Brundtland Report Essay

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The brundtland report, Our Common Future, is so named for having been authored (in 1987) by a United Nations (UN) commission chaired by the former prime minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland. The United Nations established the World Commission on Environment and Development, and charged it with articulating a long-term vision for development to the year 2000 and beyond that would afford avenues of cooperation among countries at differing stages of economic and social development. One broad aim of the commission was to reconcile two fundamental political dilemmas posed by development that had taken hold by the mid-late 1980s: one emanating from the tension between economic development and environmental preservation, and the other embodying the disparate states, rates and priorities of development in the global north vs. south.

In presenting its proposal for bridging the two gaps (between environment and development, and between developed and developing countries), the Brundtland Commission tapped the concept of sustainable development. Sustainable development had previously been defined and recommended by the former International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in its World Conservation Strategy, published in 1980. It was a trajectory for developing countries that would enable them to avoid the environmental costs incurred by developed nations in the course of their own processes of industrialization and economic development. This vision of sustainable development focused primarily on the concept of inter-generational equity; in other words, the focus was on preserving the environment for the future in order to enable future generations to meet their own development needs. The Brundtland Commission, while reiterating the IUCN’s general linking of environment and development, also placed a stronger emphasis on the needs of developing nations and on concerns of poverty alleviation and equity, particularly intra-generational equity. Our Common Future defined sustainable development as a process 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.

The commission thus laid out an alternative vision for sustainable development, tying inter-generational equity predicated on sustaining the environment for future generations, to intra-generational equity that hinged on poverty alleviation and reducing the gap between developed and developing nations. In other words, it linked economic development to environmental conservation as well as social justice. The report implied that sustainable development could be achieved by changing the quality rather than the quantitative aspects of development; in so doing, it diverged fundamentally from the former Limits to Growth model popularized in the 1970s by environmentalists in the developed world. In most interpretations of the concept of sustainable development as defined by the Brundtland Report, disproportionate emphasis continues to be placed on inter-generational equity (environment-development goals) at the expense of the intra-generational equity (development-social justice goals).

Sphere of Influence

The Brundtland report’s timeliness in addressing these political schisms on development partly explains the visibility and influence it has come to wield in development and policy arenas. Perhaps the greatest reason for its success on the international stage, however, lies in what is also its fundamental weakness: its ambiguity in defining sustainable development, and its concomitant inability (or unwillingness) to specify how such development could be attained. The challenges of realizing the tripartite goals of economic development, social justice, and environmental conservation outlined by the Brundtland Commission are complex and manifold, and nowhere as palpable as in the developing world. In the spaces allowed by the concept’s ambiguity, however, could be accommodated the panoply of perspectives from the developed world, focusing on environmental sustainability; and from the governments of the lesser developed nations, concentrating on sustaining their economic development and the reduction of poverty. The common ground that the Brundtland Commission cleared in 1987 laid the foundation for the subsequent conference of nations at Rio de Janeiro’s Earth Summit in 1992, a forum where both developed and developing nations converged to further discuss their visions, priorities and specific agendas for national and international environment-development issues. After Rio de Janeiro, the discourse on sustainable development switched to a discussion of rights rather than needs, and has come to reflect several parallel trains rather than a consensus. The report continues to be the source of lively debate over the definitions and principles of sustainable development, and has generated the development of numerous indicator variables capturing sustainability from the social as well as environmental sciences.

Bibliography:

  1. I. Moffatt, “On Measuring Sustainable Development Indicators,” International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology (v.1, 1994);
  2. M. Purvis and A. Grainger, (eds.), Exploring Sustainable Development: Geographical Perspectives (Earthscan, 2004);
  3. World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (Oxford University Press, 1987).

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