Georgiana Allison argues for an approach to sustainable development that recognises planetary boundaries
It has been 35 years since the UN published Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development – also known as the Brundtland Report – in 1987, popularising the term ‘sustainable development’ and highlighting the close links between the natural environment and human development. The report also brought the legacy of our decision-making into focus, appealing to our collective moral duty to avoid shifting the impact and burden of exploitative environmental, social and financial practices onto future generations.
Rhetoric versus reality
The rhetoric–reality gap between what sustainable development means and how it is practiced is well-researched. For example, how often has the affordability of sustainable solutions or practices been mentioned to justify not doing it, or doing it in a way that dilutes or omits long-term environmental, social or economic benefits? Take, for instance, the advent of sustainable drainage techniques, designed to deliver multiple environmental benefits while effectively draining a development. For 20 years there has been a battle to have them delivered on all new developments in England, and yet some developers still insist that they cost more, are difficult to maintain and reduce the value of the property.
How often has the most sustainable action been to not do something, only for other drivers, motivations or interests to take priority? In these cases, perceived benefits to the environment, economy or society will be identified and used to justify the decision as ‘less bad’, and the do-nothing approach as less favourable. A policy or project’s social and economic benefits are cited as too important for longer-term sustainability for us not to do it. Meanwhile, direct or indirect practices that perpetuate environmental degradation are allowed to continue in the name of a stronger economy or thriving society.
Venn versus nested model
If we imagine sustainability as a three-legged stool, with the three legs being the environment, the economy and society, the environmental leg would be the shortest; the stool may not tip over, but it would be uncomfortable to sit on.
Sustainable development is often illustrated using a Venn diagram, with its three facets having equal weighting and interdependence. This suggests that the goal of sustainability is to find a balance between the three, and also implies that the aspects are substitutable – a reduction in one can be compensated by an increase in another, as in carbon offsets.
Using the Venn diagram or ‘wobbly stool’ model to direct and justify approaches to sustainability allows the continued erosion of one (or multiple) legs for the benefit and gains of the other(s). This model is therefore inadequate; in the future, irreplaceable losses will have occurred and irreversible feedbacks will have been set in motion because we have favoured one aspect above the rest. Introduce ‘sustainable development’ or ‘sustainability’ into conversation and it is likely that environmental connotations will be discussed first – yet it is to the environment that our decisions remain least accountable.
An alternative and stronger conceptualisation of sustainability is the nested model, whereby all economic and societal activity takes place within environmental limits. Instead of environmental and natural capital having equal importance to social and economic capitals, this model acknowledges that without functioning and healthy natural systems, the stability of all systems is undermined.
The proposed new coal mine in Cumbria is a good example of where the decision not to do something would favour the nested model, recognising that any short-to-medium term financial and societal gains would undermine the environmental limits that we are already reaching. The continued extraction of sand worldwide demonstrates natural capital being eroded irreversibly within a human lifetime because of the construction industry’s insatiable economic and social demands.
Finally, the past summer has reminded us that a water availability may be the most limiting environmental metric of all. We continue to covet vast residential and commercial developments in the South of England, notably in Kent and Cambridgeshire – overlooking the fact that there is no additional water available in those regions to supply those homes and businesses.
When asked to define sustainable development during a continuing professional development session I ran in 2020, 78% of the built environment professionals attending mentioned future generations and the availability of resources. It is abundantly clear that the demand for and use of resources is not diminishing, and that the daily needs of the vast majority of the existing global population are not currently being met. To point at the future is to deflect attention away from continued poor decision-making. Rather than repeating the Brundtland like a prayer, we need to learn to say ‘no’.
Dr Georgiana Allison, MIEMA CEnv is a lecturer in sustainability at the Sustainability Research Institute, University of Leeds.