Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

Posted by Michael Keating

What is Sustainability?

Trying to define sustainability is a challenge. I’ve drawn from interviews with members of the World Commission on Environment and Development, my summary of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, and the writings of many experts around the world.

Our society depends on its environmental, economic and social underpinnings. Weaken one and you undermine the whole structure.

The most important pillar is the environment. We rely on it for a wide range of essential natural products and services, such as clean air, a stable atmosphere, food, water, energy, wood and other fibres, and waste disposal.

But, we are living beyond our ecological means. We are running up an ecological debt in the form of depleted fisheries and forests, poisoned landscapes, climate change, a weakened ozone layer, acidified lakes and seas, and polluted air. They reduce our quality of life and options for economic development.

Many prominent thinkers and world leaders are warning that if we do not curb our demands on the environment, the effects of pollution and resource depletion will undermine our civilization. They are calling for a transition to sustainable ways of living and doing business.

Sustainability is about living well for the long term. It is about preserving the benefits of millennia of evolving civilization.

Sustainable development is the process of achieving sustainability. It is about how we can live, work, produce and consume in a way that is economically successful, socially acceptable and stays within nature’s bounds.

Image of environment, economy and social sectors.

The three key elements that needed to be integrated for sustainability

It is both simple and complex.

It is simple because we know we cannot continue to foul our own nest and destroy the resources we need forever.

It is complex because as the modern industrial lifestyle evolved, it did not account for natures limits. We need to change long-established development patterns to stop cutting too many trees, over farming too much land, catching too many fish, using too much fossil fuel and reducing water supplies.

Economic development cannot stop, but it must change course to become less ecologically destructive. Moving to sustainability will not be simple. It will be a long journey, full of mid-course corrections as we learn more about the limits of nature and our own ability to adapt.

We need such operating principles as: anticipate and prevent, quality over quantity, accounting for environmental costs, the rights of future generations, respect for nature, and living off ecological interest, not running down nature’s capital.

What is the upside? Cleaner air, fewer hazardous chemicals in our bodies, social and environmental stability, security and long-term supplies of environmental goods and services that are the base of our lifestyles and economies.

The term sustainable development is linked to Our Common Future, the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, known as the Brundtland Commission.

The Brundtland definition of sustainable development has often been compressed to: ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

It is longer and more complex. The report said:

“Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable—to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without comprising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The concept of sustainable development does imply limits—not absolute limits but limitation imposed by the present state of technology and social organization on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities. But technology and social organization can be both managed and improved to make way for a new era of economic growth.”

It contained a number of pivotal concepts: living within nature’s capacity, social and intergenerational equity, integrated decision making and long-term planning.

It spoke to environmental, economic and social needs. 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 cannot 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.”

The Brundtland Commission helped solidify the concept that human life and activities exist within and depend on the natural environment, calling for lifestyles that are, “within the planet’s ecological means.”

Image of humans nested within the environment

The environment contains, sustains and provisions all humans

Sustainability is about achieving two very difficult tasks at the same time: meeting human needs, including increasing development for the poor, while bringing the environmental impact of all development in the world to a sustainable level.

The report called for a massive increase in global development to lift billions in poorer countries from poverty, but it also said that much of current development was unsustainable in both rich and poor countries, and the world had to change course or face ecological collapse.

Future growth, it warned, had to be based on forms of development that are economically, socially, and ecologically sustainable.

The commission said that to change the course of human development, environment had to be integrated into all aspects of economic decision making at all levels, from the household to the boardroom to every level of government.

Many groups and individuals have written definitions of sustainability and sustainable development. Here are some:

Development without destruction.
– Maurice Strong, Brundtland Commission member and Secretary-General of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.

Development which ensures that the utilization of resources and the environment today does not damage prospects for their use by future generations.
– Canada’s National Task Force on Environment and Economy

Growth in harmony with our environment, preserving our resource base for our economic well-being, and planning for our children’s future.
– Gary Filmon, former Premier of Manitoba and Chair of the Manitoba Round Table on Environment and Economy

Living on the earth’s income rather than eroding its capital. It means keeping the consumption of renewable natural resources within the limits of their replenishment. It means handing down to successive generations not only man-made wealth, but also natural wealth, such as clean and adequate water supplies, good arable land, a wealth of wildlife, and ample forests.
– The United Kingdom’s Sustainable Development Strategy

Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.
– US Environmental Protection Agency

Sustainable development means substantially reducing the pressure on the earth’s ecosystems while lifting millions out of poverty.
– Norway’s Strategy for Sustainable Development

