Sustainable development: Our common future

Secretary-General of the OECD
There seems to be a wide variety of definitions and opinions as to what “sustainable development” really means. One might even be tempted to conclude that sustainable development is in the eye of the beholder!
Some 15 years ago, the World Commission on Environment and Development chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, in its report, Our Common Future, offered the following definition of sustainable development: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.Because the Brundtland Commission put much emphasis on the needs of the poor in developing countries, many observers thought its message was poverty reduction and the elements that can support it – market access for developing countries, education, basic public health, etc. Others, principally in industrialised countries, saw the report as encompassing their own needs to sustain, from generation to generation, high living standards, including a clean environment.As we head towards the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, the international debate about our common future seems to be defined in terms of development versus environment. While the public in developing countries, naturally, expects results on sustainable development measured by poverty reduction, the debate in the OECD countries focuses on the environment.The truth is that even as developing and industrialised countries are interdependent, so too are these issues. Even if developing countries devise the policies and good governance that can vanquish their poverty, they will not succeed unless their economies become integrated into the global economy. This means that industrial countries must open their markets and, no doubt, also offer various forms of support. The wealthier countries, that have caused most of the environment problems, must do their utmost to put the planetary biosphere back onto a sustainable trajectory, but lasting progress will depend on the co-operation of developing countries.Can the dialogue in Johannesburg establish a common denominator on which both developed and developing countries can agree, and from which mutually acceptable and coherent public policies will flow? A truly testing question.The Brundtland Commission wrote: “At a minimum, sustainable development must not endanger the natural systems that support life on earth: the atmosphere, the waters, the soils and living beings.”To state the obvious, the absence of any one of those elements condemns the future of the planet as a home for human development. Those elements represent the platform upon which all else depends. In our modern, dynamic, industrial OECD world, we have been building on that platform, but in the process, have weakened the platform itself through erosion of the soil, pollution of the air and water, global warming and its concomitant climate change, depletion of fish stocks, and so on. While the material and social progress of humankind in the developed world has been stupendous, especially in recent years, its travelling companion has been the continuing and accelerating degradation of the biosphere itself. Can the platform still support global development?The sustainable development challenge is, as the experts say, to “decouple” material progress and the environment, by putting them on parallel, complementary and hopefully mutually reinforcing tracks. In simple terms, this means maximising economic growth and environmental improvement at the same time. This is an urgent challenge for OECD countries whose activities still put the greatest stress on the environment. Some industrialists will argue that, indeed, environmental protection measures have stimulated the development of technologies that will promote decoupling, and that eco-efficiency is more than just an idea, it is working! I look forward to discussing such possibilities with business leaders attending the WSSD.Thinking within this framework makes one realise how inseparable the issues of human economic and social progress are from the protection of the physical environment. And so, limiting the issues to one or the other would, as the Brundtland Commission warned, be a grave mistake: “The environment does not exist as a sphere separate from human actions, ambitions and needs, and attempts to defend it in isolation from human concerns have given the very word ‘environment’ a connotation of naivety in some political circles. The word ‘development’ has also been narrowed by some into a very limited focus, along the lines of ‘what poor nations should do to become richer’, and thus again is automatically dismissed by many in the international arena as being a concern of specialists, of those involved in questions of ‘development assistance’.”Rich and poor countries alike need to grow in a healthy biosphere, and both have to work together to achieve this. It is an imperative that must be built into all our development paths, including those that address poverty.Let us hope that at the Johannesburg summit we can agree upon a common understanding of sustainable development that does not endanger the atmosphere, water, soils and living beings, but strengthens the platform upon which all future generations can build their dreams.Donald J. Johnston© OECD Observer No. 233, August 2002

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