A History of Sustainable Development

Episode 1

This first episode of the series sets the stage by presenting the topics that will be addressed in all other episodes. Before watching them, it might be helpful to first discuss and reflect on your current perspective on sustainable development: Are you aware of the formal definition of the term sustainable development? If so, how do you interpret this definition; what does it mean to you, does it make sense to you, and why? If not, how would you define sustainable development, what does it mean to you, and why?

This first discussion on the core topic of this video series – the history and evolution of sustainable development – could also be based on all participants preparing for it by not only reflecting on their own interpretations but also reviewing how the term sustainable development is used online, both on ‘traditional’ websites and on social media. Why do you think this term is interpreted and appreciated so differently by different people? Why has it resulted in such a heated debate for quite some time now?

Episode 2

This second episode explains why we, as society, have not yet been able to make a lot of progress in tackling sustainability problems. Industrialism and capitalism seem to stand in the way of doing so. 

Could you come up with or design (individually or as group) alternatives to these principles at the core of how we have organised our societies? While you’re at it, maybe you want to have a look at democracy (based on proportional representation, first past the post or another election system) as another key organising principle for our societies.

In fact, it might also prove very informative and thus interesting to organise a debate (in class) in which various groups represent various sides of the argument, such as capitalism versus socialism or degrowth versus green growth. In preparing for this debate, all groups could read up and digest on these principles and relate them to how they facilitate or hinder sustainable development.

Episode 3

In this episode, the overview effect is introduced. An overview of our planet is not the only image that can make us realise the vulnerability of ecosystems and nature. We suggest to all bring a picture or photograph to class that, for you, represents such a powerful image; an image that reminds you, and others, about the interconnectedness of living organisms, ecosystems, the various parts of our natural world. In class, show each other your images and explain why you selected that specific picture/photograph. Then, together, discuss how all of these images relate to the Limits to Growth report by the Club of Rome.

This episode ends with the statement that we have not yet solved the sustainability problem; in fact, one could argue that addressing it in new, smarter ways is more relevant today than it has ever been. So, maybe, it is time for a new Club of Rome; a group of people that report on the current state of our planet and humanity, in a way that gets through to people, that resounds with people, that will result in action. Who should be in this new Club of Rome, and why? It might be quite interesting to see whether you and your fellow students can come up with a list of max. 30 people who should be in this club, including the reasoning for this selection. And while you’re at it, why not draft the table of content for this report…

Episode 4

The formal definition of sustainable development, as introduced in this episode, is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. However, over time, many people and organisations have come up with their own definitions of sustainability and sustainability development. It might be quite informative and interesting to do some desk research and see how many definitions you can find. Subsequently, bring all of your definitions to class and show them in one overview, for instance by placing post-its on a wall or writing them down on a big whiteboard. And then, could you all agree on which definitions are an improvement to the definition in Our Common Future, and which clearly are worse? Can you agree on which definition is the ‘best one’, and why?

This episode also states that sustainable development, over time, has become a buzzword, a truism. Can you find examples of this, for instance in messages/statements/arguments of politicians, business people or organisations? Why do these messages show that this person or organisation is not taking sustainable development seriously? Maybe it might be interesting to organise a competition: who can find the message/statement/argument that is the ultimate example of pretending to care about sustainable development but failing horribly?

Episode 5

After watching this episode, we invite you to visit: https://sdgs.un.org/goals

Have a look at some of the targets and indicators for the various Sustainable Development Goals; do you agree with all of them? If not, and after watching this episode of our video series you probably don’t, could you discuss in class which goals/targets/indicators still make perfect sense today? And which ones should be changed, or maybe even removed? What other ones should really be added to the framework?

This exercise prepares you for the following challenge:

Individually, or as a group, could you design (the contours of) an improved Sustainable Development Goals framework or maybe even its successor as of 2030. What would a framework, that truly stimulates the kind of changes that we need to address currently unfolding ecological and social crises, look like?

Episode 6

After watching this episode, we suggest you organise your own Conference of the Parties. Select a specific class meeting in which you will all discuss your own plans for your own individual contribution to sustainable development for the upcoming few years. As a group, your target is to reduce your collective greenhouse gas emissions by 70% in the next five years, in way that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations to meet their own needs”.

In preparation for this COP, you all check your current greenhouse gas emissions through tools available online. You also create an overview of all of your other environmental and social impacts, for instance in relation to biodiversity, pollution and poverty.

You then prepare your own personal improvement plan for all of these aspects – mind you, make sure to create a plan that you would actually be willing to stick to! If that plan isn’t enough to reduce your own greenhouse gas emissions by 70% or underperforms on other environmental or social criteria, maybe during the COP you can persuade a classmate to compensate for that with their plan? 

And then, as a final preparation for the COP, you collectively try to create an overview of all of your individual plans and their collective impact on greenhouse gas emissions, all other planetary boundaries and all social aspects of sustainable development.

During the COP itself, as a group you discuss, in a structured way, the collection of plans, their impact, your views on whether they are ambitious yet realistic enough, and so on. Can you all agree on a collection of plans that will put your class on course for serving as a example for the rest of our society on how to pursue sustainable development? Feel free to design your own set-up for the actual COP – a structure or process that you feel will result in the best outcome of the class conference. How will you ensure that all voices are heard (equally)? How will you, as a collective, ensure that everyone sticks to their plans?

Episode 7

If you have watched this final episode, that probably means you have watched some of the other episodes, maybe all of them. First of all, thank you for taking the time to do so. We hope this video series helps you to develop your own perspective on what sustainable development means and what we, as humanity, need to do to realise it. 

We also sincerely hope that, like us, you feel we can do this. That, as long as we stick together and realise that the vast majority of us actually prefer a society that is based on truly sustainable principles, surely we will make it happen.

With that in mind, we invite you to keep reading up on the latest concepts relating to sustainable development, and to discuss and reflect on what they could mean to you, as a student, as a future professional, as a voter, as a consumer, as a neighbor, and more.

If you have experimented with some of the activities relating to these videos and would like to give some feedback, or have come up with your own activities based on these videos which you would like to share, we would love to hear from you. Please contact us via sustainability@buas.nl