What is Sustainable Development?

14 10 2009

What is SUSTAINABILITY? A simple truth?  We humans tend to have unlimited appetites for ‘things’ living on a planet which can not bear our expectations.  Sustainability is a two-sided coin, a constant battle of positive and negative, an ongoing interpretation of beneficial and destructive.  Economic sustainability, social sustainability, ecological sustainability . . . the list goes on—each theme as broad in scope as the question: what is love? 

Recent history has seen a boom in industry, globalization of trade and communication, and dispersion of wealth.  Massive economic growth has the ability to pull 300 million Chinese out of poverty.  I spent a month traveling through China in the fall of 2007, and my biggest culture shock, apart from the major lack of hygiene (as us Westerners’ define it) was how cheap and plentiful meat is.  “Cheap” only applies when I compare the cost of chili-fried-beef to a western standard; however, considering that a meat dish was almost always less expensive than the vegetarian alternative seemed awry.  I pondered the question, what happens once meat is added to the diet of 300 million Chinese?  The land bears the brunt of the newly affordable dietary addition.  What happens when Canadians campaign to buy more local products and a factory shuts down in China?  The earth may breathe a sigh of relief, but a family may now be out of work and cannot afford food, let alone healthcare.  Sustainability begins with the simple needs of life, not maintaining luxuries.

I visited Beijing and Shanghai—each a massive metropolis—bustling with the push of 20 millions bodies, all trying to move in the same direction at the same time.  I admit, that this push overwhelmed my I-live-in-the-wilderness-of Canada comfort.  What is sustainable development to a working-class Chinese?  Perhaps it is the condition which allows them to purchase meat and feed their family.  Or it may be the economic and social condition which allows them to own a cell phone and connect themselves to the communication grid of the world.  Once the opportunity to “have” a resource has been established, our view of sustainability may be the ability to maintain that resource (for ourselves).  Can we make an educated and moral decision to abstain from using the resource in order to preserve it for future generations? 

Attempting to define sustainable development seems to produce a mouthful of questions.  Sustainable development is constantly evolving at a speed parallel the changes taking place around us.  Sustainability begins on an individual basis. An individual could pertain to a human, with a unique social and economic identity, an ecosystem and all its components, or a single protist living within the belly of a whale.  A man may remove waste from his land by dumping it into the ocean, which affects the composition of the water and health of the organisms in the ocean ecosystem, which then affects the protist because the whale consumes the untreated sewage.  Individuals can not survive in isolation; the earth system is too complex and interconnected.  Sustainable development may be defined on the individual level, but it must be constructed on the global scale.  The framework will differ based upon meeting individuals’ needs and preserving unique social and moral attributes all within the carrying capacity of the biophysical earth system.  A simple truth—no! —Absolutely anything but.

Perhaps sustainable development can be summed up as the challenge of recycling and reusing the earth’s natural resources on a scale which will keep up with our constantly changing climate and population.  Sustainable development is the balance of consumption and conservation, choosing to go without, or going without because there is no choice.  Unfortunately, the bad news should be hitting home for us living in the Western world: we are the over-consumers, it is our responsibility to go without. 

An awesome resource I used to generate some thoughts: National Geographic: EarthPulse, “The State of the Earth 2010”. Display until November 22, 2009.





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