In April 1987, Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Norwegian Prime Minister, presented to the UN the result of the World Commission on Environment and Development she had been chairing for the past three years. It was a report, entitled « Our Common Future », that would rapidly be known to all as the « Brundtland Report ». Written by 23 experts from 22 different countries, it officially defined sustainable development for the first time: the « development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs ». In this respect, is it often said to be the founding act of sustainable development as an international stake.
But it is not the only reason why « Our Common Future » has had such repercussions and is still a reference today. There is more to it than just a « mere » definition of sustainable development, and its findings and recommendations are still extremely relevant. Why is the Brundtland Report a milestone? What is its legacy? And how can it still lead the way to a better future? Flash-back.
The witness of a whole context
The 1970’s were a time of raising awareness around environmental issues in the Western World. In 1972, the Massachussets Institute of Technology (MIT) published a report commissioned by the Club of Rome, entitled Limits to Growth. The authors used computer modelling to explore the interaction between exponential growth and finite resources. Their conclusion was damning: unless growth was rapidly contained, most natural resources would disappear over the next century. Limits to Growth brought instant fame to the Club of Rome and suddenly imposed to the public the idea that human activity had an impact on the planet – and that something had to be done about it, whether it was « zero growth », or something else. In 1973, the oil crisis sent out another alarm signal and a series of accidents (the oil spill of the Olympic Bravery in 1976, the nuclear accident at the Three Miles Island plant in 1979, etc.) drew more and more attention towards our influence on the environment. There was also growing concern about the poorest populations of the world and their perspectives of development.
It is then no surprise that the UN chose to start actively working on environmental issues and their links with economic development at the start of the 1980’s. In December 1983, the UN secretary-general Javier Pérez de Cuéllar asked Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway, to chair a World Commission on Environment and Development. The aim was simple – formulate « a global agenda for change » –, yet « unrealistic and much too ambitious » – as Brundtland herself would later put it. But, as history shows, she took the job.
In April 1987, as a result of three years of work, more than 75 studies commissioned, auditions with many actors in developed and developing countries, and a considerable reflection process was made public. « Our Common Future » made observations, drew goals and recommendations to « face the future » – and marked a turning point by planting the seeds of three main revolutions.
1. First revolution: the invention of sustainable development
The report defined sustainable development for the first time. And by doing so, it awoke the public to the idea that mankind had to think of the generations to come and the world they would live in. When presenting the report, Gro Harlem Brundtland stated: « The environment does not exist as a sphere separate from human actions, ambitions and needs. […] It is where we all live; and “development” is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable. » The report insisted on the strong links between poverty, inequality and environmental degradation, warning that underdeveloped populations could not experience growth without impairing the environment if nothing was done. A new era of « growth that is forceful and at the same time socially and environmentally sustainable » was called for. The Brundtland report had immediate and great repercussions. Public opinion was already sensitive to such issues and awareness could only grow. And the Commissioners also directly appealed to the governments, so that they would take their responsibilities in defining a global agenda.
2. Second revolution: the re-invention of multilateralism
« Our Common Future » indeed laid the foundations of international co-operation in the field of sustainable development. Since the stakes are « common » to all humans, the report insisted that there was « greater need than ever for co-ordinated political action and responsibility ». It called for the return to multilateralism and advocated for the set-up of « an international conference to review progress made, and to promote follow up arrangements that will be needed to set benchmarks and to maintain human progress. » This specific point would lead to the Earth Summit of Rio de Janeiro in 1992, where 172 governments and thousands of NGOs were represented. The Summit has been consistently followed by other international initiatives such as the Kyoto protocol in 1997, which succeeded in designing goals for the stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, but failed to get the United States onboard. The Copenhagen Climate Change Conference of 2009 was also a real setback when no agreement could be found. This summer, the Earth Summit Rio +20 will be the perfect evidence that, 20 years later, we still need to sit at the same table and negotiate. International co-operation is still frail, and there have been too many failures and defeats.
3. Third revolution: the invention of corporate social responsibility
« Our Common Future » identified new actors of environment and economic development. It did not simply call out to governments, but also to « citizens groups, to non governmental organizations, to educational institutions, and to the scientific community ». Its work also opened the way to accounting the corporate companies as parts of the society, and, as such, to acknowledging their responsibilities towards the rest of the world. Ten years after the Brundtland Report, in 1994, John Elkington, co-founder of the British think tank SustainAbility, forged the definition of the Triple Bottom Line (3BL). The 3BL transposes into the company the requirements of sustainable development. Its principles rely on three pillars: people (the social consequences of a company’s activity), planet (the environmental consequences) and profit (the ability of a company to contribute to the economic development of its ecosystem). Today, corporate social responsibility is a major stake for companies, which ought to redefine their business patterns in order to comply with requirements such as those of Kyoto. As the Brundtland Report put it in 1983: « The time has come to break out of past patterns. Attempts to maintain social and ecological stability through old approaches to development and environmental protection will increase instability. Security must be sought through change. »
Have we been up to the task?
Upon reading parts of « Our Common Future », and reflecting on its legacy, it strikes our minds that its findings and recommendations are still so accurate. The report raised awareness around the necessity to place sustainable development at the heart of business and consumption habits around the world. It appealed to all protagonists and laid the foundations for international dialogue and the definition of a common agenda that is still valuable today. But it is also worrying that the report is still so topical. In 1987, Gro Harlem Brundtland warned: « The next decades are crucial. If we do not succeed in putting our message of urgency through to today’s parents and decision makers, we risk undermining our children’s fundamental right to a healthy, life-enhancing environment. » The same thing could be said today, the same concern over the future of our children is guiding our decisions – or at least trying to. « The next decades » are over now. We have been working for sustainable development, of course, but there were too many setbacks, and progress was not made as fast as it should have. Collectively, we have not been up to the task that « Our Common Future » set for us 25 years ago. It is high time we read that report again, and apply its ideas. For good.
Biography of Gro Harlem Brundtland
Gro Harlem Brundtland is a Norwegian politician and a member of the AP (Labour Party). She started her career as a physician and was appointed minister of the Environnement in 1974, at age 35. She has been personnally committed to environmental issues ever since. In 1981, she was the first woman and the youngest person ever to become Prime Minister of Norway. Between 1983 and 1987, she chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development, in which she defended an optimistic yet realistic vision of the future. In 1998, she had retired from political life and became the Director General of the World Health Organization, a position that she occupied until 2003. She is now a UN Special Envoy on Climate Change, a member of the Club de Madrid (an independent organization of former leaders of democratic states) and a member of The Elders (a group of former leaders convened by Nelson Mandela, Graca Machel and Desmond Tutu). In 2011, Anders Behring Breiving confessed that Gro Harlem Brundtland was the main target of the massacre of Utoya, where he arrived too late to attend her speech to the youth division of the Labour Party, and murdered 69 people.
(Photo from: http://www.iisd.ca)