Sustainable development has been defined by the UN as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” However, is it possible to adhere to this definition in a society where there is such an inherent need for growth at any expense? 


The UN states that “for sustainable development to be achieved, it is crucial to harmonise three core elements: economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection. These elements are interconnected and all are crucial for the well-being of individuals and societies.” Therefore, we must explore and evaluate whether sustainable development today addresses all three targets.


In October 2004, 23,000 litres of oil spilled in the village of Goi, Nigeria, after a pipeline operated by Shell leaked. Contaminating the entire village, residents were forced to relocate to neighbouring areas and this leak became a pivotal movement to expose Shell’s environmental and social abuse in a world renowned lawsuit of Dooh vs Shell. 


Undeniably there is a misconception that sustainable development does not translate into profits, where this myth is creating reluctance for many companies to move into this new space. But quite frankly, economic growth is so much more than reaching a target before the next financial year. Economic growth is constructed by a number of macroeconomic objectives, some of which include improved environment, reduced inequality and low unemployment. As a society economic growth needs to be measured in conjunction with its impact on social inclusion and the undertaken environmental protection. Therefore, a key pillar of economic growth is sustainability and vice versa. Without a perfect combination of both, a country, company or community cannot develop. 


Sustainable development paves a new way of life, where it has already been set out by the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals with aims to be reached by 2030. Ranging from eradicating poverty to acting urgently to combat climate change and its impacts, the UN aims to protect the planet, foster peace and prosperity for people through mobilising partnerships to achieve the goals. 


However, is it fair to expect sustainable development in lower income countries or newly emerging economies where any form of development, sustainable or not, is paramount? As residents of higher income countries, it is very easy to anticipate sustainability from all parts of the world, no matter the wealth, and ignore some of the distinct disparities that exist regarding sustainability. When countries have faced a variety of challenges, ranging from colonisation to civil and global wars, such a country faces a distinct setback and therefore any form of development for the country will suffice. 


Sustainable development can be seen as an oxymoron in our current society if we were to keep to a goal of constant growth at any cost; it is impossible to develop and continue to grow profits whilst protecting the environment and its valuable resources and progress as a society.  


Instead, sustainable development must involve a long term journey to benefit society, the environment and the economy equally, without at the expense of one or the other. It encompasses taking individual responsibilities as a society to ensure a future which is not threatened. Without sustainable development, there is no future.