Origin of Sustainability Movement Leads to Current Challenges

Historical Perspective – By Chris Moore

Individual components of sustainability have come together, but were initiated and promoted by seperate advocates and frames of reference.

It’s 9:30 in the morning and I am at another sustainability conference. The speaker started his PowerPoint presentation with the same slide as the previous speaker by defining sustainable development (SD) as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Next comes the great sustainable compromise – we must simultaneously address economic, environmental, and social issues in all our endeavors. Everyone claps in agreement. It makes us feel good to be working for such a noble cause.

Later, I walk around the exhibit hall talking to environmental groups, developers and policymakers, hearing their take on SD. Environmentalists speak in terms of biodiversity and carrying-capacity, cringing at the thought of a backhoe decimating Mother Earth. Many developers struggle to accept sustainability initiatives, faulting stringent bureaucratic processes and additional costs. Policymakers wish to either increase regulation or hold more planning charrettes to find the elusive “common ground.”

This provides a snap-shot of the wide-ranging opinions on how to achieve SD and reveals a decidedly difficult truth – while we all acknowledge the famous definition of SD created by the Brundtland Commission in 1987 (equity between economic, social and environmental concerns), and work passionately to promote it, but the sustainability movement continues to struggle.

Gro Harlem Brundtland. Photo: Harry Wad

Since the United Nations (UN) adopted Brundtland’s celebrated framing of SD into its bylaws in 1992, the economic gap between developed and developing nations has increased, the global environmental condition has worsened, and total global poverty persists. In the United States, sustainability initiatives being drafted into growth-management policies are typically met with resistance by one faction or another, asserting that their interests are being circumvented somewhere in the local decision-making process.

Why the disconnect? The main issue lies in the fact that most people perceive the goals of sustainability through different lenses. That is, we tend to focus on those features of SD that suit our needs while disregarding those that do not.

The early debates could be seen in this fashion. Pioneering environmentalists like Aldo Leopold promoted ecological preservation through a “land ethic” that served to fulfill the innate need to connect with nature. As such, Leopold’s framing of environmentalism championed “things natural, wild, and free.”

As the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot pioneered forest conservation in the U.S.

On the other hand, Gifford Pinchot promoted the “conservation ethic” to advance economic development through planned use of the environment. As such, Pinchot’s framing of environmentalism championed a utilitarian view through “the art of producing from the forest whatever it can yield for the service of man.”

As with the historical debates over the ethics of Leopold and Pinchot to where the environmental movement was to take us, the sustainability movement has also been marked with disagreement over where SD needs to go.

Perhaps a more critical review of the history of SD from the viewpoint of “where we come from” instead of the traditional approach of “where we need to go” can reveal a commonly shared experience that offers hope in finding the ever-elusive “common ground.” 

Birth of the Movement

Following an oil spill off California’s Santa Barbara coast and the spontaneous combustion of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River in 1969, a ground swell of support to protect America’s air and water began to take precedence. The primary socio-political challenge in the late sixties was in creating a legislative balance between economic development and environmental protection.

In attempts to create such a balance, Senate Interior and Insular Affairs chairman Henry M. Jackson introduced bill S 1075 in 1969, which eventually passed both houses of Congress with overwhelming support. On January 1, 1970 President Nixon signed the bill into the federal law that is better known today as The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969. 

NEPA was the world’s first national declaration of environmental policy, outlining both the normative and operational requirements of an environmental review process before any governmental action could take place. Since its passage, more than 100 countries have adopted national policy similar to NEPA, which to this day is still heralded as the Magna Carta of environmental legislation. Furthermore, when comparing language from NEPA with Bundtland’s definition of SD, it can easily be argued that the American environmental movement of the late 1960s is the progenitor of the contemporary global sustainability movement:

development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Brundtland Commission, 1987)

…to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.” (NEPA, 1969)

However, NEPA was met with strong resistance within the United States. While no one actually advocated ecological degradation, the prevailing goal of NEPA opposition groups was to slow the pace of federally mandated policies requiring additional capital investments. These concerns came to a litigious fruition.

In 2005, the House Task Force on Updating NEPA concluded that the threat of litigation by interest groups had a profound effect on the manner in which Federal agencies implemented the review process, with agencies spending as much as necessary to create “bullet proof” documents. For example, during the 1980s, an environmental impact statement (EIS) for a mining project cost approximately $250,000 to $300,000. In 2005, the same EIS could cost $7 million to $8 million. Ultimately, the increased costs were “associated with the amount of information required to address potential litigation.”

NEPA has become more of a costly procedural requirement than the far-reaching tool for cultural change it was intended to be. 

