History of Sustainable development

Sustainability can be defined as the practice of maintaining processes of productivity indefinitely—natural or human made—by replacing resources used with resources of equal or greater value without degrading or endangering natural biotic systems. Sustainable development ties together concern for the carrying capacity of natural systems with the social, political, and economic challenges faced by humanity. Sustainability science is the study of the concepts of sustainable development and environmental science. There is an additional focus on the present generations' responsibility to regenerate, maintain and improve planetary resources for use by future generations.

Sustainable development has its roots in ideas about sustainable forest management which were developed in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In response to a growing awareness of the depletion of timber resources in England, John Evelyn argued that "sowing and planting of trees had to be regarded as a national duty of every landowner, in order to stop the destructive over-exploitation of natural resources" in his 1662 essay Sylva. In 1713 Hans Carl von Carlowitz, a senior mining administrator in the service of Elector Frederick Augustus I of Saxony published Sylvicultura oeconomica, a 400-page work on forestry. Building upon the ideas of Evelyn and French minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, von Carlowitz developed the concept of managing forests for sustained yield. His work influenced others, including Alexander von Humboldt and Georg Ludwig Hartig, eventually leading to the development of a science of forestry. This in turn influenced people like Gifford Pinchot, first head of the US Forest Service, whose approach to forest management was driven by the idea of wise use of resources, and Aldo Leopold whose land ethic was influential in the development of the environmental movement in the 1960s.

Following the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962, the developing environmental movement drew attention to the relationship between economic growth and development and environmental degradation. Kenneth E. Boulding in his influential 1966 essay The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth identified the need for the economic system to fit itself to the ecological system with its limited pools of resources. One of the first uses of the term sustainable in the contemporary sense was by the Club of Rome in 1972 in its classic report on the Limits to Growth, written by a group of scientists led by Dennis and Donella Meadows of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Describing the desirable "state of global equilibrium", the authors wrote: "We are searching for a model output that represents a world system that is sustainable without sudden and uncontrolled collapse and capable of satisfying the basic material requirements of all of its people."

Following the Club of Rome report, an MIT research group prepared ten days of hearings on “Growth and Its Implication for the Future” (Roundtable Press, 1973) for the US Congress, the first hearings ever held on sustainable development. William Flynn Martin, David Dodson Gray, and Elizabeth Gray prepared the hearings under the Chairmanship of Congressman John Dingell.

In 1980 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature published a world conservation strategy that included one of the first references to sustainable development as a global priority and introduced the term "sustainable development". Two years later, the United Nations World Charter for Nature raised five principles of conservation by which human conduct affecting nature is to be guided and judged.In 1987 the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development released the report Our Common Future, commonly called the Brundtland Report. The report included what is now one of the most widely recognised definitions of sustainable development.

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. 

— World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (1987).

Since the Brundtland Report, the concept of sustainable development has developed beyond the initial intergenerational framework to focus more on the goal of "socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable economic growth". In 1992, the UN Conference on Environment and Development published the Earth Charter, which outlines the building of a just, sustainable, and peaceful global society in the 21st century. The action plan Agenda 21 for sustainable development 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-centered 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.

Under the principles of the United Nations Charter the Millennium Declaration identified principles and treaties on sustainable development, including economic development, social development and environmental protection. Broadly defined, sustainable development is a systems approach to growth and development and to manage natural, produced, and social capital for the welfare of their own and future generations. The term sustainable development as used by the United Nations incorporates both issues associated with land development and broader issues of human development such as education, public health, and standard of living.

A 2013 study concluded that sustainability reporting should be reframed through the lens of four interconnected domains: ecology, economics, politics and culture.

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