In 1983, the United Nations Secretary-General invited Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland to chair a World Commission on Environment and Development. Concern about the acute pressure of population growth, modern technology and consumer demand on the planetary fabric had been smoldering away since the 1970s. Now a new generation of environmental worries - global warming, deforestation, species loss, toxic wastes - had begun to capture scientific and popular attention. The world's natural resources were being rapidly depleted, often in the name of development, but the poverty this development was supposed to correct was as widespread as ever.
By the time the Brundtland Commission delivered its report on Our Common Future in 1987, population growth was no longer seen as the major threat to the harmony of the planet. Almost all of it was among poorer people. And it was not they who were consuming the Earth's supply of fossil fuels, warming the globe with their carbon emissions, depleting its ozone layer with their CFCs, poisoning soil and water with their chemicals, or wreaking ecological havoc with their oil spills. In fact, their consumption of the world's resources was minute compared to that of the industrialized world.
Brundtland declared that poverty in the developing world was less cause than effect of contemporary environmental degradation,
the outcome of insensitive technology transfer that pauperized people and natural systems. If all the world's people were to live like North Americans, a planet four times as large would be needed. Only 'sustainable' development could blend the fulfillment of human needs with the protection of air, soil, water and all forms of life - from which, ultimately, planetary stability was inseparable.
Thus the concept of 'sustainable development' was launched: social and economic advance to assure human beings a healthy and productive life, but one that did not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainable development brought environmentalism into poverty reduction and poverty reduction into environmentalism in a single and simple formula. It led to the first Earth Summit - the UN Conference on Environment and Development - at Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and to the formulation of Agenda 21.
Chapter 1: A Threatened Future
Chapter 2: Towards Sustainable Development
Chapter 3: The Role of the International Economy
Chapter 4: Population and Human Resources
Chapter 5: Food Security: Sustaining the Potential
Chapter 6: Species and Ecosystems: Resources for Development
Chapter 7: Energy: Choices for Environment and Development
Chapter 8: Industry: Producing More with Less
Chapter 9: The Urban Challenge