A mud map of how sustainable development has grown up
By David Salt
For many, sustainability is a buzz word; a descriptor used
and abused by governments (and corporations) all around the world to give the
impression their policies of economic growth and development are simultaneously
meeting the needs of society and the environment. But it’s more than just a hollow
catch cry. Sustainability is a concept with substantive meaning and pedigree.
The growing body of evidence, unfortunately, is that our world
is not on a trajectory of sustainability. If anything, we are accelerating away
from it. However, there was a time, no so long ago, when there appeared to be a
growing international consensus that sustainability was a real and achievable
goal. When was that? Here is my (very) short potted mud map of sustainability (with
a fist full of caveats at the end for me to hide behind).
The Twentieth Century
The Twentieth Century was the century of human domination in
which our species ‘conquered’ the final bits of the planet’s surface. We
encircled the world with our communication cables (1902), reached its South
Pole (1911), ascended to its highest point (Mt Everest, 1953) and then reached
even higher with artificial satellites (Sputnik, 1957). We also made a real
effort to annihilate many dimensions of our own culture in two world wars.
If the first half of this century was marked by massive
global-scale disruptions (two world wars and a Depression) and empire failures
(Britain and Japan especially), then the second half was characterised by population
and economic growth of unprecedented scale. Population more than doubled, while
the global economy increased by more than 15-fold. And it was in this second
half that notions of sustainability were developed.
The 1940s: Reboot
My mud map begins in the aftermath of the Second World War;
a time of mass destruction, renewal and new beginnings. The aim of governments
was growth, stability and the kindling of hope for a prosperous future.
The tremendous economic growth that followed was in large
part enabled by the ‘rebooting’ effect of the wars. These broke down old imperial
and feudal institutions, opened up space for new institutions based on liberal-democratic
and later neo-liberal economic principles, and empowered us with a new suite of
powerful science and technology.
Survival was more the consideration than sustainability, but
towards the end of the 1940s there was an international push to set aside bits
of landscapes for wildlife and nature with the establishment in 1948 of the
International Union for the Protection of Nature (which was to become the
International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, in 1956). Economic
growth was the main focus and the environment was seen as a space separate from
The 1950s: Lift off
Today’s economy and environment has direct roots in the
explosion in economic growth that took place in the 1950s, the beginning of the
so called Great Acceleration. Population, GDP, energy generation, fertiliser
consumption, water use and international tourism all underwent dramatic (often
exponential) increases as the economy powered up.
The ‘sustainability’ of the environment was not really a
question back then. The USA, a major driver of growth, was concerned about the
ongoing supply of natural resources, but only as it related to feeding the economy
rather than sustaining the environment. It set up a commission, the Paley
Commission, which led to the establishment of the NGO called ‘Resources for the
Future’. Its brief was to look at resource scarcity issues on an ongoing basis.
The great environmental economist David Pearce identifies this as the founding
of environmental economics.
The 1960s: Cracks in
The economy was growing strongly, living standards for many
were improving, the rich were getting richer but the poor were getting less
poor. Indeed, during these first decades after the war the gap between the
richest and the poorest was decreasing (proof that a rising tide can indeed
lift all the boats).
But underneath the growth and the technological mastery,
cracks were appearing in the form of environmental decline. These concerns were
embodied in the book Silent Spring by
Rachel Carson (1962). It drew attention to the accumulating impacts of
pesticides on natural ecosystems, and questioned the costs of industrial scale-agriculture.
Technology also gave us new frames for considering
humanity’s role and place, with the race for the Moon providing new
perspectives, metaphorical and literal, on our planet. Kenneth Boulding coined
the term ‘Spaceship Earth’ in a famous essay in 1966 (and in 1968 we saw our
fragile home in perspective for the first time in the famous ‘Earth Rising’
photo taken by Apollo 8 astronauts as they orbited the moon).
