Before Sustainable Development

Sustainable development is closely tied—in global environmental governance circles—to the 1987 Brundtland Commission’s report, Our Common Future; its definition

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

stands as the pivotal interpretation of how 21st-century economists, politicians, and citizens have come to think about the relationship between sustainability and development. Our Common Future is a remarkable document and one that deserves and requires special consideration, especially for its emphasis on social equity and its relationship to ecological prudence. I think historians tend to overlook the text’s significance and, indeed, the discussion therein. In short, the report has been synthesized and reduced to the definition above. Which is a great shame, because the report is far more sophisticated and complex. And much less sympathetic to the kind of globalizing economic growth that has come to typify this approach.

Maurice Strong, circa 1972

Instead of concentrating here on that oversight (a topic for another blog perhaps), I recently went back over some old archival notes from a trip I made in August 2010 to Harvard University’s Environmental Science and Public Policy Archives to investigate the papers of Maurice Strong. Strong was a Canadian entrepreneur and former under-secretary of the United Nations when he became one of the organizers and catalysts for the landmark United Nations Conference on Humans and the Environment (UNCHE), which took place in Stockholm in June 1972. He’s an interesting and little studied figure in environmental history, while at the same time playing one of the most critical roles as one of the most critical moments in global environmental history.

In his papers, I found some interesting attempts to define “eco-development” dating from the 1970s. Given that the Brundtland Commission is frequently credited with coining the term “sustainable development,” it’s not unreasonable to think of eco-development as its predecessor, especially in to the importance of social equality. In preparation for Founex II, a meeting of a panel of experts on development and environment, which met in Geneva in May 1974 (the first Founex meeting occurred in June 1971—also in Geneva—a year ahead of the UNCHE in Stockholm), Strong and others identified the themes for a working discussion of eco-development. Shelter, nutrition, education, health, and integrated rural development were central themes. Nowhere is there mention of first-world economic intervention or, really, comment on eco-development in a developed-world context.

This is an important feature of the larger discussion of sustainable development, and worthy of a quick tangent or diversion. One of the enduring characteristics of preparations for the Stockholm conference was the tension evident between developed world interests and the concerns of the developing world. A number of accounts claim that the developing world’s worries about economic development and the radical emphasis on economy caught the conference and organizers by surprise, but the archival materials suggest otherwise.

With support from the government of the Netherlands, Strong organized a panel of experts to examine how best to put emphasis on the relationship between development and the environment (held in Geneva in 1971, more than a year ahead of the Conference, this was the first Founex meeting). The seminar itself is worthy of some attention from historians; it serves as a veritable and international who’s who of development experts convening on pressing social, economic, and environmental issues. In addition to Strong, and his co-organizers Barbara Ward, Mahbub ul Haq, and Gamani Corea, the list of attendees included Ignacy Sachs, Samir Amin, Enrique Iglesias, Felipe Herrera, William Kapp, Miguel Ozorio de Almeida, Pitambar Pant, Jan Tinbergen, and Shigeto Tsuru. A report of the meeting was subsequently written that explicitly understood the global inequalities that served to bifurcate and divide global interests on environmental protection and economic development. The report included another important olive branch to the developing world and also a clear indication of the road ahead. “If the concern for human environment reinforces the commitment to development,” it claimed, “it must also reinforce the commitment to international aid.”

After the meeting, Strong’s letter of thanks to its participants stressed again the central place of development within the preparatory committee’s plans:

In my view, the report [of the meeting] makes a strong and intellectually sound case for the importance of the environmental issues to the developing countries and the necessity of dealing with it in the context of their development needs and priorities. Thus it will help to clarify many of the narrower views of the environmental issue held in both the industrialized and developing countries. It will also help in a very significant way to assure that developing country concerns are given the fullest possible attention at Stockholm.

(Strong to Participants, 27 July 1971; Maurice F. Strong papers, Box 37, Folder 371).

Back to eco-development. With these conscious recognitions that environment and development needed to be understood in tandem, especially in order to encourage the developing world that environmental protection was as critical to long-term economic wellbeing as rapid industrialization, Strong and others worked to determine what they meant by eco-development. In June 1973, Strong offered the following:

An approach designed to support the efforts of these people (living in villages and other rural settlements) to better understand and utilize in their own development the basic natural resources and human skills available in their own environment.

