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

  • Introduction
  • What Is “Sustainable Development”?
  • Sources of Information on Sustainable Development
  • Impediments to Sustainable Development

Ecology Sustainable Development
Philip M. Fearnside
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0227


Sustainable development is a concept that has quickly risen to prominence both in academic work and in policymaking at all levels, particularly since 1987 when the World Commission on Environment and Development, better known as the Brundtland Commission, released its report promoting this approach. The report defines sustainable development as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” and states that “the concept of sustainable development does imply limits—not absolute limits but limitations imposed by the present state of technology and social organization on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities. But technology and social organization can be both managed and improved to make way for a new era of economic growth” (p. 16). The thinking behind the concept extends back for decades before the Brundtland Report, particularly since the early 1970s with the rapid rise of what is known as “sustainability science,” although the term “sustainable development” was not coined until 1980. Sustainable development owes much of its political attractiveness to its vagueness, allowing hundreds of countries to sign onto international agreements that endorse the concept without fear that their development plans will be constrained. This advantage, of course, is linked to the disadvantage of allowing a “green” discourse to be used to promote just about any imaginable activity, no matter how damaging. Even countries importing toxic waste from the rest of the world claimed that they were practicing “sustainable development,” the Marshall Islands being the best known. The bibliography that follows presents some of the evolution of the concept of sustainable development and its scientific underpinnings. Two processes have proceeded in parallel: the political process of sustainable development that began with the Brundtland Report in 1987 and was extended by the United Nations (UN) Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 and the scientific process that evolved autonomously in response to the vagueness of the Brundtland definition. The sequence of international agreements associated with sustainable development has led this concept to permeate the planning of actions by governments and other entities throughout the world. Current application focuses on the seventeen sustainable development goals, or SDGs, which were agreed at the UN Sustainable Development Summit in 2015, together with their 230 individual indicators and 169 targets. A clear example of the challenge of moving sustainable development beyond a role as a greenwashing discourse is offered by the Climate Convention. The Kyoto Protocol requires that all projects in the Clean Development Mechanism contribute to sustainable development, and in 1997 when the Protocol was signed this was seen as a way to prevent climate-mitigation projects from causing untoward social and environmental impacts. However, it was later decided that there would be no international standards defining what constitutes sustainable development, and it would be left up to each country to decide for itself whether proposed projects in the country met that country’s own criteria. A Designated National Authority (DNA) in each country would certify that each project represents sustainable development, with the result that projects are virtually never blocked on this basis. In Brazil, a dramatic example is the Teles Pires Dam, which was certified as “sustainable development” and now receives clean development mechanism carbon credit. The Munduruku indigenous people near the dam were never consulted, as required by International Labor Organization Convention 169 and by Brazilian law. In 2013 the tribe’s most sacred site was first dynamited and then flooded. This was the Sete Quedas rapids, which is where the spirits of respected tribal elders go after death—equivalent to heaven for Christians.

What Is “Sustainable Development”?

So, what is “sustainable development”? At its most basic, to be sustainable, it should theoretically last forever (or at least for a very long time). By the definition of Holdren, et al. 1995, “a sustainable process or condition is one that can be maintained indefinitely without progressive diminution of valued qualities inside or outside the system in which the process operates or the condition prevails” (p. 39). Whether economic processes are considered sustainable depends very much on assumptions regarding the substitutability of different resources, including substituting human-made capital for natural e capital. Neoclassical economics (including environmental economics) assumes that human-made capital can replace natural capital of all kinds (known as “weak sustainability”). In contrast, ecological economics considers the stock of natural resources and ecological functions to be irreplaceable (known as “strong sustainability”). To be “development,” a change must increase human well-being (presumably of the humans living in the place being developed). Development must be distinguished from growth, which implies increased throughput of matter and energy. Sustainable development transcends the pre-existing concept of economic development, which lacks the requirement of sustainability, and often also of equity (especially infragenerational equity). As Daly 1996 argues, there is a real fight to control the meaning of sustainable development. Clearly there is plenty of scope for interpretation of both what is sustainable and what is development. Sustainable development is classically considered to be supported by three pillars: economic, social, and environmental. Many human activities in, for example, the economic sphere have negative consequences in the social and/or environmental sphere. There is plenty of leeway in how the balance is calculated, including when, where, and for whom the benefits and costs accrue in each sector.

