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Can development be sustainable?

Jan 19,2014 - Last updated at Jan 19,2014

2014 is only one year away from the target to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which aim to improve the well-being of all people and the planet.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated that the goals aspire to “a life of dignity for all”, and the concept of sustainable development has been integrated into the policies of countries to meet the MDGs.

Jeffrey D. Sachs, special adviser to Ban on the MDGs, asserted that if current trends of economic development and population growth continue, human beings will be faced with a set of thorny, multidimensional, unprecedented challenges that could threaten the very existence of humankind.

In his book “Sustainable Development”, David Reid argues that the faster sustainability is achieved, the lower the possibility of bringing about permanent damage to the biotic system and an impoverished lifestyle for humans that depend on it.

The famous book “Limits of Growth” was published in 1972. In it, the authors tackle the consequence of the interaction between economic and population growth with finite resources and their effect on the environment.

They predict that if trends continue to grow at the same rate, the limits to growth will be reached within 100 years. But, more importantly, they say that if focused effort is maintained by societies and policies, environmental and economic stability could be achieved and development could be sustainable.

These conclusions were strongly criticised, and claims were made that there were too many variables involved, that predictions were impossible to make, and that human progress would be able to deal with these problems.

In answer to the criticism, it would be reasonable to adopt precautionary principle to cope with this uncertainty and come up with policies to prepare for the possible dangerous future outcomes or try to prevent them from happening.

The concept of sustainable development first gained momentum at the World Commission on Environment and Development.

Sustainable development is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

The concept rests on a large degree of consensus and has become central to government policies. Despite its appeal, it has attracted a fair share of controversy and criticism that it is too vague, cannot be measured and regarding the means by which it could be achieved.

But sustainable development — in very broad terms — involves universal needs which include the improvement of human well-being through economic security and social equity, assuring freedom and human dignity, in a way that is ecologically and environmentally sustainable, i.e., that can continue for future generations.

Recently, sustainability indicators have been developed to assess the interaction between environment and socio-economic activities. These indicators can inform policy makers where changes are required so that development can be more sustainable.

Many claim that sustainable development is an oxymoron because development itself must include more consumption of natural resources, which, compounded with rapid population growth, leads to increased environmental degradation.

According to data from the World Bank, over the past two decades, world GDP per capita doubled, but during the same time, indicators suggest that the environment has been progressively degraded.

But it is crucial to see that this development has been measured by the classical yardstick of material wealth.

Can we have sustainable development if we change our approach to development?

A report prepared by “Towards a Green Economy” estimated that by 2050, an investment of 2 per cent of global GDP can safeguard the environment while slightly raising the per capita income.

Furthermore, according to a study by the Sustainable Europe Research Institute in Cologne, Germany, it is possible that by 2020, a condition that is close to sustainability could be achieved in Germany.

Is it reasonable to incorporate the concept of sustainable development into the MDG?

Can “a life of dignity” be sustainable?

I think it can be. Sustainable development does not necessarily have to be an oxymoron. But we should redefine our concept of development so that emphasis is on well-being rather than on the perpetual pursuit of unnecessary goods and gadgets.

Consumer patterns must change so that all human beings have a decent material living without causing permanent damage to the environment, and at the same time have an equitable distribution of wealth and provision of good social services.

A holistic approach to sustainability is possible. But politics alone cannot solve practical and physical problems to deliver sustainability.

Deep individual changes in thinking, behaviour and values must go hand in hand with the major decisions and plans governments make about social and economic structures and their interaction with the environment.

The writer is a mechanical engineer who holds an MSc degree in sustainability and environmental studies from Strathclyde University. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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