Unless you have been living in a cave in Tora Bora, you have read and heard the words “sustainability” and “sustainable development” a lot in the popular media. The words are put before you in magazine articles, television interviews or conference flyers daily.
So what is “sustainable development” and where did it come from? Did Al Gore invent it? Well, all evidence to the contrary, Al was a little late to the sustainability party. His 1992 book, “Earth in the Balance” and the subsequent Oscar winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” were only about 35 years after the fact.
Sustainable development, unlike the more recent trends of New Urbanism and Smart Growth, was not the packaged product of a group of marketing savvy architecture and planning consultants. Sustainable development is actually an old idea repackaged for the 21st Century by none other than the United Nations. It is the ecology movement of the late 1960s and 1970s reborn with the scientific credentials and the political clout of the international community.
Our Common Future?
The phrase "sustainable development" dates back to The Bruntland Report (1987), also know as "Our Common Future." The Bruntland Report was published by the World Commission on Environment and Development. The March 1987 forward to the publication started by saying “’A global agenda for change’—this was what the World Commission on Environment and Development was asked to formulate. It was an urgent call by the General Assembly of the United Nations: to propose long-term environmental strategies for achieving sustainable development by the year 2000 and beyond…” So began the international “sustainablity” movement.
The report provided the basis for the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. In late 1992, the UN established a separate division called the Commission on Sustainable Development. In 1997, the UN held a special session of the UN General Assembly to review and update these findings. This was the same year as the Kyoto Conference on Global Warming. In 2002, the Johannesburg Summit was convened to identify quantifiable targets for implementation.
The Brundtland Report was primarily concerned with securing global equity, redistributing resources from wealthier nations towards poorer nations, while encouraging the latter’s economic growth. The report also suggested that equity, growth and environmental maintenance are simultaneously possible and that each country is capable of achieving its full economic potential while enhancing its resource base. The report also recognized that achieving this equity and sustainable growth would require both technological and social change.
Ecology Redux – Our Common Past
This international concern about humanity’s relationship to the natural environment is predated and foreshadowed by the ill-fated American environmental movement a couple of decades earlier. In 1962, Rachel Carson published “A Silent Spring.” This was the first major wakeup call about humanity poisoning itself and nature.
This was followed by a never ending stream of prophets who predicted the end of the world. People like Dr. Paul Erhlich, author of the hit book “The Population Bomb” (1968) did the environmental movement no favors by overstating humanity’s demise prematurely. He told us that a billion or more of us could die from starvation by the mid-1980s.
Greenpeace, the international environmental organization that was founded in Canada in 1971, says it “uses non-violent, creative confrontation to expose global environmental problems.” However serious Greenpeace was, their so-called confrontations with the corporate establishment seemed more like college kid antics to the mainstream public.
Of course, the environmental prophets of doom had good company with the religious zealots of the day, who were also predicting the end of times on Biblical grounds. Remember the Church Universal and Triumphant? That was the church that was best known publicly when it set up house underground in Montana during the late 1980s and predicted the end of the world by of nuclear war.
And which of us Baby Boomers can forget Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 book “Ecotopia?” In his book the West Coast states of California, Oregon and Washington broke from the USA in 1980. This was a literary account of Ecotopians who were environmentally and socially responsible and wanted to create a stable-state ecosystem. But it was a fiction.
On April 22, 1970 Americans celebrated the first Earth Day. Of course, the fact that this was also Lenin’s birthday was not overlooked by the Daughters of the American Revolution or then FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover who kept tab on the “subversive” environmentalists.
In 1972, we saw the publication of the Foxfire book series. Long before anyone talked about reducing our “carbon footprint,” the Foxfire series showed that we Americans already had the knowledge to become self-sufficient. Sadely, the environmentalist movement’s message of economic and environmental self-sufficiency would wane and be supplanted by the millenium survivalists who were sure that the end of days was near and due to either the 2nd coming of Christ or because Bill Gates couldn’t count to 2000.
The problem with the American environmental movement was that it had a hard time getting the public to take them seriously. When Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, it was the beginning of the end for the environmental movement politically. Even the reprieve offered by the election of Bill Clinton was routed by the Republican takeover of the Congress with the “Contract with America.” Three terms of the Bush presidencies of did nothing to revive Americans from their environmental lethargy.
The Environmental Movement in the Balance
So where is environmental movement today? Gaining momentum is a fair description. The international sustainability movement is here to stay and is incredibly strong.
In American, there is an environmentalist friendly Congress recently elected and now in power. The future of the Presidency is certainly up for grabs and could result in a pro-environment President taking office in 2009. Certainly Al Gore is getting a lot of presidential attention because of his environmental positions and writings about global warming.
But it doesn’t really matter if you like Al Gore or not, or if you believe that humans cause global warming or not. What matters is that we are beginning to understand that we all live on planet Earth. We all breathe the same air and we drink the same water that is circulated and filtered through a global cycle of rain and evaporation. It is not Earth that is in the balance. The Earth can and will continue on without us. It is you and I – and the rest of humanity -- who are in the balance.
Richard Carson is a writer and lecturer who lives and works in the Pacific Northwest. He is currently pursuing a doctorate degree in sustainable development through Washington State University's Environmental Science and Regional Planning program. A collection of his essays is on the web at http://www.carsonessays.org