  • Barbier, E. 1987. The concept of sustainable economic development. Environmental Conservation 14.2: 101–110.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0376892900011449

    Focuses on the Third World. The primary concern of sustainable development is seen as “ensuring that the poor have access to sustainable and secure livelihoods” (p. 103). Barbier divides the problem into biological system goals (genetic diversity, resilience, and biological productivity), economic system goals (reducing poverty through satisfying basic needs, enhancing equity, and increasing useful goods and services), and social system goals (cultural diversity, institutional sustainability, social justice, and participation).

  • Daly, H. E. 1990. Sustainable development: From concept and theory to operational principles. Population and Development Review 16:25–43.

    DOI: 10.2307/2808061

    Herman Daly says it best: “Economists’ growth-bound way of thinking makes it hard for them to admit the concept of throughput of matter-energy, because it brings with it the first and second laws of thermodynamics, which have implications that are unfriendly to the continuous growth ideology. . . . The growth ideology is extremely attractive politically because it offers a solution to poverty without requiring the moral disciplines of sharing and population control” (p. 26).

  • Daly, H. E. 1996. Beyond growth: The economics of sustainable development. Boston: Beacon.

    Explains an ongoing struggle over the meaning of “sustainable development,” with conventional economists trying to dilute the meaning of the term to allow it to embrace developments that are environmentally destructive and that are inherently ephemeral.

  • Holdren, J. P., G. C. Daily, and P. R. Ehrlich. 1995. The meaning of sustainability: biogeophysical aspects. In Defining and measuring sustainability: The biogeophysical foundations. Edited by M. Munasinghe and W. Shearer, 3–17. Washington, DC: World Bank, 482.

    A background paper for the massive volume on sustainability organized by the United Nations University and the World Bank. The volume brings together a stellar group of authors on sustainability issues. These issues include indicators, effects of scale, limits of resources, climate change, and treatments by subject area (such as agriculture, forestry, fisheries, etc.) and by geographical region.

  • Lélé, S. M. 1991. Sustainable development: A critical review. World Development 19.6: 607–621.

    DOI: 10.1016/0305-750X(91)90197-P

    A scathing critique of sustainable development (SD). Finds that “the mainstream of SD thinking contains significant weaknesses. These include an incomplete perception of the problems of poverty and environmental degradation, and confusion about the role of economic growth and about the concepts of sustainability and participation” and that “politically expedient fuzziness will have to be given up in favor of intellectual clarity and rigor” (p. 607).

  • Quental, N., and J. M. Lourenço. 2012. References, authors, journals and scientific disciplines underlying the sustainable development literature: A citation analysis. Scientometrics 90: 361–381.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11192-011-0533-4

    This citation analysis of sustainable development found the most-cited institutional authors to be World Commission on Environment and Development, World Bank, European Commission, DETR (UK), IPCC, United Nations, OECD, Food and Agriculture Organization, International Union for Conservation of Nature, and World Health Organization. The most-cited individual primary authors were D. Pearce, H. Daly, R. Costanza, D. H. Meadows, M. Redclift, C. Holling, P. Fearnside, R. Ayres, L. Brown, W. Rees, R. Solow, M. Wackernagel, F. Berkes, T. O’Riordan, and R. Norgaard.

  • Redclift, M. 1987. Sustainable development: Exploring the contradictions. London: Routledge.

    Introduction states that “sustainable development seems assured of a place in the litany of development truisms, but to what extent does it express convergent, rather than divergent intellectual traditions? The constant reference to ‘sustainability’ as a desirable objective has served to obscure the contradictions that ‘development’ implies for the environment” (p. 2). He then proceeds in the book to explore these contradictions and the different social meanings of environment, development, and sustainability.

  • Redclift, M. 2006. Sustainable development (1987–2005)—An oxymoron comes of age. Horizontes Antropológicos 12.25: 65–84.

    DOI: 10.1590/S0104-71832006000100004

    Shows that the term “sustainable development” became “a property of different discourses” (p. 65). Argues that the assumptions of these discourses need to be exposed to clarify the choices and their consequences.

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