Help Define Sustainable Development

165 - SustainabilityWhat’s your favourite oxymoron ?

You know, terms that are self-contradictory, like act naturally, original copy, open secret, deafening silence, military intelligence, or my personal favourite Microsoft Works.

How about Sustainable Development ?

Can development ever truly be sustainable ?

Ultimately it comes down to what you think the words sustainable and development mean.

Sustainability is the ability to endure, and in this context is usually taken to mean something along the lines of: The ability to meet our own needs, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs (the so called Brundtland definition).

This implies that we should hope to provide future generations with the same access to resources that we have available to us today, including energy, raw materials, fresh water, fertile land or natural landscape and habitat.

So for example, when it comes to energy, solar is considered sustainable but oil is not – as roughly the same amount of solar energy will continue to fall on the planet every day (at least until far into the future), while oil is a finite resource and will become increasingly scarce before running out.

With more and more of us on the planet, and all of us wanting to have more and more stuff for ourselves, trying to develop sustainable practices and technologies is increasingly important if we want our children and grandchildren to have a better, or even a similar quality of life to us.

So back to development.

We all want homes to live in, jobs to go to, food on the table, health, education, leisure, water, sewerage, electricity, faster broadband, occasional holidays and any number of other things, which all makes development important and desirable. How can we do this in a sustainable way ?

If we build new homes far away from places of work and facilities, it means people will have to use more energy in travelling. If we build in flood plains it means more resources dealing with the effects of frequent flooding. If we don’t install sufficient insulation in new buildings, it means more energy in heating. If we don’t provide efficient plumbing and water storage systems, it means using more water than we need to. If we cut down a forest or concrete over a wetland to build a new town or motorway, it means there is less habitat left for wildlife.

These kind of considerations are very familiar to those of us with a ‘green streak’, but we must remember this is only one aspect of sustainability.

As well as the environmental, the social and economic aspects are equally important – issues of equality, opportunity, crime, access to jobs and services, affordability, fairness ? We don’t want to saddle future generations with either a depleted and polluted planet, a fractured and violent social structure, or a huge unaffordable debt.

Unfortunately these so called three pillars of sustainability (environmental, social and economic) are very often seemingly pitted against each other – Do you want unspoiled landscapes or wind turbines ? Do you want cheap food or low impact organic farms ? Do you want nice houses with gardens in the countryside, or more countryside ?

These are not easy questions to answer, and can be very emotive, especially when considering our own local environment – we might all be a little bit NIMBYist on occasion . . . but we have to remember recycling plants have to be built somewhere, unless you’re a BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone) !

So what does all this matter ?

You might not be aware, but a New National Planning Policy Framework (the NPPF) came into force in the UK last year, guiding the shape of the UK’s future development, and (so the Government hopes) helping construct our way back to economic growth.

In it there is a clear presumption in favour of sustainable development - but what does this mean ?

Unfortunately there’s no simple answer – we all weigh the various factors differently, and a global supermarket chain might have a very different view about what sustainable development means than you might, for example.

But there is something else.

The NPPF also includes a strong commitment to localism, improving the voice of the local community in the planning process – to help decide what gets built where, and what sustainable development means locally.

If we want the proposed wind farm, or don’t want the proposed supermarket then the onus is on us to find our voice – attend meetings, write letters, send emails, comment on policies and ultimately use our vote in local elections . . .

As a former physicist I’m partial to the odd Einstein quote, and though this one might seem a little strong, the sentiment applies:

“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil. It will be destroyed by those who watch but do nothing”


Photo from Ivan Walsh via Flickr

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