The term sustainable development was fist coined in the report tittled ‘Our Common Future’ by UN’s Brundtland Commission in 1987. It was proposed that sustainability and development were two intertwined issues and must be looked at together. The definition proposed by it was new in many ways and is still perhaps the mostly commonly used. It said:
‘Sustainable development is the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’
Apart from the intergenerational equity, for the first time, Brundtland commission connected a broader agenda of political and social life in the issue of sustainability.
The flexibility and openness of this definition allowed for discourse to build on it and make it specific. Broadly today sustainability is seen to be an intersection of following three:
Environment is the physical world we live in. We utilise the natural environment for its resources to meet our needs of life. While there was equilibrium between the rate of resource use and regeneration capacity of earth till preindustrial times, now the growing population and industrial technologies have resulted in depletion of the natural resources. Loss of natural habitat, species, climate change and pollution pose a very serious threat. Health of environment and people are linked to it. It is important to also note that climate change is expected to hit the economically weaker countries much more due to their inability to take action to adapt rapidly.
Human beings on the other hand have today built an urban environment e.g towns and cities. Large aggregation of population at these centres enables economic and social efficiencies but places large demand on institutional and environmental resources. Today 50 % of human population globally lives in urban areas and this number will continue to increase. Two thirds of worlds energy is consumed in cities. The largest consumers of energy in a city are Industry, Buildings, and Transport. Buildings (and indirectly town planning) easily effects 40% of total energy consumption. Hence sustainable design and organisation of life in cities has become an important issue.
Social patterns of life are perhaps the key to the issue to sustainability. The growth in population and the issue of quality of life and basic needs requires rethinking. The west and the east think differently. The unstoppable search for quality of life in the west has led to energy and resource consumption which is numerous times that of developing countries like India. The east aspires for life like in the west. Presently (in 2007) all humanity is using resources equivalent to 1.5 times Earths. This number varies in various parts of the world. For example if all humanity was to have a life style equivalent to USA we require 2.9 earths and equivalent to UK its 1.8 earths and the other hand India 0.3 earths equivalent life style. However the capacity of earth to support such life styles is limited and even with present standards India is consuming more than its own bio capacity can provide. Obviously we should not follow the western solutions to our local problems.
Economics of development have supported unchecked growth at whatever environmental cost. For the first time we today realise that environmental cost has not been accounted for in our businesses and it must be done to enable industry to have incentive towards a low carbon sustainable future. For e.g. Europe has been dabbling with the idea of carbon trading market as a means of reducing carbon emissions and increase efficiency. Apart from government policy rethinking ways of supporting local businesses, accounting real environmental costs and corporate social and environmental responsibility are a few steps forward.
Sustainability Thinking and Design for Sustainability needs to have the following attributes:
1) It needs to be pragmatic and broad based. Development and Sustainability will go hand in hand.
2) It needs to be integrated e.g. social, political, economic and environmental concerns as part of the problem and hence the solution.
3) It needs to re question established notions of needs, consumption and life style
4) It needs to learn from global experience and technology but aim for local solutions suited to the region.