The word “sustainability” was introduced into common usage in 1987 with the publication of a UN report “Our Common Future” which defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Now, 27 years later, human population is soaring, resource demands are at an all time high, CO2 emissions are increasing and our way of life is being threatened by climate change. In this new world we are living in, sustainability means not living beyond the capacity of the planet to sustain us, so future generations can exist, and survive as we do. We currently need 1.5 Planet Earths to sustain ourselves at our current rate. But we only have one. So our future is not sustainable unless major things start to change.
Our overall goal is human progress in all of its forms and manifestations. However, in practice, governments and business have been thinking for half a century or more that economic growth is the best lead indicator of human progress. Their economic goal has been soaring, unlimited growth, that can be measured by Gross Domestic product (GDP). This is something every country wants, so they can tell their people they are being cared for. But the reality is, unlimited economic growth is not sustainable. We have reached a point where we can no longer grow our economies continually, with no limits, due to limits on resources, population growth, and the pressure we are putting on the planet. Unlimited economic growth is a paradigm which can no longer be sustained. We need a new model for progress, a new paradigm, which reflects the new realities of our new time.
With the world’s population at 7 billion, management of resources is key to building a sustainable future We need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and expand our production of renewable energy technology, so climate change does not worsen and create economic problems for us all. We must also make our cities more sustainable by building carbon neutral buildings. Most importantly, we must learn to adapt to a new world in which unlimited economic growth is no longer possible. Even with the economic opportunities presented by building a new, sustainable world, and the new industries this will create, it is important to remember this is not going to lead us back to the old model of unlimited growth as measured by present indicators (GDP). Not with world population continuing to grow and resources continuing to dwindle. It is now up to us to create a new model to describe and measure human progress, and to use that new model to build a new world.