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Sustainable development a challenge

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By Dorothy Gamble

Perhaps many nonprofits and communities are well aware of the meaning of sustainable development because some communities in North Carolina have developed indicators that will allow them to track sustainable development progress.

But for some, the term may still be a mystery.

It is important to understand the concept of sustainable development because it has become pervasive in community development discussions.

It may be easier to understand sustainable development by knowing what it is not.

Sustainable development, for example, does not mean continued growth in terms of getting larger.

Rather, it refers to the quality and result of development.

Development is sustainable when it provides the most community members with opportunities for economic and social exchange, and when it respects and protects the common natural resources upon which the community depends.

The 1992 International Conference on Development and the Environment in Rio de Janeiro provided a new sense of urgency about the future of the planet.

People could see the importance of understanding the role of human societies in both the destruction and preservation of the environment, and in the destruction and preservation of human social, economic and cultural institutions.

From a global perspective, we realized that through mostly human activity, millions of acres of forest are lost each year, a third of coral reefs could disappear in the next 30 years, and global warming can increase the number and location of droughts and water shortages.

Here in the U.S., we know that our “ecological footprint,” or the acres required to maintain an individual lifestyle at the level we are accustomed to living, is about 30 acres per person, no matter what our income level.

Our ecological footprint is five times larger than for people living in developing countries. We just make and use things in more wasteful ways.

But the good news is that as we learn to make changes that will reduce our ecological footprint, we will necessarily be more dependent upon each other and our local economy.

It means everyone in a community counts and must be included in the quality of development.

While many communities have a strong sense of the value of their natural resources, cultural diversity, social supports and economic responsibility, the concept of sustainable development helps us to put these concerns in an integrated framework.


Dorothy Gamble is a clinical associate professor at the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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