Sustainable Development Meaning Differs with Context

The emphasis of sustainable development differs, depending on whether we're considering a remote village in Africa or Copenhagen or a suburb in the U.S. or the reported 5 million people living in a large cemetery in Cairo.

This page lays out in brief our idea on how sustainable development is a moving target, depending on a society's political organization, aspirations and values, and housing and economic patterns.

Wherever you are, being able to maintain infrastructure, the built environment, an economy, or the social system you've set up for yourselves for a reasonable period of time is key to preventing the waste of human energy and both renewable and non-renewable natural resources of our world.

More and more, the international community is discussing broad issues across global boundaries. We are encouraged that the latest UN 15-year vision document, Sustainable Development Goals, involved considerably more input from ordinary folks than the previous iteration.

As a further example, a United Nations conference called Rio+20 Global Town Hall, was held in June, 2012, in Rio de Janeiro, and attracted a number of heads of state.  The follow-up for Rio+20, labeled in an amusing way as the 2016 High-Level Political Forum, is generating an extensive network of programs and activities that you may want to follow if you are interested in this topic.



Smart Sustainable Development for Emerging Nations

Where sanitation, telephone, electricity, internet, and connecting roads are missing, peoples of the world have the unique opportunity to contribute to resolving climate change and other environmental problems.

In these instances, it is important to use the least expensive, easiest to maintain, and most locally available materials to get the job done.

It requires real inventiveness for people who grew up in industrialized and wealthy nations to use what is at hand.  However, people in less wealthy cultures are ingenious at using what they have. Maybe an abundance of wood and debris floating down the river can be used as biomass to generate fuel. 

To most indigenous peoples, preserving the culture, as well as the welfare of the plants and animals around them, seems natural. Cultural preservation can be very compatible with sustainable development, if both goals are kept in mind while programs and policies are designed.  Yes, complexity multiplies when there are multiple goals and objectives, but the two need not be regarded as incompatible if leaders are willing to be vocal about the importance of environmental sustainability.

A key principle is using the smartest technology and least disruptive intervention possible. Wind energy is very cost-effective where there has been no electrical power source, and thus no reliable refrigeration. Refrigeration is an important global issue because much food rots before it can reach the people who need to consume it.

Cellular phones are very helpful where there have been no land lines for phones, and smart phones may be the best way to get Internet services to every village.

If people are suffering from extreme poverty, disease, lack of education and economic opportunity, and realization of human potential, it's time to choose strategically what will be sustainable and not attempt to imitate everything that Europe, Japan, and North America have done on their way to a middle class, democratic society.

A unique approach based on the assets of each nation--and a very strong emphasis on education of all classes and both genders--will be the strongest route to a better life through sustainable development.

As human beings we borrow behaviors from one another all the time, and often this is the way we learn.  But this does not mean that the developing nations should repeat all of the environmental and economic mistakes of the northern half of the globe on their way to more equality, more voice, and more prosperity for all.

Some cultural assets of the North are very valuable--including elements that increase individual motivation to do good and to take responsibility for what happens in society. These elements include democracy, property ownership, and ability of individuals to save money in an institution that contributes toward a pool of capital that can be used for investment.

But depending on automobiles to travel everywhere, air pollution, water pollution, manufacturing without any thought to the damage done to the earth underneath, and individual debt based on competitive consumption are better left to history.


How Developed Countries Contribute to Sustainability

In the so-called developed countries, the industrial age and high levels of consumption of both natural resources and manufactured products have produced an economy that may not be able to be sustained over a long period of time.



Over-consumption produces a huge volume of solid waste, and waste reduction becomes an important strategy. To repair past damage, it is critical to address brownfields, or sites that are suspected of being polluted.

To move into the future, there must be a culture of recycling buildings rather than building everything new. And of course urban sprawl must be curtailed so that the amount of energy consumed for transportation and the amount of "stuff" required to build out to extreme edges of town can be lessened.  In some locations a suburban retrofit will be feasible and highly desirable.

Individual efforts in energy conservation and smart use of water resources also become important in the context of societies with advanced economies and middle classes accustomed to consumption.

In all instances, sustainable development at its core means being able to envision extending the same standard of living for many future generations. If a lifestyle uses natural resources at a rapid pace, it's time for different choices.

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