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sustainable development

  A term that was first used in 1980 in the World conservation strategy, but was popularized by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED, 1987) in Our common future. The term attempts to incorporate various strands of intellectual thought on limits to growth, nature, development and poverty. Fowke and Prasad (1996) identified at least eighty definitions of \'sustainable development\', with the most widely known being the WCED\'s (1987, pp. 8 and 43): \'development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs\'. However, there are also numerous interpretations of this definition, plus various terms which sound similar, e.g. \'sustainability\', \'sustainable growth\', \'sustainable economic growth\', \'sustainable economic development\' and, as used in Australia, \'ecologically sustainable development\' (ESD).

The idea of sustainable development can be traced to the conservation work of Gifford Pinchot in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Pinchot advocated the use of resources to enable prosperity for current and future generations. This strand of thought informed a number of African-based conferences in the mid-1960s. To achieve conservation of wildlife on game reserves there, it was apparent that adjacent lands had to provide food to overcome rural poverty to assist efforts to prevent hunting of endangered species for food (O\'Riordan, 1993). The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in 1969 defined conservation as the \'management … of air, minerals, and living species including man, so as to achieve the highest sustainable quality of life\' (McCormick, 1995, p. 53). In 1972 this concept was introduced by Maurice Strong to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment as \'eco-development\'. This term had stronger connotations of self-reliance; its key features are the provision of basic needs starting with the poorest, participation for the community and the use of appropriate technology (O\'Riordan, 1993).

The World conservation strategy introduced the term \'sustainable development\', but it was not widely adopted. In 1987, almost one year to the day after the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe in the former Soviet Union, the WCED released their report in London. The WCED, popularly known as \'the Brundtland Commission\' after its Norwegian chair, Mrs Gro Harlem Brundtland, immediately succeeded in changing the terminology and the terrain for debates about the environment. While the term \'sustainability\' had been used in literature that advocated the existence of limits to growth, the Brundtland Commission recognized limits as being \'not absolute limits but limitations imposed by the present state of technology and social organisation on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities\' (WCED, 1987, p. 8). The global future advocated from this analytical base was a form of \'green accumulation\' which involved improving the efficiency of economic growth so that it used less natural resources, and redistributing the costs and benefits of increased growth with increased equity. The approach is sometimes recognized as a form of \'ecological modernization\'. It includes both intergenerational and intra-generational equity and equity between so-called \'developed\' and \'developing\' countries, and also called for equity across class and gender barriers.

Our common future had high political acceptability because of its timing, because it built on the work of previous reports such as Common crisis and Our threatened future (the Palme Report), because it offered a positive message rather than environmental doom and because it provided something for many competing groups. Wealthy countries could continue to have economic growth, but do so more efficiently. Qualitative improvements would enable this change to be called \'development\', unlike the quantitative increases known as growth. They could ignore limits-to-growth thinking that had been influential in the 1970s, and had the potential to regain influence in the late 1980s. Poorer countries could have economic development to overcome poverty, and to achieve some of the material benefits of the wealthy countries. The WCED called for a \'five-to-ten-fold expansion of world industrial output by the time world population stabilises (at twice the present level) sometime in the next century\' (WCED, 1987, p. 213). Much to the annoyance of many environmentalists, business groups could use the term \'sustainable\', and either replace \'development\' with \'growth\', or use development to mean growth. This tendency would be less likely to occur if the Australian term \'ecologically sustainable development\' (ESD) was adopted and implemented: it is defined as (Commonwealth of Australia, 1992, p. 6):

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.This gives greater emphasis to the maintenance of ecological processes, whereas the WCED definition emphasizes development. In the Australian definition there is little doubt about what must be sustained.

The WCED\'s call for increased economic growth was strongly criticized by more radical environmentalists. The Brundtland Commission report was seen as a technocratic extension of global management. The concerns of Redclift (1987) that \'sustainable development\' is an oxymoron were shared by many authors, including feminists and authors writing about development (as in Sachs, 1993a). The report\'s inadequate attempt to address population growth, and the lack of political analysis focusing on the role of transnational corporations (TNCs) in promoting unsustainable practices, were also criticized. Some environmentalists complained that business got the noun (development) and they were left with the supporting adjective (sustainable). Sachs (1993b) was strongly critical of the notion that development should be sustained, because this form of exploitation by wealthy countries was considered the problem. The shift in the term \'sustainable development\' to mean \'sustaining development\' (rather than sustaining nature, ecosystems or the earth\'s life support systems) was encapsulated in a 1992 World Bank report which asked; \'What is sustainable? Sustainable development is development that lasts\' (Sachs, 1993b, p. 10). In 1994, the World Bank Group published a report, Making development sustainable, which highlights the importance of the question: What is being sustained?

