Sustainable development: the birth of a buzz word

Sustainable Development is a fairly recent concept that evolved into a 3 pillar approach to better Economic development, Social development and Environmental protection. It is a normative process that sets Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The state governance is involved as it is historically the state authority that spearheads big technological and social reshuffles. The market dynamic is not necessary helping and traditional economic indicators are irrelevant.

Sustainable development: how the term was coined

In 1972, the UN conference on Human development in Stockholm introduced the general topic of sustainable development at state level discussions. The Club of Rome, a powerful think-tank of scientists and economists released the book the Limits of Growth that had a powerful impact. 1972 was the year sustainable development made its way to the top of the international debate. The term “sustainable development” was coined later, in 1980. It was popularized and spread by its use in the UN Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission, named after the name of its chairwoman.

The changes in the meaning of sustainable development

Another landmark of the climb of sustainable development to one of the top subject in multilateral discussions is the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. The idea that “development today must not threaten the needs of present and future generations” became a key principle. But the concept of sustainable development was still quite theoretical.

It only became more tangible after the 2002 UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. It was integrated in a three-pillar approach of:

  • Economic development,
  • Social development and
  • Environmental protection,


within a concrete plan of implementation. This triple approach was confirmed after the 2012 Rio Summit, 20 years after the first Rio Earth Summit. This summit also released a document listing the Sustainable Development Goals or SDG.

Sustainable Development is a normative approach with the Sustainable Development Goals SDG

As we just discussed the concept of Sustainable Development is a recent one, and its meaning changed from a very theoretical ideal to a more practical approach based on the three pillars or Economic development, Social development and Environmental protection. With the list of Sustainable Development Goals or SDG created in 2012, Sustainable Development became more than ever a normative approach: one that sets a number of goals that everyone should reach. This underlines that Sustainable Development is a goal that should be pursued by every country in the world, and orchestrated at state level (in the sense of the SDG at least, but obviously Sustainable Development itself is also about local initiatives and individual effort).

The role of the state and technology

Technology has had a leading role in all stages of the industrial revolution, ever since it started around 1750 in England, in the 19th century in Europe and progressively in the rest of the world. The technological advances allowed taking advantage of steam power, and then oil, gas and electricity. Each of these technological leaps was followed by a tremendous increase in production, wealth, life expectancy. The world population was increased from 1 billion at the beginning of the industrial era to more than 7 billion today. The world population grew by 6 billion people in 200 years, after it had stagnated way below 1 billion for several thousands of years. But from the moment these technological advances were used in the industry, it became increasingly clear that the overall impact of technology on human well-being was a trade-off. It only came at the price of increased inequality, environmental destruction and the depletion of natural resources. The improvement of technologies however allows rationalizing the needs for fuel and row materials, and even make them obsolete altogether.

The state has a tremendous impact on technology, especially on fundamental research. Historically, many disruptive technologies have been initially motivated by reasons of state (war and competition between states). Examples aren’t scarce: the world war spurred giant technological leaps in antibiotics, semiconductors, radars, computers, aviation. More recently GPS and satellites in general were also initially developed for military purposes. The role of the state is crucial in the development of new technologies and fundamental research. Then it makes complete sense that the state be supportive of new technologies and goals in the Sustainable Development area.

Supporting new technologies is not the only role and power of the state however. Via its regulatory, investment and taxation tools, the state can also direct the economy towards some energy sources instead of others which would have been preferred by the market. Nearly half of today’s carbon emissions are due to old coal-powered plants, while this technology is now obsolete compared to modern gas, coal or nuclear plants (not to mention wind farms and solar plants).

The market isn’t sufficient to trigger all changes required by sustainable development

Liberalism takes as hypothesis that all that is good for the market is good for the society as a whole, in terms of wealth and well-being. Objectively this has been largely true at least in term of average wealth and living conditions since the beginning of the industrial revolution. This would imply that any intervention of the state is not only bad for the market efficiency, but also bad for the society. In practice we do observe short-comings of this theory. Indeed the market largely operates with the implicit assumption that resources are unlimited as long as they are available in the market at a reasonable price. Short-comings are even more obvious when it comes to externalities that are not really priced in the market, like pollution, biodiversity. On the other hand Liberalism has participated in the widening of inequalities.

Measuring development

Most of the existing economic indicators and even development indicators are focused on absolute wealth and take insufficiently into account the inequalities and the distribution of this wealth. The current approach is also too focused on market-related activities and ignores the impact of pollution, environmental diversity and other externalities. It is also too focused on economic growth, whereas growth itself isn’t an indicator of an increased well-being of the population or of better future opportunities.

In some way, the existing economic indicators are not totally relevant when it comes to sustainable development because they are missing important indicators like well-being, distribution of wealth and social cohesion, as well as environmental protection.

Matthieu Liatard
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