The difficulty of defining sustainable development
RMIT University does not currently have a single definition of sustainability or sustainable development, however, each group within RMIT University is encouraged to select and apply sustainability/sustainable development concepts relevant to their local context.
With over 100 definitions of sustainable development it is obvious that achieving consensus is not going to be easy. But maybe consensus is not the point. Dale and Newman (2005) (RMIT login required) and others suggest we may not need a specific definition and they give a number of good reasons for this:
- First, they argue that having the discussion about definitions is more important than actually agreeing on one. The conversations help us to hear other perspectives and encourage us to challenge and possibly develop our own understandings further.
- Second, they recommend accepting a broad, generic definition, one where sustainable development focuses on environmental, social and economic imperatives and which is contextualised locally. This approach ensures each definition responds to the complexity and changing circumstances of each context, making it more relevant to the local stakeholders.
Below are a number of definitions for sustainable development. The first definition, the Brundtland definition is the best known. This list gives an indication of the range of ideas usually associated with sustainability and sustainable development.
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
A primary goal of sustainable development is to achieve a reasonable (however defined) level of fairly distributed economic well-being that can be maintained for many human generations.
Sustainable development means the will to follow a rational approach to economic policies; to show respect for future generations by integrating concern for environmental protection into decision-making; and progressively to evolve towards the full participation of all concerned actors.
The simplest definition of a sustainable activity is that it can be continued for the foreseeable future. And this has at least three dimensions: it means not unreasonably depleting natural resources, not producing waste products that significantly alter natural systems, and not undermining social stability.
Lowe, I. (1990) 'Sustainable development: How do we get there?' Australian Society, June, No. 5.
Sustainable development means:
- ensuring self-sustaining improvements in productivity and quality of life of communities and societies;
- ensuring that production processes do not overexploit the natural resource base and compromise the quality of the environment, thus limiting the options of the poor, the present and future generations; and
- ensuring that people have basic human rights and freedoms to participate societies.
Singh, N. and Titi, V. (1995) Empowerment: Towards Sustainable Development, Zed Books, London, p. 8.