Our biggest challenge in this new century is to take an idea that seems abstract ~ sustainable development ~ and turn it into a reality for all the world’s people. ~ Kofi Annan

As a paradigm and important environmental theme, ‘sustainable development’ is rather puzzling. The concept is highly imprecise though it has come to be used in a wide range of policies, not all of them either development or sustainable. Despite its weakness, it tries to indicate certain directional changes in economic policy and this is extremely important.

The variety of usage is partly due to Brundtland Report (1987), which advocated sustainable development as its central theme, and subsequent adoption of its message (though in a diluted form) by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, or ‘the Earth Summit’) held at Rio de Janeiro (1992). The climate change is presently the biggest challenge for sustainable development. Both development and sustainability had been much debated as goals prior to the Brundtland Report. Development aims at enhanced quality of life, including reduction of poverty, and can be contrasted with growth, which often lacks these aims (and often fails to fulfill them).

The sustainability of any policy is basically its capacity to be practised or maintained indefinitely. The Brundtland Report claims that development can be combined with sustainability, and practical policies were also mentioned for achieving this on a global basis. Accordingly, sustainable development was defined as development that ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ Ethical qualifications are necessary if development comes into conflict either with the preservation of biodiversity or with equity between generations. However, the main point is to recognize the limits of certain forms of growth, including ecological limits.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report tited “Caring for the Earth” subsequently redefined sustainable development as ‘improving the quality of life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems’, and this has been the other widely recognized core definition. Precisely, sustainable development must be environmentally sustainable, and this is also recognized in the Brundtland Report. Utilisation of natural resources forms the very basis of sustenance of human life. Because of expansion of population and increase in per capita demand of natural resources, the aggregate impact on the biosphere is around one million times greater than in the pre-agrarian days. We are overloading the carrying capacity of our ecosystems that withstand changes arising from human actions.

As a result, our life-support systems are threatened by new problems (e.g., climate change, loss of biodiversity, depletion and degradation of soil and water resources) or aggravation of pre-existing problems (e.g., inequitable development, natural constraints to production of resources needed by humans and earthquakes). The advancement in environmental/ ecological sciences established that the natural ecosystem had only a limited capacity to withstand/recover from human disturbances. Earth Overshoot Day of any year also marks the date when humanity’s annual demand on nature exceeds what Earth’s ecosystems can regenerate in that year. Over the past twenty years, it has moved up three months to July 29, earlier ever.

This means that humanity is currently using nature 1.75 times faster than our planet’s ecosystems can regenerate, equivalent to 1.75 Earths. Humanity first countenanced an ecological deficit in the early 1970s. Overshoot is possible because we are depleting our natural capital, comprising the planet’s future regenerative capacity. Ecological overspending costs are becoming increasingly evident in terms of deforestation, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, and build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere leading to climate change and more frequent extreme weather events. We have forgotten the old wisdom: ‘The Earth does not belong to Man; Man belongs to the Earth.

’ The Nobel Peace Laureate Al Gore in his book titled, The Future, mentioned the multiple threats confronting the ability of the world to expand food supplies ~ (1) erosion of fertile topsoil at an unsubstantiated rate; each inch of top soil diminishes grain yields by 6 percent; (2) Loss of soil fertility: each reduction of organic matter in soil by 50 per cent reduces the crop yields by 25 per cent; (3) increasing resistance of pests, weeds, and plant diseases to pesticides, herbicides, and other agricultural chemicals; (4) the loss of a significant amount of the world’s remaining plant genetic diversity; as much as three quarters of all genetic diversity may have already been lost; (5) erratic and less predictable precipitation patterns associated with global warming which leads to less frequent but larger downpours, interrupting longer periods of deeper drought; and (6) the looming impact of catastrophic heat stress on important food crops that cannot survive the predicted global temperature increase of 6 degrees Centigrade; each one degree Centigrade increase in temperature is expected by experts to produce a 10 per cent decline in crop yields.

However, in our confusing, confused and distracted world, we are running off course in many ways ~ climate change is the sixth great extinction, cities in danger, food supplies under threat, massive dislocations, widening inequalities of income, fractured politics. ‘The market’ focuses upon profit and tends to allocate and reward investments with short-term paybacks. Some desirable policy outcomes, such as protection of the environment and conservation of natural resources, have not been achievable through reliance upon the market. The ‘cowboy’ economy, which fosters independence, recklessness and waste, dominates the vital question that haunts us: Is sustainable development feasible?

This is an issue of considerable importance. Some most important thinkers have expressed serious doubts. Jane Jacobs, one of the world’s greatest urbanists and champion of vibrant sustainable urban areas, in her book, written in the last years of her life, entitled Dark Age Ahead argued that not only are we on the wrong track but that the trends will continue to worsen. Communities are fraying; public spirit is disappearing; there is dysfunctional higher education; governments are responsive to vested interests rather than real needs; and we have a culture that distracts us from the central challenges. The great astronomer Lord Martin Rees argues in his book Our Final Century:Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty – First Century? that our circumstances are extremely dangerous. And the great ecologist, the pioneer of the interconnectedness of global ecosystems as well as the inventor of the Gaia theory, James Lovelock, declared in his book The Revenge of Gaia that we have already passed the planetary safety margins and major parts of the world are doomed to disaster.

We will make a serious mistake if we are glib about the road ahead. Indeed, simply speaking, sustainable development is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. We must not give up hope. We have identified very specific ways through our backcasting and our road-mapping of how we can get from here to where we need to be. The UN World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) observes, ‘Sustainable development requires a change in the content of growth, to make it less material and energy-intensive and more equitable in its impact.’ Economists and environmentalists are deliberating the question of changing the content of economic growth ‘ to make it less material and energy intensive’ and more equitable in its impact.

In contrast to the traditional ‘cowboy’ economy, the eminent economist Kenneth E. Boulding introduced the concept of a ‘spaceship economy.’ As the finite spaceship requires the interdependence of the people and systems, a finite world requires people to work together within the limits set by the natural system and requires efficiency in our use of resources and care in our use of environment. Another economist E.F. Schumacher who is popularly known as a Hero of Sustainability was the to highlight the depletion of natural resources, and severely criticized the need for continual economic growth . He suggested a new economic focus on human well-being. For sustainable development he proposed human-scale technologies, decentralization of production, cooperative ownership and conservation of natural capital.

We do have energy efficient sustainable technologies that can decarbonize the energy system, economize agricultural productivity and reduce the level of nitrogen and phosphorous and their poisoning of the estuaries. We have also designed urban plans with smart infrastructure. Sustainable development calls for the right approach and timebarred goals. This realization led to the framing of the eighth Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), with each goal, except for the 8th one (Promote Global partnership). Specific targets were set by the United Nations. Monitoring of the achievement of MDGs led to the renaming as well as recognition of the eight MDGs as new global goals, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN to be achieved over 2015-30 period. We need to think in terms of sustainable solutions.

(The writer is a retired IAS officer)