Sustainable reading

Sustainable Development: Linking Economy, Society, Environment
OECD Observer

Humanity has few stranger monuments than the moai of Easter Island. Weighing up to 270 tonnes, these huge figures, like the pyramids of ancient Egypt, are all that’s left of what must once have been a creative and complex society–but a society that also used its resources unsustainably, effectively destroying the ecosystem base of its island home.

Are we following in the same footsteps? That’s the question at the beginning of Sustainable Development, the second title in the “OECD Insights” series, which aims to discuss current policy problems for non-specialist readers.

With minds currently focused on fixing the global economy, this might seem like a strange time for such a book. But the threat of climate change is as pressing as ever. Our societies clearly need to ask some wider questions, about the impact of economic growth on society and the environment, or indeed, whether growth can deliver solutions to environmental challenges. These are the questions that lie at the heart of the concept of sustainable development: How does growth interact with the environment and the health of our societies? And how will it affect future generations?

Sustainable Development makes clear that there are no easy answers, but it does provide a range of interesting ways to at least start thinking about them. The concept of sustainable development itself is one – i.e., striking a three-way balance between economic, social and environmental goals based on the needs of societies of both today and tomorrow. We don’t want to leave a wrecked planet to our heirs, but nor do we want to leave them an impoverished one.

The authors untangle difficult concepts, such as the “water footprint”: Did you know that a cup of tea “costs” 30 litres of water to produce, while a cup of coffee costs 140 litres?

As a footnote, Sustainable Development was launched in Australia in early December 2008 using print-on-demand technology, which means books are printed in a bookshop only when they are ordered, and not printed in Europe and then shipped to the four corners of the planet. That yielded an environmental saving of almost 6kg in carbon emissions per book. Small change, perhaps, but at least it is a book that practised what it preaches.

ISBN 978-92-64-14778-5

©OECD Observer No 270/271, December 2008-January 2009

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