What is sustainable development?

Sustainable development was a term adopted by the United Nations (UN) in 2015. It encompasses global private and public projects that aim to end poverty, protect planet earth, and ensure all people can live in health and prosperity. You may also hear it referred to as Agenda 2030, as the intention is these goals should be met by the end of this decade -- admirably bold goals given the scale of the challenges.

The UN and its partners have identified 17 Sustainable Development Goals to help them reach the ambitious target of creating a more integrated global community where everybody has the chance to succeed. The 17 SDGs include promoting responsible consumption and production, clean water and energy for all, gender equality, quality education, and zero hunger. Ban Ki-moon, the former Secretary-General of the UN, believes the Sustainable Development Goals are “pathways to the future we want for all. They offer frameworks to generate economic growth, achieve social justice, exercise environmental stewardship, and strengthen global governance."

How does sustainable development impact me?

"Climate change knows no borders," says German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "It will not stop before the Pacific Islands, and the whole of the international community here has to shoulder a responsibility to bring about a sustainable development." The way societies and economies grow impacts everyone on the planet. For example, unsustainable business practices by global corporations can destroy natural landscapes and local communities in developing nations. Our preconceived notions about gender roles often limit the potential of young women and our desire for new goods, items, and convenience can enable exploitative working conditions abroad. 

For example, a 2019 report from the Business and Human Rights Resource Center found Samsung Electronics plants in India, Vietnam, and Indonesia were engaged in various activities that either skirted international working standards or overtly violated them. One 22-year-old factory worker told investigators she was being 'worked to death.' Sustainable development works to end circumstances such as these. This involves educating people about how the small choices they make every day can have enormous consequences. In other words, we all have a role to play.

Why should you study sustainable development? 

The sustainable development sector is a rapidly growing area full of new opportunities and career paths. Experts anticipate a $600 billion investment into sustainable infrastructure projects over the next 10 years in the UK. Moreover, the UK government has already unveiled a ten-point plan to launch a Green Industrial Revolution. The $18 billion initiative will build renewable energy plants, develop carbon capture technology, and fund public education programs. This is expected to create over 250,000 new jobs within five years. 

Similar things are also happening across the rest of Europe, Africa, Asia, and the USA. The Biden Administration's ambitious infrastructure bill includes creating 10 million well-paying jobs in the green energy sector. These jobs could include exciting new roles like sustainability consultant, clean car engineer, environmental scientist, wave producer, or even urban farmer. 

Working in sustainable development

For many people already working in sustainable development, what they do every day is far more than just a job. Instead, it's a calling, a chance to drive meaningful change and make the environment safe for people and the planet. David Bledsoe works alongside advocacy groups in Uganda to promote safe industrial practices and help local families receive fair compensation from oil companies operating in the region. "We listen to the stories of people losing their land and home, and their desperate need to have their livelihoods restored. Then we open a dialogue with governments and corporations who have resisted giving the necessary support or compensation. This has amplified the voices of the marginalized and led to better outcomes. But we've still got a long way to go. So we'll keep fighting until the oil companies embrace the best practices for all."

Studying sustainable development

Undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in sustainability studies empower students with the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values we need to build a sustainable future. Students at the University of Plymouth, for instance, learn about the causes and effects of climate change, food and farming, biodiversity, ecological systems, how different economic systems can promote or negatively impact sustainability, sustainable tourism, consumerism and trade, and corporate social responsibility. At the same time, students interested in the social goals of the UN's 17 SDGs can elect to study topics such as human rights, cultural diversity, and intercultural understanding. 

But sustainability is not just an academic exercise. The University of Plymouth has a dedicated Environment and Sustainability Forum (ESF). It's a weekly get-together where students, staff, and lecturers discuss ideas and launch new environmental campaigns. There's also a weekly beekeeping inspection group, and several other societies that collect litter from local greenspaces. They also help plant more trees. 

Alternatively, students can become part of the School's Future Leaders Programmes. Open to any student with a passion for sustainability, the Future Leaders Programme is an opportunity for young people to develop their vision and ideas into projects on and beyond the university campus. For example, Peter Redstone, one of Plymouth’s Future Leaders, set up an on-campus gardening group where staff and students grow their own food and learn about making sustainable lifestyle choices. Programs such as Future Leaders are in no way exclusive to the University of Plymouth or UK higher education. Schools all around the world have made a serious commitment to educating society about the urgent need for new ways of living and doing business. So wherever you decide to study sustainable development, you will have plenty of chance to make a real impact.

The world's most sustainable universities

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) recently compiled a list of the highest-ranking greenest universities. These are schools that not only teach sustainable development but practice it, too. Colorado State University was recognized for being the first US college campus to have a building heated and air-conditioned by solar power. Also at the top of the rankings was Sterling College, where more than 80% of the college will soon be powered by on-campus solar panels. The school also offers outdoor skills training and produces its own sustainable farmed food on-campus. 

Similarly, almost half the food served at Stanford University campuses is organic or locally sourced. Plus, the school is now offering over 500 courses related to environmental sustainability. Other entrants include the University of Connecticut and Chatham University, where 90% of the school's energy comes from wind farms. 

Sustainability isn't a buzzword. It's a revolutionary outlook that can power change, creating a future everybody deserves. So get involved by choosing to study sustainable development