Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

6 Nov 2015

Values and sustainability – second in a series

Posted by Michael Keating

How can values drive the greatest challenge humans face: moving to sustainability? How can we change development to fit within Earth’s natural limits, and still live a good life? This series of articles takes us through the evolution of some major environmental issues in recent history, looks at visions and principles that can guide us in the future, examines some of the barriers to change and gives examples of leadership for sustainability.

Goals and principles for a sustainable future

In the first article I tracked the emergence of the environment and sustainable development as major public issues. This article looks at goals and principles to guide decision making for sustainability.

The second World Conservation Strategy says, “The purpose of development is to enable people to enjoy long, healthy and fulfilling lives.” It goes on to say, “Development will only succeed if it maintains the productivity, resilience and variety of the biosphere.”

Goals for sustainability

We have fundamental needs, including health, economic security and enjoyment of life. We want clean air and water, nutritious food, comfortable housing, health care, sanitation, energy, mobility and jobs now and into the future. We need societies that are equitable and give everyone access to opportunities. To do that sustainably we must also ensure a healthy and stable environment. Sustainability is about meeting human needs while bringing the environmental impact of all development in the world to a sustainable level. Sustainable development is:

  • Economically able to satisfy the needs and reasonable material desires of humans now and into the future.
  • Socially acceptable: most people feel their society is fair and just.
  • Environmentally sustainable because it does not degrade the environment that underpins our economy and lifestyles.

A key goal is to hand down to future generations both the wealth we create, and natural wealth, such as a stable atmosphere, safe and adequate water supplies, large, natural forests, good arable land and undiminished biodiversity. This requires us to recognize all long-term environmental and economic costs, not just the short-term rewards of rapid resource exploitation and pollution. We need widespread understanding of the necessity for a healthy environment, and we need the will to make necessary changes in how we use our environment.

Objectives for environmental sustainability

  • The maintenance of ecological processes that underpin nature’s life-support systems.
  • The preservation of biological diversity, which means respecting the interests of other species in the long-term interest of humanity.
  • The sustainable use of ecosystems and species.
  • Eliminating the consumption of non-renewable resources.
  • Keeping the consumption of renewable natural resources within the limits of their replenishment.
  • Keeping pollution discharges within the ability of nature to assimilate and recycle them safely.

To use a business metaphor, it means living off the earth’s income rather than eroding its capital. Maurice Strong, a member of the Brundtland Commission and head of the Earth Summit said that using up the planet’s resources was like burning the contents of your home to keep warm. He called sustainable development “development without destruction.”

Operating principles for sustainability

Sustainable development involves the simultaneous pursuit of economic prosperity, environmental quality and social equity. Companies aiming for sustainability need to perform not against a single, financial bottom line but against the triple bottom line.
– World Business Council on Sustainable Development

Some principles to guide decision making for sustainability:

  • Ensure that development now does not undermine the rights of future generations to a good environment and development options.
  • Anticipate and prevent future problems by avoiding the negative environmental, economic, social and cultural impacts of policies, programs, decisions and development activities.
  • Make decisions in a way that are just, equitable, transparent and participatory.
  • Integrate environmental, economic and social decisions so one sector is not sacrificed for another.
  • Use full‑cost accounting, which reflects all long‑term environmental and economic costs, not just those of the current market.
  • Do not upset natural processes and life-support systems, including ecological succession, soil regeneration, the recycling of nutrients, ocean circulation patterns, atmospheric stability and the natural cleansing of air and water.
  • Preserve genetic diversity.
  • Use renewable resources, such as forests and fish, within their ability to renew themselves and to maintain stable populations. (We must live off the interest our environment provides, and not destroy its capital base.)
  • Do not put pollution into the environment faster than it can be safely dealt with by nature.
  • Reduce the amount of energy and raw resources needed to create products and provide services by becoming more efficient.
  • Reduce the production of waste, then re-use, recycle, and recover the remaining by-products.

A short chronology of sustainability goals and principles

  1. The Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment declared, “The capacity of the earth to produce vital renewable resources must be maintained and, wherever practicable, restored or improved. The conference made a strong link between environment and development issues, helping to set the scene for the sustainable development concept.

Also in 1972, the Club of Rome, a gathering of world scientists, educators, economists, humanists, industrialists and civil servants, published Limits to Growth. It warned of coming shortages of natural resources and called for humans to “…alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future. This state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his or her individual human potential.”

