In March 1987, Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Norwegian prime minister, gave the United Nations a report entitled Our common future. The text introduced the term “sustainable development” which had not been used very much until then. The concept was defined as follows: « Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.»
This text follows many others, amongst which we can note the Meadows report, published in 1972 by the Club of Rome entitled Limits to growth.. It was published the year the Stockholm conference took place; it was already trying to reconcile the environment and economic development.
The term is preferred to others such as « alter-globalisation » which is considered too alternative or « eco-development » because it gives the notion of environmentalism too much importance. At the time, it was already a question of finding a compromise between those who prioritise the environment and those who highlight the development which is supposed to reduce inequalities.
In 1992, the Rio summit brought together about 182 heads of state who pledged based on the Brundtland report, to set up sustainable development strategies. This was the starting point of a 2500 action program, known as Agenda 21, and the Convention on Biological Diversity, which introduced the precaution principle.
The 3 pillars of sustainable development
Sustainable development is based on three pillars: the environment, the economy and the social aspect. It is about setting up double solidarity; horizontally, between peoples and vertically, between generations: economic development should not take place at the expense of the poorest people or future generations.
The environmental pillar
In sustainable development, the environment is often the most considered aspect. For a long time, those defending nature were seen as Utopians living outside the economic system. The idea was for nature and economy to now no longer be opposed and for nature to even be used for development and to encourage environmentally-linked technical and industrial innovations, for example.
Reintroducing nature into the economy also means giving nature a market value (water, space, minerals, energy…) to control how resources are used. What is rare is expensive and is therefore consumed less: economic mechanisms are therefore seen as tools for sustainable development by some people. [see The cost of nature]
The social pillar
For a long time, environmentalism was perceived as a luxury for rich countries. Poor populations often living in politically unstable countries have other preoccupations. Sustainable development aimed to redistribute the cards and make environmentalism work for the poor as they suffer most from environment-related problems such as pollution, climate change or poor access to drinking water. Sustainable development can help minimise inequalities.
In this capacity, fair trade which promotes fairer exchanges [See Responsible consumption] is one of the main tools of the social side of sustainable development.
Sustainable development also encourages the use of new development indicators that oppose the Gross Domestic Product such as the Human Development Index (HDI) which combines life expectancy, level of education and the corrected GDP per inhabitant for each country in one figure.
Criticisms of sustainable development
Sustainable development’s very success has attracted it much varying criticism as the notion is quite vague. It also has many definitions; certain specialists have over several hundred.
The most violent criticism often comes from those criticising growth. According to them, unlimited growth is impossible; sustainable growth is therefore an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. [see Degrowth].
In complete contrast, others find that the concept is only for rich countries. Now that they are developed, why are they imposing a restrictive vision of development on emerging countries who aspire to the same level of development? This criticism had already been made during the Brundtland report as certain representatives of emergent countries did not want their industrialisation or their demographic growth to be restricted.
Whatever its intrinsic value may be, the concept is often used for no reason, often by people who do not really care about the planet. Big companies in particular have adopted this term to greenwash (exactly as the word suggests) their image. NGOs and associations regularly denounce many companies’ inappropriate campaigns. The same problem exists with politicians who have adopted the concept without acting on it. This is why the concept is increasingly suffering from negative public opinion; it is sometimes rightly perceived as an illusion.
In French, sustainable is translated as durable. This is not exactly the right translation as sustainable should rather be translated as soutenable. Paradoxically, this word comes from the Old French soustenir. The term is thus used in the L’ordonnance de Brunoy, the first known forest regulation in French, enacted on May 29, 1346 by Philippe VI of France: « the owners of forests will enquire and visit all the woods and forests and will conduct sales that will allow the afore mentioned forests to perpetually be sustained in good condition ». Forest management is a historical model of sustainable management in France. The National Forests Office was set up in 1291 by Philippe Le Bel and the reform of royal forests was undertaken by Louis XIV’s minister, Colbert – even if its aim was to supply more wood to the Navy.
Le développement durable, Thierry Libaert et André-Jean Guérin, Dunod, 2008
Le développement durable, Sylvie Brunel, coll. « Que sais-je ? », PUF, 2004
Plan B, Lester R Brown, Calmann Lévy, 2007.
Décroissance ou développement durable ?, Alternatives Économiques n°221, janvier 2004.
Le développement durable est-il soutenable ?, Alternatives Économiques n°206, septembre 2002.
Our Common Future, rapport de la Commission mondiale sur l’environnement et le développement de l’ONU, présidée par Gro Harlem Brundtland, avril 1987