The LANGuAGE of sustainability emerged during the 1970s, though the concept was introduced as sustainable development in 1980 in the World Conservation Strategy and was popularized in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (also known as the Brundtland Commission after its Norwegian chairperson Gro Harlem Brundtland). Today there are numerous definitions of sustainability, but the important question to ask is, What is to be sustained? Is it the planet, particular environments, individual species, current lifestyles, certain rates of economic growth, a specific level of profit?

Sustainability, especially as constructed in mainstream definitions of sustainable development, is very similar to the concept of conservation espoused by the American forester, Gifford Pinchot, in the late 19th century. Conservation emphasized using natural resources wisely, not depleting nonrenewable resources, ensuring that all American men received a fair share of the distribution of benefits, and that consideration be given to the needs of their descendents. Sustainable development globalizes the discourse. The World Commission on Environment and Development report in 1987 defined sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This definition is used today in many parts of the world by governments, businesses, environmental groups, and educators. The history of the concept, and the specific term, mean that it may be interpreted as a repackaging of environmental management. The managerial focus and faith in technological progress evident in this definition of sustainability mean that it is critiqued by more radical sustainability advocates.

In Australia, the term ecologically sustainable development emerged as a unique approach as a result of the power of major environmental groups in Australia in the early 1990s. In 1992, ecologically sustainable development was defined as "using, conserving and enhancing the community's resources so that ecological processes, on which life depends, are maintained and the total quality of life, now and in the future, can be increased." This terminology and definition, which arose as a result of the political power of environmental groups in the early 1990s in Australia, highlights the dependence of all life on ecological processes (thermodynamics, hydrological cycles, nutrient cycles, and so on).

The Australian definition leans toward what has been termed strong sustainability, meaning that humans should not be substituting human-made capital for natural capital. In contrast, weak sustain-ability advocates substitution provided the total store of capital is not diminished. Critics of the weak sus-tainability approach point out that this is what has been happening for thousands of years, leading to the destruction of the environment. Other critics reject the notion of turning nature into "natural capital" and therefore do not engage in the strong versus weak sustainability debates.


The concept of sustainable development was the basis for a massive conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 that was chaired by Maurice Strong and attended by 178 governments, including 118 heads of state. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, otherwise known as the Earth Summit) was the five-year follow-up to the release of the Brundtland Report. The conference attempted to move from debates about the notion of sustainability and sustainable development to working out how to implement this idea. The idea of expanding the global economy, although contro versial, was accepted within sustainable development discourses because development was seen as being necessary to overcome poverty. Sustainable development was intended to allow economic growth to continue but to make this growth greener. Growth was seen as essential for developing countries and also for developed countries, so as to facilitate trade and help the poorer countries of the world. This concept of sustainability was compatible with that of the newly founded business organization, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which was influential in shaping the idea of sustainable development and how it would be implemented.

Implementation has been the focus of subsequent conferences in New York (1997) and Johannesburg (2002) and in the ongoing work of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development. Many countries, states/provinces, and local governments, as well as some businesses, have also introduced departments focused on implementing sustainability within their organization. Implementation is challenging because there are many barriers to implementing sustainable development. These include corporate cultures, countervailing market signals, and jurisdictional issues. Another issue is that although the temporal emphasis within the concept of sustainability is apparent, the spatial or geographical scale is unclear. This has led to various scales of analysis and implementation, including concepts such as sustainable lifestyles, sustainable cities, and sustainable regions. The UNCED Conference in 1992 produced five important documents including Agenda 21, which was a 40-chapter document outlining the actions needed to implement sustainable development. Importantly, chapter 28 highlighted the important role of local government in implementing the concepts introduced at the global level. This led to the development of Local Agenda 21 (LA21). At the Johannesburg Conference in 2002, LA21 was relaunched as Local Action 21, which is the second decade of this program containing a focus on action and implementation.


There are also different ways of conceptualizing sustainable development vis-à-vis sustainability. Some authors present sustainability and sustainable futures as being the goals to be reached by a process called sustainable development. Other authors maintain a distinction between sustainable development and ecological sustainability on the basis of their approach to existing structures and institutions. Sustainable development is seen as more of a reformist approach by advocates who primarily support the existing institutions but want them to be greener, whereas those activists and authors who emphasize sustainability or ecological sustainability often question the structures that perpetuate unsustainable practices.

Today it is impossible, given the adoption of legislation related to sustainability, not to be planning for sustainability. However, many of the differences in various concepts of sustainability can be attributed to the relative weight given to the economic, social, cultural, and environmental components of sustainabil-ity. The differences are also caused by the perception of how these components fit together.

There are two main approaches to conceptualizing sustainability, with numerous variations on these approaches. The dominant, mainstream representation of sustainable development that emerged from the Brundtland Commission, and that has been adopted by many governments and business groups throughout the world, is the balanced approach. Although the notion of balance has been largely discredited in scientific ecology, it is still a powerful metaphor within the environmental literature. In many models of sustainable development, balance is achieved by the construction of three circles of equal size to represent the economy, society, and environment. At the intersection of these three equal-sized circles is sustainable development. In contrast, more radical advocates of sustainability may posit a hierarchical approach, in which the hierarchy may vary between models. It often includes ecological considerations at its base, followed by society—because there would be no society without an environment, and then a smaller economy—because there would be no economy without society. Variations may include the use of ther-modynamic processes to support biochemical cycles that allow ecosystems to flourish, eventually reaching human social and individual scales.

Some environmental groups avoid using the term sustainable development, partly because of its perceived cooption. Other groups use the term sustain-ability, whereas some groups attempt to avoid this language altogether. The challenge for sustainability advocates is to be able to implement something that moves humankind and the rest of the planet away from a state of being unsustainable at a rate that is needed to avoid catastrophe.

SEE ALSo: Australia; Conservation; Culture; Norway; Resources; World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

BIBLIoGRAPHY. Ecologically Sustainable Development Steering Committee, National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (Australian Government Publishing Service, 1992); Martin Purvis and Alan Grainger, eds., Exploring Sustainable Development: Geographical Perspectives (Earthscan, 2004); World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (Oxford University Press, 1987).

Phil McManus University of Sydney

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