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3. Sustainable Development explained.

3.1 Beginnings and expansion of Sustainable Development.

We live in a country with a proud culture and history. However, whether in México or in any other country on Earth, to apply sustainable development principles at national, state / provincial and local levels, or even in the individual lives of people, is not at first easy Yet these principles do have clear value. That is because the aim of sustainable development is to: better the lives of societies and their collective peoples, protect and enhance the natural environment, and help national and regional economies strengthen by becoming more aligned with Earth’s natural systems as understood by science.

Whether a country sees itself as rich or poor, north or south, developed or developing, all national entities and their peoples will benefit if they apply the general principles of the concept, approach and practice of sustainable development as a means to purposely plan their societal, economic and environmental activities toward becoming sustainable societies.

The origins for the concept of “sustainable development” are generally credited to the World Conservation Strategy: Living Resource Conservation for Sustainable Development, published in 1980 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Simon Dresner, in his book the Principles of SUSTAINABILITY, suggests that early development of the concept goes back even further in history to 1974 and a World Council of Churches (WCC) ecumenical study conference on Science and Technology for Human Development, which coined the phrase ‘sustainable society’.[4]

The 1972 United Nation’s Conference on the Human Environment was a wake-up call for many countries on Earth to the realisation that human development patterns are indeed affecting Earth’s natural environment and affecting it for the worse. Yet it was the World Commission on Environment and Development (also known as The WCED or also as the Brundtland Commission, named for the Commission’s chairperson, former Prime Minister of Norway Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland) that popularised sustainable development through their 1987 Final Report, Our Common Future.[5] The Brundtland Commission explained sustainable development in detail and gave it the following definition, which continues today as the most common definition used for sustainable development throughout all human societies:

  • Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.[6]

The WCED was comprised of prominent and respected politicians and scientists from across Earth. It was the first international body to hold public hearings on every continent and to allow average people of Earth to share their views on the important subject matter of environment and development. Particularly important, it was the first international body to allow average people to share their views with prominent global leaders.

The message the WCED heard from Earth’s citizens was clear: human development patterns were negatively and increasingly impacting Earth’s natural environment and, as a consequence, these very same environmental impacts were themselves now affecting humans. Additionally, the WCED clearly heard that growing social and economic inequities were being created among humans of Earth: inequities which themselves arose from these same existing human development patterns.

Unexpectedly for such a body of prominent and diverse citizens, the WCED arrived at unanimous conclusions in their report. Simply stated, their primary solution was that humans needed to pursue a “sustainable development” path to minimise our negative impacts on Earth’s natural environment and to also help sustain both our and other species through the process.

The WCED was clear that sustainable development was not only an environmental concept. The Brundtland Commission said that sustainable development comprised three integral and essential components, each of a: social, environmental and economic. All of these three parts were seen by the WCED as requiring as equal consideration as possible in order for anything resembling a practice of sustainable development to be achieved.

The WCED also saw that sustainable development entailed a “future” direction, one where humans are required to think of the consequences of our actions on future generations of humans and not just on our immediate selves.

Since the Brundtland Commission there have been many other sustainable development-related international meetings and treaties organised through the United Nations, many of which México has been both a participant in and signatory to. These include the: 1988 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 1992 World Conference on Environment and Development (also known as The Rio Conference or The Earth Summit), 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the 2002 United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development.

Yet since the Brundtland Commission’s popularisation of sustainable development, it has quickly become an essential concept, approach and practice for governments, businesses and industries around Earth.

3.2 Sustainable Development: A journey and not just “green”.

Sustainable development is often compared to a “journey” over a destination. It is something we humans are working toward but will never arrive at, for humans will always be using and regenerating and caring for the Earth’s complex and ever-changing environment as part of our own evolutionary process on Earth.

Sustainable development is often mistaken as a “green” term: wrongly thought of as a concept about the environment. Yet the WCED was clear in its vision that sustainable development has the three separate yet interconnected parts: each of the social, economic and environmental. The Brundtland Commission understood that all three elements need to be in some degree of balance for human societies themselves to be more in balance and to then be practicing sustainable development.

The association many people have with sustainable development and the environment is understandable, for the concept was in early usage at a time when people started to see first-hand the damage that overall human activities were having on Earth’s broader environment. Many environmentalists, with their ecological focus, have also added to confusion over the term for they have understandably helped promote sustainable development as a means to have environmental health considered in development activities.

A jurisdiction with a great environmental record but with vast social inequity and little economic diversification is no closer to sustainable development than is a jurisdiction with strong economic output and greater social equity but a poor environmental record.

[4] Dresner, Simon, 2002. Principles of SUSTAINABILITY. EARTHSCAN: London, UK.
[5] You can access ‘Our Common Future’ for free online from:
UN Documents Cooperation Circles. (1987a). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future [online]. Available from: http://www.un-documents.net/wced-ocf.htm [Accessed: 02 May 2008].
[6] UN Documents Cooperation Circles. (1987b). Our Common Future: From One Earth to One World - An Overview by the World Commission on Environment and Development: Section 1.3.27 The Global Challenge - Sustainable Development [online]. Available from: http://www.un-documents.net/ocf-ov.htm . [Accessed: 03 May 2008].

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