You are on page 1of 20

A brief History of Sustainability

The word doesnt mean what many seem to think.


In response to my piece this summer about the hubris among some sustainable design
leaders (A Darker Shade of Green), a reader Tweeted that no one outside of field
knows what you mean by sustainable [sic]. Of course, sustainability transcends the
fields of architecture and design, but its true that the word can be confusingin large
part because it doesnt mean what many seem to think it does.
First, the term is extremely familiar. Googling sustainability gets more hits than Grand
Canyon or Gandhi. Searching for the term in the Google Ngram Viewer, which Time
magazine calls the closest thing we have to a record of what the world has cared about
over the past few centuries, shows that as of 2008, the latest year available, the word
appeared in literature seven times more often than Star Wars and a dozen times more
often than Steve Jobs, a man so influential back then that Fortune magazine
wondered if he was more popular than Jesus. (He wasnt, it concluded.)

From Google Ngram Viewer.


While the word is well known, its definition is widely perceived to be elusive. What the
hell does sustainable even mean? asked Salon, just two years ago. The term
sustainable is utterly meaningless, author and local-food advocate Douglas Gayeton
told Salon. Its meaningless because corporate interests latched onto the word
because they felt that it resonated with people. Last year, Casey Dunning, then a
senior policy analyst at the Center for Global Development, told NPR, Ask any given
analyst and you would get a different definition on any given day. A 2015 survey found
that 62% of consumers believe in climate change but only 54% feel the word
sustainable conveys something important. Only 59% claim to understand it at all, and
76% consider it expensive. In the absence of clear definitions, words risk losing
meaning altogether or taking on negative associations.
Among those who do claim to understand the term, many define it very narrowly.
Popular and academic sources alike explain sustainability in purely ecological terms:
the property of biological systems to remain diverse and productive indefinitely. In
other words, sustainability is synonymous with environmental conservationsaving the
planet.
But sustainability has always meant much more than this.
When Kira Gould and I conducted research for our book, Women in Green: Voices of
Sustainable Design (2007), we wanted to understand the origins of the concept. The
earliest instance we found of the term with its current connotations was in The Limits to
Growth (1972), a study of the earths carrying capacity in relation to the population
explosion (when global population was half what it is now): It is possible to alter these
growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is
sustainable far into the future, declared Donella Meadows and her co-authors. The
state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each
person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his
individual human potential.
This predates by 15 years the most frequently cited definition of sustainability, included
in Our Common Future, the 1987 UN-commissioned study known as the Brundtland
Report: Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it
meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to
meet their own needs.
For nearly half a century, the concept of sustainability has focused first on human needs
and potential, which depend on and significantly impact natural systems. Our fate is
bound to the fate of the earth.

From The Buzz on Buzzwords, the Shelton Group, 2015.


