The alpha-beta-gamma of sustainable development


The terms sustainability and sustainable development are bandied about, often, interchangeably. G. Venkatesh decodes this language of ecology, and what lies behind it.

There are words, terms and phrases one hears often on television and radio, in conferences and casual conversations, and reads in newspapers and magazines. The mind conjures its own meanings. All minds do not necessarily agree with one another. These ‘conjured meanings’ then dictate the extent to which something is understood, supported, contradicted, or for that matter, simply ignored as irrelevant. The word ‘sustainability’ and the term ‘sustainable development’ are two such.

The former has its etymology in the Latin word ‘sustinae’ meaning ‘to hold’, which this author’s mind or readers’ minds could conjure as ‘to endure’, ‘to maintain’, etc. The word ‘development’ originates from the French word ‘développer’, which means ‘to unfold’. Thus, when we say ‘sustainability’, we are talking about the ability to endure or maintain, and by ‘sustainable development’, we imply ‘moving ahead while making sure that we can maintain, manage and do justice to the changes we seek and intend to bring about’. Now, let us clearly differentiate between these two terms. Oftentimes, they are erroneously used as synonyms. It is thereby imperative that the reader always remembers the difference between these two.

Sustainability v/s sustainable development

Sustainability refers to a state, or an ability. Sustainable development is a process. This process is essentially the means towards the end, which is sustainability itself. Here, it is necessary that the means – the process of development and all that it entails – are sustainable, in order to justify the end. As the lead picture of the chapter depicts, sustainable development is no less than a Sisyphean struggle. And one can well remember this limerick, when one tries to visualise sustainable development – ‘Rob Peter to pay Paul; Pay Peter by robbing his son; Plug a leak at Vauxhall; End up flooding Wimbledon’. Also note that the end here – the state of sustainability – is itself a moving target. One needs to restlessly endeavour to keep pursuing it and try to minimise one’s distance from it, through the means of sustainable development. The bar is raised from time to time, necessitating a fresh analysis and evaluation of the process, and an adjustment thereof, before the next pursuit begins. As said in Kallio, et al (2007), the phenomenon we label as sustainable development can never be exhaustively defined; it would constantly change with time, interpreters and their needs. We thus have an elusive, impermanent end-goal, which is pursued with a changeable set of ways and means. Quental, et al (2011) has stated that the introduction of sustainable development as a concept was an intellectual answer to reconcile the conflicting goals of environmental protection and economic growth.

In Hindu philosophy, a thing is understood by understanding what it is not in the first place. Let us adopt that approach here. What is the absence of sustainability (or for that matter, sustainable development)? Let us just take commonplace, mundane examples which all of us are familiar with. It is like having many children without being sure of being able to care and provide for them in the future. It is like enrolling for a course in the university, without really being sure of one’s ability to do the necessary hard work in fulfilling all the requirements – assignments, projects, examinations, etc., – to get a decent grade in the end. Little things, these, on familial and individual levels; but it is the decisions taken at these levels, collectively, which influence those at county, provincial and national levels at times. This is what one may term as a bottom-up approach to change and development. In a way, this throws the balls, so to say, into the courts of individuals and families, as far as the larger cause – sustainability – and the necessary means – sustainable development – are concerned. Not avoiding individual (or citizen) responsibilities will just make it a wee bit easier for all of us to adopt the desired ‘means’ towards the desired ‘end’.

Space, time and just about everything

When we talk of sustainability, as it is a moving target, the process of sustainable development needs to keep going on. It is never completed! Thus, the temporal aspect here suggests that while long-term thinking needs to be adopted, the process never really stops. It is quite like a never-ending relay race, with the baton changing hands, and the demands fluctuating, with ‘sustainability’ being the constantly-receding goal which a team of countless athletes, keep pursuing in turn.

As far as the spatial aspect is concerned, we are all connected, through the atmosphere, hydrosphere and pedosphere, and the anthropospheric constructs of trade and travel. What I do now, may/can/will impact someone else somewhere adversely or favourably. If space and time are considered together, this someone else somewhere, may even be a person who is not even born at the time of the deed. This is an apt-enough juncture to recollect a statement from the (Gro Harlem) Brundtland Commission Report – Sustainable development seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future. In other words, is it possible to ensure that someone somewhere at some point of time in the future is not adversely affected by what I do here now? Tempted to just say ‘No’ and give up the pursuit of sustainability? Of course none will blame you if you did, but surely if you decide not to give up, you may end up being the change you wish to see in the world.

One man’s food is often another’s poison. A job acquired by someone here is tantamount to a job or more lost elsewhere (consider a manufactory relocating to China from the USA; retrenching the American workforce and hiring cheaper labourers in China). More trees cut down in the Scandinavian forests may mean more ‘moolah’ for paper and pulp mills elsewhere, and perhaps employment generation. A school built on a plot of land could mean one hospital less for a city. Some people may contend that the plot of land on which a 1000-year-old church stands could have been put to better use if there had been an automotive-components manufactory there, to generate employment and boost the economy of the city. Some others would like to opine that the old church is not just a necessity for the believers in town, but also a magnet which attracts tourists off and on, and contributes to economic growth in its own special way. What is the right thing to do then, when one wishes to change, develop and progress? (Refer Figure 11, which illustrates the challenges planners face if total sustainability is factored into decision-making). The three Ps in the Figure – People, Planet and Profit – define the triple bottom-line approach, first introduced by John Elkington.

Can one ensure that the economy does not take a severe beating, the environment is not allowed to run to seed, the unemployment rate is brought down and controlled, more and more children get to go to school and stay healthy, and our heritage is conserved for its non-monetary value, all at the same time? Is this even possible? Does any course at university teach you how to accomplish this? Or, are you left confused with a string of diverse subjects, often contradicting each other – Economics, Environmental Engineering, Sociology, Philosophy, etc.? Are you on the lookout for a subject or module which will help you to think in terms of integrating seemingly-conflicting disciplines and adopt a holistic, balanced and ‘sustainable’ approach to life, learning, decision-making and planning; and enable you to leave the world a more sustainable place than what it was when you were born?

Youngsters who will pick up the baton from their seniors in the 21st century, must learn to question, criticise, challenge, learn, unlearn and relearn, and get en route to pursuing the elusive ‘total sustainability’ – the path which can also be called ‘(total) sustainable development’. The journey is more enjoyable than the destination, as they say. In this case though, there is no destination per se, where you can bask in the Sun for long. You would need to pull up your socks and get going…on the never-ending journey towards sustainability. (Note that one could talk of just social sustainability, economic sustainability or environmental sustainability, or total, holistic sustainability where all these aspects are factored in.


G. Venkatesh is Associate Professor, Department of Engineering and Chemical Sciences, Faculty of Health, Science and Technology, Karlstad University, Sweden. He is also a freelance writer for several magazines around the world.