The Brundtland Commission changed the terrain for debate and decision-making. In the period 1987 to 1992, the literature on sustainable development appeared either to focus on the forthcoming follow-up conference (e.g. MacNeill et al., 1991), or to critique the notion of sustainable development from a variety of perspectives (see McManus, 1996). From within environmental economics, some authors distinguished between different forms of sustainability from a narrow economic focus on capital, with the ability to substitute human-made capital for natural capital (see natural resources) being the primary distinction between \'very weak\', \'weak\', \'strong\' and \'very strong\' forms of sustainability (in Johnston, 1996).

The five-year follow-up to the Brundtland Commission, the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, sometimes known as the Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was the largest environmental conference ever held. It included representatives from 172 countries (including over 100 heads of state) and more than 8000 media representatives. As Finger (1993, p. 39) recognized: \'Above all, the UNCED process must be seen as an attempt by nation-states and their governments to rehabilitate themselves as pertinent and legitimate actors in the eyes of their citizens.\' In Rio, at the same time as UNCED, there were approximately 28,000 participants at the International Non-governmental Organization Forum (INGOF or the Global Forum). The differences in the perspectives of the two conferences can be seen from the documents developed at each. UNCED produced five key documents: The Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity, Agenda 21, The Rio Declaration and The Forest Principles (see Grubb et. al., 1993). The Global Forum produced a People\'s Earth Declaration, the Rio de Janeiro Declaration and an Earth Charter. The Global Forum material contains a greater sense of urgency, calls for more fundamental changes to be made to achieve sustainability and is very critical of both TNCs and international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

UNCED did not criticize the role of TNCs. Instead it praised their role and that of business in general in achieving the economic growth that was needed to overcome poverty. The Secretary-General of UNCED, Maurice Strong, was closely advised by the Swiss millionaire Stephan Schmidheiny and the organization he created to influence the UNCED agenda, the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD). Schmidheiny and the BCSD\'s 1992 publication, Changing course, advocated open markets, economic incentives rather than regulation, and economic growth to achieve sustainable development (see Eden, 1996). Rowell (1996) documents the links between the BCSD and the transnational public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, and demonstrates the deliberate way in which they succeeded in influencing the UNCED agenda. Middleton et al. (1993) demonstrate how the notion of sustainable development changed from Brundtland to Rio, with greater emphasis on \'global issues\' in Rio. These so-called global issues (such as biodiversity and greenhouse gases) were the issues that most interested northern hemisphere businesses and governments. The move from eco-development (beginning with the needs of the poorest) through to a business-oriented notion of sustainable development was apparent at UNCED.

The events of 1992 may be interpreted differently depending upon the viewer\'s ideological perspective. Some see UNCED and the notion of sustainable development as being successful and desirable. They are working within the new paradigm of economy plus environment, rather than seeing economic development (often meaning growth) as contrary to ecological futures. Since 1992 there has been less media salience for environmental issues, but more focused activity at local, regional, national and global scales. Many local authorities throughout the world are engaged in preparing and implementing Local Agenda 21 (see Selman, 1996). Many projects which previously would have been identified as environmental protection, or energy-saving, are now presented under the banner of \'sustainable development\'. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between new projects and activities, and those existing projects and activities that have been \'window-dressed\' in the latest fashionable term. At the global scale, to the dismay of many environmentalists, the financial leveraging power was gained by the World Bank through their joint management of the Global Environmental Fund. Organizations such as the Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD), the Earth Council and Mikhail Gorbachev\'s \'Green Cross\' continue to operate, but the aspirations of many people at UNCED have not been met. The 1995 United Nations Climate Change Convention in Berlin highlighted the lack of significant changes following UNCED (see global warming and greenhouse effect). Small island states protested about their vulnerability to sea-level rises, but the oil producing and consuming countries (almost the remainder of the world) did not address this issue with the integrity they desired, a situation which continued at the Kyoto conference in 1997 in Japan.

