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Does Brundtland’s sustainable development need a human dimension?

14 November 2011

Fiona NunanFiona Nunan is a Lecturer in Environment and Development in IDD, specialising in environment and natural resource management and governance, including fisheries governance and management, poverty and the environment, and impact evaluation methods and approaches.  She convenes the module on Transforming Development for Sustainability and co-convenes Critical Approaches to Development and Making Policy on campus and via distance learning.

As anyone working or interested in environment and development will know, the most often cited definition of sustainable development is the one given in the 1987 report Our Common Future, produced by the World Commission on Environment and Development (more commonly known as the Brundtland Report, after the chair of the Commission, Gro Harlem Brundtland):

“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED, 1987, p.43)

Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway, addressing the General Assembly on Environment and Development, October 1987.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway, addressing the General Assembly on Environment and Development, October 1987. (UN photo 149071)

Love it or hate it, it is the most common definition used. It certainly has its limitations, however. Critics ask what ‘needs’ are and argue that the concept of sustainable development merely supports economic growth without challenging our Western environment-destroying way of life.

There are, of course, many other definitions of sustainable development.  Most recently, the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2011, released on 2 November, suggested that a new concept of “sustainable human development” is needed. This new concept is intended to address some of the criticisms of the concept of sustainable development, taking out reference to needs, and bringing in the concept of freedom. The report defines sustainable human development as:

“the expansion of the substantive freedoms of people today while making reasonable efforts to avoid seriously compromising those of future generations” (UNDP, 2011, p.18)

This does sound rather noble: who could argue against expanding substantive freedoms? But does the concept of sustainable development really need revisiting at all? Bringing in the word ‘human’ could add yet more confusion and discussion over the plethora of concepts and definitions within the broad area of environment and development.

It is the intergenerational dimension of the definition that really causes concern. The report claims to adopt a ‘strong’ sustainability approach, which does not advocate substitution between different forms of capital, and argues that some forms of natural capital must be preserved. Indeed, it goes on to review evidence for the depletion and degradation of natural resources, most of which would be considered as un-substitutable.

A ‘strong’ sustainability approach is not, however, reflected in its definition of sustainable human development. The definition instead lacks assertiveness in its language, which is unhelpful, given the criticisms made of sustainable development, that it is a vague concept meaning different things to different people. The suggestion that ‘reasonable efforts’ should be made does not reflect the implied urgency of the review of trends in sustainability in the report, and it seems that the ‘substantive freedoms’ of future generations may be compromised, as long as it is not to a serious level. A truly strong sustainability approach would surely want to set the bar higher than such a definition suggests.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other principals discuss the upcoming Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development.  (UN photo 480724, Evan Schneider)

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other principals discuss the upcoming Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development. (UN photo 480724, Evan Schneider)

The concept of sustainable development may be far from ideal, and certainly there are concerns about how it is used at times to justify all sorts of measures and initiatives that are far from sustainable as many would understand the term. However, it may well be unhelpful to bring in new concepts and definitions, particularly so close to the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, just 7 months away. Much more effort is surely needed to ensure that the concept of sustainable development, which is globally well-known, is acted on in a much more assertive way in the face of sustained global inequalities, environmental devastation and human-induced climate change.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 November 2011 17:37

    Sustainable development in 1987: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

    Sustainable development in 2011: “the expansion of the substantive freedoms of people today while making reasonable efforts to avoid seriously compromising those of future generations”.

    Oh, for those idealistic ’80s. We sure have gotten wishy-washy in the past 24 years.

  2. 17 March 2014 05:04

    Reblogged this on lemoitribune.

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