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A History

Sustainable development is the mantra that launched a thousand conferences.


Today's ideas concerning sustainability and development result from a diverse, lengthy, on-going process. Our individual understandings of sustainable development depend on when and where we came into the process, and this creates the diversity of opinion that drive the debate on ownership and that cause confusion over definitions. For example, a conservationist at the time of the World Conservation Strategy (IUCN 1980) would have a different understanding of sustainability from that of the forest manager in the 1950s, or from a sanitary engineer who picked it up in the 1970s. All three of these interpretations are different from that of a diplomat who learned about sustainable development from the Bruntland Report (WCED 1987) or business persons who learned about it at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992.

To a large extent, the various opinions expressed about sustainable development also draw from five different, albeit related, themes. Of these, four have largely shaped the discussions on sustainability: human development, natural resource management, environmental protection, and nature conservation. A fifth theme understands sustainable development as a process of reconciliation first between human groups who are divided from one another by the conflicting demands they make on shared surroundings, and second, between the imagined separation of humans from the rest of nature (Saunier 1999). Increasingly, this fifth theme now guides the discussions on sustainable development and it is here that a paradigm shift can be seen.

Within the theme of reconciliation there appears to be an attitude change of another sort. It is a revitalization of communication within communities. As a result, there is little, if any, hesitance to debate the issue among peers, and it is done with openness and charity in an effort to find common ground.3

3See, for example, the discussions on forestry issues that appear in Eco-Watch, an internet discussion forum at <>.
Human Development: In part the difficulties in defining sustainable development can be blamed on the obstacles to finding a clear definition of development itself (ICDI 1980). The concept is abstract and the word indicates both objective and process. Environmental quality and conservation as well as social and economic goals often form parts of development objectives - and they may do so either separately or together. Development progress may be measured in terms of GNP, life quality indicators, miles of roads built, individuals trained, species discovered, or square kilometers of land or sea protected. Such differing and often incompatible goals are but part of the problem; even greater difficulties lie in what one does to reach them. Process is always questioned: are the objectives, whatever they may be, met through technical assistance or finance? Loans or grants? Bilateral or multilateral? Capacity building? Public or private? Institutional development? Now or later? This group or that? And how does one choose?

"Modern" social and economic development began at the end of WWII and three major events defined how it was to be accomplished. First, the 1944 meetings at Bretton Woods led a year later to the organization of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). IBRD was to provide loans to the developing world as well as to help rebuild Europe and Japan and the IMF was to regulate currencies, stabilize exchange rates, bolster government finances, and provide for free flowing trade.

The United Nations was formed in that same year and a number of institutions meant to support development were rapidly created. The World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) were some of the earliest, formed to give support and a voice to the developing world - although the noise of the Cold War made hearing them difficult.

Then, in 1947, the United States established the Marshall Plan for the stabilization of Europe. Development success in Europe, and in Japan, spawned other arrangements, added more UN agencies, and spun off regional institutions so that, today, a complex array of hundreds of bilateral and multilateral government agencies and thousands of private and non-governmental organizations actively support development in some form or another. Most provide "aid" of some kind based on criteria that reflect everything from altruism to hegemony.

Successful efforts in Europe and Japan were based on development theory that looked toward industrial growth, trade, and technological innovation sustained by successful broad scale planning that dictated the nature of development for the next twenty years. Early on, development was the province of engineers (of various kinds) and economists (of various ideologies). While the work of the engineers had a narrow focus and funding, the economists were more theoretical, had objectives that were contested and used methods that obliged manipulation of communities and governments.

However, the successes in Europe and Japan were not easily replicated in the developing world which lacked organization and required different (and unknown) prescriptions to respond both to the realities of the place and to needs totally unlike those of post-war Europe and Japan. Control was impossible. Land tenure was, and in many parts of the world remains, a tortured maze. Education levels were lower, and each local and distinct culture held different views on what was, and was not, important. East vs. West siphoned off resources and what remained went to bolster allies with no thought of how corrupt they may have been. An elemental distrust from South to North and North to South became a side bar to these events that can still be felt, if not seen, in the forums of modern multilateral institutions.

