The Emergence of Sustainable Development


The discussion in class on Thursday (January 30th) focused on the emergence of the idea of sustainable development. We also discussed the importance of sustainable development in the future. The Wheeler reading looked at the historical roots of sustainability, laid out several debates in sustainability, and discussed the evolution of worldviews in the field. The report titled “Our Common Future” looked at the concept of sustainable development in terms of development strategies that will move countries from their current path towards a more sustainable future. In this blog post, I will discuss the various histories of sustainability that we have been presented and will then wrestle with the idea of common interests in sustainable development.

History of Sustainable Development

In our readings so far, we have seen two different attempts to trace the history of environmentalism and sustainability (Daniels and Wheeler). Daniels presents a diagram that shows the five eras of environmental planning starting from the 19th century to present day. He discusses the worldviews in each of the eras that slowly built off each other to reach today’s era of planning for sustainability and the global environment. Wheeler provides a history of works that helped to define and progress ideas of sustainability. As pointed out in class, this history of sustainability is missing several things. We determined that some concepts missing were the long term social implications of the actions taken and environmental justice issues.

Another thing that I felt was missing in this history of environmentalism and sustainability was a discussion of the key events the propelled change. I felt that the diagram presented by Daniels inadvertently gave the impression that the evolution of environmental planning was a gradual change. In reality, certain events such as the OPEC oil crisis, International debt crises, and Exxon-Valdez oil spill helped to motivate government, corporate, and grassroots actions. The International Institute for Sustainable Development keeps a sustainable development timeline  that lists key events in the journey toward sustainability. It is important to keep in mind how each of these events propelled change and learn how to advance sustainable development without waiting for the next big disaster.

Promoting the Common Interest in Sustainable Development

A question posed in class on Thursday was:

In “Our Common Future”, the authors state “our inability to promote the common interest in sustainable development is often a product of the relative neglect of economic and social justice within and amongst nations.”  Do you agree with this statement? If not, where do you see fault with the argument?

In general, I agree with this statement. In most every decision made, there are usually a few winners and few losers, at least in the short-term. Oftentimes, the winner is benefiting economically while negatively impacting those around them. This can be seen in the relationship between developed and developing countries and in the relationship between urban, suburban, and rural developments. However, in the long term, the distinction between winners and losers can blur. A developed county that extracts resources from a developing county, benefits in the short term because of the economic implications.  The developing country may also benefit monetarily but at the expense of the environment and public health. In the long-term, it is in no one’s interest to see a degraded environment, resource depletion, and poor public health because this means that the economic growth cannot continue. All parties share a long-term common interest. However, our inability to promote this long-term common interest results in short-term decisions that are not in the common interest.

This leads to a question of what actions can be taken to ensure that people are aware of the common interests they share. Some actions include:

  • Promoting Transparency – people should be able to see the consequences of their actions
  • Providing Education
  • Developing Local Institutions
  • Allowing for Public Participation in Decision Making
  • Promoting International Cooperation
  • Enforcing Laws

Do you agree with this list? And what actions are missing?

The common theme running though this discussion was tracing the history of sustainability and using that knowledge to create a vision for the future. Hopefully, we will be able to promote this common interest in our future work.