Sustainable development is dead! Long live sustainable development!

A 20-year international effort to put the planet on a path to sustainable development has been woefully inadequate and will need a radical rethink if it is to achieve its aims, says a report published today by the IIED.

News, 20 March 2007

The report was written by Steve Bass, a senior fellow at IIED and former chief environment advisor at the UK government's Department for International Development. It is being released to mark the 20th anniversary of the influential Brundtland Commission’s report Our Common Future, which first put sustainable development on the mainstream political agenda.

The IIED report calls for:

  • Traditional, local and non-Western approaches to play a major role in a new, globally constructed and globally shared drive towards genuine sustainable development
  • A shift from the inviolability of economic growth to the inviolability of human well-being and environmental limits, and
  • Governments to account for the economic and social benefits that natural resources provide and the costs of mismanaging these environmental assets.

The Brundtland Commission's 1987 report defined sustainable development as: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Since then, twenty years of international summitry has produced an incoherent set of commitments, plans, tools and agreements. Yet development remains far from sustainable. The IIED report looks forward 20 years to identify future challenges and ways that sustainable development can be turned from a planner's dream into a tangible reality in the everyday lives of people and businesses.

"Three UN-commissioned reports from 2005 show clearly that development has not yet become sustainable," says Bass

The Millennium Project confirmed that progress in reducing poverty was too slow. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment concluded that 16 out of 25 services that ecosystems provide humanity were being critically degraded. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change clearly demonstrated one aspect of unsustainable development and its likely impacts.

"Sustainable development is never going to materialise as a result of edicts from New York or Geneva," says Bass. "It needs to be constructed, shared and implemented in a truly global way that takes account of traditional, local and non-Western approaches."

"Instead of top-down plans and wish-lists, we need to look from the bottom up," he says. "Linking the many approaches that actually work – wiring together new systems, not rehashing plans – is the key to shaping a new era in sustainable development."

"We need to challenge the notion that environmental resources are there for the taking, that Nature provides a free lunch," says Bass. "The mismanagement of these resources carries a cost that we are only just beginning to appreciate."

"We are borrowing from the future, and leaving the next generation with an environmental overdraft. We need policy to shift from viewing economic growth as inviolable to seeing that environmental limits and people’s rights are more important."
IIED wants to spark a debate among different sectors and stakeholders about what sustainable development really means — and how to achieve it. "It is high time for new questions to be asked," says Bass. "Getting the answers will mean engaging a much wider range of people and perspectives than have been heard in international summit halls to date."

Download: A New Era in Sustainable Development