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Understanding What Is The Sustainable Development Politics Essay

Sustainable development has been defined in many ways, but the most frequently quoted definition is from Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report:[1]

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“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and

the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”

All definitions of sustainable development require that we see the world as a system-a system that connects space; and a system that connects time.

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When you think of the world as a system over space, you grow to understand that air pollution from North America affects air quality in Asia, and that pesticides sprayed in Argentina could harm fish stocks off the coast of Australia.

And when you think of the world as a system over time, you start to realize that the decisions our grandparents made about how to farm the land continue to affect agricultural practice today; and the economic policies we endorse today will have an impact on urban poverty when our children are adults.

We also understand that quality of life is a system, too. It’s good to be physically healthy, but what if you are poor and don’t have access to education? It’s good to have a secure income, but what if the air in your part of the world is unclean? And it’s good to have freedom of religious expression, but what if you can’t feed your family?

The concept of sustainable development is rooted is this sort of systems thinking. It helps us understand ourselves and our world. The problems we face are complex and serious-and we can’t address them in the same way we created them. But we can address them.

This paper introduces two axioms that capture the idea of sustainable development, and characterizes the welfare criterion that they imply. The axioms require that neither the present nor the future should play a dictatorial role in society’s choices over time.

At the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, sustainable development emerged as one of the most urgent subjects for international policy. One hundred and fifty participating nations endorsed UN Agenda 21, proposing as part of its policy agenda sustainable development based on the satisfaction of basic needs in developing countries

Brundtland Commission proposed that “sustainable development is development that satisfies the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future.” Brundtland (1987)

“The experimental evidence indicates that the present and the future are treated more even-handedly. Typically we do discount the future, but the trade-off between today and tomorrow blurs as we move into the future. Tomorrow acquires increasing relative importance as time progresses. It is as if we viewed the future through a curved lens. The relative weight given to two subsequent periods in the future is inversely related to their distance from today.” (P.468)

“The two following axioms are non-dictatorship properties. Axiom 1 requires that the present should not dictate the outcome in disregard for the future: it requires sensitivity to the welfare of generations in the distant future. Axiom 2 requires that the welfare criterion should not be dictated by the long-run future, and thus requires sensitivity to the present.” (P.469)

Handbook of Sustainable Development Planning – Studies in Modelling and Decision Support

Edited by M.A. Quaddus & M.A.B. Siddique

“The concept of sustainable development gained its currency with the publication of Our Common Future by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WECD) in 1987. It emerged from recognition of the need to maintain a balance between economic development and environmental protection and to ensure intra- and intergenerational equity. Before the 1980s, a mono-disciplinary approach was applied to define economic development. Economic development basically meant sustained increase in per capita income. For example, in 1957, Meier and Baldwin defined economic development as ‘a process whereby an economy’s real national income increases over a long period of time’ (Meier and Baldwin, 1957, p. 2). This notion of development was prevalent among many of the third world countries until the end of the 1960s. However, during the last quarter of the twentieth century, a multi-dimensional concept of economic development was developed. One of the shortcomings of defining economic development in terms of sustained increase in per capita income is that it fails to accommodate the question of distribution of income. It was believed that the distributional aspect would be taken care of by the ‘trickle-down effect’ of growth. However, by the end of the 1960s, it became clear that economic development over a long period of time in many of the developing countries failed to bring about the ‘trickle-down effect’. A new environmental and social dimension of development, referred to as ‘sustainable development’, emerged in the 1980s. The first formal definition of sustainable development is found in Our Common Future, where it is defined as ‘a process that fulfils present human needs without endangering the opportunities of future generations to fulfil their needs’ (WECD, 1987, p. 43).” (P. 3)

However, since the publication of Our Common Future, the concept of sustainable development was further modified and extended by development economists. In Caring for the Earth (IUCN/UNEP/WWF, 1991) sustainable development is defined as an improvement in ‘the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems’. It should be noted here that improvement in the quality of human life subject to environmental or ecological constraint is the main focus of this definition. Although the seminal definition of sustainable development by the WECD has been widely quoted by many, the precise meaning of sustainable development and the ways to achieve it have always been matters of intense debate among researchers and policy-makers. The main criticism directed against the notion of sustainable development perceived by both the WECD and the UNCED (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) is that it is very broad and general. The lack of a universally acceptable definition makes the task for sustainable development planners difficult. Moreover, very often the objective of sustainable development is not clear. The implication of this is that the gap between theories (that is, the definition of sustainable development) and the actual application of sustainability to reality becomes particularly significant. This further results in many difficulties in the formulation of policies to plan sustainable development. As a result there is a demand for more precision in order to make sustainable development planning more consistent and efficient.

