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Sustainable Development: Progress or Illusion? Research Paper


As most people would agree, the term development is associated with positive well-being of the people and a brighter future. Nevertheless, any form of change in the society requires informed judgment regardless of whether it is positive or negative. This is because, what the world may consider being good today, is likely to be disregarded in the future (Pearce, Barbier & Markandya 1990).

In most occasions throughout history, economists have always used per capita income as the principal indicator of development in a given state or country. On the other hand, a situation where income distribution is skewed may not be considered to be developing even when the income of some people is increasing while the poor are becoming poorer.

According to the United Nations Development Program, development mainly refers to a process where the people’s opportunities of choice are increased. In this regard, ecologists view all processes, which threaten the environment as negative even if they serve people profitably. Of significance is the fact that development aims at improving the welfare of people in some way.

Sustainable development

In defining the concept of sustainable development, the issue of time is crucial, especially with regard to an existing situation and a projected outcome after a given period of time. It can, therefore, be defined as a pathway, along which maximization of the welfare of the people does not negatively affect the future generation (OECD 2001, p. 7).

Other scholars describe it as development that can be continued for a long period of time. In order to achieve this status, it is essential for leaders to eliminate factors, which are responsible for the depletion of resources and environmental dilapidation.

In addition, the process requires the society to acquire certain goods, which augment economic development, including those achieved by an effective ecosystem, a united society, and a healthy environment. Furthermore, sustainable development permits the flexibility to react towards future development shocks, even when their occurrence time and effects are not certain (OECD 2001, p. 8).

It is worth noting that the notion of sustainable development has received a wider application in the field of politics. In this case, it encompasses the understanding of human needs and striking a balance between economic efficiency priorities, environmental protection and social development. Also, it focuses on projecting the impact of current human activities in order to develop possible mitigation strategies.

Similarly, it underscores the need of appreciating global corporation among countries in order to realize viable solutions for sustainable future outcomes (Pearce, Barbier & Markandya 1990). As a result, these elements have contributed towards making sustainable development to be a major goal for both domestic and international formulation of policies.


As it shall be seen later under history, sustainable development rose to the global arena during the “Earth Summit” that was held in Rio de Janeiro in the year 1992. During the summit, the United Nations presented a blueprint, which outlined the way-forward in defining and saving the planet.

From this stage, the UN agreed to use the phrase in defining the equilibrium between utilization and preservation of resources, coupled with nature’s incomparable potential (Faucheux, O’Connor & Straaten 1997).

At the same time, it was described as a development process, which is capable of meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the survival of future generations. Having touched the heart of the world several decades ago, the question we need to ask ourselves is whether it has contributed to progress or it remains an illusion that might never come true.

Sustainable path

Many scholars believe that sustainable development might not generate significant interest if the current patterns of economic advancement were to be evaluated on the basis of sustainability. It is doubtless that the welfare of billions of people has been transformed as a result of strong economic growth, enhanced by technological developments and high levels of international integration (Faucheux, O’Connor & Straaten 1997).

Nevertheless, research indicates that most nations around the world have stagnated at the margin of the entire process, thus being unable to distribute related benefits to other nations around the world.

In this context, it is also important to underscore the fact that these unrealistic incentives given to producers and consumers have led high levels of economic activity, resulting into pressures on the natural environment. Consequently, this pressure has led to certain changes, including the alteration of the climate system, resulting into loss of biodiversity, depletion of marine resources and increased scarcity of water.

On this basis, it is clear that there is a possibility of reaching critical thresholds in the process of regenerating the potential of renewable resources (Faucheux, O’Connor & Straaten 1997). This has been noticed as a source of threats towards achieving sustainable economic growth.

As a result of these trends across borders, there are several economic challenges, in terms of severe health hazards for millions of people being exposed to a degraded environment. According to the survey, between 2 and 6% of disease-burden in most OECD countries are squarely caused by such hazardous exposures.

While this is the case, a higher percentage has been registered among countries, which are non members of the OECD, with a range of between eight and thirteen percent. In addition, environmental damage has led to high risks and insurance costs for disasters caused by human error (Grober, 2007).

Even though it is not known to most people, there are various weather-related events, which have adversely contributed to major losses, accumulating to about $60 million in the year 1998.

In understanding the progress of the world within the confines of promoting a sustainable economic development, it is important to focus on the well-being of the world population in future. In less than twenty years from now, it is believed that the world will have attained up to 75% increase in GDP, with almost two-thirds of the growth originating from OECD countries.

Additionally, the world will witness a demographic increase of between one and two billion people (Grober, 2007). Importantly, a significant percentage of this growth will occur in developing countries. These issues, therefore, generate the need for policymakers to take up the challenge of sustainable development more seriously.

History of sustainable development since 1960s

Sustainable development has a fascinating history, which spans from 1960s. In essence, this history has mainly been developed by individuals, world leaders and organizations, which were driven by the need of maximizing nature’s potential without affecting the capability of the earth to sustain future generations. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s name went into the annals of history after she published a book titled, Silent Spring.

