When considering sustainable development, it is necessary to think about environmental conditions and their effects. Quality environmental conditions serve as a base to sustainable development. Without environmental conditions that allow people to meet their basic needs — that is, biological and physiological needs and security — it will be difficult, if not impossible, to focus on developing a more sustainable future.

To reiterate, the International Institute for Sustainable Development defines sustainable development as development that meets pressing present needs and leaves the natural environment well intact so future generations can sustain themselves.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development said the definition extends into “the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given.” As many who attempt to better the conditions of the world’s poor have learned, this is not only challenging, but also infinitely complex. Nevertheless, if one operates under the assumption that developing countries want to be developed (a fundamentally Western assumption), is sustainable development only relevant to democratic states? Not necessarily, but it appears good governance and rule of law are critical to sustainable development. Environmental conditions aside, successful sustainable development has occurred where there has been strong governmental structures able to support the weight of sustainable development. Thus, more horizontal accountability (inter-governmental relationships, such as checks and balances) seems to be more effective than vertical accountability (government-civilian relationships) where sustainable development is concerned.

The fundamentals of sustainable development have long been part of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, and building off the goal of global environmental security, the UN created 17 Sustainable Development Goals to reach by 2030. These encompass most all the factors that could lead to thriving environmental conditions. Between now and 2030, it is up to individual states to meet these goals. If countries do not meet these goals, the repercussion is disappointment at best followed by a more rigorous set of development goals. However, I am still concerned that sustainable development — and the fundamental environmental quality necessary to foster sustainable development — is fundamentally Western and thus democratic.

Granted, many developing countries have significantly lower carbon footprints, due to their lifestyle, and even due to their government, even if that government is authoritarian or semi-authoritarian. These are the countries that often pay the environmental price for the Western countries, a price that frequently goes unnoticed. This is a different can of worms, though.

Differences in government, and even more importantly, culture, will make the 17 Sustainable Development Goals particularly difficult for some countries to meet. A peoples’ culture, which often defines gender roles and use for the land (both of which are mentioned in the Sustainable Development Goals), is not something that can be changed in 15 years, let alone 50 years. Yes, it is true that quality environmental conditions must preside in a country before transitions to sustainable development can be considered; however, it is also true that the concept of sustainable development appears to be a democratic ideal, and one industrial countries in particular need to heed. The conflict between these two ideals is pervasive, and I look forward to seeing the social, governmental and environmental complexities of sustainable development unfold in the coming years.

Sarah Liebig

Sarah Liebig is a senior studying English Writing and Global Studies: Worlds in Dialogue. Liebig’s principal interests lie in social justice and environmental concerns. Upon graduation, she intends to study law. Liebig is originally from Lincoln, NE and is the only child of two soil scientists. She shares permanent residence with two cats, Oscar and Ophelia.

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