Important Concepts in Environmental Law--the Idea of "Sustainable Development".

Author:Surtees, Jeff

November 2, 2018

In the next few columns I am going to talk about some concepts that are important to understanding environmental law. The first is the idea of sustainable development. A quick search of the CANLII website shows the phrase appears in Canadian federal and provincial legislation 359 times and in published court decisions 237 times.

In 1987 an important United Nations commission (the "Brundtland Commission") defined sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This definition is often used more or less word for word in legislation (in federal statutes it appears in the Sustainable Development Act, the Auditor General Act, the Department of Natural Resources Act and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act among others).

What sustainable development means to a regulator, to an industry or to a member of the public depends to a great deal upon whether the emphasis is on the first word or the second. One view is that there is meant to be a great deal packed into the simple phrase. The other view is that the phrase is malleable to the point of being meaningless because it tries to achieve an impossible balance between anthropocentric (people come first) and ecocentric (the natural world comes first) visions for the world.

The definition emphasizes that there is a relationship between sustainability and development. Early on, discussions were often about trade-offs and about whether striking a balance between economic and environmental goals was even possible. More recently, discussions have emphasized the complex and interconnected nature of everything on earth. If fish populations disappear because of overfishing or destruction of habitat, then the tourism industry will suffer. If we farm in ways that ruin the soil, farmers will fail, and people won't be fed. If even the more modest climate change predictions come true, many economies will suffer. The Brundtland Commission report states, "the 'environment' is where we live; and 'development' is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable". One of the purposes of using the language of sustainable development is to remind us of that inseparability. Those seeking to use the earth's resources are reminded that they are not infinite. On the other side, people are reminded that economic activity is needed for human survival.


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