This article is the first in a series of articles which will look into the 1987 report Our Common Future, prepared by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED).
This text is a major point of departure for the modern incarnation of sustainable development. 2017 marks the 30-year anniversary of the report’s publication. The commission was led by Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland the Prime Minister of Norway, whose influence on the report was significant.
Following the publication of Our Common Future, major steps were taken to advance sustainable development. The 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro where the Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity and Agenda 21 were signed. These represent major milestones.
It is not an overstatement to say that Our Common Future ushered in a new consciousness in the world. This was one in which social problems, economic problems and environmental problems were seen as having the same standing. It opened up a new space for dialogue between developed countries and developing countries and between businesses and NGO’s.
Let’s look into this remarkable text.
The book begins with the words “A global agenda for change.” This is what the UN General Assembly had asked the WCED to produce.
On the next page in the foreword Gro Harlem Brundtland mentions that: “there was a time of optimism and progress in the 1960s, when there was a greater hope for a braver new world, and for progressive international ideas.”
One thing that I found troubling whilst reading the report was that in the following 30 years whilst a lot had changed, much was still the same. As you can see from the following excerpt:
“Scientists bring to our attention urgent but complex problems bearing on our very survival: a warming globe, threats to the earth’s ozone layer, deserts consuming agricultural land. We respond by demanding more details, and by assigning the problems to institutions ill equipped to deal with them.”
This was perhaps the sentence that struck me most. It brought up images of those who are still sceptical about environmental problems, despite mountains of evidence and of the under resourced UN agencies that are dispatched to deal with the biggest problems this planet has ever faced.
Shortly afterwards there was a great line about Gro Harlem Brundtland’s position on economic growth. She asserted that: “What is needed now is a new era of economic growth – growth that is forceful and at the same time socially and environmentally responsible.” Who could possibly disagree with that?
Towards the end of the brilliant foreword Gro Harlem Brundtland makes it clear the need to turn this bold vision into bold actions. She states that: “Unless we are able to translate our words into a language that can reach the minds and hearts of young and old, we shall not be able to undertake the extensive social changes needed to correct the course of development.”
The overview which follows foreword begins with the interesting point that: “In the middle of the 20th century, we saw our planet from space for the first time. Historians may eventually find that this vision had a greater impact on thought than did the Copernican revolution.”
Following this, on the very next page there is one of the best lines of the entire report. It reads: “We do not offer a detailed blueprint for action, but instead a pathway by which the peoples of the world may enlarge their spheres of co-operation.” The report is full of great lines like this and is stunningly well written despite being the work of multiple authors for whom English was not a first language.
There is also a section on sustainable development, where they cover the line for which the report has become infamous. It goes: “humanity has the ability to make development sustainable – to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This is a great sentence and a powerful sentence.
This was followed up shortly after with the blunt realisation that: “We do not pretend that the process is easy or straightforward. Painful choices have to be made. Thus, in the final analysis, sustainable development must rest on political will.” This line is classic of the pragmatism that runs throughout the report.
What you need to know
Our Common Future was a report published by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987 at the behest of the UN General Assembly.
What we dealt with in this article is the foreword and the overview. Subsequent articles will look into parts 1, 2 & 3.
Both of the sections that we have covered set the scene nicely. They are detailed and explanatory and are useful to experts and non-experts alike. The language is powerful and inspirational whilst also being approachable.
There is probably no single book in the history of the environmental movement that has led to more change than Our Common Future. We will have to see if the farsighted vision of a more sustainable form of development comes to fruition as the 21st century unfolds.
Thank you for reading,
By Barnaby Nash
Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. What do you think about Our Common Future, how has the book impacted you?
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