Sustainability Essay

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The term su st ain abl e development was first used in the World Conservation Strategy in 1980. The language of sustainability, however, emerged during the 1970s and became popularized in 1987 as “sustainable development” by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED; also known as the Brundtland Commission). The concept is much older, and has similarities to the definition of “conservation” produced by Gifford Pinchot in 1901. The origins of this concept in forestry and resource security can be traced to the German forestry of the 18th century and even further back to the Duke of Saxony in the early 18th century and Louis XIV in France in the 17th century, with his efforts to ensure a reliable supply of timber for the French navy.

The release of the WCED report in 1987 was crucial in promoting the idea of sustainable development. In this report, commonly known as the Brundtland Report after its Norwegian chairperson Gro Harlem Brundtland (and published as Our Common Future), sustainable development was defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This approach was important in marginalizing Neo-Marxist critiques and “limits to growth” arguments that claimed there were irreconcilable tensions between environment and society in modern capitalist (and socialist) states.

The WCED report (1987) did not reject economic growth-in fact it advocated increasing economic growth by a factor of between five and 10. The arguments for economic growth were that it was necessary to overcome poverty in developing countries, richer countries needed to continue growing in order to facilitate trade with the developing countries, and it was possible to make economic growth more environmentally and socially benign, therefore benefiting development. Herman Daly has distinguished between “growth” as a quantitative concept that can be measured, and “development” as improvements in quality. In the sustainability literature, there is often slippage in terminology (as in “sustainable growth,” which many environmentalists consider to be an oxymoron) or in the use of terminology such as “development” to mean “growth.”

There are different ways of conceptualizing sustainable development vis-a-vis sustainability. Mark Diesendorf presents the relationship as “sustainability” and “sustainable futures” being the “goals or endpoints of a process called ‘sustainable development.” ” In contrast, Phil McManus presents sustainable development as more of a reformist approach, whereas an emphasis on sustainability, and particularly ecological sustainability, raises more radical questions about structures that perpetuate unsustainable practices. In Australia, the term ecologically sustainable development (ESD) emerged as a unique approach largely due to the power of major environmental groups in Australia in the early 1990s. In 1992, ecologically sustainable development was defined by the Commonwealth of Australia 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 definition incorporates economic, social, and environmental considerations, but importantly it acknowledges that life depends upon ecological processes and these must be maintained. There are numerous definitions of sustainability, but the key question to be asked in relation to sustainability is: What is to be sustained?

Many of the differences in various concepts of sustainability can be attributed to the relative weight given to economic, social, cultural, and environmental components of sustainability. The differences are also caused by the perception of how these components fit together. For example, are economic, sociocultural, and environmental factors going to be balanced as in the intersection of three circles of equal sizes, or is the economy a part of society that in turn is part of the environment?

Variations in the models of sustainability, or sustainable development, are generally variations upon a model of hierarchy or of balance. The hierarchy may vary between models, but it often includes ecological considerations at its base, followed by society, because there would be no society without an environment, and then the smallest circle is the economy, because there would be no economy if there was no society. Variations may include the use of thermodynamic processes to support biochemical cycles that allow ecosystems to flourish, which eventually reach human social and individual scales. In the case of models predicated on the notion of balance, the sense of balance may be maintained but there may be different terminology used or another circle of culture may be added.

Many of the initial attempts to implement the idea of sustainable development often seemed to be an extension, or perhaps a repackaging, of what used to be called “environmental management.” The “environment” was often equated with the “natural environment” or “nature.” Sustainable development was easily associated with trees, mountains, rivers, and oceans, but less so with cities. If the concept did include cities, it was often thought of in terms of the environmental quality or the environmental assets of cities. Once it became increasingly accepted that in order to achieve sustainable development of rural, marine, and bush areas, it was necessary to limit or modify the impacts of cities, then the focus shifted to thinking about sustainable cities.


  1. Commonwealth of Australia, National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (Australian Government Publishing Service, 1992);
  2. Herman Daly, Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development (Beacon Press, 1996);
  3. Mark Diesendorf, “Sustainability and Sustainable Development,” in Dexter Dunphy et al., , Sustainability: The Corporate Challenge for the 21st Century (Allen and Unwin, 2000);
  4. Phil McManus, “Contested Terrains: Politics, Stories and Discourses of Sustainability,” Environmental Politics (v.5, 1996);
  5. Phil McManus, “Histories of Forestry: Ideas, Networks and Silences,” Environment and History (v.5, 1999);
  6. Peter Sand, Review of Alan Boyle and David Freestone, , International Law and Sustainable Development: Past Achievements and Future Challenges, in European Journal of International Law (v.11, 2000);
  7. Derek Wall, Green History: A Reader in Environmental Literature, Philosophy and Politics (Routledge, 1994);
  8. World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (Oxford University Press, 1987).

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