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<<Biblioteca Digital del Portal<<La Educación<<La Educación (120) I, 1995 <<Artículo
La Educación
Número: (120) I
Año: 1995

The Nature of Sustainable Development

The basic goal of national development policy is to improve the welfare of the people of a country, thus allowing them to realize their full potential. In spite of the socio-economic progress which has been made over the past decades, the achievement of “equitable” and “sustainable” development still remains the greatest challenge facing the human race (World Bank 1992). Far too many persons are still grappling with inadequate access to education, health care, land resources and wealth. Economic development has proceeded in a number of countries at some cost to the ecological environment since little or no consideration has been given to the costs of environmental degradation, natural resource depletion and species extinction.

The physical or ecological environment functions in three major ways:

i) As a provider of resources which are used as raw materials and energy inputs in the production process;
ii) as a “sink” for all the waste emitted from production and consumption processes; and
iii) as a provider of a flow of services such as recreation, climate maintenance and the preservation of genetic diversity.

Environmental degradation, resource depletion and species extinction impair the quality of life of future generations who rely on the quantity and quality of environmental resources available for production and consumption purposes. The impairment of environmental functions leads to an undermining of the economic development of future generations.

Environmental degradation is partly fuelled by poverty. In an attempt to eke out a living, the poor engages in environmentally destructive practices. For example, trees are cut down indiscriminately in order to provide firewood for fuel or fish stocks are depleted as a result of overfishing. Such problems indicate that “sustainable development” should not be divorced from “equitable development”. It should be noted, however, that poverty can breed creativity as the poor engage in recycling activities (use of old tires, coconut shells, pieces of wood to make shoes and various artifacts) in order to subsist.

If the benefits gained from development must be used to offset the costs of environmental damage as reflected in the large sums of money spent on cleaning up the environment and on increased health costs, then it can hardly be said that “development” has occurred. Economists have now recognized that traditional measures of economic growth and development (eg, per capita real income growth) need to be adjusted to reflect the costs of environmental damage (eg, the “sustainable income” and “new economic welfare” measures). Development therefore needs to proceed in such a manner that it does not unduly result in the deterioration of the environment or the rapid depletion of key natural resources which form the basis of the economic development of the country. In effect, the environment as well as the natural resources it produces needs to be maintained in such a manner so as to enable future generations to enjoy or benefit from at least a similar level of development.

Barbier and Markandya (1990) have suggested that the concept of “sustainable development” can be examined in two ways: a narrow concept which is largely concerned with “environmentally sustainable development,” that is, with optimal resource and environmental management over time, and a wider concept which is concerned with “sustainable” economic, social and ecological development. The narrow concept tends to be the focus of ecologists, while the wider concept is used by economists and other social scientists. It is however recognized that there is a need for a balance of the views of ecologists and social scientists on the concept of “sustainable development” (see Tisdell 1988). In this paper, the wider concept of sustainable development is employed.

Development can be described as a vector of desirable social objectives (see Pearce et al. 1989). These objectives include:

i) An increase in real per capita income;
ii) improvements in health and nutritional status;
iii) relevant and desirable educational achievement;
iv) access to resources (land, capital, etc);
v) a more equitable distribution of income and wealth and the eradication of poverty; and
vi) greater participation in the socio-economic decision-making process.

While this specification of development does not take the natural environment into account, national governments and multilateral institutions (eg, World Bank, United Nations) realize that it is impossible to separate economic development from environmental issues.

Sustainable development can therefore be broadly defined as the ability of the economy to support the needs of the people of a country over time, taking into consideration the economic, social and ecological constraints of the country. Underlying this concept is a “sustainability requirement,” namely that:
the fulfillment of the needs of the present generation should not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. (The Bruntland Report, WCED 1987, 43)
As the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) points out, this definition embodies two concepts:

i) the concept of “needs”, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
ii) the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.

Sustainable development is therefore a multi-dimensional concept which seeks to integrate physical/ecological sustainability (issues of resource depletion and environmental degradation) and traditional socio-economic development concerns (economic growth, poverty alleviation, employment generation, basic needs provision: housing, education and health care). In the same way that indicators of socio-economic development have been devised by statisticians, indicators of environmental change and resource depletion must become an integral part of the measurement of sustainable development. Since the needs of future generations are unknown, periodic assessments of socio-economic and environmental indicators are needed in order to determine the extent to which development has remained on a “sustainable path.”

In the case of a small developing island state such as Barbados, “sustainable development” is of even more critical concern because of the island’s very limited natural resource base on which development must proceed. These limited resources are used for several competing activities (for example, land in the coastal zone is used for tourism development, housing and infrastructural development) and therefore any degradation will have far-reaching consequences for the economy and society. Economic development in Barbados has been based on the exploitation of the island’s natural and environmental resources: arable land for agricultural development, marine resources for tourism and fishing and scenic beauty for tourism. Island states generally have very fragile and vulnerable ecosystems. Environmental damage can lead to a disappearance of valuable species or a long delay in regeneration of resources. In most Caribbean countries, the main environmental problems are solid waste disposal and water pollution. These problems have arisen because production and consumption activities have been undertaken without the full consideration of their environmental/ecological impact.

Environmental degradation which has its roots in poverty, lack of knowledge and “inappropriate” production and consumption patterns can be minimized through policies and programs which seek to alleviate poverty, increase knowledge about the environment and support environmentally-sound activities. The education system can provide the knowledge base and skills necessary for the attainment of sustainable development. Much emphasis has been placed on education and training (human resources development) as an instrument of economic development policy-making in Barbados. It is therefore instructive to examine the extent to which the education system has been sensitive to sustainable development issues over the past decades.