All peoples and countries seek to build their societies and economies though a process of growth and change called development. Development occurs over time in every society; however, most of the time it is focused on shorter term needs and goals. Sustainable development is a type of development in which societies grow to meet the needs of the present population without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.1
There are many competing issues that must be balanced to achieve sustainable development: human issues like poverty, education, and distribution of wealth; and environmental issues like ecological footprint, water, agriculture, and energy.
The world’s poor are the most affected by the tradeoffs made between making a better life and helping to keep the environment healthy. Almost 1.5 billion people, mostly in cities in the developing world, breathe air below the standards that the World Health Organization deems acceptable.2 Almost 1 in 8 people worldwide does not have access to safe drinking water, and most live in Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa.3
When we develop sustainably, everybody benefits, but when we fall short of this aim the first to feel the consequences are areas where natural disasters are most likely to happen are often.
Small islands are an important example, since they are prone to natural disasters, have small populations, and are especially dependent on international trade. 51 small islands have joined together through the United Nations Division for Sustainable Development, to work on issues specific to their circumstances.4
Learn how natural disasters and climate change are affecting small islands by watching Islands Going Under, below.
Areas with limited resources face unique challenges on the path to sustainable development. In regions where water is scarce, for example, avoiding drought is important to the health and productivity of the land. Drought can be destructive because it leads to reduced crop, rangeland, and forest productivity; increased fire hazard; reduced water levels; increased livestock and wildlife mortality rates; and damage to wildlife and fish habitat.5
Here is a map frequently updated with drought-affected areas all over the world.
August 19, 2000
August 15, 2011
Pictures of the Aral Sea over time, as irrigation continues.
Irrigation is one way to try to overcome water limitations; however, this can lead to environmental degradation. The Aral Sea was used to irrigate the Kyzylkum Desert of central Asia, which was started by the former Soviet Union to increase its share of the cotton market. The consequence of irrigation was that by the 1980’s, fishing was no longer possible in the Aral Sea.6 This took away many peoples’ livelihoods.
We should be thinking about how future generations will survive on the planet. We have finite natural resources and need to plan for how we can live productively, equitably, and sustainably. Currently, we live in an inequitable world, where more than 2.6 billion people live on less than $2 a day, and the gap between rich and poor continues to increase. To find out more, see a map of where the poor live.
To improve ourselves and our planet, we must make change. The Earth Charter provides a set of guidelines and principles of how we can develop to meet human needs, while also protecting the environment.
Our governments and institutions should reflect the values of sustainable development, by creating laws and policies that encourage the adoption of sustainable patterns of resource use, while also promoting a healthy environment.
Three social movements around sustainable development are7:
3 http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/monitoring/jmp_report_7_10_lores.pdf, page 30
6 http://www.maweb.org/documents/document.274.aspx.pdf, page 139
7 http://www.hks.harvard.edu/sustsci/ists/docs/whatisSD_env_kates_0504.pdf, page 18
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