Sustainable Development, Part II: the Three-Legged Stool

by | Feb 23, 2011

In Part 1 of this article, we defined sustainable development as a balanced approach to achieving a better quality of life for more people – while minimizing the impact that the associated development has on the natural world.

It is widely agreed that there are three primary aspects to sustainable development that together create a three-legged stool upon which a healthy society can sit.  The three aspects to sustainable development are:




If we look at sustainable development in the developing world, the problems involved in attaining and maintaining a better life are different than the problems faced by the so-called “developed world.”  Yet, in either case, end results will be the same if any of the three components are not properly addressed.

People want to improve their lives – fast

Developing countries may be rich in natural resources, for instance, in the form of fuels, minerals or timber.  However, because of economic hardships and societal problems like poverty or lack of food or clean water, environmental protection is likely to suffer as people attempt to improve their living situation as directly as possible.

One of many examples of this is in China.  Just last fall, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Lisa Jackson visited China to invigorate an alliance between the two countries on environmental concerns. Jackson toured the infamous Guiyu e-waste dump, where the “developed” world sends its expired electronics and appliances, among other things. From the visit came a reinvigorated verbal EPA-China partnership between environmental agencies in each country.

China, water and sustainability

For this discussion, we’ll focus on water in China as an example. With a growing population, growing manufacturing sector, and a need for more electricity, water becomes something of a casualty. In short, the water is being used faster than surface and groundwater supplies can be replenished.

There are 320 million Chinese lacking adequate sources of clean drinking water.  Rivers often run dry or are polluted, and there is always the risk of drought. In fact, there are instances where water shortages have resulted in the government shipping water into dry regions by truck.

China has a multi-billion dollar plan in the works for aqueducts to move water from the southern part of the country to the drier, northern cities later this century.

What causes this resource shortage and damage to the environment? Rapid economic growth and inadequate water conservation policy – coupled, somewhat ironically in the big picture, with the need to improve the health of its citizens.

What about the three-legged stool?

Continuing down this path will likely mean that over the long term, any positive strides made in quality of life will not be permanent unless water use and population growth can be brought under control.

China’s failure to successfully halt unsustainable population growth does not bode well for sustainable development overall. In order to achieve some sort of balanced growth, China and any other developing country must better address each area of development. Governments and business interests traditionally see economic growth as the most achievable and desirable action.

However, sustainability means that economic growth needs to be slowed and/or redirected in some cases in order to maintain long-term benefits.

The question of money

When businesses make money or governments collect taxes, society needs to ask, is the right emphasis being placed on using some of that economic resource to protect the environment, to ensure that water and land will still be usable for many years into the future?

One key question is: is the money being invested not just in continuing growth at a rapid rate, but also in improving the standard of living for all citizens, not just the lucky few?

Another interesting aspect of sustainable development is the tight relationship between the developed and developing world.  Recently, Bloomberg reported that Chinese President Hu Jintao told a group of U.S. business executives that he’s “fully confident” about the prospects for economic and diplomatic ties between China and the U.S., but the ties are even deeper than that.

The lack of sustainability in the U.S. and other developed nations has led to the current climate situation we find ourselves in. Our power-thirsty lives, lack of transportation options, and consumptive behavior has left us with a warming world, with global deforestation and pollution on an international scale.

Developing nations are scrambling to catch up. To do so, they use dirty sources of energy, cut down even more forests for farming and ranching, and pollute their water and soil by mining minerals to sell abroad. This creates an unfortunate cycle. In this cycle, temporary improvements will disappear as resources are depleted, biodiversity wanes, and eventually everyone is left trying to provide the most basic of needs – clean air, water and food – for an even greater number of people.

The answer is the three-legged stool

The alternative to this would dictate slowing down our reproductive rate and consuming less energy and material. Threats to the short-term economy may be lessened by shifting economic development efforts into:

–regional farming

–local development

–improving transportation options

–investing in better sources of energy

–choosing not to live in areas far away from the resources dependent upon

This activity will in turn allow for quality of life issues to be addressed. Plus, by focusing on less destructive economic activities, the environment will suffer less harm. A healthier environment allows humans to benefit from and enjoy continued ecosystem services such as clean water, good healthy food, and recreational opportunities.

While the most sustainable form of existence may be that of a subsistence lifestyle like we still see in a few remote areas of the globe, our world population has expanded beyond the point where this is a feasible option.

Rather than pursuing development for an increase in financial or material wealth, I believe we need a better system of measure. Sustainable progress should be judged on whether people are living happy, healthy lives with reasonable wealth, and the extent to which biodiversity and natural habitat are being preserved and sustained, since a drop in one is likely to negatively impact the other.

Chris Watts currently serves as an Environmental Regulation Expert at Actio Corporation in Portsmouth, NH. He is pursuing advanced studies in Environmental Science at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD.

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