What is sustainable development?

Learn what sustainable development is all about, including what's happening behind the scenes.

What is sustainable development showing a hand holding a sustainable city using wind and solar energyWe have the ability to turn things around

Sustainable development is considered an organizing principle (central reference point) for human life on a planet with finite natural resources.

So basically sustainable development is any plan for achieving sustainability while meeting societies needs and growth. It particularly applies to the areas of agriculture, forestry, city development, transport, energy, and the sustainable use of raw materials.

We must find a way to live within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems. This involves a mixture of knowledge, skills, innovation, and most importantly - commitments! Therefore sustainable development is just as much about people, as it is about the environment.

A large part of sustainable development is tending to our own welfare, so that humankind is in a better position to work productively towards meeting the challenges ahead.

Well known quotes on
sustainable development

"Sustainable development depends on caring for the Earth. Unless the fertility and productivity of the planet are safeguarded, the human future is at risk".

From The World Conservation Strategy published in 1980

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

From Our Common Future, otherwise known as the  Brundtland Report (1987)

The greater outlook

Sustainable development requires that we think of the world as a system which connects both time and space!

Clock resting on beachfront representing time and spaceTick tock... the quality of life depends on seeing the situation as a whole!

Time - The decisions that our ancestors made, significantly affect our lives now. For example, with the industrial revolution came machinery, factories, and mass production. Everything's moving at a faster pace these days. When our children and grandchildren grow up, they will experience either the benefits or downfalls of our present activities. 

Space - We might not realize the consequences of our actions in regard to distance. Such is the case with pollution. Smog, pesticides, and industrial discharge are just some of the pollutants that can travel around the globe via the wind and water to contaminate ecosystems elsewhere.

Environmental policies and sustainable practices are critical to making a positive difference. Consider your own personal choices and go for eco friendly options whenever possible!  

What is sustainable development
based on?

Sustainable development is a balancing act between the economy, social function, and environmental wellness. Local and global efforts are required simultaneously to get the best results. Below are the main sustainability models -   

Three Pillars of Sustainability

The goals of sustainable development promotes the integration of three components -

Three pillars of sustainability model


Environmental justice
Human health
Resource security
Sustainable communities


Supply & demand
Accounting for -
natural resources


Ecosystem services
Green engineering & chemistry
Air quality
Water quality
Resource integrity

Economy and society within a larger environment circle

This diagram demonstrates how both the economy and society are constrained by environmental limits.

The 3 Pillars of Sustainability has served as the foundation for many sustainability standards and certifications over the years. Occasionally sustainability experts have illustrated a fourth pillar representing future generations, to outline forward thinking!

Sometimes this model is called the Triple Bottom Line (TBL) or the Three P's which stands for people, planet, and profit. In traditional business accounting the bottom line refers to either the profit or loss that's recorded on the very last line of a financial statement, also known as the final result.  

If you would like a more in depth read about the topics under each respective pillar, the  Environmental Protection Agency goes into details.

A different approach

Due to much debate over the last decade, another model has recently been introduced highlighting the domains of economics, ecology, politics, and culture. Dissatisfaction with the 3 Pillars treating economics as the core domain and the environment as an externality was one reason for the changes.    

The "Circles of Sustainability" is mostly used for cities and urban settlements as a method of understanding and assessing sustainability, and to help manage projects aimed towards socially sustainable outcomes. Global organizations who use this tool include the UN Global Compact Cities Programme, and the World Association of the Major Metropolises.

Example - Assessment for Melbourne (2011)

Click on the image to enlarge

Circles of Sustainability image (assessment - Melbourne 2011)

The science and expertise behind
sustainable development

Biologists sitting on rocks in river collecting water for dataBiologists collecting water samples

Now that you know what sustainable development is, let's take a quick look at some of the specialty fields dedicated to solving the issues at hand.

Environmental science - Studying the interactions between living and non living components of the environment and their modifications caused by human activities.

Being a multidisciplinary academic field, environmental science includes (but isn't limited to) - chemistry, physics, biology, ecology, zoology, oceanology, mineralogy, geography, soil science, and atmospheric science.

Environmental resource management - Managing the interactions and impact of human societies on the environment. This isn't about managing the environment itself, but about determining which factors are responsible for the conflicts that arise between meeting needs and protecting resources.

Geoscience - Scientific study of the planet Earth and its different types of geologic systems e.g. minerals, soil, water, and energy resources.

Conservation biology - Branch of knowledge concerned with protecting species, their habitats, and ecosystems from the break down of biotic interactions (between living things) or from the worst case scenario... extinction.

Green chemistry (also called Sustainable chemistry) - Designing chemical products and services that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances. Examples include - paints that don't give out volatile compounds, and  biodegradable plastics. Green chemistry has also had accomplishments in the pharmaceutical industry.

Ecological economics - Addresses the relationships between ecosystems and economic systems (e.g. production, allocation of resources). Emphasizes the economy as a subsystem of ecosystems and how to preserve the stock of natural resources.

Sustainability science - This is a fairly new academic discipline which predominantly focuses on ecology and the social sciences. Conceptualizes people as part of the ecosystem. A lot of the research revolves around understanding our own behavior, and coming up with the theory and tools to provide for the needs of humans and their environment for the future.

Full list of references for this page

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