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Sustainable Development — Is It a Myth, or Something More Like Linus’s Blanket?


We perhaps need to revisit the concept known as Sustainable Development.  First formalized in Our Common Future, the report from the World Commission on Environment and Development (or Brundtland Commission), published in 1987, the concept of sustainable development has underpinned much of the program of international development undertaken by the UN and other multilateral agencies since that time.  It’s been an aspirational underpinning rather than a structure that has governed a revised approach to development. 

The Brundtland Commission Report, Our Common Future, was published by Oxford UP, 1987

As set out in Our Common Future, sustainable development is defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.  Sustainability is viewed as including societal, economic and environmental components, all three of which must be present and in balance – this perspective is sometimes described as the three-legged stool of sustainable development.

Our Common Future is an essentially ethical argument for how international development should be done and is rooted in the twin ideas that all humans living today deserve to have their needs fulfilled and that fulfilling those present needs should be done in a way that does not preclude future generations fulfilling their own needs.  Needs are not wants but neither are they specified explicitly.  The argument is logical, but for an ecologist it seems distinctly anthropocentric.  It is also wedded to the concept of economic growth, not because growth is somehow good, but because a growing human population, plus the need to fulfill the unmet needs of the poorest populations, requires a substantial growth in GDP at least in the near to medium term.

If the world had embarked on a serious process of sustainable development when Our Common Future was published, we’d be in a very different place to where we are today.  But, for all the discussion of sustainable development over the past 30+ years, there has been only modest movement to improve the inequities and overuse that were highlighted in arguing the need for sustainablity.  People do not act rationally in response to an ethical argument that demands substantial changes in how they live their lives, and nations do not hold hands and sing kumbaya when an ethical argument for profound change is presented to them in the form of an official UN report.

Flaws in the Brundtland Report

Given the challenge the World Commission on Environment and Development was presented with, it is not surprising that Our Common Future contains two enormous flaws.  These are that all humans, living and in the future, have inalienable rights to certain needs (distinguished from wants, but not defined), and that any rights of other species are not considered other than the right to be available into the future to satisfy human needs.  Because millions of people in 1987 were struggling to fulfill their basic needs, and global population was growing rapidly, Our Common Future argues that global economic activity must expand substantially at least in the near term.  To not do this would require very substantial redistribution of resources from well-off to less well-off communities and nations, or rigorous efforts to forcibly restrain population growth, or both.  No ethical argument could be found for doing either of these things.  As a multinational committee, in a world in which nations jealously guard their sovereignty, the Brundtland Commission was obliged to operate primarily on consensus.  Requiring individuals to limit their fecundity or requiring citizens of wealthy countries to substantially reduce their use of resources so that people in less well-off communities could achieve their needs were both viewed as electrified third rails not to be touched.  The Commission appears to have proceeded on the basis of hope that convincing arguments would bring about significant changes in practices around the world.  My sense is that for the last 30+ years, the multinational community has been reciting the sustainable development mantra while whistling bravely into the wind.

Cartoon by Sakari Tolppanen showing the imbalance that usually exists among the three pillars of sustainability.

Recent failures in applying the sustainable development concept.

Even if only an aspirational goal, sustainable development is embedded in virtually every development project on the planet.  It also crops up in otherwise seemingly unrelated environmental programs.  For example, Article 2 of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which states the objective of the convention is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, concludes with “… to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”  We all know how effective efforts to rein in climate change have been to date.

The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) committed the world to the ‘conservation and sustainable use’ of biodiversity resources.  Sustainable use is defined as “the use of components of biological diversity in a way and at a rate that does not lead to the long-term decline of biological diversity, thereby maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of present and future generations.”  This is the same principle of sustainable use which governs the use of natural resources as proposed in Our Common Future

In 2010, the CBD adopted the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, 2011 – 2020, including five strategic goals and 20 “Aichi Targets” (because the agreement was signed in Japan).  Like the Millennium Development Goals (below) the Aichi Targets were measurable targets to be met on the path towards sustainability in the management of biodiversity.  In 2014, a target-by-target review of progress being made and likely achievement by 2020 revealed that while efforts were increasing in many instances, the effort being expended globally was not going to succeed in meeting any of the five strategic goals by 2020.  A United Nations news report in September 2020, announcing the follow-up to the 2014 report, concluded that “none of the targets – which concern the safeguarding of ecosystems, and the promotion of sustainability – have been fully met, and only six are deemed to have been “partially achieved”.