In the late 1960's and 1970's development models changed and changed again. Nearly a dozen theories guided development: basic needs, alternative technologies, institutional development, grass roots, marginalization, dependency, debt restructuring, and concerns for such social obligations as education (minimal and ephemeral), were all emphasized at one time or another. But they always looked toward increased production and growth (Osborn 1993). Then, in the 1980's "sustainable development" appeared and, while growth remained an imperative in the minds of many on the development side, none of them would admit to proposing anything unsustainable or unnecessary: "Although growth is not the end of development, the absence of growth often is," states the 1991 UNDP Human Development Report (UNDP 1991). By 1996, however, UNDP had become a full and valued member of the sustainable development community (UNDP 1996).

Indeed, much of the information and ideas on how the development institutions view sustainability now comes from UNDP4 and, of course, the World Bank.5 These two institutions and the regional banks (Inter-American Development Bank, Asian Development Bank, Central American Bank for Economic Integration, European Investment Bank, African Development Bank, Andean Development Corporation, and others) all provide funding for "sustainable" or "environmental" projects although the criteria used to classify such projects are as variable as the institutions themselves.

4For full information on the work of UNDP in sustainable development and environment see

5See the Vice Presidency of the Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development Network (ESSD) web page for information on the World Bank's policies and programs in sustainable development at

Conferences that influenced thinking in the development institutions include the 1974 Bucharest Population Conference, the 1974 Cocoyoc, Mexico Symposium; two Habitat Conferences (1976 in Vancouver, Canada, and 1996 in Istanbul, Turkey); the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development, and other sectoral congresses in forestry, fisheries, health, food production, etc. In the end, an additional meeting, the Fourth UN World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China in 1995, may be more important than any of the others for sustainable development because of the growing awareness of the importance of women in development as executing agent, catalyst, and object of development concern.

For the development institutions, though, sustainable development, like economic and social development, remains anthropocentric. Emphasis is on criteria and standards, economic incentives and disincentives, discount rates, and methods designed to reach specific production goals. Whether it be industry, business, agriculture or forestry, the instruments of sustainability resemble the best practice approaches used to manage natural resources or to make industry more efficient (Montreal Process 1995). Of course, these instruments alone cannot guarantee sustainable development for the same reason they cannot guarantee development: an increase in the number and severity of conflicts brought on by the development actions being promoted.

Development aims to treat the demands made by rich and poor alike. But, within the development community, sustainable development implies a search for equitable growth, alleviation of poverty, food security and, under some circumstances, the use of alternative technologies, especially in agriculture for the control of pests and the use of scarce water. Programs in health and education remain as important as programs in conservation and may even have a greater impact on what the conservationists want.6 Development's offerings to the sustainability debates encompass social and gender equity and improvements in the standard of living. And, while natural resource management is meaningful, for this group, it is only meaningful from the point of view of production. As a consequence, relations between this community and the conservation and environmental protection communities are nothing if not contentious and continue to be driven by suspicion and misunderstanding.

6The 1996 Human Development Report states that during the last two decades combined primary and secondary enrollment of girls increased from 38% to 78%. At the same time fertility rates dropped by more than a third.
Environmental Protection: Environmental protection, like environmental problems, is as ancient as human needs (Ponting 1990). Yet environmental protection is seen as something new; required by the industrial revolution and population driven resource exploitation.7 But if there is a modern beginning it is with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (Carson 1962). Silent Spring spoke of the dangers to wildlife and humans of synthetic chemicals, most particularly pesticides. Official studies proved her correct and in 1970, DDT and other man-made pesticides were banned from use in the United States. Global interest and global need were enough to catch the attention of the United Nations and in 1972 the UN Conference on the Human Environment (The Stockholm Conference) was held. However, much of the work of the conference was done previously at an international seminar in Founex, Switzerland. This seminar laid out the stance of the developing nations which was that concerns for environmental protection in the North would prohibit development in the South. As a result, principles were incorporated into the "Stockholm Declaration" and Plan of Action that reflect the viewpoints of the developing countries: 1) that the environments of the developing countries were different from those of the developed countries, and 2) that resolution of problems in the Third World required development (UNEP 1986). For example, Principle 8 says the "Economic and social development is essential for ensuring a favourable living and working environment for man and for creating conditions on Earth that are necessary for the improvement of the quality of life." Principle 9: states that "Environmental deficiencies generated by the conditions of under-development and natural disasters pose grave problems and can best be remedied by accelerated development through the transfer of substantial quantities of financial and technological assistance as a supplement to the domestic effort of the developing countries and such timely assistance as may be required," and Principle 11 says that, "The environmental policies of all States should enhance and not adversely affect the present and future development potential of developing countries, nor should they hamper the attainment of better living conditions for all..."
7These ideas created a whole genre of "environmental reporting" often described as "gloom and doom." Though sometimes right and often wrong, the predictions created a popular ground swell of interest in the subject of environmental protection that rapidly covered the globe. See, for example, Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb, 1968) and Lester Brown (World Without Borders, 1972).
Two other major products came out of Stockholm that forever changed the way development works: a) the establishment and funding of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and, b) the idea that civil society could and should have a place in the development process. This later idea, still not completely accepted by some governments, arose because of the successful, if somewhat contentious, presence in Stockholm of the Environment Forum of non-governmental groups. Never before had such a large number of representatives of governments and civil society been in the same place, at the same time, discussing the same topics - together.

