Increased capacity to exploit resources and rapid growth in human populations over the past 150 years has led to resource depletion, loss of species and severe threats to our life support systems. Indeed, we are now seeing unprecedented human induced change, including to our climate. Realising that these impacts will eventually undermine our health and prosperity, even our ability to co-exist with other nations, has led to a great shift in our way of thinking. The concept of Sustainable Development captures that shift in thinking. Sustainable Development seeks to integrate social and environmental principles into society's economic institutions and decision making processes.
The Bruntland Report of 1987 defined Sustainable Development as: development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Perhaps Sustainable Development is most easily understood through consideration of a series of broad principles. The Rio Declaration outlines 27 principles of Sustainable Development agreed to by the 172 nations represented at the 1992 United Nations Convention on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro.
The first point to consider is that development (including economic development) is not about money, but is about people. Development should contribute to human well-being. At the heart of Sustainable Development is the principle of equity apparent in the above definition. Inter-generational equity, or the notion of the rights of 'our children's children' to the same opportunities that we enjoy is fundamental, but often ignored in the race towards 'development' and profit today. There is another equally important aspect of equity, that of intra-generational equity: the rights of all people to the benefits that life on earth can offer, rights to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature. This is an important principle in considering relationships between different sectors of society and between developed and less developed countries. From this also arise principles related to cooperation between states, and encouraging participation of all sectors of society, including women and Indigenous people.
Another crucial set of principles arises from the understanding that our Earth is finite, that resources are finite, and that the global ecosystem has a finite capacity to absorb waste and still provide services to human beings such as clean air and water and climate regulation. On this basis, Sustainable Development seeks to protect the environment, assess impacts of development actions on the environment and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, including seeking more efficient use of resources and limiting use of non-renewable resources while employing renewable resources where possible. These principles lead us to a realisation that with global society becoming increasingly dominated by Western consumerist values, it is important to remember the limitations, and recognise that Sustainable Development in the future will be about quality rather than quantity.
An often misunderstood concept is the precautionary principle. This states that: where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. The recent debates over climate change highlight the risk of awaiting 'full scientific certainty' that the climate is changing and that this change is human induced. In effect, this principle implies that we should be shutting the gate before the horse has bolted, rather than awaiting full certainty that it is going to bolt (perhaps only achieved by watching it bolt)!
Sustainable Development implies that economic development, human well being and environmental protection are interdependent and indivisible. However, Sustainable Development is not an entity, some end point, but is a process of constant improvement that requires the identification and implementation of 'best practices' according to the changing levels of knowledge, technology, capacity and social norms. Sustainable Development thus responds to the shifting expectations of society, and implies ongoing effort in innovation, invention, implementation and education.
CSU is an involved member of NEGHA (North East Greenhouse Alliance Project) as part of our commitment to sustainability and Greenhouse gas reduction.
For more information, visit the NEGHA page at the Wodonga council website.