The Millennium Development Goals, set out by the UN in 2000 as targets for development activities over the next 15 years, were based on sustainable development although, interestingly, only one of the eight goals concerned environmental sustainability.  Once 2015 arrived there were many reports from UN organizations and other multinational players that focused on the good news in the rather mixed results.  Some of the targets had been reached and a few had been missed but only just.  The message conveyed was that setting goals and monitoring progress did lead to enhanced improvement in peoples’ quality of life.

And yet, the results of the MDG project should not be seen as successful.  Most of the targets were missed, and most environmental targets were further away in 2015 than they were in 2000.  In my view, reporting improvements in access by people to potable water or sanitation as targets for environmental sustainability has always seemed odd.  Yet these were the targets highlighted to put a positive spin on the outcome of the single environmental goal.  I think the improvements documented for the other MDG goals were often achieved at the expense of environmental sustainability – not quite the way forward that the term, sustainable development, intends.

Table from article on the failures of the MDGs by

The Sustainable Development Goals were put in place in 2015 as the natural successor to the MDGs.  These goals to be achieved over the 15 years to 2030, were both more numerous and more carefully crafted to be more amenable to quantitative monitoring, although the success with which that was done has been questioned by many.  In place of eight MDGs only one of which was environmental, there are 17 SDGs to be assessed using 169 targets.  The good news from my perspective is that goals 13, 14, and 15 (climate action, life below water, and life on land respectively) are clearly about environmental sustainability, while goals 6 (clean water and sanitation) and 7 (affordable and clean energy) are tangentially so. 

I can’t help thinking the SDGs came into being primarily to distract attention from the failures of the MDGs.  Setting goals for the future is a great way for the political class to appear to be acting on the problems we face.  Needless to say, some are already predicting failures for the SDGs as well, and an article in Nature in July 2020 argues that we need to redefine the goals in order to make them more attainable.  If that is not moving the goalposts, I don’t know what goalpost moving entails!

How to Move Forward?

I suggest the failure in each of these programs has arisen primarily because of the flaws in the initial Brundtland Commission report: concern with the needs of people without full regard to the needs of other components of the biosphere, and acceptance of the inevitability of substantial population growth and concomitant economic growth in order to give those extra people reasonable quality of life.  There is also the failure to confront the near impossibility of mounting such a massive growth agenda on an already overtaxed planetary system while simultaneously approaching sustainablity.  Neither in Our Common Future, nor in the various development programs since has the world done more than hope for the best when the need to have growth in an already overextended world was considered.

Cartoon reflecting that, mostly, development has continued to advance at the expense of the environment.

Its undeniable that it feels good to talk about sustainable development, development in which all people get their needs met in a fair and just economy that operates within a vibrant biosphere managed so well that its vibrancy is maintained into the indefinite future.  Win, win, win, even if it’s just talk.  The ultimate Linus blanket. There is an undeniable logic to the arguments in Our Common Future, and it is difficult to visualize how continued unsustainable operation of the global economy might yield a future that is not a blighted form of the present.  But those arguments require that we not exceed the capacity of the biosphere to sustain our lives, and since we are already overconsuming the renewable resources and overtaxing the restorative capacities of the biosphere, we can only move in the direction of sustainability by reducing our overall environmental impacts.  Improved efficiency and a shift away from highly consumptive practices in fulfilling human needs can help, but taking small steps in these directions, as the world has been doing since 1987, is not even keeping up with the added needs of the growing population.

The world does not need to abandon the concept of sustainable development.  It does need to find ways of making the truly wrenching changes to our profligate economy, including a material downgrading in the consumptive activities of the more affluent (which includes virtually all citizens in developed and many in developing nations).  The struggle to wrestle climate change to the ground is just one part of this task.  The alternative, of course, is to go on, more or less as we have been, and wait until some outside agent, perhaps a novel virus, brings the human experiment back into line with reality.