Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

19 Oct 2017

Sustainability at 30, Our Common Future

Posted by Michael Keating

It was 30 years ago that Our Common Future, one of the most influential books of the twentieth century was published. Known as the Brundtland report, this book has changed how we think about living on Earth. It said the world needed both better environmental protection and more development to lift millions out of dire poverty. What the world needs is sustainable development, that “…meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” To put it simply, this means living within nature’s limits.

This message came at a time of great environmental turmoil and conflict. Pollution spewed from smokestacks and industrial sewers or was dumped into pits that often leaked. Toxic materials killed wildlife, and made people sick and brought premature death. Forests were being levelled, farmlands degraded, water sources overused, fisheries depleted and many species pushed toward extinction. The world had narrowly averted a catastrophic decline in the protective ozone layer. Acid rain was eating away at buildings and forests, harming our lungs and sterilizing lakes. Climate change was starting to be recognized as the greatest environmental problem. There were more environmental laws, but they always seemed to be trying to catch up with problems.

Credit: cherwell.org

While many environment reports had laid out the problems, the World Commission on Environment and Development, often called the Brundtland commission, said the only way to stop the destruction was to change the way we do development and live our lives. It was the right message for the time. Governments, businesses and environmental groups had been fighting for years about what to protect and how to do it. Many seized on the concept of sustainability as a way to start a discussion about not only business impacts on the environment but how personal consumption needed to change. Sustainable development became a bridge builder and a rallying cry.

The Brundtland story began in 1984 when the United Nations, at the urging of a number of nations, including Canada, India, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, created an independent commission. Its mandate was “to propose long-term environmental strategies for achieving sustainable development by the year 2000 and beyond.” UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar appointed Norwegian medical doctor and politician Gro Harlem Brundtland to lead the new group. Dr. Brundtland assembled 22 economic, political, scientific and environmental experts from 21 countries, representing the major political and ideological groups of the time. In their report, delivered to the United Nations in October 1987, the commissioners surprised most people by calling for more development. They said that with so many living in poverty the world needed enough development so everyone could achieve decent living standards. While calling for “a new era of economic growth” in the poor nations, they said that future development in all countries must be cleaner and less wasteful than that of the past. The report said we needed to build a world that is, “more prosperous, more just and more secure because it rests upon policies and practices that serve to expand and sustain the ecological basis of development.” It said we needed to produce more with less to create a global economy that is bigger but also cleaner and more economical. This was a defining moment in world history. The linking of more development with environmental protection opened to business to find ways to deliver goods and services without destroying the environment in the process.

photo of Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland

Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland

A different way of seeing environmental problems

The Brundtland Commission asked people to understand that human life exists within and depends on the natural environment. Sustainability is about achieving two very important tasks at the same time: meeting human needs and reducing the environmental impact of development to a sustainable level. The commission threw out a challenge with these words: “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 concept of sustainable development does imply limits—not absolute limits but limitation 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.”

The Brundtland report contained a number of pivotal concepts: living within nature’s capacity, social and intergenerational equity, integrated decision making and long-term planning. The authors wrote that development “must not endanger the natural systems that support life on Earth: the atmosphere, the waters, the soils, and the living beings.” They said we couldn’t have a healthy society or economy in a world with so much poverty, inequality, ill health and environmental degradation. The report said development needed to be “based on consumption standards that are within the bounds of the ecologically possible and to which all can reasonably aspire.” It called for lifestyles “within the planet’s ecological means.”


Promoted a hopeful but different future

The report said human development was placing intolerable pressures on the environment. But, the commissioners wrote they were not predicting “…ever increasing environmental decay, poverty, and hardship in an ever more polluted world among ever decreasing resources. We see instead the possibility for a new era of economic growth, one that must be based on policies that sustain and expand the environmental resource base. And we believe such growth to be absolutely essential to relieve the great poverty that is deepening in much of the developing world.”

