The idea of sustainable development has, for several decades, held out the promise of reconciling the competing goals of economic growth and environmental preservation. The term proposes that economic growth should not be carried out without consideration of environmental and social concerns. This represents a departure from traditional development thinking that suggests that social and political stability will follow the achievement of a robust economy.
However, sustainable development has been difficult to attain and measure. It has been constrained by diversity of interpretations and definitions of the concept, as well as its application. Further, in practice, critics have noted that sustainable development projects focus on local-level change and imply that the behavior of the poor is the key problem, not poverty and its causes. As a “new” approach to development, sustainable development, for many, goes no further than traditional paradigms by implying that the poor fail to safeguard the earth for future generations.
History and Evolution of the Concept of Sustainable Development
Our common future, the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED 1987, 43), defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. While sustainability typically refers to the more general goal of seeking to use resources and effect change at levels that can be sustained, both suggest that the interconnection across physical, social, and political systems be brought to bear when defining development needs and how best to address them.
The term “sustainable development” gained prominence in international development policy circles following the release of Our common future and the significant media attention given to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) or “Earth Summit” held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. But, it is important to recognize that both the concept of “sustainable,” and sustainability as a practical and policy goal, pre-date these events.
At the 1949 United Nations Scientific Conference on Conservation and Utilization of Natural Resources, for example, delegates explored the problem of combining economic growth with sound management of natural resources. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, various attempts to place the environment and concerns for the earth’s carrying capacity on the agenda of major multilateral and international entities emerged from both developed and developing nations. But even during these early discussions, the prospect of reaching equitable global cooperation and intergenerational equity in addressing environmental concerns was considered dubious by many poorer nations. A main concern was that priorities and approaches to sustainable development would likely reflect the needs of the industrialized north and west.
The global United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972 was pivotal in entrenching the ideas of sustainability in international policymaking. Its goals were, first, to attain greater awareness of and attention to the growing urgency of environmental issues; second, to identify issues and needs that could best be addressed through international cooperation; and third, to achieve common goals and objectives to meet these needs. The main outcome of the Stockholm conference was the declaration of 26 principles that expressed the conference’s call for “Governments and peoples to exert common efforts for the preservation and improvement of the human environment, for the benefit of all the people and for their posterity” (UNEP 1972).
But at a lesser-known meeting held in 1974 in Cocoyoc, Mexico, delegates (many of whom represented the group of 77 nonaligned and developing nations) raised questions about the viability of these goals within an unequal global structure. Convened jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the conference’s final declaration raised the issue of environmental justice and connected the goals of safeguarding the natural environment to the global redistribution of economic, political, and social power.
While the Stockholm declaration foregrounded international cooperation, the Cocoyoc statement drew attention to the relationship between the international economic system and environmental degradation and poverty in the third world. It noted that growth in the developed world had tended to exact a steep price in nations where, for example, extreme poverty had led people to cultivate crops in destructive ways to meet market demand for cheap raw materials. Problems such as soil erosion, deforestation, rapid urbanization, use of hazardous chemicals, and poor waste management protocols were a direct result of the failure of the global market economy to enable a system in which sustainable and just growth could reasonably be expected. The statement concluded that a new social and economic order would be needed to attain the goals of sustainable development.
The Brundtland Commission was attentive to such critiques, noting that concerns for the sustainable use of physical and natural resources demanded greater awareness of social equity between generations and between nations. On the basis of this and other recommendations, the UN determined that UNCED would be held in 1992 to further the goals of sustainable development. UNCED was intended to examine the institutional, legal, and political capacities of the global partners committed to making sustainability a reality, but also to address a fundamental conflict between developed and developing nations and the role that this conflict played in preventing implementation of sustainable development in practical terms.
The statement issued following the 1992 Earth Summit identified the establishment of “a new and equitable global partnership through the creation of new levels of cooperation among States, key sectors of societies and people” as the path to the creation of new international agreements that respect all interests and “protect the integrity of the global environmental and developmental systems” (UN 1993, 1). Leaders of 179 governments signed off on Agenda 21, the “blueprint” for actions implementing the Earth Summit goals. Subsequent UNCED conferences held in New York, USA, in 1997 and Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002 reaffirmed the resolve of many nations and the UN to achieve sustainable development in the twenty-first century.
The scope of sustainable development has expanded considerably since the 1970s and the term has come to encompass a broad range of concerns. The UN’s 2005 World Summit Outcome Document defined three “interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars” of sustainable development as economic development, social development, and environmental protection, with UNESCO adding cultural diversity as a fourth aspect, needed for nations and communities to achieve a higher intellectual, emotional, moral, and spiritual existence.