  1. The World Conservation Strategy was probably the first major report to headline the sustainability concept with its subtitle: Living Resource Conservation for Sustainable Development. The landmark report, prepared by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, in collaboration with the United Nations and the World Wildlife Fund, called for sustainable forms of development, and the conservation of essential life processes and genetic diversity for the benefit of humanity as well as other species. In 1982, the United Nations followed up by adopting the World Charter for Nature, which stated that humans are part of nature, and life depends on the uninterrupted functioning of natural systems.
  2. The World Commission on Environment and Development, widely known as the Brundtland Commission, published Our Common Future, and popularized the term “sustainable development.” It called for more development for the poor but said all development had to stay within nature’s ability to produce resources and safely absorb our wastes. One of its most powerful messages was that to be sustainable, development needs to meet the needs of the present without comprising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The Brundtland report included 22 principles ranging from stating that all people have a right to an environment adequate for their health and well-being to the peaceful settlement of environmental disputes. The document contained a number of pivotal concepts: living within nature’s capacity, social and intergenerational equity, integrated decision making and long-term planning. It said that development “must not endanger the natural systems that support life on Earth: the atmosphere, the waters, the soils, and the living beings.” It said we could not have a healthy society or economy in a world with so much poverty, inequality, ill health and environmental degradation. The report said development needs to be “based on consumption standards that are within the bounds of the ecologically possible and to which all can reasonably aspire.” It called for lifestyles that are “within the planet’s ecological means.”

  1. Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Living, produced by the World Conservation Union, the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Wide Fund for Nature, called for a new ethic for sustainable living. It laid out principles to guide the way towards sustainable societies, including: respect and care for the community of live, improving the quality of human life, conserving the Earth’s vitality and diversity, minimizing the depletion of non-renewable resources and keeping with the Earth’s carrying capacity.

Also in 1991, in response to Our Common Future, the International Chamber of Commerce created a Business Charter for Sustainable Development, to help businesses around the world shape their own sustainability strategies. The current version has eight principles, such as inclusive economic growth and development, developing products and services that minimize adverse environmental and societal impacts, reporting on sustainability performance, and making sustainable development a business priority.

  1. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil included the Earth Summit, then the largest ever meeting of world leaders. The conference produced Agenda 21, a blueprint for making development socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable. It said the primary goals of development include the alleviation of poverty, secure livelihoods, and good health and quality of life, including an improvement in the status of women. It said development plans have to deal with such needs as food security, basic shelter, essential services, education, family welfare, reforestation, primary environmental care and employment. The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development laid out 27 principles defining the rights and responsibilities of nations as they pursue human development and well-being. They included the right to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature. They state that development today must not undermine the developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations, and that we must abandon unsustainable patterns of production and consumption. Probably the most often cited is the precautionary principle, which says “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”
  2. Maurice Strong, who was Secretary-General of the Rio Summit, and Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union, began an Earth Charter, a declaration of values, principles and aspirations for a sustainable future. The charter has four guiding principles: respect for the community of life, ecological integrity, social and economic justice, and democracy, nonviolence and peace.
  3. A number of forward-thinking businesses leaders formed the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, an association of companies seeking to create a sustainable future for business, society and the environment. It’s Vision 2050 report is described as an agenda for business to help create a world in which 9 billion people can live well, and within the planet’s resources, by mid-century. Among its goals: building the costs of carbon emissions, ecosystem services and water into the marketplace, halting deforestation and lowering carbon emissions.
  4. The United Nations held a Millennium Summit of world leaders, and established eight global development targets, the Millennium Development Goals. They included the reduction and elimination of extreme poverty and hunger; improvement in global health and education; and building the principles of sustainable development into national policies and programs.
  5. The Melbourne Principles for Sustainable Cities were developed in the Australian city during an international meeting sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. The 10 principles include promotion of sustainable production and consumption, helping communities to reduce their ecological footprints, and building on ecosystems in the development of cities.
  6. The Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development called for new sustainable development goals to be created by the United Nations to succeed the Millennium Development Goals.
  7. The United Nations adopted Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with the new long-term goals. This ambitious document, with its 17 sustainable development goals and 169 targets, aims to end poverty and hunger, improve health and education, ensure equity, promote sustainable patterns of consumption and production, fight climate change, and protect the natural resource base of economic and social development.

With all these good ideas, why are we not doing better? In the next article, I’ll look at some barriers to sustainability.

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