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Is cultural sustainability as equally important as are social, environmental and economic sustainability?

Sustainable development is defined by the Brundtland Report as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (cited Nurse 2006, p. 34). The concept is often associated with environmental, economic and social development largely because activities in these areas have tangible effects on the environment, which is the cornerstone of sustainable development. The goal of sustainable development is to end the exploitative use of earth’s natural resources as a consequence of rapid economic growth so that these natural resources can equally serve not only the present, but also the future generations. It was only in the 21st century that the concept of cultural sustainability became associated to sustainability when John Hawkes introduced it as the fourth pillar of sustainable development. Culture is equally as important as social, environmental and economic sustainability in the development discourse.

Culture eventually determines how people conduct themselves, and this includes their use of natural resources. Hawkes (2004), for example, referred to it both as a ‘way of life’ and as heritage. In the first, culture embraces customs, traditions, rituals, practices, language, arts and other aspect unique to a people. In the second, culture is the transmission from one generation to the next of its values, identities, aspirations, memories and like things (Throsby 2001). As can be seen, culture does not only embrace the past, but also the present. It is ever-present in the life and conduct of the people. In other words, culture underlies development. UNESCO believes that when development is sensitive to the unique culture of a place, it is likely to engender sustainable outcome UNESCO 2012).

Making culture a component in development fosters the sustainability of society and the community. Without culture, society loses coherence and unity, and disintegrates (Hawkes 2001). It is, therefore, important that culture is made central to development, rather than making the latter chiefly profit-oriented. Thus, the community’s uniqueness, practices, and values that unify and hold it as one should become a major concern underlying development. Such an approach ensures that society and the community grows stronger – a quality it can pass on to future generations.

Cultural sustainability is necessary to generate diversity in policy options. Every society and community is distinct from others and what works for one may not work for others. Development policies must take into account the geo-cultural realities of the locality and steer clear of the growth-oriented industrialisation that is associated with western development. Such an approach is necessary to promote sustainability of that particular community. By making culture the most important element in a locality’s development, and interlinking it to social, environmental and economic sustainability, development becomes adaptive and meets the realities and demands of the locality (Nurse 2006).

Cultural industries are some of the best drivers of development highlighting the importance of culture in development. Throsby (2008) suggested that acknowledging culture as an important element in sustainable development, along with, social, economic and environmental is, therefore, only practical. For example, tourism is now acknowledged as one of the fastest growing economic sectors – from 7% in 1998 to 12% in 2008 in the case of the Least Developed Countries. On the other hand, cultural tourism makes up 40% of the revenues of world tourism (UNESCO 2012). Constructing an environment that nourishes the arts and culture can result in greater economic development of a community.


Hawkes, J 2001, The fourth pillar of sustainability: culture’s essential role in public planning, Cultural Development Network,

Nurse, K 2006, ‘Culture as the fourth pillar of sustainable development,’

Throsby, D 2008, Culture in sustainable development: insights for the future implementation of art. 13, Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, viewed 24 August 2014, <unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0015/001572/157287e.pdf>

UN Task Team 2012, Culture: a driver and an enabler of sustainable development, UNESCO, viewed 25 August 2014, <https://en.unesco.org/post2015/sites/…/Think%20Piece%20Culture.pdf>