RSS Feed

Origins of the Sustainability Concept

Posted on

Origins of the Sustainability Concept

It is generally acknowledged that the Club of Rome’s (1972) book ‘The Limits to Growth’ was the first modern day use of the term as we know it.  It subsequently came to public attention with the publication of the World Conservation Strategy (WCS) in March 1980.  The WCS was a strategy for the conservation of the Earth’s living resources in the face of major international environmental problems such as deforestation, desertification, ecosystem degradation and destruction, extinction of species and loss of genetic diversity, loss of cropland, pollution and soil erosion and was developed by a combination of government agencies, non-governmental organisations and experts from over 100 countries.

 The WCS defined conservation as: “the management of human use of the biosphere so that it may yield the greatest sustainable benefit to present generations while maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of future generations.” (IUCN, 1980)

 and had three specific objectives:

 1.         To maintain essential ecological processes and life support systems (such as soil regeneration and protection, the recycling of nutrients and the cleansing of waters) on which human survival and development depend

 2.         To preserve genetic diversity (the range of genetic material found in the world’s organisms) on which depend the breeding programmes necessary for the protection and improvement of cultivated plants and domesticated animals as well as much scientific advance, technical innovation and the security of the many industries that use living resources

 3.         To ensure the sustainable utilisation of species and ecosystems (notably fish and other wildlife, forest and grazing lands) which support millions of rural communities as well as major industries.

 Following the WCS, in 1983 the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) was created as an independent commission reporting directly to the United Nations Assembly with Cro Harlem Bruntland as its chair.  By 1987 the WCED report ‘Our Common Future’, commonly referred to as the ‘Bruntland Report’ was published and sustainable development entered popular language.  According to the report, sustainable development is development that:

“meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

 Five basic principles of sustainability were identified in the report, which notably took the sustainability concept beyond the specifically environmental:

 1.         The idea of holistic planning and strategy making

 2.         The importance of preserving essential ecological processes

 3.         The need to protect both human heritage and biodiversity

 4.         To develop in such a way that productivity can be sustained over the long term for future generations

 5.         Achieving a better balance of fairness and opportunity between nations

 Supporters of the report point out that it included essential principles of intra-generational and inter-generational equity and persuaded many governments to endorse the notion of sustainable development

 Critics of the report argue it contained inbuilt assumptions about the need for continued expansion of the world economy and that it failed to stress the radical changes in lifestyles and society that would be required to overcome the problems inherent in the western model of development (Mowforth & Munt, 2008)

 The next notable stage in the development and dissemination of the sustainability concept was the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (popularly known as ‘The Earth Summit’) which was held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, attended by 178 governments including 120 heads of state.  The purpose of the conference was to:

“elaborate strategies and measures to halt and reverse the effects of environmental degradation in the context of strengthened national and international efforts to promote sustainable and environmentally sound development in all countries.”

 The results of the conference were seen to take six parts:

 a)         An ‘Earth Charter’ or declaration of basic principles

b)         Agreements on specific legal measures

c)         An agenda for action – Agenda 21 – and the means to implement this agenda

d)         New and additional financial resources

e)         Transfer of technology

f)          Strengthening of institutional capacities and processes

 Rio +20 will be held in June 2012.

 The scope of the challenge of sustainable development was soon after outlined by Ekins (1993) who argues certain conditions need to be adhered to with respect to resource use, pollution and environmental impacts:

 a)         Destabilisation of global environmental features such as climate patterns and the ozone layer must be prevented

b)         Important ecosystems and ecological features must receive absolute protection in order to maintain biological diversity

c)         Renewable resources must be maintained with sustainable harvesting measures rigorously enforced

d)         Non-renewable resources must be used as intensively as possible

e)         Depletion of non-renewable resources should proceed on the basis of maintaining minimum life expectancies of such resources, at which level consumption should be matched by new discoveries of these resources and technological innovation

f)          Emissions into the biosphere should not exceed the biosphere’s capacity to absorb such emissions

g)         Risks of life damaging events from human activity e.g. nuclear power generation must be kept at a very low level


 Ekins, P (1993) ‘Limits to growth and sustainable development: grappling with ecological realities’.  Ecological Economics 8 pp 269-88

Meadows, D. Et al. (1972) The Limits to Growth, Universe Publications

Mowforth, M. and Munt, I., (2008) Tourism and Sustainability, Abingdon: Taylor and Francis

WCED (1987) Our Common Future Oxford: Oxford University Press.



About pfiddle

Fiddle teacher - mostly Irish trad. Fiddle, mandolin and concertina. Eco-warrior, won E.U. Green Flower Award for Eco Accommodation. Also Irish (Gold) GHA. Green Hospitality Award. Mad keen on self-build - especially straw-bale and cob. 55 with a full head of (slightly) graying hair. No tattoos or piercings. Fond of animals - but legally so. Fond of food - I eat nothing else. Vegetarian by choice, Irish by the grace of birth, Munster by force of (rugby) arms.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: