Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

Posted by Michael Keating

Understanding sustainability

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.

photo of Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland
Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland

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 utilizing existing resources in a sustainable way. It is also about efficient resource utilization 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.

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.

Where are we now?

Nature has been firing warning shots across our bow for years. Now, she is scoring some direct hits. People are dying in greater numbers in forest fires in the Americas, Siberia, Europe and Australia. Floods are destroying homes and farms and killing people and livestock. As the climate changes we are seeing greater storms, floods, droughts, wildfires, melting glaciers and rising seas. Pushing into jungles and carrying off wild animals for food or pets has given us fatal diseases, including AIDS, SARS, Ebola and COVID-19. Overuse of water supplies is leading to greater water scarcity, and it’s made worse by climate change. We continue to pollute the air, water and land. Our plastics are disintegrating into microscopic particles that end up in our food, water and our bodies.

The greatest challenge facing humanity is to keep the good things we have invented but to do it while living within nature’s ability to renew resources and safely assimilate our wastes. As Tim Jackson, former economics commissioner of the UK sustainable development commission put it: “Prosperity isn’t just about having more stuff. Prosperity is the art of living well on a finite planet.” The United Nations Environment Programme has called for a shift from a brown economy to a green economy. It said that a transition will be disruptive, “…but far less disruptive than a world running low on drinking water and productive land, set against the backdrop of climate change, extreme weather events and rising natural resource scarcities.”

It’s bad but it could be worse. The world has made a lot of environmental progress over the past 50 years since the environment became a major issue. Back then, I remember cars spitting oil and soot from their tailpipes – onto my shirt. According the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “New passenger vehicles are 98-99% cleaner for most tailpipe pollutants compared to the 1960s.” However, there are a lot more of them. One estimate is that there were about 127 million cars, trucks and buses on the planet in 1960 and about 1.3 billion in 2020, or 10 times as many. Smoggy air is still hurting our lungs in cities around the world.

Nations of the world pulled together to save the ozone layer from destruction. Many countries have reduced acid rain that was destroying the environment. There is global agreement on the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and some countries are making progress. Renewable energy and electric cars are on the rise while many nations are phasing out coal-fired power plants, reducing greenhouse gases and protecting our lungs. A growing number of timber companies are moving to sustainable practices as are a number of fishers. Recycling is expanding around the world. People are sensitized to the growing environmental crises. All good stuff, but not enough. We are bending the curve toward sustainability but there is still a long way to go. We can have healthy ecosystems without humans. We cannot have healthy humans without healthy ecosystems.

Barriers to a sustainability transition

Old habits die hard. We know that we have to reduce many of our demands on the environment, but we are slow to change our ways. There are as many reasons as there are people. Here are three we have to change.

Careless inventiveness

Human inventiveness is fundamental to our success. We have cured or prevented many diseases that killed vast numbers of people in the past. We produce enough to feed the world, though many are still hungry because they can’t afford to buy it. We have energy and transportation systems that allow us to live virtually anywhere, to travel around the planet and to set foot on the moon. Our inventions were meant to be useful to humans, and to make money for their inventors and producers. Until recent decades, there was little thought of their environmental impacts. As a result, we have pesticides that kill beneficial species, forestry and fishing equipment that can decimate ecosystems, and fossil-fueled energy that powers our economy while ruining our climate. New products are supposed to pass environmental and safety tests, but once on the market we are finding that many are really not safe because the tests turned out to be too weak or incomplete.

Living like there is no tomorrow

Shopping for things they don’t really need has become entertainment for many. The Brundtland Report called for lifestyles that are, “within the planet’s ecological means.” Joe Martin, a Nuu-chah-nulth master carver on Canada’s west coast said: “One of the teachings of our culture is that Mother Nature will provide for our needs, but not our greed.”

Not counting the right things

We measure the success of economic development mainly by the amount of money it produces and the number of jobs created. We often fail to account for the many essential goods and services provided by the environment, including natural resources for production, the recycling of wastes, fertilizing plants and the regulation of climate. We count natural capital consumption, such as depleted mines, empty oil wells, destroyed fisheries and clear-cut forests, only as income. The depletion of natural resources should be recorded as debts and loss of capital. Because of this gap in our accounting, we still see headlines celebrating new resource extraction projects without counting the cost of their pollution and permanent loss of a natural resource.

Making a sustainability transition

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.

For at least two generations a series of leaders have been creating a road map for sustainable development. The foundations were laid in 1972 by 113 nations at the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, the first global environmental meeting. In 1980, The World Conservation Strategy, written by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the United Nations Environment Program and the World Wildlife Fund, said environmental protection in human’s self-interest. The most famous book on sustainability is, Our Common Future the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, known as the Brundtland Commission. It called for “a new era of environmentally sound economic development.” Brundtland said, “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable—to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In 1992, the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, included the Earth Summit, the largest-ever meeting of world leaders. It produced Agenda 21, a guidebook on shifting from wasteful and inefficient consumption patterns to sustainable development. In 2015, nations agreed on 17 Sustainable Development Goals to create a better world by 2030. The list of “integrated, interlinked and indivisible goals” includes ending poverty, equality of education for all, clean energy, and sustainable consumption and production.

