Sustainable development

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Scheme of sustainable development:
at the confluence of three constituent parts.

Sustainable development is an organizing principle for meeting human development goals while simultaneously sustaining the ability of natural systems to provide the natural resources and ecosystem services on which the economy and society depend. The desired result is a state of society where living conditions and resources are used to continue to meet human needs without undermining the integrity and stability of the natural system. Sustainable development can be defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.[1]

Sustainability goals, such as the current UN-level Sustainable Development Goals, address the global challenges, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace, and justice. While the modern concept of sustainable development is derived mostly from the 1987 Brundtland Report, it is also rooted in earlier ideas about sustainable forest management and 20th-century environmental concerns. As the concept of sustainable development developed, it has shifted its focus more towards the economic development, social development and environmental protection for future generations.


Sustainable development can be defined as the practice of maintaining productivity by replacing used resources with resources of equal or greater value without degrading or endangering natural biotic systems.[2] Sustainable development binds together concern for the carrying capacity of natural systems with the social, political and economic challenges faced by humanity. Sustainability science is the study of the concepts of sustainable development and environmental science. There is an emphasis on the present generations' responsibility to regenerate, maintain and improve planetary resources for use by future generations.[3]

Development of the concept[edit]

Sustainable development has its roots in ideas about sustainable forest management, which were developed in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries.[4][5]: 6–16  In response to a growing awareness of the depletion of timber resources in England, John Evelyn argued, in his 1662 essay Sylva, that "sowing and planting of trees had to be regarded as a national duty of every landowner, in order to stop the destructive over-exploitation of natural resources." In 1713, Hans Carl von Carlowitz, a senior mining administrator in the service of Elector Frederick Augustus I of Saxony published Sylvicultura economics, a 400-page work on forestry. Building upon the ideas of Evelyn and French minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, von Carlowitz developed the concept of managing forests for sustained yield.[4] His work influenced others, including Alexander von Humboldt and Georg Ludwig Hartig, eventually leading to the development of the science of forestry. This, in turn, influenced people like Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the US Forest Service, whose approach to forest management was driven by the idea of wise use of resources, and Aldo Leopold whose land ethic was influential in the development of the environmental movement in the 1960s.[4][5]

Following the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962, the developing environmental movement drew attention to the relationship between economic growth and development and environmental degradation. Kenneth E. Boulding, in his influential 1966 essay The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth, identified the need for the economic system to fit itself to the ecological system with its limited pools of resources.[5] Another milestone was the 1968 article by Garrett Hardin that popularized the term "tragedy of the commons".[6] One of the first uses of the term sustainable in the contemporary sense was by the Club of Rome in 1972 in its classic report on the Limits to Growth, written by a group of scientists led by Dennis and Donella Meadows of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Describing the desirable "state of global equilibrium", the authors wrote: "We are searching for a model output that represents a world system that is sustainable without sudden and uncontrolled collapse and capable of satisfying the basic material requirements of all of its people."[3] That year also saw the publication of the influential A Blueprint for Survival book.[7][8]

Following the Club of Rome report, an MIT research group prepared ten days of hearings on "Growth and Its Implication for the Future" (Roundtable Press, 1973)[9] for the US Congress, the first hearings ever held on sustainable development. William Flynn Martin, David Dodson Gray, and Elizabeth Gray prepared the hearings under the Chairmanship of Congressman John Dingell.[10]

In 1980, the International Union for Conservation of Nature published a world conservation strategy that included one of the first references to sustainable development as a global priority[11] and introduced the term "sustainable development".[12]: 4  Two years later, the United Nations World Charter for Nature raised five principles of conservation by which human conduct affecting nature is to be guided and judged.[13] In 1987, the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development released the report Our Common Future, commonly called the Brundtland Report. The report included what is now one of the most widely recognized definitions of sustainable development.[14][15]

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

  • The concept of 'needs', in particular, the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • The idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs.

