Sustainable Development: Introduction [Archived]

Since the 1987 Brundtland report, the concept of sustainable development has entered the political arena. Its most common definition reads: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". In the EU debate, sustainable development is often seen as encompassing three dimensions: the environmental, the economic and the social (the "triple bottom line").

Definition and concept

There are hundreds of definitions of the concept of "Sustainable Development". Since the 1987 Brundtland Report, several attempts at a more accurate and operational definition of sustainable development have only led to more ambiguity. The Washington State University Sustainable Development Sourcebook has an overview of the academic literature dealing with the definition of sustainable development

It is generally accepted that sustainable development deals with three dimensions: the environment, the economy and social equity.


The concept of "sustainability" linked to human development originated in the 1970s with books such as Goldsmith's "Blueprint for Survival" (1972) and the Club of Rome's "Limits to Growth" (1972). In the same year 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, in Stockholm put the spotlight on the reconciliation of environment and economic development.

In 1987, the term sustainable development entered into the political arena with the publication by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) of its report " Our Common Future" [more commonly known as "the Brundtland Report"].

In 1992, the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), or the "Earth Summit", in Rio de Janeiro, agreed on a Declaration setting out 27 principles supporting sustainable development. The Summit also agreed a plan of action, Agenda 21, and recommended that all countries produce national sustainable development strategies. A special UN Commission on Sustainable Development was created. Also in 1992, the EU adopted its Fifth Environmental Action Programme, called "Towards Sustainability".

In 1999, the Amsterdam Treaty enshrined sustainable development as one of the core task of the European Union (Article 2 of the EC Treaty).

In June 2001, the Gothenburg European Council adopted the Commission's Sustainable Development Strategy (for more see our special LinksDossier on the Union's strategy) 

From 26 August to 4 September 2002, the Johannesburg Summit reviewed the progress made on global sustainable development since the Rio Summit (see our LinksDossier on the Johannesburg Summit).


Sustainable Development has become something of a "faith" to politicians, economists and environmentalists in the last 10 years. It seems hardly politically correct to dare to question its validity. Nonetheless, criticism has been voiced over the contradictions and implications of the concept.

Some less-developed countries see sustainable development as an ideology imposed by the wealthy industrialised countries to impose stricter conditions and rules on aid to developing countries. Other critics suggest that the concept does not give enough attention to the poor, who suffer most from environmental degradation.

A major critique of the concept has been that is does not question the ideology of economic growth. Some therefore see it as a new ideology of neo-liberalism.

For 'Deep Ecology' critics, the paradigm of sustainable development does not adequately challenge the consumer culture. Deep ecologists argue that the concept of sustainable development is too human-centric.

There are also critics who attack the sustainable development concept from a conservative, free market perspective. They argue that natural resources are abundant and man's ingenuity is so great that sustainable development policies are unnecessary and dangerous. They also maintain that the ideal of intergenerational equity is incoherent and flawed.

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