In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sustainable Development

  • Introduction
  • Institutional Publications
  • Journals and Reference Resources
  • Legal Dimensions
  • Cultural Dimensions
  • Religious Dimensions
  • Global Studies
  • Climate Change

International Relations Sustainable Development
R. S. Deese
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 November 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0011


Although sustainable development emerged as a distinct discipline only in the last quarter of the 20th century, it addresses a very old question: How do human societies advance their economic aspirations without exhausting their natural resources and despoiling the web of life on which they depend? This question has become a matter of great concern in the industrial age, but it has been a recurring problem for human communities at least since the advent of agriculture, and quite likely since the first deliberate use of fire for hunting and clearing forests in the Pleistocene. Given the relative youth of the discipline in connection with the long-standing problems it addresses, this bibliography supplements the most prominent institutional publications on sustainable development with sources that highlight the historical context of the field and explore its legal, cultural, and religious dimensions. This bibliography then outlines the literature pertaining to sustainable development on a regional and global basis, before concluding with a survey of journals and websites relevant to the field.

Institutional Publications

Although the institutional literature on sustainable development is vast, the selection of documents below provides a solid introduction to the field. The Stockholm Declaration, Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, marks the first attempt by the United Nations to integrate its broad goals for economic development with an awareness of ecological limits; the Brundtland Report, Our Common Future: World Commission on Environment and Development, signals the emergence of sustainable development as distinct discipline. The 1992 Rio Conference led to the first United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and to a general outline of sustainable development policies for the 21st century, known as Agenda 21. As scientific consensus grew about the probable dangers posed by anthropogenic climate change following the Rio Conference, the Kyoto Protocols (1997), and the Copenhagen Accord (2009) refined the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, although none of these changes produced effective and enforceable binding international regulations to control the emission of greenhouse gases. In the first decade of this century, the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in South Africa produced the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development, placing a somewhat greater emphasis than its predecessors on issues such as racism and religious strife. In 2012, the United Nations sponsored a second conference in Rio de Janeiro, dubbed Rio+20, as it marked the twentieth anniversary of the first Rio summit. Though it did produce a document reaffirming a broad commitment both to poverty reduction and ecological sustainability, the Rio+20 conference was widely criticized for producing no new mechanisms of enforcement to counter greenhouse gas emissions. While the UN has produced the greatest quantity of literature on sustainable development, other international institutions have joined the field: the World Bank has addressed the impact of climate change on sustainable development in World Bank Development Report 2010 (World Bank 2009), while the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has joined with the Food and Agriculture Organization and produced OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2010 to assess the outlook for global agriculture in light of current economic and ecological trends. Finally, in contrast to the contentious and hitherto ineffective efforts of the international community to address the problem of climate change, the history of the Montreal Protocols to counteract ozone depletions (Anders and Sarma 2005) presents a relatively encouraging success story and a possible model for future policy makers.

  • Andersen, Stephen O., and K. Madhava Sarma. Protecting the Ozone Layer: The United Nations History. London: Earthscan for United Nations Environment Program, 2005.

    Describes international success in addressing ozone depletion. Analyzes negotiations for 1985 Vienna Convention, 1987 Montreal Protocol, and subsequent implementation. Explores role of governments, businesses, civil society, and especially technology transfer. Book has earned praise from diplomats involved in Montreal protocols and may provide models for future action on climate change.

  • Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2010. Paris: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2010.

    Annual joint study issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Surveys trends and makes tentative forecasts for the coming decade regarding prices, supplies, biofuels, and food security. Valuable as a reference book and primary source on FAO and OECD policy.

  • United Nations. Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. 1972.

    Produced by a 1972 UN Conference in Sweden, the “Stockholm Declaration” is the first major UN declaration concerning the global environment. Although it does not contain the term “sustainable development,” this document frames environmental concerns and economic aspirations as complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Valuable as a primary source.

  • United Nations. Our Common Future: World Commission on Environment and Development. New York: United Nations, 1987.

    Most discussions of sustainable development begin here. Chaired by Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, the World Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Valuable as a primary source.

  • United Nations. Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development. A/CONF.199/20. 2002.

    From the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in South Africa in 2002. Reaffirms UN commitment to sustainability while placing emphasis on social issues such as racism and xenophobia. Because of ideological differences, the United States did not send a full delegation or participate in drafting this declaration. Valuable as a primary source.

  • United Nations Division for Sustainable Development. Agenda 21: Earth Summit—The United Nations Program of Action from Rio. New York: United Nations, 1993.

    Produced by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development at Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Although legally nonbinding, the 21st-century goals outlined by this document concerning biodiversity, climate change, and sustainable development have continued to inform UN policy for nearly two decades. Valuable as a primary source.

  • United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

    A product of the 1992 Rio Conference, the UNFCCC outlines goals for mitigating climate change. Although it sets no mandatory limits on the emission of greenhouse gases and contains no binding enforcement mechanisms, the 1992 UNFCCC set the stage for the 1997 Kyoto Protocols and the 2009 Copenhagen Accord. Valuable as a primary source. The text of the original 1992 UNFCC is available online, as are the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2009 Copenhagen Accord.

  • World Bank. World Bank Development Report 2010: Development and Climate Change. Washington, DC: World Bank, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1596/978-0-8213-7987-5

    Emphasizes the impact of accelerating climate change on developing economies; assesses strategies for adaptation and mitigation. Accessibly written and well produced, featuring lucid charts, maps, and photographs. Useful as both an upper-division textbook and as a primary source on World Bank policy.

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