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Characteristics, Role & Functions of Sustainable Development in Environmental Management

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Posted by: Karl Ramjohn

In a previous discussion on the characteristics, functions, and significance of “sustainable development” in the context of environmental management, it was noted that in order to attempt a rationalization of sustainable development (or achieving “sustainability” in development activities) and how that relates to the environment, it may be useful to establish a proper understanding of some of these main concepts.

To begin with, what is the “environment” as it pertains to sustainable development? For this purpose, the “environment” can be considered as the combined features and assets that provide the basis for economic and social development, natural resource management and conservation. In this context, sustainable management strategies, options and “best design” practices must be planned and implemented in relation to the processes, components and attributes of abiotic (non-living), biotic and human factors in any given developmental landscape.

Or to use a more formal definition:

 Environment = The combined features and resource capital, that provide the basis for development, environmental management and conservation. Includes the processes and components of, and services provided by, atmospheric, hydrological, geophysical, biotic, human and landscape factors.

Environmental quality = The status or value of the natural resource capital at a particular location at a specified time, relative to development, environmental management and conservation.


Some further discussions on these concepts that characterize  “sustainable development”:

Development = The act of altering and modifying resources in order to obtain potential benefits. 

Environmental Degradation
 = Adverse effects (reversible or permanent) on biophysical, social and economic resources, or any other reduction of the set of options available to future generations.

Adverse Effects = Any reduction in environmental quality of a system, or other depletion of the environmental resource capital. Defined in terms of, and measured by, environmental impacts.

Environmental Impact = Change in environmental quality due to external disturbance to a system. Includes positive and negative, primary and secondary, cumulative, synergistic, short, medium and long-term, reversible and irreversible. Described in terms of magnitude (of effect), direction (of change) and probability (of occurrence), with or without mitigation


In terms of discussing “development” (the act of altering and modifying the resources of the natural environment in order to obtain potential economic and social benefits), it is important to note that it involves the application of human, financial and biophysical resources to satisfy social and economic needs, inevitably leading to some modification of the biosphere. The extent of development-induced modifications depend on the location, scale, intensity and duration of activities as well as adequacy of mitigation and compensatory measures, which define the scope for, and degree of balance in, environmental costs and benefits. As noted, ideally, for a development to be “sustainable” it should demonstrably be economically feasible and socially acceptable, without causing significant environmental impacts
or land degradation.

From a policy, regulatory and legislative perspective, very closely related to implementation of all of these characteristics of sustainable development, is the “Precautionary Principle” – a sustainability principle which states that if there are threats of serious irreversible environmental impact, lack of full scientific certainty will not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.

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6 Responses

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  1. […] V­i­ew o­ri­gi­n­al p­o­st here:  C­h­ar­ac­t­er­ist­ic­s, R­ol­e &am­p; F… […]

  2. I don’t give the slightest damn about the amount of money that is involved. What really is essential is that human societies, all over the planet, as the first rule of thumb, kick the habit of going on fossil fuels. We must do something about the CO2 emissions, and it must happen very soon! I mean: before the all the smart, knowledge-seeking people of this world all go mad with the realization that we’re in the slow (but time is relative) process of destroying the living habitat of ours, by means of oil, gas, and coal; as well as a terrible lot of chain saws.

    I am worried that the more intelligent among us will simply have to wake up to the fact that international climate science and the issue of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions will not be taken as seriously as every intelligent person quickly realize it should be. Choosing deliberately to forget about everything you’ve learnt over the past few years, as yet another coping strategy, is not going to work. But as economists keep on calculating, and politicians keep on talking — mostly about cap-and-trade and so-called “clean coal” — and nothing at all seems to be happening on the ground level which is reality, I mean: come on! How are intelligent, knowledgeable and constantly information seeking people going to cope?!

    What is needed, more than ever before, is administrative leadership that goes to instruct societies of humans to depend much less on fossil-fuels, and make way for renewable energy alternatives. Solar energy systems do have a lot of potential. If only the alternative were to be seen as a cheap way out of a terribly expensive fossil fuels adventure which we are seeing today, and which has been scientifically proven, time and time again, to be exceptionally risky.

    The technology is available. All that remains now are questions of political will and industrial courage. Will we ever be ready to do away with a whole lot of coal plants? – And start building mega-fantastic solar energy power stations instead? Or are we going to keep dragging our feet on this, simply because old habits are terribly difficult to do away with? – Mixed messages and confusing reports are coming my way all the time now, I’m afraid, so I really don’t know exactly what to think.

    – —

    Tssk. – What really is needed here is a brand new way of thinking about energy, and that is something that ought to happen all over the planet. As concerned adults, from all over the earth, we should come to realize that fossil-fuels are old-fashioned and out-dated, and ought to be replaced with renewable energy systems. It is a philosophical task I am talking about here. And one that can only lead to wiser policy making as concerns industrial judgement; and that would be in the long run.

