Is Sustainable Development at a crossroad?

It is quite an irony to talk of Sustainable Development (SD) to be at cross roads when the United Nations recently announced the Sustainable Development Goals(SDG) with a clear road map until 2030. But, it did occur after listening to a talk by distinguished professor in Sustainable Development, Nicholas Ashford from MIT.

The Perfect Storm


Prof. Ashford calls the present state ‘A perfect storm’. He believes the current situation is a continuation of the economic crisis or in other words “It is the longest recovery“. According to him we are in a vicious cycle where there is decreased spending, low GDP , no jobs and it goes around. He goes on to say financial recovery is critical before everything which is then explained in his new model of the three circles where Work replaces social equity in the classical model of sustainable development. Is it right?

The discussion


It was a great experience to discuss this with my cohort from Engineering for Sustainable Development. It is a diversified group with people from different backgrounds both geographically and academically.

Did we agree to what Prof. had to say? Of course not, we did have a systems approach to the topic.

Was the prof. right in replacing Social Equity by work?

In general we did agree that access to jobs is critical but social equity doesn’t stop at just having a job to do. Friends from South Africa had interesting stories to share on the availability of jobs (even though redundant) don’t necessarily translate into a better social life.

The role of government

The role of Government is critical in establishing a framework for  development.

There was a consensus that regulation is a necessity for Sustainable Development. We discussed on a few policies of the US govt. and their impact on people and development. The prevailing debate in the US on whether to tax the rich more or is it too much to ask for? was interesting.

Financial systems and the economic divide

We began with a recent British regulation on taxes corresponding to family sizes which is bound to expand the economic gap. That then led to the traditional economic divide in a society. The society is today split between people who thrive on luxury and people who just want to meet the basic need.

Who pays the price for damages done by the developed nations? It always ends up being the poor.

On the contrary a critic of renewable energy would argue that ” The poor everywhere are being impoverished by high cost of green energy“.


It was generally believed that creating an educational system that is accessible to all is the fundamental block of sustainable development. But, we were surprised to hear the story of schools in Nigeria. Officially the Nigerian govt. claims to provide free education but it is only the learning that fails to happen.

Rote learning continues to thrive in middle east and parts of Asia.

It was however surprising to know the flaws in acclaimed educational policies of US and Canada.

Perspective of the people

Sustainability begins with ‘I’

It turned out to be the fulcrum of our discussion. Does advertising enhance the acceptance of sustainability? Are Governments justified in spending public money in creating awareness on sustainable development.


Is it public awareness or green-washing?

To conclude it was accepted that there is nothing much that could be done to change peoples’ attitude.

Expecting people to change their attitude after a talk on sustainable development is like expecting people to quit smoking/drinking after hearing about their ill-effects.

But even a slight change in attitude could be leveraged to proceed towards Sustainable Development. To conclude it was accepted that there is nothing much that could be done to Change people’s attitude.

Participants in the discussion: Allison,Caroline, Madison, Kathleen (US), Byeronie and Roxanne (SA), Roderick (Aus), Heather, Steffan (Canada), Dan (UK), Koso (Nigeria), Mohammad (Jordan),Girish Shivakumar (India) and Alejandro (Guatemala).


  1. I’d certainly agree about government playing a major role by regulating. Incredibly though I see a a major trend in developing societies where governments, eager to enhance investments choose to abdicate instead by looking the other way when newly invited industrial houses come to pollute. Greening the Goods and Sales Tax is another area (in India) where the government can choose to incentivize industries for cleaner technologies. Again, that does not appear to be taking off. Watching with bated breath to see how new sustainable development policies will unfold in the longer run. Trust it will not be too late by then. Thanks for your post, Sugato Dutt

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