development sustainability

Rethinking sustainable development

One of the outcomes of the Rio +20 UN conference was a plan to develop some Sustainable Development Goals, partly to replace the Millennium Development Goals which expire in 2015. I think they need to be complemented by some Millennium Consumption Goals for the developed world, but that’s not going to happen. Instead, there’s a big discussion starting about what sustainable development really is, and what a good set of goals might be.

pillarsFeeding into the debate is a group from the International Council for Science, whose work I’ve been referencing today in a paper I’m writing. They argue that the traditional conception of sustainable development is wrong. In the textbooks, you’re likely to find some version of the three pillars idea. Sustainable development rests a balanced three pillars of society, economy and environment.

That implies that these three are all equal, say the researchers, but they are not. In reality, they are nested within each other. The economy serves society, and both have to fit within the natural limits of the earth.

If we were to reimagine sustainable development in this way, says the research, some goals might suggest themselves. They’ve come up with six, mapped onto their nested three aspects of sustainable development. I think it’s a pretty good list. If these were our overarching goals for the coming century, I think we’d be thinking along the right lines.


If this looks vaguely familiar, one of the authors is Johan Rockstrom, who led the team that drew up the planetary boundaries concept a few years ago, which in turn led to the ‘life within the donut’ idea. Rockstrom’s co-author here is Dr. Priya Shyamsundar from the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics, Nepal, who summarises their work thus: “As the global population increases towards nine billion people sustainable development should be seen as an economy serving society within Earth’s life support system, not as three pillars.”

1 comment

  1. Christine Milne has a really interesting thing to say about this: From her speech in Sept 2012:

    “It is time to change, to diversify our economy, clean it up, and invest in a future that doesn’t rely on digging up, cutting down and shipping overseas.

    The old parties are grounded in a belief that the economy is an end in itself, and that we have to ‘balance’ the need to care for people and the need to protect the environment against the needs of the economy.

    When you think about this, it simply makes no sense. Tasmanians recognised that as early as 1972 and established the world’s first Green Party. The idea reached mainstream by 1987, when, after an exhaustive three year process involving scientists, economists, governments, research institutes, industrialists, NGOs and the general public around the world, the Brundtland Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, was published.

    The Brundtland Report revealed that world leaders were able to think rationally and caringly about the present and the future. It’s probably most famous for articulating the concept of ecologically sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This is a concept that Tony Abbott, Gina Rinehart, Campbell Newman, Martin Ferguson and many of their ilk have utterly failed to understand.

    One of the Brundtland Report’s most forgotten insights is that there are only two real things in the world: people and nature. The economy is not a physical thing; it is not something that exists in its own right. Rather it is a tool we invented for governing the relationship between people, and between people and nature.

    When the Brundtland Report went to the World Bank, tragically, the insight that the economy is a tool for people and nature all of a sudden turned into a triangle where the three – people, nature and economy – were all real and equal. And we were plunged back into the old view of the world where nature lost every time, traded off against people’s short-term benefits and “the economy”.”

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