Sustainability literally means the capacity to endure. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission, applied the term to development—officially, sustainable development—as that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” That definition was written into the Swiss federal constitution and is similar to the seventh generation philosophy articulated in the Iroquois Confederacy. It mandated that chiefs of that Native American nation must look seven generations into the future to consider the effects of their actions on their descendants before making a move.

The 1999 book Natural Capitalism recommends including four types of capital in any model for sustainable development: financial capital, manufacturing capital, natural capital, and human capital. Since then, many organizations added specific criteria as guidelines, including social criteria, environmental criteria, and financial criteria.

Sustainable Development

The concept of sustainable development hinges on ideas that support any practice placing equal emphasis on environment, economics, and equity rather than on economic interests alone. It is controversial, because it limits human activities in light of their environmental and equitable impacts on all affected communities.

Sustainable development assumes continuous economic growth without irreparably or irreversibly damaging the environment. Human population growth is difficult for this model, because it requires placing economic value on lives in the future. Some environmentalists challenge the assumption of growth at all. The fundamental battleground for this emerging controversy is one of values. The continued prioritization of economic growth over environmental protection, combined with population increases, may have irreparable impacts on the environment. British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon gushing off shore oil rig is one example of unsustainable economic development. The idea of sustainable development is a fundamentally different model of growth from the business model of colonial and industrial progress. It stresses equality in the distribution of benefits. This egalitarian model of development recognizes the economic burdens on society created by the oppressive policies associated with industrial capitalism and sovereign powers.

Additionally, the sustainable model requires governments to place constraints on developments, including constructing roads, bridges, and dams. It also focuses on new manufacturing methods. Sustainable development requires commitment to the principles and practices of clean production and manufacturing techniques rather than continued reliance on fossil fuels or other dirty energies to propel manufacturing.

Shifting models of development give rise to controversies that may involve problems of unequal opportunity for women and subordinated ethnic groups and the environmental impacts of the industrial use of natural resources. These controversies stem from the development policies and practices of an earlier age that did not require accountability for the social or environmental consequences of development. The changed model has been hardest to accept in the United States.

Global Background

In 1987, Gro Harlem Brundtland, then prime minister of Norway, authored a report for the World Commission on Environment and Development called “Our Common Future.” In it, she described a concept of sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This has become the defining statement about sustainable human development. Sustainability focuses on fairness to future generations by ensuring that the ecosystems on which all life depend are not lost or degraded, and poverty is eradicated. Sustainable development seeks these goals of environmental protection and ending poverty by implementing several key concepts in development policies and practices.

The United Nations Conferences on Environment and Development have become the forums in which these key concepts have been turned into implementable policy statements. The agreements and statements resulting from these conferences are often identified by their host city. Perhaps the most famous of these conferences was the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. At this conference, the nations of the world, including the United States, agreed to implement seven key concepts to ensure sustainable development in a declaration called the Rio Declaration, and they wrote out a work plan called Agenda 21, which remains the source of much international controversy to this day. The seven key principles emerging from the Earth Summit and found in the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21 are:

  1. Integrated decision making (three Es: environment, social equity, and economics)
  2. Polluter pays
  3. Sustainable consumption and production
  4. Precautionary principle
  5. Intergenerational equity
  6. Public participation
  7. Diff erentiated responsibilities and leadership

Another conference based upon this same United Nations Conferences on Environment and Development plan was held in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, resulting in the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and the limits on emissions of greenhouse gases. Although a signatory to the protocol, the United States has not moved forward with ratification of the protocol even though it is the world’s largest producer of carbon dioxide, because it disagrees with the exemptions given to developing economies like China and India.

The Copenhagen Accord, set in writing in December 2009, focused on planetary warming and cooling as a global issue requiring nations to work together to investigate ways of sustaining life on Earth. While setting emissions limits was central to the Copenhagen talks, no commitments resulted. Some news analyses of the Copenhagen gathering considered the accord a failure resulting from global recession and conservative domestic pressure in the United States and China. Despite financial woes, the voluntary-compliance Accord included a pledge by the United States to provide $30 billion to the developing world during 2010–2013, increasing to $100 billion per year by 2020.

Controversies for Businesses and Industries

Sustainable development often means designing pollution and waste out of the manufacturing cycle (industrial ecology) and thinking about a product in terms of its total life span, beyond its point of sale (also known as product life cycle management). Additionally, clean production may require a substantial investment in new technology and plants that is prohibitive to small business enterprises. These requirements challenge businesses and industries in virtually all sectors of an economy to change what they are doing and how they are doing it. What makes the task of change even harder is the fact that many established businesses and industries have been subsidized directly or indirectly through tax benefits conferred by national governments, which enhances the reluctance of businesses to change. But some businesses have pioneered change by embracing concepts of a restorative economy and natural capitalism.

