Back Back to Canadian planning Back IISDnet

A Guide to Sustainability

From: Canadian Choices for Transitions to Sustainability. Ottawa : Projet de société. Final draft, May 1995. Chapter 1.

Outlines a vision of a sustainable future for Canada and discusses some values and principles that underlie sustainability.
Acknowledges the importance of building on the work of others.
Invites all stakeholders to work together to choose Canadian transitions to sustainability.


1.1 Doing business differently

The Projet de société is a national, multistakeholder process dedicated to planning for a sustainable future. It originated at a meeting held in November 1992 when about 40 people who had been involved in Canada's preparation for the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) decided that a new organization was needed to maintain the momentum and to prepare the National Sustainable Development Strategy (NSDS) called for in Agenda 21.

It was widely agreed that the principles of transparency, inclusiveness and accountability adopted by Canada for UNCED should provide the basis for this work, meaning that decision making would be based on partnerships and consensus. As it turned out, this was hard to maintain when new stakeholders continued to join the process, others left and the number of people involved increased to 120, as it did by the fourth meeting or National Stakeholders Assembly held in November 1994.

While no single document will be able to deal with all the complex issues in sustainable development, a strategy will be helpful in laying out common problems, goals and solutions.
- Michael Keating, 1989

This document, Canadian Choices for Transitions to Sustainability, is an attempt to satisfy both those stakeholders concerned about having a product to work with in the short term and those more concerned about the processes needed to facilitate long-term transitions.

It is not a traditional strategy because sustainable development does not lend itself to traditional ways of doing things: specific goals and strategic ways of achieving them have worked well for individual sectors, but sustainable development means acting responsibly for all sectors and individuals, across both generations and continents.

That is why this NSDS is more of a guide to sustainability based on a vision of the future and a set of principles to guide the process. Given the cultural and biophysical diversity of Canada, let alone its sheer size, it would be naive to propose a sustainable development plan that everyone would be expected to follow.

Canadian Choices is thus a prototype, if not a manual, for doing business differently. Learning to work together and forging new partner-ships for sustainable development will not be easy, and because it has never been done before at the national level, the process will continue to evolve.

By highlighting sustainability initiatives throughout Canada (Chapter 2), this guide is also designed to help people build on the work of others. It shows that governments, First Nations, businesses and non-profit organizations all play a critical role in the development and implementation of an NSDS. This chapter pulls together many of the diverse activities happening at different levels and in different sectors across the country, but it also reveals a certain lack of integration and co-ordination. It is complemented by an overview (Chapter 3) of some of the international implications of sustainable development, notably our existing commitments to deal with global sustainability issues and our increasing dependence on foreign markets.

In an attempt to break with the past and encourage stakeholders to look beyond their traditional sectors, interests or organizations, Chapter 4 is organized around basic human needs. It takes an integrated approach designed to help ensure that various choices and their consequences are compared so that people can weigh the pros and cons themselves and begin to accept the difficult tradeoffs involved.

Communities and sectors are encouraged to use Chapter 4 as a workbook to generate discussion about choices and solutions. Its "Choicework Tables" begin to show the daunting complexity of sustainable development and will lead some people to conclude that sustainability cannot be achieved by working on single issues through traditional organizations.

There is a great need for a clear illustration of sustainable development in terms of eating, living, travelling and working.
- Sustainable Netherlands, 1993

That is why Chapter 5 focusses on some of the tools that can facilitate sustainable development in a systematic way, including economic instruments, sustainability indicators and integrated decision making. It is the most strategic part of this strategy because it recognizes the importance of transitions and the need for structural changes in our production and consumption patterns as well as in our governments and institutions. The final chapter, dealing with implementation, has only been sketched in at this stage because it will depend on the initiatives of those stakeholders willing and able to move ahead on their own. The experience of the Projet de société will hopefully help them and others in developing and implementing their own strategies for sustainability because it emphasizes the responsibility we must all take for making these changes happen.

1.2 Visions of the future

The closing years of the 20th century are seen by many as a hinge of history, with nothing less than the future of the planet in the balance: human activities and numbers are now altering natural systems on a global scale. Although there is some dispute over the rates of change, commonly acknowledged effects include loss of biodiversity and cultural diversity, thinning of stratospheric ozone, climate change and the collapse of natural resource stocks, all of which contribute to social, economic and environmental instability.