Nonetheless, the international community took the lead in using the environmental review process of NEPA by keeping it out of the courts. In the end, the international community focused more on the normative aspects of NEPA that were left out of the American process and molded NEPA in a way that eventually brought sustainability to the forefront of global discourse as a tool for cultural change. 

International Attention

Our big blue marble.

The termsustainable development” was first used in the international arena in 1980 after the International Union for the Conservation of Nature published the World Conservation Strategy. Although the report discussed the interdependence of the environment with economic stability, the term was mostly used to imply economic constraints. Despite the waning of interest that followed, a more holistic framing of SD would later rekindle the discussion.

Seven years later, the concept ofsustainable development” was widely popularized after the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, published a report titled Our Common Future. The report, commonly referred to as the Brundtland Report, outlined an analytical framework through which international agreements could be made with the intent of reconciling differences traditionally associated with environmental protection and economic development.

The Commission’s vision was revolutionary. It was the first report of its kind to disclose the positive correlation between environmental degradation and poverty. Because of this, the international community (especially developing nations) embraced Brundtland’s version of SD since it addressed not two, but all “three Es” of SD: environment, economy and social equity.

The Brundtland Report argued that neither economic development nor environmental protection was possible without the other, thus both should not be viewed in terms of trade-offs. Being sensitive to the issue of equity, the report based its argument for SD on the premise that basic human needs must first be met in order to seriously address environmental concerns. Thus, ecological protection, according to the Brundtland Commission, could not be achieved without first improving the human condition.

Furthermore, the Commission was intentionally vague with its definition of SD. They felt a broad definition of SD, mixed with democratic citizen participation, would empower the disenfranchised and force needed discourse on pressing issues.

During the 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, the UN adopted Brundtland’s framing of SD into its bylaws. Also adopted was Agenda 21, a 900-page plan for achieving SD in the 21st Century. Composed of 40 sections, with each dedicated to a particular SD issue, Agenda 21 offered 120 action programs to help guide the global SD effort.

However, as with the American NEPA experience, conflicts over the realization of SD on the international level came to being, manifested by opposing worldviews and needs.

Advocates for global environmental treaties mostly came from industrialized nations since their sites were set on international agreements that addressed the negative impacts associated with ecological degradation. On the other hand, developing nations were skeptical of these treaties. They felt environmental agreements would limit their ability to extract and export natural resources needed to accumulate wealth and provide the basics of food, shelter, medicine, and jobs to its citizens.

Additionally, developing nations criticized the industrialized world for pushing environmental initiatives since industrialized nations were historically allowed to degrade their ecological base and accumulate wealth, and then had the luxury to reinvest in their environment. Industrialized nations on the other hand criticized developing nations as being the main culprits of global environmental degradation as it was they who were putting pressure on the environment via over-population.

Therein lies the basic, worldwide challenge—how is it that members of the global community can share and promote the tenets of SD, while at the same time sponsor opposing prescriptions to attain that goal? 

Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa, speaking during the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg stated: “Sadly, we have not made much progress in realizing the grand vision contained in Agenda 21 and other international agreements. It is no secret that the global community has not yet demonstrated the will to implement the decisions it has freely adopted.”

Looking at how various countries implement their own brand of SD into their national policies, it becomes evident that there is a will to promote SD, but it lacks a common focus: India utilizes SD to promote poverty alleviation and water quality; Brazil focuses on deforestation and poverty; Sub-Saharan Africa focuses on water and peace; Developing countries look to education, finance, and markets; and the European Union, United States, and China focus on energy security and climate change. 

It is within these differences of need that disagreements over policy prescriptions arise, making SD a difficult goal to achieve on the international front. Without shared goals within and across the international community, the holy grail of SD seems to be failing. 

American Conundrum

One year after the 1992 Earth Summit, the SD movement arrived back in the United States when President Clinton established the President’s Council on Sustainable Development.

The Council’s 1999 report, Towards a Sustainable America, targeted urban sprawl as the greatest threat to achieving the American brand of SD. Federal prescriptions intended to curb sprawl never put limits on growth, but instead encouraged local municipalities to rebuild livable communities through smart growth.

However, the national SD effort, as with the international effort, has been marked with an inability to create policies that are meaningful to all parties involved. The issue, once again, is that differing ideological approaches towards SD give opposing views on how to achieve it.

Elim Papadakis’ study, Environmental Values and Political Action concludes that SD policy prescriptions made by local officials are often criticized as being “seriously flawed, mostly reflecting personal, organizational, and political preferences.” 