Despite widespread agreement on goals, action has been slow and sporadic. Paul Raskin of the Boston-based Tellus Institute writes that we need a broad social movement, “… multiple organizations, groups, and individuals working toward shared social goals in myriad cultural and political ways.” He calls for a Great Transition, “…a complex social ecology of formal and informal associations focusing on a thousand issues and approaches, operating from local to global levels and aligned by broadly shared values and vision.” He says it must overcome “the resistance of entrenched power structures, the counterforce of regressive ideologies, the drag of cultural inertia, and the jolts of macro-crises.”

As I write this in the fall of 2020, there are signs the world is starting to take the environment crises more. The European Green Deal is a set of policy initiatives by the European Commission aimed at making Europe climate neutral in 2050, and seeing the change is equitable. In the United States some people are talking about a Green New Deal aimed at climate change and economic inequality. The Canadian government has said recovery from the COVID-19 crisis needs to include a shift to greener technology.

A third industrial revolution

Starting nearly 300 years ago, wood and coal-powered steam engines of the first indusial revolution brought factories, railways, steamships and the expansion of cities. In the 20th century the second industrial revolution was driven by coal, oil, natural gas and electrical power. It brought a host of technologies, including global communications through telephone, radio, TV, film and the Internet. Cars and air travel allowed people to be anywhere and everywhere. With better health care and more food production there was a population explosion. Cities kept growing, and for the first time ever more people lived in urban areas than in the countryside. Forests were levelled, rivers dammed, mines dug across the landscape, oil and gas wells drilled wherever there were resources, and farms and pastures took over more and more of the landscape. All this put unprecedented demands on the environment.

We have started a third industrial revolution, driven by knowledge and information technologies. It needs to be at least as inventive as the previous revolutions, but much more careful about environmental impacts. It must include a shift to greener, cleaner and more economical production and consumption. It has to stop spewing harmful substances into the environment, and it must be powered by energy that does not destroy our environment and our health. It may mean slowing down the introduction of some technologies until we fully understand their environmental, health and social impacts but history has told us the costs of prevention are far lower than those of cleaning up.

Coal and wind power Aalborg, Denmark. Credit: M. Keating

What could a greener economy look like? One concept is the circular economy, which seeks to eliminate waste with closed loop production. Circular systems include reuse, sharing, repair, refurbishment, remanufacturing and recycling. They minimize input of raw resources and creation of waste by keeping materials in use rather than throwing them away. This draws on principles from biomimicry, which encourages people to emulate nature both in design and in the elimination of waste. A greener economy would be non-polluting, conserving of energy and natural resources, economically efficient, run on renewable energy, and be safe and healthful for workers, communities, and consumers. Sustainable products are durable, easily recyclable, non-polluting and energy efficient. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a CEO-led, global association of more than 200 major companies dealing exclusively with business and sustainable development, has a circular economy program.

Ethics and values

Many have accused governments of failure to lead us into a sustainable future. Politicians, when candid, will often reply that they dare not get too far ahead of the public or they will be voted out of office. Of course, the situation varies greatly among and even within countries, with some moving much faster than others on environmental goals. But, even the most progressive governments can only go so far and so fast. The world faces unprecedented challenges just to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to safe levels, let alone reduce other serious pollutants, and preserve other species and their habitats. The changes needed will be very hard for many people. More information is not enough to get people to make such changes. Our social and cultural values – how we see the world – determines what we are willing to do.

Ethics are principles that guide our behaviour, telling us what is right and wrong. They are passed on and modified from generation to generation. To have a sustainable future, we need an ethic that values nature, that accepts limits on human use of the environment and recognizes the rights of future generations to inherit a healthy environment. The Brundtland Report tried to tap into that vein by calling its report Our Common Future, and saying we had a moral duty to leave a clean and healthy world for future generations.

Rev. Thomas Berry. Credit: Lou Niznik

The late Rev. Thomas Berry, a prominent Catholic “eco-theologian” wrote that modern western culture gives people the right to do as they want with nature. In a 1996 paper on Ethics and Ecology he wrote: “The difficulty is that the assault on the natural world has been carried out by good persons for the best of purposes, the betterment of life for this generation and especially for our children. It was not bad people, it was the good people acting for good purposes within the ethical perspectives of our cultural traditions that have brought such ruin on this continent and on the entire planet.” He said we must move beyond the thinking that has guided us for millennia because it is leading to a disintegration of the planet’s life systems upon which we depend. Rev. Berry called for a new ethical approach for “…the well-being of the comprehensive community, and the attainment of human well-being within this comprehensive community.”

American writer Paul Hawken said: “Sustainability … 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.”

