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’Sustainability’ and ’Development’ The coordinating body for the United Nations Decade for Education for Sustainable Development (2005–2014) is UNESCO. They identify a number of 'key action themes' for the decade: * Gender equality * Health promotion * Environment * Rural development * Cultural diversity * Peace and human security * Sustainable urbanization * Sustainable consumption These themes cut across the more usual description of 'ecological, social, and economic sustainability' - but clearly social sustainability has a strong role. Economic sustainability is however conspicuously absent. Bernard Lietaer wrote in late 2008: "We have now entered a period of unprecedented convergence of the four planetary issues - financial instability, climate change, unemployment and the financial consequences of an aging society." Below follows an overview description of current thinking about ecological sustainability. Similar overviews for the other areas of sustainable development will be published in future issues of the Journal.

Environmental Sustainability – an overview The whole concept of sustainable development is often, in people’s minds, linked to ’environment’; the other aspects are often invisible. Even within the area of ecological sustainability, one aspect is often emphasized at the expense of others. For instance, in 2008 the two most-publicized concepts are ’global warming’ – which should more correctly be called ’global climate change’; and ’peak oil’.

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Global climate change The world has entered a period of climatic instability, linked to sharp increases in concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. The general trends are for * Warmer weather, though changes are unevenly distributed across the globe * Less predictable weather * Increasing occurrences of extreme weather conditions, like typhoons * Rising sea levels There is no longer any question about these trends. Indeed, an august expert geological commission has announced that ’The Holocene era is now at an end’. A few scientists still maintain that the change is not (solely) due to human intervention, by the release of CO2 into the atmosphere, but is to a large extent the result of ’normal’ fluctuations. Their scepticism is however of little relevance for sustainable development: a link has been proved between the climate change and CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere; the climate change is negative for almost all humans; humans are pushing CO2 into the atmosphere in historically unparalleled quantities. Shouldn't that be a sufficient basis on which to decide that it could be good to slow down CO2 emissions? Increasing vulnerability The focus on climate change per se tends to obscure the fact that we are at the same time making ourselves more and more vulnerable to the effects of the climate change. * More and more people crowd into cities, increasing the risks associated with almost any environmental hazard * More and more people live very close to the sea-shore, exposing themselves not only to such relatively rare phenomena as tsunamis, but also to rising sea levels and the many sea-engendered weather effects like tornados/typhoons and extreme tides * More and more trees are cut down, exposing hillsides – and the people who live on or below them – to violent weather effects * More and more rivers are ’tamed’: straightened, dammed and otherwise changed in ways that reduce their capacity to absorb or buffer unusual water levels The list, which could be made much longer, demonstrates clearly that ecological sustainability cannot be separated from social and economic sustainability. Saving the planet? Another way of looking at ecological sustainability is to see it as a pressing need to ’save the planet’. But does the planet need saving? Not really. It’s not about saving trees, or whales, or the planet – or even ’life on earth’. Life on earth existed for billions of years before we humans came along, and will probably continue long after we leave. Or, to paraphrase a biologist: If all the insects on the planet were to die, all other life would also die. If all the humans on the planet were to die, almost no-one else would notice. What this whole sustainability discussion is about, is whether or not we can secure a future for the human race; and preferably a future in which people will feel comfortable.

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The list of problems above may look daunting. Indeed, some people are asking whether it is not already too late. Have we already passed humanity’s ’best before’ date? No-one can answer that question. But we can ask another, instead: If I act, in my daily life, as if it’s already too late, how does that affect the outcome? And if I act as if it’s not too late, how does that affect the outcome? We can probably safely say that if many or most people choose the first option, the option to be a pessimist, then it almost certainly will be too late – soon, if not already. If many or most choose the optimist option, it may not be too late. So there are good reasons to choose to be an optimist. Besides, optimists have more fun! Marilyn Mehlmann, February 2009

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"Sustainability" and "Development"  

An overview description of current thinking about ecological sustainability. Similar overviews for the other areas of sustainable developmen...

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