Economic Growth That Meets Present and Future Needs SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT

Article excerpt

`HUMANITY has the ability to make development sustainable - to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

This sentence - a definition of sustainable development - is from "Our Common Future," the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, which was the spawning ground for the Earth Summit opening tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro.

As profoundly challenging (and yet as hopeful) as that statement is, it is also open to wide interpretation. Just to cite one example, there is a vast difference between the "needs" of those in developing countries and the "wants" that people in more advanced industrialized nations have gotten used to. Meeting "the needs of the present" suggests more equitable distribution of goods and services in a world where at present there are vast disparities in income level and quality of life. And how far out into the future do generations have to be considered? Seven, as in some native American cultures?

Those who advocate sustainability are careful to point out the difference between "development" and "growth," which are far from synonymous. In their World Bank Environment Working Paper published last July, Robert Goodland, Herman Daly, and Salah El Serafy put the difference this way:

"To grow means to increase in size by the assimilation or accretion of materials. To develop means to expand or realize the potentialities of; to bring to a fuller, greater, or better state.... Quantitative growth and qualitative improvement follow different laws. Our planet develops over time without growing. …