"Sustainable development" is 20 years old this week.
On April 27, 1987, after four years of deliberation, the World Commission on Environment and Development released its report. The inquiry — also known as the Brundtland Commission — was led by the prime minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland.
I was at university then, and devoured the contents of the report, which was later published as the book Our Common Future. Here, at last, was someone tying together the environment and development agendas. The report had much to say, too, about the relationship between poverty and environmental degradation. And as a female leader, Brundtland was such an antidote to our own prime minister; she was pretty much everything Margaret Thatcher was not.
The report gave us an enduring definition of sustainable development: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own need."
So 20 years on, what is the legacy of sustainable development as a concept?
The thinking in the Brundtland Report laid the groundwork for the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, where the nations of the world, accompanied by thousands of NGOs and businesses, came together to address sustainability issues. This spawned a series of international processes and frameworks, such as that on climate change.
Since then, sustainable development — the idea that we should simultaneously advance social, environmental, and economic progress — has become a central organizing concept for many organizations. There are ministries of sustainable development, national plans, and international summits to measure progress. Leading businesses, too, have embraced the concept of looking at the "triple bottom line." As individuals, many of us try to live sustainably.
The U.K. government has taken sustainable development very seriously. It published a national sustainable development strategy in 2000, with a set of "headline indicators" to measure progress. These indicators were spread across social, environmental, and economic issues, with the idea that we should start using more than economic growth to measure progress. Wales, when it gained devolved power from the U.K., also became the first country in the world with a constitutional duty to promote sustainable development.
Five years ago, Prime Minister Tony Blair set up a Sustainable Development Commission, chaired by leading environmentalist Jonathon Porritt, to encourage and monitor progress. And in 2005, the U.K. published a second U.K. Sustainable Development Strategy called "Securing the Future." This had a tighter definition of sustainability, which included the principle of "living within environmental limits."
On paper, and in policy terms, a lot has happened. But there have been criticisms, too, of the concept.
Some argue that sustainable development, by implying a balance across social, economic, and environmental objectives, can mean we do not confront difficult choices. It can sometimes be an excuse to pretend there are no trade-offs and that everything can be win-win. And it is not clear enough about overall limits.
Others say that the term is so loose and difficult to measure as to be meaningless. How will we ever know that we have arrived there? Today the word sustainable seems to be lazily added to everything that our government does. In the U.K., we have "sustainable economic growth" (which just means growth without boom and bust), "sustainable aviation" (which means a doubling in passenger numbers), and "sustainable communities" (which is about building as many new houses as possible). These are oxymora: they will actually deliver the opposite of what they claim in their titles.
There have been attempts to add a "fourth pillar" covering politics to sustainable development, since governance issues are the key to development in many parts of the world.
Finally, sustainable development, as a concept, can be difficult to communicate. It is an abstraction made up of three other abstract concepts — the economy, society, and the environment. Once you walk people through the idea, they usually get it pretty quickly. But it can seem like jargon.
Most of these criticisms can be dealt with. I think that as an organizing principle, it retains a lot of power. And I suspect that, in the future, we’ll need it more than ever. Some of the big emerging challenges for the world will have sustainability at their heart. How do we reconcile the desire for growth in the big developing countries — such as India and China — with environmental limits? How do we ensure that the overwhelming focus on climate change does not make us miss a wider set of sustainability issues? And how do we ensure that tough environmental measures in countries like the U.S. and the U.K. do not hit poorer sections of society harder?
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