Sustainable Development in Tribal and Backward Areas

Kohli, Anju, Shah, Farida & Chowdhary, A.P. (Eds)., 1997 : New Delhi, Indus Publishing Company

“Sustainable development is a development process that only generates economic growth but distributes its benefits equitably, that regenerates the environment rather than destroying it, that empowers people rather than materializing them. It is a matter of distributional equity between present and the future. It is intrinsically inexact concept which cannot be measured but can be a general guide to policies that which cannot be measured but can be a general guide to policies that have be with investment, conservation and resource use. In short, sustainability is an injunction not to satisfy ourselves by improvising our successors. It is an obligation to conduct ourselves so that we leave to the future the option or the capacity to be as well off as we are.” P. 14


“In the developing world at least a billion people live in abject poverty for which no justification can be made. They have not received the benefit of growth. Unfortunately, they have no real choice except to “burn their forest and to overuse their land and their resources just to secure a livelihood”. P.194

The only important point to consider is ‘the polluters must pay’ principle. It should be obeyed within the rules of the game. Putting this responsibility on government is both time-consuming and economically a costly preposition.” P. 195.

“It is true that the developed world has contributed out of proportion in this game of destruction. The stage started in the colonial era when vast amount of timber wood and mineral resources were tapped. But the story of development after 1950 is even more hilarious. When large dams are erected or industrialization takes place, apparently it is an indicator of economic growth. But in the long run these efforts require a closer scrutiny. The economics of large scale dam construction is in vogue and even the World Bank clan has withdrawn its hands on ecological grounds. Even the much lauded “Green Revolution” has degraded the quality of soil. Thus in fifties every new invention or investment was an indicator of development. The end of twentieth century will like to rewrite the whole gamut of development economics. In today’s economic thinking the propelling nature of economic activity is not profit maximization but creation of utility.” P. 196

The economics of conservation should be a part of the development process.

Sustainable development has defined in the World Conservation Strategy (1980) as : “The management of the human use of the biosphere so that it may yield the greatest sustainable development to present generations while maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of future generations.” P. 228

“In order to ensure long-term sustainability it is essential to ensure that the national social and economic policy framework is consistent with, and supportive of, the development objectives and implementation methods of social sector projects and programmes” P. 228

“The problem of tribal development cannot be seen in isolation from mainstream development, yet, the preservation and sensitivity towards their socio-cultural identity also cannot be overlooked.

The challenge, at present, is to be able to recognize and understand the priorities and anxieties of the tribal communities. These arise from their shrinking economic base due to massive felling of trees caused by commercial exploitation of forest wealth. More and more tribals are becoming alien in their own area. Our economic modernization through construction of big power projects, opening of mines and construction of large dams is leading to displacement and impoverishment of tribals.

There is a need for having a critical look at all the ongoing tribal development programmes. The areas of concern will have to go beyond the conception and implementation of development programmes and projects to focus on getting sustained long-term benefits from investment. It is being seriously felt that while there has been emphasis on tribal development by both government and voluntary sectors, yet, it has rested only on project formulation and timely cost effective implementation of the development projects. The sustainability aspect of the projects has not received sufficient attention.” P.229

Productivity of land in tribal areas is poor and the agricultural output not sufficient. So they depend on cheap daily wage labour and collection and sale of firewood from the forest to see them through the year until the next harvest.

It is important to highlight that the problems of poverty, population and environmental degradation are linked and the stark reality is that weaker sections of our Indian society still inhibit the areas of environmental degradation.

