Essay I – Sustainable development

Sustainable development in a nutshell

“Our Common Future” – was the title of a report published in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Report, after the chairwoman of the Commission. It was one of the first steps in developing and disseminating the idea of sustainable development. It is worth noting that some local communities were guided by this idea long before it was even named.

In the late 1960s, Paolo Lugari, working with a team of engineers and scientists, founded a settlement on the Colombian savannah llanos. The aim of the experiment was to prove again that there is a good life to be had even in very difficult natural conditions and against unfavourable state policies. The settlement was named Gaviotas and its inhabitants Las Gaviotas – after the seagull that has its habitat there. Engineers developed a number of simple and ecological technologies, such as: a solar-powered cooking appliance, and a submersible pump that can operate thanks to children playing on a swing.

These solutions coupled with numerous agrotechnical techniques made growing vegetables and even planting trees possible. Mass plantings of Caribbean pine (best adapted to the local conditions) not only protected the soil from excessive sunlight, but also reduced its acidity and changed the local microclimate. As a result, new plant species appeared in the forest, brought by the wind from the Amazon. Species of birds and mammals typical of the rainforest arrived. So far, the inhabitants and volunteers have planted nearly 10,000 hectares of forest.

Currently, Gaviotas has a population of around 200, it has a school and hospital. The efforts of settlers and scientists have shown the importance of the local community. It is not only about developing technologies to enable survival on Colombian llanos, but above all about demonstrating that development can go hand in hand with care for the natural environment.

After visiting the settlement, Gabriel Garcia Márquez called its originator Paolo Lugari “the inventor of a world” (el inventor del mundo), and said that this was what Colombia desperately needed. The former Prime Minister of Spain, Felipe Gonzáles, confirmed that this was what all of Latin America needed and when Gaviotas was visited by members of the Club of Rome in 1983, the club’s founder, Aurelio Peccei, said “this is what the world needs”.

The road to sustainable development

In the mid-twentieth century, scientists noticed that economic development was responsible for the progressive degradation of the natural environment. At that time, the ideas that guided the founders of Gaviotas were absent from the political and economic discourse. The first global conference on environmental protection was held only in 1972. It ended with a deepened rift between the Global “South” and “North”.

A UN conference was then held in Stockholm under the slogan “We only have one planet”. It resulted in a surge of important publications and statements by politicians, but individual countries could not come to an agreement. Representatives of developing countries found it hard to accept that their growth had to be slowed down in order to ensure environmental protection. They claimed that the rich countries of “the North” could look into the future with more optimism precisely because they had previously used natural resources at will. This has led to environmental degradation and they started to correct their mistakes only in the 20th century. Therefore, the conference did not bring the expected result. However, it cannot be denied that it was an important first step towards working on solutions which would allow for harmonious growth while taking care of the natural environment.

In the same year, the Club of Rome’s think tank researching and publicizing global problems published “The Limits to Growth” report. The authors emphasized the relationship between population growth and the too rapid consumption of renewable and non-renewable natural resources. Scientists presented possible scenarios: according to two out of three, industrial production, food production and human population growth would collapse in the mid-21st century. The authors themselves admitted that the model they used could be imperfect, but it undoubtedly impacted the thinking about the relationship between economic growth and environmental resources.

And so, we go back to the 1980s and the Brundtland Commission. The United Nations learned a lesson from the Stockholm conference – the issues of economic development and environmental protection began to be viewed together. As a result, the Brundtland Commission was established, and then the report “Our common future” was published. It contained a definition of sustainable growth as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” It also became the reason for the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro. The Summit was a political success and it concluded with the adoption of the principles and goals of sustainable development.

The very term sustainable development was used as early as 1713. A German forester, Hans Karol Carlowitz, used it to put forward the need to maintain a permanent volume of trees. This view, so close to our modern understanding, quickly spread among European foresters. Even then, attempts were made to base forest management on principles of sustainability – the idea of sourcing of as much timber as would not exceed its natural growth was promoted. Unfortunately, it took another 250 years before it was understood that sustainable development is also needed in other sectors of the economy.

Sustainable development in the 21st century

Sustainable development is a very broad term. Individual countries and institutions try to express the concept in their own ways, and each of them adds something of their own. The general spirit is best represented in the previously cited Brundtland Report.

The basis is formed by three elements: economic development, social development and environmental protection. The first is understood as a process by which at least the current level of prosperity will be maintained. It is also important that any possible economic crisis does not lead to a greater consumption of natural resources. Sustainable social development is the ability of a system (country, organization or family) to maintain broadly understood well-being. Armed conflicts, widespread poverty and injustice, and a low level of education are signs of a system that is socially unsustainable. The last element is environmental protection. The main assumption is to maintain a high-quality natural environment. Another goal is to establish such rules for the use of natural resources that would make that use indefinitely possible. In sustainable development discourse, environmental issues were initially the most focused on. This is due to the fact that during the development of civilization, social and economic progress very often took place at the expense of the natural environment.

