We persist with unsustainable development

Published as “Conventional economic growth is unsustainable”

Dr. Trevor Hancock

7 June 2022

701 words

As I noted last week, the rising concern about the impact of humanity on the environment led to the first UN conference on the environment in 1972.  However, the issue of sustainability itself was barely touched on at the conference, with only one mention in the 80-page conference report.

Nonetheless, publications prepared for the conference, such as ‘Only One Earth’ and ‘The Limits to Growth’, as well as the conference itself, led to a much heightened awareness of the challenges we faced. As a result, in 1983 the UN established the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), known more commonly as the Brundtland Commission.

Thirty-five years ago, in its 1987 report ‘Our Common Future’ the Brundtland Report introduced to a wide audience the concept of sustainable development: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The WCED’s report led to the UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit), which opened in Rio de Janeiro on June 3rd 1992, 30 years ago this month. The Rio Declaration’s first principle was “Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature”. But it then leapt into an internal contradiction that bedevils us to this day.

The second principle was:  “States have . . . the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies”. This was modified by a second sentence warning that they also had “the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States”. But in practice it seems the right was heard but the responsibility, conveniently, was not. Note, by the way, that it was not a responsibility to not cause damage to their own environment!

In addition to the Rio Declaration, the Summit also resulted in ‘Agenda 21’, a comprehensive agenda for change which described itself as “preparing the world for the challenges of the next century.” There was also a UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, a UN Convention on Biological Diversity and a Declaration on the principles of forest management

Unfortunately, as is too often the case, these fine ideas were not put into practice, certainly not to a sufficient extent. The ironic joke in the environmental community was that business and governments got the noun – development – and environmentalists got the the adjective. So it has been largely full speed ahead for development, with the NGO and community sectors struggling to make sure that development is actually sustainable.

It is not. If you want the evidence, look no further the world’s failure to meet most of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted in 2000 by the UN’s member states. There were 8 MDGs, with 18 targets to be achieved by 2015. Looking back in 2018, when the data was in, Oxford University-based ‘Our World in Data’ (OWiD) found that of the 17 targets that were quantifiable, the world reached five: Poverty in developing regions was halved, the gender disparity in education in developing regions was closed, the global rates of infection from both malaria and TB were reduced and the proportion of people lacking access to safe drinking water was reduced by more than half.

But 12 targets were not met by 2015. In some areas there were improvements, sometimes quite marked improvements, even though the targets were not reached: “the share of people in hunger fell, the share of children in school increased substantially, more women got access to reproductive health and contraceptives, the maternal mortality nearly halved, and the global child mortality rate more than halved”, OWiD reported.

But while “substantial progress” was achieved in these areas it came at a cost. Where “the world failed most miserably” – you guessed it – was the environmental targets.  When it came to reversing the loss of environmental resources and biodiversity, OWiD notes there were “clear and alarming failures” across multiple indicators. As I will discuss next week, at the heart of that failure lies the simple fact that we continue to pursue a policy of conventional economic growth that remains persistently unsustainable. 

© Trevor Hancock, 2022


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy


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