“The issue of sustainable development assumes alarming significance for the tribal areas because the human resources base of these regions is very weak to shoulder the development responsibilities. Literacy level among the tribal social groups of Rajastan is still around 20%. The tribal Sub-Plan Areas concept has, of course, implanted some visible infrastructural masts over the whole TSP area during the last two decades. But the traditional socio-cultural fabric of tribal society perpetuates and still conditions the development parameters of the region spread over the 5 districts ….. Tribal economy continues to be governed by fragile agricultural and animal husbandry activities. The economy of this region is groaning under the increasing pressures of human and animal population. Land holding size and forest covered area is dwindling, droughts and famines continue to reoccur frequently and the land productivity is yet to surge up to a perceptible level. Governmental initiatives in promoting the use of modern farm technology ….do not seem to have established the roots in the tribal landscape. Even the poverty eradication programmes executed under the IRDP scheme are yet to show their glow on the faces of poverty stricken tribal masses. This region has rich mineral resource base but the industrial activities have not developed on a large scale.” P.236

“Mineral and industrial development responsibilities are primarily shouldered by the outside non-tribal entrepreneurial talents and the local masses are being engaged as wage laborers. Looking to the geophysical setup and the growing population pressures, the secondary sector is expected to galvanize the tribal economy through the creation of larger and sustainable economic activities. However, as the situation exists today, no perceptible indicators are visible on the horizon of tribal region. To be precise, the development experiences of last four decades lead us to surmise if the prevailing policy parameters are sustainable for the next century. What should be the thrust areas of development ? How could the tribals be roped in the development process for promoting a participative development model ? What strategic components of tribal development planning could prove viable in eradicating the problem of poverty on a sustainable basis ? These issues crave for the indulgency of academic world including the galaxy of economists as well as social scientists …” P. 237

“The panorama of unspent funds and under-exploited schemes persists because of the poor responses from the target groups. Geographical isolation has perpetuated tribal’s fear psychosis and as such, this society has yet to become vocal for claiming its active participation in the development process. The society has remained mute spectator to the manoeuvrability of outsider plunderers of the natural wealth of the region.” P. 237

The term ‘sustainable development’ holds together two principles : the first, development component concentrating on meeting the needs of the present generation; the other, sustainable component limiting harmful effects of human activities on natural environment so that the ability of future generations to meet their own needs is not compromised.

Environmental degradation and health hazards are the by-products of economic and industrial activities due to mindless and ruthless exploitation of natural resources. Poor planning and perverted process of development for short-term gains has destroyed the physical environment. If poverty existed before the pre-planning era, it was the result of under-utilization of resources, but if poverty, unemployment and inequalities persist today, it can be regarded as the consequence of ruthless over-exploitation of natural resources which left the physical environment degraded.


In 1987, the United Nations released the Brundtland Report, which defines sustainable development as ‘development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ The United Nations 2005 World Summit Outcome Document refers to the “interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars” of sustainable development as economic development, social development, and environmental protection.

Indigenous peoples have argued, through various international forums such as the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the Convention on Biological Diversity, that there are four pillars of sustainable development, the fourth being cultural. The Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (UNESCO, 2001) further elaborates the concept by stating that “…cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature”; it becomes “one of the roots of development understood not simply in terms of economic growth, but also as a means to achieve a more satisfactory intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual existence”. In this vision, cultural diversity is the fourth policy area of sustainable development.

Economic Sustainability: Agenda 21 clearly identified information, integration, and participation as key building blocks to help countries achieve development that recognises these interdependent pillars. It emphasises that in sustainable development everyone is a user and provider of information. It stresses the need to change from old sector-centred ways of doing business to new approaches that involve cross-sectoral co-ordination and the integration of environmental and social concerns into all development processes.

Furthermore, Agenda 21 emphasises that broad public participation in decision making is a fundamental prerequisite for achieving sustainable development. An “unsustainable situation” occurs when natural capital (the sum total of nature’s resources) is used up faster than it can be replenished. Sustainability requires that human activity only uses nature’s resources at a rate at which they can be replenished naturally. Inherently the concept of sustainable development is intertwined with the concept of carrying capacity. Theoretically, the long-term result of environmental degradation is the inability to sustain human life. Such degradation on a global scale could imply extinction for humanity.

Consumption of Renewable resources

State of environment


More than nature’s ability to replenish

Environmental degradation

Not sustainable

Equal to nature’s ability to replenish

Environmental equilibrium

Steady state economy

Less than nature’s ability to replenish

Environmental renewal

Environmentally sustainable

The sustainable development debate is based on the assumption that societies need to manage three types of capital (economic, social, and natural), which may be non-substitutable and whose consumption might be irreversible.