The book was simply a collection of research findings on certain topics like ecology, toxicology and diseases (Manitoba Education 2012). According to the survey, it was found out that the accumulation of agricultural chemicals like pesticides was advancing to dangerous levels within the environment, which were likely to affect the well-being of humanity.

Additionally, it was brought to the attention of the world that such chemicals were a threat to various animal species and refuted the notion that the environment had the capacity of absorbing chemicals, without any impact on the ecosystem.

Another landmark event in the history of sustainable development was the establishment of the International Biological Program. This initiative was sponsored by two presidents of ICSU and IUBS and highly credited for its success.

Before its launch, the two had spent a lot of time analyzing certain issues, which revolved around, the adaptability of humanity to the environmental alterations, the usefulness of biological resources and global environmental change that was becoming a point of concern in the world (Manitoba Education 2012).

Upon its establishment, the International Biological Program was fully mandated to unravel the truth behind the impact of environmental changes on biological life. Additionally, the program addressed the issue of environmental conservation and expansion of existing natural resources for the welfare of human beings. Major meetings followed, which streamlined the functioning of the group and its activities.

In 1968, sustainable development campaign received a boost when Paul Ehrlich published, Population Bomb, a book that created a linkage between human beings, the environment and the nature of its exploitation by the population. This was a significant milestone in promoting ecological awareness by focusing on the role of human activities on the environment.

He significantly dwelt on the establishment of strategies to avert possible negative effects on human life. Moreover, Friends of the Earth, an American organization was established solely for the conservation of the environment by lowering the risk of environmental degradation. Besides this, the group advocated for the preservation of the world’s biodiversity in order for the world to benefit from the environment.

In the same year, the United States demonstrated its commitment towards environmental conservation by ratifying the National Environmental Policy Act. It therefore became one of first nations around the world to consider conserving the environment through a legislative approach (Manitoba Education 2012).

In 1970, the world celebrated the First Earth Day, which was principally aimed at teaching the world about the natural environment. On the same day, millions of Americans across the country demonstrated as a way of showing their solidarity and commitment towards environmental conservation.

In order for the Environmental Policy Act to be more effective, the Natural Resources Defense Council was formulated, comprising of high-notch scientists and lawyers (IICD 2002). Among other functions, the council was to push for a strong and elaborate environmental policy, which was to address environmental issues in the country holistically.

In Canada, efforts towards environmental awareness were witnessed in 1971 when the Greenpeace movement was established to combat environmental degradation in the country. This was to be achieved through a series of civil protests and overall interference even though their activities were peaceful.

In the United Kingdom, the formation of the International Institute for Environment and Development was a major stride in promoting sustainable development in the world. IIED targeted countries around the world by influencing them on how to economically benefit from the natural environment without harming the environment (IICD 2002).

In 1972, the Limits to Growth was published by the Club of Rome even though it was considered to be controversial. The publication mainly addressed the impact of an ever-increasing population on the environment, arguing that sustainable development could only be realized by controlling the population. The report was however criticized for ignoring issues of technology in promoting environmental conservation.

In 187, the Brundtland Report was released, giving a wide range of solutions that were aimed at promoting environmental conservation (IICD 2002). Additionally, the report defined and publicized “sustainable development” by combining the needs of the society with the survival of future generations.

In 1992, the Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro, with several agreements being ratified. This was regarded as the first global initiative to address the issue of sustainable development. The event was attended by at least one hundred heads of state and several representatives from around the world (IICD 2002).

The outcome of summit was a commitment by countries towards sustainable development through national strategies. In 2002, the world gathered in South Africa for the Johannesburg Summit, which resulted into outcomes that were to promote environmental conservation efforts for sustainable development.

In 2005, the United Kingdom released it’s Securing the Future, which was a revised version of its sustainable development blueprint. The report highlighted long-term strategies of securing the environment (Grober 2007). In 2009, the Copenhagen climate negotiations addressed the issue of developed countries playing a major role in environmental degradation through industrial effluents.

Although the outcomes of the summit were unclear, it was a milestone in engaging developed nations in taking responsibility while addressing the issue of environmental sustainability.

Drivers and Barriers of sustainable development

Sustainable development is influenced by an array of factors, either positively or negatively. These segment of the research paper focuses on common drivers and barriers, which have played a major role in defining the path for sustainable development in the world today. Social, economic and ecological factors will be discussed.

Social drivers and barriers

One important fact is that any change cannot be implemented without considering the social aspect of the people. This approach encompasses a wide range of phases including but not limited to lifestyles, international law, ethical consumerism and regional planning.

A good example is peace, security and social justice. It is doubtless that disruptions such as wars, major corruption scandals and crime may result into diversion of resources to areas of low significance to human needs, leaving other sections of the economy unfunded (Dearing 2000).

Additionally, many countries, which are faced with these social issues, find it hard to engage in future plans for development. In general, the welfare of people is usually affected by these issues and may end up affecting the environment, which supports people’s lives.

Some of the strategies, which have to be incorporated in sustainable social development include political stability, gender equality and empowerment of women, recognition of social justice and the respect of the rule of law (Liebenthal & World Bank 2002, p. 14).

