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Elements of Sustainable Development: Environment, Society and Economy

Fri, 11 October 2002

A key feature of sustainable development is that it comprises three elements: Environment, Society, Economy. Or, if you like, the three Ps: Planet, People, Profit. All three, in no particular order, are balanced so that one doesn’t destroy another.
A sustainably run fishing community would go something like this:
  • They’re environmentally responsible: they don’t overfish, so preserve breeding stocks for next year.
  • They’re socially responsible: they make sure the fish they do catch generate jobs within the community.
  • They’re economically responsible: they stay in profit.
Sustainable development emphatically does not mean a return to some sort of pre-industrial lifestyle. It’s about getting a better quality of life, not worse. The key is to use technology to help us to achieve sustainable development, not use sustainable development as a reason to shun technology. It means you can use your car, enjoy central heating, and wash your clothes and dishes by machine. You just do it in such a way that you’re not wasting anything, that everything is re-used or recycled, that everything is developing sustainably.
Of course we know it’s not that simple. All round Ireland, we’re depleting fish stocks. The reasons are complex but boil down to this: people have to overfish because of overfishing. There are too many factory ships chasing too few fish to sell too cheaply. Sustainable development is all very well, but, in essence, are the politicians going to subsidise trawlers not to catch fish in order to give them a job in the next decade?
Also, no government is able to do much about changing our unsustainable way of life if we continue to be passive, apathetic consumers. For example, the Island’s transport system - it favours cars over public transport because, frankly, most of us want it that way. If the motor lobby says that reducing car use will cost jobs, and if car use keeps going up, it will be a brave MP/TD who dares to put through anti-car legislation. (Of course, there is also a counter argument that when, and until, public transport improves, things will not change anyway.) Anyone can see that it’s unsustainable - but it’s up to us to do something about it.
So what can we do? Well, as the waste hierarchy goes, we could start with minimising waste: print only when necessary (and always double sided), store copies of e-mails electronically, and take the stairs more often. Also, we could re-use or recycle. But although these are important first steps, they can sometimes seem a bit insignificant. Even if you diligently recycled every letter, brochure and factsheet you received, it would still only amount to saving a twig or two. If everyone does it, of course it becomes significant: new markets can become viable for using recycled plastic, glass, paper, clothes and laser cartridges.

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