Sustainable Development

Sustainable development provides a commonly used framework within which the often conflicting goals of economic growth, human welfare, environmental sustainability, and biodiversity conservation (among many others) are discussed and resolved. The scale of the problems addressed varies from local land use decisions by villagers to global agreements on international marine fisheries. Regardless of the size of the groups or regions involved, achiev ing the goal of sustainable development requires a consensus on the definitions of both "sustainability" and "development" and a clarification of the relationship and potential for reconciliation between the two. Biodiversity has been incorporated into the formula in a number of ways, from a fundamental necessity for economic growth to an aesthetic component critical to continued human welfare.

Until approximately 10,000 years ago, human populations lived in small, often nomadic groups as hunter-gatherers without causing significant harm to the environment. Although this may be an example of the sustainable use of resources, it is important to note that it is a subsistence system and not one in which development or transformation is occurring in any significant way. Subsistence such as this can continue as long as resources are readily available, population levels remain low, and exploitation does not exceed the environment's capacity to regenerate. This subsistence system is fundamentally different from one in the process of development; in addition, very few subsistence-based societies exist today. From the beginning of agricultural practices and settlement, humans have embarked on a path toward development that today drives and is driven by a global economy. In this system, of many types growth is fundamental: growing economies, human populations, and demands on the natural resource base, and increasing negative impacts on the environment in the form of degradation, pollution, and climate change.

The origins of the concept of sustainable development reside in the integration of two sets of concerns raised separately by developed and developing countries. In the late 1960s, an awareness of environmental problems resulting from pollution and other side effects of economic growth emerged in Europe and North America. Concerns arose among developing nations in the Southern Hemisphere that policies reducing environmental degradation adopted by developed countries would place limitations on their own pressing needs to increase development and standards of human welfare. The preparatory Founex Report (1971) and the UN Conference on Human Development in Stockholm (1972) integrated both these environmental and development concerns into a global conservation framework. The environment-development connection was strengthened by the World Conservation Strategy (1980), which stated that not only were conservation and development compatible, they were linked as mutually necessary prerequisites.

The term sustainable development, already in use, was codified and broadly incorporated into environmental and growth strategies in Our Common Future (also referred to as the Brundtland Commission Report), produced by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The preservation of biological diversity, implicit in the preceding discussions of environmental conservation, was explicitly stated as a goal of sustainable development in Agenda 21, the strategic document produced in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit (officially known as the UN Conference on Environment and Development).

How do we work toward this ideal of sustainable development? First, we have to define the two, often competing terms composing the goal. Sustainable development, as advanced in both Our Common Future and Agenda 21, generally re-enforces a traditional economic definition of development as economic growth, and identifies technology and social organization as critical in mitigating environmental impacts and the limits they set to growth. This view emphasizes an equivalency (or at least lack of conflict) between classical economic production growth, evaluated by measures such as gross national product (GNP), and the conservation of biodiversity, and implies that such growth is a necessary component of sustainable development. Clearly, this equivalency of economic growth and development can create priorities that are at odds with the goals of biodiversity conservation and environmental protection.

Both economists and conservationists have expanded this circumscribed framework to include additional definitions of development. First, the environment itself contributes quantifiable "products" directly to development in the form of renewable resources (for example, timber for harvesting) and raw materials for industry (such as plant compounds for medicine), or by providing environmental services (such as water filtration, pollination). This economic valuation makes it possible to measure both biodiversity's contributions to growth as well as the economic costs of its degradation or loss. Second, a broader definition of development emphasizing qualitative increases in human welfare and living conditions has been proposed, which decouples quantitative GNP growth (which may or may not increase welfare) from development. If development's goals are to improve the daily living experiences of all humans on the planet, then the incorporation of aesthetic, spiritual, ethical, and intrinsic values of biodiversity into growth frameworks is not only possible but necessary. This confers to the natural world a concrete role in the qualitative advancement of human welfare independent of an economically defined utility or function.

What then is sustainable development, or sustainability? From the classic perspective of natural resource management, environmental resources can be broadly divided into two categories—renewable and nonrenewable. To meet the criterion of sustainability, any use of renewable resources must be at a level that allows natural renewal of the resources, and all overexploited systems must be given a chance to regenerate. This approach is closely linked to the concept of maximum sustainable yield commonly employed in fisheries and other harvested resources. In addition, sustainable use requires the maintenance of valuable ecological functions and services (mentioned above), which can be degraded both directly and indirectly by extraction and development (for example, logging in watersheds).

Nonrenewable resources must be preserved and used in a manner that does not result in their permanent and irreversible depletion. By definition, however, these resources— including both genetic and phenotypic biodiversity and ecosystem integrity—are irreplaceable, making absolute preservation unachievable. This logical quandary is usually managed by placing the time frame for exhaustion at some distant time (at least beyond our grandchildren's deaths) and by invoking technological innovations and undefined social actions to attenuate the effects. The conflict between preservation and use is an example of the tensions causing many to turn away from sustainable development as an effective framework for biodiversity conservation.

Is it possible to reconcile these two goals? As we see above, economic concepts of production-oriented growth invariably shortchange an environment that is highly devalued in the model, while scientists and preservationists generally view so-called sustainable development as an oxymoron. The process of putting sustainable development into practice requires a clear understanding of what is to be sustained, at what scale, and over what time period. In addition, we must consider necessary social actions and trade-offs against other social goals. Making these determinations involves a combination of value judgments, knowledge, and perspectives; a resulting sustainable development strategy for a particular situation may not contribute to sustainable development if the parameters are defined differently. For example, within a particular community it may appear that resource use is sustainable such that the resource base within that system will be available into the future, while also supporting local development. Within this small system it is possible to measure resources extracted, waste recycling and disposal, environmental impacts, and human welfare. However, the community is not a closed system, so that when looking to regional, national, and international levels, it is much more difficult to measure resource use and impacts—and particularly hard to predict how these will play out over time. Actions taken in a particular time and place will have consequences elsewhere, often involving unanticipated trade-offs.

