All definitions of sustainable development require that we see the world as a system- a system that connects space and a system that connects time. When you think of the world as a system over space, you grow to understand that air pollution from North America affects air quality in Asia, and that pesticides sprayed in Argentina could harm fish stocks off the coast of Australia.
When you think of the world as a system over time, you start to realize that the decisions our grandparents made about how to farm the land continue to affect agricultural practice today. Likewise, the economic policies we endorse today will have an impact on urban poverty when our children are adults.
We also understand that quality of life is a system as well. It’s good to be physically healthy, but what if you are poor and don’t have access to education? It’s good to have a secure income, but what if the air in your part of the world is unclean? And it’s good to have freedom of religious expression, but what if you can’t feed your family?
The concept of sustainable development is rooted in this sort of systems thinking. It helps us understand ourselves and our world. The problems we face are complex and serious and we can’t address them in the same way we created them. But we can address them.
How, what and why
Sustainability, in most corporate gatherings and initiatives, has been conceptualized as something mainly having to do with eco-efficiency, involving pollution prevention and resource conservation. It is asserted here that eco-efficiency is a necessary, but not sufficient, prerequisite for full sustainable development.
Socio-economic sustainability, involving poverty alleviation, population stabilization, female empowerment, employment creation, human rights observance and opportunity redistribution on a massive scale is equally important, although perhaps infinitely more intractable.
Although calls for corporate engagement in progressive social change have often been resisted in the past, we argue that the somber social state of the world, diminished governmental capacities and enlightened corporate self-interest demand that private enterprise must now assume greater responsibility for human development on a global scale.