An issue that has raised concerns relates to the capacity of the global economy to accommodate an enduring demographic, economic and resource consumption growth. Since the 1970s, many statements have been made asserting that the world would be unable to sustain such growth without a possible socioeconomic and environmental breakdown. While these perspectives have been demonstrated to be inaccurate, since resources availability and the quality of life increased, there are enduring concerns that at some point a threshold could be reached, particularly in regard to climate change. Under such conditions, an emphasis on sustainable development has been advocated as a priority for future social and economic development. The most commonly used definition of sustainable development is:“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Brundtland Report, Our Common Future.

Sustainable development is however a complex concept that is subject to numerous interpretations since it involves several disciplines and possible interconnections. It is not surprising that the subject is prone to confusion in terms of its nature, consequences and appropriate response. It is however generally agreed that sustainability favors conditions that benefits the environment, the economy and the society without compromising the welfare of future generations. Still, as history clearly demonstrates, the conditions of future societies will largely depend upon the legacy of current societies on resources and the environment. All forms of assets (capital, real estate, infrastructures, resources) passed on to the next generation should be at least of equal value (utility) per capita. The basic definition of sustainability has been expanded to include three major pillars (often referred as the three Es):

Social equity: Relates to conditions favoring a distribution of resources among the current generation based upon comparative levels of productivity. This implies that individuals or institutions are free to pursue the ventures of their choice and reaps the rewards for the risk they take and the efforts they make. Social equity is usually the most difficult element of the concept of sustainability to define. It should not be confused with redistribution (or socialism) where a segment of the population agrees or is coerced to support another segment.

Economic efficiency: Concerns conditions permitting higher levels of economic efficiency in terms of resource and labor usage. It focuses on capabilities, competitiveness, flexibility in production and providing goods and services that supply a market demand. Under such circumstances, factors of production should be freely allocated and markets open to trade.

Environmental responsibility: Involves a “footprint” which is lesser than the capacity of the environment to accommodate. This includes the supply of resources (food, water, energy, etc.), but also the safe disposal of numerous forms of wastes. Its core tenets include the conservation and reuse of products and resources.

Another important debate relates to what extent public entities (both at the national and supra-national levels) have a role to play. More bluntly, should sustainability be imposed by regulation or be the outcome of market forces? Environmentalists are dominantly leaning towards regulations and would argue that sustainability is a much too long term concept to be addressed by corporations focused on the short term. A counter argument could be made that the time horizon of governments, especially democratic regimes, is also very short and on rare instances governments have shown to be proactive regarding environmental matters. Further, the decision making and regulatory apparatus of many governments has been captured by special interests, implying that public environmental policy is reflective of the wishes of large private interests.

The question remains as if expectations can be placed on entities that seek to optimize positive perception (governments) or on entities that seek to optimize efficiency and profit (corporations). Paradoxically, while governments tend to be inflexible and unable to adapt, corporations have demonstrated a resounding ability to shift their strategies and provide products that reflect the expectations of their customers (including environmentally responsible products). It could thus be argued that the private sector is more likely to achieve sustainability than the public sector. This complex relationship underlines the issue of the respective roles of regulations and innovations in achieving a higher level of sustainability.

The writer is a student of University of Central Punjab