Our Common Future

By The World Commission on Environment and Development (1987)

Ever wonder where the phrase “sustainable development” came from?

Although the idea of sustainability has been around for centuries, the World Commission on Environment and Development coined what is recognized as the modern-day definition of the term.  Their 1987 report, published as the World Commission on Environment and Development,  and commonly referred to as the Our Common Future or the Brundtland Report, examined a variety of global issues, from access to food and resources to social equality to energy scarcity to industrial and economic development.  But rather than focus on the negative, the report points to an opportunity for a new era of world growth with sustainability and preservation of environmental resources as the catalyst.

Within the report, the Commission defined sustainable development as follows:

“Sustainable Development seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future.”

But rather than focus on singular issues or concepts, the Commission notes that sustainable development is a multilateral idea that is applicable across geography, disciplines, and sectors, and requires action from all.  Safeguarding habitat requires a solution to localized poverty, which in turn would call for improvements to education and social equality, all of which will likely rely on the economic involvement of both the public and private sectors.  Any attempt to address these issues in isolation will likely result in failure, as these are all interconnected.

Managing the commons needs to ensure longevity and diversity for the future.
Managing the commons needs to ensure longevity and diversity for the future, not sacrifice for a short-term gain.

Underscoring the entire report, and indeed a key factor in the proposed roadmap for the future, involves a collaborative and cooperative management of ‘the commons’.  In the report, the commons includes oceans, outer space, and Antarctica; beyond the report, however, the commons can be applied to any shared resource that provides benefit to many, but should be under the control of none.  These resources need to be maintained and managed in a holistic manner to preserve the maximum diversity of benefit, rather than sacrificed for a narrow short-sighted gain.

Although it was written in 1987, the recommendations and roadmap are still relevant today (which in itself is a bit disappointing).  As the issues we currently face are multi-faceted and daunting, we will need solutions and assistance from people of different disciplines, perspectives, and strengths.  Everyone, regardless of background, has a role to play.