This article is the second in a series of articles which look into the 1987 report Our Common Future, prepared by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED).
For more information on part 1, please visit the link below.
This article focusses of the part of the report called Common Concerns.
A Threatened Future
Within Common Concerns the first chapter is called A Threatened Future. This begins with a stunning quotation, which I will include in full below.
The Earth is one but the world is not. We all depend on one biosphere for sustaining our lives. Yet each community, each country, strives for survival and prosperity with little regard for its impact on others.
I found these words to be some of the best that I have seen written about the contradiction which lies at the heart of a global struggle for growth, which undermines the very growth potential that, that struggle depends upon.
Later on there is a classically pragmatic piece on the needs and environmental consequences of development in developing countries. It goes: “with the increase in population and the rise in incomes, per capita consumption of energy and materials will go up in the developing countries, as it has to if essential needs are to be met.” What this necessitates is, is a need for a quicker transition towards sustainable development in developed countries.
Next there is another great quotation on the growth / conservation dichotomy, which I will include below.
Environment and development are not separate challenges; they are inexorably linked. Development cannot subsist upon a deteriorating environmental resource base; the environment cannot be protected when growth leaves out of account the costs of environmental destruction.
Just shortly after this wonderful quotation, there was another piece which shone a light on one of the ways in which the Our Common Future vision has not been met 30 years later. It went: “economics and ecology must be completely integrated in decision-making and lawmaking processes not just to protect the environment, but also to protect and promote development.” I think even the most generous of assessments would say that the achievements to date have fallen well short of this lofty ambition.
Towards Sustainable Development
The chapter towards sustainable development is one of my personal favourites, it is packed full of useful information and examples of sustainability and unsustainability in action.
The first is a brilliant example of what a maximum sustainable yield is. It goes as follows below.
In general, renewable resources like forests and fish stocks need not be depleted provided the rate of use is within the limits of regeneration and natural growth. But most renewable resources are part of a complex and interlinked ecosystem, and maximum sustainable yield must be defined after taking into account system-wide effects of exploitation.
There is another great line on economic growth in developing countries shortly after. It goes: “growth must be revived in developing countries because that is where the links between economic growth, the alleviation of poverty, and environmental conditions operate most directly.”
Unfortunately shortly after there is another sign of how the Our Common Future vision has gone unmet 30 years after its publication. With regards to the accounting of economic growth the authors had this to say: “in all countries, rich or poor, economic development must take full account in its measurements of growth of the improvement or deterioration in the stock of natural resources.” This is a vision that feels like a million miles away from becoming a reality.
Later there is a piece on conservation which I really enjoyed. It reads: “the case for the conservation of nature should not rest only with development goals. It is part of our moral obligation to other living beings and future generations.”
Lastly there was another sentence that I particularly enjoyed, which was about how you operationalise the bold vision contained within Our Common Future. It is copied below.
The common theme throughout this strategy for sustainable development is the need to integrate economic and ecological considerations in decision making. They are after all, integrated in the workings of the real world. This will require a change in attitudes and objectives and in institutional arrangements at every level.
Achieving sustainable development is a complex and far reaching challenge. The biggest challenge of all, may well not be technical, but may be psychological and relate to changing the way we think about society, the economy and the environment.
The Role of the International Economy
The chapter The Role of the International Economy begins with the blunt assessment that: “the pursuit of sustainability requires major changes in international economic relations.”
There is also a pointed criticism of aid projects with the assertion that: “in the past, development assistance has not always contributed to sustainable development and in some cases detracted from it.”
There is a further clarion call for more economic growth with the proclamation that: “if large parts of the developing world are to avert economic, social, and environmental catastrophes, it is essential that global economic growth be revitalized.”
This chapter ends with the pointed and highly important belief that: “new dimensions of multilateralism are essential to human progress.”
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.
This article dealt with the chapters A Threatened Future, Towards Sustainable Development and The Role of the International Economy, which make up the part of the book titled Common Concerns.
Subsequent articles will deal with the parts of the book Common Challenges and Common Endeavours.
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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