They said the world had to realize that the economy and environment were intertwined. The population, development, energy, food and pollution crises were all facets of a global crisis. As the industrial revolution raced ahead at breakneck speed, the rate of environmental change was accelerating beyond the ability of political bodies to adapt and cope. The report said the only hope for our planet was a new era of international co-operation based on the premise that every human being has the right to a decent life. It recommended sweeping changes to the way people govern themselves, do business, grow food, generate power, build industries, produce weapons and live their lives. A key message was that people had to stop seeing environmental and economic choices as trade-offs, and needed to make choices that are environmentally, economically and socially sound. Many commentators later said that sustainability is like a three-legged stool. It gets stability from environmental, economic and social legs.

Image of humans nested within the environment

The environment contains, sustains and provisions all humans

The two key Brundtland messages – economic growth to lift people out of poverty and development that does not undermine future generations – are profoundly ethical. The commissioners were struck by the linkages they saw between poverty and environmental problems. “The downward spiral of poverty and environmental degradation is a waste of opportunities and of resources,” they wrote. “These links between poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation formed a major theme in our analysis and recommendations. What is needed now is a new era of economic growth – growth that is forceful and at the same time socially and environmentally sustainable.” The report warned that much of current development was unsustainable in both rich and poor countries, and the world had to change course or face ecological collapse. It said new development in poor regions should be part of an attack on poverty. Another key idea, reflected in the report’s title, was that we have a duty to leave future generations with a healthy environment. In its public hearings around the world, the commission found the harshest criticism of the environmental destruction coming from the young. “We borrow environmental capital from future generations with no intention or prospect of repaying. They may damn us for our spendthrift ways but they can never collect on our debt to them.”


Canadian role

As environment reporter for The Globe and Mail at the time, I had a front row seat to this momentous period in history. When the UN appointed Dr. Brundtland, I got to interview her. There were two Canadians, Maurice Strong, a member of the commission, and Jim MacNeill, the secretary-general, who provided me with insights into the new concept of sustainable development. Later I left the newspaper, and wrote Toward A Common Future, Canada’s public discussion paper on the implications of the Brundtland report for this country.

In 1986, the Brundtland commission held its North American hearings in Canada. This inspired a group of Canadians to push for a mini-Brundtland for this country. They convinced the Canadian Council of Resource and Environment Ministers to form the National Task Force on Environment and Economy. It included 17 provincial and federal environment ministers, business leaders and academic and non-government experts. The group was to advise governments in Canada how the country should start adapting for a sustainable future. Canada was the first country in the world to create such a group, setting a model for collaboration. It marked a seismic shift in environmental politics. For years, environmental groups had battled publicly with polluting industries. Governments constantly found themselves caught between business calling for the right to pollute so they could make money and employ people, while non-government organizations were calling for a cleaner and healthier environment in everyone’s interest. The diverse members of the Canadian task force agreed to set aside differences and work together. In September 1987, the task force published its own report. It made 40 recommendations, ranging from more research into how to run an economy without running down the environment to educating young people on how to protect the environment. One of its key recommendations was for collaborative leadership from all sectors of society. It called on governments to form round tables where government, business, environmental and other leaders could exchange ideas and come up with collaborative solutions to sustainability challenges. The report recommended conservation strategies. “They are frameworks for judicious use of our renewable resources and can be used as blueprints for sustainable economic development in the renewable resource sector.”

It was a historic step. Environmentalists, environment ministers and senior officers of major polluting companies all signed the recommendations. It was the country’s first joint report calling for all sides to co-operate in environmental protection. Governments of all stripes, and many business and non-governmental leaders welcomed and endorsed the ideas of Brundtland and the task force. Canada helped develop the multistakeholder concept, and pioneered the round table movement. The country was a major player in the early days of sustainability, and other countries looked to us for leadership on this new issue. The Canadian and Manitoba governments created the International Institute for Sustainable Development, in Winnipeg, a global think tank on sustainability.

Successive governments gradually seemed to lose focus. Most round tables were eventually dissolved or diminished into advisory bodies rather than high-level meeting places. Interest in sustainability peaked with the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro in 1992 then took a back seat to a global recession. Many people found it hard to put flesh on the bones of sustainability. Despite this, sustainability has not disappeared but diffused. The integration of decisions on economic, environmental and social issues is often shaky, but governments and corporations usually acknowledge it needs to be done. There are myriad actions, big and small, by governments, businesses and individuals that move us closer to sustainability.

Next. Sustainability at 30, How are we doing?


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