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Is Sustainable Development Actually Sustainable?

I enjoy educating others about sustainability and environmental issues.

Wind turbines

Wind turbines

What Does "Sustainable Development" Really Mean?

The most well-known definition of the term "sustainable development" is called the Brundtland definition: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

The big problem and main criticism of the term "sustainable development" is that it’s vague. There’s no way to measure sustainability in any concrete terms. Organisations often try to measure it in terms of GDP (gross domestic product), which is how much money a country’s economy is worth. This only really covers the economic side of things, though, so how can you measure social and environmental sustainability?

Another issue with the phrase itself is that it’s come to be quite emotive. It’s used to label projects to make them seem like they’re working to solve environmental problems, for example, when the benefit to the environment might only be minimal or short-term. "Sustainable" has come to be used as a buzzword to make a plan automatically seem "good". In reality, this means "worth investing money in". It is possible that the word is becoming overused to the point where its meaning is diluted.


There are plenty of examples of sustainable practices to be found. It’s worth questioning these practices to find out if they are as sustainable as they first seem, as not all environmentally sustainable projects will be socially sustainable, and so on. Here are a few examples, with their positive points, like how they are sustainable, and the issues with them, like how they might be less sustainable than they seem.

Fossil Fuels

Widely considered to be fundamental for environmental sustainability is the elimination of the use of fossil fuels. Fossil fuel is a "non-renewable" energy source, like gas and oil. Burning them releases energy, which can be used to heat water and generate electricity. Also released is CO2, carbon dioxide. If concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere increase, it contributes to global warming by effectively insulating the planet.

Reducing the use of fossil fuels would also help to remove some of the local air pollution that comes from traffic and industrial activity. Local air pollution can lead to health problems, especially in the young, elderly, and sick.

Renewable energy is also likely to be cheaper in the long term than fossil fuels, as the resources used—wind power, solar power, tidal movements—are widely available and won’t run out.

So, reducing the use of fossil fuels ticks all three boxes of sustainability. It's better for the environment, helps society in reducing health risks, and costs less so that it's economically sustainable. So why doesn’t everyone switch over to using renewable energy sources right away?

In many countries, especially developed countries, the oil and gas industries are major components of the economy. Not only do they employ millions of people, but they also contribute a vast sum in tax and investments. These factors benefit governments receiving those taxes and the communities that are employed in the industry. There is little besides the environmental impact to encourage governments to enforce cleaner energy initiatives.

And while individuals may decide to go "off-grid" and build their own wind turbines or solar panels, the up-front cost of equipment is too much for most people. In both developed and developing countries, setting up clean energy sources is too expensive to be an accessible option for the individual.



Building Schools in Africa

Charity and volunteer work are often criticised for their sustainability or lack thereof, but something that is frequently praised is school-building. It can be considered socially sustainable because the school can be used by future generations and contributes skills to the local workforce. But is it really sustainable?

One ought to consider whether the means for the upkeep of the building itself are provided, such as access to materials and labour should the building need repairs. Without the means to keep the building itself in good condition, the school can easily fall out of use as it becomes unsafe or non-functional. Will this mean training local people in building work or volunteers visiting year after year to help with maintenance? Are the materials needed available readily, or will the school need its own funding for repairs? From where should that funding come?

There’s a similar issue with school supplies as well, such as paper, pens, textbooks, and other learning tools. The places where schools tend to be built by volunteer groups also tend to be places where families may not be able to provide their children with such supplies. From where should the supplies come, then? From the teachers’ wages? More school funding or sponsorship?

And how about the teachers? If the charity or volunteer project provides teacher training, local people will be able to get involved with the school and contribute to the local economy with their wages. They will also be able to pass on training to the next generation when they’re ready to retire. If training isn’t provided, then teachers will have to be brought in from other areas, which keeps money away from the local economy and could lead to a deficit of skilled teachers in the area in the future.

That’s not to say building schools in Africa or other developing places isn’t sustainable, but that there are lots of factors that go into keeping a school open in an economically insecure area. If the building is provided – great! But to be truly sustainable, it can’t stop there.

