Wednesday, August 20, 2014
7

Redefining Sustainable Development

MELBOURNE – Albert Einstein once said that if he had just one hour to find a solution on which his life depended, he would spend the first 55 minutes defining the problem. Once he knew the right question to ask, he could solve the problem in less than five minutes.

Today, humanity faces such a life-threatening problem: How are we to provide adequate nutrition and a decent quality of life to a global population that is set to surpass nine billion by 2050, without irreparably damaging our planetary life-support system? To find a solution, we must start by clarifying the problem.

Humans have fundamentally altered Earth’s ecosystems. By interfering with the carbon, nitrogen, water, and phosphorus cycles, human activity changes the atmosphere, oceans, waterways, forests, and ice sheets, and diminishes biodiversity. Indeed, the effects of human behavior on the planet’s ecosystems have become so significant in the last few centuries that many scientists now believe that the planet has entered a new geological epoch, dubbed the Anthropocene.

As the environmental consequences of human activity become increasingly apparent, so does humanity’s responsibility to mitigate them. Last year, at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, world leaders agreed to create a set of universal Sustainable Development Goals, which would change the playing field for future economic policy to safeguard our life-support system. That’s easy to say. But where does one start?

For almost three decades, sustainable development has been defined as development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising future generations’ ability to meet their needs. Related policies have reflected the view that sustainable development rests on three equal pillars: the economy, society, and the environment.

But this view is no longer tenable. As the United States Global Change Research Program’s recently released draft report on climate change points out, some kinds of weather events have become more common, and more intense, in recent years. In 2012 alone, Arctic sea-ice dipped to a new low, as an area larger than the US melted; unprecedented heat waves struck Australia, and other areas; record floods hit China and Japan; and the United Kingdom had its wettest year on record. But global responses remain inadequate.

A new approach is needed. Rather than separate pillars of sustainable development, the economy must be seen as servicing society, which in turn thrives within a secure natural environment. Viewed this way, sustainable development should be redefined as “development that meets the needs of the present while safeguarding the Earth’s life-support system, on which the welfare of current and future generations depends.” After all, a healthy, thriving planet is a prerequisite for healthy, prosperous lives.

The process of identifying the Sustainable Development Goals, which are intended to enter into force in 2015, has begun in earnest. Last week, representatives from 69 countries met at the UN in New York, and an expert group meets this week. The goals must have measurable, achievable objectives that extend beyond national policy; they must inspire regional and local administrations, businesses, civil society, and individuals everywhere to change their behavior. They should create goals for humanity that are grounded in shared values – and in relevant science.

This week, my colleagues and I published a report called Sustainable Development Goals for People and Planet, which outlines what is required. We identified six universal goals for sustainable development: lives and livelihoods, food security, water sustainability, clean energy, healthy ecosystems, and good governance. The next step is to define measurable targets, such as better lives for slum dwellers or reduced deforestation. Genuine progress in any of the six target areas will require a comprehensive approach, with policies that span the economic, social, and environmental domains.

For example, eradicating poverty entails the provision of food, water, energy, and access to gainful employment. But providing energy to all will require governments to discontinue subsidies for fossil fuels and unsustainable agriculture. And achieving food security is impossible without agricultural systems and practices that not only support farmers and produce enough food to meet people’s nutritional needs, but that also preserve natural resources by, for example, preventing soil erosion and relying on more efficient nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers.

The Millennium Development Goals, due to expire in 2015, succeeded because they marshaled international resources and funding to address a focused set of poverty-related issues. The Sustainable Development Goals must go a step further. Like Einstein’s thought experiment, many lives depend on it.

Read more from our "Visionary Voices" series

Hide Comments Hide Comments Read Comments (7)

Please login or register to post a comment

  1. CommentedTim Gieseke

    We must first address governance issues by understanding what governance is - https://www.facebook.com/pages/Tim-Gieseke/126953367361209?ref=hl

  2. CommentedJulia Ritirc

    Another useless report that highlights what everybody already knows and offers no solutions for the bunch of problems that have been so much analyzed by the UN and its cohorts....

  3. CommentedBill Gunyon

    Your science is impeccable but you've left out the politics. Agreement on the sustainable development goals is a highly political process in which science, alas, is one insignificant player. How can your suggestions overcome political barriers? http://treadsoftly.net/scientists-lose-patience-with-sustainable-development/

  4. CommentedJ St. Clair

    'for example, preventing soil erosion and relying on more efficient nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers."....no.... this is old technology...

  5. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    The article starting with Einstein's example identifies the problem as demand/provision issue.
    I agree, but the main problem is that we continuosly try to find provision for our artificially inflated, costantly increasing demands, instead of identifying the provision first and adjusting the demand accordingly.
    Humanity is acting outside of the natural system.
    Despite us being the product of the same natural evolution as any other living creature, despite our biological body, or psychology being based on the same natural laws and principles as anyhthing else in the system from the inanimate, to vegetative and animate levels of nature, we decided that the system and its laws do not apply to us and we can invent our own subsystems, laws and principles and start acting outside of and against the natural system.
    I do not think we should have any doubt, and any new natural catastrophe, sudden climate change proves the natural system we exist in is infinetely greater, and stronger than we are, and at present we cannot even predict the next blows, changes let alone preventing or using them purposefully.
    By the 21st century humanity got to the point where over 90% of human activity, human consumption and production is obsolete, it has no natural basis whatsoever.
    We are chasing, buying and producing goods and pleasures we have no natural desires for, which are directly harmful for ourselves and the environment, but we created an artificial matrix in order to generate profit which matrix keeps us as slaves. We become addicted and cannot get out.
    But nothing artificial, unnatural is sustainable in a natural system, and today in the form of the global crisis and other imminent threats towards the human system we started experiencing this natural adjustment, where the previously working structure started slipping through our fingers and there is absolutely nothing we can do to stop this self-adjusting, cleaning process.
    Sustainable development means humanity returning into the natural system by adapting, adhering to its laws, living within means, satisfying natural desires and necessities.
    The process has to start with a global education program, based on already available scientific information, so everybody understand those laws, and sees the necessity and advantage in accepting them.
    We have no free choice in this, the adaptation will happen whether we want it or not.
    But we can choose if we want to be beaten to it, or we want to be conscious, proactive partners in this process, becoming fully aware guardians, governors of the system.
    This is what only humans are capable of.

Featured