Will our future be rich in potential or under increasing pressure from people seeking refuge from deteriorating conditions in other parts of the world, if not in regions of our own country? Many stakeholders believe that we can meet the legitimate aspirations of both current and future generations without overwhelming the carrying and assimilative capacity of the planet, if we embrace sustainable development.

Sustainable development is a process rather than a state of affairs: we must strive continuously for radical change.
Thorbjorn Berntsen, Minister of Environment, Norway, 1994

But what does it mean to live within our ecological means and up to our humanitarian obligations? How do we change and toward what vision of a sustainable society should we strive? Is there, in fact, a single vision of sustainability or will it continue to mean different things to different people in different places and at different times? In this guide, sustainable development is interpreted as a common currency that both unifies environmental, social and economic values and links today's choices to tomorrow's consequences. A vision of a sustainable society was developed as a first step rather than the last word, so space remains to include the visions of others. This vision was then used to generate a set of overarching sustainability goals for Canada.

1.3 Values and principles

Canada's high economic, social and environmental deficits are clear symptoms of unsustainability. By drawing down environmental stocks, such as forests, fish and soils, we also degrade the social and economic systems that support our communities. Sustainable development would reverse these trends by ensuring that we no longer borrow from the assets of future generations to pay for our own aspirations. If not, our children or theirs could become the first generation to live in a Canada of diminishing opportunity.

Living within our ecological and economic means demands far-reaching policy, institutional and technological reforms complemented by shifts in individual values and behaviour. Yet sustainable development should not be equated with economic decline or competitive disadvantage, and even less with halting all forms of technological innovation. The challenge is not whether to grow but how to develop. Sustainable development must be seen as a positive enterprise applying our research and development capabilities and entrepreneurial skills to manage change.

Principles upon which this change needs to be based have been elaborated upon in a variety of forums, including all provincial strategies. The sustainable development principles identified by the Projet de société also illustrate many of the critical characteristics of a sustainability planning process.

As we move away from households, communities and businesses to the national and international level, it becomes increasingly difficult to reach agreement on values and principles. There may not be much agreement around issues of equity within and between countries, but there is an increasing understanding that sustainability cannot be achieved in Canada without global sustainability.

As one moves on the conceptual continuum from the goal of sustainability through design criteria for a future society to scenarios, what one gains in detail and direction is apt to be lost in widespread acceptability.
-Slocombe and van Bers, 1992

1.4 Building on the work of others

The development of this guide has benefited from a heterogeneous process that has involved thousands of people across the country in a variety of direct and indirect ways. It is a continuation, if not an acceleration, of concerns about the future that were first raised in Canada many years ago. The fact that we are only now coming to grips with them - after an unprecedented period of material growth - does not mean that sustainable development is a new concept. Rather, it is an idea whose time has come.

Official Canadian concern in this field appears to have started in 1909 with the Commission on Conservation, a clearing house for natural resource research done by federal and provincial officials, which was disbanded in 1921. It was not until the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm, however, that the Government of Canada released the 441-page report entitled Conservation in Canada. In 1973, just before the first oil price shock, the Science Council of Canada agreed to proceed with a study that culminated in 1977 with the publication of a prescient study entitled Canada as a Conserver Society.

We are recklessly destroying the timber of Canada and there is scarcely a possibility of replacing it ... It occurs to me that the subject should be looked in the face and some efforts made for the preservation of our timber.
- Sir John A. MacDonald, 1871

The following decade saw the publication or preparation of numerous federal (and the occasional federal-provincial) policy documents dealing with natural resources. Notable among these was the 1981 Federal Review of the World Conservation Strategy, which made 22 recommendations, including the development of conservation strategies for water conservation in Western Canada and for coastal zones in the East, West and Arctic. It also recommended analyzing the effect of federal tax measures on conservation, recycling and pollution abatement. National policies or strategies were also prepared for a variety of sectors, including national parks (1979), land use (1980), forestry (1981), wildlife (1982), heritage rivers (1984), chemicals (1984) and water (1985). Nevertheless, a 1986 report on conservation achievements asserted that the adoption of a truly cross-sectoral conservation policy was still "the greatest challenge" to the federal government.

