Sustainable Development

The term sustainable development gained international recognition after the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission) released its report Our Common Future in 1983. In this report, sustainable development was defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources had introduced the term earlier in its 1980 publication World Conservation Strategy, stating, "Development and conservation operate in the same global context, and the underlying problems that must be overcome if either is to be successful are identical." It thus recommended a strategy entitled, "Towards Sustainable Development."

Development refers to any systematic progress toward some improved or advanced condition. In the international development field, in which the term sustainable development is most often encountered, development refers to the establishment of the physical and social conditions that make economic progress possible. In the past this has at times involved the transformation of forests, wetlands, soil, and other resources in ways that ultimately undermined the capacity of the natural environment to produce conditions able to sustain future advances in the quality of people's lives. The concept of sustainable development thus suggests an alternative strategy in which economic progress and environmental protection go hand in hand.

The negative environmental impacts of some forms of economic development had been recognized long before the term sustainable development was popularized in the 1980s. The earliest settled communities subjected the harvesting of important food and raw materials to rules, customs, and eventually formal laws and regulations designed to protect renewable resources for the future. In his book Man and Nature published in 1867, George Perkins Marsh drew attention to the environmental changes he had witnessed in both the United States and the Mediterranean region. His alarm was echoed by early American conservationists Gifford Pinchot and John Muir at the beginning of the twentieth century and again by Rachel Carson in her 1962 book Silent Spring. Then in 1972 an environmentally aware group of industrialists known as the Club of Rome issued a report, The Limits to Growth, that warned of inadequate natural resource supplies and disruption to global ecosystems if population and economic growth were to continue on their current path. In 1971 the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) was established in Britain with a mandate to seek ways to achieve economic progress without destroying the environmental resource base.

In June 1992 the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) further refined the term by developing an agenda for nations to follow that would move the world toward sustainable development. Agenda 21, as it was called, was a three-hundred-page plan for achieving sustainable development in the twenty-first century. To assist in follow up and monitor the progress of Agenda 21, and to report on the implementation of related agreements, the United Nations created the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), to report to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSO).

Although the concept of sustainable development has received considerable attention in international diplomatic and policy circles, it does have its critics. Many claim sustainable development is an oxymoron. They argue that nothing, least of all economic development, is sustainable forever. For them, the concept of sustainable development is wishful thinking that distracts nations from the necessary transformations of the global economy. Others claim that a determined focus on sustainability is likely to lead to economic stagnation and continued underdevelopment.

The proponents of sustainable development believe that the current mode of economic development is fundamentally destructive and must be radically reformed, and although nothing is absolutely sustainable, the effort to hold development activities accountable for the environmental conditions they produce makes both long-term economic and ethical sense. They argue that this approach, when combined with efforts to reduce population growth rates, reduce consumption among the richest nations of the world, promote the substitution of renewable for nonrenewable natural resources, reduce waste from manufacturing processes, and improve efficiency in the use of materials, is the only approach that offers a positive future outlook for the welfare of the global community.

In the decade since Agenda 21 was accepted as a strategy for sustainable development, progress has been made. International agreements have been promulgated that will have a positive effect on sustainable development. These include, among others, the efforts of the United Nations in formulating a framework convention on climate change, a convention on biological diversity and a global compact that combines concerns for human rights, labor, and the environment. In addition, standards for business activity that consider environmental consequences have been agreed to by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO 14000), and the international business community has created the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. The World Bank has applied the concept of sustainable development with its reformed lending practices requiring recipients to demonstrate sound environmental criteria. Cities around the world are adopting sustainable criteria for land-use planning and zoning, and individuals are making personal consumption choices with sustainable development in mind. Though the problems of a sustainable future are far from solved, there is much about which to be optimistic.



Carson, Rachel. (1963). Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. (1980). World Conservation Strategy.

Marsh, George Perkins. (1867). Man and Nature. New York: Scribners.

Meadows, Donella H.; Meadows, Dennis L.; Randers, Jorgen; and Behrens, William W. III. (1972). The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books.

Pinchot, Gifford. (1947). Breaking New Ground. New York: Hartcourt, Brace, and Co.

World Commission on Environment and Development. (1987). Our Common Future. New York: Oxford University Press.

Internet Resource

U.S. Department of Energy Center for Excellence for Sustainable Development. Available from .

Jack Manno and Ross Whaley

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