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The “official” definition of sustainable development was developed for the first time in the Brundtland Report in 1987. Sustainable development is the idea that human societies must live and meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Sustainable development is the idea that human societies must live and meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The term first came into use in 1980 in the World Conservation Strategy held under the aegis of the International Union for Conservation and Development. The term was popularized by the study by the World Commission on the Environment and Development, Our Common Future (1987), also known as the Brundtland Report.

The idea of sustainability is rooted in utilitarian resource management principle, i.e., the technocratic notion of sustained yield. It refers to the exploitation of renewable resources which can be maintained without endangering the future flow of the same resource.

Specifically, sustainable development is a way of organizing society so that it can exist in the long term. This means taking into account both the imperatives present and those of the future, such as the preservation of the environment and natural resources or social and economic equity.

Historical Background & Idea of Sustainable Development

  • The industrial revolution is connected to the rise of the idea of sustainable development. From the second half of the 19th century, Western societies started to discover that their economic and industrial activities had a significant impact on the environment and the social balance. Several ecological and social crises took place in the world and rose awareness that a more sustainable model was needed. Here are some examples of the economic and social crises that shook the world in the twentieth century:
    • 1907: the American banking crisis
    • 1923: the crisis of American hyperinflation
    • 1929: the financial crisis of the 1930s begins
    • 1968: the worldwide protests against bureaucratic elites
    • 1973 and 1979: oil shocks
    • 1982: the debt shock of developing countries
  • And some examples of ecological crises:
    • 1954: Rongelap nuclear fallout
    • 1956: Mercury crisis of Minamata
    • 1957: Torrey Canyon oil spill
    • 1976: Seveso disaster
    • 1984: Bhopal disaster
    • 1986: Chernobyl nuclear disaster
    • 1989: Exxon Valdez oil spill
    • 1999: Erika disaster
    • But also: global warming, air pollution, the issue of the ozone layer, the loss of biodiversity.

Tragedy of Commons

In 1968 the ecologist and philosopher Garret Hardin wrote an essay entitled the tragedy of the commons. He argued that if individuals act independently, rationally, and focused on pursuing their individual interests, they’d end up going against the common interests of their communities and exhaust the planet’s natural resources.

In this way, human free access and unlimited consumption of finite resource would extinguish these same resources. To Hardin, mankind needed to radically change its way of using global commons to avoid a disaster in the future – this would be the way to keep on a sustainable development track.

Club of Rome and Limits to Growth

A few years after Hardin’s essay, in 1972, Meadows et al., commissioned by the Club of Rome, ran a computer simulation that aimed to predict the consequences of what could happen in a planet with limited resources.

The interactions between 5 different dimensions – world population growth, industrialization, pollution generation, food production, and nonrenewable resource depletion – were analyzed, considering a scenario where these variables grew exponentially and technology’s ability to increase resources was linear.

The strongest ending scenario was that an economic and social collapse would happen by the end of the 21st century if man imposes no limits to growth. After more than 4 decades, these predictions seem to be right when it comes to pollution and its consequences – threatening sustainable development.

Stockholm Conference of UN

The concept of sustainable development has been evolving for more than 30 years. The 1972 United Nations (UN) Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, contributed to this evolution by emphasizing that protection of the human environment is a crucial element in the develop ment agenda. As a result of that conference, the United Nations Environment Programme Secretariat was established to promote international environmental cooperation.

World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987

In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by then Prime Minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland, issued a report entitled Our Common Future. Also known as the Brundtland Report, this landmark document suggests that creating separately existing environmental institutions is not enough because environmental issues are an integral part of all development policies. They are crucial to economic considerations and sector policies and should be integrated as part of energy decisions, social issues, and other aspects of development work

The Brundtland report, also known as Our Common Future, gave the most recognized and widely accepted definition of the term sustainable development in 1987. Following this report,  the human ability to ensure that the current development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” was the first widely accepted definition of sustainable development.

The World Commission on the Environment and Development also stood out that sustainable development needed to consider that developing has limitations. According to the organization, the “present state of technology and the social organization on environmental resources, together with the limited ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities” impose limitations on sustainable development.