There have been many efforts to devise indicators measuring progress toward sustainable development. Indicators of the progress or current status of systems are commonly used (for example, gas gauges, blood pressure readings, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average). Indices use selected criteria to measure relative progress toward sustainable development. Scientific knowledge does not allow us to determine levels of performance that will be sustainable, much less predict how various economic, social, and environmental factors may interact, and to do this on a global scale. Indicators are constrained by the limited availability of information over time and by the inconsistent way it is collected in various countries. In addition to these gaps in knowledge, comparisons are further hampered by political suspicions.

Traditional indictors of development and economic growth include GNP, worker productivity, and the unemployment rate. These measure changes in one part of the commu-nity—in the case of GNP, income from production—as if they were independent of the others. Such indicators are growth-oriented and based on national averages, and they consider neither the natural resource supply on which development is in large part dependent nor how economic growth may affect human well-being. The UN Human Development Index (HDI) was developed to better measure the status of human welfare and well-being throughout the world. The HDI is a composite of indicators of human longevity, knowledge (for example, adult literacy), and standard of living (a measure of individual purchasing power adjusted for the local cost of living). This approach offers an alternative to GNP for measuring the relative socioeconomic progress of countries toward increasing human welfare. One drawback of averaged indicators such as the HDI is that a country's overall index can conceal different levels of development within different groups, such as women, ethnic minorities, or the urban poor.

Indicators of sustainable development need to consider not only the economy and society but also the environment and links among all of these components. The Brundtland Commission (1987) and the Earth Summit (1992) both recognized the importance of indicators of sustainable development. The Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) developed these interests, and in 1996 a working list of indicators in social, economic, environmental, and institutional categories was published and distributed to countries for testing. Indicators of Sustainable Development: Guidelines and Methodologies, based on the experiences of twenty-two countries, was published by the United Nations in

2001. Additional efforts have been made to develop indicators specific to sustainable development. The Consultative Group on Sustainable Development Indicators is developing a small number of new indices to supplement traditional growth measures (for example, GNP), with the ultimate goal of producing a composite, internationally accepted sustainable development index. The U.S. government established the U.S. Interagency Working Group on Sustainable Development Indicators in 1996, to assist policy formulation. These indicators are statistical analyses designed to collectively measure national capacity to meet both present and future needs.

Other indicators focus more explicitly on measuring the current and future status of the environment. These include the Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI), which measures five components:

• The state of environmental systems, including soil, water, air, and ecosystems.

• Stresses placed on these systems by exploitation and pollution.

• Human vulnerability to environmental change in the form of reduced food resources or increased environmental disease exposure.

• Social and institutional capacity to cope with environmental challenges.

• Ability to respond to global challenges by cooperating to conserve international resources (for example, the atmosphere).

The ESI integrates a large amount of information (twenty-two core indicators and sixty-seven underlying variables) to measure progress toward environmental sustainability for 122 countries. The goal is to allow national comparisons of environmental progress and to foster a more analytical approach to environmental decision making.

The twin tasks of defining and implementing sustainable development are complicated by disagreements over definitions, measurements, and even the possibility of accomplishing this ideal. It is clear, however, that achieving sustainable development is as much about changing human behavior as it is about defining and resolving biological and technological problems.

—Margaret C. Domroese and Martha M. Hurley

See also: Conservation, Definition and History; Economics; Ecosystems; Ethics of Conservation; Extinction, Direct Causes of; Organizations in Biodiversity, The Role of


Brenton, Tony. 1994. The Greening of Machiavelli: The Evolution of International Environmental Politics. London: Earthscan; Center for International Earth Science Information Network, Columbia University, Environmental S ustainability Index, (accessed February 11, 2002); Clark, John G. 1995. "Economic Development Vs. Sustainable Societies: Reflections on the Players in a Crucial Contest." Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 26:225-248; Divison for Sustainable Development. 2001. Indicators of Sustainable Development: Guidelines and Methodologies, (accessed February 11, 2002); Interagency Working Group on Sustainable Development Indicators (SDI Group). Sustainable Development in the United States: An Experimental Set of Indicators,; IUNC. 1980. World Conservation Strategy: Living Resource Conservation for Sustainable Development. Gland, Switzerland: International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN); Lele, Sharachchan-dra, and Richard B. Norgaard. 1996. "Sustainability and the Scientist's Burden." Conservation Biology 10: 354-365; Meffe, Gary K., and C. Ronald Carroll. 1997. Principles of Conservation Biology, 2d ed. Sun-derland, MA: Sinauer; United Nations Environment Programme. 1981. In Defense of the Earth: The Basic Texts on the Environment, Founex, Stockholm, Cocoyoc UNEP Executive Series. Nairobi: UN Environment Programme; Sachs, Wolfgang, ed. 1993. Global Ecology: A New Arena of Political Conflict. London: Zed; Sitarz, Daniel, ed. 1994. Agenda 21: The Earth Summit Strategy to Save Our Planet. Boulder, CO: Earth-

Press; World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our Common Future: World Commission on Environment and Development. New York: Oxford University Press.

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