On September 27, 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its long-awaited report on climate change. The message was clear: evidence of climate change is “unequivocal,” and it is “extremely likely” that humankind has been the “dominant cause” of it.1 Yet there was little consensus on what to do next. The conflicts over how to redress climate change derive from two important concepts: environmental protection and economic development. Today we link these two ideas together under the umbrella term sustainable development. While the concept of sustainability encourages people to acknowledge the interconnections between the economy and ecology, the phrase sustainable development, capacious and unwieldy, often obscures the political process of climate negotiations and environmental politics more broadly. A brief historical exploration of the phrase’s recent origins helps to clarify why it came about, what its earliest advocates intended for it to mean, and why it may no longer help us redress the underlying challenges afflicting climate change negotiations.

After all, the main response to climate change so far has focused on the gradual and very troubled efforts to establish a binding international treaty on carbon emissions through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). In 2014 the next stage of this process will pick up in Peru, at the UNFCC’s Conference of the Parties. For his country’s part, Peru’s minister of the environment claimed that Peru is “committed not only to development, but also to recognizing the well-being of its people [and] understands that [its] development must be based on low-carbon emissions.” Yet Peru’s director of Climate Change, Desertification, and Hydrological Resources was quick to stress the basic principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities”—meaning that wealthy countries needed to help less wealthy countries by sharing more of the financial burden for funding solutions through increased aid.2 This claim marks an important feature of climate change politics: for all the recognition of climate change worldwide, negotiations over the most important solution to it—a binding treaty that mandates every nation reduce carbon emissions immediately—remain at an impasse over questions of power, financing, and equity. It has been this way for decades.

While sustainable development often suggests a wide variety of diverse opinions and ideologies today, the concept’s original architects had a very specific meaning in mind premised on socioeconomic equality and overcoming the basic conflicts evident in the Peruvian officials’ comments. Remembering those ideas is important, because the current sustainability discourse has skirted the important political and economic issues that have hamstrung a major climate agreement. Recovering and asserting a sense of obligation and economic justice in the present—not just for future generations, as sustainability rhetoric often suggests—is necessary to reaching solutions commensurate with the scale of our ecological crisis.


Meena Kadri/Flickr
Discussion of sustainable development, which emerged through a series of international conferences, links poverty alleviation with environmental protection. Realizing true sustainable development has so far proved elusive, argues the author.

Unsustainable Development in the Post-1945 Era

The global push for development that took off after World War II was one of the most important events of the last century. The end of the war ushered in a wave of decolonization that, over the next three decades, withered European colonial rule. Dozens of new nations emerged. While representing culturally, socially, politically, and economically distinct societies, the leaders of these new nations clamored for economic growth and development. By the end of the 1940s, officials in the United States came to view these nations as critical players in a global Cold War with the Soviet Union, and the U.S. government (along with the Soviet bloc and Western Europe) began to send foreign aid to help spur this growth in hopes of winning the hearts and minds of developing nations. Development economists and intellectuals often understood development in terms of their interpretations of Western nations’ past histories, and they often sought to replicate similar patterns abroad. U.S. officials collaborated with local elites to pursue development programs that stressed industrialization, rapid increases in agricultural production, and urbanization—all of which quickly became associated with the notion of modernization.

Yet as this global push for modernization began, a small but vocal group of voices began to criticize the way in which Western nations had developed and to worry about reproducing the same models for growth that had generated widespread environmental problems in the United States and Western Europe. Early conservation activists like William Vogt and Fairfield Osborne worried about resource exhaustion; Julian Huxley and Russell Train worried about the erosion of colonial-era national parks and game reserves as developing nations pushed to incorporate those lands into agricultural and industrial production; organizations like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) began to lobby international institutions like the United Nations and developing nations to pursue environmental-protection policies alongside their economic-development plans.

A powerful tension between economic development and environmental protection lurked in the thinking of many leaders at the time. Development, many believed, was a linear process that necessitated a view of nature as a static entity, designed only for human exploitation. It demanded the removal of barriers to national action and economic growth. By contrast, the kind of environmental protection conservationists sought demanded limitations on human activity to preserve and protect the natural world from rapacious resource exploitation.

