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Democracy is not solely about the relation of a set of institutions but about much improved collective capacity to resolve common problems. In other words, sustainable societies should have the mechanisms to ensure that conflicts are resolved peacefully.

-Tanvi Nagpa

A science fiction short story of several years ago (both the title and the author escape me) has each human generation from Cave Dweller to a time in the future when computers have become so small that they cannot be seen, and so powerful that they know everything, asking the same three questions: "Where did we come from?" "Why are we here?" and "Where are we going?" At the end of the story, the questions remain unanswered, we have even more to think about, and we are left with a substantial increase in humility with which to do it. Still, we are here, we do generally live life as if there were a purpose, and, almost universally, we hope that this will somehow make the answer to humanity's third question a happy one2

2After checking with experts, I have decided that the story I refer to may have evolved in my own mind from Isaac Asimov's famous science fiction short story "The Last Question." What is interesting is that, though written in 1956, the "Last Question" may say more about sustainable development than anything written since.
One could, and should, ask similar questions about sustainable development:

"Where did the concept come from?" "What does it mean?" and, "Where is it taking us?" Not easy questions either, and we make no pretense that any of them will be answered here. But, confident that one more piece on sustainable development will not totally overload the system, we propose to do three things:

The first is to develop a "history" of its origins including something about its major events, guiding documents and institutions. Of course, this has been done many, many times before. But here we want to do it in such a way that we hope will dismiss one of the noisiest and, in the end, least important, of the numerous stumbling blocks on the road to sustainability - the problem of ownership; does the concept belong to "environment," to "conservation," to "development" or, is it just "ours" collectively? More importantly, however, is that such a history can be instructive. That is, it can provide methods to help us live as if the concept has a purpose.

The second is to review some of the assumptions, theories, and explanations that make the concept so difficult to grasp; and, then, attempt a sketch of the processes and progress that encompass the concept today. It is surprising what one finds there. For example, interest has not diminished despite the number of publications that have looked into the concept over the last 30 years. The continuous flow of books and articles has "sustainable" describing everything. Literally, everything: World, planet, biosphere, environment, and ecosystems; growth, livelihoods, consumption, and future; agriculture, fisheries, forestry, transport, communities, and energy; design, management, solutions, and organization; and markets, industry, and business practices to name just a few. The sheer number of areas which attempt their own specific set of sustainability objectives, principles and procedures says something positive about how far we have come in this process (Appendix I).

And the third is to make a few observations and draw conclusions based on discussions of this process, its accomplishments, and its difficulties. We do this with the knowledge that each new publication does something similar. Everybody wants a new paradigm and a new definition of sustainable development. Strangely, it's as if there is a belief that we cannot move forward without marking time. But inventing a new paradigm is a futile exercise at best because, more often than not, paradigm shifts just happen and attempts to organize them either fail miserably or become tyrannies of one kind or another. Paradigm shifts occur because of past failures, dissatisfactions, and discord as well as past agreements and successes. They happen when the conditions are right: when debate takes place, when science is done correctly, when interests turn vocal, and when the weight of the new becomes more than the old can support (Kuhn 1962). Real paradigm shifts sneak up on us and push us into territory where we often do not want to go. However, despite the argument and the protest (and maybe because of them) the results are almost always positive.

We decidedly will not try to force a paradigm shift here. We will, however, attempt a description of one that is underway. It has to do with development, and we would like to think that it also has to do with sustainability.

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