It is great to see and hear an increasing number of people thinking and talking about sustainability. So what does this term actually mean. In 1987 the United nations Bruntland Committee defined sustainability as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The three key pillars were determined as economic, environmental and social; or people, planet and profits.
“Sustainable development means balancing local and global efforts to meet basic humans need with the need to preserve the natural environment from degradation and destruction. It means meeting our current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.
Environmental sustainability involves keeping the planets ecosystems diverse and productive through good resource management; social sustainability focuses on social equity, health equity, community development, human rights, labour rights and social justice. Economic sustainability relates to the social and ecological consequences of economic activity” World Wildlife Fund
As an aside, I am not surprised that Greta Thunberg was emotional when she addressed the United Nations Climate Action Summit recently. Since 1987 the United Nations has put forward the need for significant change in how we manage resources, economies and the environment however with very little impact. It took until December 2015 for the majority of countries in the world to reach agreement on dealing with green house emissions with the goal of keeping global temperature increases to 1.5°C by 2030. Australia’s current temperature increase since industrialisation is officially already at 1°C, while the government Annual Climate statement 2018 states that “the 11-year mean temperature for 2008–2018 was the highest on record at 0.77 °C above average”
While Australia looks like it will bust the 2030 1.5 °C increase well before the target date the “Australian government has turned its back on global climate action dismissing the findings of the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming …and is no longer provide funds to the Green Climate Fund (GCF); It is continuing to subsidise fossil fuel extraction and export, against the need to phase out fossil fuels, in particular coal, globally; Australia’s emissions from fossil fuels and industry continue to rise, and are now 7% above 2005 levels. These emissions have increased by around 1% per year on average since 2014, the year in which Australia’s national carbon pricing scheme was repealed. Under current polices, these emissions are headed for an increase of 8% above 2005 levels by 2030, rather than the 14-17% decrease in these emissions required to meet Australia’s Paris Agreement target” (https://climateactiontracker.org/countries/australia/)
For us to really achieve sustainable development and to not compromise the ability of younger generations to meet their needs will require not only political leaders but also global corporations to significantly change their economic thinking. We can no longer operate from an ethos of bigger is better and that excessive profitability is the only measure of success. We need to recognise that free market capitalism where small government is lauded, and social and economic responsibility is considered a minor issue; where individual wealth and user pays out weighs social justice, social equity and social capital, is manifestly at odds with sustainable development goals.
“We need to integrate economic and ecological considerations in decision making and this will require a change in attitudes and objectives and in institutional arrangements at every level.” United Nations Brundtland Commission
A step in the right direction would be to consider alternative capitalist ideology such as a social market economy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_market_economy) or of greater impact would be to consider alternative economic philosophies. Yes there are other economic philosophies besides capitalism. See Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered by German born British economist E. F. Schumacher.
What is clear is that we have to make change at both the personal and the structural level. It means that everyone of us must be prepared to need less, seek less and want less and that structural change can only occur when we stop voting for political leaders who mislead, misrepresent and promote self interest rather than the common good.