Defining Sustainable Development

Friday, October 23, 2009


Jon wrote a post in January about defining Sustainable Development. Here, we’ll revisit and maybe go a bit further, just for fun. Right now, I’m taking a course on environmental policy and sustainable development. Here, sustainable development refers to development in the developing world. Not just, “development” as in “progress” or any other way you might fathom before we get into more definitions.

We’re at a university. And we work in sustainable development for the university, which is not a developing country. So, what does it mean here? Universities have a huge role to play in becoming the leaders of sustainable development. They are building and growing, researching new ways of doing things (integrated environmental approach anyone?), and teaching people who are going to influence the world we live in. At the university, we’re looking at environmental “sustainability” as a goal.

So, Jon took the pretty well known definition, coming from an important report (the last of a series of reports that got progressively better and more action oriented, but still weak) called “Our Common Future”. In it she states that sustainability is development that meets the needs of current generations without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet their needs. We have to look out for ourselves but also the people who

will live here after us. If you ask First Nations peoples, that’s probably not enough. The next part where we see a more anthropocentric model produced by the mainstream, where the environment fits into a graph!

As you can see, we have to balance all of these things within our current system to find what is truly sustainable in every way.

If we look back to international development, for a long time (generally before these reports) sustainability and development were not seen as compatible. The global South and the poor have often been blamed for the atrocities of environmental degradation. Fortunately, this thinking has changed. The North is very much responsible (through many ways and many hands) for environmental degradation, and we have the tools to alleviate it, and teach folks, wherever they live, to do their part too.

Here’s a question: how can we ensure that important terms that need not be co-opted remain intact? How do we make sure that sustainable development remains in the agenda (or better yet, an integral and holistic part of the agenda) and not as a buzz word?

On our campus, sustainable development means working with the engineers to make sure that our buildings and the way they operate is efficient and energy-savings. It’s about making sure water fountains are accessible to reduce the consumption of bottled water. It’s about organizing events around environmental issues, connecting students with things they can get involved in and passionate about (like Green Weeks!) and having a kick-ass recycling program that is being adopted by universities and colleges across Canada. To state a few.

- sarah jayne

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