It's the Environment, Stupid.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Sustainable Development - What's in a defnition?

Welcome to the second edition of Sustainable Saturdays.
This week: what’s in 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.” This widely cited definition for sustainable development comes from the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, commonly referred to as the Brundtland Report (after the commission’s chair Gro Harlem Brundtland.)

At times I wonder if people who spout off this definition have even read the report. It isn’t just a report with a couple of suggestions about natural resource conservation, it’s a full blown document that draws links, and makes connections between ALL development activities.

Here’s a more specific definition from the report that might aid the ambiguity of the first:
“[T]he pursuit of sustainable development requires:
· A political system that secures effective citizen participation in decision making
· An economic system that is able to generate surpluses and technical knowledge on a self-reliant and sustained basis
· A social system that provides for solutions for the tensions arising from disharmonious development
· A production system that respects the obligation to preserve the ecological base for development
· A technological system that can search continuously for new solutions
· An international system that fosters sustainable patterns of trade and finance
· An administrative system that is flexible and has the capacity for self correction"
(p.74 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. “Our Common Future” 4 August 1987. United Naitons. A/42/427)

A little less vague, and although a little long for a soundbite, it gets more to the interconnectedness within term (at least the interconnectedness I believe lies within the term.)

Sustainable development wasn’t born in 1987 as many people tend to believe. In an internationally recognized context, I’ve pegged it as beginning in the early 1970’s when the world was concerned about being able to sustain its burgeoning population on increasingly declining natural resources. Check out this excerpt from the Stockholm Declaration of 1972:

“In order to achieve a more rational management of resources and thus to improve the environment, States should adopt an integrated and coordinated approach to their development planning so as to ensure that development is compatible with the need to protect and improve environment for the benefit of their population.”
(Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. 16 June 1972. Stockholm, Sweden. Downloaded from: ID=1503. It is referred to as the Stockholm Declaration after the city where the conference was held.)

The term sustainable development wasn’t actually used in the Stockholm Declaration, but the concept was there. The actual term was first used in the World Conservation Strategy (1980), a report that did deal mainly with natural resource conservation and preservation.
(World Conservation Strategy. Prepared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in cooperation with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). 1980.)

In 1983, the Brundtland Commission was established, (its official name was World Commission on Environment and Development). The UN charged this commission with proposing “long-term environmental strategies for achieving sustainable development” and “to recommend ways in which concern for the environment may be translated into greater co-operation among developing countries and between countries at different stages of economic and social development and lead to the achievement of common and mutually supportive objectives which take account of the interrelationships between people, resources, environment and development.”
(United Nations General Assembly, “Process of preparation of the Environmental Perspective to the Year 2000 and Beyond”, 19 December 1983, A/RES/38/161.)

So until the report came out in 1987, sustainable development was really just about natural resources and the environment. However, the Brundtland Report took the concept and ran with it, realizing that the environment was crucial to development efforts and pointed out that everything is linked.
“Failures to manage the environment and to sustain development threaten to overwhelm all countries. Environment and development are not separate challenges; they are inexorably linked. Development cannot subsist upon a deteriorating environmental resource base; the environment cannot be protected when growth leaves out of account the costs of environmental destruction. These problems cannot be treated separately by fragmented institutions and policies. They are linked in a complex system of cause and effect."
(brundtland report, p48.)

After the Brundtland Report came out the UN was impressed and called for an Earth Summit, and in 1992 the UN Conference on Environment and Development commenced in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to further the talk of sustainable development. At this conference, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change began (they developed the Kyoto Protocol), and Agenda 21 was initiated and further emphasized the interconnectedness that is necessary for the success of sustainable development.

An excerpt from Agenda 21:
"Prevailing systems for decision-making in many countries tend to separate economic, social and environmental factors at the policy, planning and management levels. This influences the actions of all groups in society, including Governments, industry and individuals, and has important implications for the efficiency and sustainability of development. An adjustment or even a fundamental reshaping of decision-making, in the light of country-specific conditions, may be necessary if environment and development is to be put at the centre of economic and political decision-making, in effect achieving a full integration of these factors.
(Agenda 21, 1992. Ch 8.2)

The thing keeping sustainable development from being a successful development approach is perhaps the very definition that has made it famous. Governments, business, donor agencies, non-profit orgnizations still have the tendency to see sustainable development as an environmental issue rather than what it really is - the interdependence of the economy, society and the environment.

To be continued next Saturday...


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