Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Creating the Future We Want

Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Creating the Future We Want

Article excerpt


In June 2012, corporate, nongovernmental (NGO), and government leaders will converge in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for a conference on sustainable development. Occurring twenty years after the first Rio conference, the "Earth Summit," the 2012 meeting is a chance to examine and reaffirm commitments to global sustainability.

As articulated by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the meeting provides a timely opportunity to ensure a "shared and common understanding of [sustainability] and what it means to improve the lives of ordinary people in developing countries and countries with economies in transition" (UNIDO, 2011). The title of the initial draft of the conference outcome document, "The Future We Want," is the inspiration for the title of thisarticle (UNCSD, 2011).

Over the next two decades, governments and businesses will face serious environmental and social changes that hold both risks and opportunities (KPMG, 2012). We are optimistic that we have the capacity to meet these challenges and achieve a strong global economy while advancing social well-being and protecting human health and the environment.

Several trends inspire our hopefulness: leaders in corporations and financial institutions are moving toward sustainable operations and globally responsible investing; advances in science, technology, innovation, and social marketing via the Internet are creating new economic opportunities for sustainability; and national, state, and local governments around the world are taking leadership roles in pursuing sustainability.

Some commentators are less optimistic about the future. As The Economist (2011) observed in a recent review of the planet's growing population and its potential impacts, "Once upon a time, the passing of population milestones might have been a cause of celebration. Now it gives rise to jeremiads" (emphasis in original). Population growth, along with increasing affluence in developing nations, is seen as a primary driver of the growing, unsustainable global demand for energy and natural resources.

The future is indeed fraught with environmental, economic, and social risks that could derail progress. For example, the ecological footprint measure assembled by the Global Footprint Network (2011) notes that humanity's ecological footprint has more than doubled since 1966. The Network'scalculations indicate that if every human today were consuming resources at a level typical of developed countries, we would need three or four planets with natural resources equivalent to Earth.

The challenge ahead is to meet the needs of the growing population in a way that restores and maintains the Earth's natural resources while promoting economic prosperity. This is what "sustainable development" is all about. Sustainability has in turn been widely characterized as resting on three pillars: social well-being, economic prosperity, and environmental protection.

From the perspective of public policy, sustainability is aimed at meeting society's basic economic and social needs without undermining the natural resource base and environmental quality necessary for continuing to meet those needs in the future. From the standpoint of business and finance, sustainability is evolving into a platform for innovation and value creation at a global market scale for shareholders and society while efficiently using resources and minimizing adverse effects on the environment. The traditional tension between corporate environmental responsibility and profitability is giving way to a convergence between public and private sector interests, as illustrated by numerous examples cited in this article.

Today, government, business, and civil society are developing a shared view of sustainability as a force for spurring innovation, strengthening competitiveness, and enhancing quality of life through transformed leadership of our major institutions. But fundamental changes in institutional approaches are necessary to make this happen. …

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