In 1994, John Elkington coined the term triple bottom line to clarify sustainability as the
integration of social, economic, and environmental value. I can think of nothing of value
that doesnt fall into one or more of these categories. Family, friendship, lovethese are
social values. In other words, sustainability encompasses literally everything. Yet, one
of the most common complaints I hear from my peers and colleagues is, My clients
dont care about sustainability. If it includes everything, then youre saying your clients
dont care about anything. No one is that apathetic.
Peggy Liu, whom Time magazine has called a Hero of the Environment, insists that
sustainability needs to move from gloom to hope. But if the aim of sustainability is fully
realizing human potential, as Meadows claimed four decades ago, what could be more
hopeful? Its appeal would seem universal and timeless, but many declare, as Liu does,
that sustainability is dead. Similar obituaries are increasingly plentiful, and that phrase
appears online 30 thousand times.
How could the idea of humanity flourishing forever suddenly go out of fashion? Trend
watchers outline three phases of the fashion cycleemergence, emulation, and
saturation. As the Google graph shows, sustainabilitys tipping point was circa 1987,
after the Brundtland Report appeared. The idea had been brewing for 15 years and
suddenly boiled over. After 1990, the concept became more and more popular, which
new organizations, such as the US Green Building Council, appearing, along with
increased media attention and consumer awareness.
Over the past decade, however, the word has provoked irritation among many. Possibly
the earliest declaration that sustainability is dead was by Alan AtKisson in 2006, and in
2010 Advertising Age included sustainable in its jargoniest jargon list. Oversaturation
had begun to set in, and with the recession many organizations, communities, and
companies slowed their efforts to embrace sustainability. A 2013 survey of CEOs by
Accenture and UN Global Impact showed that a majority felt a lack of financial
resources was the single largest barrier. We are concentrating on strategies for today,
said one executive, not strategies for tomorrow.
Gayeton told Salon in 2014, I think the climate movement has had a tremendous
difficulty in the past 10 years because most peoplemost general peoplehave term
fatigue. They have climate fatigue because of terms like carbon debt: They didnt really
get it the first time, and they didnt know what it meant the 20th time, so they just sort of
tuned out. He launched The Lexicon of Sustainability to demonstrate a simple
premise: people will live more sustainably if they understand the most basic terms and
principles that will define the next economy.
Sustainability isnt a trend, its an ethic, and it can never become unfashionable, even if
its language does. The challenge for those of us who champion the idea is to continue
to find new waysand new wordsto inspire change. In the end, observed Baba
Dioum in 1968, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we
understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.
@lancehosey
The history of sustainability traces human-dominated ecological systems from the earliest
civilizations to the present. This history is characterized by the increased regional success of a
particular society, followed by crises that were either resolved, producing sustainability, or not,
leading to decline.[1][2]
In early human history, the use of fire and desire for specific foods may have altered the natural
composition of plant and animal communities.[3] Between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago, agrarian
communities emerged which depended largely on their environment and the creation of a
"structure of permanence".[4]
The Western industrial revolution of the 18th to 19th centuries tapped into the vast growth
potential of the energy in fossil fuels. Coal was used to power ever more efficient engines and
later to generate electricity. Modern sanitation systems and advances in medicine protected large
populations from disease.[5] In the mid-20th century, a gathering environmental movement
pointed out that there were environmental costs associated with the many material benefits that
were now being enjoyed. In the late 20th century, environmental problems became global in
scale.[6][7][8][9] The 1973 and 1979 energy crises demonstrated the extent to which the global
community had become dependent on non-renewable energy resources.
In the 21st century, there is increasing global awareness of the threat posed by the human-
induced enhanced greenhouse effect, produced largely by forest clearing and the burning of
fossil fuels.[10][11]

Contents
[hide]

1 Early civilizations
2 Emergence of industrial societies
3 Early 20th century
4 Mid 20th century: environmentalism
5 Late 20th century
6 21st century: global awareness
7 See also
8 References
9 External links

Early civilizations[edit]
Further information: Neolithic revolution

In early human history, although the energy and other resource demands of nomadic hunter-
gatherers was small, the use of fire and desire for specific foods may have altered the natural
composition of plant and animal communities.[3] Between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago,
agriculture emerged in various regions of the world.[12] Agrarian communities depended largely
on their environment and the creation of a "structure of permanence".[4] Societies outgrowing
their local food supply or depleting critical resources either moved on or faced collapse.[13]
Sumerian harvester's sickle, 3000 BC, made from baked clay

Archeological evidence suggests that the first civilizations arose in Sumer, in southern
Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and Egypt, both dating from around 3000 BCE. By 1000 BCE,
civilizations were also established in India, China, Mexico, Peru and in parts of Europe.[14][15]
Sumer illustrates issues central to the sustainability of human civilization.[16] Sumerian cities
practised intensive, year-round agriculture from c.5300 BCE. The surplus of storable food
created by this economy allowed the population to settle in one place instead of migrating in
search of wild foods and grazing land. It also allowed for a much greater population density. The
development of agriculture in Mesopotamia required many labourers to build and maintain its
irrigation system. This, in turn, led to political hierarchy, bureaucracy, and religious sanction,
along with standing armies to protect the emergent civilization. Intensified agriculture allowed
for population increase, but also led to deforestation in upstream areas with resultant flooding
and over-irrigation, which raised soil salinity. While there was a shift from the cultivation of
wheat to the more salt-tolerant barley, yields still diminished. Eventually, decreasing agricultural
production and other factors led to the decline of the civilization. From 2100 BC to 1700 BC, it
is estimated that the population was reduced by nearly sixty percent.[16][17] Civilizations similarly
thought to have eventually fallen because of poor management of resources include the Mayans,
Anasazi and Easter Islanders, among many others.[18][19] In contrast, stable communities of shifting
cultivators and horticulturists existed in New Guinea and South America, and large agrarian
communities in China, India and elsewhere have farmed in the same localities for centuries.
Some Polynesian cultures have maintained stable communities for between 1,000 and 3,000
years on small islands with minimal resources using rahui[20] and kaitiakitanga[21] to control
human pressure on the environment. In Sri Lanka nature reserves established during the reign of
king Devanampiyatissa and dating back to 307 BC were devoted to sustainability and
harmonious living with nature.[22]

