History and definitions of sustainable development

By Ulrika Palme

There are many different, although naturally more or less related, interpretations of the concept sustainable development. Here follows a presentation of the more widely recognized definitions and interpretations interwoven with the history of the concept. Most such histories start with the definition in the Brundtland Report from 1987, but as the roots of the concept are considerably older we’ll go a bit further back in time.

In English, “Killing the golden goose” is a metaphor for any short-sighted action that may bring an immediate reward, but will prove disastrous in the long term. The expression originates from the fable of the golden goose, ascribed to Aesop who lived around 600 BC:

A man and his wife had the good fortune to possess a goose which laid a golden egg every day. Lucky though they were, they soon began to think they were not getting rich fast enough, and, imagining the bird must be made of gold inside, they decided to kill it. Then, they thought, they could obtain the whole store of precious metal at once; however, upon cutting the goose open, they found its innards to be like that of any other goose.

This little story captures the essence of sustainable development: the natural resources (the golden goose) mustn’t be overexploited, but managed with care and respect to last. It is well known that many old civilizations, like the Mayas and ancient India, regarded “Mother earth” as the provider of human needs and sustainer of all life, and that care and respect was therefore the natural attitude towards nature. Yet, these civilizations vanished, and an important reason is believed to be environmental degradation (Diamond 2005). Maybe the attitude was right, but the knowledge and understanding of the ecosystems they depended on insufficient. It is clear, however, that modern civilization was characterized by a very different mindset. In the kind of western thinking that came to dominate the world from the 16th century and on, nature was not regarded with respect, but as something to be dominated and utilized by man. This thinking legitimized exploitation of the earth’s resources on a scale never seen before (Ponting 2007, chapter 7).

Exploitation of the earth’s resources led to economic growth and population growth. In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus, one of Adam Smith’s most prominent students, (anonymously) published An Essay on the Principle of Population, where he warned of the dangers of exponential population growth on a finite recourse base. He did not, however, foresee the considerable progress that would take place in industry and agriculture after his time, and the resulting decreases in mortality and nativity rates. This, in the eyes of most economists, proved him wrong. Lately, however, as the large and growing human population is increasingly seen as a threat because of the finite resource base there is to sustain it, Malthus has regained some credit (Goodland 1995).

The 1950s and 1960s was a time of increasing concern that human activity was having severe and negative impacts on the planet, and that the prevailing patterns of growth and development would be unsustainable if they continued unchecked. Key works of the environmental movement included Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons (1968), and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report (1972).

The UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm 1972

In 1972, the UN’s first major conference on international environmental issues was held in Stockholm. The conference marked a turning point in the development of international environmental politics as this was when the need to govern development and the environment in a mutually beneficial way was recognized. The term sustainable development was not referred to explicitly, but the spirit of it was clearly there, as e.g. in the 2nd principle of the declaration from the conference: The natural resources of the earth, including the air, water, land, flora and fauna and especially representative samples of natural ecosystems, must be safeguarded for the benefit of present and future generations through careful planning or management, as appropriate. (www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?documentid=97&articleid=1503)

Sustainable development according to Herman Daly, 1973

In his book “Toward a steady state economy”, economist Herman Daly uses the notion of various forms of capital to explain the concept sustainable development.  The idea is illustrated in the so called Daly triangle (below). In the Daly triangle, the human economy is depicted as resting on the foundation provided by natural capital. Natural capital, including natural resources and ecosystem services, forms the ultimate means of development. Without these resources and services there is nothing to build human societies and human well-being on. Economy and technology are not ends in themselves, but intermediate means to intermediate ends (including human and social capital) and the ultimate end which is human well-being (Daly 1973 in Meadows 1998).

The Daly triangle
The Daly triangle

Our common future, “the Brundtland Report”, WCED, 1987

The most frequently quoted definition of sustainable development is the one found in “Our Common Future”, the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), often referred to as “the Brundtland Report” and recognized as a landmark in the history of sustainable development:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

  • the concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs (WCED 1987, p 43).

The UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio 1992

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The summit was the first international attempt to draw up action plans and strategies for moving towards a more sustainable pattern of development. More than 100 Heads of State with representation from 178 national governments attended it – the largest gathering of national leaders that the world had seen at that time. The summit was also attended by representatives from more than 1100 non-governmental organisations, officially accredited to the conference. The conference in Rio produced five main documents:

  1. The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development
  2. The Statement on Forest Principles
  3. The Climate Change Convention
  4. The Biodiversity Convention
  5. Agenda 21

The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development includes a number of principles of key importance for the concept sustainable development.  The precautionary principle holds that where there are threats of serious damage, lack of full scientific certainty must not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. The principle of inter-generational equity is basically the definition of sustainable development in the Brundtland Report expressed as principle: the needs of the present must be met without compromising the needs of future generations. The principle of intra-generational equity holds that people within the present generation all have the right to an equal share of the world’s resources and that they all have a right to clean and healthy environment. Finally, the polluter pays principle holds that the polluter should bear the cost of preventing and controlling pollution.

Agenda 21 contained over 900 pages in its original version and was the most comprehensive international agreement ever attempted. It can be seen as an internationally recognized implementation plan for sustainable development, and a framework of important moral values. It contains an introductory preamble and 39 chapters divided into four sections:

  1. Social and economic dimensions
  2. Conservation and management of resources for development
  3. Strengthening the role of major groups
  4. Means of implementation (including financial resources, science, technology and education)

Sustainability in three dimensions: environmental, economic and social

Many  interpretations of the concept sustainable development build on a three-part division of sustainable development into an environmental, an economic, and a social dimension, also known as the “three pillars”, “triple bottom line”, or the “three Es” (“social” being translated to equity/equality) of sustainable development.  These models, exemplified below by two versions of the widespread three-ringed sector model of sustainable development, have the benefit of illustrating the multidimensionality of the concept in a simple way, but on the other hand say rather little about the nature of the connections between environment, economy and society (as compared to e.g. the Daly triangle).

A combination of the Daly triangle and the idea of sustainable development in three dimensions can be illustrated as below (Palme and Tillman 2009): 

UN Earth Summit on SD in Johannesburg 2002

In 2002, the World Summit on Sustainable Development was held in Johannesburg. The meeting was attended by 191 national governments, UN agencies, multilateral financial institutions and other major groups to assess progress since Rio. The Johannesburg Summit delivered three key outcomes: a political declaration reaffirming the commitment to the implementation of Agenda 21 and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation detailing the priorities for action, and more than 300 partnership initiatives committing more than $200 million in new and additional resources. Key commitments included those on sustainable consumption and production, water and sanitation, energy, health, agriculture, and biodiversity and ecosystem management.

Sustainable development ethics

Sustainable development is an ethical standpoint focusing on human well-being, i.e. it is anthropocentric, to use the philosophical vocabulary. An alternative ethical standpoint is ecocentrism, implying a nature-centred system of values (as opposed to human-centred). As can be seen from all the definitions and interpretations of the concept sustainable development presented here, it underlines the importance of functioning ecosystems, but it does so from an entirely human perspective, i.e. the reason why ecosystems should be cared for is that they deliver services that are necessary for human well-being. An ethical novelty in the concept sustainable development is the expressed concern for future generations, defining it as intergenerational anthropocentrism.


Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York, Viking.

Goodland, R. (1995). “The concept of environmental sustainability.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 26: 1-24.

Palme, U. and A.-M. Tillman (2009). “Sustainable urban water systems in indicators: researchers’ recommendations versus practice in Swedish utilities.” Water Policy 11(2): 250-268.

Ponting, C. (2007). A new green history of the world – The environment and the collapse of great civilizations. New York, Penguin Books.WCED (1987). Our common future. Oxford, Oxford University Press.