Another thing that should be considered is whether the school is needed or wanted where it’s being built. Will it help young people in that area develop skills that are needed, that will help them get jobs, and improve their quality of life? Is it imposing colonialist ideas of education on a location that manages just fine without it? Of course, it depends on the place and the people there, but by asking these questions before praising or criticising a charity project, you can get the bigger picture of how sustainable it actually is.

Farming vehicle cutting crops

Farming vehicle cutting crops

Agricultural Education

Some argue that in order to make agriculture more sustainable, farmers should be educated about different practices that are better for the environment. Unsustainable practices in farming can lead to problems such as a deficiency in soil nutrients, soil erosion, and excessive water usage. These can lead to poor crop quality, landslides, and water shortages respectively. Other issues include deforestation, land becoming unusable and reduction of biodiversity.

Investing in teaching farmers about sustainable farming can lead to positive effects on the environment and the economy. Education about crop rotation can improve soil quality and reduce the use of pesticides; cover crops planted off-season stops the land from falling out of use and can help reduce soil erosion, and farming animals and crops together can increase efficiency and reduce transport needs.

In places where these kinds of sustainable farming techniques are not so widely known, educating farmers can lead to more sustainable agriculture. However, what needs to be considered is the current farming system used in that area. If the "new way" would be replacing a system that’s different but doesn’t harm the environment, that would be enforcing colonising views on a community. The local climate needs to be considered, too, as not all farming practices will be suitable for all climates and environments.

And in increasing efficiency or output, one should consider whether that particular place needs to generate more food for the sake of the people living there to eat, or whether it would just be to increase profits. For the latter, a focus on capital that wasn’t there before could lead to reduced social qualities, like working hours being extended to maximise output.

Considering that agriculture relies on nature, it’s undeniably important to make sure that the environment doesn’t get badly damaged by it. But consider whether there will be a social cost to changing techniques.

Children collecting water

Children collecting water

Water Supplies

Undoubtedly a clean water supply can help a community immensely in fighting disease, growing crops and improving sanitation. There are volunteer organisations, like Peace Corps, who go into communities that rely on unstable water supplies and build them wells or boreholes to provide a clean and steady supply.

Because of the obvious positive effects, it’s often hailed as a sustainable improvement to a community. It certainly can be, but it’s a case of providing the means of upkeep again that determines whether these projects actually are sustainable.

For example, if the water supply has a fault and stops working suddenly, the people in the village would turn to the one man trained by the Peace Corps to fix it. But he’s out of town for a few days. What can the people of the village do? Would it be a more sustainable project if phone lines were put in, too, so they could reach him? Or if a more reliable water system was put in? What could that even be?

The cost and upkeep of these water supplies can be too much for some communities. In some places, they use the water supply to grow excess crops that they can sell to pay for upkeep. In others, they would rather do without the hassle and just keep on as they have there for hundreds of years.

I think it’s important – as with most of the earlier examples – to ask whether the new water supply is wanted by the community rather than just assuming. And to address the problem of upkeep, whether that’s providing maintenance training to more than one person, training them to train more people, or helping the community start an enterprise or fund to pay for the upkeep.

Bigger Picture

To conclude my thoughts on sustainable development, it boils down to the word "sustainable" having a certain implied guarantee of results. It’s not always the case that something branded sustainable will be good for the environment and the economy and society. But, some projects and initiatives that have been labelled as sustainable do help. It’s about asking the right questions to get an idea of the bigger picture and not taking "sustainable" at face value.

Further Reading

"Sustainable development. Linking economy, society, environment" by Tracey Strange and Anne Bayley. Paris: OECD, 2008.
A book that looks at how the environment, economy and society are all interconnected, and how sustainable development should work to benefit all three.
Sustainable Development Commission – What is Sustainable Development
The UK Government’s independent advisor on sustainability.
Planetary Project – Criticism of Sustainable Development
A project to build up resources and academic talent for the purpose of humanity living in harmony with the rest of the world.
World Economic Forum – How are the Sustainable Development Goals going?
An article highlighting progress, or lack of progress, a couple of years after the targets were set.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2018 Katie Blackbourne