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The Evolution of the Contemporary Concept of Sustainable Development

The Evolution of the Contemporary Concept of Sustainable Development

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by James Stockdale. Originally submitted for Sustainable Development at University College Cork, with lecturer Ger Mullally in the category of International Relations & Politics
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by James Stockdale. Originally submitted for Sustainable Development at University College Cork, with lecturer Ger Mullally in the category of International Relations & Politics

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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The concept of sustainable development has the potential to appeal to many stakeholders but also to be interpreted under a multitude of conflicting definitions. Ideas of sustainability and sustainabledevelopment have emerged over an extended period of human history and have evolvedsignificantly during the process. Institutions for sustainable development have emerged relativelylate in the story but have had a significant role in shaping the discourse.This essay briefly examines the emergence of the ideas and looks at a number of key developmentsthat have influenced the evolving conception of sustainable development.
A Brief History of Sustainability
The embryo of a discourse on sustainability can be recognised as early as the eighteenth century.Perhaps not surprisingly, the catalyst for this early thinking was the onset of industrialisation inEurope. At a time when wood was still heavily relied upon not only as a fuel but also a popular choice of construction material, fears of a European shortage prompted early conceptions of whatwe would now recognise as sustainable forestry (Du Pisani 2006, pp.85,86).Around the turn of the nineteenth century, The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus published
 An Essay on the Principle of Population
. The essay is often characterised as a rather gloomy, if notapocalyptic forecast of the world's inability to feed its swelling population. Critics of Malthus have been largely divided between those that believe his message was misunderstood and those that seehim as attempting to justify the divide between rich and poor (Whitaker 2005). Nonetheless, thewritings of Malthus did much to foster an awareness of the finite carrying capacity of the earth andthe implications for a growing population.As had happened with wood in the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century saw concerns aboutthe exhaustion of the newly dominant fuel, coal. One writer of the time was compelled to predictthat England would be depleted of its coal reserves in only one hundred years (Du Pisani 2006, p.86).Following the second world war, the world was held in the grip of a newly found sense of optimismand potential. The war effort had yielded technological advances that made synthetic chemicalsreadily available and affordable as never before. The impact that this had on agriculture, industryand the wider economy was significant. The post-war economic boom fostered a sense thateconomies and personal affluence were now free to grow without limit (Du Pisani 2006, p.87). It isdifficult to overstate the fundamental societal changes that were taking place. Indeed, not until this boom did the term
first start to appear in mainstream economic literature (Hodson 1972, p.19).While economic growth and assumptions of its universal desirability would escape critical attentionfor some time yet, the 1960s saw the appearance of a number of writings that would prove to be pivotal in the emergence of a wider environmental awareness. In particular, Rachel Carson's
Silent Spring 
, published in 1962, made a lasting impression in the public mind that the environment could be gravely damaged by human activities. Other influential works of the time include Garret Hardin's
Tragedy of the Commons
and Paul Ehrlich's
The Population Bomb
, which reinvigorated the debate begun by Thomas Malthus one hundred and seventy years earlier. Amid the increasing mediaattention to environmental issues, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, the first environmental non-government organisations (ENGOs) came into being while environmental groups and the green political parties became more vocal and more influential. The Green Movement was underway (DuPisani 2006, p.89).Page 1 of 6
In 1972, the Club of Rome commissioned a study whose findings would be published in the nowinfamous book,
The Limits to Growth
. The study used a computer model to simulate the effects of increasing population, food production, industrialisation, pollution and consumption of non-renewable natural resources (Donella H. Meadows et al. 1972, p.33). It was a ground-breakingstudy, not least because it linked the world's economy and the environment to produce the first
integrated global model 
(Costanza et al., 2007, cited in Turner 2008, p.397). However, as Nordhaus(1992, p.2) notes,
 Limits [to Growth] did not sprout in an intellectual desert”
. Rather, it wasthe media focus of a wider scientific revolution. As had been the case with previous Malthusiancommentaries,
The Limits to Growth
was the subject of significant criticism but, nonetheless, servedto further stimulate the debate on what would come to be know as sustainable development.
The Emergence of Institutions for Sustainable Development
The 1970s saw the first in a series of environmental conferences that lead to the emergence of formal institutions for sustainable development. In 1972, the same year that
The Limits to Growth
was published, the
United Nations Conference on the Human Environment 
(UNCHE), convened inStockholm. This was the first in a series of what Seyfang (2003) terms 'environmental mega-conferences'.
