Just how did we get to this holding pattern on multilateral environmental agreements? What are the political roots of today’s international sustainability debates? Didn’t attempts to integrate environment and development start with the Brundtland Commission’s 1987 Our Common Future?

A new working paper from Harvard’s Center for International Development takes the long view and provides critical historical context needed for understanding today’s current state of affairs. In “The Quest for Global Sustainability: International Efforts on Linking Environment and Development,” scholars Henrik Selin and Bjorn-Ola Linner analyze policy attempts to integrate environment and development in the post-World War II period up until the 1992 Earth Summit. They convincingly maintain that too many of today’s sustainability debates occur in an ahistorical vacuum unaware of these earlier efforts.

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One take-home message of their investigation is the need for greater recognition of just how much North-South politics drive (or derail) these processes.  As we focus considerable (and needed) attention on the poor health of the transatlantic environmental relationship, we must also keep our eyes on the larger prize (and frankly more difficult gap to bridge) of North-South environmental relations.

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