During the 1980s, Canada continued to promote the World Conservation Strategy developed by the IUCN and played a major role in the work of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). In 1987, when the WCED 'or Brundtland` Report, Our Common Future, was published, Canada's National Task Force on the Environment and the Economy called for provincial and territorial conservation strategies or "blueprints for sustainable economic development" to be integrated through a national strategy that would link them to the international scene. The Green Plan, which identified actions and budgetary allocations across the broad front of environmental issues, was published by the federal government in 1990.

In 1992, Canada was one of more than 100 countries that attended UNCED, whose Agenda 21 and other agreements provide a framework for global, national and even local action to achieve sustainable development. National sustainable development strategies were highlighted as potentially pivotal mechanisms for the implementation of Agenda 21 and some progress has been made in this field by other countries (Chapter 3.5).

NSDSs differ from conventional (top-down, sectoral) policy making and planning in a number of important respects. First, they should integrate economic, environmental and social objectives; second, their preparation should be undertaken through the "widest possible participation;" and third, they should be based on a "thorough assessment of the current situation."

Public concern about the future has already enabled the development of sustainable development strategies at many levels and in many sectors across Canada. This NSDS or guide builds on the considerable work under way at all levels of government, First Nations and the business and NGO communities (Chapter 2). Ongoing initiatives such as the National Biodiversity Strategy, the emerging federal sustainability framework and the various provincial, municipal and sectoral strategies will also need to be incorporated. We are faced with the constant challenge of weaving these various pieces into a coherent national strategy, linking it to the international agenda and facilitating the transitions.

1.5 Transitions to sustainability

Each generation is entitled to the interest on the natural capital, but the principal should be handed on unimpaired.
- Commission on Conservation, Ottawa, 1915

Many international responses to the 1987 Brundtland Report have focussed on the environmental aspects of sustainable development, notably conservation strategies and environmental action plans. Even the 1992 Earth Summit was perceived by some to focus on environmental issues, such as biodiversity and climate change. This was due in part to the even lower levels of consensus on development issues, such as consumption levels and population. This guide tries to take a more comprehensive approach by projecting not only the shape that a sustainable society could take but how we might achieve it.

Because we cannot get to sustainability in a single step, attention is focussed on the intermediary steps needed to reach it. That is why this guide encourages people to use the transition tools described in more detail in Chapter 5. They will involve considerable "development" in many forms, speeds and directions, depending on local circumstances. Almost all of this development should be quite sustainable, but some will not be.

Because large, complex societies cannot be transformed overnight, special attention will be needed to ensure that any unsustainable development that occurs will not have irreversible effects: the parking lots of suburban shopping malls can be restored to agricultural land, but extinct species cannot be brought back to life. This underlines the importance of preventing irreversible damage.

Despite the bad press recently given to "development," it remains a positive characteristic of human life. Moreover, it is only over the last 50 years or so that a global deficit has appeared on the development accounts. It is sometimes forgotten that development is not only economic, but also cultural, social and personal. Few would deny that there has been considerable improvement around the world in health care, education and food production, if not distribution. The problem is that some of this development is not sustainable from a biophysical point of view, and poor governance has often made a bad situation worse.

There is also no longer much illusion about the impact of misguided "development," whether it is the collapse of centrally planned economies, the growing pains of former colonies or the excesses of capitalism. What is needed to repair the damage is another kind of development, one that is economically viable, environmentally sound and more equitable within countries, among countries and between generations.

Strategies should be understood as both process and product. How the strategy is developed is almost as important as the contents of the strategy itself, as the means of development generate the buy-in of the partners who will put the strategy elements into effect.
- Kumar, Manning and Murck, 1993

Another much maligned term is economic growth. No one doubts the inability of most places around the world to support the kind of economic growth experienced since the 1950s, especially in Western countries. A distinction should be made, however, between the "throughput" growth of the past and present, based on increasing consumption, and the "efficiency improvement" growth, based on the better use of materials and services. It is even possible to imagine a day in the future when we will be able to measure the kind of growth or development we actually need.

This will happen once national accounting systems internalize or at least better reflect environmental and social costs.Who would argue against growth in employment, efficiency, ecological stability, social resilience or security? This is what sustainable development is all about - and it can only be achieved by ensuring that the market, institutional and political forces still engaged in the old kind of growth use their considerable talent to build bridges to sustainability.

Cite as: A Guide to Sustainability. in: Canadian Choices for Transitions to Sustainability. Ottawa : Projet de soci�t�. Final draft, May 1995. Online: Winnipeg: IISD, 1995. Internet.

Return to start Back to start