The Stockholm Convention, 1972
The Stockholm Convention was motivated by concerns held by the industrialised world over theenvironmental problems caused by industrialisation. However, to ensure that this would be a trulyglobal convention, a preparatory conference met in Founex, Switzerland to set a more inclusiveagenda that would bring the developing nations on-board (Tladi 2007, p.18). The convention helpedto marry the traditionally opposing concerns of development and the environment at what was thefirst brining together of world leaders and scientists to discuss international environmental issues(Seyfang 2003, p.224; Haas 2002, p.75).The Stockholm Declaration, one of three legally non-binding instruments to come out of theUNCEH, was a significant step in the conceptualization of sustainable development for itsrecognition that development and environmental protection need not be conflicting concerns and for the promotion of the concepts of inter- and and intragenerational equity (Tladi 2007, pp.19,20). Animportant institution to arise from the UNCEH was the
United Nations Environment Programme
(UNEP), which, amongst other things, is instrumental in funding projects in developing nations thathave global environmental benefits (Tladi 2007, pp.20,21).
The Brundtland Report, 1987
In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) published
Our Common Future
, which famously articulated the concept of sustainable development as“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of futuregenerations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987,chap.2, para.1).
Our Common Future
, often referred to as the
 Brundtland Report 
was undoubtedly amajor milestone in the evolution of the concept of sustainable development. Not only did it providethe much quoted definition, but also it fostered the notion that sustainable development mustintegrate economic and social development with environmental protection. This three-prongedapproach to sustainable development remains a key concept within the discourse.Page 2 of 6
Our Common Future
did much to place sustainable development on the political agenda, butdetractors have argued that it was biased towards economic growth (Langhelle 1999, p.130). Thereport's contention that a 5-to-10-fold increase in global economic product would be necessary toachieve sustainable development drew much of the criticism (Robinson 2004, p.373). Herman Dalyis credited as stating that the very term 'sustainable development' is an oxymoron (Redclift 2005, p.213). Indeed, Daly himself prefers to separate the concept of economic growth from development.The former, he argues, is merely an increase in the quantitative throughput of the economic system,while the latter is a qualitative improvement in living standards (Daly 1996). By this argument,economic growth is simply the tool (and in Daly's mind, the wrong tool) employed in the pursuit of development. Nonetheless, the
 Brundtland Report 
was influential in that it also laid foundations for the success of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992. Key proposals were the integration of environmental concerns with development activities, thestrengthening of environmental protection agencies, increased cooperation between non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and scientific bodies, more inclusive decision making processes and the involvement of multilateral financial institutions in the pursuit of sustainabledevelopment (Tladi 2007, p.25).
The Rio Conference, 1992
The second of Seyfang's (2003) 'environmental mega-conferences' took place in 1992 in Rio deJaneiro. This was the
United Nations Conference on Environment and Development 
(UNCED), alsoknown variously as the Rio Conference, the Rio Summit and the Earth Summit. This conferencewas framed in the new language of sustainable development that had emerged since the
 Brundtland  Report 
of 1987 and broadened the scope to include social as well as environmental issues (Seyfang2003, p.224).Five instruments emerged from the Rio Conference. Of these, the Rio Declaration, Agenda 21 andthe Forest Principles would be non-binding while the United Nations Framework Convention onClimate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity would be legally binding(Tladi 2007, p.26). Agenda 21 is a blueprint for sustainable development at the local, national andinternational level which, for Seyfang (2003, p.226), demonstrates clearly the potential for largeinternational environmental conferences to provide global leadership to the lower levels of governance.Tladi (2007) points to differences in the use of language between the Stockholm Declaration of 1972 and the Rio Declaration of 1992 that indicate a shift in the emphasis on the three 'pillars' of sustainable development – environment, economy and society – over the twenty years that elapsed between their publication. In particular, it is noted that the language of the Rio Declaration puts agreater emphasis on development and economic growth and lesser emphasis on the duties andresponsibilities of humanity towards the environment than does the Stockholm Declaration (Tladi2007, pp.26-30). Furthermore, it is pointed out that whereas the Stockholm Declaration espousesthe 'rights' of human beings, the latter document prefers to refer to 'entitlements' – a somewhatweaker term (Tladi 2007, p.27). However subtle, changes in the use of language that result from protracted negotiation between the parties of the conferences indicate real changes in the conceptionof sustainable development. These discrepancies would appear to indicate a shift back towards thedominant economic paradigm and something of a dilution of principles regarding society and theenvironment.Page 3 of 6

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