Environmentalists have criticized the term “sustainable development” as an oxymoron, claiming that economic policies based around concepts of growth and continued depletion of resources cannot be sustainable, since certain natural resources remain constant or depleting over the years.
For example, natural resources like wetlands are reclaimed and also resources like ground water and petroleum are consumed much faster than they are created by natural processes, and are continually being depleted.
It is often argued that the term “sustainable development” is coined by business to show capitalism as ecologically friendly, thereby placating people promoting environmentalist values.
Technologies like renewable energy and recycling, which provide for growth and development in economic sense, using a relatively small amount of resources with a small impact, may be unsustainable, if continued indefinitely.
Challenges for environmental scientists is to help people understand environmental issues and also to assess the conflicting information on environmental issues. To assess the validity of available information, it is essential to understand the source of information and to explore possibilities of potential bias, if any.
It is also essential to integrate all information relating to environmental issues, be it scientific, political or social, to arrive to a balanced view about how to achieve a more sustainable way to manage resources (Harris, 2004).
Challenges to sustainable development are inherent in its interpretations and also with varying interests and concerns. These challenges are related to attitude and approaches of stakeholders, uncertainty about scientific facts, consumption and lifestyles and also due to north-south divide on global environmental issues. In Agenda 21 (section 10.5), there are nine stakeholder groups with respect to sustainable development.
These includes : women, children and youth, indigenous people, non-governmental organizations, local authorities, workers and trade unions, business and industry, technological community, and farmers.
Others could be added, such as governments, who are required to implement Agenda 21 and make decisions concerning priorities among the many issues encompassed in Agenda 21.
Another stakeholder group is future generations, who will be dependent on decisions made by present generation to the next. One will wonder how such a broad range of stakeholders, with differing priorities, interests and concern, can agree upon and work towards a common goal?
Besides debate about accuracy of data, there is uncertainty concerning different global environmental issues and the manner in which such issues interact to contribute to global ecosystem.
For example, it is essential to understood how changes in threshold level of land cover can affect whether an area is classified as forest or not and also to take a decision on whether a forest should be defined by 8 or 10% cover can have ramifications for many people.
There is also uncertainty about the outcome as we cannot be exactly certain of what the future will bring, in relation to population growth, the total effects of global warming, diseases, or new technologies which might replace some environmental resources and services on which we currently rely.
To decide on this issue, some may argue that we should go on as we are, until we can be certain of environmental effects of our actions, while others say we should change our activities now, because initial evidence suggests that what we are doing detrimental to environment (Harris, 2004).
However, scientists and governments face urgent problems, and the need to make decisions based on best information available now. ‘All that is certain is our uncertainty’ (Harrison, 1993), yet governments are faced with making hard decisions based on uncertain science (Newby, 1991).