The world’s bearings are determined by the UN Parliament of Nations. Eight main goals were described at the Millennium Summit. They focused primarily on the problems and challenges of the developing countries. The goals were to be achieved by 2015. In the same year, they were replaced by the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs were not developed behind closed doors. Their final form was influenced by the voices of societies and non-governmental organizations. There are several tasks associated with each of the 17 goals, 169 tasks in total. They cover a very wide range of challenges, such as: poverty, hunger, health, education, gender equality, climate change, peace and social justice.

Without education, the effort to make the SDG a reality could be futile. Therefore, the United Nations promote education for sustainable development. However, it is much more than environmental education. It also covers human rights, conflict resolution, economy, culture and the arts. It is a holistic approach that empowers all people, irrespective of their economic or social background, to acquire the skills to achieve sustainable personal development.

In Poland, content related to sustainable development appears in the core curriculum for each stage of education, primarily in nature, geography, biology and social studies. In addition, during individual classes, students have the opportunity to consider these issues from a global, regional and local perspective. Non-governmental organizations have also been invited to promote the idea of sustainable development. The Polish Scouting Association, the largest youth organization in Poland (with over 100,000 members), joined in the campaign – conferences, training courses and program proposals for teams and scouts were organized.

Is that enough?

In June 2012, 20 years after the first Earth Summit, another conference on sustainable development was held. The slogan, the future we want, highlighted the two main goals of the conference – a summary of 20 years of efforts to implement the idea of sustainable development and reflection on the global challenges awaiting the international community in the next 20 years.

At the same time, however, the data on environmental degradation and climate change are shocking. The 2011-2020 decade was considered the warmest in the history of measurements. The immediate cause is high carbon dioxide emissions. Unfortunately, pollutants also end up in water and soil. This is important because the demand for food and water will increase as the population grows. Another threat is the decline in biodiversity. Environmentalists and part of the scientific community are already talking about the “sixth great extinction“. No wonder then that more and more attention is being paid to the fact that sustainable development may not be enough to actually tackle the environmental and social problems of the 21st century.

Professor Edward Wilson, often referred to as the Darwin of the 21st century, is the father of one of the alternative concepts. His project, Half-Earth, aims to protect 50% of land, seas and oceans. This is a very ambitious goal, because according to the latest data, 15% of land area and only 7.6% of the seas and oceans were protected in 2020. This project is meant to prevent further rapid extinction of species. Jeffrey Sachs, one of the world’s leading sustainability experts, sits on the board of the project. Half-Earth will respond to some of the challenges related to environmental protection – unfortunately, social and economic challenges are ignored.

Another concept is the degrowth movement, which is often put as an alternative to sustainable development. The movement is founded on the belief that the model of world development which is based on unlimited economic growth must lead to degradation of the natural environment and increase economic and social inequalities – at the level of states, and within individual societies. Its advocates are in favour of reducing consumption and creating a socio-economic model that is not based on economic growth. Interestingly, degrowth is not the first alternative vision of economic development. Earlier visions include the philosophy of ubuntu in sub-Saharan Africa, swaraj in India or buen vivir / suma qamaña in Latin America.

Finally, it is worth emphasizing that UN experts are aware that sustainable development may not be enough. In the GEO Report (Global Enviroment Outlook), they emphasize that in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and other environmental goals, changes in the current approach are needed. Transformation should embrace entire social systems and cultural values and norms, as well as individual sectors of economic activity. Otherwise it just won’t work. The report warns that “ensuring a good life and prosperity for nearly 10 billion people by 2050, without jeopardizing our planet’s ecological limits, will be one of the toughest challenges and obligations humanity has ever faced”, but also “we have the necessary guidelines and science, which creates them. The only missing ingredient for success is our collective resolve”.

Preparations have recently started for the next Earth Summit in 2022. For the moment, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the place and form of the meeting remain unknown. The conference will present the progress made in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals across the globe. You can already look at the reports of individual countries (e.g. Poland), and by 2030 each country should have two such studies prepared. Perhaps a new direction will also be proposed in the face of growing environmental threats and the increasingly real threat of a climate catastrophe. We are keeping our fingers crossed.


The above activities form part of the GEODESOLA project co-financed by the National Agency for Academic Exchange (NAWA) under the “Foreign Promotion” program.


Marcel Świerkocki Marcel Świerkocki – geographer, graduate of the Faculty of Geography and Regional Studies at the University of Warsaw. Science promoter, teacher at a primary school in Warsaw and an active scout instructor.