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Sustainability is a goal for today and sustainable development an organizing principle that recognizes the interconnections between complex natural and social systems. Sustainability is a dialectical concept, like beauty and justice, and can be difficult to define, yet most will agree that it is an aspiration with Sustainable Development the means to deliver that end. The most widely accepted definition of sustainability is that determined by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) published in 1987 in a report entitled “Our Common Future” by the Brundtland Commission; Gro Harlem Brundtland (Fig. 80-1), the former Prime Minister of Norway, led the Commission given her strong background in the sciences and public health. Her report strongly influenced the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992 and the 3rd United Nations (UN) Conference on Environment and Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002.


Gro Harlem Brundtland, MD was a Norwegian politician, who served three terms as Prime Minister of Norway and as Director- General of the World Health Organization from 1998 to 2003. She chaired the Brundtland Commission, which presented the Brundtland Report on sustainable development.

Sustainability is …development that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.1

Brundtland argued:

…the “environment” is where we live; and “development” is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable.1

Sustainable development therefore deals with environmental issues as well as economic, social, and cultural matters. Given the increased demands being placed on societies and our planet, from increased urbanization, migration, and industrialization alongside the depletion of nonrenewable resources, concerted and global actions are required to create a more sustainable future. The UN, under General Secretary Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (1982–91), aimed to create a united international community with shared sustainability goals by identifying sustainability problems worldwide, raising awareness about them, and suggesting the implementation of solutions. The mission of the Brundtland Commission was to unite countries to pursue sustainable development together given it had long been recognized that the tensions between economic growth and environmental resources were exacerbating income disparities between developed and developing nations. Many poorer countries faced pressures from the extraction of resources that resulted in environmental degradation, while wealthier countries seem unwilling to arrest aggressive growth forecasts to reduce and/or remediate environmental damage. Sustainable development works as an organizing principle given it recognizes the interconnections between complex natural and social systems.

BOX 80-1 Definition of Sustainable Development

Sustainable development is the organizing principle for meeting human development goals while at the same time sustaining the ability of natural systems to provide the natural resources and ecosystem services upon which the economy and society depend. ...

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