Skip to main content.
Enviropaedia Sponsors and Supporters

Sustainable Development

Author: David Parry-Davies ~ Eco-Logic Publishing

( Article Type: Explanation )

The most commonly used definition of Sustainable Development is: ‘Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

This definition arose out of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and was used again at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002 at which it was proposed that there are three dimensions of Sustainable Development; Social; Environmental and Economic. It was agreed that these three aspects of Sustainable Development are interconnected and interdependent to the extent that if any one of these elements is ignored or is over emphasised, it will destabilise the whole. This interpretation was widely accepted by most businesses and governments at the WSSD, and was simplistically represented by an equal sided triangle. This interpretation however was challenged by the environmental sector, and the escalating ecological crisis that we have experienced since then on a worldwide scale has given cause to re evaluate this model of Sustainable Development. What has emerged since then is a more sophisticated and insightful model, in which it is seen that these three elements of Sustainable Development are not equal, but rather, hierarchical in that:

• A healthy Environment (Biophysical) is the primary and essential foundation, because, without a healthy environment with functioning ecosystems - there can be neither society nor any economic activity. Therefore taking care of the environment is the fi rst essential priority
• Society is the second priority – as without society, there can be no economic activity.
• The third element of Economy comes last – as the economy is entirely dependent on both the environment and society in order to exist at all.

Further to this hierarchical structure there is the added element of Policy which interpenetrates and affects all three elements. This recognises that our social and economic policies and strategies and our environmental laws and regulations – all play a critically important role and impacts all three dimensions of sustainability

This model can also be represented another way; seeing the economy as a subset of society and society a subset of the environment and all three of these being determined and directed by the nature of governance ( policy) . This perspective of seeing the economy as being embedded within society which itself is embedded within the environment, illustrates effectively a point made by ‘New Economics’ thinkers: (see S.A.N.E. listed in The Enviropaedia Directory) about the very base assumptions of ‘development’ itself. It raises the question; how is it possible for a sub-set (the economy) to grow infinitely (year on year growth is a requirement of our current business development models), whilst existing within a finite host system (society and environment). To re-state this: is it possible for the economy to continue to grow infinitely within the constraints of a finite planet? The obvious answer is that it cannot – unless we re-view and redefine growth and development itself. This has profound implications for the way that we view and conduct business and plan for development in future. However, despite the fact that economy is subordinate to or exists as a sub sector within society and environment, it is recognised that economic activity (business) provides a highly effective means of generating solutions to our current environmental and social challenges. Thus whilst not of equal priority to social and environmental elements, it is a vitally important driving mechanism to be used in service to society and environment. And herein lies an important and defining quality of sustainable development; in order to be ‘sustainable’ – any business needs to sustain and neither damage society nor deplete the environment.

Within a natural, balanced eco-system, there is always a ‘give and take’ relationship between species that balances out the effects of their activities. There is a symbiotic relationship whereby each species acts in a manner that supports and balances the whole. This is how and where many businesses became ‘unsustainable’- in that they thought that they were only obliged to serve their own self interest and the interests of their shareholders (to be self-sustainable) without care for (giving back to) the rest of society or the environment. In this way, some businesses became parasites – sucking the life out of society and nature. This behaviour is not sustainable in the long term as it will eventually destroy its host – and thus destroy itself. Awareness of this has grown within the business community – but for some it is still a limited understanding, a slow recognition that to destroy (or allow others to destroy) the environment and society, will actually lead to self destruction. This awareness needs to be spread throughout all levels of business management and operations, but it also needs to expand and evolve further (beyond just protection of society and environment) to become more pro-active in identifying the direct and indirect business advantages and benefits of actively feeding and supporting both environment and society (because they in turn, being nourished, will feed back, sustain and grow the business).

