The idea that development can be measured purely in economic terms can be criticised because it does not take account of the impacts of economic growth on the environment and on society. Increasing awareness in the 20th century of the environmental degradation caused by human activities led to the idea of sustainable development. There are many different definitions of sustainable development, but the most commonly used is from the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development Report. This report defined sustainable development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (Brundtland, 1987).
What are the needs of the present and future generations? List at least three things that you think are basic needs for present and future generations.
There are many things that both the present and future generations need for their survival. You may have listed the following: clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, a clean environment, food, shelter and other natural resources that can be used to improve the quality of life.
If development improves only the lives of the present generation without taking future generations into consideration, it is not sustainable. For example, if a development extracted groundwater faster than it is replenished over the long term, it would cause groundwater depletion and thus affect the ability of future generations to meet their own water needs; it would not be sustainable.
The concept of sustainable development therefore incorporates human and economic development but adds another dimension by considering long-term consequences and environmental impacts as well. It means a system of development that allows current generations to develop economically and socially without passing on insoluble problems to future generations. To understand what this means in practice, we need to take a closer look at sustainability.