Since the Brundtland Report, the concept of sustainable development has developed beyond the initial intergenerational framework to focus more on the goal of "socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable economic growth".[12]: 5  In 1992, the UN Conference on Environment and Development published the Earth Charter, which outlines the building of a just, sustainable, and peaceful global society in the 21st century. The action plan Agenda 21 for sustainable development identified information, integration, and participation as key building blocks to help countries achieve development that recognizes these interdependent pillars. It emphasises that in sustainable development, everyone is a user and provider of information. It stresses the need to change from old sector-centred ways of doing business to new approaches that involve cross-sectoral co-ordination and the integration of environmental and social concerns into all development processes. Furthermore, Agenda 21 emphasises that broad public participation in decision making is a fundamental prerequisite for achieving sustainable development.[16]

Under the principles of the United Nations Charter the Millennium Declaration identified principles and treaties on sustainable development, including economic development, social development and environmental protection. Broadly defined, sustainable development is a systems approach to growth and development and to manage natural, produced, and social capital for the welfare of their own and future generations. The term sustainable development as used by the United Nations incorporates both issues associated with land development and broader issues of human development such as education, public health, and standard of living.[17]

A 2013 study concluded that sustainability reporting should be reframed through the lens of four interconnected domains: ecology, economics, politics and culture.[18]


Sustainable development - 6 central capacities

Six interdependent capacities are deemed to be necessary for the successful pursuit of sustainable development.[19] These are the capacities to measure progress toward sustainable development; promote equity within and between generations; adapt to shocks and surprises; transform the system onto more sustainable development pathways; link knowledge with action for sustainability; and to devise governance arrangements that allow people to work together in exercising the other capacities.[19]


Sustainable development can be thought of in terms of three spheres, dimensions, domains or pillars: the environment, the economy and society. The three-sphere framework was initially proposed by the economist Rene Passet in 1979.[20] It has also been worded as "economic, environmental and social" or "ecology, economy and equity".[21] This has been expanded by some authors to include a fourth pillar of culture, institutions or governance,[21] or alternatively reconfigured as four domains of the social – ecology, economics, politics and culture,[22] thus bringing economics back inside the social, and treating ecology as the intersection of the social and the natural.[23]

Environmental (or ecological)[edit]

The ecological stability of human settlements is part of the relationship between humans and their natural, social and built environments.[24] Also termed human ecology, this broadens the focus of sustainable development to include the domain of human health. Fundamental human needs such as the availability and quality of air, water, food and shelter are also the ecological foundations for sustainable development;[25] addressing public health risk through investments in ecosystem services can be a powerful and transformative force for sustainable development which, in this sense, extends to all species.[26]

Environmental sustainability concerns the natural environment and how it endures and remains diverse and productive. Since natural resources are derived from the environment, the state of air, water, and the climate is of particular concern. The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report outlines current knowledge about scientific, technical and socio-economic information concerning climate change, and lists options for adaptation and mitigation.[27] Environmental sustainability requires society to design activities to meet human needs while preserving the life support systems of the planet. This, for example, entails using water sustainably, using renewable energy and sustainable material supplies (e.g. harvesting wood from forests at a rate that maintains the biomass and biodiversity).[28]

An unsustainable situation occurs when natural capital (the total of nature's resources) is used up faster than it can be replenished. Sustainability requires that human activity only uses nature's resources at a rate at which they can be replenished naturally. The concept of sustainable development is intertwined with the concept of carrying capacity. Theoretically, the long-term result of environmental degradation is the inability to sustain human life. Such degradation on a global scale should imply an increase in human death rate until population falls to what the degraded environment can support.

Consumption of natural resources State of the environment Sustainability
More than nature's ability to replenish Environmental degradation Not sustainable
Equal to nature's ability to replenish Environmental equilibrium Steady state economy
Less than nature's ability to replenish Environmental renewal Environmentally sustainable

Integral elements for a sustainable development are research and innovation activities. An example is the European environmental research and innovation policy, which aims at defining and implementing a transformative agenda to greening the economy and the society as a whole so to achieve sustainable development. Research and innovation in Europe is financially supported by the programme Horizon 2020, which is also open to participation worldwide.[29] A promising direction towards sustainable development is to design systems that are flexible and reversible.[30][31]

Pollution of the public resources is not a different action, it is just a reverse tragedy of the commons, in that instead of taking something out, something is put into the commons. When the costs of polluting the commons are not calculated into the cost of the items consumed, then it becomes only natural to pollute, as the cost of pollution is external to the cost of the goods produced and the cost of cleaning the waste before it is discharged exceeds the cost of releasing the waste directly into the commons. One of the ways to mitigate this problem is by protecting the ecology of the commons by making it, through taxes or fines, more costly to release the waste directly into the commons than would be the cost of cleaning the waste before discharge.[32][neutrality is disputed]