Additionally, reduction of the gap between the rich and the poor has been applauded as one of the ways of promoting sustainable social development. This mode of sustainability is commonly known as environmental security and it plays a major role in the management of natural resources like rivers, lakes and oceans, which normally cut across several nations.

Another important factor is poverty. In fact, no discussion about sustainable development can gain completion without mentioning this social scourge. In most cases, issues of environmental degradation have directly been linked with poverty, affecting most developing countries today (Dearing 2000). It is regarded as a major barrier towards sustainable development in the world.

The issue was captured by the Brundtland Report, about the future and is well addressed by the Millennium Development Goals. On this basis, the world can only realize sustainable progress by addressing the problem of poverty. Poverty results into pressure on existing natural resources like land, minerals and water (Liebenthal & World Bank 2002, p. 14).

Ecological barriers and drivers

The natural environment plays a major role in promoting sustainable development. A rich ecosystem is always helpful to organisms and human beings. While the environment remains a major sustainable development driver, it has significantly been affected through various ways (Elliott 2006, p. 211).

Environmental degradation is, therefore, one of the barriers of sustainable development. When air, land and water are polluted, the ecosystem becomes a threat to humanity and other organisms whose lives depend on it, either directly or indirectly.

Pressure on land and poor farming methods affect the ability of this resource to support current and future generations. Water pollution is also a threat to biodiversity.

Many aquatic animals have died because of water pollution. There are also several diseases, which are caused by environmental degradation; this has increased government expenditure on healthcare instead of advancing other courses of development. In order to realize sustainable development, environmental management is paramount.

Economic drivers and barriers

It is clear that the world has significantly advanced economically, leading to employment, available of manufactured goods and creation of wealth opportunities. These have immensely contributed to the improvement of the living standards of billions of people around the world.

Importantly, innovations and technological advancements have been on the forefront in promoting the well-being of the people through different ways. A good example is the industrial sector, which has the biggest share in the world’s economy (Liebenthal & World Bank 2002, p. 15). Different industries have been established to meet the needs of consumers, create employment and utilize available raw materials.

The information and technology sector has not been left behind. For instance, there is massive usage of electronic gadgets for communication, including mobile phones and computers. These have improved the living standards of people in a myriad of ways and pose better advantages in coming years.

Technology has also led to the introduction of several sources of renewable sources of energy, which are being considered to replace coal. This is seen as a milestone towards sustainable development since they are environmentally friendly (Dearing 2000).

While technology and innovations have been applauded for economic development, the question which has haunted many countries is the sustainability of the development achievements realized from issues. It is clear that environmental degradation is highly fueled by industrial effluents.

During the Johannesburg Summit in 2002, developed countries came under pressure for their continued emission of effluents in air without caution (Elliott 2006, p. 211). Almost every aspect of the environment has been affected by industrial wastes. These include rivers, land, forests, rivers and the air. As a result, the prevalence of some diseases has risen; lives of human beings, animals and plants have been lost.

Global Lessons

From the analysis of the concept of sustainable development, it is evident that several lessons have been learnt as far as achieving postmodern vision of a world in economic, social and ecological balance is concerned.

One of the most important things is that sustainable development can only be realized through joint efforts of leaders, countries and everybody in the world (Kates, Parris & Leiserowitz 2005). This is because of the role of the environment in human life. Everybody is currently being affected either directly or indirectly by the impact of a degraded environment.

Additionally, the world has learnt to appreciate that developed countries bear considerable responsibility in promoting sustainable development. This is mainly based on their role in fuelling environmental degradation. They, therefore, have to be on the frontline in developing strategies, which conserve the environment for the purpose of attaining environmental sustainability.

Lastly, environmental management and conservation should be given priority in realizing this dream. Important ways include the utilization of renewable sources of energy, which are more environmental friendly than coal. This will reduce global dependence on nonrenewable sources of energy like coal and oil.

Above all, international environmental policies ought to be implemented in order to promote environmental conservation (Kates, Parris & Leiserowitz 2005).

As per now, it can be viewed that the world has a long way to go in attaining this status. Through collective approach, this progress can lead to sustainable development. However, it is possible for it to remain an illusion if no efforts and steps are taken towards implementation of environmental policies.

List of References

Dearing, A 2000, . Web.

Elliott, J 2006, An Introduction to Sustainable Development, Routledge, United Kingdom.

Faucheux, S, O’Connor, M & Straaten, J 1997, Sustainable Development: Concepts, Rationalities, and Strategies, Springer, New York.

Grober, U 2007, . Web.

IICD 2002, . Web.

Kates, R, Parris, T & Leiserowitz A 2005, Web.

Liebenthal, A & World Bank 2002, Promoting Environmental Sustainability in Development: An Evaluation of the World Bank’s Performance, World Bank Publications, NYC.

Manitoba Education 2012, . Web.

OECD 2001, Sustainable Development: Critical Issues, OCED, Paris.

Pearce, D, Barbier, E & Markandya A 1990, Sustainable Development: Economics and Environment in the Third World, Earthscan, United Kingdom.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'Sustainable Development: Progress or Illusion'. 21 August.

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