What is sustainable development?

Balancing people, profits and the planet: perspectives on sustainable development vary.

Sustainable development was defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) as:

[development that] … meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. (Overview, Section 3, para. 27)

This is the most widely cited definition, containing the key concepts of intergenerational equity and intragenerational equity, as well as limitations.

Watch the animation (no audio) of this definition which is commonly depicted as three concentric circles, representing the environment, the economy and society - or people, profits and the planet. In highly simplified terms sustainable development is in the centre where all three are in balance.

In the current political and economic climate the circles are no longer concentric. The economy is the principal focus and the circles become more of a ‘Mickey Mouse’ model.

Creating sustainable development

There are varied perspectives on how to create and maintain sustainable development.

One perspective is that environmental protection is a business opportunity. In Singapore the aspirational goal is a sustainable economy described by the Deputy Prime Minister in this 2017 Eco-Business article The four pillars of Singapore’s sustainable development success. He argues that ‘Economic growth generates the resources to invest in education, research and development …’

In contrast, Alexander (2015) argues that the Sustainable Development Goals are based on the assumption of sustained economic growth, which is environmentally unsupportable and an incredibly inefficient pathway to poverty alleviation, in The Conversation article Sustained economic growth: United Nations mistakes the poison for the cure.

The 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) global framework has a strong focus on economic growth as the basis for sustainable development. You will explore the framework this week commencing in Step 1.11 but you may also like to take a quick look at the SDGs now.

Your task

Select and read three short newspaper articles from the list below to further explore different perspectives. As you read, consider how each article views sustainable development? Does it examine what is the importance of the environment in relation to economic growth?

Think about whether each article has a view on sustainable development that is credible or desirable, or not. Discuss your thoughts in comments.

Select and read three short articles

World Commission on Environment and Development 1987, ‘An Overview by the World Commission on Environment and Development’, Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, From One Earth to One World.

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This video is from the free online course:

Introduction to Sustainability and Development

Deakin University

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