Twenty years after the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) was held in Rio de Janeiro. However, UNCED was not called to celebrate 20 years of success based on the work of the Stockholm Conference. Rather it was designed and executed because of a growing concern that environmental protection and development must still be brought together.

Thus the UNCED was called to look at both environment and development. But the UN authorizing resolution for the meeting, most of the national delegations, and the majority of discussions before and during the Conference, overwhelmingly reflected the concerns of the environmental movement. Nevertheless, the governments at UNCED negotiated and approved the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, a collection of 27 principles that "define the rights and responsibilities of nations as they pursue human development and well-being" and Agenda 21, a 300+ page document which outlines how development should proceed. Governments also signed three other international documents: the Convention on Biological Diversity, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; and a statement of forest principles to guide the management of all types of forests. Significant as well is the large increase in interest and commentary on sustainable development created by the decisions at UNCED. The topic is now freely discussed and debated-no longer the province of just the conservation and environmental NGOs.

The elaboration of principles and standards as instruments to achieve sustainability are central to environmental protection. Scientific data are to play a decisive role in this (Hammond 1995). It was soon realized, however, that scientific data alone are not sufficient to insure sustainability; something else is needed that has more to do with social contracts than it does with science. Despite this, however, the means to accomplish environmental protection still generally have a "command and control" orientation-methods that are difficult enough in countries with strong judicial systems and interest groups on continual watch. Without a great many changes in the judicial and governmental systems in much of the developing world, command and control will achieve less than needed and for a while to come, sustainability could be an unfortunate casualty.

Conservation: Conservation is a major piece of the sustainable development question. The place it occupies, however, covers a wide variety of beliefs and, like development, it has no universally accepted definition (Cain 1974).

Natural resource conservation in the early 20th century was often promoted by the same people who were so overwhelmingly dedicated to natural resource use- sports hunters and fishermen, farmers and loggers (Ehrenfeld 1970). It is a utilitarian concept of conservation that fits well with a utilitarian view of sustainability. For example, the World Conservation Strategy (IUCN/WWF/UNEP 1980) was an early contribution to discussions on sustainable development. It had conservation as its major theme but it also called for the sustainable use of species as well as for the conservation of essential ecological processes and the preservation of genetic diversity, again for utilitarian purposes

At the other end of the conservation spectrum is the idea that nature should be conserved for no other reason than that it has intrinsic value (Nash 1989). But even within the group which believes this there is little agreement as to what it means. Accordingly, there are individuals and organizations who would happily break the law to protect the rights of animals, trees and rocks (Nash 1989), and there are cultures around the world who may or may not believe in the intrinsic value of nature but who conserve because of religious, cultural, and ethical taboos and beliefs (Hamilton 1993).