Emergence of industrial societies[edit]


Further information: Fossil fuels
A Watt steam engine, the steam engine fuelled primarily by coal that propelled the Industrial Revolution
in Britain and the world

Technological advances over several millennia gave humans increasing control over the
environment. But it was the Western industrial revolution of the 18th to 19th centuries that
tapped into the vast growth potential of the energy in fossil fuels. Coal was used to power ever
more efficient engines and later to generate electricity. Modern sanitation systems and advances
in medicine protected large populations from disease.[5] Such conditions led to a human
population explosion and unprecedented industrial, technological and scientific growth that has
continued to this day, marking the commencement of a period of global human influence known
as the Anthropocene. From 1650 to 1850 the global population doubled from around 500 million
to 1 billion people.[23]
Concerns about the environmental and social impacts of industry were expressed by some
Enlightenment political economists and through the Romantic movement of the 1800s. The
Reverend Thomas Malthus, devised catastrophic and much-criticized theories of
"overpopulation", while John Stuart Mill foresaw the desirability of a "stationary state"
economy, thus anticipating concerns of the modern discipline of ecological economics.[24][25][26] In
the late 19th century Eugenius Warming was the first botanist to study physiological relations
between plants and their environment, heralding the scientific discipline of ecology.[27]
Further information: Hans Carl von Carlowitz

Early 20th century[edit]


See also: Environmental movement

By the 20th century, the industrial revolution had led to an exponential increase in the human
consumption of resources. The increase in health, wealth and population was perceived as a
simple path of progress.[28] However, in the 1930s economists began developing models of non-
renewable resource management (see Hotelling's rule)[29] and the sustainability of welfare in an
economy that uses non-renewable resources (Hartwick's rule).[30]
Ecology had now gained general acceptance as a scientific discipline, and many concepts vital to
sustainability were being explored. These included: the interconnectedness of all living systems
in a single living planetary system, the biosphere; the importance of natural cycles (of water,
nutrients and other chemicals, materials, waste); and the passage of energy through trophic levels
of living systems.[31]

Mid 20th century: environmentalism[edit]


See also: Environmentalism and Environmental science

Following the deprivations of the great depression and World War II the developed world
entered a new period of escalating growth, a post-1950s "great acceleration ... a surge in the
human enterprise that has emphatically stamped humanity as a global geophysical force."[32] A
gathering environmental movement pointed out that there were environmental costs associated
with the many material benefits that were now being enjoyed. Innovations in technology
(including plastics, synthetic chemicals, nuclear energy) and the increasing use of fossil fuels,
were transforming society. Modern industrial agriculturethe "Green Revolution"was based
on the development of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides which had devastating
consequences for rural wildlife, as documented by American marine biologist, naturalist and
environmentalist Rachel Carson in Silent Spring (1962).
In 1956, American geoscientist M. King Hubbert's peak oil theory predicted an inevitable peak
of oil production, first in the United States (between 1965 and 1970), then in successive regions
of the worldwith a global peak expected thereafter.[33] In the 1970s environmentalism's concern
with pollution, the population explosion, consumerism and the depletion of finite resources
found expression in Small Is Beautiful, by British economist E. F. Schumacher in 1973, and The
Limits to Growth published by the global think tank, the Club of Rome, in 1975.

Late 20th century[edit]


