Sustainability and Our Present Situation

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In March of 1987, the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future was released.  This document, which is often cited at the Brundtland Report, defined the concept of sustainable development.  This core definition continues to speak volumes – in order to be sustainable development must meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Looking deeper into this definition, I considered several things are foundational.  First, we can’t be sustainable if the only thing that guides our decision making is the economic growth.  We must consider the intersection of the economy, the environment and society. The issue of equity is paramount.  If I’ve lost you here, and this is something you can’t reconcile internally, there is probably no need for you to continue.  Second, our health and the health of our global ecosystems are inseparable.  Third, unfortunately we have made little progress on sustainable development since the Brundtland Report.  It is the connection between our health and the health of ecosystems that I wish to speak to in this post.

Just last month in the peer review journal Cell, David Morens and Anthony Fauci, published Emerging pandemic diseases: How we got to COVID-19. From Ebola, HIV/AIDS and SARS to H1N1 “swine flu”, Zika and COVID-19 there is a common thread:

“…in a human-dominated world, in which our human activities represent aggressive, damaging, and unbalanced interactions with nature, we will increasingly provoke new disease emergences. We remain at risk for the foreseeable future. COVID-19 is among the most vivid wake-up calls in over a century. It should force us to begin to think in earnest and collectively about living in more thoughtful and creative harmony with nature, even as we plan for nature’s inevitable, and always unexpected, surprises” (Mornes & Fauci, 2020).

As we continue to only value “growth” as a measure of success, as we continue (by inaction) to support huge disparity in global standards of living, and as we continue to marginalize the planet we live on, zoonotic diseases (those passed between animals and humans) will likely only increase.

So, the evidence is mounting.  Climate change, drastic species extinction, global economic inequities, and now increasing potential for worldwide health pandemics are all related to our failure to acknowledge that definition of sustainable development offered in the Brundtland Report.  The time is well overdue for a meaningful conversation on sustainability.  We need to understand that tough choices may mean short-term inconveniences, and yes, may require capital outlay; that change is difficult and uncomfortable, but needed; and that some professions may suffer as others rise.  But can we risk “kicking the can” down the timeline?  Think globally and act globally.

Dr. Dentzau

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