Concern was growing as case study (eg, acid rain) after case
study (eg, contaminated waterways) caused people to question the costs and
benefits of economic development. Laws for environmental protection started
taking shape and the idea of Environmental Impact Assessment took off (enshrined
in US environmental law, NEPA, in 1969); yet the approach that evolved was more
a ‘bottom up’ one of minimising impacts on a case by case basis rather than the
holistic bigger picture approach that Boulding had advocated and NEPA, read as
prose rather than law, clearly
The 1970s: Hopes are
1972 saw the publication of landmark report titled Limits to Growth, one of the first
formal efforts to understand what the consequences of unbounded economic
development might be. Its conclusion was that our species was likely heading
for some form of collapse in the mid to latter part of the 21st
Century. (While widely dismissed by economists, a review in 2014 of the
Limits-to-Growth analysis found its forecasts are still on track.)
The 70s saw many efforts by governments and community groups
around the world to address the swelling list of environmental problems falling
out of our rapacious growth. Key among these was UN Conference on the Human
Environment, also known as the Stockholm Conference, in 1972. It catalysed many
activities that were to prove pivotal to the manner in which we dealt with the
environment, including many nations setting up their own environment
ministries. It also saw the creation of UNEP (the UN Environmental Programme),
and it put a greater focus on the connection between society and the
environment. The Stockholm Conference was one of the first events where there
was a strong acknowledgement of the need for poverty alleviation and its
connection with access to environmental resources.
And it was during this decade that the term sustainable
development began to see common usage. Indeed, the term was first used
officially in the World Conservation Strategy launched in 1980, though at this
stage the focus was on the environment alone.
Negotiations are had
‘Sustainable development’ took real form with the release of
the report titled Our Common Future
by The World Commission on Environment and Development (let by the
indefatigable Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway’s first female Prime Minister) in
1987. The report defined a sustainable society as one that “meets the
needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to
meet their own needs”. It made sustainability an idea that involved
acknowledging the linkages between the economy, the environment and society.
The mid 80s also saw the emergence of a massive ozone hole
over the south pole (resulting from humans pumping ozone depleting substances
into our atmosphere). This went some way to puncturing our complacency about
environmental decline. Countries met and negotiated what they would do about
the ozone problem, treaties were signed and these days ozone depleting
emissions are on the decline.
Not so easily addressed, unfortunately, was the greenhouse
gas problem in which a by-product of economic activity (energy, transport and
agriculture in particular) was carbon-based emissions that distorted the
Earth’s climate systems. Though the science of greenhouse warming was well
understood and discussed in scientific circles in the 70s, it actually became
visible in the late 80s. (In 1988 Jim Hansen, a leading atmospheric scientist
at NASA, declared:
“The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”)
The 1990s: Plans are
In 1992 the world came together in Rio for the great Earth
Summit in which nations would pledge how they were going to meet the great
challenge of sustainability. A plan for sustainable development in the rapidly
approaching 21st Century was adopted (Agenda 21) and an
international agreement on biodiversity conservation was opened for signing.
Through the 90s the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (formed by UNEP and the WMO in the 80s) began compiling an enormous
brief of evidence that greenhouse gas levels were growing remorselessly and
creating a raft of problems from shifting climate to sea level rise and extreme
weather. But as the fear rose about the need to do something about carbon
emissions, vested interests increased their efforts to discredit the science,
and obfuscate the emerging picture.
And governments everywhere were discovering that policy
positions developed to meet sustainability pledges came with real short term
electoral pain, and that the prospect of deep change, transformational change,
was simply too much to push through. Sustainable development is a moral
imperative but the reality is that sustainability bites. Or, as President Bush
said in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit: “the American way of life is not up for
The 2000s (the
Naughties): Sustainability bites
As you’d expect, the beginning of a new millennium saw a lot
of reflection, discussion and planning for a better world (a bit like my New
Year’s resolutions to be a better person). There was the Millennium Summit in
2000 (and ensuing Ecosystem Assessment in 2005), a Rio+10 Earth Summit (held in
Johannesburg in 2002) and a World Summit held in 2005. Millennium Development
Goals were drawn up and agreed to, and almost all nations (with the US a
notable exception) committed to reversing declines in biodiversity (the
Convention on Biological Diversity, CBD).
And the manner in which many governments sought to deliver
on their sustainability commitments increasingly invoked utilitarian values, a
move supported by an emerging line of conservation science that demonstrated
that nature provided benefits to humans that save us money (like native
vegetation providing water purification). So, why don’t we start paying for the
things that nature gives us, ecosystem services, and let the market optimise
the delivery of these services? Some saw this as a dangerous move away from
acknowledging nature’s intrinsic value.