The business case for sustainable development : The most broadly accepted criterion for corporate sustainability constitutes a firm’s efficient use of natural capital. This eco-efficiency is usually calculated as the economic value added by a firm in relation to its aggregated ecological impact.[19] This idea has been popularised by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) under the following definition: “Eco-efficiency is achieved by the delivery of competitively priced goods and services that satisfy human needs and bring quality of life, while progressively reducing ecological impacts and resource intensity throughout the life-cycle to a level at least in line with the earth’s carrying capacity.” (DeSimone and Popoff, 1997: 47)

Similar to the eco-efficiency concept but so far less explored is the second criterion for corporate sustainability. Socio-efficiency[21] describes the relation between a firm’s value added and its social impact. Whereas, it can be assumed that most corporate impacts on the environment are negative (apart from rare exceptions such as the planting of trees) this is not true for social impacts. These can be either positive (e.g. corporate giving, creation of employment) or negative (e.g. work accidents, mobbing of employees, human rights abuses). Depending on the type of impact socio-efficiency thus either tries to minimize negative social impacts (i.e. accidents per value added) or maximise positive social impacts (i.e. donations per value added) in relation to the value added.

Both eco-efficiency and socio-efficiency are concerned primarily with increasing economic sustainability. In this process they instrumentalize both natural and social capital aiming to benefit from win-win situations. However, as Dyllick and Hockerts[21] point out the business case alone will not be sufficient to realise sustainable development. They point towards eco-effectiveness, socio-effectiveness, sufficiency, and eco-equity as four criteria that need to be met if sustainable development is to be reached..

“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 concept of sustainable development calls for a constant re-evaluation of the relationship between man and nature, and solidarity between generations, as the only viable option for long-term development.

“Sustainable development is a bridge concept connecting economics, ecology and ethics,”

Environment degradation is a result of the dynamic interplay of socio-economic, institutional and technological activities.

Possible intervention strategies

1972, Stockholm : UN Conference on the Human Environment – that the international community met for the first time to consider global environment and development needs together.

1992, 3 to 14 June Rio de Janerio, Brazil: The Earth Summit – United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). Agreed to Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration.

1992, December : The Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was created.

1997, New York, ‘Towards Earth Summit +5’

2002, 26 August to 4 September Johannesburg, South Africa: World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD).

2012, 14 – 16 May Rio de Janeiro: UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) or ‘Rio+20’. Also referred to as the Rio+20 Earth Summit,


Agenda 21 is a comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, and Major Groups in every area in which human impacts on the environment.

Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and the Statement of principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests were adopted by more than 178 Governments at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janerio, Brazil, 3 to 14 June 1992.

The Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was created in December 1992 to ensure effective follow-up of UNCED, to monitor and report on implementation of the agreements at the local, national, regional and international levels. It was agreed that a five year review of Earth Summit progress would be made in 1997 by the United Nations General Assembly meeting in special session.

The full implementation of Agenda 21, the Programme for Further Implementation of Agenda 21 and the Commitments to the Rio principles, were strongly reaffirmed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) held in Johannesburg, South Africa from 26 August to 4 September 2002.

P.K. Rao, Sustainable Development – Economics and Policy,

New Delhi : Blackwell Publishers, 2001

“The history of human civilization has been strongly interwoven with the history of climate and environment. Until recently, the climate and environment were seen as major determinants of the growth and stability of civilizations, and this was perceived as a one-way effect. However, the impact of civilization or human influences on the climate and the environment is now seen to constitute a serious problem. This is because, in the emerging new scenarios, two-way interactions seem to exist between climate-environment, and human activities. We are entering the 21st century amid such potential for combined interactive effects. There is a significant need for an analysis of the underlying factors and their potential mitigatory alternatives. This analysis could lead to improved and pragmatic policy framework.” P. 3

Dresner, Simon. 2005. The Principles of Sustainability. London : Earthscan Publications Ltd..

Book Review

At a time of increasingly rapid environmental deterioration, sustainability is one of the most important issues facing the world. Can we create a sustainable society? What would that mean? How should we set about doing it? How can we bring about such a profound change in the way things are organized?

This text tackles these questions directly. It goes beyond rhetoric to explain the deeper issues of sustainable development in a way that seeks to be accessible and interesting to the non-specialist reader. It covers historical development of the concept of sustainability; contemporary debates about how to achieve it; and obstacles and the prospects for overcoming them. The work should be useful to students, academics and activists concerned with sustainable development. It assumes no previous knowledge of the subject.

