Lesson 2.1: Sustainable development

Icône de l'outil pédagogique Author
Lennart Olsonn

Icône de l'outil pédagogique The Challenge
The social and human effects on Planet Earth have during the past decades escalated to a stage that some would call the Anthropocene, i.e. a geological epoch when Humans are the dominant force shaping and reshaping the planet (Crutzen, 2002). In the Anthropocene era, key environmental parameters have moved well outside the range of millennia scale natural variability and entered a non-analogue state (Crutzen and Steffen, 2003). An increasing number of environmental problems, such as climate change, have also advanced to a level where human welfare is directly and immediately threatened, while others, like the case of biodiversity losses, pose more of potential future threats to humanity. Rittel and Webber (1972) have labelled environmental problems of this complex and pervasive kind wicked problems. Wicked problems are persistent not only because the solutions are not yet there but also because they have incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements; and solutions to them are often difficult to identify because of complex interdependencies. While attempting to solve a wicked problem, the solution of one of its aspects may reveal or create another, even more complex problem. Furthermore, the problems span local to global scales and several generations, and are characterised by lags and inertia, masking important causes and effects. As a consequence, our current social and political institutions are not well suited to tackle these issues (UNEP, 2007). But the fact that different perspectives on sustainable development range from pro-market liberals to anti-market social greens (Harris et a., 2001; Clapp and Dauvergne, 2005) (Harris et al., 2001; Clapp and Dauvergne, 2005) is itself a sign that achieving sustainability for our ecological, social, and economic systems has become all but a universal value. How to get there is of course a matter of heated debate. Agriculture and land-use are increasingly a major concern in the context of sustainable development. As an economic sector, it is responsible for providing vital necessities out of seemingly finite resources in a world of ever-increasing population. Furthermore, they employ relatively vulnerable sections of the population that either are protected at considerable cost in most developed countries or are subject to considerable risk of hardship in most of the developing world. Beyond these pressing general considerations, land use is a considerable economic activity in its own right that affects a wide range of other issues. Notable among these is the issue of climate change where alternative land uses have differential impacts in contributing to greenhouse gas emissions but also offer opportunities for abatement as sinks or by providing alternative renewable energy sources (biomass, bio-liquid fuels etc). Agriculture and land-use also have a major impact on the natural environment by making demands on scarce land and water resources and by affecting biodiversity.

Icône de l'outil pédagogique The Pillars of Sustainability
Sustainable development is often said to rest on three pillars – social, economic and environmental. The meaning of these pillars is that the development must be balanced in order to promote social development (such as wellbeing, equity and social cohesion), economic development (such as poverty eradication, employment and economic security) and a healthy environment for current and coming generations.  Policies promoting sustainable development must strive at integrating all these aspects. There is of course a heated debate regarding to what extent these pillars are equally important.  Diverging opinions about the importance of the pillars are usually due to different time perspectives and/or political preferences. A fourth pillar of institutional sustainability is sometimes added. The meaning of this is that the development must ensure good governance, which in itself is an important prerequisite of the other pillars.

Icône de l'outil pédagogique Thresholds
The landscape in which agriculture is practiced can provide a range of benefits to people. In addition to agricultural products, such as food, fibre and energy, these include clean and regular water supply, recreation, biological diversity and the protection of communities from hazards. External pressures, such as excessive use of fertilizers and other agro-chemicals or over-use, may influence the landscape and diminish the level or quality of the benefits that it provides. Eventually people may judge that a critical point has been reached, and that the reduction in benefit is no longer acceptable or tolerable. Such a critical level can best be described as an environmental limit (Haines-Young et al. 2006). Certain limits can be regarded as thresholds beyond which irreversible damage to the landscape may occur. An important goal of sustainable development is to maintain natural resource systems above such limits.

Icône de l'outil pédagogique Trade-offs
The concept of trade-offs is important in the context of sustainable development. Trade-offs might be inevitable but should ideally be explicit and carefully decided upon. The trade-offs might be spatial, temporal or sectoral. What trade-offs are acceptable is often a question about ethics. The current agricultural policy in EU is often criticized due to unacceptable spatial trade-offs (subsidies in EU are harming agriculture in developing countries), temporal trade-offs (the high intensity of agriculture is endangering bio-diversity as well as deteriorating soils which is detrimental for future generations) and sectoral trade-offs (agricultural practices might be at odds with aesthetic and recreational values).

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