While some would argue whether the debate between "biocentric" vs. "anthropocentric" approaches to resource-use decision-making is totally relevant to sustainable development, there are believers on all sides of the debate. As a result, a "middle ground" was discussed in the sequel to the WCS, Caring for the Earth (IUCN/WWF/UNEP 1991). This second effort was much more complete and outlined a conservation strategy for the planet that had a more elegantly developed ethical base than the first. It gave nine principles for a sustainable society: 1) respect and care for the community of life; 2) improving the quality of human life; 3) conservation of the Earth's vitality and diversity; 4) slowing the steady march toward depletion of non-renewable resources; 4) work to keep within the Earth's carrying capacity; 6) change personal attitudes and practices; 7) enabling communities to care for their own environments; 8) provision of a national framework for integrating development and conservation; and 9) creation of a global alliance.8

8Many other lists of principles of sustainable development exist-as given in the appendix to this essay. However, this particular list of the World Conservation Union appears to be one of the earliest and remains one of the best.
Furthermore, similar ethical views of sustainable development are strongly supported by many of the world's religious and spiritual leaders who have sponsored several international meetings over the last two decades, and who convened a special forum at the UNCED in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.9 As a result of growing influence and interest, the United Nations Environment Programme named a panel of representatives from all parts of civil society to look into environmental ethics and published several related works (Brown and Quiblier 1994). The World Bank has also sponsored meetings on ethics and sustainable development in which the world's religious and spiritual leaders meet together with representatives from the world's primary development financing agency (Serageldin and Taboroff 1994).
9See, for example, the Moscow Declaration and Plan of Action from the Global Forum on Environment and Development for Human Survival which was held in Moscow in January of 1990.
Thus, conservation and/or environmental ethics are also a part of the sustainable development equation. David Hales (1986) in a short paper entitled "Toward an Ecology of Liberation" outlined a major reason why: "What is clear is that [we] must identify and highlight conflicts as a method of problem solving. The purpose is not to 'resolve' conflicts, but to make them obvious and understandable as a step toward solving problems. It is from conflict, clearly recognized and willfully engaged, that progress and enlightenment grow."

Yet, conservation efforts can create conflict and many conservation efforts fail for that very reason. According to Redford and Mansour (1996) in a discussion of conservation areas, "Conflict is found between communities and park authorities; among communities over resources and their use; between established communities and migrants; between different social and class groups; and within communities over different visions of resources, their use, and the future. Conflicts between men and women, between clans, and between neighbors may be particularly prevalent in resource-dependent communities near protected areas." Conservation areas around the world are under continual threat, national park borders are adjusted to accommodate invasions, and parts of many national parks have been essentially decommissioned- and such conflicts as these are a large part of the cause.10

10According to a recent "Parks in Peril" report, 60% of the park sites looked into have detrimental timber harvesting activities, 55% suffer agriculture encroachment, and 34% have reported cattle grazing. Brandon, Katrina, Kent Redford, and Steven E. Sanderson. Editors. 1998. Parks in Peril. Washington, D. C. Island Press. 519 pp.
Sustained Yield of Natural Resources: "Sustainability depends on conservation of the natural resource base," say many of the recent followers of sustainable development as if it were something new in the land. But sustainability is an idea with origins in the concept of "sustained yield management" of natural resources-an idea accepted by virtually all natural resource managers in the United States for 100 years and in Scandinavia for over 600 years (Darby 1956). Sustained yield management of a resource has an interest in both conservation and production and consists of policies and technical actions taken to enable a continual flow of a specified product from a resource stock. There are, of course, problems with the concept. Forests are not totally unlike a field of wheat, and every farmer with combine or sickle knows that growing wheat is risky given insects, blights, droughts, hail, rainfall and wind. And that is over a one year cropping cycle. Forest rotations are typically 20 to 200 years and suffer similar hazards. Be that as it may, there are several lessons that can be learned from sustained yield management that have to do with sustainability.

For example, given a clear objective, sufficient finances and trained staff, many forest ecosystems can be managed for a continuous supply of timber. One can also manage the same system to achieve a desired level of water quality, harvest wildlife, conserve biodiversity, or provide wild-land recreation, and equally meet an objective of sustained yield management. Rarely, however, can a forest ecosystem provide all of these things at the same time and in the same place without confrontations erupting between the various potential users. And, according to Dixon and Fallon (1988), "What would have been considered sustainable management of an individual resource may actually be unsustainable within the context of the system."

The idea of sustained yield management instructs us on the value of having clear objectives and adequate financial and human resources to meet the objectives of development and, to some degree, its sustainability. However, the concept fails a test of sustainability because of its almost unrelenting dedication to the production of but one commodity-frequently to the detriment of other potential uses. We humans are the ones who must decide which of the many "yields" we want sustained and that is an entirely different process.

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