Sustainable development involves safeguarding and utilising existing resources in a sustainable way. It is also about efficient resource utilisation and its enhancement, and the long-term management of and investment in human, social and material resources.
– Swedish Strategy for Sustainable Economic, Social and Environmental Development

Ecologically sustainable development is: using, conserving and enhancing the community’s resources so that ecological processes, on which life depends, are maintained, and the total quality of life, now and in the future, can be increased.
– Australia’s National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development

Sustainable development requires environmental health, economic prosperity and social equity.
– Earth Council

Sustainability encompasses the simple principle of taking from the earth only what it can provide indefinitely, thus leaving future generations no less than we have access to ourselves.
– Friends of the Earth

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

Improving the quality of life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems.
– World Conservation Union

Sustainable development is a journey rather than a destination.
– David Buzzelli, former member of Canada’s National Round Table on Environment and Economy, and former president of Dow Chemical Canada Inc.

Sustainable development is the achievement of continued economic and social development without detriment to the environment and natural resources. The quality of future human activity and development is increasingly seen as being dependent on maintaining this balance.
– European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, an agency of the European Commission

…there can be no peace without equitable development; and there can be no development without sustainable management of the environment in a democratic and peaceful space.
– Wangari Maathai, Kenya’s deputy environment minister, founder of the GreenBelt Movement and recipient of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.

A vision of development balanced between humanity’s economic and social needs and the capacity of the earth’s resources and ecosystems to meet present and future needs.
– Koffi Annan, UN secretary-general in 2002

It can also be expressed in the simple terms of an economic golden rule for the restorative economy: leave the world better than you found it, take no more than you need, try not to harm life of the environment, make amends if you do.
– Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce

In South Africa, where so many people are presently living in poverty, we need economic growth… As the economy grows there will be increasing pollution and pressure on natural resources. Government has to balance the need for development with the sustainable use of resources.
– Education Training Unit, a non-profit South African organization working on development and democracy in South Africa.

What changes are needed?

If we are to start living in rather than using up the biosphere we must use sustainable forms of energy, transportation, farming, forestry, fisheries, mining, smelting and chemical manufacture. Given the impacts of current technologies, this implies lower consumption of most if not all raw materials and energy per person and per unit of production. This likely means a trend to different forms of consumption, including a move away from machines that demand huge amounts of energy and a reduction in throwaway products.

To accomplish change we will need commitments to serious long-term planning by governments and businesses at the local, regional, national and international level. One barrier to change is that people can still profit from actions that pollute and using up natural resources. This temptation is abetted by short-term business practices and political decisions whose goals are often measured in cash rather than ecological stability.

To make the change we need a shift in attitudes by the public, including a willingness to forego certain high consumption and polluting behaviours.

Governments can play a role with penalties and incentives that would make it cheaper for businesses and individuals to be clean and efficient rather than dirty and wasteful. Governments need to encourage change by providing more information that would help people make choices that are more sustainable.

Businesses are also key. They need to find the ways to make products and deliver services in ways that are environmentally, economically and socially sustainable.

How are we doing in a transition to sustainability?

Since the Brundtland Report there has been a huge growth in world economic output, with roughly a doubling in Gross World Product. Many people have been and are being lifted out of poverty. Some of the development is more environmentally sustainable: cleaner cars, chemicals that do not destroy the ozone layer, more reforestation, recycling and alternative energy.

It is not enough. We are still sliding deeper into ecological debt. Greenhouse gases are building to ever more dangerous levels in the atmosphere and the climate is changing. Fossil fuels are still the main source of power. On balance, we are losing more forests than are being replanted. Many underground water resources are being drained faster than they are replaced. Thousands of chemicals with unknown health impacts are released into the environment. Our ecological footprint keeps growing.

In a 2012 interview with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, Jim MacNeill, secretary-general of the Brundtland Commission, reflected on what has happened since 1987. “Unfortunately, there was no shift to more sustainable forms of development. ‘Business as usual’ not only continued, it grew enormously, and today our future is indeed in peril.”

The problem is not a lack of know-how. It is one of social and political willpower. To allow the major economic shifts needed to move to sustainable forms of development, we need an underlying shift in values. People will have to be willing to consume much less energy from fossil fuels. We will have to consume less of many materials. It will require the kind of sea change in thinking that comes rarely in the history of human evolution. But the world still lacks focus, leadership and investments to make it happen, according to Gro Harlem Brundtland, head of the World Commission on Environment and Development when she spoke in Toronto a few years ago.