Further information: Sustainability and Sustainable development

Environmental problems were now becoming global in scale.[6][7][8][9] The 1973 and 1979 energy
crises demonstrated the extent to which the global community had become dependent on a
nonrenewable resource; President Carter in his State of the Union Address called on Americans
to "Conserve energy. Eliminate waste. Make 1980 indeed a year of energy conservation."[34]
While the developed world was considering the problems of unchecked development the
developing countries, faced with continued poverty and deprivation, regarded development as
essential to raise the living standards of their peoples.[35] In 1980 the International Union for
Conservation of Nature had published its influential World Conservation Strategy,[36] followed in
1982 by its World Charter for Nature,[37] which drew attention to the decline of the worlds
ecosystems.
In 1987 the United Nation's World Commission on Environment and Development (the
Brundtland Commission), in its report Our Common Future suggested that development was
acceptable, but it must be sustainable development that would meet the needs of the poor while
not increasing environmental problems. Humanitys demand on the planet has more than
doubled over the past 45 years as a result of population growth and increasing individual
consumption. In 1961 almost all countries in the world had more than enough capacity to meet
their own demand; by 2005 the situation had changed radically with many countries able to meet
their needs only by importing resources from other nations.[7] A move toward sustainable living
by increasing public awareness and adoption of recycling, and renewable energies emerged. The
development of renewable sources of energy in the 1970s and '80s, primarily in wind turbines
and photovoltaics and increased use of hydroelectricity, presented some of the first sustainable
alternatives to fossil fuel and nuclear energy generation, the first large-scale solar and wind
power plants appearing during the 1980s and '90s.[38][39] Also at this time many local and state
governments in developed countries began to implement small-scale sustainability policies.[40]
21st century: global awareness[edit]
Through the work of climate scientists in the IPCC there is increasing global awareness of the
threat posed by the human-induced enhanced greenhouse effect, produced largely by forest
clearing and the burning of fossil fuels.[10][11] In March 2009 the Copenhagen Climate Council, an
international team of leading climate scientists, issued a strongly worded statement: "The climate
system is already moving beyond the patterns of natural variability within which our society and
economy have developed and thrived. These parameters include global mean surface
temperature, sea-level rise, ocean and ice sheet dynamics, ocean acidification, and extreme
climatic events. There is a significant risk that many of the trends will accelerate, leading to an
increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts."[41]
Ecological economics now seeks to bridge the gap between ecology and traditional neoclassical
economics:[42][43] it provides an inclusive and ethical economic model for society. A plethora of
new concepts to help implement and measure sustainability are becoming more widely accepted
including the car-free movement, smart growth (more sustainable urban environments), life cycle
assessment (the cradle to cradle analysis of resource use and environmental impact over the life
cycle of a product or process), ecological footprint analysis, green building, dematerialization
(increased recycling of materials), decarbonisation (removing dependence on fossil fuels) and
much more.[44]
The work of Bina Agarwal and Vandana Shiva amongst many others, has brought some of the
cultural wisdom of traditional, sustainable agrarian societies into the academic discourse on
sustainability, and also blended that with modern scientific principles.[45] In 2009 the
Environmental Protection Agency of the United States determined that greenhouse gases
"endanger public health and welfare" of the American people by contributing to climate change
and causing more heat waves, droughts and flooding, and threatening food and water supplies.[46]
Rapidly advancing technologies now provide the means to achieve a transition of economies,
energy generation, water and waste management, and food production towards sustainable
practices using methods of systems ecology and industrial ecology.[47][48]
http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/pages/history_sd.html

History of SD
The concept of sustainable development formed the basis of the United Nations Conference on
Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The summit marked the first
international attempt to draw up action plans and strategies for moving towards a more sustainable
pattern of development. It was attended by over 100 Heads of State and representatives from 178
national governments. The Summit was also attended by representatives from a range of other
organisations representing civil society. Sustainable development was the solution to the problems of
environmental degradation discussed by the Brundtland Commission in the 1987 report Our Common
Future.
The remit of the Brundtland Report was to investigate the numerous concerns that had been raised in
previous decades, namely, that human activity was having severe and negative impacts on the planet,
and that patterns of growth and development would be unsustainable if they continued unchecked.
Key works that highlighted this thinking included Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), Garret Hardin's
Tragedy of the Commons (1968), the Blueprint for Survival by the Ecologist magazine (1972) and the
Club of Rome's Limits to Growth report (1972).
The concept of sustainable development received its first major international recognition in 1972 at
the UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm. The term was not referred to
explicitly, but nevertheless the international community agreed to the notion - now fundamental to
sustainable development - that both development and the environment, hitherto addressed as
separate issues, could be managed in a mutually beneficial way.
The term was popularised 15 years later in Our Common Future, the report of the World Commission
on Environment and Development, which included what is deemed the 'classic' definition of
sustainable development: "development which meets the needs of the present without compromising
the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".
It was not until the Rio Summit, however, that major world leaders recognised sustainable
development as the major challenge it remains today.
More recently, the World Summit on Sustainable Development was held in Johannesburg in 2002,
attended by 191 national governments, UN agencies, multilateral financial institutions and other major
groups to assess progress since Rio. The Johannesburg Summit delivered three key outcomes: a
political declaration, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, and a range of partnership initiatives.
Key commitments included those on sustainable consumption and production, water and sanitation,
and energy.
On "A brief history of Sustainability"
https://www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/brief-history-sustainability.html

Lloyd Alter (@lloydalter)


Business / Corporate Responsibility
November 23, 2016

Lance Hosey doing TED

Every Spring I assign the same exam question to my Sustainable Design students at
Ryerson University School of Interior Design: What is sustainable design? I keep

hoping that one of them will come up with an answer that makes sense and that I can

use. Now, writing in Huffington Post, Huffington Post, Architect and author Lance

Hosey takes a swing at sustainability and notes that The word doesnt mean what

many seem to think.