RIO Earth Summit and Agenda 21, 1992

The next milestone in the evolution of sustainable development occurred at the 1992 UN Conference of Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, also known as the Earth Summit. Its major contribution was to give equal importance to the environment and development. It endorsed Agenda 21, both a think piece and a program of action governing human activities with an impact on the environment. It also endorsed the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and the Statement of Forest Principles.

Kyoto Protocol

Most importantly, the Earth Summit helped finalize the UN Climate Change Convention and the Biodiversity Convention, both signed by a great number of heads of state. The UN Climate Change Convention and the recently ratified Kyoto Protocol have made significant contributions to the evolution of sustainable development. Article 4 of the UN Climate Change Convention provides that “the Parties [to that Convention] have the right to, and should, promote development.” The Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism is designed in part to assist participating developing countries “in achieving sustainable development.”

Johannesburg World Summit on SD,2002

At the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg, South Africa, heads of state and world leaders committed to implement Agenda 21. They also decided to carry out a plethora of partnerships to promote sustainable development. These endeavors in our common cause have made sustainable development a part of everybody’s vocabulary and agenda. Once of concern only to environ mental specialists, sustainable development has become a concept that concerns everyone.

Concept of Environmental Sustainability

The human-environment relation must be a symbiotic one that calls for the protection, conservation, and improved management of the natural resources of the earth. It emphasizes that the restoration of vital resources should continue along with the exploitation of resources. A change in attitude towards the restoration of the environment is vital for the sustainable growth and development of our society. Ecosystems require a long time to reach their climax.

The ecosystem has four characteristics— complexity, stability, diversity, and resilience. The integrity of an ecosystem can be maintained, provided we have enough knowledge about its carrying capacity, it’s capacity of assimilation, and its renewability. Due to its integrated nature, harm caused to any one of the components may endanger the whole ecosystem.

It is necessary to conserve biodiversity by taking adequate conservation measures to restore natural as well as modified ecosystems.

The population is an important aspect in the study of environmental sustainability because the quality of human life is inseparable from the quality of the environment. The Man-land ratio indicates the carrying capacity of land as well as the assimilative capacities of the ecosystem. This ratio should be stable.

The four objectives of environmental planning are

  1. protection of the environment,
  2. rehabilitation and restoration of the ecosystem,
  3. enhancement of the carrying capacity of both natural and man- controlled ecosystems, and
  4. creation, expansion, and improvement of new ecosystems.

Dr. Kamal Taori, in his book Sustainable Human Development: Issues and Challenges, views the issues related to sustainable human development as linked to the question of happiness, historical lessons, role and attitudes of planners, resource organization, and impacts of hopeless and hopeful situations.

As long-term measures, appropriate technologies, judicious implementation of policies, women’s participation, rational economic behaviour, and a right blend of the material and the spiritual are put forward by Dr. Taori for sustainable development and thus saving the earth for future generations.

Sustainable Development of our times

The latest IPCC report demonstrated that big changes will need to happen quickly regarding the reduction of CO2 emissions to keep the Earth’s temperature below 2ºC and prevent its devastating impacts.

There are many actors working with different audiences in different areas of sustainability. They share the same goal – to raise awareness on this topic and to create conditions for it to grow and develop. One of the main players is the United Nations, where different teams actively work on multiple campaigns such as #beatplasticpollution or #solvedifferent, apart from organizing the meetings between the world leaders.

On the business side, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) helps its member companies to accelerate their businesses transition to create a sustainable world. There are also some certifications that reward (mostly through stamp recognition) the businesses with the best practices for the planet, such as the B-Corp movement, the Rainforest Alliance, the Fairtrade Foundation, or the Conscious Capitalism Movement.

At the same time, entities like the Elen MacArthur Foundation are opening the way when it comes to the circular economy and how societies and businesses can align how they use natural resources with the way nature does it. Aligning businesses’ operations across their supply chains is also allowing different and ecological business models to develop – such as growing mushrooms from coffee leftovers.


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