Sustainable agriculture is farming in sustainable ways meeting society's present food and textile needs, without compromising the ability for current or future generations to meet their needs.[33] It can be based on an understanding of ecosystem services. There are many methods to increase the sustainability of agriculture. When developing agriculture within sustainable food systems, it is important to develop flexible business process and farming practices.[34] Agriculture has an enormous environmental footprint, playing a significant role in causing climate change, water scarcity, water pollution, land degradation, deforestation and other processes;[35] it is simultaneously causing environmental changes and being impacted by these changes.[36] Sustainable agriculture consists of environment friendly methods of farming that allow the production of crops or livestock without damage to human or natural systems. It involves preventing adverse effects to soil, water, biodiversity, surrounding or downstream resources—as well as to those working or living on the farm or in neighboring areas. Elements of sustainable agriculture can include permaculture, agroforestry, mixed farming, multiple cropping, and crop rotation.[37]


A sewage treatment plant that uses solar energy, located at Santuari de Lluc monastery, Majorca.

It has been suggested that because of rural poverty and overexploitation, environmental resources should be treated as important economic assets, called natural capital.[38] Economic development has traditionally required a growth in the gross domestic product. This model of unlimited personal and GDP growth may be over. Sustainable development may involve improvements in the quality of life for many but may necessitate a decrease in resource consumption.[39] According to ecological economist Malte Faber, ecological economics is defined by its focus on nature, justice, and time. Issues of intergenerational equity, irreversibility of environmental change, uncertainty of long-term outcomes, and sustainable development guide ecological economic analysis and valuation.[40]

As early as the 1970s, the concept of sustainability was used to describe an economy "in equilibrium with basic ecological support systems".[41] Scientists in many fields have highlighted The Limits to Growth,[42][43] and economists have presented alternatives, for example a 'steady-state economy', to address concerns over the impacts of expanding human development on the planet.[44] In 1987, the economist Edward Barbier published the study The Concept of Sustainable Economic Development, where he recognised that goals of environmental conservation and economic development are not conflicting and can be reinforcing each other.[45]

A World Bank study from 1999 concluded that based on the theory of genuine savings,[clarification needed] policymakers have many possible interventions to increase sustainability, in macroeconomics or purely environmental.[46] Several studies have noted that efficient policies for renewable energy and pollution are compatible with increasing human welfare, eventually reaching a golden-rule[clarification needed] steady state.[47][48][49][50]

The study, Interpreting Sustainability in Economic Terms, found three pillars of sustainable development, interlinkage, intergenerational equity, and dynamic efficiency.[51]

However, Gilbert Rist says that the World Bank has twisted the notion of sustainable development to prove that economic development need not be deterred in the interest of preserving the ecosystem. He writes: "From this angle, 'sustainable development' looks like a cover-up operation. ... The thing that is meant to be sustained is really 'development', not the tolerance capacity of the ecosystem or of human societies."[52]

The World Bank, a leading producer of environmental knowledge, continues[citation needed] to advocate the win-win prospects for economic growth and ecological stability even as its economists express their doubts.[53] Herman Daly, an economist for the Bank from 1988 to 1994, writes:

When authors of WDR '92 [the highly influential 1992 World Development Report that featured the environment] were drafting the report, they called me asking for examples of "win-win" strategies in my work. What could I say? None exists in that pure form; there are trade-offs, not "win-wins." But they want to see a world of "win-wins" based on articles of faith, not fact. I wanted to contribute because WDRs are important in the Bank, [because] task managers read [them] to find philosophical justification for their latest round of projects. But they did not want to hear about how things really are, or what I find in my work...[54]