Many now consider the word meaningless, overused, tired and boring. But Lance

believes it still has a role to play:


In 1994, John Elkington coined the term triple bottom line to clarify sustainability as the

integration of social, economic, and environmental value. I can think of nothing of value

that doesnt fall into one or more of these categories. Family, friendship, lovethese are

social values. In other words, sustainability encompasses literally everything. Yet, one

of the most common complaints I hear from my peers and colleagues is, My clients

dont care about sustainability. If it includes everything, then youre saying your clients
dont care about anything. No one is that apathetic.

Lance goes on to note that with the economic recession the whole idea of sustainability
got put on the back burner.

A 2013 survey of CEOs by Accenture and UN Global Impact showed that a majority felt

a lack of financial resources was the single largest barrier. We are concentrating on
strategies for today, said one executive, not strategies for tomorrow.

Shelton Group
He also shows this image from the Shelton Groups Buzz on Buzzwords report, where

when asked What is your reaction to the word sustainable when used to describe a

product (or a companys manufacturing practices)? only 59 percent thought it really

desirable or positive. The report notes that this may be because its a word with

multiple meanings, and consumers generally arent big fans of nuance. Also, the

intellectual overtones of this word may be a turn-off for some respondents.

(interestingly, green polled much better at 65 percent desirable, and Even more

interesting, this result did not vary by political affiliation: 67% of Democrats thought it

was desirable compared to 62% of Republicans a statistically insignificant

difference.)
Lexicon of Sustainability/Screen capture

Lance suggests that fatigue set in, quoting local food advocate and author Douglas

Gayeton: They have climate fatigue because of terms like carbon debt: They didnt

really get it the first time, and they didnt know what it meant the 20th time, so they just

sort of tuned out. Again, short termism. We have seen this on TreeHugger; one of the

reasons we do so few posts on carbon and climate change is that frankly, nobody reads

them. We have been unable to find the words, and the terms that make the meaning

and the intent clear. And as we learned in the recent American election, people are far

more worried about jobs than they are about carbon.

Lance concludes:
Sustainability isnt a trend, its an ethic, and it can never become unfashionable, even if

its language does. The challenge for those of us who champion the idea is to continue

to find new waysand new wordsto inspire change. In the end, observed Baba

Dioum in 1968, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we
understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.

Words to live by, especially here at TreeHugger. Read them all on Huffington Post.

Triple Bottom Line/via

As an appendix to this, I was struck by the similarity to one of the better exams I marked

last spring by student Trevor Thompson, answering the question What is sustainable

design? Here is part of what he wrote.

Sustainable design is a term with a definition that can change by the year, decade, or

generation. It is an ongoing challenge to find a term that people, organizations, builders,


manufacturers, and governments can agree on. Everybody looks at sustainable design
in a slightly different way with ideas for what should be included and left out. This gets in

the way of having a standardized term.

The three pillars of sustainability that design must meet are social, economic and

environment. The economic pillar is the one that is deemed a priority by businesses and

government, leaving the other two to be overlooked. The social and environment side

are the first to have funding or programs cut during economic slowdowns. The

economic pillar is the first to have a financial impact, but the social and environment

pillars are the ones with long reaching impacts from the past into the future. The

environment gives us quality of life and should be the first pillar acknowledged in all that

we do. We have overlooked that and prioritized wealth, resource extraction, and

ecosystem degradation. Our quality of life is decreasing as we separate ourselves from


nature and the necessity for its success globally.
https://www.thenbs.com/knowledge/a-short-history-of-sustainable-development

In this exclusive extract from Rough Guide to Sustainability: 3rd Edition by Brian Edwards, we
look at how the concept of sustainable development has developed over the last 20 years.

Through its various conferences the United Nations (UN) has been the environmental conscience
of the world. Although much more needs to be done, the UN in partnership with other
international agencies such as the European Union, has obtained a remarkable level of agreement
among often sceptical nations.

