Sustainable development

What do we mean by 'sustainability'?

The Bruntland Commission in 1987 defined sustainability as 'development which meets the needs of the present , without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs or aspirations'.

At Steward Community Woodland sustainability means, in practical terms, thinking more about the consequences of our actions and making changes to avoid degrading society and the environment. By doing so we aim to ensure that the environment and its inhabitants (both human and non human) is not impoverished tomorrow. However sustainability can not be achieved in isolation, ultimately a sustainable future can only be achieved with the co-operation of everyone.

The following has been adapted from an article by David Nicholson-Lord, in Earth Matters

For a movement that desperately needs to communicate a message, environmentalism has not been particularly well served by the word 'sustainability'. For all its worthiness and significance, it is difficult to pronounce, virtually impossible to incorporate into a decent piece of rhetoric and, at fully six syllables long, must rank as one of the most cumbersome catchwords ever invented.

Sustainable development means living within the Earth's carrying capacity, making sure that our use of it doesn't render it useless for future generations. As a general prescription for the human race, that's fine (not that we're anywhere near achieving it, of course, but that's another story). But how do you translate it into specifics? How, for instance, do you make it personal? And, once you've made it personal, how do you make it fair? These are far ore than semantic issues. They are crucial to making the whole idea work.

The rest of the world wants to be like us. They watch the Coca-Cola and Nike ads. absorb the morals of Melrose Place and Baywatch, note the high-tech electronic equipment, the designer clothers and expensive trainers that adorn the fleets of Western tourists on their annual migration to the tropics. And, by and large, the rest of the world - the people who live in Asia, Afric, South America, the Eastern Bloc - like what they see.

From our vantage-point in the west, things may look different. Nowadays many more of us are seeing the dark side of affluence - pollution, rising noise levels, the endless scurrying just to keep still. But you can hardly blame the Third World for its aspirations, or for treating our disclaimers with a pinch of salt. It's tough at the top, we say: you're better off where you are, enjoying the simple life. All right, they reply, put you money where your mouth is and meet us half way.

It may be tough at the top but it's a good deal tougher at the bottom. While the west suffers an epidemic of fatness - about 900 million in the Third World, nearly a sixth of the world's population, are malnourished. Hundreds of millions lack what we take for granted (and indeed take off them) - clean water, decent shelter, reliable supplies of fuel for cooking and heating.

By any objective standard, the West has co-opted the lions share of the world's resources. The typical Westerner consumes three times as much fresh water, ten times as much wood, foureteen times as much paper and nineteen times as much aluminiu as somebody living in a 'developling' country. In the case of energy the discrepancy is ten fold.

Given such figures, its hardly surprising that developing countries complain of environmental colonialism. Inequality is turning into a powerful engine of environmental destruction. It breeds the appetite for destructive and unsustainable western-style growth. And it forces the vast global underclass - the 1.3 billion people defined by the UN as living in 'absolute poverty' - to destroy its own environment simply to survive.

If inequality is the key to global destruction then fairness is the answer. Sustainable development needs to be made personal and it needs to be made fair in order to work. Each of us makes his or own mark on the planet, a trial (frequently of disruption and havoc) that our lifestyles leave across the earth. From forests felled for paper or fitted kitchen to peasant farmers displaced for Western cash crops. However, the sheer scale and anonymity of the global market place has made it difficult to see the environmental and social effects attached to a particular product.

What is a fair and ecologically sound level of consumption of resources - of timber, water, land, energy, raw materials - for each member of the planetary community? How can Western nations bring down their consumption into line with these levels - and thus meet the Third World 'half way'?

These questions carry an essential emotional truth that speaks directly to people. For many millions in the West today - and not merely those in the 'enviromental movement' - there is a deep but largely unspoken desire to live in balance with nature. But we don't quite knw how to do it; personally and organisationally, we lack the techniques. We are all passengers on planet Earth and need to work out a bunk size that suits everyone. Otherwise, while first class and steerage are fighting it out, th whole vessel could hit the rocks.

Last updated: 2009-04-21

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