A meta review in 2002 looked at environmental and economic valuations and found a lack of "sustainability policies".[55] A study in 2004 asked if humans consume too much.[56] A study concluded in 2007 that knowledge, manufactured and human capital (health and education) has not compensated for the degradation of natural capital in many parts of the world.[57] It has been suggested that intergenerational equity can be incorporated into a sustainable development and decision making, as has become common in economic valuations of climate economics.[58] A meta review in 2009 identified conditions for a strong case to act on climate change, and called for more work to fully account of the relevant economics and how it affects human welfare.[59] According to John Baden, a free-market environmentalist, "the improvement of environment quality depends on the market economy and the existence of legitimate and protected property rights". They enable the effective practice of personal responsibility and the development of mechanisms to protect the environment. The State can in this context "create conditions which encourage the people to save the environment".[60]

Environmental economics[edit]

The total environment includes not just the biosphere of Earth, air, and water, but also human interactions with these things, with nature, and what humans have created as their surroundings.[61]

As countries around the world continue to advance economically, they put a strain on the ability of the natural environment to absorb the high level of pollutants that are created as a part of this economic growth. Therefore, solutions need to be found so that the economies of the world can continue to grow, but not at the expense of the public good. In the world of economics, the amount of environmental quality must be considered as limited in supply and therefore is treated as a scarce resource. This is a resource to be protected. One common way to analyze possible outcomes of policy decisions on the scarce resource is to do a cost-benefit analysis.[citation needed] This type of analysis contrasts different options of resource allocation and, based on an evaluation of the expected courses of action and the consequences of these actions, the optimal way to do so in the light of different policy goals can be elicited.[62]

The benefit-cost analysis in essence look at several ways of solving a problem and then assigning the best route for a solution, based on the set of consequences that would result from the further development of the individual courses of action, and then choosing the course of action that results in the least damage to the expected outcome for the environmental quality that remains after that development or process takes place.[clarification needed] Further complicating this analysis are the interrelationships of the various parts of the environment that might be impacted by the chosen course of action. Sometimes, it is almost impossible to predict the various outcomes of a course of action, due to the unexpected consequences and the number of unknowns that are not accounted for in the benefit-cost analysis.[63]


Energy is sustainable if it "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".[64] Most definitions of sustainable energy include considerations of environmental aspects such as greenhouse gas emissions and social and economic aspects such as energy poverty. Renewable energy sources such as wind, hydroelectric power, solar, and geothermal energy are generally far more sustainable than fossil fuel sources. However, some renewable energy projects, such as the clearing of forests to produce biofuels, can cause severe environmental damage. The role of non-renewable energy sources in sustainable energy has been controversial. Nuclear power is a low-carbon source whose historic mortality rates are comparable to wind and solar, but its sustainability has been debated because of concerns about radioactive waste, nuclear proliferation, and accidents. Switching from coal to natural gas has environmental benefits, including a lower climate impact, but may lead to a delay in switching to more sustainable options. Carbon capture and storage can be built into power plants to remove their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, but is expensive and has seldom been implemented.


One of the core concepts in sustainable development is that technology can be used to assist people to meet their developmental needs. Technology to meet these sustainable development needs is often referred to as appropriate technology, which is an ideological movement (and its manifestations) originally articulated as intermediate technology by the economist E. F. Schumacher in his influential work Small Is Beautiful and now covers a wide range of technologies.[65] Both Schumacher and many modern-day proponents of appropriate technology also emphasise the technology as people-centered.[66] Today appropriate technology is often developed using open source principles, which have led to open-source appropriate technology (OSAT) and thus many of the plans of the technology can be freely found on the Internet.[67] OSAT has been proposed as a new model of enabling innovation for sustainable development.[68][69] Free Software, including that which runs Wikimedia, is licensed under the GNU GPL, or a similar license. It is this licensing model that has enabled the global wiki movement, not the licensing model of Open Source, which by itself is inadequate to prevent proprietary vendors from redistributing unfree versions of designs and software that they obtained gratis. Richard Stallman, the founder of the movement that created the Linux operating system, has explained in detail the ethical and legal underpinnings of these projects as Four Essential Freedoms of Free Software.


