The Many Dimensions of Sustainable Development: These Days, Everyone Seems to Be Talking about Sustainability. but Are We All on the Same Wavelength When We Use the Term? Steve Hatfield Dodds-Senior CSIRO Researcher and President of the Australia New Zealand Society for Ecological Economics-Begins a Series Examining the Meaning Behind This Often-Invoked Word

Article excerpt

Sustainable development is one of the most important ideas, and goals, of our time. It is defined as 'development which meets the needs and aspirations of the current generation without impairing the ability of future generations to meet theirs'.

It is not the goal that makes this idea important, however, but the recognition that current patterns of human activity are unsustainable, and that our economic, social and political institutions seem to be losing the race towards sustainability.

The term 'development' implies that things are getting better over time. What this means in practice, however, will always be contested--just as most people agree that 'fairness' or 'freedom' are good in principle, but have different views of what fairness or freedom mean in a specific situation.

At its most basic, achieving sustainable development involves, first, improving the living standards and quality of life of the current generation--especially those who are currently least well-off--and, second, ensuring that current development patterns do not risk undermining the well-being or options of future generations.

Achieving sustainable development will thus involve a vigorous and urgent debate about how and why--even whether--current development patterns might undermine future well-being. Different viewpoints on the causes of unsustainability include the following:

Loss of natural capital or other critical capital

Deforestation, pollution and inappropriate natural resource management are all contributing to a loss of 'natural capital', which risks undermining the health and productivity of important ecosystem processes. These natural assets are essential to human well-being--underpinning agriculture and food production, for example, or providing adequate supplies of clean water. Policies and institutions that treat these assets as free or limitless risk running them down, rather than conserving or protecting them for future use.

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Power imbalances in political decision-making

A lack of transparency and accountability in government and business decision-making allows natural resources, such as forests and fisheries, to be destroyed for short-term gains. Similar processes may undermine other shared assets, such as a fair and accessible legal system. …