A brief history of sustainability

The origin of the global debate about sustainability (or sustainable development) is usually credited to the 1987 Report of the UN World Commission on Environment and Development Our Common Future, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland. It was this report that coined the much referred to definition of sustainable development:

“meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.1

However well before that was the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, in Stockholm in 1972. That meeting produced a Declaration with 26 principles concerning the environment and development; and an Action Plan. And before that the Club of Rome commissioned Professor Jay Forrester of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to model the global dynamics of population and economy. The resulting book World Dynamics was published in 1971 and led to the more famous Limits to Growth studies that promoted such controversy. The latest edition in 2004 by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, concluded that humanity is “dangerously in a state of overshoot”. Despite much controversy about this book, there is no serious challenge to its central message. These studies, and the debates they engendered, are arguably the real beginning of the great sustainability debate. In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment & Development (the Earth Summit) was held in Rio de Janerio, and produced AGENDA 21, a blueprint for sustainable development. The opening clause of Agenda 21 reads:

Humanity stands at a defining moment in history. We are confronted with a perpetuation of disparities between and within nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy, and the continuing deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend for our well-being. However, integration of environment and development concerns and greater attention to them will lead to the fulfilment of basic needs, improved living standards for all, better protected and managed ecosystems and a safer, more prosperous future. No nation can achieve this on its own; but together we can – in a global partnership for sustainable development.

The UN Commission on Sustainable Development was formed as a result of the Earth Summit and has since coordinated the UN sustainable development activity. Major events have been held in Johannesburg in 2002 (the World Summit on Sustainable Development) and more recently the Rio + 20 event, again in Rio de Janeiro (United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development). The ensuing report is called “The future we want”. In Rio, Member States decided to launch a process to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will build upon the Millennium Development Goals and converge with the post 2015 development agenda.

This process will culminate in 2015 through intergovernmental negotiations aimed at the adoption of the post-2015 UN development agenda, which will likely include one set of global goals to eradicate poverty in the context of sustainable development.

In Australia, and indeed most developed countries, the vast majority probably have no idea of the activities outlined above, save perhaps for the recollection of brief news snippets at the time of the global conferences. Following the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the Australian government produced Australia’s National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development. The strategy defines ecologically sustainable development as: ‘using, conserving and enhancing the community’s resources so that ecological processes, on which life depends, are maintained, and the total quality of life, now and in the future, can be increased’.

The strategy, which resides within the Department of Environment, has never had any political influence on government policy, and it existence would be unknown to most people.

  1. In fact the report itself does not use these words in a definitional sense but as part of an opening clause under the heading of Sustainable Development. The full sentence reads: “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”