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Sustainable development

In this step, Dr Maro Triantafyllou outlines sustainable development.
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0

In this step, you will be introduced to the concept of sustainable development and explore various definitions and applications throughout time and across different contexts.

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.
(Greek proverb)

The first landmarks of sustainable development

Following several decades of warfare and economic depression, the second half of the 20th century was marked by the conflict between economic growth and accelerating environmental degradation. This brought to the surface the need to harmonise prosperity with conservation, and view sustainable development as an essential alternative to unlimited economic development.
According to Du Pisani (2006), the conceptual underpinnings for the current use of the term ‘sustainable development’ were set in place in the early 1970s. A ‘Blueprint for Survival’ was an environmental text, initially published in The Ecologist and later as a book, that highlighted the urgency and magnitude of environmental problems and called for a stable, decentralised and largely de-industrialised society that could:
…be sustained indefinitely while giving optimum satisfaction to its members.
(Goldsmith et al. 1972)
This was followed by ‘The Limits to Growth’, a report based on the simulation of exponential economic and population growth considering a finite supply of resources. This work concluded that it would be:
…essential for the society to reduce the rate of resource usage to avoid a collapse induced by nature or the market
and recommended:
…a condition of ecological stability that is sustainable far into the future
…capable of satisfying the basic material needs of all people (Meadows et al. 1972)

The 1972 Stockholm Conference

These concepts were consolidated in the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, also known as the Stockholm Conference, which emphasised the need for humanity to halt the destruction of irreplaceable natural resources and safeguard them by managing development and the environment in a mutually beneficial way. Although the term ‘sustainable development’ was not yet referred to explicitly, it was the first time the international community agreed on its notion.
The Stockholm Conference emphasised the necessity to:
…shape actions with a more prudent care for their environmental consequence
in order to:
…defend and improve the human environment for present and future generations.
(United Nations 1972)

The 1987 WCED Brundtland Report

Concerned by the continued uncontrollable exploitation of natural resources in the north and the enormous poverty in the south, the United Nations issued in the 1980s an urgent call to the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) to develop a ‘global agenda for change’. Sustainable development became a central discussion point at the 1987 General Assembly of United Nations during which the WCED issued the ‘Our Common Future’ report. Known also as the Brundtland report, this was a global guideline calling the world’s nations to work together and formulate political and economic agendas that would unite development and the environment. The sustainable development notion was defined for the first time (United Nations 1987):
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
(Brundtland report, WCED, United Nations 1987)
According to the Brundtland report, sustainable development is:
…a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations.
(United Nations 1987)

The 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit and Agenda 21

However, it was not until the 1992 Rio de Janeiro United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Earth Summit, that world leaders recognised sustainable development as the major challenge it remains today. The Earth Summit was the first international large-scale attempt to draw up action plans and policies to ensure all economic decisions would fully take into account environmental impacts. It led to the adoption of Agenda 21, a wide-range blueprint for action that aimed to achieve sustainable development worldwide by scrutinising the production of toxic components, the use of alternative sources of energy, the prudent use of water and the expansion of public transport systems to reduce emissions, congestion and human health impacts (United Nations 1997).

The latest international initiatives about sustainable development

Since the Earth Summit in 1992, the international community has convened a significant number of major conferences, such as the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, the 2012 Rio+20 Summit, the 2015 Sustainable Development Summit in New York and the 2016 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Their aim was to assess progress against current agreements, share experiences among member states, enhance understanding of environmental issues, orchestrate a concerted effort to assist individual countries in realising their commitments and set new sustainable development targets for the future.

Your task

What are you already doing to live a more sustainable life? What else could you do?
Share your thoughts with your classmates in the comments area below.


Du Pisani, J. A. (2006) ‘Sustainable Development – Historical Roots of the Concept’. Environmental Sciences 3 (2), 83-96

Goldsmith, E., Allen, R., Allaby, J. M., Davoll, J., and Lawrence, S. (1972) A Blueprint for Survival. Boston, Mass: Houghton Mifflin

Meadows, H. D., Meadows, D. L., Randers, J., Behrens III, W. W. (1972) The Limits to Growth. A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books, 205

United Nations (1972) ‘Report of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. Stockholm’. held 5-16 June 1972 at Stockholm, Sweden [online]. available from [8 July 2019]

United Nations (1987) Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment (Brundtland Report) [online]. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 27. available from: [8 July 2019]

United Nations (1997) UN Conference on Environment and Development (1992). Earth Summit held 3-14 June 1992 at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil [online]. available from [17 December 2019]

Further reading

United Nations (2016) The Paris Agreement (2016) United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [online]. New York: United Nations. available from [8 July 2019]

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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