The three pillars of sustainable development

By Jorge Emilio Sierra Montoya

James Austin, a professor at Harvard University and one of the highest academic authorities in the world of entrepreneurial social responsibility, conducts an in depth study of sustainable development, mostly related to the sustainability which is preferred to be called by many analysts as RSE. As a great academician, he is a friend of clarifying concepts and before entering in this field. He begins to question the meaning of Sustainable Development.

This concept – he explains – comes above all since 1987, later on was expanded in the Summit of Rio de Janeiro and no, twenty years later, was discussed in depth in the most recent conference Rio+20 (where indeed was underlined that the Millennium Objectives would be, from now on, Objectives of Sustainable Development.

And immediately formulates his definition, as it was expected: sustainable development is to satisfy the needs of current generations without compromising the possibilities of satisfying the needs of future generations.” Our needs must be taken care of, for sure, but for that reason, there must not be affected our sons and nephews.

“Living today without killing tomorrow”, it is precise in a very graphic form, very easy to understand, in order to demonstrate the commitment that we have, which we cannot avoid, with those who will continue to inhabit the planet, where human survival, and life in general, are in danger.  Let’s see why.

In this respect, Austin recalls the triple dimension (economic, social and environment) which identifies the call for sustainability that is fundamental for sustainable development.  As a fact, it insists in the interaction of the three sectors, which establishes other concepts that are key to development.

In the first place, so that development is feasible, thanks to the equilibrium between the economical and environmental; in the second expression, so that is equitable, for the equilibrium between the economical and the social, and for last, so that is livable, for the equilibrium between the social and environmental.  There are three circles that are intertwined in order to reach Sustainable Development as a final result.

Why it is not feasible?

For a misfortune, we are far away from reaching a situation that is ideal such as this one.  In contrary, all indicates that circumstances of the moment, very critical in the three levels, make our life in the planet not sustainable at a very early time, as it is very easy to demonstrate.

To this effect – observes Austin – the pressure of economic and demographic development over the natural resources (water, air, flora and fauna…) is enormous, while provoking a growing ecological deficit which emerges in our rear view mirror even more so in the last decades, since 1970, a growing and worrisome phenomenon brought together: the industrial waste cannot be recycled at the same speed as they are produced. As one year of bio-capacity consumption takes one year and a half to regenerate, the situation becomes not sustainable at a medium and long term. It is not even feasible at the economic levels!

In terms of demographic aspects, it cannot even be mentioned.  The pressure at this magnitude is also great towards the natural resources: at the half of this century, the world’s population will exceed the nine billion people, while being today at seven billion; 80% of the population lives (or survives) in the countries with less income, in which the majority is in a reproductive age which is different from the population in developed countries, and concentration in urban areas reaches 70% in Latin America, although in Colombia it goes up to 82%.

This fact, added together with the economic problems mentioned above, is not sustainable, neither development – as we just mentioned – is feasible.  It’s a very dark image, indeed.

But, what to say in terms of equality and “the livable; the other two aspects of Sustainable Development? The situation is not getting better, not even more optimistic.  Again sustainability of the current model emerges full of obstacles and problems, while placing at risk the future of humanity.

Equitable or livable?

The recent model of development is neither equitable, according to Austin.  And it is easy to confirm this, with various indicators at our hands: a minority of rich countries consumes 80% of natural resources, meanwhile the majority of poor countries barely consumes 1.3%, which explains at a greater length the hunger that reigns in these regions, where there is also a little access to public services, which heavily affect the quality of living.

But also: the poor countries are those that suffer from eco-degradation, with the corresponding loss of biodiversity, that is estimated at 60% as compared to 7% in the developing countries.

This is not sustainable, neither it is the progress that we need”, insists Austin in a very critical tone, in a tacit implication to the biodiversity that we posses in Colombia, which is our most important wealth.

And in regards to the relation between the social and environmental, the problems are evident, not only for the loss in biodiversity (there are 22 thousand species that are at the brink of extinction, every year!), its principal cause: is the global warming, exposed at a higher level of warmth as compared to the last decades, an unprecedented case for the millennial history of our planet.

It is calculated, for example, that at the end of XXI century the sea levels would rise from 18 to 59 centimeters in average, although in certain areas it will reach from one to two meters, due to phenomena of ice melting in glaciers, not even mentioning the economic consequences, as Stern had anticipated while measuring the impact of global warming in the world economy.

While it seems, it requires 1% of the global GDP to mitigate the effects of climate changes, if we don’t act quickly we will have a global economic recession, equivalent to the 20% of the world’s GDP.  “Preventing this catastrophe is an excellent business model”, comments Austin about the high profit return of a similar investment that remains to be seen.

Questions, above all, the high levels of deforestation in countries such as Brazil, where there is being destroyed this pillow of environmental security which is are vast jungles of the Amazon, and attacks, infinitely, the carbon emissions due to the effects generated, maintains the area away from erosion and helps avoid bad administration of water, a service that billions of people do not have in the world.

“We should produce more food with less water”, says Austin in front of the entrepreneurs.

Now, what about companies?

Austin raises the question: what is the relation of the entrepreneurial sector with these problems? While pointing out the process that has taken place during the last fifty years: in the 1960s, exploitation of the resources, with little regulations; in the 1970s, obedience to the law but in a reactive form; in the 1980s, a proactive attitude, reducing the costs; in the 1990s emerged the eco-efficiency, and from 2000, we have the search for a sustainable development under the framework of Entrepreneurial Social Responsibility.

In respect to these phenomena, he distinguished Sustainable Development, as a strategic element, while considering the environment as the launching point of the world movement in favor of Entrepreneurial Social Responsibility, conceived by him as an effective strategy so that companies could generate an economic and social value, a synthesis par excellence of his theory.

About the companies of public services and communications, he says that they are key in order to accomplish the sustainable development, whose quality depends precisely from the quality of such services, which undergo through the demands of sustainable development in order to have successful business plan.

“There the interdependence is obliged, much more than in other sectors”, sustains the time that it demands an adequate participation of these companies for the construction of sustainable cities, another great challenges which in his opinion should face the world.

Now the companies have their word.

Jorge Emilio Sierra Montoya is the Director of “Desarrollo Indoamericano” Magazine, la Universidad Simón Bolívar de Barranquilla, Colombia

Source: EJE21

Translated from Spanish by Peter M. Tase   

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Peter Tase

Peter Tase is a contributor, freelance journalist and a research scholar of International Affairs, Paraguayan Studies, Middle East Studies and Latin American Affairs, located in the United States. Educated at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and Marquette University Les Aspin Center for Government; Tase is the author of “Simultaneous Dictionary in Five Languages: Guarani, English, Italian, Albanian and Spanish” and “El Dr. FEDERICO FRANCO y Su Mandato Presidencial en la Historia del Paraguay.” He’s a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy News. His personal website is

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