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Sustainable development: 50 years of progress

Moving from a limited environmental focus to recognising the importance of health, well-being and prosperity of people and the planet, the concept of sustainable development has transformed over the years. Gaining some insight into this development may widen the understanding of what sustainability can mean for health professionals today.

In 1972, the first environment summit was held in Stockholm, Sweden, and the statement ‘environmentally sound development’ was born. By the following year, the statement was changed to ‘eco-development’. 50 years of processes, change and research cannot easily be summarised, and it is good to remember that progress is challenging. It is a continuous change of mindset, and what is ‘true’ today might not be true tomorrow. A 1960’s example from Scandinavia is the public information on how to keep the seashore clean. The public was encouraged to place their trash in a box, weigh it down with rocks, and then sink it in the ocean. Fortunately, a lot has happened since then.

What does sustainability mean?

Most of us are familiar with the word ‘sustainable’. It is commonly associated with terms like climate change, environment and recycling. Although we strive towards a common goal, these expressions are sometimes used to convince, shame or pressure people and organisations. ‘Not sustainable’, ‘not biodegradable’ and ‘bad for the environment’, not only mislead and generalise the subject but also miss the essence of sustainability. Companies describe themselves and their products as sustainable byusing phrases like CO2-footprint, bio-based, plant-based and green, but sustainability goes beyond this; it includes complex interactions with sometimes unexpected causes and effects.

An early definition of sustainability is ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. This modern-time description of sustainability was published in the report, Our Common Future, by the Bruntland Commission in 1987. Although environment seems to be in focus, it refers to economic growth whilst protecting the environment and people, also known as sustainable development; implying the physical and mental benefit from treating each other and the environment with respect.

Sustainable development

Sustainable development is sometimes described as ‘green economic growth’, economic growth with minimal impact on the environment and people. One example is a production with decreased CO2 emissions, fair working conditions and an efficient supply chain. A more popular way of describing it is by using the three pillars of sustainable development—environmental, economic and social—which have gradually developed from the Bruntland report (1987) and the World Summits in Rio (Agenda 21, 1992) and Johannesburg (2002). However, there is no clear framework and no in-depth explanation of the three pillars, so the model has therefore been adopted by different professional fields.

The three pillars are commonly described as follows:

Environmental (planet) – Protect the planet. Consumption at a rate where resourses can renew themselves.

Economic (profit) – To have and generate access to resources to meet our needs.

Social (people) – Fair leadership, human rights, equality between genders, access to education and healthcare, as examples.

Health is to the highest degree involved in all three pillars. The individual needs access to care, but also to be able to generate enough means to afford it and to have the option of environmentally-friendly care without being put at risk due to compromise—it’s all integrated.

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‘Think globally and act locally’ – Agenda 21

To implement sustainable development globally, nationally and locally, Agenda 21 was presented at the World Summit in Rio, Brazil, in 1992, a dynamic programme with the slogan ‘Think globally and act locally’. Though endorsement was voluntary for the member states, it still delivered a framework with vital steps towards health and wellbeing, not only for mankind but for all life on earth: people, plants and wildlife.

Agenda 21 has since played a central part in the UN’s sustainability work, and the implementation and progress have been reviewed several times—in the World Summits in 1997, 2002 and 2012, where the member countries were once again invited to endorse their commitment to sustainable development in the paper, The future we want.

The Millennium Development Goals

‘Spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanising conditions of extreme poverty.’

In 2000, 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were set to reduce extreme poverty and its immediate effects, reduce the spread of HIV and provide education. Compared with Agenda 21, which consisted of 351 pages, the MDGs included only 8 goals, 18 targets and 48 indicators to be met by 2015. Commitment from the member states was still voluntary, and the goals were mainly aimed at developing countries with support from developed countries.

The MDGs are to date the most effective movement for pursuing health and wellbeing on a global level, and have helped more than a billion people out of extreme poverty and resulted in a record-high attendance in school by girls. Despite the success of the program, it highlighted other areas that couldn’t be neglected in order to achieve sustainability on a global level. The MDGs therefore resulted in the next step of sustainable development, Agenda 2030.

Agenda 2030 and the Sustainability Development Goals

In 2015, the UN General Assembly approved Agenda 2030 for sustainable development. It is a commitment by the UN member states to work towards achieving a socially, environmentally and economically sustainable world by 2030. It comprises of17 goals (SDGs) with 169 subgoals to fulfil by 2030. They areindependent but still connected to one another and are anextension of previous work that aims at providing a better worldfor future generations. More equally framed, the programmeis aimed towards developed and developing countries alike.

When the SDGs were introduced in 2018, it became clear thateven the most sustainable countries in the world were behindon fulfilling the 17 goals by 2030. Nevertheless, the goals helpto pinpoint actions that need to be taken, and today, manyorganisations use them for mapping out a way forward, oftenfocusing on goals where they can make a true difference.

For dental care and healthcare, SDG 3—Good Health andWellbeing—lies closest to heart, but most SDGs, if not all,have either a direct or indirect impact on people’s physical and mental health. Therefore, improvement of any SDG is beneficial for health and wellbeing. After five decades of progress, our motto, ‘Primum non nocere’ (First do no harm) runs deep within sustainable development.

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