How to understand agenda 21 and sustainable development

Written by sarah snyder
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Agenda 21 is the United Nations' blueprint for sustainable living, which is the practice of using natural resources in such a way that preserves the environment for future generations. While it is often associated with environmental issues such as global warming, sustainable development also involves the social and economic landscape of a community. Sustainable development can be thought of on a variety of levels, from globally to locally. Critics consider “sustainable development” to be an empty or vague expression.

Skill level:


  1. 1

    Examine the definition. According to the Bruntland Commission of 1987, a sustainable development is one that "meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The problem with this, say critics of the concept, is that the factors that govern sustainability are too broad. In addition critics say that the concept of sustainable development means different things to different people. Locally, for example, the focus will be on keeping the environment clean and using alternative energy to stem global warming. However, from the perspective of the United Nations, a major component of sustainable development is assisting third-world countries on the most basic of levels.

  2. 2

    Think locally. In both urban and rural landscapes, development trends are shifting to sustainable development. Grants exist for businesses and governments who want to build with the environment and global warming in mind. By making changes on a local level, other communities could follow suit. Soon, the idea could make it to the state level, where it could become state law.

  3. 3

    Think regionally. At the state level, if enough cities adopt sustainable principles, a senator or representative may pen a bill. With enough support, the bill could pass into law, furthering sustainable development initiatives such as those that help the environment or combat global warming. Legislation becomes even more critical in matters such as water and energy, where the good intentions of local communities can only go so far without regional support.

  4. 4

    Think nationally. Similarly, if enough states promote sustainable development, the trend will gain influence on a national scale. As is the case from the local level up, politics and economy are important in sustainable development issues, and often diplomacy becomes key. The environment and global warming issues become more complicated at this level as leaders disagree on how to handle the broader problems, such as the energy crisis.

  5. 5

    Think globally. In terms of the global stage, sustainable development considers the empowerment of third-world countries. Such global initiatives are often facilitated by non-governmental entities. Often, however, the individual agendas of these organisations undermine the cause. In addition, while the world’s nations, including the United States, have pledged to commit 0.7 per cent of their gross domestic product to international sustainable development, this has hardly been the case. The shortage of skilled workers, disease, water shortages, drought and starvation are some of the issues that plague developing countries. However, Agenda 21 also pays attention to the environment and global warming.

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