`HUMANITY has the ability to make development sustainable - to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
This sentence - a definition of sustainable development - is from "Our Common Future," the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, which was the spawning ground for the Earth Summit opening tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro.
As profoundly challenging (and yet as hopeful) as that statement is, it is also open to wide interpretation. Just to cite one example, there is a vast difference between the "needs" of those in developing countries and the "wants" that people in more advanced industrialized nations have gotten used to. Meeting "the needs of the present" suggests more equitable distribution of goods and services in a world where at present there are vast disparities in income level and quality of life. And how far out int o the future do generations have to be considered? Seven, as in some native American cultures?
Those who advocate sustainability are careful to point out the difference between "development" and "growth," which are far from synonymous. In their World Bank Environment Working Paper published last July, Robert Goodland, Herman Daly, and Salah El Serafy put the difference this way:
"To grow means to increase in size by the assimilation or accretion of materials. To develop means to expand or realize the potentialities of; to bring to a fuller, greater, or better state.... Quantitative growth and qualitative improvement follow different laws. Our planet develops over time without growing. Our economy, a subsystem of the finite and non-growing earth, must eventually adapt to a similar pattern of development."
To follow such a pattern means fundamental economic rethinking, especially a redesign in the way economic health is determined. Herman Daly at the World Bank and futurist Hazel Henderson have been advocating such changes for years, and some western European countries have begun to measure the economic costs of, for example, depleting natural resources or cleaning up pollution.
Market economics and gross national product (GNP), argues Ms. Henderson in her new book, "Paradigms in Progress: Life Beyond Economics," represent a "narrow `productionist,' supply-side approach, which ignores both the social costs incurred and the problems of demand."
"The hard truth is that our economic system is partially blind," writes Sen. Al Gore (D) of Tennessee in his recent bestseller, "Earth in the Balance." "It carefully measures and keeps track of the value of those things most important to buyers and sellers, such as food, clothing, manufactured goods, work, and indeed, money itself. But its intricate calculations often completely ignore the value of other things that are harder to buy and sell: fresh water, clean air, the beauty of the mountains, the rich
diversity of life in the forest, to name a few."
Not to count those things in the economic balance leads to the current state of unsustainable development - nonrenewable resources running out and renewable resources being used up too rapidly. This, Senator Gore terms "future abuse."