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Published: 24 Feb, 2020 Updated: 24 Apr, 2020, 11:07

The birth of sustainable development

FEATURE In the early 1980s, the United Nations appointed an environmental commission made up of politicians and experts. The final report entitled “Our common future” was crucial to opinions on sustainable development as an issue with an ecological, a social and an economic dimension.

Text: Ulf Holmgren

In the mid-1980s, Gro Harlem Brundtland — then Prime Minister of Norway — was tasked with heading a strategic group within the UN system. Her job was to devise a proposal for long-term global environmental strategies. The final report was published in 1987 and was entitled ‘Report of the World Commission of Environment and Development: Our Common Future’. This report accommodates a broad overview of many of the issues that were and continue to be crucial to the future of mankind. The report includes chapters on economic issues, population issues, food supply, biodiversity, urbanisation, industrial issues and — not least — how humanity should manage common resources.

It also includes the generally accepted definition of sustainable development:

“Sustainable development seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future”.

Immediately after this definition is a two-point supplement.

  • The first point emphasises that in the first instance, the needs of the poor of the world must be met.
  • The second point relates to the fact that technical and social systems must harmonise with a good environment.

Brundtland’s definition of sustainable development has had a major impact thanks to its straightforward comprehensibility. The basic concept is that it’s all about living a good life, and that the generations that come after us must also be able to live good lives. Who wouldn’t go along with that?

A definition with room for different interpretations

But there are two problems with the wording. The first is the term ‘needs’, which means completely different things to different people, in different contexts and different situations. The authors of the report tried to fend off this problem in the supplement to the original document. The second problem is the word ‘development’. This may allude to societal development in the sense of ‘switching to a sustainable society’. But it can also be interpreted as economic development, measured in terms of traditional economic growth.

There is much to indicate that the Brundtland Commission perceived no actual conflict between these approaches. Under the heading ‘Changing the quality of growth’, the document states:

“Sustainable development involves more than growth. It requires a change in the content of growth, to make it less material- and energy-intensive and more equitable in its impact. These changes are required (...) to maintain the stock of ecological capital, to improve the distribution of income, and to reduce the degree of vulnerability to economic crises."

”The Commission is of the opinion that economic growth is necessary in order to improve the situation of the poor, but the intention is also to link growth with development that is ecologically acceptable and socially sustainable.

Three dimensions of sustainability

One approach from the Brundtland Report that has proven to be particularly useful is the division of sustainability into an ecological, a social and an economic dimension.

Ecological sustainability is all about living within the bounds of the ecosystems — maintaining the viability of ecosystems, economising on resources and limiting the impact of emissions.

A socially sustainable community is fair, equitable, inclusive and democratic. It guarantees a reasonable quality of life for present and future generations.

A sustainable economic system, finally, is predictable and legally secure. Reasonably, it should also help to fulfil the Brundtland Report’s desires to maintain ecological capital, even out economic injustices and reduce the vulnerability of the system.

A reality with flaws in all three dimensions

However, humanity has not been particularly successful in respect of any of these three dimensions. We exceed our planet’s limits in terms of biodiversity and pollution. We need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 10–15 per cent per year in order to meet our climate targets. As regards social sustainability, two billion people live on less than three dollars per day. There is also plenty of progress to be made as regards economic sustainability.

Prior to the new decade, many people have talk-ed about the green transition and green growth. This transition needs to be handled as a matter of urgency, given the seriousness of the situation. But at the same time, changes motivated by the green transition — such as the increased need for metals for batteries, solar cells and generators, for example — need to be made in a way that respects both nature and culture.

This article was first published in the magazine Think no. 1 2020.

About the author

Ulf Holmgren is an associate professor and certified engineer. Together with Håkan Gulliksson, he wrote the book “Hållbar utveckling: teknik, samhälle och livskvalitet”. The third, updated edition of this book was published in 2018