenous peoples around the world believe deeply in sustainability.

Interesting questions are whether sustainable development is more or less achievable in a democracy, in capitalism, in socialism, or under centralized or decentralized national states.

Definition of Sustainable Development for Cities and Neighborhoods

Now we have explained the classic definition. I know from many experiences as a consultant that I probably haven't talked you out of thinking that any new building is a great thing and of course that constitutes economic development.

The concept of sustainable development cannot be couched in absolutes, as in "Your downtown is sustainable development, but the next one west isn't sustainable." Practices and materials simply contribute or don't contribute to sustainability, as far we know now.

Worldwide debate has been that the developed countries cannot continue their proportional over-consumption of the world's resources.

But in the U.S. and most advanced societies, we have trouble with the notion that something threatens our fundamental prosperity. As for social equity and environmental justice, Americans think we already have that, even though daily life demonstrates otherwise.

So for your city, say that the definition of sustainable development is examining and correcting conditions as needed to advance economic prosperity, social equity and cultural diversity without compromising environmental quality, availability of natural resources, and biodiversity for future generations.

The local conversation can be about the triple bottom line (not merely an economic bottom line, but also a calculation that measures and accounts for economic and social progress or degradation.

With such an approach, you might convince your City Council to rip up part of a street to plant a rain garden whether or not they are the entity responsible for clean water.

If it's straight municipal finance, and another agency purifies water, it will be a much tougher argument.

Another idea to be aware of is that there also is a de-growth movement world-wide, which states that you can't have growth and development and still have sustainability. A few environmentalists don't want us to use much of anything.

The Menominee Indian Tribe in Wisconsin has argued that its forest resources should be protected forever. See information about the Menominee Sustainable Development Institute.

And indeed at the opening of the Rio Earth Summit, Maurice Strong talked about how we need to give up suburbia, air conditioning, appliances, high meat consumption, and so forth.

So some people think you need to figure out how to decrease perceived standard of living before you can be sustainable!

Actually the Brundtland Commission report, p. 49, talks about the need to "revive growth" and "change the quality of growth," so you have it on good authority that sustainability is not anti-growth. But it does require us to change, something we hate to do.

To keep reading about worldwide sustainability, try this International Union for the Conservation of Nature statement for a conference in June 2012 that was called Rio +20.

Defining Yourself as a Green Community

But as you can see, the definition of sustainable development is so broad as to be unhelpfully vague and ethereal, in my opinion. Avoid any political friction about the definition of sustainable development, with its anti-progress overtone.

So unless you can convince your city or neighborhood to use it as your number one organizing concept, you should probably retreat to the much more manageable idea of making yourself a green community.

Often the concept of green communities is built on a set of quantifiable goals ("metrics" is the popular term for measurement of goal attainment) that are primarily environmental.

Even Chicago, which really has embraced sustainability, uses the green term frequently, as in "green roofs" and "green alleys," rather than sustainable this and that.

Green communities are communities developed and redeveloped on the principle of minimizing and then eliminating environmental damage due to human activity.

A green community shouldn't use up its natural capital, a term used to refer to the total of Mother Nature’s resources, faster than it is generated.

Sustainable Development, or Green Building, in Practice

Some of you came to this site because you thought green building and sustainable development were pretty much synonyms. And I'm not saying you're wrong.

Since we took a different fork in the road, head on over to the the green home construction page.

All About Green:

> > Definition of Sustainable Development

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required