When the Brundtland Report was released in 1987, I asked Canadian businessman and Brundtland Commission member Maurice Strong if the world can move to sustainability. His answer is still valid: “It is going to be a race between our sense of survival and our more indulgent drives.”

In 2012, a global sustainability report said the world needs to build social and environmental costs in how we price and measure economic activities. On the release of the report, then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “We need to chart a new, more sustainable course for the future, one that strengthens equality and economic growth while protecting our planet.”

Goals, principles and tests for sustainability

If we are going to build a more sustainable world, we need ideas about how to make it happen. We need to set some goals, and to have some guiding principles and tests for sustainability.


The fundamental goal of sustainability is human well-being over the very long term. We need security, economic opportunities and the ability to enjoy life. The Canadian constitution speaks of peace, order and good government. The United States Declaration of Independence lists life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These goals require just and stable societies. Sometimes we seem to forget that our societies are built upon a natural world that we are damaging and degrading at our peril. If we are going to stop running down our environment, we have to start managing our use of nature, and we need goals for this purpose. For example, we need to:

Maintain ecological processes such as, ecological succession, evolutionary processes, soil regeneration, nutrient and hydrologic cycles, atmospheric stability, and the natural cleansing of air and water.

Maintain genetic diversity, which forms the basis of life on earth, and assures our foods, many medicines and industrial products. It means respecting the interests of other species in the long‑term interest of humanity.

Use renewable resources, such as soils, pastures, forests and fish, within their ability to renew themselves and to maintain stable populations. This means living off the interest our environment provides, and not depleting its capital base.

Use materials in continuous cycles as nature does.

Reduce the amount of energy and raw resources needed to create a given amount of products or services.

Decrease wastage of natural resources during harvesting and processing.

Reduce and then eliminate consumption of non-renewable resources through recycling and substitution with renewable resources.

Keep pollution discharges within the ability of nature to assimilate and recycle them safely. Eliminate discharges of toxic substances that build up in the food chain.

Some principles of sustainability

Integrate environmental, economic and social decisions so one sector is not sacrificed for another.

Use long-term planning that accounts for environmental impacts into the future.

Anticipate and prevent negative environmental, economic, social and cultural impacts of policies, programs, decisions and development activities during the conceptual and planning stages rather than try to correct them later.

Use full‑cost accounting, which reflects all long‑term environmental, social and economic costs, not just the short-term rewards of rapid resource exploitation and pollution.

Use the polluter pays principle to ensure that the environment is not used as a free dumping ground for wastes.

Seek a fair distribution of the costs and benefits of development between rich and poor, and between generations.

Ensure that our development does not undermine the rights of future generations to a healthy and productive environment, and to good development options.

Make decisions in a way that are just, equitable, transparent and participatory.

Rio Declaration principles of sustainability

The 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (which included the Earth Summit), brought together the heads or senior officials of 179 governments. They adopted the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Its 27 principles define the rights and responsibilities of nations as they pursue human development and well-being.

Principle 1

Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.

Principle 2

States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.

Principle 3

The right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.

Principle 4

In order to achieve sustainable development, environmental protection shall constitute an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it.

Principle 5

All States and all people shall cooperate in the essential task of eradicating poverty as an indispensable requirement for sustainable development, in order to decrease the disparities in standards of living and better meet the needs of the majority of the people of the world.

Principle 6

The special situation and needs of developing countries, particularly the least developed and those most environmentally vulnerable, shall be given special priority. International actions in the field of environment and development should also address the interests and needs of all countries.

Principle 7

States shall cooperate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem. In view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation, States have common but differentiated responsibilities. The developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command.

Principle 8

To achieve sustainable development and a higher quality of life for all people, States should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate demographic policies.

Principle 9

States should cooperate to strengthen endogenous capacity-building for sustainable development by improving scientific understanding through exchanges of scientific and technological knowledge, and by enhancing the development, adaptation, diffusion and transfer of technologies, including new and innovative technologies.

Principle 10

Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.

Principle 11

States shall enact effective environmental legislation. Environmental standards, management objectives and priorities should reflect the environmental and developmental context to which they apply. Standards applied by some countries may be inappropriate and of unwarranted economic and social cost to other countries, in particular developing countries.

Principle 12

States should cooperate to promote a supportive and open international economic system that would lead to economic growth and sustainable development in all countries, to better address the problems of environmental degradation. Trade policy measures for environmental purposes should not constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination or a disguised restriction on international trade. Unilateral actions to deal with environmental challenges outside the jurisdiction of the importing country should be avoided. Environmental measures addressing transboundary or global environmental problems should, as far as possible, be based on an international consensus.

