What is Sustainable Development?

It’s something you hear quite often, two words that enter the conversation but they seem to carry no meaning. We hear it so often but we never consider what it actually means, almost like hearing someone say ‘moving forward’ or some other unintelligible management speak. Used so often, its meaning has dissolved into the aether.

So what does the phrase actually mean? Well, primarily the words ‘Sustainable Development‘ are used by many people within the environmental movement to describe the way we should start to develop – sustainably. It’s a kind of description of our situation, and what we need to to about it, but somehow the gravity of the words are lost whenever they are used. Think about it again, they are a description of our situation, and what we need to do about it.

So lets be abundantly clear. Our society isn’t sustainable, in much the same way that a wooden boat that’s on fire isn’t sustainable. If you’re like most people, and for the sake of this explanation I will assume that you are like most people, there’s next to nothing about your life that can be sustained for much longer. Your food, your clothes, your car, your iPhone, your heating bill, your electricity bill, your entire lifestyle is the fire on the ship. There’s a misconception that sustainable development is some tree hugging nonsense that places the life of an endangered snail above the life of your own, but the truth is that sustainable development has our civilisation at its core. Sustainable development has recognised the fire and it wants to put it out.

Some clever people worked out how much land – or ecological services – we collectively use as a society. The idea being that, say we use up a forest, earth can replenish that forest given enough time, but if we cut down the trees faster than the earth replenishes them then we have a problem. You can replace ‘forest’ with just about anything, fish, agriculture, oil, coal, aluminium, tin, anything can fit in there, since they’re all ecological services. Well it turns out, that when you add all of this stuff up, we are currently consuming about 1.6 Earths and the rate at which we’re consuming the earth is accelerating. In other words, we’re using Earth’s resources about 1.6 times faster than Earth can replenish them. If you fill a bath with water faster than the drain can take away the water, we all know what happens. If you fill a bath at an accelerating rate, you simply speed the up the inevitable.

When the resources run out and there are 7.5 billion hungry people on the planet, you can imagine the ensuing chaos. Sustainable development isn’t just about saving the environment for the environments sake, it’s about saving it because every single thing we do is dependent on ecological services. Everything.

Next time you see a freight train, or a lorry, or a car, or a bin full of rubbish, or a ferry full of goods, just multiply it out across the entire planet and think about the sheer scale of energy and ‘stuff’ that’s needed to keep this society moving. Ask yourself the question, ‘where did all that stuff come from and where’s it going?’ and ask yourself if you think it can carry on indefinitely.

Sustainable development isn’t just some fancy word, it’s an absolute imperative. We have to drop the meaningless fluff surrounding our lives and change direction because we are on a collision course with nature. Whilst nature is as solid as brick wall, we are as fragile as a fly.


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