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“People” are the Core of Sustainability

Sustainability is most commonly associated with the environment. To some, it is synonymous with eco-friendly, recycling, and green. However, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) imply a broader definition of sustainability through the inclusion of topics such as poverty, gender inequality, and decent work and economic growth. They reflect a sometimes forgotten cornerstone of sustainability-- "people”.  

Our current understanding of “sustainability” was born out of the UN Brundtland Commission’s 1987 report, Our Common Future, which defined “sustainable development” as development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

While key needs for all generations include sufficient natural resources and a habitable planet, the definition does not directly mention the environment in any capacity. Rather, the goal is social to begin with—requiring us to consider and strive for the needs of the people.  

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, at the most basic, physiological needs level we require things like food, water, shelter, and air. Much of the distress surrounding the state of our environment relates to its projected impact on our ability to meet these needs, between predicted food scarcity, drought, air pollution, and migration crisis. However, what hinders our ability to achieve such needs is not always related to resource scarcity or natural factors.

For example, while water scarcity is largely driven by natural forces such as climate and geography, the distribution of access is greatly impacted by socioeconomic factors. According to the WEF, water scarcity is not an issue of supply and demand, but of overallocation of water resources to business-as-usual practices. There is a prioritization of upholding water-intensive industries over meeting basic human needs across the board. Impoverished and marginalized communities are usually the last to be considered, with lack of sufficient infrastructure and investment continuing to be major roadblocks to their access.  

Ascending Maslow’s Hierarchy, we find that human needs also encapsulate a sense of belonging and self-actualization. Respect for gender diversity and equality, as well as opportunities for education and career development, are therefore integral ways in which we can foster the achievement of those needs.

Ultimately, as we strive towards sustainability, it is essential that we remember that “people” remain at the crux of our efforts and that meeting our goals will require rethinking more than just our relationship with the environment.

<div class="story_highlight">Research is based on information from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United Nations Children’s Fund and World Health Organization.</div>