"A Common Future" to "The Future we Want"
Most of us recall that our journey on the road to sustainable development began in Rio de Janeiro in June of 1992 when the first UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) was held in Rio de Janeiro and adopted an agenda for environment and development in the 21st Century. Referred to as Agenda 21, UNCED called for a Programme of Action for Sustainable Development which contained the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and recognized each nation’s right to pursue social and economic progress and assigned to States the responsibility of adopting a model of sustainable development; and, the Statement of Forest Principles. Agreements were also reached on the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Framework Convention on Climate Change. UNCED for the first time mobilized the Major Groups and legitimized their participation in the sustainable development process.
Some others recall other events that illustrated the magnitude of environmental damage caused by humans in 1950s, 60s and the 70s and there are others who may recall the impact of chemicals on the natural environment that was highlighted in the book, “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson in 1962.
The concept of sustainable development was originally synonymous with that of sustainability and is often still used in that way. Both terms derive from the older forestry term "sustained yield", which in turn a translation of the German term “nachhaltiger Ertrag” is dating from 1713. According to different sources, the concept of sustainability in the sense of a balance between resource consumption and reproduction was however applied to forestry already in the 12th to 16th century.
The history of the concept of sustainability is however much older. Already in 400 BCE, Aristotle referred to a Greek concept in talking about household economics. This Greek household concept differed from modern ones in that the household had to be self-sustaining at least to a certain extent and could not just be consumption oriented.
The first use of the term "sustainable" in the modern sense was by the Club of Rome in March 1972 in its epoch-making report on the ‘Limits to Growth", written by a group of scientists led by Dennis and Donella Meadows of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Describing the desirable "state of global equilibrium", the authors used the word "sustainable": "We are searching for a model output that represents a world system that is: 1. sustainable without sudden and uncontrolled collapse; and 2. capable of satisfying the basic material requirements of all of its people.
In 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm brought the industrialized and developing nations together to delineate the ‘rights’ of the human family to a healthy and productive environment. A series of such meetings followed, e.g. on the rights of people to adequate food, to sound housing, to safe water, to access to means of family planning. The recognition to revitalize humanity’s connection with Nature, led to the creation of global institutions within the UN system.
The rich history of sustainable development over the years is presented through extensive research by the ISPS Secretariat through an interactive feature that we call, “Road to Rio”. This feature allows delegation to search and browse resolutions and texts starting from 1968 onwards related to sustainable development for the last 43 years. You may filter by keywords, titles and descriptions beginning from resolution 2398(XXIII) of 1968 on the agenda item, “problems of the human environment” to-date.
This interactive visualization shows the evolution of the inter-governmental process on sustainable development over the last four decades. The grey squares represent resolutions that are either referenced by or make reference to other resolutions. Clicking on a grey square will display the relationship between the resolutions via a red arc. The selected and referenced resolutions can then be downloaded.