Introduction to Sustainable Development
by Sustainable Pittsburgh
The most widespread, common meaning for the terms “sustainability” and “sustainable development” come from the Brundtland Commission Report from the United Nations. According to this report, sustainable development “meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland Commission 1987).
In the ensuing thirty years since this definition has been introduced, many people and organizations have explored what it means. Complexities abound in terms of the choices that individuals, corporations, governments, and other organizations need to make from this perspective. For example, just asking the question, “how far into the future do we need to project in order to consider the needs of future generations?” is inherently complex. Such choices inherently affect the autonomy and well-being of those who come after us as well as those of us who are here now.
Despite these complexities, pragmatic approaches that embrace the notion of sustainability are being brought to fore by people, all types of companies, organizations, and governments because doing well by doing right is its promise. For example, we see that consumer preferences are lining up to favor companies that are good stewards of people and community, the environment and profits. Good stewards of all three of these concepts are following a triple bottom-line approach to sustainable development.
Sustainable development has emerged as a way of thinking and pursuing innovation that continually asks questions, connects the dots, and makes course corrections to make things better today and over the long haul. Such a process involves understanding how things work and how they are connected. This requires a systems approach to finding problems and lasting solutions. Systems approaches look for how our lives have rich interconnections with economic, environmental, and social factors, and then finding ways of integrating these interconnections in new ways that encompass a balance among them. As a result, the process of sustainable development takes hold where economic, social equity, and environmental needs are simultaneously addressed.
Frequently, the term “sustainability” gets mistakenly associated with notions of environmental performance, exclusive of economic and social considerations. This situation comes about because environmental considerations in the past have been an underappreciated aspect of the systems that support our lives. Everything we know, use, and consume ultimately comes from nature. Our world economy relies entirely on natural capital: sunlight, wood, oil, water, oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, plants, animals, soil, metals, and many other things. Because of this foundation of our economy, we are able to organize ourselves in wonderfully diverse and rich societies all around the globe. Nature truly remains at the core in the pursuit of sustainable development.
The Native American credo of “don’t eat your seed corn,” Dr. Seuss’ (1971) The Lorax, and William Forster Lloyd’s (1833) “Tragedy of the Unregulated Commons” also illustrate dimensions of sustainable development. For the first item, obviously if someone consumed the seed needed for next year’s planting, today’s small meal comes at the expense of being able to produce food entirely in the future. In The Lorax, deforestation and devastation remain once all of the resource trees are removed for consumption without planning for their replenishment. The commons metaphor describes a pasture shared by local herders who want to maximize their yield and so will increase their herd size whenever possible. The dilemma is that as each herder individually gains as each grazing animal is added, the pasture is slightly degraded. The situation illustrates how it is easy to be caught in an individual race to accumulate the most before overgrazing collapses the whole resource for all other herders. All three clearly illustrate examples that are not sustainable.
What are some systems level issues that jeopardize the commons? Consider Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse (2005) that identifies five factors that contribute to collapse of a civilization: climate change, hostile neighbors, trade partners or outside sources of essential goods that go sour, environmental problems, and, finally, a society’s response to its problems. The first four may or may not prove significant in each society’s demise, Diamond claims, but the fifth always does. The salient point, of course, is that a society’s response to environmental problems is completely within its control, which is not always true of the other factors. In other words, as his subtitle puts it, a society can choose to succeed or fail.
Other systems factors that contribute toward making sustainable choices include ensuring we avoid:
- an economy that is overly reliant on distant resources controlled by someone else—such as oil
- an economy that rewards things that make life worse, such as lower prices for products that harm; or not accounting for externalities or carrying costs which tend to pervert the free hand of the market
- having exclusively a short term view of gain over a long term view of prosperity
- social values that allow bad things to happen, or just plain apathy
- overpopulation, loss of biodiversity and human cultural diversity
- exploitation of resources at a rate faster than they can replenish themselves
- messing with nature at a rate faster than it can cleanse our ill deeds or regenerate itself
- not investing in future alternatives if today’s actions will come to haunt us tomorrow
The commons is not your great grandfather’s pasture anymore—with issues of famine, genocide, war, drought, poverty, hunger, monopolies, the collapsing or fisheries, and climate change. As we grow in number and the world shrinks, the world’s problems hit closer to home—the commons becomes more real and less distant. Recognizing and embracing this reality is key to the pursuit of sustainability. Fortunately, getting it right means that everybody wins. This is one reason enlightened enterprises are hotly pursuing sustainable solutions and innovations.
Another reason is that sustainability provides an edge, as it fundamentally requires addressing the complexities of managing an enterprise. Organizations continually struggle in today’s business and governance environment to anticipate and respond to rapidly-changing market conditions, to align and focus the necessities of what makes that enterprise profitable and functional, and to discover new ways of distinguishing themselves from their competitors. Sustainability is therefore what happens as a result of the choices that an organization makes and how it operates. Sustainability is not a coherent philosophy, panacea or a mechanism that in itself directs the choices that a firm makes or how it operates. Sustainability follows from the culture of practice within an organization that allows that organization to continue, adapt, and thrive, despite continuous challenges. The ultimate goal for an organization that embraces the concept of sustainability is therefore creating this culture of practice—an integrated functioning of resources (such as material items), energy, people, ideas, and information, all aligned according to the perspective that the main goal of the enterprise is to ensure that the organization can adapt to complex changes and prosper. People and firms that accomplish this feat will build capacity to adapt and shape the competitive landscape across not just environmental issues but other imperatives in their industries. People and firms that do not accomplish this feat will place themselves at risk in the future. A direct analog to this perspective is that quality products are what emerge from a business that invests in building the capacity to produce quality products. Toyota is widely recognized and respected as such a business.
Sustainability is certainly not a gimmick nor a fleeting fad or trend. Its payoffs and practicalities converge, and the results speak to the very survival of companies, communities, and people. No wonder more and more people are embracing a system of values that is in sync with sustainable development. This is indeed a good thing as quite simply, the planet is not capable of supporting, among all peoples of the globe, the level of materialism and consumption common in the U.S. today. The limits and severe strains we increasingly place on the material and energy mechanisms that govern the world are visible. Increasing costs and social unrest in the face of higher demands and dwindling resources as well as the potential irreplaceable loss of many dimensions of the complex ecosystem of the planet, remind us of the commons we share. These trends are creating new constraints on people’s lives and current business practices; they also represent new opportunities—sustainability’s promise of doing well by doing right—for those who build the capacities for responding to them.
Diamond, Jared (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking Books
Dr. Seuss. (1971). The Lorax. Random House Books for Young Readers.
Lloyd, W. F. (1833). ”On the Checks to Population,” as published in
Population and Development Review, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Sep., 1980), pp. 473-496.
United Nations. (1987). Brundtland Commission Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. Accessible online at http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/42/ares42-187.htm