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Sustainable Development

  The concept of sustainable development was advocated by the Brundtland Report. This was the first report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, which was set up by the United Nations in 1983 to propose solutions to the world\'s problems of environment and development. Even the terms of reference of this report were an important advance: previously it had been usual to regard environment and economic development as inherently contradictory. The Commission\'s own analysis was equivocal, emphasizing that some environmental problems (notably deforestation and desertification) were in large part caused by poverty, and that economic development could produce the knowledge and wealth to overcome environmental problems, though it often tended to cause problems in the short term. So the Commission, led by Gro Brundtland, sought to define a form of development which could solve the problems of poverty without increasing the problems caused by affluence.

Sustainable development is defined as ‘development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. In terms of environmental values this is an argument based on stewardship, but in effect the Commission put even more emphasis on meeting the needs of poor people, especially in the less-developed world, so equity was at least as important as environment. The Brundtland Report analysed current problems and proposed policy changes in six linked areas: population and human resources; food security; species and ecosystem conservation; energy; industry; urban settlements.

In each case they were able to show how the international economy created problems which national and international institutions were unable to overcome. The worst case was the debt crisis affecting much of Africa and parts of Latin America, and leaving the populations of these areas with diminishing income per capita and worsening environmental and economic problems. The idea of sustainable development involved new priorities as well as institutional and legal change.

The concept of sustainable development has been both widely welcomed and bitterly criticized. Environmentalists have complained that it does nothing to reduce human society\'s impacts on Nature, while more mainstream critics have denounced it as a conspiracy against growth and the free market. In principle, many governments have been willing to support the idea, and heads of state flocked to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro which was the second major result of the ‘Brundtland Process’. But in practice few developed countries have been willing to reduce their own environmental impacts and none have even contemplated doing so to a sufficient degree to allow the less-developed countries to increase their standards of living and calls on environmental resources. Unless problems like the population explosion and global warming make more developed countries realize that solving problems in the less-developed world is in everybody\'s interest, the problems diagnosed by the Brundtland report will continue to worsen. PS

Further reading P. Sarre and , P. Smith, One World for One Earth; UNCED, Our Common Future.



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