The Natural Edge Project The Natural Advantage of Nations Whole System Design Factor 5 Cents and Sustainability Higher Education and Sustainable Development

"I have been to a presentation given by some of the contributors to this book (The Natural Advantage of Nations) and found it inspiring as the editors were young professionals who got together to talk about sustainability issues and found that they were frustrated at not 'doing'. So they did by contacting key people in the field of sustainability and this book is the result."
Leonie Newnham (International Federation of Surveyors Newsletter 3/05)

Introduction to Sustainable Development for Engineering and Built Environment Professionals

Unit 1 - A New Perspective

Lecture 1: The Call for Sustainable Development

Educational Aim

To provide the context within which the call for sustainable development arose. In its 2003 report, ‘Sustainable Development in a Dynamic World’, the World Bank summed up why so many people are now concerned about achieving sustainable development,[1]

The next 50 years could see a fourfold increase in the size of the global economy and significant reductions in poverty, but only if governments act now to avert a growing risk of severe damage to the environment and profound social unrest. Without better policies and institutions, social and environmental strains may derail development progress, leading to higher poverty levels and a decline in the quality of life for everybody.

Required Reading

Hargroves, K. and Smith, M.H. (2005) The Natural Advantage of Nations: Business Opportunities, Innovation and Governance in the 21st Century, Earthscan, London:

  1. Preface (4 pages), pp.xxxvii-xli.

  2. Foreword - Alan AtKisson (2 pages), pp.xvii-xviii.

Learning Points

* 1. We live in times of major change: information and communication technology, globalisation, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, threats of terrorism, natural disasters, changing demographics, and aging population. We are constantly learning more and at the same time becoming aware of how much we don’t know about our global system.


* 2. Our institutions (government, business, and society in general) are being required to adapt and respond to new challenges more rapidly than ever before. We are learning that we need to innovate solutions and systems that are both locally appropriate and globally relevant.


* 3. Of all these issues and challenges for the 21st Century, two have emerged of significant common concern globally: a) the irreversible decline of the resilience of natural systems, and b) the lack of progress on global inequality and poverty.


* 4. We are now beginning to understand the complex interactions and inter-relationships in the natural environment and that as a closed system (with only sun light coming into it), there will be a range of threshold effects if the practices of the industrial revolution continue in their current form.


* 5. Sustainable development is defined in the Report of the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development Our Common Future,[2] as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

* 6. Sustainable development simply means development that genuinely sustains and improves economic, social and environmental wellbeing with no major trade offs, locally and globally, now and in the future.


* 7. Many in the mainstream still see trade-offs between social, environmental and economic goals as inevitable. Yet to solve the problems and issues of sustainable development, we need integrated approaches. Addressing these concerns and developing integrated solutions with ‘win-win-win’ opportunities is fundamental to solving them cost effectively and potentially profitably as well.


* 8. In the 1980s a range of major initiatives began to find common ground and overcome the ’us versus them’ modus operandi of the ‘environment movement versus developers’.


* 9. Since the World Commission on Sustainable Development’s Report in 1987 there have been further significant efforts to integrate work showing that sustainable development is achievable cost effectively. Books such as Natural Capitalism, Cradle to Cradle and Factor 4 brought a range of new possibilities for the future together for the first time.


Brief Background Information

The following information provides a brief overview of related background material, from The Natural Advantage of Nations.

Even a cursory overview of human history will conclude that the last few centuries have witnessed unprecedented change. The world, in large measure, has shifted from local agrarian economies to globalised industrial economies with instant financial capital flows in the trillions of dollars daily, exchanging goods and services around the world at the touch of a button.

Technologies considered science fiction 100 years ago are now reality. In the last 30 years more scientific papers have been published than all the previous centuries. As Jared Diamond showed in his analysis of the last 13,000 years of civilisation, in Guns, Germs and Steel,[3] technological innovation tends to gather momentum rather than stagnate.

