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15.1: Achieving Sustainable Development

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    Economic policies that favour growth are based on the erroneous assumption that natural resources are unlimited. It is thus bound to fail at one point or another.

    Efforts to preserve biological diversity are regularly perceived as in conflict with societal progress (Redpath et al., 2013). Perhaps the root of this conflict lies with the fact that most of the development we see today is unsustainable—that is, it risks depleting natural resources to a point where they will no longer be available for use or to provide ecosystem services. Moreover, governments and businesses often measure success in terms of economic growth, which occurs when an economy increasingly produces more goods and services (often measured as GDP). Economic policies that favour economic growth are generally based on an implicit but erroneous assumption that the supply of natural resources is unlimited. A society that aims for economic growth is therefore bound to fail at one point or another.

    To overcome these perceptions and conflicts, scientists, policy makers, and conservation managers are increasingly highlighting the need for sustainable development—economic activities that satisfy both present and future needs without compromising the natural world (Figure 15.1). Sustainable development is closely linked to economic development, a multi-dimensional concept that describes economic activities that aim to improve income and health without necessarily increasing consumption of natural resources. We should thus all strive for sustainable development, which emphasises economic development without unsustainable economic growth.

    Sustainable development aims to satisfies present and future needs without compromising the natural world.

    Figure 15.1 Sustainable development heals the rift between development and conservation; it aims to simultaneously meet conservation goals and human needs, CC BY 4.0.

    There are many good examples across Africa that illustrate the progress made towards sustainable development. For instance, many governments are investing in national parks and their infrastructure (such as staff and facilities) to protect biological diversity and provide economic opportunities for local communities. Similarly, stakeholders in large projects are increasingly engaging with one another to mitigate the negative impacts of infrastructure developments. One prime example was the 2015 Pan-African Business and Biodiversity Forum (, where representatives from business, governments, civil society, academia, development organizations, and financial institutions from across Africa came together to discuss how sustainable development can benefit nature, people, and business.

    Unfortunately, there are also people and organizations that are taking advantage of this positive energy by misusing the term “sustainable development” to greenwash industrial activities that are harming the environment. For instance, a plan to establish a palm oil plantation that would damage a forested wilderness should not be considered sustainable development simply because the company agrees to protect a small plot of forest adjacent to the damaged area (see biodiversity offsets, Section 10.3.3). Similarly, many environmentally-destructive companies try to mislead customers with “environmentally-friendly” (often green-coloured) imagery on packages which are otherwise no better than the standard manufactured products. It is, therefore, critical for scientists, policy makers, and citizens to carefully study the issues, understand why different groups make arguments, and make thoughtful decisions about which actions or policies will best meet seemingly contradictory demands.

    This page titled 15.1: Achieving Sustainable Development is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by John W. Wilson & Richard B. Primack (Open Book Publishers) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.