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As man approached the end of the second Millennium, a complexity of problems arose mainly because of man’s ability to manipulate technology and exploit resources at a faster rate than nature could replenish.
The world, for the first time, experienced major environmental challenges that called for man’s attention. Of great importance in the early 1980s were the depletion of natural resources and the menace of climate change. This automatically called for caution in the utilization of the world’s natural resources to ensure some level of sustainability.
The World Commission on Environment and Development’s (WCED) report in 1987 commonly referred to as Brundtland´s “Our Common Future” marked the introduction of the concept of sustainable development in the global arena. According to this report, sustainable development is development that “meets the needs of the present generation without compromising ability of the future generation to meet their needs” (United Nations, 1987).
Although criticized by many as being vague, I give Our Common Future credit for changing people’s way of thinking concerning development, environment and governance. The Brundtland´s “Our Common Future” provided the theoretical framework upon which all other conceptual frameworks instigate.
Different people have attempted to give meaning to the concept of sustainable development through redefinition of the concept hence resulting into new knowledge and way of thinking about sustainable development. This essay, therefore, presents a critical analysis of the epistemological development of sustainable development theory.
The development of the theory of sustainable development over the past two decades took the form of various transformations in its definition to capture different elements of sustainability as outlined in sustainable development. Since the first definition of sustainable adopted by WCED in 1987, different people and institutions alike have made efforts to provide a better definition of the concept of sustainable development resulting into different versions of the theory as analyzed below.
The most popular institutional versions are definitions by WCED, IIED, and WBCSD. All these institutional definitions put emphasis on “need satisfaction.” While some authors criticized WCED’s definition of sustainable development as a vague conceptual framework, all the institutional versions of sustainable development borrow from the idea of Our Common Future.
In an attempt to provide an elaborate definition, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) expounded WCED’s definition by identifying three systems as basic to the process of development.
According to IIED, sustainable development is one that maximizes on goal achievement across three systems: ecological, economic, and social (Mebratu, 1998). The IIED definition also introduces a new term, “primary environmental care” (PEC) referring to sustainability at the grassroots level.
Based on IIED definition, solutions towards sustainable development must focus on the empowerment of people to be real players in their own development and protect their environment while meeting their basic needs (Mebratu, 1998). Although introduced in the late 1990s, this version of sustainable development has provided the conceptual framework for the 21st century sustainable development.
The IIED’s sentiments were repeated in the 2005 World Summit, which also identified economy, society and environment as the three key pillars of sustainable development. The IUCN report on Renowned Thinkers meeting in 2006 also carried forth the sentiments of IIED of sustainable development as a three-faceted concept with each facet interacting with each other in the development process (IUCN, 2006).
Similar to IIED, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) borrowed from Brundtland´s “Our common Future” and viewed economic growth and environmental protection as two inextricably linked terms (Mebratu, 1998). According to WBCSD, sustainable development is one in which economic growth focuses on meeting human basic needs without harming the environment on which life depends (Mebratu, 1998).
This definition adds to the existing knowledge and asserts that global economic growth is essential for improving the lives of the poor, for sustaining the world’s populations, and for stabilizing population (Mebratu, 1998). This version of sustainable development advocates for technological development, but emphasizes the need to provide active leadership to ensure that the current measures to facilitate economic growth does not compromise the potentials for future economic growth.
Institutional versions of sustainable development are credited for spearheading global campaigns on sustainable development. They have acted as a wake up call for the world to undertake its development endeavours in a sustainable manner. It is worth noting that different initiatives including Agenda 21, Millennium Development Goals and the contemporary world Corporate Social Responsibility are pegged on the institutional versions of sustainable development theory.
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The Ideological Version
Unlike the institutional definitions of sustainable development, the ideological version focuses on identification of the cause of environmental crisis, its solution and the role of leadership in the “show”.
Introduced in the mid-1970s, eco-feminism became a popular ideology in the early 2000s. Eco-feminism carries the notion that a clear understanding of human domination over nature requires an understanding of the dominant gender structures in the society. Eco-feminists view male domination over female as the source of environmental crisis and any concrete solution must address this problem and provide appropriate framework for gender equality in order to realize sustainable development.
I, however, find this version reductionist in its conceptual framework and more of a feminist concept that aims at passing across feminist ideas hence can be misleading. Sustainable development is a complex concept of which gender equality is just a portion of the bigger picture.
