A Short History of Sustainable Development

A Short History of Sustainable Development

A Short History of Sustainable Development

A short history of the concept of sustainable development could begin with the US government’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969.[1] This act came largely in response to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which had a devastating impact on wildlife and the natural environment in the area. But it was also the product of greater societal attention to the consequences of industrial pollution, awareness of which was promoted by the 1962 publication Silent Spring by Rachael Carson.[2] Around the same time, and as a result of the same push towards great concern for the environment, arrived the Clean Water Act, the Water Quality Act, the push to ban DDT, and the institution of the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Shortly after the passage of NEPA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) opened its doors in 1970, promoting protection of the environment through research, standard-setting, and monitoring.[3] The goals of the EPA concerned both human health as well as natural resource protection.

The next step in the growth of sustainable development as a mainstream concept and practice was the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, in Stockholm, Sweden. This conference “brought the industrialized and developing nations together to delineate the ‘rights’ of the human family to a healthy and productive environment. A series of such meetings followed, e.g. on the rights of people to adequate food, to sound housing, to safe water, to access to means of family planning. The recognition to revitalize humanity’s connection with Nature, led to the creation of global institutions within the UN system.”[4] Here, we have a transition from a national focus to an international one.

At this point, the term ‘sustainable’ had yet to really take off. The United National Conference on Sustainable Development provides an excellent, condensed history of the term, which I will quote at length:

The concept of sustainable development was originally synonymous with that of sustainability and is often still used in that way. Both terms derive from the older forestry term “sustained yield”, which in turn a translation of the German term “nachhaltiger Ertrag” is dating from 1713. According to different sources, the concept of sustainability in the sense of a balance between resource consumption and reproduction was however applied to forestry already in the 12th to 16th century.

The history of the concept of sustainability is however much older. Already in 400 BCE, Aristotle referred to a Greek concept in talking about household economics. This Greek household concept differed from modern ones in that the household had to be self-sustaining at least to a certain extent and could not just be consumption oriented.[5]

The first time the term ‘sustainable’ was used “in the modern sense” was as part of the Club of Rome, in 1972. This came to the fore as a part of the publication of Limits to Growth, a report that described a particular state in which the global population would achieve balance or equilibrium. “Describing the desirable “state of global equilibrium”, the authors used the word “sustainable”: “We are searching for a model output that represents a world system that is: 1. sustainable without sudden and uncontrolled collapse; and 2. capable of satisfying the basic material requirements of all of its people.”[6]

About fifteen years after the Club of Rome’s publication came another large step forward in this movement, at least according to most mainstream sources. The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) was tasked by the Secretary General of the UN, in 1983, to “re-examine critical environmental and development problems around the world and formulate realistic proposals to address them.”[7] This culminated in the 1987 Bruntland Report’s publication of “Our Common Future”, which established a suggested path for sustainable development on a global level and served to bring the concept of sustainability into the foreground on an international level.

A ground-breaking step came in 1992 with the first UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro. At this conference, an agenda called Agenda 21 was adopted, which “recognized each nation’s right to pursue social and economic progress and assigned to States the responsibility of adopting a model of sustainable development.”[8] The Secretary Genearl of UNCED regarded Agenda 21 as a “program of action for a tolerable future for the human family and an initial step toward making sure the world will change into a more just, secure and wealthy habitat for all humanity.”[9] The focus, then, had become broader than when the EPA was first established. The emphasis was much more clearly on working towards a world where all peoples had access to the natural resources they needed to thrive.

Another notable international protocol designed to guide the international community towards sustainable development, in this case particularly environmental, was the Kyoto Climate Agreement in 1997. Its goal was to reduce the emissions of its signatories, with more emphasis placed on those developed countries which were responsible for most of the air pollution and its subsequent consequences. It might be noted that the US is the only developed country and one of the only two in general (the other being South Sudan) that has not ratified this protocol.

Complications and Criticisms of the Sustainable Movement

Though the notion of sustainable development typically enjoys positive attention on a global level, there have been various points of criticism and some complications that have developed over time. I will describe a few below.


