Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What is Sustainable Development?

For a field that’s getting a lot of attention these days, it’s often hard to describe just what Sustainable Development is. Kendra gives it a try, however.

Have you ever tried to explain to someone what Sustainable Development is on a practical level?

In the past two years since I started formally studying Sustainable Development, I've found myself struggling with how to accurately articulate what exactly is Sustainable Development. Since I've graduated and have had to explain my degree to potential networking contacts and employers my struggle has only gotten worse.

First, because people hear the word ‘Development’ and instantly think that my goal is to head off to Tanzania, Cambodia or some other so-called developing nation to help them to become more like the US. They become puzzled when I say no, my intention is to stay in the US, because at just 6% of the population we consume a whopping 33% o f the world's resources. Developing nations can't develop, I point out, until we stop taking their share of the pie. We are not, as we like to think, done developing.

They then immediately begin to think that Sustainable Development is about the environment, and just the environment. A mindset that is somewhat reinforced on the few occasions I've trotted out the Brutland Commission’s definition of Sustainable Development

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

I hate that definition.

First, it manages to be sufficiently vague (what is a need after all?) as to be both pleasing to the ear and meaningless. Second, it does nothing to explain what someone versed in the field of Sustainable Development does on the ground in a practical sort of way. How does Sustainable Development translate into actual work?

In a society that is extremely specialized Sustainable Development is a generalist’s field.
Because Sustainable Development is about, well, everything.

It’s about how we feed ourselves, how we transport ourselves, how we build houses, how we clothe ourselves, how we entertain ourselves and how we relate to people and to ecosystems. An economist can tell you about economic systems, an agriculturalist can tell you about farm systems, an ecologist can tell you about ecological systems. A Sustainable Development person can tell you that our economic system prioritizes commodity goods and a funny sort of accounting which in turn has caused us to develop agricultural systems which are heavy on artificial fertilizers and chemical pesticides. This agricultural system not only sickens ecosystems and in parts of the country depletes ground water reserves, but it also sickens us. In an economic system dependent on perpetual economic growth we produce more calories per day than should be consumed per person, typically of cheap commodity foods such as corn, which do little to help counteract our ever expanding waistbands and the health risks that accompany them. If we seek to improve public health and reduce the negative effect of agriculture on our ecosystems we can begin by ending the subsidies we place on commodity foods.

In other words Sustainable Development is about recognizing the links between seemingly disparate fields and creating actionable policies, businesses, and regulations to help improve human, social, and environmental welfare. Instead of merely putting a thumb in the dike of our problems, it seeks to assess why we built the dam in the first place and figure out if there is another, better way, of reaching the same goal.

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