(Maurice F. Strong papers, Box 37, Folder 372).

Ignacy Sachs

There’s something almost anti-globalization about this, in spite of the fact that these definitions are contrived in response to a global ecological crisis. Not much later (1977), Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment championed the semi-development of the developing world and the de-development of over-industrialized countries. Spurred somewhat (it seems to me) by a presentation from the French economist Ignacy Sachs at a second Founex meeting in early May 1974, and whose comments were subsequently published at the end of the month as “Environment and Styles of Development” in Economic & Political Weekly, an undated memo from V. Sanchez, the director of the Division of Economic and Social Programmes, to staff members in the UNEP Bureau offered a working definition of eco-development:

Ecodevelopment is an approach to development of a given eco-system or locality which harmonizes economic and ecological factors to assure best use of both the human and natural resources of the region to best meet the needs and aspirations of the people on a sustainable basis. It denotes a creative and planned community effort to develop patterns of life, institutions, and techniques which give fullest possible expression to its distinctive cultural and social values and goals and enhance the quality of life of individual people and the community as a whole.

(Maurice F. Strong papers, in box 37, folder 370; In 1974, Strong was the director of UNEP).

It’s interesting to compare this second definition in relation to Strong’s effort from a year earlier. While the spirit remains fairly consistent, the notion seems far more sophisticated. Things of note. First I’m interested that eco-development is a feature of the eco-system, not a product of peoples or resources. This is an interesting, place-based interpretation, which clearly stresses the importance of a place’s carrying capacity. Second, I’m a bit disappointed with the vagueness of the timeline associated with meeting the peoples’ needs and aspirations on a sustainable basis. This is one of the enduring problems with “sustainability” is that its offers no effective measure of time. Finally, and most importantly, there is a careful and measured recognition that local interests, knowledges, and priorities should be central.

In short, while “sustainable development” clearly seems to be a product of 1980s environmental thinking and rhetoric, development emerged as a central catalyst of 1970s global environmental governance, as a means of ensuring that all countries came to the table and participated in trying to realize a greener future. The compromise, I would argue, hasn’t been as successful as the intentions of its original authors would have liked (and it’s interesting to link global ideas about development with the consumer-first models of energy and resource consumption in the North American 1970s).

The above is interesting to me in relation to its place in a larger history of sustainability. My summer project involves finishing a manuscript that consists of a short history of sustainability. The final chapter, “The Earthians’ Last Chance,” the title of which is a play on a New York Times op-ed piece written by Buckminster Fuller, follows the history of global governance of environmental problems, roughly from World War II forward. In this chapter, I’m primarily interested with the various international conventions—on whaling, hazardous materials, biodiversity, etc.—and the manner in which the United Nations Environment Programme served as a clearinghouse for international environmental politics and debate. A future post will explore the decision to situate the UNEP offices in Nairobi.

3 thoughts on “Before Sustainable Development

  1. Facinating stuff! I had run into Mr Strong though my studies of Canadian Energy policy in the 1970s, but I knew nothing of his archives or his later work in the 1980s. One other thing, I can’t help wondering if there is a connection with the Intermediate/Appropriate Technology movement and its “small is beautiful” ideals.

    1. Interesting thoughts! First, the Strong papers are a wonderful resource and nicely organized; it was a real pleasure working with them. Re. Appropriate Technology and “small is beautiful,” I’d have to dig deeper. Intuitively, both seem to overlap rather obviously—especially if you think about the kinds of economists involved and the centrality of pragmatic thinking in their work.

      The early 1970s represent a fascinating “moment” on the global level, given the influence of the The Limits to Growth, Schumacher’s book, and the Founex group. I’m sure I’ve seen a lot of Appropriate Technology rhetoric coming out of the Stockholm conference, but I don’t have it in front of me at the moment.

  2. You are certainly right about the 1970s. One of the most interesting and yet overlooked decades in the 20th century, at least outside of environmental history.
    I have a further question for you. Does the 1976 UN Habitat conference fit into your narrative? I ask since the Canadian entry, the PEI Ark bioshelter, sought to embody the ideas of local development you mention and played an important role in bringing ideas of sustainable development to Prince Edward Island. It would be interesting to know if non-western countries were as excited about it.

    My NiCHE post on the PEI Ark

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