Sustainability is our greatest legacy issue. This concept of legacy is well understood in relation to money and other forms of capital, such as homes and works of art. We save for our own future and that of our children and their children. Increasingly, we are realizing that similar principles should apply to our “natural capital” which underpins our economic success. This means prudent and efficient use of natural resources, and shifts away from using up non-renewable resources. We need to leave a clean and abundant natural environment for our successors.

Who does what?


Governments have the power to steer society toward sustainability, but politicians are often torn between long-term environmental goals and short-term development and employment, even if the projects use old, polluting technologies. Politicians can influence public opinion, and enact laws and regulations to control pollution and the over-use of natural resources. They can use fees and taxes to favour sustainable behaviour, and penalize unsustainable practices. They can provide financial incentives, such as support for green energy projects and home insulation. They can stop providing subsidies for polluting industries. One of their most important powers is to convene different sectors to seek agreement on how to move toward sustainability. Governments also need to set a good example in how they operate and what they consume.

Over the past few decades nations have signed a number of important agreements to protect species, protect the ozone layer, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants, control movements of hazardous wastes. protect oceans, combat desertification, reduce maritime oil spills, and control radioactive substances. These agreements, limited as they are, show the evolution of global environmental governance.


It is tens of millions of businesses around the world that produce the things we need and desire. Companies can become more sustainable because of enlightened leadership, to avoid regulations, in response to customer demand or to avoid public criticism for pollution and resource waste. Consumer boycotts do pressure companies to change environmental behaviour. The president of a chemical company that had been through a number of chemical spills told me they needed to improve their environmental performance to maintain their “social licence” to operate.

In 1992, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development called for eco-efficiency: “…the delivery of competitively-priced goods and services that satisfy human needs and bring quality of life, while progressively reducing ecological impacts and resource intensity throughout the life cycle, to a level at least in line with the Earth’s estimated carrying capacity.” It means creating more value with less environmental impact. This underlies such concepts as Factor 4, since expanded to Factor 10, which call for less energy and materials to make the same product or service. Often, these changes require the creation of new technologies, policies and manufacturing processes along with sociocultural change. To move toward sustainability, the business council called for a steady, predictable, negotiated move toward full-cost pricing of goods and services; the dismantling of perverse subsidies; greater use of market instruments and fewer command-and-control regulations; more tax on things to be discouraged, like waste and pollution, and less on things to be encouraged, like jobs.

Electric cars recharging

Many companies and business groups have dramatically cut their environmental footprints by moving to cleaner and more resource-efficient production. Some, such as electric car companies, have abandoned a polluting technology – fossil-fueled engines – for a cleaner one. But in a competitive environment, where investors are looking for quick returns, there are many barriers to a transition to a clean and green economy. We will need good corporate behaviour, targeted environmental regulations and a public that chooses greener products.

Other players

Though governments and corporations have much of the obvious power to implement sustainability, there is a broad ecosystem of thinkers, influencers and doers. It is usually their work that triggers change, provides ideas for how to do it and monitors progress. Universities and colleges with their environment and related departments have long been sources of knowledge about environmental issues. They have also been educating tens of thousands of people who go on to hold roles in governments, business and society. Non-government organizations have played a crucial role in the evolution of the environmental movement. They often take the work of academics and turn it into powerful messages that arouse public concern and drive governments to regulate and companies to change products. Trade unions have sometimes played important roles in supporting environmentally progressive changes, even when these will change the workplace. A single person can galvanize action. The most prominent current example is Greta Thunberg, the Swedish high school student who sparked a global movement of young people protesting governments’ failure to bring down greenhouse gas emissions.

Greta Thunberg at the UN

In fact, the greatest power lies with individuals. It is we as consumers who are directly or indirectly responsible for what happens to the environment through products and services we buy and how we use and dispose of them. Real change to sustainability will only come when the majority of people not only become informed but make more sustainable choices at the cash register and voting booth. One way to start is to relearn lessons of previous generations about thrift and economy, about ways to make do with what we have rather than constantly buying and discarding. We have the power to control our use of natural resources and our pollution. Buying greener vehicles, driving less, turning off electrical devices when not in use, insulating homes, changing our diets and reducing consumption in general are all proven ways we can reduce our personal environmental footprints.

A turning point

Maurice Strong

We have reached a turning point in human history. We will either change our behaviour to live within nature’s limits or we will break the natural system and be forced to change. In a 2001 lecture, Maurice Strong, a member of the Brundtland Commission and head of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, said: “Ours is the wealthiest civilization ever. We are yet to demonstrate that we are the wisest. On a global basis we have the knowledge, the resources, and the capacities to build in this new millennium a civilization and mode of life in which pollution and poverty are eradicated and the benefit which knowledge and technology afford made available universally to ensure all inhabitants of the earth access to the better life and a secure, sustainable future which is clearly in our reach.”

No one sector can control the changes we need. Each has an essential role. Governments can lead and assist change. Business can invent new products and services and become green themselves. Citizens must demand, support and adopt change. Despite the gigantic challenges of moving to sustainable lifestyles we have to avoid despair and hopelessness, and simply get on with doing as much as we can as individuals and as a society that wants to live well.