One point of contention has arisen as a result of the differences in power and responsibility between some developing and developed countries. For instance, developed countries are most often the ones pushing for particular types of sustainable development, whether that means a cap in emissions from power plants or a transition towards more sustainable forms of energy such as wind and solar. However, developed countries are often the ones who have already benefitted from the exploitation of environmental resources employing these less-sustainable methods for many decades, whereas many developing countries are just now beginning to have access to these technologies. At the same time, these new sustainable technologies entail more costs, which may be possible for developed countries, but not for many developing countries. In other words, one criticism is that developed countries have long benefitted from unsustainable practices and are now imposing their new-found sustainable values upon developing countries, for whom this transition is much more difficult and costly.[10]


The previous point was mostly focused on natural, environmental concerns (e.g., how we might reduce emissions). Another large focus in the sustainable development movement has been on freeing peoples in parts of the developing world from the bonds of poverty and starvation. In essence, this is a focus on the economics of sustainable development.

Perhaps the biggest conflict seen regarding sustainable development is economic in nature. Broadly speaking, the global economy has a neoliberal bent to it. With regard to sustainable development, “ the tenets of neoliberal economic agenda such as commodification, deregulation, privatisation and cuts in government expenditure may in some context undermine the attainment of sustainable development by increasing poverty and inequality. This in turn increases the exploitation of environmental resources, such as forests, as a result of poverty-induced constraints. Additionally, the regulatory capacity of environmental management provided by the state has been reduced mainly due to budgetary constraints imposed by the adoption of neoliberalism…”[11] In other words, the properties of the neoliberal economic system run counter to what many consider to be the goals of sustainable development. Neoliberal economics can be harmful to the environment, and to the standard of living for various groups of people – particularly the poor.

Indian economist Amartya Sen is famous for his work on the relationship between economics and social justice, particularly in relation to famine and starvation as a result of faulty economic policies. One of his most profound arguments, that of ‘capability’, argues that the rights provided by governments (such as the right to vote, freedom of speech, etc.) are empty benefits, not of much use unless the society provides its citizens “functionings,” such as education, transportation to voting locations, access to food, etc.[12] Therefore, in order to promote sustainable development with the lives of people in mind, we must focus on economic policies that may hinder or promote well-being.

Further to the political left of Amartya Sen’s work lies the opinion of many NGOs and academics who view the world system of capitalism to be incompatible with sustainable development progress.

…there is an unspoken (and largely untested) assumption that there need be no fundamental contradiction between sustainable development and capitalism. That assumption stands in stark contrast to the prevailing view of many radical academics and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that there are profound (and possibly unmanageable) contradictions which demand a completely different world order.[13]

Though, what this new world order would look like is up for speculation.

Confusions over Terminology

There seems to be some confusion in this camp, around expectations as well as around the terminology used and definitions understood. For example, some go as far as to suggest that “A green economy cannot be a wasteful economy since we must reduce our consumption of the earth’s resources and so have to ensure that those we use are used efficiently,” which seems to be a rather simplistic, vague understanding of what a “green” future would look like.[14]

A similar concern is addressed by the UN’s Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform:

Despite the growing international interest in green economy, negotiations between Member States on the concept in the lead up to Rio+20 were challenging. This was partly due to the lack of an internationally agreed definition or universal principles for green economy, the emergence of interrelated but different terminology and concepts over recent years (such as green growth, low carbon development, sustainable economy, steady-state economy etc.), a lack of clarity around what green economy policy measures encompass and how they integrate with national priorities and objectives relating to economic growth and poverty eradication, as well as a perceived lack of experience in designing, implementing and reviewing the costs and benefits of green economy policies.[15]

In sum, the lack of clarity and cohesion regarding these terms and their implications seems to be causing some internal discord within organizations working towards sustainable development. It also is preventing large-scale action internationally.
















1 Comment

  1. jeruto purity

    understood but how about sustainable development at now

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