Outside the arena of international agreements and policy statements, local, national, and international development agencies have integrated sustainability as a criterion for the successful implementation of programs and projects, and it became a powerful development “buzzword” during the 1990s. Many agencies came to demand a “sustainability strategy” in project proposals, for example, to ensure that projects could carry on once funding ended. But viable indicators and measures of sustainability that adequately demonstrate how the concept can be applied in direct, measurable, and appropriate ways continue to elude organizations at both micro- and macro-levels.
Critiques of Sustainable Development
Sustainable development has propelled environmental concerns to the forefront of development discourse and practice. The many meetings, conferences, agencies, and institutions that have formed to promote the concept have led to significant global change, including the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, first signed during the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, upon which the Kyoto Protocol was based.
But the broad and complex goals of sustainable development, presented within a seemingly simple framework, do not lend themselves well to uniform understanding and interpretation. The lack of a widely accepted understanding of what sustainable development entails and how to achieve it seems to be one of only a few key points on which agreement exists. Further, critics suspect that the term has been over-used, poorly understood, and vague. With little common ground on how to best understand and apply the term, a common future seems difficult to achieve.
In the 1980s and 1990s, sustainable development became intellectually and politically allied with other “alternative approaches.” Several of these were characterized by greater attention to the needs and capacities of local communities, such as approaches centered on participation in development, women in development, and gender and development. Others sought distance from the technological-economic focus of the modernization paradigm, and a more far-reaching and holistic definition that encompasses social, cultural, political, and environmental concerns. However, faith in the guiding role played by mainstream development organizations and the state was not challenged by the ways that the concept was discussed and applied by the large institutions that promoted sustainable development at the program level (Melkote & Steeves 2001). Further, the increasingly interwoven global marketplace brought the multinational corporation into a process that was felt by many to be already dominated by large and powerful institutions.
Although the discourse of sustainable development articulates the need for cooperation across agencies, nations, and communities, the voices that are most closely connected with on-the-ground initiatives are marginalized from discussion at policy and program levels (Escobar 1995; Sachs 1992). Critical scholars remain convinced that urgent environmental limitations and problems threaten the survival of all human populations. But the widening gap between rich and poor areas of the world means that these problems pose a greater threat to the poor, and simultaneously hinders them from participating in attempts to meet these challenges.
The privilege of designing sustainable approaches to development has tended to be afforded to richer nations, while the responsibilities of implementing these approaches, and living with their implications, falls to the poor (Escobar 1995). Critics have noted that while sustainable development, sustainability, “green” development, and other such approaches articulate greater concerns for the well-being of human populations and the natural environment, there is little within them that challenges the normative basis of traditional approaches to development that legitimize economic growth within the system of global capitalism. “Sustainability in this context does not involve recognition of the limits of nature and the necessity of adhering to them. Instead, it simply means ensuring the continued supply of raw materials for industrial production, the ongoing flow of . . . commodities [and] the indefinite accumulation of capital” (Shiva 1992, 217).
The Brundtland Commission report argued that sustainable development could be built on new options that enable “change in attitudes and reorientation of policies and institutions” (WCED 1987, 343). As a new approach to development, its architects suggested that it would redress many of the perceived failures of traditional models to address poverty, marginalization of the very poor, of women, and of indigenous and other groups, and increased stress on the environment and natural resources. However, its bias is thought by many to reproduce prevailing development models by proposing a new way to manage the environment and the people who are most challenged by its limitations. In other words, the discursive frame or “semantic constellation” of development as a process through which societies and people reach greater potential remains untouched (Sachs 1992, 8).
- Escobar, A. (1995). Encountering development: The making and unmaking of the third world. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Lafferty, W. M., & Langhelle, O. (eds.) (1999). Towards sustainable development. London: Macmillan.
- Melkote, S. R., & Steeves, L. (2001). Communication for development in the third world, 2nd edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Patten, C., Lovejoy, T., Browne, J., Brundtland, G., Shiva, V., & HRH The Prince of Wales (2000). Respect for the earth: Sustainable development. London: Profile Books.
- Sachs, W. (ed.) (1992). The development dictionary. London: Zed Books.
- Shiva, V. (1992). Resources. In W. Sachs (ed.), The development dictionary. London: Zed Books.
- UN (United Nations) (1993). Report of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, 3–14 June 1992. Vol. 1: Resolutions adopted by the conference. New York: United Nations.
- UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) (1972). Declaration of the United Nations Conference on Human Environment. New York: United Nations.
- UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) (2002). UNEP in 2002: Environment for development. At www.unep.org. Accessed June 1, 2007.
- WCED (World Commission on Environment and Development) (1987). Our common future. New York: Oxford University Press.
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