Sustainable transport refers to the broad subject of transport that is sustainable in the senses of social, environmental and climate impacts. Components for evaluating sustainability include the particular vehicles used for road, water or air transport; the source of energy; and the infrastructure used to accommodate the transport (roads, railways, airways, waterways, canals and terminals). Transport operations and logistics as well as transit-oriented development are also involved in evaluation. Transportation sustainability is largely being measured by transportation system effectiveness and efficiency as well as the environmental and climate impacts of the system.[70] Transport systems have significant impacts on the environment, accounting for between 20% and 25% of world energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.[71] The majority of the emissions, almost 97%, came from direct burning of fossil fuels.[72] Greenhouse gas emissions from transport are increasing at a faster rate than any other energy using sector.[73] Road transport is also a major contributor to local air pollution and smog.[74]


The most broadly accepted criterion for corporate sustainability constitutes a firm's efficient use of natural capital.[citation needed] This eco-efficiency is usually calculated as the economic value added by a firm in relation to its aggregated ecological impact.[75] This idea has been popularised by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) under the following definition: "Eco-efficiency is achieved by the delivery of competitively priced goods and services that satisfy human needs and bring quality of life, while progressively reducing ecological impacts and resource intensity throughout the life-cycle to a level at least in line with the earth's carrying capacity" (DeSimone and Popoff, 1997: 47).[76]

Similar to the eco-efficiency concept but so far less explored is the second criterion for corporate sustainability. Socio-efficiency[77] describes the relation between a firm's value added and its social impact. Whereas, it can be assumed that most corporate impacts on the environment are negative (apart from rare exceptions such as the planting of trees) this is not true for social impacts. These can be either positive (e.g. corporate giving, creation of employment) or negative (e.g. work accidents, mobbing[clarification needed] of employees, human rights abuses).

Both eco-efficiency and socio-efficiency are concerned primarily with increasing economic sustainability. In this process they instrumentalise both natural and social capital aiming to benefit from win-win situations. However, as Dyllick and Hockerts[77][better source needed] point out the business case alone will not be sufficient to realise sustainable development. They point towards eco-effectiveness, socio-effectiveness, sufficiency, and eco-equity as four criteria that need to be met if sustainable development is to be reached.[78]

Architecture and construction[edit]

In sustainable architecture the recent movements of New Urbanism and New Classical architecture promote a sustainable approach towards construction that appreciates and develops smart growth, architectural tradition and classical design.[79][80] This in contrast to modernist and International Style architecture, as well as opposing to solitary housing estates and suburban sprawl, with long commuting distances and large ecological footprints.[81]

The global design and construction industry is responsible for approximately 39 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.[82] Green building practices that avoid emissions or capture the carbon already present in the environment, allow for reduced footprint of the construction industry, for example, use of hempcrete, cellulose fiber insulation, and landscaping.[83]


A study concluded that social indicators and, therefore, sustainable development indicators, are scientific constructs whose principal objective is to inform public policy-making.[84] The International Institute for Sustainable Development has similarly developed a political policy framework, linked to a sustainability index for establishing measurable entities and metrics. The framework consists of six core areas:

  1. International trade and investment
  2. Economic policy
  3. Climate change and energy
  4. Measurement and assessment
  5. Natural resource management
  6. Communication technologies.

The United Nations Global Compact Cities Programme has defined sustainable political development in a way that broadens the usual definition beyond states and governance. The political is defined as the domain of practices and meanings associated with basic issues of social power as they pertain to the organisation, authorisation, legitimation and regulation of a social life held in common. This definition is in accord with the view that political change is important for responding to economic, ecological and cultural challenges. It also means that the politics of economic change can be addressed. They have listed seven subdomains of the domain of politics:[85]

  1. Organization and governance
  2. Law and justice
  3. Communication and critique
  4. Representation and negotiation
  5. Security and accord
  6. Dialogue and reconciliation
  7. Ethics and accountability

This accords with the Brundtland Commission emphasis on development that is guided by human rights principles (see above).


Framing of sustainable development progress according to the Circles of Sustainability, used by the United Nations.

Working with a different emphasis, some researchers and institutions have pointed out that a fourth dimension should be added to the dimensions of sustainable development, since the triple-bottom-line dimensions of economic, environmental and social do not seem to be enough to reflect the complexity of contemporary society. In this context, the Agenda 21 for culture and the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) published the policy statement "Culture: Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development", at the 2010 World Congress of UCLG. This document argues for a new perspective and points to the relation between culture and sustainable development through developing a solid cultural policy and advocating a cultural dimension in all public policies. The Circles of Sustainability approach distinguishes the four domains of economic, ecological, political and cultural sustainability.[86][87][88]

Other organizations have also supported the idea of a fourth domain of sustainable development. The Network of Excellence "Sustainable Development in a Diverse World",[89] sponsored by the European Union, integrates multidisciplinary capacities and interprets cultural diversity as a key element of a new strategy for sustainable development.

