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The rise and fall of sustainable development

If anything will allow our planet to survive the 21st century, it will be sustainable development. This concept, based on three "pillars": economic, environmental, and social measures, defines development that advances a society but leaves no ill effects in any of these areas.

Sustainable development is an issue because people who are economically and socially disadvantaged will have a harder time living in ways that avoid damaging the environment. The short-term need for food and fuel will trump longer term environmental protection measures every time. And, indeed, societies that have not had the so-called "advantages" of the Western, high resource consuming lifestyle, will quite justifiably ask why it is they who should make sacrifices? We in Europe and North America have enjoyed the pleasures of hot and cold running water, refrigeration, unlimited fossil fuels, and a hugely varied diet whenever we want. As (some) people in Africa, Asia, and South America become more economically successful, why should they do without the luxury and conveniences that success brings?

The idea has been around since medieval forresters managed the natural resources of the forest to harvest wood without destroying all the trees, but in modern times, in 1972, the Club of Rome published a report by two US scientists highlighting the need to control growth. By 1980, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature published a strategy for sustainable global development, and two years later, the United Nations issued its World Charter for Nature, five principles that guide human conduct in relation to the natural environment.

In 1987, the Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, chaired a UN Commission which issued "Our Common Future," containing the best-known definition of sustainable development: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The commission also said that "overriding priority" should be given to the needs of the world's poor.

Since then, numerous commissions, NGOs, and government bodies all over the developed world have issued similar reports, pledges, and programs. In Canada, Sustainable Development Technology Canada was founded by the government in 2001 to develop clean technology that will allow us to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels. This year, it has worked on clean water systems for use in Northern communities. However, despite Canadian government policy that each department should consider sustainability when making policy decisions, Canada is falling behind. Not only do we have many levels of government and many governmental and non-government agencies, which can complicate things, but also our current government has gutted many of the scientific bodies that would have provided research and evidence to "sustain" our drive to sustainability. Furthermore, trade agreements such as NAFTA and recent treaties with China, privilege economic factors over environmental and social ones, upsetting the balance and leading to environmentally damaging practices such as extracting fuel by "fracking".

All of us, even the Prime Minister, are at the mercy of Mother Nature, and her moods are changing. Scientists all over the world are reporting a much more volatile climate and things are likely to get worse: extremes of temperature, more violent storms, and more severe droughts will test all of us and it is likely that if we ignore the needs of our natural environment, it will demand our attention in ever more dramatic and deadly ways.

Today's weather: sunny, with a high of 30 and a low of -5. Sunny spells this morning giving way to an ice storm for the evening commute.

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