Why World Sustainability?

Why World Sustainability? Why not Sustainable Development? The short answer is that what needs to be sustained is not development per se, but the world. We will begin here with the origins of Sustainable Development, tracking its journey. We will see how sustainability became distorted into an arm of economic globalization, necessitating a shift of mission to the planet itself. This requires returning to the origins of sustainability in 1987, then working forward. Meanwhile, the global crisis intensifies and so does the sense of urgency. We return to the invention of the harbinger of the global crisis: the Brundtland Report of 1987.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, then Prime Minister of Norway and an active feminist and public health advocate, chaired a United Nations high commission to grapple with the dilemma that has come to define our times, The World Commission on Environment and Development. The mission of what was popularly known as the Brundtland Commission was daunting: How to decrease world poverty while protecting the global environment.

Her seminal report, Our Common Future, opened up a broad international discussion of Sustainable Development, which was defined by this report. (See especially the policy-relevant portions: the home page, the overview, and the section on Sustainable Development.) The report has had an enormous impact. Follow here the story from Sustainable Development through World Sustainability.

A significant theme in the Brundtland Report was the centrality of progeny, as revealed in the seminal definition of Sustainable Development:

"Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The concept of sustainable development does imply limits - not absolute limits but limitations imposed by the present state of technology and social organization on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities. But technology and social organization can be both managed and improved to make way for a new era of economic growth." (Emphasis added.)

Some essential considerations stand out:

  1. The appropriate time frame within which to reckon Sustainable Development was generational, not the short term horizon typical in prevailing economic and political institutions. This implies responsibility beyond the self-centered advantages of economics and politics as usual.
  2. Brundtland recognized limits imposed by the biosphere and by resources on technology and social organization. This expansion in scope placed Sustainable Development above economic policy.
  3. This talk of a new era of economic growth defied the success of the Reagan-Thatcher of neo-liberalism. After all, did Margaret Thatcher not sum up the triumph of the Zeitgeist of the new era when she famously, if not arrogantly, pronounced: "There is no alternative." The TINA doctrine was questioned in 1987 by, of all upstarts, a UN commission. This was a frontal assault on the establishment issued by the Brundtland Report.

This narrative frames how we will approach the rest of the story. Please see the support page on the significance of the Brundtland Report.

A final word: What needs to be sustained? Development? No, the inhabitation of Earth by humanity. Hence, we frame our discussion here around World Sustainability. See my background paper that frames World Sustainability.

Wayne Hayes, Ph.D. | Initialized: 11/23/2009 | Last Update: 2/15/2014