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Sustainable development (1): how everyone can help

To look at the idea of sustainable development, and see how we each can contribute.

by Claire Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To look at the idea of sustainable development, and see how we each can contribute.

Preparation and materials


Reader 1
Exams are tough. You have to go through a lot of hard work: late nights, stress, no time to see friends or just relax in front of the TV. Why on earth would we put ourselves through that? And yet most of you will work hard, and you will get the results you want through a lot of late nights and stressful days. Why on earth would you do that, when you could be in the park or watching TV?

Reader 2
You do it because you know it will benefit you in the future. You get good results, you get the job you want, or you go to the university you want.

Reader 3

This is what sustainability is about: the future. Living sustainably means making small sacrifices now, for the sake of the people who are going to live on our planet for (hopefully) thousands of years in the future.

Reader 1

As a civilization our current way of life is, in many ways, unsustainable. This is because we cannot continue in the way we are now indefinitely in the future – we cannot sustain it. We are dependent on fossil fuels, which will run out (perhaps not too far in the future); we produce more carbon dioxide than the natural carbon cycle of our planet could ever support, thus leading to climate change; and we produce and distribute food in such a way that the rich in the West get ever fatter, while the poor in undeveloped countries starve to death.

Reader 2

Sustainable development is a way of looking for solutions to these environmental concerns which, at heart, is about the search for equity (fairness) across the generations – ensuring that generations in the future have access to the same resources, and therefore quality of life, as we do now. But it also encompasses the idea of equity within the generations – so it looks for a way of spreading out resource use now more fairly between different countries, whether developed or undeveloped.

In fact, the term ‘sustainable development’ was first coined by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987. Its chair, Gro Harlem Brundtland, defined it as development which ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs’. The UN now points to three differing strands to sustainable development: economic development (i.e. growth, particularly in those countries whose economies are currently classed as undeveloped); social development (i.e. an improving quality of life for all citizens of the earth, whatever their background, race or class), and environmental protection, which is probably the idea of sustainability we are most used to.

Reader 3

How can such an ambitious project be realized? Can it ever be realized? Obviously, a lot of this issue can only be solved on an international, political scale. But personal choices can have a huge impact. Here are some of the minor things you can adjust in your everyday life which will cut down your carbon use.

Reader 1

Recycling waste instead of throwing it in the bin, and putting leftover food on the compost heap instead of throwing it away.

Reader 2

Using public transport, cycling and walking whenever possible. Cars are huge emitters of greenhouse gases and guzzlers of oil, and we are going to have to shift to seeing them as more of a luxury than an everyday necessity. If you do need to drive, organize car-pooling, where you share a car with your friends or family. Many councils now run their own car-pooling schemes so people can look up others in their area going on a similar journey and get a lift with them, so cutting down the number of cars on the road.

Reader 3

Insulation: encourage your parents to invest in double-glazing, and better wall and loft insulation if they can. This will mean less energy will be lost in heating; it will also save them money on the bills.

Reader 1

Encourage your parents to buy efficient machines: buy hybrid cars if you can, and look for washing machines and dishwashers that are marked with the fuel efficiency sticker. When using the washing machine, turn it down to a 30 degree cycle. And when you’re replacing the boiler, switch to a fuel-efficient one (this will save money again!).

Reader 2

Eat less meat, particularly beef. Huge swathes of rainforest are cut down every day to make grazing space for cattle; these cattle then consume vast amounts of food and pass out tonnes of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) before they are slaughtered. Then they are transported thousands of miles to arrive in our supermarkets. The whole process is carbon-intensive and wasteful in a way that producing vegetables is not. You don’t have to go vegetarian; just cut down on meat to once a week, and drink less milk.

Reader 3

If you want to go further, there are other things you can do to help: campaign, write to your MP, go on marches and demonstrations. Show governments that this is the most important issue we as a civilization have ever faced, and we will not let it be brushed aside. You could also calculate your own ‘carbon footprint’ on a carbon calculator (you can do this online), and start to work on bringing that footprint down. Another thing you could look at is ‘carbon offsetting’ flights and high-carbon activities, if they can’t be avoided – this is where you pay to have the carbon you produce ‘offset’ by planting a tree elsewhere.


We are all going to have to make adjustments to our lifestyles to cut down on our consumption. They’re small sacrifices, like the ones you make before an exam; but the good they will do for the environment, and our fellow human beings in the long term, make them worthwhile. And they’re sacrifices that will save you money and make you feel more healthy – so not all that bad!

Finally, there are some people who will try to tell you that climate change is a myth, that the science is inconclusive. Aside from the fact that there is now a global consensus that climate change is definitely happening, backed up by UN and independent government reports, to not take action now would be fool-hardy in the extreme. It would be to gamble on the future of our civilization and our planet, against overwhelming evidence. If we all do our bit to help, the effect will be overwhelming.

Time for reflection

Play the music and show the montage if you are using one.

Ask the students to consider the ways in which they could change their lives and lifestyle to contribute towards sustaining the earth.


Help us all to take responsibility:

for ourselves;

for the mess we make;

for the pollution we cause.

May we live as people with an eye to the future,

being more careful with the world’s resources,

that our world may live.


Publication date: January 2009   (Vol.11 No.1)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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