Principle 13

States shall develop national law regarding liability and compensation for the victims of pollution and other environmental damage. States shall also cooperate in an expeditious and more determined manner to develop further international law regarding liability and compensation for adverse effects of environmental damage caused by activities within their jurisdiction or control to areas beyond their jurisdiction.

Principle 14

States should effectively cooperate to discourage or prevent the relocation and transfer to other States of any activities and substances that cause severe environmental degradation or are found to be harmful to human health.

Principle 15

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. 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.

Principle 16

National authorities should endeavour to promote the internalization of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution, with due regard to the public interest and without distorting international trade and investment.

Principle 17

Environmental impact assessment, as a national instrument, shall be undertaken for proposed activities that are likely to have a significant adverse impact on the environment and are subject to a decision of a competent national authority.

Principle 18

States shall immediately notify other States of any natural disasters or other emergencies that are likely to produce sudden harmful effects on the environment of those States. Every effort shall be made by the international community to help States so afflicted.

Principle 19

States shall provide prior and timely notification and relevant information to potentially affected States on activities that may have a significant adverse transboundary environmental effect and shall consult with those States at an early stage and in good faith.

Principle 20

Women have a vital role in environmental management and development. Their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development.

Principle 21

The creativity, ideals and courage of the youth of the world should be mobilized to forge a global partnership in order to achieve sustainable development and ensure a better future for all.

Principle 22

Indigenous people and their communities and other local communities have a vital role in environmental management and development because of their knowledge and traditional practices. States should recognize and duly support their identity, culture and interests and enable their effective participation in the achievement of sustainable development.

Principle 23

The environment and natural resources of people under oppression, domination and occupation shall be protected.

Principle 24

Warfare is inherently destructive of sustainable development. States shall therefore respect international law providing protection for the environment in times of armed conflict and cooperate in its further development, as necessary.

Principle 25

Peace, development and environmental protection are interdependent and indivisible.

Principle 26

States shall resolve all their environmental disputes peacefully and by appropriate means in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

Principle 27

States and people shall cooperate in good faith and in a spirit of partnership in the fulfillment of the principles embodied in this Declaration and in the further development of international law in the field of sustainable development.

One of the important ideas from the Earth Summit is the precautionary principle, which says: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, scientific uncertainty shall not be used to postpone cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

Tests for sustainability

There is no simple test for sustainability, but if you ask the following questions (and others that you can develop) you will get a sense of whether a new product, project or idea is more or less sustainable than the alternatives.

Is an activity sustainable in that it can be carried on indefinitely without running down its resource base? Can that claim be proven?

Does it make economic sense while respecting the environment, or does it require the discharge of harmful substances or over-harvesting of resources to make money?

It is socially and culturally sound?  Is it being developed and carried out with input from people who will be affected?

Does it allow a healthy amount of local decision-making and control over resources?  Are all people given equal opportunity to participate in the decision-making process?

Do people who use the resources have some ownership, and thus interest in preserving them?

Will this project or program use up non-renewable resources, such as fossil fuels, and will it do so at a greater rate than some other project?

Will it use renewable resources at a rate greater than natural replacement?

Does it erode or degrade soil?

Does it reduce available fresh water supplies?

Does it reduce food supplies?

Does it pollute the air, land or water?

Does it damage the ozone layer?

Does it add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere?

Does it result in more or less garbage?

Does it reduce the diversity of living species?

Does it release toxic substances into the environment? If so, do they persist in the environment, and do they build up in the food chain?

What are their breakdown products in living creatures?

What is known about their health effects in humans, wildlife or test animals?

What standards or guidelines exist in any jurisdiction (domestic or foreign) for allowable concentrations in humans, wildlife, foods, air, land or water?

There are not always easy answers for these questions. No project or product will come through such a screen showing zero impact. The challenge is to find those that are least environmentally damaging, and to find a mix which, in total, will not put too heavy a strain on the biosphere.

Sustainability tests in the Canadian north

The Joint Review Panel for the Mackenzie Gas Project in Canada’s north produced the following sustainability tests:

The capacity of natural systems to maintain their structure and functions and to support indigenous biological diversity and productivity.

The capacity of the social and economic systems of the human environment to achieve, maintain or enhance conditions of self-reliance and diversity.

The capacity of human environments, including local and regional institutions, to respond to and manage externally induced change.

The attainment and distribution of lasting and equitable social and economic benefits.

The rights of future generations to the sustainable use of renewable resources.

Protection and conservation of wildlife and the environment for present and future generations.