The Origin and Development of Sustainability

Born of social and environmental concerns, notably through opposition to environmental injustice, sustainable development is the idea of reaching the best possible compromise between economic growth and social evolution, while respecting the natural environment. This compromise only proves to be possible by taking into account a fundamental temporal element: that development must be undertaken to secure generational solidarity. Three underlying principles are said to lie at the core of sustainability: equity, viability and liveability.

The environment, of course, is the foundation on which sustainable development is built. In a very literal sense, sustainability is concerned with the environment because it is concerned with the space around us. In theory, sustainability demands the purest preservation of this space. Concerned then with the long-term survival of the environment, sustainable development must answer first and foremost to environmental durability.

While sustainability ties together concern for the carrying capacity of natural systems, it is equally concerned with the social challenges facing humanity as well as the economic vitality of our markets. As early as the 1970s sustainability was employed to describe an economy in equilibrium with basic ecological support systems. In other words, economic growth must operate in harmony with our environmental and social well-being. Today, sustainability is a paradigm garnering popular support as well as a powerful tool for development in various forms.

In the shadows cast by the adoption of the Treaty of Maastricht, however, binding regulatory frameworks based on sustainability have raised new questions about the feasibility of sustainable development practices. Charters such as the Kyoto Protocol and others independent of government, such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), have fallen short of holistic objectives, further contributing to the lack of understanding of sustainability’s purpose. Nonetheless, the sheer volume of academic discussion and the pervasiveness in the media and other circles about sustainability indicate that it should be considered in any examination of the environment.

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