As the environmental movement emerged and environmentalists attempted to promote protection policies worldwide over the ensuing decades, the tension between environmental and developmental objectives emerged as a central theme of international politics. From the late 1960s onward, controversies raged over how development approaches should incorporate environmental protection measures. When developed nations proposed international agreements on pollution control mechanisms, developing nations fired back with claims of neo-imperialism and calls for financial compensation and increased development aid. When developing nations demanded their right to unfettered economic growth, developed nations claimed that the “Global South” was selfishly scuttling international cooperation. These debates all revolved around a single question: what kind of development policies would reconcile the desire for economic growth with the necessity of environmental protection?

The tensions between development and environmental protection became strikingly apparent in 1972, at the UN’s Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. The first of its kind, the Stockholm gathering brought together most of the world’s nations to discuss ways to tackle the environmental problems that plagued the globe. Very quickly, though, the mood soured. Deep political and economic divisions between the industrialized northern nations and the developing southern nations scuttled many agreements. Developing nations focused their concerns around two concepts—additionality (additional aid to cover the costs of environmental protection) and compensation (compensatory aid to offset the loss of revenue from immediately reforming economic policies)—as a necessary component of any global environmental accord or regime.3

The U.S. delegation, under strict orders from President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger to avoid incurring any additional spending or concessions to the developing nations, balked at the two concepts. The conference ended with activists optimistic that many nations had taken the environmental issues seriously, but chastened by the underlying political and economic tensions that beleaguered negotiators. While the meeting had originally represented a moment of “global motherhood” with nations coming together for the first time to acknowledge shared global environmental challenges, American scientist and environmentalist Barry Commoner wrote in early 1972 that the North-South conflicts had cast a pall over the event which rendered the entire “global” project seemingly meaningless. Commoner called international environmental protection “the world’s most dangerous political issue,” since environmental issues brought into focus “the long-standing, unresolved conflicts that trouble the world.”4


U.S Air Foirce
Reducing the environmental impact of aviation on climate change has become a major legislative focus around the world. Little headway has so far been made on implementation.

The Rise of Sustainable Development

Despite these frustrations, though, Stockholm would prove significant for two reasons. For one, development experts from the Third World began to rethink the purpose and methods of development. During the Stockholm conference preparations, exposure to environmentalists helped many key economic thinkers rethink the objectives of development, and influential people, such as the Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq and Sri Lankan economist Gamani Corea, began to emphasize basic human needs, poverty eradication, grassroots participation, and protection of local ecosystems as the basis for development. Meetings in Founex, Switzerland, in June 1971 and Cocoyoc, Mexico, in October 1974 allowed Third World development experts like ul Haq and Corea to engage with environmental activists from the North such as the economist and writer Barbara Ward, Lee Talbot, and David Munro of the IUCN and Maurice Strong, the secretary general of the Stockholm Conference. The gatherings resulted in a powerful critique of the existing development paradigm, in which this network of activists came to believe that development should not just promote national economic growth; rather, they argued, true development meant providing basic shelter and health care, reducing poverty, promoting North-South equity, and minimizing ecological damage.5

Second, the Stockholm meeting encouraged a similar transformation within parts of the environmental community. Interactions with Third World leaders and experts prompted a series of leading environmentalists to rethink their most basic assumptions and gradually accommodate developing nations. Many leading environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as the IUCN under Munro and Talbot and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) under Barbara Ward, came to adopt poverty eradication, the promotion of socioeconomic justice, local participation, and support for indigenous peoples as hallmarks of their activism, all of which contrasted with the earlier approach that had encouraged conflict with the Global South.

The concept and rhetoric of sustainable development emerged out of these shifts. First appearing in the 1980 World Conservation Strategy (a publication of the IUCN, WWF, and UNEP), the concept had a dual purpose. On the one hand, the phrase signified the need to protect and preserve ecological systems. But beneath that, the concept included a deeper commitment to allowing nations the right to development (and, specifically, an approach to development premised on equity and reducing poverty) in exchange for acknowledging the ecological basis of all human life. “To a significant extent,” the report claimed, “the survival and future of the poor depends on conservation and sharing by the rich.”6 In addition to its focus on the management of different ecosystems, the document endorsed the goals of community participation in development, poverty eradication, and even the New International Economic Order, a global effort by developing nations to reorganize the global economy on more equitable lines. Above all, the concept stressed the importance of obligation: not just to future generations (as the more popular Brundtland Commission would stress), but also to present inequalities.

