Sustainable development has until recently resembled an El Dorado of modern times, a vaguely charted dream of everlasting prosperity, towards which its adherents travel hopefully. A more robust blueprint may finally have come to fruition, with the endorsement of a specific range of Sustainable Development Goals by the UN General Assembly in September 2015.
What is Sustainable Development?
The concept of sustainable development emerged from anxieties that accompanied the triumphant rise in living standards enjoyed in developed countries during the second half of the 20th century.
Encapsulated in the Club of Rome’s 1972 publication, The Limits to Growth, this unease sprang from two painful realities. It had become clear that the life-sustaining role of the biosphere was at risk from open-ended consumption of natural resources. And yet the urgent cause of sustainability could not be isolated from the desperate need of poorer countries for economic growth, on a significant scale.
The interconnection of these two issues was thoroughly examined in the 1987 landmark report, Our Common Future, produced by the World Commission on Environment and Development. The Commission’s Chair, Gro Harlem Brundtland, wrote in the foreword: “the ‘environment’ is where we all live; and ‘development’ is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable.”
In championing a new global mission of “sustainable development,” the report grasped the nettle of a definition:
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs
Political action followed at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Popularly known as the “Earth Summit”, the Conference approved Agenda 21, an action programme for sustainable development in the 21st century.
World leaders also approved the Rio Declaration, a set of principles to guide future multilateral environmental agreements. These include the “polluter pays” principle, the precautionary principle, the right to development, and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities between rich and poor countries.
In an outpouring of global commitment, inconceivable in contemporary insular politics, the 1992 Earth Summit additionally put signatures to far-reaching Conventions on climate change, biodiversity and desertification. This was a fleeting moment of faith in multilateralism, of belief that nations could unite under the banner of sustainable development to create a better world.