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Mapping out Sustainable Development

From summit to summit, sustainability remains largely elusive: who are the true leaders?

World leaders from 158 countries are gathering in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 20-22 for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), or Rio+20 — the latest phase of ongoing discussions about correcting the environmental mistakes of our past in the name of future generations.

When it comes to sustainable development, we do like to talk a lot.

This is a broad, sweeping concept that if adhered to could solve the imminent questions of global poverty, food scarcity, climate change and environmental degradation we face in this year, 2012.

At least that’s the idea.

In terms of potential global awareness, the idea of sustainable development made its first tepid splash 40 years ago as world leaders gathered in Stockholm for the UN Conference on the Human Environment.

That was when people began talking.

The Stockholm Declaration was born there, mapping out a set of principles focused on how people can be supported in their quest to preserve and enhance our physical world.

The first line of the first proclamation from that document reads: “Man is both creature and moulder of his environment, which gives him physical sustenance and affords him the opportunity for intellectual, moral, social and spiritual growth.”

It was an agreed upon recognition that humans are a part of this world that hold great influence, and it leads us to recognize the responsibility we have to the environment and each other.

Twenty years later in Rio, the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) zeroed in on sustainable development once more, and Agenda 21 — a framework to be implemented globally — was a major outcome of that meeting of representatives from 178 countries.

Then there was Kyoto and the lip-service of global governments who pledged and reneged and bickered in the face of industrial revolutions from India to China to Brazil; and progress toward sustainability crawled along.

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs;” reads one definition to come out of the Brundtland Commission of the 1980s — another attempt to bring about solutions to our greatest of challenges.

When put this way, sustainability seems easy enough, but governments, bureaucrats, commissioners and the like have been talking for 40 years and improvements they’ve held sway over are often extremely hard to see.

In some cases, it seems like we’re going backwards: consider the Government of Canada passing sweeping legislation in the last week that many argue guts environmental protection measures that have been in place for 50 years.

The differences we do see that offer hope and inspiration come from the power of strengths-based organizations that are naturally democratic and go about their work with the sense that they’re honouring a social purpose.

These are businesses that focus on people, planet and profit, and in doing so they’re enlivening a better world, and their stories are catching on.

We see people focusing on businesses and governments, demanding cleaner technology and greater protections for vulnerable populations and fragile ecosystems in the knowledge that a great sense of urgency hangs over our global community.

The Earth Summit in Brazil will do much to keep sustainable development top of mind, which is a good thing, but it’s the companies and people that keep this focus front of mind everyday that will inspire a true shift towards sustainability.

Imagine the progress to a more sustainable world if more businesses, organizations and citizens held social purpose at their core of being.

Sustainability would be practically inevitable.

We’d love to hear questions or comments. Please leave them below or e-mail kristian(at)

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