Businesses that have taken short-term transitional losses to eliminate waste and toxins in their products and production methods have been rewarded in long-term economic gains and have created measurable improvements in their environmental impacts. These businesses have embraced the linkage between environment and economy, but they have not necessarily incorporated communities and their well-being into this new model.

Environmentalists and Sustainability

Environmentalists have documented the scope of environmental degradation all ecosystems are suffering as the result of human activities. The news they deliver is sobering. Human activity is threatening to cause the collapse of the living systems on which all life on our planet depends. This leads some environmentalists to advocate protection of the environment above all other concerns, including economic concerns and the needs of human communities. Trying to determine the causes for this dangerous state of the environment leads some environmentalists to identify population growth as the most substantial factor. Others point to the use of fossil fuels to propel our activities. Still others identify overconsumption of resources as the basis for this state of environmental degradation.

Environmentalists employing such data and using this type of formula often find themselves in conflict with business and industry as they press urgently for changes in manufacturing processes. Mainstream environmentalists tend to be from relatively privileged backgrounds in terms of wealth and educational opportunities. They frequently find themselves in conflict with communities and developing countries for their stands about population control and their relative indifference about the plight of the poor, who bear the costs of unsustainable practices more than any other class.

Communities and Sustainability

Communities and their physical and economic well-being are often excluded from decision making concerning economic opportunities and environmental consequences with which they must live. This exclusion can arise from structural separation between different administrative branches of government or from the separation between different levels of government. It can also arise from cultural and social forces that operate to exclude poor people or people stigmatized by historical discrimination. Exclusion of community interests and participation affects the viability and efficiency of efforts to protect the environment and to develop a community economically in several ways. People driven by insecurity regarding their basic living conditions are likely to accept employment opportunities regardless of the consequences to human and environmental health. This eliminates labor as an agent of change toward sustainable production technologies and allows continued pollution and waste to be externalized into the environment with long-term disastrous consequences for human health.

Moreover, people faced with exposure and hunger will also contribute to environmental degradation to meet basic life needs. Whether in a developed or a developing country, poverty and the inability to meet basic needs for food, shelter, and care make some human communities even more vulnerable to environmentally degraded conditions of work, living, recreation, and education.

Conflicts arise as these communities strive to participate in environmental decision making and decisions concerning the use of natural resources. These communities are often not welcomed into dialogue at a meaningful and early stage and are forced to seize opportunities to participate in controversial ways. In the United States, the environmental justice movement has pioneered processes of public participation designed to ensure community involvement with environmental decision making. Internationally, the United Nations has developed the Aarhus Convention to assure such participation. Banks and other international lenders are beginning to require such community participation in development projects. For example, the World Bank now requires community participation and accountability to communities in its lending programs under the Equator Principles. Additionally, ethnically stigmatized groups, women, and those disadvantaged by informal social forces are striving to use these methods and others to participate in environmental and economic decision making. In the United States, these efforts are being developed through the environmental justice movement. Internationally, the United Nations supports efforts to build strong nongovernmental organizations through which these and other community interests can be effectively championed. The United Nations activities are being developed through the Civil Society initiatives.


There is a strong international and national push for a new kind of environmentalism that includes sustainable development. Like all the environmental policies before it, sustainable development policies will need to have accurate, timely, and continuous data of all environmental impacts to be truly effective. So far, knowledge needs about environmental impacts generate strong political controversies. In the United States, most of the industry information is self-reported, the environmental laws are weakly enforced, and environmental governmental agencies are new. Sustainability will be controversial because it will open old controversies like right-to-know laws, corporate audit and antidisclosure laws, citizen monitoring of environmental decisions, the precautionary principle, true cost accounting, unequal enforcement of environmental laws, and cumulative impacts.

The concept of sustainability has captured the environmental imagination of a broad range of stakeholders. No one group is against it, in principle. It is the application of the principle that fires up underlying value differences and old and continuing controversies. In many ways, the strong growth of the principles of sustainability represents exasperation with older, incomplete environmental policies. These policies now seem piecemeal, ineffective in individual application, and an impediment to collaboration with other agencies and environmental stakeholders. The new processes of policies of sustainability could be radically different than environmental decision making is now. Communities are demanding sustainability, some even adopting the Kyoto Protocol despite the United States’ not signing it. They want to be an integral part of the process, especially as they learn about the land, air, and water around them. As environmental literacy spreads, so too will all the unresolved environmental controversy. It is these controversies that lay the groundwork for the functional advancement of U.S. environmental policy. Sustainability will require complete inclusion of all environmental impacts—past, present, and future.

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