Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

12 Nov 2023

Happy birthday sustainability

Posted by Michael Keating

It was 40 years ago that the seeds were sown for one of the defining terms of our era: sustainability. In late 1983, the United Nations, at the urging of Canada and a handful of other nations, decided to create a commission on the future of the environment. There was growing concern about uncontrolled pollution and overuse of natural resources. A decade earlier the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment had warned of the dangers of environmental destruction. In the same period the Club of Rome, a gathering of world scientists, educators, economists, humanists, industrialists and civil servants, published Limits to Growth. It warned of impending shortages of natural resources provoking a huge debate. The Science Council of Canada published The Conserver Society, saying that society must “begin the transition from a consumer society preoccupied with resource exploitation to a conserver society engaged in more constructive endeavours.”

In 1984 the United Nations announced the World Commission on Environment and Development, a group of distinguished government, business and academic experts from around the world. The commission, headed by Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, held hearings around the world. In 1987, it released its historic report Our Common Future, saying “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable—to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without comprising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The Brundtland Report used the term sustainable development but over the years it has been shortened to sustainability. This is a good way of describing the goal but we need to keep a focus on the kind of development we are using. Right now too much of it is still based on fossil fuels whose emissions are ruining our climate and overuse of natural resources, such as forests and fish, which are creating shortages and a less stable environment for our future.

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