Far from slowing down, technological change has sped up. Modern industrialism began in a world completely different from today. It was a world with relatively few people and seemingly endless natural resources. It possessed a poor industrial capacity that struggled to create enough for all.

Today, by contrast in many countries, labour productivity has increased to such an extent that the industrial capacity can produce more than the market can consume. The original mission to improve labour productivity by improving technology has largely succeeded. Globally, for instance, enough food is being produced to feed the world. The problem now is that not enough people can afford to buy it. While billions starve and 23,000 children die each day in the world from malnutrition, in some countries farmers are being paid subsidies not to farm their land. More importantly, today we now understand that natural resources are not limitless. Many of the resources we have taken for granted are now showing their finite nature and due to the rapid increase in demand many of these resources are in danger of being exhausted.

Business As Usual

However, most industry and government still operates on a business-as-usual principle: basing progress largely on labour productivity and Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, the work of Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz shows that this ‘productivity’ simply measures the productivity of those employed and tells us nothing about all those that are unemployed. This doesn’t take into account additional measures of progress such as the productivity of the whole population, poverty reduction or how efficiently we use resources. The present wisdom uses more and more non-renewable resources to make fewer people more productive. The results are all around us, namely a massive waste of people and resources. There are approximately one billion people unemployed globally. The World Bank Annual Report for 2003 stated that more than one billion people are living on less than US$1 a day.[4] Out of these concerns - particularly the decline of ecosystem resilience and the lack of significant progress on addressing global inequality - has come the call for ‘sustainable development’.

Defining Sustainable Development

In 1987, the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, recognised that humankind's relationship with the planet had changed forever due to our immense technical capacity:


Over the course of the 20th century the relationship between the human world and the planet that sustains it has undergone a profound change... major, unintended changes are occurring in the atmosphere, in soils, in waters, among plants and animals, and in the relationships among all of these. The rate of change is outstripping the ability of scientific disciplines and our current capabilities to assess and advise. It is frustrating the attempts of political and economic institutions, which evolved in a different, more fragmented world, to adapt and cope... To keep options open for future generations, the present generation must begin now, and begin together, nationally and internationally.

Gro Brundtland, Our Common Future , 1987[5]

Our Common Future coined the phrase ‘sustainable development’ to sum up this new paradigm of development. It defined sustainable development as, ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’, and was instrumental in achieving the acceptance of the emerging paradigm of sustainable development in mainstream governmental structures, departments and programs. Support for this new form of development was demonstrated by the attendance at the first World Summit for Sustainable Development in Rio De Janeiro in 1992, of more than a hundred world leaders and representatives from 167 countries.

Kofi Annan, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, 2001 stated on World Environment Day in 2000:


We need a major public education effort. Understanding of these challenges we face is alarming low. Corporations and consumers alike need to recognize that their choices can have significant consequences. Schools and civil society groups have a crucial role to play.

Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary-General, 2000[6]

Subsequent to the 1987 definition, sustainable development is academically defined as ‘development that improves the wellbeing and opportunities of the present generation whilst ensuring non-declining wellbeing for future generations’. This simply means development that genuinely sustains and improves economic, social and environmental wellbeing with no major trade-offs, locally and globally, now and in the future.

The West Australian Premier, Dr Geoff Gallop, summed up the situation well when he stated:


For many years we pursued economic, environmental and social goals in isolation from each other. We have come to recognise that our long-term well-being depends as much on the promotion of a strong, vibrant society and the ongoing repair of our environment as it does on the pursuit of economic development. Indeed, it is becoming obvious that these issues cannot be separated. The challenge is to find new approaches to development that contribute to our environment and society now without degrading them over the longer term.

Dr. Geoff Gallop, 2003[7]

Extract: The Natural Advantage of Nations -- 'No Major Trade-offs'[8]

One of the critically important implications to the decision-making process of trying to achieve sustainable development - given the situation where society simultaneously pursues a range of goals - is that it must be based on the principle ‘no major trade-offs’. Logically, if society is committed to sustaining something, it cannot trade-off the continued existence of that thing in order to meet other goals. Similarly, in a ‘multiple bottom line’ approach it is desirable for actions taken in the pursuit of one goal to also contribute to the achievement of other goals: ‘win-win-win’ outcomes.

In the past, following a rather simplistic application of optimisation theory, it has been assumed that the pursuit of multiple goals means that no one goal can be maximised; there must be major trade-offs. However, in complex systems such as economies, societies and ecosystems we are still so far from a theoretical perfect optimum that there is huge potential to find solutions that can deliver multiple goals with ‘no-major-trade-offs’ and ‘win-win outcomes’. To deliver such outcomes does require a major commitment to foster innovation and to greatly increase the capability of long-term thinking and the handling of complex issues.

Take for instance the award winning, AU$3 billion project to tackle salinity in south-western Western Australia. The company, Woodside Petroleum, is the partner for a biomass/activated charcoal/eucalyptus oil project that will involve the planting of millions of mallee eucalyptus trees to lower the water table and thus mitigate the effects of salinity in Western Australia. The activated charcoal from plantations will take the pressure off the native forests that are presently being harvested to provide activated charcoal for the global market, as it is in high demand as a reductant in mineral refining. Finally, it will also act as a carbon sink while creating new jobs.

This course will show, through such case studies, that genuine win-win-win opportunities exist and are relatively cost effective compared with current modes of development.


Optional Reading

- Brown, L. et al (2000) State of the World 2000, The WorldWatch Institute.

- Brown, L. et al (2000) Vital Signs 2000-2001, The WorldWatch Institute.

- Bruntland, G. (ed) (1987) Our Common Future: The World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

- Hawken, P. Lovins, A.B. and Lovins, L.H. (1999) Natural Capitalism, Earthscan, London.

- McDonough, W. and Braungart, M. (2001) 'The Next Industrial Revolution', in Allen, P. (ed) Metaphors for Change, Greenleaf Books, London.

- von Weizsaecker, E., Lovins, A. and Lovins, H. (1997) Factor 4: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use, Earthscan, London.

Recommended Websites

- Brundtland Report

- Agenda 21

- WorldWatch Institute Organisation

- Johannesburg Summit 2002


[1] World Bank (2003) World Development Report 2003: Sustainable Development in a Dynamic World, World Bank, Washington D.C. (Back)

[2] Brundtland, G. (ed.) (1987) Our Common Future: The World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford University Press, Oxford. This publication is also commonly referred to as the Brundtland Report. (Back)

[3] Diamond, J. (1997) Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, W.W. Norton & Company, New York. A companion website for Guns, Germs and Steel is available at PBS (2005) Guns, Germs and Steel Homepage. Available at Accessed 7 June 2006. (Back)

[4] The Report, which covers the period from July 1, 2002 to June 30, 2003, has been prepared by the Executive Directors of both the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and the International Development Association (IDA) in accordance with the respective by-laws of the two institutions. James D. Wolfensohn, President of the IBRD and IDA, and Chairman of the Board of Executive Directors, has submitted this report, together with the accompanying administrative budgets and audited financial statements, to the Board of Governors. (Back)

[5] Brundtland, G. (ed.) (1987) Our Common Future: The World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford University Press, Oxford. This publication is also commonly referred to as the Brundtland Report. (Back)

[6] United Nations Information Service (2000) UN Secretary General Marking World Environment Day, 31 May 2000. Available at Accessed 3 January 2007. (Back)

[7] Hargroves, K. Smith, M.H. (2005) The Natural Advantage of Nations: Business Opportunities, Innovation and Governance in the 21 st Century, Earthscan, London, Chapter 3: Asking the Right Questions, p 47. (Back)

[8] Ibid. (Back)

The Natural Edge Project Engineering Sustainable Solutions
Program is supported by the Australian National Commission
for UNESCO through the International Relations Grants
Program of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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