#SocialSpotlight: Sustainable Development – Where it all began and where are we currently?


Change is an inevitable part of life on earth. And for the longest time now, man thinks of himself as the agent of change – harnessing the powers of nature and building an empire of mankind with science, economies and nationalities. It is true that man has changed the earth in more ways than one, but every so often warning bells have been rung by the humbler of men – have we set in motion something we cannot stop? The illusion of control only works till chaos breaks out.

What feels like the brink of this chaos has rattled the world leaders into using political jargon in words like ‘climate change’ and ‘sustainable development’. We say jargon because the meaning is lost in ingenious ‘deals’ that we are trying to broker with essentially no one, and possibly our own end as carbon trading emerges as an effective way of combating climate change. This year’s climate talks in Paris will probably yield nothing more than this meaningless brokering. The real challenge lies in understanding what the word sustainability means and actions and policies will follow only after this understanding.

Sustainable in its basic sense means to be able to maintain a level, a balance of sorts. This balance is overarching – balance between consumption and production, balance between the haves and have nots of society, balance between culture and science, balance of the brain and the heart. Balance is what we strive for in the smallest of things, and yet we seem to be losing it in the grand scheme of things.


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Sustainability may seem like a new concept, and though it is true that the concept of sustainable development gained more traction post the industrial revolution, the concept itself is as old as our oldest civilisations. Literary evidence proves that Roman, Greek and Egyptian civilisations were concerned about living sustainably. As their empires grew, they were conscious that this growth could only happen if the earth replenished itself with the same rigour. The concept is simple, but our actions so far have worsened the situation to such a degree that going back seems impossible.

Brokering Sustainability

Sustainable development calls for a convergence between the three pillars of economic development, social equity, and environmental protection. While sustainable development is intended to encompass these three pillars, over the past 20 years it has often been viewed solely as an environmental issue. As opposed to this, development has solely been considered from the economic growth angle. This compartmentalised, disconnected framework used by developed countries in attaining their unprecedented levels of wealth is being emulated by developing countries. Addressing this challenge calls for changes at the consumer level in developed countries. Developed countries have the wealth and technical capacity to implement more sustainable policies and measures, yet the required level of political leadership and citizen engagement is lacking, often absent. The lack of action in developed countries is compounded by economic growth in developing countries that follow the resource-intensive model of developed countries. Without change and real action to address levels of consumerism and resource use in developed countries, one can hardly expect a receptive audience among developing countries when attempts are made to direct attention to their economic development practices. More sustainable development pathways are needed in both developed and developing countries; which require a level of dialogue, cooperation and, most importantly, trust that is not reflected in today’s multilateral institutions or regimes.


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The Brundtland Commission

In the 1980s the new paradigm of sustainable development was popularized and became more widely used. The United Nations commissioned a group of 22 people from developed and developing countries to identify long-term environmental strategies for the international community. This World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), better known as the Brundtland Commission, submitted their report, entitled Our common future[1], to the UN in 1987 (WCED 1987). The Brundtland Report focused primarily on the needs and interests of humans, and was concerned with securing a global equity for future generations by redistributing resources towards poorer nations to encourage their economic growth in order to enable all human beings to achieve their basic needs. The report expressed the belief that social equity, economic growth and environmental maintenance are simultaneously possible, thus highlighting the three fundamental components of sustainable development, the environment, the economy, and society, which later became known as the triple bottom line.


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1992 Rio Summit

The Brundtland report provided the momentum for the landmark 1992 Rio Summit that laid the foundations for the global institutionalization of sustainable development. Marking the twentieth anniversary of the Stockholm Conference, the Earth Summit adopted the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and Agenda 21, a global plan of action for sustainable development. The Rio Declaration contained 27 principles of sustainable development, including principle 7 on “common but differentiated responsibilities,” which stated: “In view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation, States have common but differentiated responsibilities. Three seminal instruments of environmental governance were established at the Rio Summit: the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the non-legally binding Statement of Forest Principles.

The ‘Conference of Parties’, the recent one of which was held in Paris (COP 21) was the continuation of the Rio Summit. These conferences focussed largely on tackling climate change, the result of unsustainable development. These conferences brought out the immense resistance of both developed and developing countries to cut down emissions.


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COP 21 has put forward a plan which eliminates this distinction between developed and developing countries and calls forward all countries to contribute in their own capacity towards minimising climate change.

This series of articles will deal with sustainability in different areas of civic life along with best practices being carried out around the world and in our country.


Shweta is a project co-ordinator at a Pune based NGO, working on sustainable urban development. Art in all its forms captivates her, and she expresses herself through the written word, photography, doodling and short film making. Life is all about creativity, what you are is what you create. She believes every one and every thing has a story to tell and somewhere it will resonate with yours.


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