Defining sustainable development

At the most basic level, we can attempt to define sustainable development by drawing upon the explanation offered by The Brudtland Report, which popularized the concept of development which is “consistent with the future as well as present needs.” Although broadly defined here, the notion of sustainable development has to do with the future, projecting or forecasting what the environment will be like in the future, and natural resource capacity in order that those resources may be available for use in the future as well as presently.

The main drive behind sustainable development is a goal to not risk incurring irreversible damage to the ecosystem, because of a recognition that the earth has a finite ability to support human life, particularly at current (at the time the idea of SD came into being) rates of consumption and damage to the environment.

Popularization of the idea

This very simple idea of exercising a sort of prudentialism also came to include a larger set of ideals, including equity ideals. It incorporated the idea of intergenerational equity, or the consideration that future generations also deserve to have natural resources available for their use. Along with intergenerational equity, equity between the wealthy and poor nations. Sustainable development came to include principles of making the disparity between North and South’s abilities to utilize natural resources less severe. Overall, sustainable development implied a need for limits on worldwide consumption of the earth’s resources.

The move towards sustainable development as a popular concept arose gradually with a paradigm shift from the dominant model based completely solely economic and industrialization-minded set of values. Studies analyzing and projecting trends in population, economic growth and natural resources suggested that the earth’s resources would no longer be able to support anthropologic goals, however, brought criticism to the original model which excluded humans from the laws of nature and relied solely on free market principles. Sustainable development was able to combine economically rational views with environmentally reasonable beliefs. It is precisely for this reason that sustainable development was able to gain a popular support and following, as a compromise between two objectives which originally seemed antithetical in nature and were formerly unable to reach many agreements with regards to creation of environmental regulations acceptable to both parties.

Whaling issues

Let’s examine the concept of sustainable development in terms of the international whaling regime. If we want to consider sustainable development, we should think about what the present and future concerns of both the economic and environmental side of the whaling issue. The economic concerns of the present and the future would be whether or not the whaling industry is able to continue hunting whales as their trade. Hunting whales presently, as well as not overhunting any whale species to the point of extinction, which would be an irreversible act and not beneficial economically, since those extinct whales would never again be available for future use.

Environmentalists also did not wish to see any species of whales extinct. Later on it became popular to protest for the complete abolition of whale hunting for moral reasons, but at the beginning of sustainable development, the main argument was for conservation of whales as a natural resource to be used by humans. The original concept of the International Whaling Commission was based on the idea of sustainable development. Whaling nations realized that exploitation of whales to the point of extinction would not be beneficial to the future of the whaling industry. However, the whaling nations intended to resume hunting as soon as populations rebounded enough, to the point at which hunting would again be “sustainable.” The IWC has since, however, with the addition of new (and non-whaling) states, become more focused on preservation of whales and thus not for sustainable development but a moratorium on whaling. The idea of sustainable development is also closely related to the Makah whale hunts, as one important reason the tribal hunts are viewed in a different light from that of commercial whaling interests is because the low volume of whales which would be killed as a result of the cultural hunts could be considered sustainable since it is such a small number. Commercial hunting, however, which could become much more difficult to regulate, particularly among several nations, is less likely to be sustainable, for reasons related to the problem of the commons with an increased number of state actors involved.

In terms of biodiversity...

Sustainable development arguments were also used with regards to the Convention on Biological Diversity. The attempt to defend biodiversity has the goal of maintaining the multitude of species of various living things, plants and animals alike. Obviously, the worst thing that could happen is extinction, because of its irreversible nature. In this sense, it is similar to the whaling debates. The importance of biodiversity for future concerns is related to the inherent value in biodiversity as well as the yet unknown but potential things in plant life which could be used for medicinal purposes, etc. Environmentalists, recognizing the interwoven nature of our earth’s ecosystem, aim to maintain biodiversity out of respect for the ecology and a desire to see the ecological system preserved. Speaking in terms of present environmental concerns of biodiversity issues, humans contribute to the loss of biodiversity through conversion of natural habitats, pollution, exploitation of resources and climate change. Economic concerns are mostly related to harvesting of these natural resources, often through large-scale industrialized agriculture or through the cutting of timber. The objectives of the treaty seem to have been closely-aligned with the principles of sustainable development. Countries hoped for conservation of biological diversity, the promotion of its sustainable use, and the equitable sharing of the benefits of genetic resources.

Some concluding comments

Sustainable development seems to be a much better in comparison with the alternative, the former school of thought, the purely economic-based and much more short-term ideology. Some environmentalists may not be satisfied because it does not address whether or not certain uses of natural resources (e.g. whale hunting) are moral or not, but how to use them, and how to limit their use so as to not overexploit the resource. Sustainable development seems, however, to be the principle that is easiest to subscribe to because it allows for immediate economic development and fulfillment of short-term needs as well as consideration of a long-term plan to maintain ecological self-sufficiency into the future.

Nevertheless, it is important that science be examined carefully and used with discretion, in order that nations may make provident policy decisions. Additionally, enforcement of international environmental regimes will be necessary to keep principles of sustainable development effective.

Sources: Lectures, Professor Kal Raustiala. Univ. of California, Los Angeles. Environmental Science M161/Political Science M122B
Haites, E. and M. Aslam. The Kyoto Mechanisms & Global Climate Change: Coordination Issues and Domestic Policies. Pew Center on Global Climate Change. 2000.
Mari Skare. "Whaling: A Sustainable Use of Natural Resources or a Violation of Animal Rights?" Environment. p.23-20, 30-31. 1994.