We should live ‘sustainably’ has become central to environmental discussions. P.1

The concept of sustainability in something like its modern form was first used by the World Council of Churches in 1974. It was proposed by Western environmentalists in response to developing world objections to worrying about eh environment when human beings in many parts of the world suffer from poverty and deprivation. The concept of sustainable development was put forward by International Union of Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in 1980. Sustainability and sustainable development finally came to prominence in 1987, when the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and development, chaired by former and later Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, published its report Our Common Future. The central recommendation of this document, usually known as the Brundtland report, was that the way to square the circle of competing demands of environmental development. They defined it as development that ‘meets …. their needs.’ They wrote that sustainable development was about both equity between generations and equity within generations. P.1

Different people use the term in different ways, some emphasizing development through economic growth, and others emphasizing sustainability through environmental protection. Some environmentalists have claimed that sustainable development is a contradiction in terms, can be used merely a cover for continuing to destroy the natural world. On the other side of the debate, some economists have argued that sustainable development is too cautious about the future, potentially leading to sacrifices of economic growth for the sake of excessive concern about depletion of natural resources. Defenders of the concept argue that disagreement about sustainable development does not show that it is meaningless. Rather, it is a ‘contestable concept’ like liberty or justice. P.2

The sustainability debate is not just about ‘environment and growth’.

Although sustainability is often presented that you should not destroy the basis of your own existence – it is more a question of equity. Concern about sustainability must be based on moral obligations towards future generations – not just personal self-interest. Brundtland Commission’s conception of sustainable development brought together equity between generations and equity within generations. P.2

The dispute between environmentalists and economists over sustainability is not just about the capacity of technological progress to substitute for natural resources. In the absence of sufficient understanding of the natural environment and of the capacities of future science and technology to deal with any problems, it involves disputes about how to deal with indeterminate risks. Economists tend to average out such risks in their calculations, burying worst-case possibilities in the average, or often even ignoring the possibility that things might turn out worse than they expect, so tending to advocate risky approaches to environmental futures. Environmentalists instead highlight worst-case outcomes and suggest that extra efforts should be taken to avoid them.

There are parallels between the risky approach that economists take with the future and their lack of support for egalitarianism in the present. Both are a result of the assumptions of the utilitarian philosophy underlying mainstream economics, which is indifferent to the risk of very bad outcomes for some individuals in the present or everyone in some alternative futures. Most contemporary environmentalists are more left-wing, and it turns out that there is a real philosophical parallel between their interest in equity to future generations and equity within generations. Drawing on the theories of the philosopher John Rawls, I will suggest that there are very sever tensions between the utilitarianism basis of mainstream economic and sustainability’s concern for equity within and between generations. P. 4.

Malthus on Population

Malthus argued that the tendency of population towards geometric growth meant that it would always outstrip the growth in food supply. The population was controlled by ‘misery’ and ‘vice’. The standard of living of the labouring classes always hovered around the minimum necessary for subsistence.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development took place in Johannesburg in 2002 as a sequel UNCED, ten years on. It was supposed to be more about development than environment, as Southern countries had felt that UNCED was more about environment than development. On both counts, though, it was a disappointment. The lack of substantial progress at the World Summit showed that global political efforts to bring about sustainable development had run out of steam, even as the environment continues to deteriorate. P.59

‘Sustainable development’ is a meeting point for environmentalists and developers. … the term sustainable development lay in the way that it could be used both by environmentalists, emphasizing the sustainable part, and by developers, emphasizing the development part. The definition given by Brundtland Commission, “……” is often criticized as hopelessly vague or non-operationalizable. In his essay, O’Riordan expressed the concern that the vagueness of the definition would allow people to claim almost anything as part of ‘sustainable development’, reducing the term meaningless. P.64

The identification of sustainable development with the growth agenda has made radical environmentalists deeply suspicious of it. P.65

Sustainable development is a ‘contestable concept’ – one that affords variety of competing interpretations or conceptions. These concepts have basic meanings and almost everyone is in favour of them, but deep conflicts remain about how they should be understood and what they imply for polity.

That something is a contestable concept does not mean that it has no meaning at all.

Brundtland seems to be identifying the crucial elements of sustainable development as

meeting basic needs,

recognizing environmental limits, and

the principles of intergenerational and intragenerational equity. P.67

The goal of ‘development’ was first formally enunciated by President Truman in 1949. The objective was generally seen in terms o

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