Sustainable development – a short history of a big idea

Published by Natural England (then English Nature) in June 2003.

Sustainable development is a concept with a huge capacity to induce definitional constipation. Any discussion of it can be brought to an immediate halt by someone in the room asking for a definition. Few ever recover. There are now bibliographies of different attempts at a definition each more confusing and further away from the original purpose than the last.

I have no problem at all with the Brundtland definition – development which meets the needs of today’s people without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. This seems to me to capture the concept very well and to present a clear and operational challenge to us all. But it helps to understand this if the term is set in its historical context.

Sustainable development is the latest iteration in a line of analysis that starts in the middle of the 18th.C with the debate over how to make economies grow better. By the middle of the 19th.C that argument has largely been won by Adam Smith, Ricardo and the Utilitarians. Free individuals to pursue their own self-interest and that will add up to the interest of all. 

Promoting economic growth became one of the primary aims of public policy. What the architects of this view overlooked, however, was that a rapidly growing economy precipitated huge social changes which threatened to undermine the capacity of those economies to go on growing.

Over the next hundred years there was a debate about how to maintain the social conditions for economic growth. The answer was to add welfare. By about 1870 Bismark was laying down the foundations of the welfare state in Germany and starting a process of public policy development that led through the New Deal in the U.S. to Beveridge in Britain. Thus, by 1950 there was a broad international consensus that some of the proceeds of economic growth must be invested in maintaining the social conditions for that growth or the growth would not occur.

The goal of public policy was then reset from promoting economic growth to promoting economic development. Incidentally, the twin tyranny’s of fascism and communism that scarred the face of the 20th.C were built on the failure to recognise early enough the need to maintain the social conditions for growth.

In my lifetime the population of the planet has grown from 2.5 to 6.5 billion people. This, together with the huge growth in the technological capabilities of human beings, has precipitated a wave – tsunami might be a better word – of change unprecedented in human history. Homo sapiens now has, and uses, the capacity to transform the environment on an evolutionary and geological scale.

The emergent debate since the middle of the last century is over how we incorporate into public policy the need to maintain the environmental conditions for economic development. If we do not invest a significant proportion of the benefits of economic development (knowledge, capital, technology, institutional capacity ) in maintaining those conditions we will not be able to go on developing. Meeting that challenge is what requires us to make a transition to sustainable development.

The operational challenge of sustainable development is to raise the real incomes of some 8 billion people without collapsing the ecological foundations of the economy. Those foundations are the six biogeophysical systems on which our economy depends for everything in it that is not supplied by fossil fuels and non-fossil minerals: croplands, rangelands, forestlands, freshwaters, oceans and the atmosphere.

Degrade the productivity of those six systems and you ultimately degrade the productivity of the economy. This makes the maintenance of a healthy biodiversity central to the future strength of the global economy and well being of the world’s population.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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