Two: Conceptualising sustainable development

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As noted in the previous chapter, sustainable development is often understood in terms of the Brundtland Commission’s definition of “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987, 43). A sceptic might respond to Brundtland’s argument for sustainable development by observing that human welfare in Hong Kong and China has improved rapidly in recent decades despite environmentally unsustainable practices. One widely accepted idea, articulated by the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, attributes this apparent progress to market forces that act as an ‘invisible hand’ to allocate resources efficiently (Smith 2000). According to this liberal economic idea, a community will achieve ideal collective outcomes if people pursue their individual economic interests, even if they do so without thinking about the greater good. Armed with the theory that self-interest benefits everyone, the sceptic might ask why we need to become ‘sustainable’ if old-fashioned (unsustainable) development appears to be working. In contrast, advocates of sustainable development point out that the most threatened resources are those that are not connected to markets. Natural services provided by the atmosphere, oceans, forests and biological diversity are prominent examples (Pearce 1993, 5). According to this view, the natural environment needs better protection than an unregulated market can provide, and adopting sustainable development as a goal will help us to achieve a society that is more secure, healthy and just. The advocates of sustainable development point to environmental hazards—such as the health impacts of Hong Kong’s polluted air and the greater long-term threat posed by climate change—and argue that economic development should be guided by principles other than short-term economic self-interest.

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