This understanding requires a fundamental shift in the way that we view development itself and consequently, how we conduct business in future. To begin with, it means that we need to shift from a short-term driven business model - to a more long-term vision and a more ‘evolved’ way of looking at and defining the nature of development and growth. In this context it will be useful to read the following Topics in The Enviropaedia; Economics – by Wayne Visser; Sustainable Development – Maintaining Profits or Sustaining People and Planet – by Dr Eureta Rosenberg; Beyond GDP – by Simon Kettleborough. In these Topics it is identified that it is possible to have development – without necessarily using up more of Earth’s material resources (de-linking development from material resource utilisation). To achieve this requires a shift in objectives and understanding of what constitutes good (sustainable) development. If our development aims and objectives are expanded to more than just increasing material assets – if it includes and embraces education, health, and a sense of emotional and spiritual well-being (or as more eloquently expressed by Simon Kettleborough – ‘human flourishing’) then indeed there is potential for a huge amount of development – without compromising the environment and such development will be greatly beneficial to both the human and non human community (society). However, such expanded or to quote Albert Einstein: ‘The world we have created today has problems which cannot be solved by thinking the way we thought when we created them.’

As editor of this publication, I am delighted and excited by the growing wave of new and innovative thinking that is arising to address the issues and opportunities inherent in the challenge of sustainable development. Much of this is clearly evident and is articulated in the pages of this publication. The burning question that you the reader need to address is – will you be part of this new consciousness that is evolving? Or will you get left behind?

Whilst you may find the Article Eco-Logic – in the Thought Leadership Section to be helpful in (re)defining your own values, objectives and behaviours – the fact is that it is up to you to evolve beyond any old modes of behaviour and practices that are harmful or destructive to environment, society or economy.
This is growth and opportunity time - the sustainable development train has left the station – are you on board?

Associated Organisations:

50/50 SABC , ACER (Africa) Environmental Management Consultants , African Institute of Corporate Citizenship , Anglo American , Find A Lift , Envirochild / Hout Bay Transition Town , Beco Institute for Sustainable Business , BirdLife South Africa , Planet Warriors , Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership , Centre for Corporate Citizenship , Centre for Environment, Agriculture and Development (CEAD) , Stormsriver Adventures , Crystal Clear Consulting and Merchants , Cymbian Enviro-Social Consulting Services , Department of Environmental Extension and Project Development , Department of Trade and Industry , Development Consultants of SA (Pty) Ltd , De Wit Sustainable Options , Divwatt , Durban Solid Waste Cleansing and Solid Waste , Eagle Bulletin , Ecocircle® Holdings , EnAct International , Entilini Concession (PTY) LTD , Environment Africa , Environmental Ethics Unit at the University of Stellenbosch , Environmental Management - New Professional, Trade and Technical Journal , Environmental Resources Management - ERM , ProNature Paints , FutureWorks! , Gondwana Alive , Go-Organic , Greenhaus Architects , Hatch Africa (Pty) LTD , Hewlett Packard South Africa (HP South Africa) , Institute of Natural Resources , International Foundation for the Conservation of Wildlife , JSE Limited , KPMG Services (Proprietary) Limited , Monsanto SA (Pty) Ltd , Morris Environmental & Groundwater Alliances (MEGA) , NCPC - National Cleaner Production Certre , National Research Foundation(NRF)(The) , Natural Step, Southern Africa (The) , People for Wildlife , Plantwize , Programme for Basic Energy & Conservation , Shepstone & Wylie , South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL) , SouthSouthNorth Trust , Stubbs Africa Advertising , Sustainability Institute (The) , TCN Architects CC , Timber Plastics (Pty) Ltd , Tocara Skin and Body Science for Dr Hauschka Southern Africa , Trialogue (Pty) Limited , Urban Green File , Viridian , Waenhuiskrans Arniston Community Development Trust , WEB Environmental Consultancy , White Elephant Safari Lodge and Bush Camp , WESSA (Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa) , WSP Environment & Energy , Eco-Logic Publishing , McGregor Waldorf School and McGregor College , Bicycling Empowerment Network (BEN) , Homeless And Poor People's Initiative (HAPPI) , Viridian Consulting Landscape Architects , Organic Aloe , Malcolm Worby Designs , Steadfast Greening , icologie , Pest Free SA , econic , ETC-Africa , Belgotex Floorcoverings , Metamorphosis Environmental Consultants , Tongaat Hulett , EcoAfrica Environmental Consultants , Garden Goods , Aephoria Partners , Sustaining the Wild Coast , Just Trees (Pty) Ltd , AECOM , Adaptera Strategic Support Services , GreenMatter , The Healthy Catchment Alliance: an EWT, WESSA and CSA partnership in freshwater ecosystem conservation and the generation of water-linked livelihoods , African Climate Reality Project - Food & Trees for Africa , Confronting Climate Change Initiative , Hatch Ltd.