But, just like my News Year’s resolutions, it didn’t take
long for most governments to begin making excuses for why aspirations (for
sustainable development) needed to take second place to the realities of
day-to-day life: “as soon as we’ve secured a strong economy we can begin worrying
about fixing up the environment.”
Targets adopted under the CBD meant that 2010 was supposed
to be the line in the sand for biodiversity conservation but all countries
failed to deliver on their commitments with extinction rates climbing and the
drivers of extinction only accelerating.
The 2010s: Cracks in
the ice cap
Sustainability, however you want to define it (and heaven
knows it comes in many flavours), was proving a stubbornly elusive goal. But
the negotiations continued.
The world’s nations continued to get together (Rio+20 in
2012, this time in Rio) but failed to agree on any major outcomes other than
replacing a failed international body, the Commission on Sustainable
Development, with a new one, the UN Environment Assembly); the failed Biodiversity
Convention targets were replaced with a more nuanced set of goals (the Aichi
Targets); the Millennium Development Goals (which some believed were quite
effective while others said were unmeasurable) were replaced with a more
nuanced set of sustainability targets (the Sustainable Development Goals); and
the stalled climate change discussions actually reached half a consensus with
the Paris Agreement (in 2015; though President Trump has since withdrawn from
In many ways, it’s the same old, same old; endless meetings,
discussions, agreements and targets; one step forward, two steps back, another
step forward; but, at the end of the day Bill Clinton’s 1992 election mantra ‘it’s
the economy stupid’ sums up the approach of virtually every country. Which
sometimes has me wondering that Rachel Carson, Kenneth Boulding and the
doomsayers behind ‘Limits to Growth’ were simply wrong. The environment is
undoubtedly in decline but we’re still standing, talking and aspiring to better
things (most of us are wealthier, but at the expense of future generations). Clearly
governments are almost unanimous in believing that the economy is what counts
and if things get scarce then markets and technology will always find a
solution; they have so far.
But those people calling for reflection and change were not
wrong; and the 2010s and the emerging science are emphatically backing their
calls for a new way of stewarding Spaceship Earth. We’re losing species and
ecosystems that we depend upon. We are seeing changes to our climate and Earth
system that are already stressing many parts of our planet (including our food
and water systems); and the science tells us these changes are just beginning,
promising an increasingly uncertain future. We are losing the challenge of
sustainability and it’s not a challenge we can afford to lose.
Caveats and endnotes
This ridiculously short history only touched on a few of the
elements that have contributed to the evolution of sustainable development (and
only mentioned a couple of the thousands of identities – people and
institutions – who have made important contributions to its story). And,
clearly, dividing this history into decadal phases doesn’t reflect the real
inflection points of its evolution, it is merely my effort to subjugate a
complex, non-linear, multi-faceted topic into something that looks like time
line with a simple narrative.
However, even the limited set of events described here tells
us that the history of sustainable development has gone through life stages
with different dynamics. It began as our faith in the economic growth model
began to erode and it’s early days kept a tight focus on the environment; as it
developed there grew a better appreciation of the connections between society,
economy and environment; and as it reached maturity and asked for real
commitment from its sponsoring actors, the reality of shifting the status quo
has proven that much of its rhetoric is impotent.
In its youth sustainable development was driven by natural
science. In its young adulthood, it began to take on it legitimacy from ideas
founded in social values, rights and laws. And as it matured it cloaked itself
in the robes of economics and markets.
Is it any wonder then that sustainable development is no
longer a force for change (if it ever was)? Rather than challenge the paradigm
of unbounded economic growth, it has been forced to work within the normative
structures that put economic growth before all other goals.
So, if you were a doctor asked to prescribe a change to an
ageing man whose life style is clearly leading to a miserable old age, what
might you suggest? Because maybe this is the lens we need to look through when
considering where to from here for sustainable development. And, maybe, just
like our ageing patient, we need to be confronted with some hard truths about
what the future holds (unless we sign up for some demanding therapies)?
Image: Earthrise, 25 December 1968. Taken aboard Apollo 8 by Bill Anders. Earth is peeking out from beyond the lunar surface as the first crewed spacecraft circumnavigated the Moon. (NASA)