Eco-socialism, on the other hand, views capitalist oppression as cause of environmental crisis and sustainable development has to take the form of ecologically oriented socialist development (Mebratu, 1998). Popularized in the late 1990s eco-socialism emphasizes the need to utilize natural resources for the common good of all mankind and views the current environmental challenges as a creation of the existing economic system (Mebratu, 1998).
Eco-socialism advocates for a sustainable development whereby resources are equitably distributed and appropriate technology employed to utilize the world’s resources. To some extent, eco-socialism ideology is right in explaining why third world countries are experiencing a myriad of environmental challenges.
The prevailing economic systems augment income inequalities with the majority of the population languishing in poverty. As a result, the poor turn to the environment in order to meet their basic needs leading to environmental destruction. Unless the leaders address such inequalities, sustainable development remains elusive. Resources have to be equitably distributed and appropriately utilized for the common good of the whole population.
Another contemporary ideology is eco-theology. With increased popularization of the concept of sustainable development, the church is slowly adopting this concept in its preaching. Developed in the late 1990s, eco-theology argues that the current environmental crisis is a result of the religious teachings that give man dominance over nature.
Eco-theology, therefore, emphasizes the need to conserve nature, and exercise love and respect for human nature. According to Haught (1996), the current environmental crisis is a result of human greed whose solution only lies in “a renewed commitment to humility, to the virtue of detachment, and to the central religious posture of gratitude by which we accept the natural world as a God’s gift and treat it accordingly.” (cited in Mebratu, 1998).
Eco-theology introduces a new knowledge on respect for humanity and nature as gifts from God that must be cared for. Unfortunately eco-theology tries to use religious believes to solve secular problems, which may not work out in the practical world. This view may only be accepted among religious populations hence does not provide a solid conceptual framework for sustainable development.
The Academic Version
The academic versions of sustainable development draw our attention to the empirical response to the 21st century environmental crisis. Key contributors include economists, sociologists and ecologists. According to economists, we should treat the environment like a commodity that can be valued. Economists argue that the undervaluation of environment as a free resource is to blame for the over-exploitation and thus degradation of environmental resources.
If only we would give environment its proper value, then its protection would come automatically just like any other expensive good (Mebratu, 1998). For the economists, therefore, sustainable development involves a determination of the value of the environmental commodities from supply-demand curve to be able to identify appropriate protection techniques for each commodity based on its price (Mebratu, 1998).
Economists suggest that after identifying its price, the concerned authorities can exercise economic prices for environmental commodities through introducing taxes for environmental damages, subsidizing environmental improvement initiatives, or issuing permits for environmental goods to create a competitive market. The economist version of sustainable development became popular in the early years the third millennium following a renowned effort to conserve the environment.
The current environmental sustainability initiatives borrow from the economist thinking. Globally, governments are introducing penalties for environmental crimes, polluter fees for companies and individuals discharging effluents direct to the environment, licenses for environmental commodities and incentives to promote community-based environmental conservation initiatives.
Ecologists, on the other hand, view sustainable development as a concept that emphasizes diversity of nature as well as human nature. The ecologists argue that, with all other factors kept constant, nature is a self-sustaining system. Human interferences thus only disorganize the natural processes creating ecological crisis.
Ecologists view the diversity and richness of life as values that human nature has no right to interfere with (Mebratu, 1998). Ecologists also emphasize the need to promote cultural and social diversity in order to ensure the survival of the planet. Ecologists use the term deep ecology to refer to the identification of the causes of environmental crisis as well as the provision of appropriate solutions to the problems.
Even though academic versions of sustainable provide some knowledge to the theory, they all start from a reductionist point that seeks to impose their views on the decision-making process. For this reason, there remains a lack of interdisciplinary consensus on the theory of sustainable development. What works best for economists may not provide a solution to environmental crisis from an ecologist point of view. Besides sustainable development is more than just environmental sustainability.
Sustainable development is a complex concept whose definition has changed over time to increase its scope and provide new knowledge on the subject. The concept of sustainable development has evolved over the past two decades in a manner that has broadened human understanding of developmental challenges.
There exist many definitions of this concept, but one thing remains clear; sustainable development is about meeting basic human needs, protecting the environment and ensuring good governance for the common good of everyone now and in the future.
IUCN, 2006. “The future of sustainability: Re-thinking environment and development in the twenty-first century.” IUCN Renowned Thinkers Meeting, 2006. Web.
Mebratu, D., 1998. Sustainability and sustainable development: Historical and conceptual review. Elsevier. Web.
United Nations, 1987. “World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future”. Web.