Although the sustainability idea rapidly gained support in the 1980s and 1990s, the phrase’s meaning broadened far beyond this initial reconciliation between North and South. From the famous UN Brundtland Commission report of 1987 that popularized the phrase sustainable development, a wide variety of corporate, activist, and government slogans reframed all environmental issues within the new phrasing. Many new definitions for the phrase followed this increase in popularity. A rise in support for free-market economics worldwide in the 1970s and 1980s led to the growth of market-based solutions for environmental problems, and sustainability became conflated with finding sustainable financial mechanisms for development. Others wondered if the phrase implied that the need to sustain development meant ignoring the protection of ecosystems altogether. By the eve of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the 20-year follow-up to Stockholm, one set of authors identified 40 definitions for sustainable development.7

The elasticity—and as many would argue, hollowness—of the sustainability rhetoric was clear in Rio. President George H. W. Bush, who had attended the Stockholm meeting as the United States’ Ambassador to the UN, invoked the language upon his long-anticipated arrival in Brazil: “By now it’s clear,” the president said. “To sustain development, we must protect the environment. And to protect the environment, we must sustain development.”8 But despite the shift in rhetoric and this transformation in the environmental community, the basic political problems persisted in major international environmental negotiations. President Bush and his administration refused to budge on any significant financial concessions, and negotiations on the most important agreements at Rio, over biodiversity and climate change, bogged down in questions of foreign aid, free-trade policies, private-sector interests, and property rights—in short, the old notions of additionality and compensation. Policy makers made efforts to acknowledge this, by creating a modest funding mechanism called the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) and by pledging to increase foreign aid (which most every nation failed to meet). But the sustainability rhetoric proved incapable of shifting the basic underlying values and commitments of national leaders.9

The Rhetoric-Commitment Divide

These very same problems have persisted to this day. When Peruvian officials mention “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities,” they are evoking in elliptical phrasing the same old questions over additionality and compensation, the same old debates over who will bear the responsibilities and costs of the major agreements. These difficulties persist in spite of the new discourse of sustainable development and the widespread recognition that environmental issues are indissoluble from economic objectives.

This split between old political problems and the newer discourse results from the fact that sustainable development had a capacious character to it, allowing people to infuse the concept with all sorts of meanings. The phrase can be used to express the desire to rein in development, to make development plans accord with ecological principles. But it can also be used to express the desire to sustain the developmental imperative, especially in the context of a flourishing antigovernment rhetoric, through minimal regulations and market-based solutions to environmental issues. And that kind of thinking can make the challenges that confront advocates for comprehensive climate change solutions appear even more daunting. After all, climate science deniers have tremendous reserves of financial support behind them. Current budget problems and a global preoccupation with fiscal austerity invite even greater cynicism about any major international treaty. And many people do believe that, as the techno-optimists and free market advocates often suggest, true sustainable development will come soon from new technologies or simply letting markets operate more freely. As a phrase sustainable development contains so many different definitions now that it may no longer be helpful. Indeed, advocates using sustainability as a rallying cry may end up undermining their own efforts lest they frequently specify in fastidious detail what they intend for the concept to mean.

Although the phrase has become excessively broad, the definition that its advocates used three decades ago is worth recalling. The scale of the climate change problem outlined in the new IPCC report will require a fundamental rethinking of priorities to address, as Barry Commoner once said, “the long-standing, unresolved conflicts that trouble the world.” Those conflicts are, at root, political and economic problems that demand cooperation and concessions between nations. To take on those underlying problems, we should remember the practitioners who worked to bridge the environment-development gap decades ago, and who realized that dealing with environmental problems first requires the leadership necessary to take on the more nettlesome tasks of politics, economics, and, ultimately, a sense of ethical responsibility across wide disparities of wealth and power in the future and in the present day. Reclaiming such thinking and asserting the basic underlying principles of justice and the obligation to redress contemporary inequalities would help advocates for climate change solutions more forcefully explain both the multidimensional nature of the problem and the important sacrifices necessary to achieve any meaningful solution to it.


Stephen Macekura

Stephen Macekura is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies of Culture. In 2013 he received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Virginia, where he studied United States, environmental,...

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