The 1997 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS, or Earth Summit 2) held in New York City saw over 4000 diplomats, journalists and lobbyists reviewing the progress of the UNCED process: 173 countries, including over 60 heads of state, attended the conference. The small island states recognized that despite all the talk at Rio, and some action towards achieving reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the wealthy countries were not going to meet their targets and the small island states were still as vulnerable as they had been in the early 1990s. The President of the United Nations General Assembly said achievements since Rio had been \'paltry\'. Since the Rio conference in 1992, pollution has been increasing, natural resources have been decreasing or degraded, biodiversity continues to decline markedly and poverty still threatens over a billion people.

These issues have been studied by geographers for many years before the term \'sustainable development\' became fashionable. The early 1990s saw the entry of the term into a number of presidential addresses at geography conferences. This was partly due to media salience, recognition of skills and knowledge within geography, the rejection of some reductionist work on sustainable development emanating from other disciplines, and the possibility that geographers might miss the research funding if they did not get aboard the sustainable development \'gravy train\'. Work by Middleton et al. (1993), Kirkby et al. (1995), Eden (1996), Adams (1995), Johnston (1996) and McManus (1996) are just a few examples of geographers addressing sustainable development. Many geographers write in areas that intersect sustainable development, including rural geography and critical geopolitics (Dalby, 1996).

Sustainable development is an important concept for the future of the world, and for developments in geography. It will spawn more literature on implementation, critiques of how it is being implemented or diverted from its original meaning, critiques that reject the basic assumptions contained in the term, and give rise to alternative conceptions of how we should relate to nature. Geographers have much to contribute to these debates. The idea of sustainable development is a bridge between geography and compatible disciplines. Beyond that, it is a conduit through which geographers can contribute to a positive future for life on earth. In doing so, geographers are well-positioned to address the most important question in sustainable development: What is being sustained? (PM)

References Adams, W. 1995: Sustainable development. In R. Johnston, P. Taylor and M. Watts, eds, Geographies of global change: remapping the world in the late twentieth century. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 354-73; Commonwealth of Australia 1992: National strategy for ecologically sustainable development. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. Dalby, S. 1996: Reading Rio, writing the world: the New York Times and the \'Earth Summit\'. Political Geography 15 6-7: 593-613. Eden, S. 1996: Environmental issues and business: implications of a changing agenda. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons. Finger, M. 1993: Politics of the UNCED Process. In W. Sachs, ed., Global ecology — a new arena of political conflict. London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 36-48. Fowke, R. and Prasad, D. 1996: Sustainable development, cities and local government. Australian Planner 33 2: 61-6. Grubb, M. et al., eds, 1993: The Earth Summit agreements: a guide and assessment. London: Earthscan. Johnston, R. 1996: Nature, state and economy: a political economy of the environment, 2nd edn. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons. Kirkby, J., O\'Keefe, P. and Timberlake, L., eds, 1995: The Earthscan reader in sustainable development. London: Earthscan. MacNeill, J., Winsemius, P. and Yakushiji, T. 1991: Beyond interdependence: the meshing of the world\'s economy and the earth\'s ecology. New York: Oxford University Press. McCormick, J. 1995: The global environmental movement. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons. McManus, P. 1996: Contested terrains: politics, stories and discourses of sustainability. Environmental Politics 5 1: 48-71. Middleton, N., O\'Keefe, P. and Moyo, S. 1993: The tears of the crocodile: from Rio to reality in the developing world. London: Pluto Press. O\'Riordan, T. 1993: The politics of sustainability. In R.K. Turner, Sustainable environmental economics and management: principles and practice. London: Belhaven. Redclift, M. 1987: Sustainable development: exploring the contradictions. London: Methuen. Rowell, A. 1996: Green backlash: global subversion of the environment movement. London and New York: Routledge. Sachs, W., ed., 1993a: Global ecology — a new arena of political conflict. London and New Jersey: Zed Books. Sachs, W. 1993b: Global ecology and the shadow of \'development\'. In W. Sachs, ed., Global ecology — a new arena of political conflict. London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 3-21. Selman, P. 1996: Local sustainability: managing and planning ecologically sound places. London: Paul Chapman Publishing Limited. Schmidheiny, S. and the Business Council for Sustainable Development 1992: Changing course: a global business perspective on development and the environment. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) 1987: Our common future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Suggested Reading Adams (1995). Kirkby, O\'Keefe and Timberlake (1995). McManus (1996). Sachs (1993a). Selman (1996).



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