Human-centered design and cultural collaboration have been popular frameworks for sustainable development in marginalized communities.[90][91][92][93] These frameworks involve open dialogue which entails sharing, debating, and discussing, as well as holistic evaluation of the site of development.

Sustainable Development Goals[edit]

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or Global Goals are a collection of 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a "blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all".[94] The SDGs were set up in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly (UN-GA) and are intended to be achieved by the year 2030. They are included in a UN-GA Resolution called the 2030 Agenda or what is colloquially known as Agenda 2030.[95] The SDGs were developed in the Post-2015 Development Agenda as the future global development framework to succeed the Millennium Development Goals which ended in 2015.

The 17 SDGs are: (1) No Poverty, (2) Zero Hunger, (3) Good Health and Well-being, (4) Quality Education, (5) Gender Equality, (6) Clean Water and Sanitation, (7) Affordable and Clean Energy, (8) Decent Work and Economic Growth, (9) Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, (10) Reducing Inequality, (11) Sustainable Cities and Communities, (12) Responsible Consumption and Production, (13) Climate Action, (14) Life Below Water, (15) Life On Land, (16) Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions, (17) Partnerships for the Goals.

Though the goals are broad and interdependent, two years later (6 July 2017) the SDGs were made more "actionable" by a UN Resolution adopted by the General Assembly. The resolution identifies specific targets for each goal, along with indicators that are being used to measure progress toward each target.[96] The year by which the target is meant to be achieved is usually between 2020 and 2030.[97] For some of the targets, no end date is given.

To facilitate monitoring, a variety of tools exist to track and visualize progress towards the goals. All intention is to make data more available and easily understood.[98] For example, the online publication SDG Tracker, launched in June 2018, presents available data across all indicators.[98] The SDGs pay attention to multiple cross-cutting issues, like gender equity, education, and culture cut across all of the SDGs. There were serious impacts and implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on all 17 SDGs in the year 2020.[99]


Measurement approaches[edit]

Graph comparing the Ecological Footprint of different nations with their Human Development Index
Relationship between ecological footprint and Human Development Index (HDI)


Deforestation in Europe.

In 2007 a report for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stated: "While much discussion and effort has gone into sustainability indicators, none of the resulting systems clearly tells us whether our society is sustainable. At best, they can tell us that we are heading in the wrong direction, or that our current activities are not sustainable. More often, they simply draw our attention to the existence of problems, doing little to tell us the origin of those problems and nothing to tell us how to solve them."[100]

Most recently, a paper about monitoring urban water sustainability published in the Journal of Environmental Management [101] argued that sustainable development is being reconsidered as a process with unknown endpoint. The paper explains that outputs of sustainable urban water systems defined as ‘policies, projects, laws, technologies, and consumption and reuse amounts associated with urban water sustainability goals’ are therefore being viewed as inadequate monitoring instruments. The article proposes a new methodology for sustainability monitoring whereby normality of a system is diagnosed through normality of its supporting inputs in lieu of normality of its complex outputs.[clarification needed] Supporting inputs are ‘intents and behaviors that support system goals’. Supporting inputs follow a principle of self-organization to remain in the norm and behavior zone commonly associated with system goals.[clarification needed] This implies that normality of supporting inputs can be inferred from their longitudinally normal or Gaussian distribution that can be explored by significance tests.[clarification needed] The article identifies fourteen supporting inputs of sustainable urban water systems - such as internet searches, community campaigns, staff training, agent-principal reporting and legislation propositions about water sustainability – and defines quantitative indicators for them. The Shapiro-Wilk test and Kolmogorov-Smirnov test (K–S) of these indicators and a subsequent Boxplot outlying examination of non-normal indicators are undertaken in a case study.[clarification needed] Qualitative examination of non-normal supporting inputs confirms the ability of this statistical methodology to detect problems in the system.[101][clarification needed]

Nevertheless, a majority of authors assume that a set of well defined and harmonised indicators is the only way to make sustainability tangible. Those indicators are expected to be identified and adjusted through empirical observations (trial and error).[102]

