Sustainable Development: definition, history and issues – What is sustainable development?

What is sustainable development ? What is the definition of this concept? How to understand the history of sustainable development and its applications?

Short and simple definition of sustainable development
Sustainable development is the idea that human societies must live and meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Concretely, sustainable development is a way of organizing society so that it can exist in the long term. This implies taking into account both current imperatives and those of the future, such as the preservation of the environment and natural resources or social and economic equity.

The “official” definition of sustainable development was developed for the first time in the Bruntland Report in 1987. This report was the synthesis of the first United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development.

The 3 pillars of sustainable development
Unlike economic development, sustainable development is a development that takes into account three dimensions: economic, environmental and social. The three pillars of sustainable development that are traditionally used to define it are: the economy, the social and the environment. The particularity of sustainable development is to be at the crossroads of these 3 pillars.

Sustainable development: history and origin of the concept of sustainable development
When did sustainable development appear?
The word sustainable development appeared in the early 1970s and 1980s in scientific writings. One of the first referenced texts making use of this concept in the current sense is the Club of Rome Report “Stop Growth”, but there are some occurrences in other texts of the same period in various disciplines. This report, published in 1972 and written by two MIT scientists, attempted to question our model of economic development based on infinite economic growth in a world of finite resources. He then showed the ecological limits of our model.

At the international level, we are beginning to talk about sustainable development for the first time in the reports of the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Congresses. But long before that, sustainable development had begun to emerge as an idea.

Sustainable development: the causes of the emergence of the concept
The emergence of the idea of ​​sustainable development is concomitant with that of the industrial society. From the second half of the 19th century, Western societies began to find that their economic and industrial activities have a significant impact on the environment and social balance. Several ecological and social crises are going to take place around the world and will raise awareness that a more sustainable model is needed.

Here are some examples of the economic and social crises that shook the world in the twentieth century:

1907: American banking crisis
1923: crisis of American hyperinflation
1929: the financial crisis of the 1930s begins
1968: social movement of May 1968 in France and in the world
1973 and 1979: oil shocks
1982: debt shock of developing countries
And some examples of ecological crises

1954: Rongelap nuclear fallout
1956: Mercury crisis of Minamata
1957: Torrey Canyon Oil Spill
1976: Seveso disaster
1984: Bhopal disaster
1986: Chernobyl nuclear disaster
1989: Exxon Valdez oil spill
1999: Erika disaster
But also: global warming, air pollution, the issue of the ozone layer, the disappearance of biodiversity ….
How has sustainable development gained importance?
If sustainable development was a relatively unknown idea until the second half of the 20th century, it quickly gained importance in the face of the multiplication of these ecological crises and their consequences on human societies. As scientific knowledge on issues such as the ozone layer, global warming or the loss of biodiversity has progressed, the international community has realized the need to find an economic model that can help to ensure our needs without destroying our ecosystem.

The definition of a more sustainable development, ecology, altermondialism and international consideration
Sustainable development and the origins of ecology
Thus, the first thinkers of ecology will emerge from the late nineteenth century (Haeckel, Paul Vidal de la Blache), while their ideas will really take root only during the twentieth. Here is a chronology of the development of ecology:

1850s-60s: Development of “ecology” thinking by biologist Ernst Haeckel and poet Henry David Thoreau
1872: founding of Yellowstone National Park
1948: foundation of IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature)
1951: IUCN’s first report on the world’s environment
1963: publication of “The Silent Spring”, which denounces the consequences of pollution
1965: First UNESCO Conference on the Biosphere
1968 – 72: Foundation of the Club of Rome and publication of its first report “The limits of growth”
From there, an increasingly international movement is set up to denounce the excesses of consumer society, industry and the international economy. Representatives of this movement include the alterglobalists, the environmentalists, the tiermondists … Faced with the multiplication of ecological and social catastrophes, more and more individuals and international citizens demand the consideration of the environment and justice by governments.

International consideration of sustainable development
Progressively, the public authorities will therefore include these issues in their political agenda, particularly with:

1971: creation of the Ministry of the Environment in France
1972: First Earth Summit in Stockholm
1974: first ecologist candidate for the Presidency of the Republic in France (Hervé Dumont)
1987: United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development and publication of the Brundtland Report on Sustainable Development.
1982: Second Earth Summit in Nairobi
1992: Earth Summit in Rio
2002: Earth Summit in Johanesburg
2012: Earth Summit Rio +20
The definition of sustainable development in the Brundtland report
The United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development begins in 1983. The international context is increasingly agitated over issues of social justice and the environment. 11 years after the Stockholm Earth Summit, things have not changed much. On the contrary, neo-liberal governments are elected in the United States or the United Kingdom, and advocate an unregulated conception of the economic and financial markets. The second oil shock has taken its toll and we realize that we live in a world of finite resources, and that our development must therefore be limited. At the time, the idea was to find a way to reconcile economic development and market development with ecological and social concerns. The UN is therefore voting on a resolution constituting the Commission to work on this issue.

