Brundtland at 25

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Our Common Future, commonly known as the “Brundtland Report.” Named for Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway and Chair of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), the UN-sponsored study almost singlehandedly put sustainability on the map. A quarter century later, how has it fared?

First, it was an important precursor to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, eight ambitious objectives for the year 2015 that all developed nations have signed. More generally, Brundtland defined how we talk about sustainability. One line from the report has become possibly the most-often cited definition of sustainable development: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Many take this to mean we cannot squander current resources and leave nothing for our heirs. In his oft-cited 1992 address to the United Nations, Native American leader Oren Lyons urged societies “to make every decision on behalf of the seventh generation to come; to have compassion and love for those generations yet unborn.” Our legacy should be one of hope, not destruction.

Yet, the Brundtland definition invariably is taken out of context and rarely, if ever, discussed in terms of social and cultural implications, though the report itself focused on global community and human fulfillment in relation to the earth’s capacity, as another passage makes clear: “Sustainable development requires meeting the basic needs of all and extending to all the opportunity to fulfill their aspirations for a better life.” Brundtland intends everyone to have the opportunity not merely to subsist but also to pursue their ambitions, to live out their dreams.

These are very broad aims. Today, however, public discourse about sustainability defines both the questions and the answers narrowly—the problem is global warming, the cause is emissions from outmoded energy mechanisms, and the solution is smarter mechanisms. For example, the November 2009, cover story of Scientific American was titled “A Plan for a Sustainable Future,” which suggests a comprehensive look at improving the relationship between humanity and the earth. Yet, the subtitle was much more specific: “How to get all energy from wind, water, and solar power by 2030.” Does a “sustainable future” mean merely ridding the world of greenhouse gases?

So, while Our Common Future has been very influential in spurring public debate, its original aspirations seem to have been lost. Let’s hope the next quarter century embraces a more inclusive approach to sustainability.

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