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Sustainable development: historical markers


1968 - The Club of Rome

Founded in 1968, the Club of Rome is an international non-governmental (NGO) organization devoted to the study of the “world problematique,” the term it coined to describe political, social, cultural, environmental and technological problems from a global, multidisciplinary and long term perspective. It brings together scientists, researchers, business people, and heads of state from all the continents, including former president of the USSR Mikhaïl Gorbachev, and Rigoberta Menchú Tum, laureate of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her work in social justice and recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples.

Over the years, the Club of Rome has produced a large number of reports, including The Limits to Growth which, when first published in 1972, brought the ecological limits to economic and demographic growth to the door of world opinion.

1972 - The release of The Limits to Growth

In 1972, the Club of Rome published Limits to Growth, written at its request by a team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Limits to Growth is one of the first documents of importance to be published about the ecological limits to economic and demographic growth. It exposes the results of mathematical simulations conducted on demographic and economic growth correlated with the exploitation of natural resources. The report presents forecasts up to 2100.

The MIT team’s model was designed specifically to investigate five major trends of global concern:

  • accelerating global industrialization;
  • rapid world population growth;
  • widespread malnutrition caused by poverty;
  • dependence on nonrenewable resources and their accelerated depletion;
  • deteriorating environment.

The main conclusion drawn by the researchers was that if the growth trends in world population and industrialization continued unchanged, the model’s limits to growth would be reached sometime within the following one hundred years (around 2072), with the most probable result being a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity to meets our needs.

They proposed to replace growth with equilibrium by stabilizing economic activity and demographic growth. MIT researchers presented a development model that was no longer focused on progress defined in terms of growth—with growth understood as being the drive for infinite accumulation in a world in which resources are limited—but on the understanding of the concept of progress as an improvement of our aptitude to ensure the well-being of the human communities while being respectful of the life-sustaining ecological equilibriums.

Beyond the controversy raised by the conclusions of The Limits to Growth—conclusions that left no one indifferent—the report to this day remains one of the first thrusts toward a definition of the foundations of a development mode that we qualify today as sustainable.

1972 - The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment

The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment took place in the summer of 1972 in Stockhom, Swedan. Probably for the first time issues of an ecological nature were added to the roster of international concerns. One of the key results of this historical meeting was the adoption by participants of a declaration of principles and action plan to fight pollution.

It was further to this meeting that the United Nations Environment Program was founded. At the same time, the Club of Rome published the report Limits to Growth.

1984 - The World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission)

In 1984, the United Nations Assembly gave Gro Harlem Brundtland, then Prime Minister of Norway, the mandate to form and preside over the World Commission on Environment and Development, today recognized for having promoted the values and principles of sustainable development.

The Commission’s mandate was mainly to recommend means to the international community to preserve the environment through improved cooperation between developing nations and so-called developed nations, while considering existing relationships between peoples, resources, the environment and development. The purpose of the Commission’s work was to draw up a profile of environmental issues and, finally, develop an action plan defining the objectives of the international community in matters pertaining to development and environmental protection.
At the close of the Commission’s work, Mrs. Brundtland had the following to say about the mandate:

“[…] When the terms of reference of our Commission were originally being discussed in 1982, there were those who wanted its considerations to be limited to "environmental issues" only. This would have been a grave mistake. The environment does not exist as a sphere separate from human actions, ambitions, and needs, and attempts to defend it in isolation from human concerns have given the very word "environment" a connotation of naivety in some political circles. The word "development" has also been narrowed by some into a very limited focus, along the lines of "what poor nations should do to become richer", and thus again is automatically dismissed by many in the international arena as being a concern of specialists, of those involved in questions of "development assistance". (Gro Harlem Brundtland, in the foreword to Our Common Future, 1987)

An important footnote is that the work of the World Commission on Environment and Development were marked by two major environmental and human catastrophes that today are a part our history: the catastrophe in Bhopal, India (1984), caused by a toxic gas leak at a pesticides plant and resulting in the death of thousands of people and injury of thousands of others, as well as the explosion of four reactors of the Tchernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine (1986). Radioactive fallout from this accident had and will continue to have negative effects on the health of affected populations and ecosystems.

The Commission’s work led to the release in 1987 of the report Our Common Future, also called the Brundtland Report.

1987 - The release of Our Common Future

The work of the World Commission on Environment and Development culminated with a report entitled Our Common Future (1987), Notre avenir à tous in French. Often called the Brundtland Report after the Commission’s chairman, Norwegian Gro Harlem Brundtland, the report popularized the term “sustainable development” and its definition.

Our Common Future is a comprehensive program for change that exposes the links between unlimited economic growth, inconsequential use of natural resources, poverty and environmental degradation. In line with the report published by the Club of Rome in 1972, Limits to Growth, Our Common Future identifies the world-scale problems compromising the health and security of humanity and, more fundamentally, the ecological equilibrium on which life depends. The document also sets general objectives for reversing the trend. Essentially, Our Common Future confirms the ability of humanity to change the course of history by taking a different development path that this time would be sustainable.

* The French version of Our Common Future was published by Québec publisher Les Éditions du Fleuve in 1988 with the support of the Ministère de l’Environnement du Québec. It is interesting to note that the term “sustainable development” was translated by “développement soutenable” rather than “développement durable”, a decision made by the team of linguists and translators of the Center for Our Common Future in Geneva in charge of the document’s French translation. Over time, the expression “développement durable” became the commonplace French term.

In 2005, publishers Lambda Alternatives re-edited the report.

1992 - The Earth Summit

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was the setting for the Earth Summit, also called the United Nations Conference for Environment and Development (UNCED). Participants had defined the key principles and established a program of action called Agenda 21 on which several sustainable development initiatives today are based.

Bringing together nearly 200 government representatives and a large number of NGOs, the Earth Summit gave rise to the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, a key document reaffirming an international commitment to the principles of sustainable development.

Other texts were adopted at this meeting:

  • Convention on Biodiversity;
  • Framework Convention on Climate Change (and its corollary, the Kyoto Protocol);
  • Convention to Combat Desertification;
  • Statement of principles on the management, conservation and sustainable development of forests.

Further to this meeting, international institutions were set up to realize the commitments made by the nations in attendance. Among these institutions, the United Nations Commission for Sustainable Development since 1992 has promoted the principles and practices associated with sustainable development at the international level.

The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development

Under the Rio Declaration, signatory countries agreed that protection of the environment and social and economic development are fundamental to reaching sustainable development. This declaration marks a significant step in the establishment of sustainable development priorities at the international level.

Agenda 21

Agenda 21 is a comprehensive plan of action for the principles set forth by the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Agenda 21 addresses front-line global problems, which are grouped together under 39 themes involving social and economic development, environmental protection, resource management, participation of civil society in the decision-making process and the means to implement sustainable development. Adopted by 179 nations, the program is a world class reference document.

2002 -- The World Summit on Sustainable Development

In 2002, the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg, South Africa, was the occasion for participants to renew their commitment to the principles defined in the Rio Declaration and the Agenda 21 objectives, and also to progress in this sense by prioritizing certain targets. These include the elimination of poverty, changes to consumption patterns and non-viable production, and the protection and management of natural resources. Participants also broached the subject of globalization and ties linking health and development issues. Of note, government representatives in attendance pledged to develop national sustainable development strategies to be implemented before 2005. Since 2002, some governments, international organizations and communities adopted and implemented the strategies, action plans and programs stemming from the directions outlined at the meeting. Québec is one of them.


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