Four years later, the Commission publishes its report, Our Future to All. This is the first time that the term sustainable development is officially used by an international institution. Here is the definition given in the report:

“Sustainable development is a mode of development that meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Two concepts are inherent to this notion: the concept of “needs”, and more particularly the basic needs of the most deprived, to whom it is necessary to give the highest priority, and the idea of ​​the limitations that the state of our techniques and our social organization imposes on the ability of the environment to meet current and future needs. “

The idea of ​​sustainable development as defined by the Brundtland Report is that it is possible to find an economic model that reconciles growth of markets and production, with respect for the natural limits and the rights of the man. Although the Brundtland report initially did not have a very important media coverage, the term eventually spread as various international conferences on the environment or climate. Citizen awareness of the ecological problem has helped to make it a “fashionable” subject and therefore to develop the word.

Evolution of the definition of sustainable development
Sustainable or sustainable development? Semantic slip
There is a controversy over the term “sustainable” in sustainable development. In English (the original language of the Brundtland report), the term used is “sustanable development”, which could be translated as “sustainable development”. According to Franck-Dominique Vivien “the term ‘sustainable’ tends to refer to the duration of the phenomenon to which it applies, as if the problem was to want to make the development last. But the notion of sustainability makes it possible to focus on other issues relating to the distribution of wealth between generations and within each generation “

On the other hand, the adjective sustainable in French refers to two possible definitions:

Which can be defended, supported by serious arguments. Ex: This point of view is not sustainable.
Who can be supported, endured. Ex: Violence scenes unsustainable.
Etymologically, it does not refer to the idea of ​​stability and regularity over time. This pushes the Dictionary of Sustainable Development of the Office Québécois of the French Language to consider that the term “sustainable development” is “not adapted to designate the concept in question. Sustainable development is now the most widely used term in the entire Francophonie “.

Definition of sustainable development: new aspects
Originally, sustainable development is a development that respects economic needs, social needs and the environment. But as the concept developed, other dimensions were added. In particular, sustainable development is now often accompanied by reflection on the geographical scale: what is sustainable development at the local level may not be at the global level and vice versa. On the other hand, the definition of sustainable development also increasingly takes on a political dimension (which system allows the best political freedom?) As well as an ethical and moral dimension.

Today, more and more sustainable development is getting closer to the definition of resilience.

Questioning the definition of sustainable development
For some thinkers, the notion of sustainable development is in itself biased because it is based on the concept of “development”, itself subject to caution. Gilbert Rist, for example, considers that the notion of development is an ethnocentrism and a Western belief.

According to him, when one speaks of “development” (as when one speaks about “developing countries”) one presupposes that there is a form of development universally desirable. In short, it is assumed that Western society, a society of consumption, a state, industrial and political society is the form of society to which it is best to strive. But there are other forms of society in the world, which have experienced different forms of development: agrarian societies based on food crops, for example, or non-state and autonomous societies.

The term “sustainable development” thus bears this connotation, and above all it denotes an unthought of other forms of life than those established by Western capitalist society.

The thinkers of degrowth also question the notion of sustainable development, in the sense that it is often associated with economic growth. Indeed, the definition of sustainable development includes an economic development (growth) dimension. But for the thinkers of degrowth, economic growth can not in itself be a lasting phenomenon. Indeed, how can we expect sustainable growth (therefore infinite) in a world where resources are not unlimited? How to produce more on a limited planet? These are all reasons to question the definition of sustainable development.

Sustainable development: practical examples
Today, the thought of sustainable development begins to be translated into reality by changes in practices. There are many examples of actions or practices that can fit the definition of sustainable development.

Sustainable development: the ecological and solidarity transition of societies
One of the most common examples of “sustainable development” in practice is the policies put in place by governments to address environmental and social issues.

Many countries are now realizing that if they want to exist and develop in the long term, they must preserve their natural spaces and their resources, but also establish a more just and egalitarian society. In France, this awareness has led to the gradual development of a certain “sustainable development” policy.

In the 1970s, France created for the first time its Ministry of the Environment, responsible for the protection of ecosystems and natural resources. Since then, this ministry has been transformed into the Ministry of Ecological and Solidarity Transition, which is responsible both for implementing the country’s ecological policies and partly for social policies.

Concrete examples of sustainable development policy put in place in France include:

The energy transition, which aims to transform the way we produce energy to make it more sustainable, especially by using renewable energies
The biodiversity protection policy, which aims to protect certain species and certain areas in order to avoid the disappearance of endangered species for example
The circular economy policy, which aims to maximize the recycling of materials and optimize the use of resources, while limiting waste.
The large housing renovation and energy efficiency plan that aims to better isolate French homes in order to reduce our energy consumption
The various plans for regulating the use of pesticides and chemical substances, which aim to reduce pollution or phenomena such as ocean acidification.
For more information see:

What policy to fight against global warming?
Sustainable development in companies: the example of CSR
Sustainable development also has a place in companies.

More and more companies are now forced to adopt the principles of sustainable development in their activities. For example, there are laws that require companies to measure their environmental impacts and make them public, which encourages them to adopt greener practices.

Thus, many companies must manage their productions according to the principles of sustainable development, in order to improve their impact on the planet, on the economy and on society. But this is also the case for public institutions and all other actors.

Generally, we group these practices “sustainable” in the company under the term CSR, or corporate social responsibility. In concrete terms, this may involve choosing renewable energies or practicing energy efficiency, reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint, practicing eco-design or even taking measures to reduce energy consumption. affect biodiversity and ecosystems.

Sustainable development and the example of responsible consumption
For consumers, an example of translating sustainable development into action is responsible consumption. In summary, it is about adopting greener behaviors and more solidarity in everyday life, better live and better consume to limit its impact on the environment.


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