    I think Al Gore’s energy speech from July, 2008, still makes for a valid read. – “We need a new start,” Al Gore said, after pointing out that “scientists have confirmed that enough solar energy falls on the surface of the earth every 40 minutes to meet 100 percent of the entire world’s energy needs for a full year.”

    This is the kind of thinking that needs to be injected into every goddamn political culture on this planet, including the Japanese, the Chinese, the Indian, the French, the Russian, the Kenyan, the Brazilian, and the American political culture. And make no mistake about this: I am talking about each and every country on the face of this earth. We need to make the switch to renewable energy systems, and we need to do that everywhere.

    – —

    My entire comment is culled from the comments section of Andy Revkin’s New York Times’ Dot Earth Blog. That is the other internet discussion space – in addition to The Environment Site Forum – on which I often try to make my word count. I don’t know if it is working though. Most of the time, I really don’t think it is.

    Have a nice day, okay? 🙂

    Magne Karlsen

    October 9, 2008 at 9:55 am

  3. […] sustains the resources of the natural environment, and defines the scope and viability for their "development". And this is a major issue with regard to fossil fuels — companies involved in the exploration and […]

  4. Sustainable Land Development International Newsletter

    Land Developers and Sustainable Economics
    October 2008 –

    by Terry Mock, Executive Director

    As previously forecast in this column, a series of financial “Black Swans” is now upon us. These major disruptive events, which by definition were unpredicted by the establishment experts, now include the failures of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, Merrill Lynch, Wachovia, and Washington Mutual, with more surprises undoubtedly on the way.

    While there have been numerous authorities working day and night to solve the problem, it is important to note that these same people were the ones that were managing the financial system in the first place. According to Professor Nouriel Roubini, no professional independent economist was consulted by Congress or invited to present his/her views at the Congressional hearings on the Treasury Department’s rescue plan. This brings to mind some words of wisdom from Albert Einstein – “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”.

    As pointed out in the recently published book, Bad Money – Reckless Finance, Failed Politics and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism, the failure of the current financial system was not only predictable, but this same kind of thinking was also responsible for the fall of the last two global economic powers – the Netherlands followed by Britain. As is established in the book and elsewhere, the current credit crisis interrelates with our energy crisis and all the other economic failures the global economy is now suffering through. It all comes down to deficit spending by both public and private entities.

    Ironically, the current financial meltdown is confirmation of a prediction made in 1995 when, as a land developer and the past-president of the Florida Native Plant Society, I authored an article entitled “Earth Restoration – The Bridge to a New Global Culture“, wherein I said, “The existing world order is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and will not be capable of sustaining itself much longer by exploiting dwindling world supplies of natural resources and by deficit government spending…The good news is that out of these huge problems will come the pressure to replace our old system with new political and business structures that will provide for a sustainable global economy”.

    How do we make our civilization more sustainable?

    As outlined in our February 2008 SLDI newsletter, “Collaborative innovation is needed to unlock the future as the world is facing a variety of challenges”, and current efforts to create new sustainable land development models hold great promise for breaking the hold of failed outdated economic ideology. According to CityscapeIntelligence, “… One of the greatest challenges is that right now we have a very low level of current knowledge about how to build sustainably in our environment… “ On a more promising note, Cityscape reports that Masdar City, Abu Dhabi is planned to be a fully sustainable city which incorporates the highest quality of life with the lowest environmental footprint. Masdar City will be carbon-neutral, use only renewable energy sources, and produce zero waste.

    In the United States, news of the nation’s first fully eco-sustainable city has just been announced. At 41,300 acres and a new SLDI member, Florida’s Destiny is ranked as one of the state’s largest private land acquisitions and will create working greenspace where the ecosystem is integrated into its infrastructure in order to preserve the overall quality of the environment.

    The problems – and answers – have been known for many years. It will ultimately be the visionary risk-taking land developers, the business structures we organize, the innovative technologies we use, and the quality of services we retain, that will get us there.

    Your participation and comments are welcome.

    Terry Mock
    Executive Director
    Sustainable Land Development International

    Promoting and enabling land development worldwide that balances the needs of people, planet & profit, for today and future generations.

    Sustainable Land Development Today Magazine

    Sustainable Urban Redevelopment Magazine

    Terry Mock

    October 18, 2008 at 1:28 pm

  5. @ Magne Karlsen — thanks for your comments and insights; as you may have noticed, I moved your comment to the original post for which it was intended.


    Karl Ramjohn

    October 20, 2008 at 12:14 am

  6. @ Terry Mock — thanks for your comments and perspectives on some of the current crises affecting the global economy, environment, and more importantly, their relationship to sustainability. It is a timely update of the previous discussion we were developing here in July:

    I intend to further elaborate on some of these issues (especially the land-environment-sustainability aspects) in future posts here.


    Karl Ramjohn

    October 20, 2008 at 9:25 pm

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