Sustainable Development Introduction

This piece was written as an introduction to a recent report, and might serve as an introduction to sustainability for those not familiar with this concept or field of work.

Additional links to good introductions to key concepts include:


The Natural Step: Karl-Henrik video: Overview and animations

Jonathon Porritt’s 5 minute ‘Masterclass’:


The industrial model of development has brought substantial gains in wealth and wellbeing to some, but has also bypassed the majority of the world’s population: the poorest 40% of the world’s population accounts for 5% of global income, while the richest 20% accounts for three-quarters of world income.i Although the great benefits of human development must be acknowledged, we are degrading or unsustainably using 60% of ecosystem services (such as fresh water, clean air and a relatively stable climate).ii Many of these systems have lost their regenerative capacity, with some 10-30% of the mammal, bird and amphibian species currently threatened with extinction, all due to human actions.iii A significant impact of the varieties of exploitation has been increased CO2 in the atmosphere from power generation, yet still 1.6 billion people – a quarter of humanity – live without electricity.iv Dramatic alteration of the earth’s natural systems points to an increasing likelihood of abrupt, irreversible changes (e.g. loss of agricultural productivity, collapse of fisheries, increasing sea levels) within the first half of this centuryv.

Tensions between nations and individuals attributable to disparity in wealth impair our ability to act collectively to meet these challenges, as seen in the various rounds of Kyoto climate treaty negotiations. Within society, the harmful health effects of ecological degradation are being borne disproportionately by the The growing competition for the declining resources is likely to be an increasing contributor to conflicts between individuals and nations e.g. over oil, water and fisheries. Even within nations where monetary wealth continues to increase, wellbeing and happiness have been shown to have limited correlation with increasing gross domestic productvii.

There is no doubt our species has dramatically accelerated its development of skills, technologies, understanding of the interior (e.g. psychology, embrace of cultural diversity) and exterior worlds (e.g. astronomy, quantum physics), and global systems for collective action. But, we are now facing enormous and urgent challenges to our shared aspiration that present and future generations be able to meet their needs within planetary constraints, let alone any aspirations to continue on this trajectory of psychological, cultural and societal development.

Despite an increasing level of awareness of these challenges, our current dominant psychology and culture, behaviours and systems for managing and responding to problems do not adequately address the root causes of our un-sustainability. An example of an unsustainable and inappropriate cultural belief may be that increasing material wealth is the primary cause of increasing wellbeing in developed countries, which drives us to live beyond our means (financially, and ecologically). An example of unsustainable systems may be global energy production and distribution systems that are mostly dependent on finite (non-renewable) resources.

The question of whether incremental change at a defined pace can meet our aspirations for sustainability in an acceptable timeframe is increasingly being answered with a ‘no’ by leading sustainability experts.viii A transition that will sweep aside the existing rules of the game and unsustainable beliefs and practices will likely require a very different approach to the management of day-to-day change.ix For example, a large energy company I spoke with had been making incremental changes to its transmission and production systems for many years. But now they are truly placing sustainability at the core of their strategy, and it involves changing their relationship with their customers from selling them as much as possible, to as little as possible; and it is a shift from being an energy supplier to moving into markets where electricity is competing with other energy sources e.g. to power vehicles. This is a very fundamental change in what they do, why, and what business model will enable them to be financially, ecologically and socially sustainable.

And, this sort of fundamental change is really necessary, and an opportunity for individuals to orient themselves towards more just and healthy lifestyles, and for organisations and institutions to re-orient themselves towards a long-term vision for a better society rather than short-term look at financial profits.

i United Nations Development Program, 2007 Human Development Report (HDR), p.25 [Online] Available: [2008, 19.08.08].

ii World Health Organization, Ecosystems and Well-Being, Health Synthesis 2005. [Online] Available: [2008, 19.08.08].

iii Millennium Ecosystems Assessment 2005 [Online] Available: [2008, 19.08.08].

iv Millenium Development Goals Report 2007 [Online] Available: [2008, 19.08.2008].

v Millennium Ecosystems Assessment 2005 [Online] Available: [2008, 19.08.08].

vi World Health Organization, Ecosystems and Well-Being, Health Synthesis 2005. [Online] Available: [2008, 19.08.08].

vii Hamilton, C., Denniss, R. (2005). Affluenza – when too much is never enough. Allen and Unwin, Sydney.

viii Blowfield, M, Visser, W, Livesey, F. (2007) Sustainability Innovation: Mapping the Territory University of Cambridge Programme for Industry Research Paper Series: No. 2, 2007.

ix Ibid.


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