Is Sustainable Development the Way Forward?
Is Sustainable Development the Way Forward?

The movement for sustainable development is one way past these divisions that has become increasingly important both in international policy-making circles and on the ground. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission) summarized many ideas that had been coalescing among environmentalists into the idea of sustainable development, which the commission defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission, 1983). This definition supported a comprehensive approach to development in all its aspects-social as well as economic-in ways that did not harm the environment or deplete natural resources so that they would still be available in the future.

The first major endorsement of sustainable development came at the 1992 Rio Conference mentioned earlier, which set forth the Rio Declaration on the Environment and Development and the Agenda 21. The declaration outlined the goals of sustainable development. It stated, “Human beingsā€¦are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature,” and that “environmental protection shall constitute an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it.” States were enjoined to “cooperate to eradicate poverty” and to “cooperate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem” (Rio, 1992).

But the “differing responsibilities” of nations at differing levels of development was also emphasized, with rich nations supposed to provide scientific know-how, technology, and financial resources to poorer countries to help them develop and protect the environment.

At the same time, the declaration noted that states have “the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction” (Rio, 1992). The declaration thus tries to navigate a way through the tensions in the relationship between environmental protection and development, rich and poor nations, and international cooperation and national sovereignty.

Agenda 21 turned the declaration’s principles into a comprehensive list of programs that the international community committed itself to implementing to achieve economic development and environmental protection in tandem and without conflict. Included in the agenda were items as diverse as ending poverty, promoting human health, fighting corruption, protecting the oceans, forests, and biological diversity, and creating environmentally friendly agricultural practices. All of these were to be accomplished in the framework of local, national, and international governmental and non-governmental initiatives that respected women’s rights, workers rights, and the rights of indigenous peoples (Agenda, 1992).

Following the summit, organizations were set up to help implement both the declaration and Agenda 21, such as the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and the U.S. President’s Council on Sustainable Development. More than 150 countries set up national councils to promote Agenda 21 and 1,800 cities and towns drafted programs to implement Agenda 21 in their localities (Beatley, 2004). Advocacy groups, such as Greenpeace and Oxfam, added sustainable development to their own agendas. Further support for sustainable development came in the WTO’s 1994 Marrakesh Declaration and the 2001 Doha Declaration, which both affirmed the goal of liberalizing international trade within the context of sustainable development.

The idea of sustainable development has not, however, ended controversies over the relationship between economic growth and environmental protection. In fact, in many ways the World Conference on Sustainable Development in August 2002, intended to review progress since the Rio Summit, demonstrated the continuing divisions in the international community.

For example, former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was booed and jeered by some in the audience at his speech to the summit, as he defended the record of the United States on both environmental development and environmental protection (Doyle, 2002). Meanwhile, government leaders and citizen-protestors from many developing countries decried agricultural subsidies in developing countries, which, they said, prevent poor farmers from competing fairly on the international market (Loong, 2002).

In the end, the summit was criticized both by those who had high hopes for its success, such as Greenpeace, and by those who had been skeptical all along, for not having achieved much (Doyle, 2002). Although participants at the summit agreed on two key documents, a political declaration and an action plan, similar to the Rio documents, it remains to be seen whether the continuing disputes in the international community can be overcome to lead to real progress on eliminating poverty and simultaneously protecting the environment.

In the almost 40 years since the 1972 Stockholm Conference, dozens of international conferences, national laws, local initiatives, government programs and non-governmental campaigns have not resolved the fundamental tensions that underlie the relationship between globalization and the environment. Instead, all these efforts have challenged countries to manage those tensions in ways that are politically feasible within their domestic political context and their financial resources. The results of this process for the environment and for human development are still unfolding.

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