Sustainable Development

Sustainable Development: Genesis and Policy

By: Udayakumar J, The author is an Assistant Professor of Geology at TKM College of Engineering, Kollam, Kerala.
The concern for sustainable development received a policy fillip in the mid twentieth century and carved out a niche for itself in the global strategies for growth. Country level discussions have helped identify domains that influence sustainable living, yet critical concerns remain unaddressed.
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The planet Earth originated 4,500 million years ago. In the first 1,500 million years, there was no life on it. Humans originated about 0.3 to 0.2 million years ago. Since then, humans left no stone unturned in the attempt to improve their quality of life. The first industrial revolution between 1760 and 1840 celebrated the use of iron and steel and the easing of manual labour. The second industrial revolution between 1870 and 1914 celebrated global consumption of fossil fuels like petroleum, coal and natural gas. Its impacts were revealed in the 1900s. The first dissenting note on the ‘fruits’ of industrial revolution came in 1962 from Rachel Carson in the form of Silent Spring. It was about the entry of Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloro ethane (DDT) into the biosphere intended to kill bugs. It invaded the food chain through birds and fishes, finally reaching human beings.

Silent Spring was the beginning. It triggered thoughts about environmentalism across the world. In 1970 the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) was established. DDT was banned in the USA in 1972, based on the suspicion that it was a carcinogen. It was revealed to be accumulating in the lipids of bald eagles and interfering with their reproduction. President Kennedy directed the Science Advisory Committee to examine Rachel Carson’s claim. More funds were made available for the studies on impacts of pesticides on biota. In 1964, Carson died of cancer. The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the USA, was presented to Carson posthumously in 1980. Concerns about environmental conservation brought about new legislations and initiatives in the US and other parts of the world. The Wilderness Preservation Act (1964), National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1965), Endangered Species Preservation Act (1966) and Environmental Defense Fund (1967) are examples of such initiatives in the USA.

Sustainable Development | Evolution of the concept of sustainability

The United Nations organised the international Conference for Rational Use and Conservation of the Biosphere in 1968 in Paris—the first of its kind, dedicated to the protection of global biosphere. Early discussions on the concept of ecologically sustainable development were enabled and utilisation of natural resources and their conservation was understood to go hand in hand. The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22 in 1970. The Polluter Pays Principle had become part of the environmental law in most part of the world including the USA. It was a milestone in the journey towards sustainability. By 1971, in many countries including France, Sweden, Canada and Japan, ministries or agencies to protect environment were created. The role of non-governmental bodies became important as they acted as watch dogs, prodding government machineries to take action where norms were being flouted thus aiding conservation.

The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, 1972, led to the origin of United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) with an intrinsic mandate to promote sustainability. Environment and development were not put in opposition to each other but considered as two sides of the same coin. In 1972, a team of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) published the report ‘Limits to growth’. They found that population growth, agricultural production, depletion of resources, industrial production and pollution limit growth on earth. It was felt that with the level of existing resource pool on earth and the prevalent rates of growth, developmental activities could not be supported beyond 2100 (Meadows et al., 1972).

Molina and Rowland (1974) reported for the first time that the release of chloro-fluoro carbons (CFCs) and continued use of CFC gases at an unaltered rate would critically deplete the ozone layer. It was a landmark revelation to the supporters of sustainability. The 1985 Australian meeting of World Meteorological Society, UNEP and the International Council of Scientific Unions reported the buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. They predicted global warming. Farman et al. (1985) reported that there was depletion of the ozone layer over the Antarctic. In the 1987 Montreal protocol, an international agreement to protect the earth’s ozone layer was adopted. The depletion of ozone layer would permit the harmful ultraviolet radiations to enter into the lower atmosphere. It would cause skin cancer, cataract, damaging of human immune system and exert an adverse effect on land and water.

Brundtland’s classic definition of sustainable development was published in 1987—“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” (Brundtland Commission, 1987). Even after thirty years of the Brundtland Commission Report, ‘Our Common Future’, the same definition of sustainability is celebrated all over the world.

Global Warming Scenario

When discussions about human induced global warming and climate change ensued in the late nineteen eighties, there was a school of thought that argued that global warming could be by natural forcing too. They argued that wobbling of the earth’s axis could lead to change in global temperature.

In 1988 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emerged from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the UNEP. Their concerted effort made it evident to the global community that global warming and climate change were human induced. IPCC was awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 together with former US vice president Al Gore. In its citation, the Nobel Committee stated that the IPCC and Gore shared the Nobel prize “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about [human]-made climate change and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change”. The first IPCC Assessment Report in 1990 outlined the importance of global cooperation in mitigating the challenge of global warming and climate change. Soon after the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was set up to enable a global treaty to curb global warming and climate change. At the Rio summit, 1991, the UNFCCC was opened up for signing with environment and sustainable development as its main themes. From 1995 onwards, every year the UNFCCC meet in a member country to take stock of the progress. They are scheduled to meet at Katowise, Poland in December 2018.

Sustainable Development | Present status of sustainability

In the year 2000, UNDP declared the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) projected to be achievable in 2015. There were eight goals, with the seventh one being environmental sustainability. In the review report published in 2015, the UN said that the MDGs were successful in reshaping decision making in developed and developing countries, despite its shortfalls. In 2016 the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came into force with a target year of 2030. Among its seventeen goals, thirteenth is climate action. The 2017 report on SDGs pointed out that the pace of progress in achieving SDGs is insufficient.

The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation report published in September, 2018 finds that climate change is one among the main causes of global hunger. With increased incidences of extreme events, land degradation, desertification, water scarcity and rising sea levels, climate change seems to be defeating global efforts to address the issue of hunger. In several parts of the world, climate disasters have toppled national and local plans for sustainable development. It is perhaps time to include space for managing disasters too in these plans.


From the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in the US in 1962, to the most recent SDGs of the United Nations, 2016, concerns for ensuring humankind a peaceful living on the earth’s surface have been flagged. But it has been realised of late that much of the human vagaries like poverty, unsustainable livelihood etc. have been the result of natural disasters. This calls for a concerted effort to identify the extent of hindrances caused by these natural events to human living so that the countries across the world pledge a common commitment to address such critical concerns through policy formulation and their successful implementation.


Brundtland Commission Report, 1987. Our Common Future, World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford University Press.

Farman J. C., G. Gardiner and J. D. Shanklin, 1985. Large loss of total ozone in Antarctica reveal seasonal CLOx/NOx interaction, Nature, 315:207-210.

Meadows D. H., D. L. Meadows, J. Randers and W. W. Behrens III,1972. Limits to growth, Potomac Associates, Universe Books.

Molina M. J. and F. S. Rowland, 1974. Stratospheric sink for chlorofluoromethanes: Chlorine atom –catalyzed destruction of ozone, Nature, 249:810-812.

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