The Significance of Our Common Future: The Brundtland Report

The first step in appreciating the journey from Sustainable Development to World Sustainability is to appreciate the origins of Sustainable Development with the Brundtland Report. Note how the report was first framed by the New York Times in an article by Phillip Shabecoff, a highly respected writer on the environment, in his article Pollution and Economic Growth: A New Report Looks at the Links:

"The world is facing 'interlocking' crises of the environment and the economy that threaten the future of humanity, a United Nations commission warns.

"The World Commission on Environment and Development has concluded 'sustainable human progress' can be achieved only through a system of international cooperation that treats environmental protection and economic growth as inseparable."

The Brundtland Report would clearly step on toes and defy orthodoxy. Shabecoff wrote:

"The recent famine in Africa illustrates the ways economics and ecology 'can interact destructively and trip into disaster,' the report said.

" 'Triggered by drought, its real causes lie deeper,' the report said, citing national economic policies and ''a global economic system that takes more out of a poor continent than it puts in.'

" 'Debts that they cannot pay,' the study continues, 'force African nations relying on commodity sales to overuse their fragile soils, thus turning good land to desert.' Trade barriers make it hard for African nations to sell their goods, the report said, and aid from donor nations has not only been inadequate in scale, but too often has reflected the priorities of donors rather than the recipients.

The report contended that global military expenditures, which it said now total about $1 trillion a year, use resources that might be employed ''more productively to diminish the security threats created by environmental conflict and the resentments that are fueled by widespread poverty.''

Notice some key points in the quotation above:

Note the chilly reception by a lower level spokesperson given to the Brundtland Report by the Reagan White House, as reported by Shabecoff:

"A. Alan Hill, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which is coordinating the Administration's review of the report, said in a telephone interview that 'there are themes in that report we are very supportive of and there are themes that we don't agree with.'

One of the things the Administration 'is not enamored with,' he said, is the report's conclusion that there must be a transfer of resources from the wealthy industrial countries to the poorer developing nations.''

The Reagan White House explained that the issues identified by Brundtland were the proper responsibility of the World Bank. Wealth transfer was not central to the Brundtland Report. The report raised issues far more profound.

Paradigms don't tolerate anomalies. But the powerful ideas of Sustainable Development were now openly discussed on the broad international agenda.

The conversation continued at the Rio Earth Summit, focused on global warming at the Kyoto Climate Change Protocol, then distorted at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, but goes forward in December, 2009, at Copenhagen Climate Conference -- see the 350 campaign.