The most common critiques are related to issues like data quality, comparability, objective function and the necessary resources.[103] However a more general criticism is coming from the project management community: How can a sustainable development be achieved at global level if we cannot monitor it in any single project?[104][105]

The Cuban-born researcher and entrepreneur Sonia Bueno suggests an alternative approach that is based upon the integral, long-term cost-benefit relationship as a measure and monitoring tool for the sustainability of every project, activity or enterprise.[106][107]

There are also numerous reports that critically examine the development of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the related path towards sustainable development.[108]

Natural capital[edit]

Deforastation of native rain forest in France
Deforestation of native rain forest in France.

The sustainable development debate is based on the assumption that societies need to manage three types of capital (economic, social, and natural), which may be non-substitutable and whose consumption might be irreversible.[77] Leading ecological economist and steady-state theorist Herman Daly,[44] for example, points to the fact that natural capital can not necessarily be substituted by economic capital. While it is possible that we can find ways to replace some natural resources, it is much more unlikely that they will ever be able to replace eco-system services, such as the protection provided by the ozone layer, or the climate stabilizing function of the Amazonian forest. In fact natural capital, social capital and economic capital are often complementarities.[clarification needed] A further obstacle to substitutability lies also in the multi-functionality of many natural resources. Forests, for example, not only provide the raw material for paper (which can be substituted quite easily[citation needed]), but they also maintain biodiversity, regulate water flow, and absorb CO2.[109]

Another problem of natural and social capital deterioration lies in their partial irreversibility. The loss of biodiversity, for example, is often definitive. The same can be true for cultural diversity. For example, with globalization advancing quickly the number of indigenous languages is dropping at alarming rates. Moreover, the depletion of natural and social capital may have non-linear consequences. Consumption of natural and social capital may have no observable impact until a certain threshold is reached. A lake can, for example, absorb nutrients for a long time while actually increasing its productivity. However, once a certain level of algae is reached lack of oxygen causes the lake's ecosystem to break down suddenly.[110]

Before flue-gas desulfurization was installed, the air-polluting emissions from this power plant in New Mexico contained excessive amounts of sulfur dioxide.


Education for sustainable development (ESD) is defined as education that encourages changes in knowledge, skills, values and attitudes to enable a more sustainable and just society for all.[111] ESD aims to empower and equip current and future generations to meet their needs using a balanced and integrated approach to the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.[112] ESD is the term most used internationally and by the United Nations.[113]

The concept of ESD was born from the need for education to address the growing and changing environmental challenges facing the planet.[112] Education must be strengthened in all agendas, programs, and activities that promote sustainable development. Sustainable development must be integrated into education and education must be integrated into sustainable development. ESD promotes the integration of these critical sustainability issues in local and global contexts into the curriculum to prepare learners to understand and respond to the changing world. ESD aims to produce learning outcomes that include core competencies such as critical and systematic thinking, collaborative decision-making, and taking responsibility for the present and future generations. Since traditional single-directional delivery of knowledge is not sufficient to inspire learners to take action as responsible citizens, ESD entails rethinking the learning environment, physical and virtual. The learning environment itself must adapt and apply a whole-institution approach to embed the philosophy of sustainable development. Building the capacity of educators and policy support at international, regional, national and local levels helps drive changes in learning institutions. Empowered youth and local communities interacting with education institutions become key actors in advancing sustainable development.[112]


The concept of sustainable development has been, and still is, subject to criticism, including the question of what is to be sustained in sustainable development. It has been argued that there is no such thing as a sustainable use of a non-renewable resource, since any positive rate of exploitation will eventually lead to the exhaustion of earth's finite stock;[114]: 13  this perspective renders the Industrial Revolution as a whole unsustainable.[115]: 20f [116]: 61–67 [44]: 22f 

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Sustainable Development". UNESCO. 3 August 2015. Retrieved 6 September 2021.
  2. ^ Lynn R. Kahle, Eda Gurel-Atay, Eds (2014). Communicating Sustainability for the Green Economy. New York: M.E. Sharpe. ISBN 978-0-7656-3680-5.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  3. ^ a b Finn, Donovan (2009). Our Uncertain Future: Can Good Planning Create Sustainable Communities?. Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois.
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