Meanwhile, Robert G. Paterson and Devashree Saha’s study, Local Government Efforts to Promote the Three Es of Sustainable Development shows “there is little evidence that citiesare connecting sustainability to equity and social justice issues.”

Lastly, developers feel that the local, growth-management process requires them to go through a costly procedural process that tends to put moratoriums on their projects, raising costs even more.

After evaluating the local SD experience in the United States, a congressional research panel concluded that:

Overall, the effort to define and achieve sustainability [in local government] has involved a significant amount of consciousness-raising about the trade-offs involved in community decision-making. At its best, it is a process for ensuring that otherwise overlooked perspectives and constituencies are not excluded from decisions. But it remains an ill-defined process in which operational results remain elusive.

In the American SD experience, there are three fundamental ideological differences operating in the creation of local growth-management policy:

  1. Free market ideology versus environmental regulation.
  2. Private property rights versus the public’s right to private lands.
  3. Representative democracy versus public participation in the local policymaking process.

These are the divergent lenses through which various groups perceive sustainability, prompting them to focus on those features of SD that suit their needs while disregarding those that do not.


SD has become the most widely used catchphrase among policy advocates wishing to create a balance between the ostensibly opposing goals of economic growth and environmental protection, with the issue of social equity lying somewhere in between. However, as we have seen, attempts at finding such a balance typically result in ineffective policy.

On the local front, three-quarters of the American public consider themselves to be environmentalists, but are at the same time disengaged from the political process. Their knowledge of the relationship between natural and economic systems is often limited and inconsistent. Due to the lack of understanding of the complexities involved with SD, a political vacuum is created by the disengaged American public, which is often filled by special interest groups who typically disagree over the pathways towards SD

And despite Brundtland’s intentions on the international front, SD has become a nebulous, normative concept, involving trade-offs among social, ecological and economic objectives. Without shared goals within and across the international community, SD is struggling.

In closing, SD is not a fixed ideal based on “where we are going,” but rather an evolutionary process better expressed through the lens of “where we have been.” As Roger Wilkinson and John Cary contend:

…the [SD] process is not deterministic: the end-point is not known in advance. The starting point of the process is not some degree of sustainability because this cannot be known or observed. It is considered that unsustainability – which can be seen – is necessarily the starting point for this process. What is known to be unsustainable will change and evolve with new information and experience, which makes the process dynamic rather than static. Within this evolutionary approach, a sustainable system is one that evolves as a consequence of adaptation to changing circumstances, rather than one that resists all assaults upon it.

In the end, it is not the conflict of opinion that matters, but rather the conversations needed to resolve these differences that give the SD movement its strength. From this perspective, SD has and continues to be an ongoing discussion where consensus will always need to be negotiated and renegotiated. Perhaps the elusive common ground needed to achieve sustainable development can be found through the continued review of SD’s evolution. Perhaps the first step toward that common ground is to recognize the multi-cultural approaches to its advancement. In our differences may lay the solutions that take the world to true sustainability.

About the author: Chris Moore (LEED® AP) is an Environmental Planner with the national facilities and infrastructure consulting firm RS&H, working with sustainable transportation and environmental program management.

Republished from the February, 2009 issue of Sustainable Land Development Today magazine.

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5 responses

  1. UPDATE:

    August 29th, 2012

    The State of Sustainable Development According to Professionals
    by RP Siegel – http://www.triplepundit.com/2012/08/current-state-sustainable-development/

    “A solid 77% of respondents felt that there will have to be major catastrophes before national government will address these entrenched global issues. If that turns out to be true then we’d best hope that those catastrophes come sooner rather than later, lest conditions continue to worsen rapidly.”

    “Finally, 66% of respondents felt that a fundamentally new approach to the global governance of SD is needed.”

  2. Levi’s Quietly Announces Climate Change Strategy
    By Mike Bellamente | October 22nd, 2012

    “…while multi-billion dollar, multi-national players are increasingly addressing climate impacts that may affect their bottom line, there is little motivation to shout their progress from the rooftops. In a world where the customer is king, demand for low-carbon products and corporate climate leadership is trumped mightily by traditional demand drivers like price, product quality and brand image.”

  3. Why sustainability aspiration leads to innovation
    By Sissel Waage
    Published February 25, 2013

    If your corporation has sustainability goals and linked targets for issues like carbon emissions and water use, you are in good company.

    But what should those targets be?

    For almost two decades companies have used stretch targets — or, in the words of Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, “big hairy audacious goals” — to improve performance. True “BHAGs” cannot be achieved within a decade, yet require daily focus given their seeming impossibility….

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