Defining sustainable development


In 1987 the UN Environment Commission, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, defined
sustainable development as:

' development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future
generations to meet their own needs'.

Now known as 'the Brundtland definition' of sustainable development, this is a virtuous but
imprecise concept, open to various and often conflicting interpretations. However, it remains the
global standard. It addresses the needs of both the present and future generations in terms of
environmental resources. The definition Brundtland coined may well be the single biggest
imperative for global development in the 21st century. The consequences have been enormous.

The Brundtland definition has spawned a series of sub-definitions to meet particular sector
needs. Typical of these is that used by the practice of Foster and Partners, which defines
'Sustainable design as creating buildings which are energy efficient, healthy, comfortable,
flexible in use and designed for long life'. The Building Services Research and Information
Association (BSRIA) defines 'Sustainable construction as the creation and management of
healthy buildings based upon resource efficient and ecological principles'.

The UK government has gone further, stating ambitiously that 'Sustainable development means a
better quality of life now and for generations to come ' with the aim to ' avoid using
resources faster than the planet can replenish them ' and to join up ' economic, social and
environmental goals'. Furthermore, four key areas for activity all of which impact upon the
professional life of those in the design and construction industries: sustainable consumption and
production (changing the way products and services are designed, produced, etc.); climate
change and energy (reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to future climate change);
natural resources (understanding the limits of resources); and sustainable communities
(maintaining existing urban resources and building an energy-efficient future).

These various definitions show the value of coining terms of reference for specific topics be
they building types, services provided, or levels of development. In summary, the Brundtland
definition outlines a philosophy that benefits from a degree of imprecision. There is a general
understanding and set of principles which allow useful sub-definitions to be framed within its
broad embrace.
Within these broad definitions and interpretations there are three recurring dimensions that
provide the focus for action by different interested parties:

Environmental sustainability
Economic sustainability
Social sustainability.

The Brundtland Commission argued that economic and social systems could not be divorced
from the 'carrying capacity' of the environment the idea that growth and social welfare has to
be balanced by the conservation of environmental resources by the present generation for the
benefit of future generations. Hence the term 'sustainable development' has wide ramifications
for architects the people who are carrying out the 'development'. But it also begs the question
of whether environmental and economic sustainability are truly reconcilable. Are architects
fooling themselves into thinking that 'development' can ever be sustainable?

A key word in the definition of sustainable development is that of 'future'. Architects are always
designing for the future that is what the blueprint is about. However, the time horizon was
extended by Brundtland by the inclusion of another key phrase 'future generations'. Designers of
the built environment are accustomed to thinking across decades, even centuries, as they make
the difficult material and energy choices. But buildings survive for such a long time and the
urban infrastructure even longer, so the obligation to think long-term has raised questions about
the architects' professional role and the knowledge base that underpins professional practice.

Further refinements to the definition


The UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio in 1992 elaborated on some
of the key concepts encapsulated in the Brundtland definition. Among these was the adoption of
the 'precautionary principle' which stipulates that:

No environmental action should be taken which was not reversible


Designers should use the best scientific knowledge available
Scientists had a duty to develop environmental knowledge
Ignorance was no defence under international law for ecological damage.

There were far reaching implications for the development industry. The 2002 Johannesburg
World Summit on Sustainable Development then introduced the concept of 'sustainable
consumption and production' leading to a number of` international agreements. The key principle
was to establish a link between productivity, resource use and levels of pollution. Specifically,
the agreement was about:

Ensuring that economic growth does not cause environmental pollution at a global and
regional level
Improving efficiency in resource use
Examining the whole life cycle of a product
Giving consumers more information on products and services
Exploiting taxation and regulation to stimulate innovation in clean technologies.
Although the Johannesburg World Summit had an economic bias, the ramifications have been
felt by architects and the wider construction industry ever since. The agreements, for instance,
stimulated investment in new energy technologies and in new ways of recycling or reusing
waste. They also encouraged the development of concepts linked to sustainability such as 'added
value' and 'cradle to cradle', and provide encouragement to the formulation of arguments around
'productivity' benefits of green buildings. Since more information was being made available to
consumers following Johannesburg, designers benefited from both the environmental credentials
then being displayed on products and the pressure for more green solutions which flowed from
better informed clients.

Global economic downturn and its consequences


Climate change will have a greater impact on the daily lives of the peoples of poor nations than
on those who live in wealthy nations. The G8 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia,
UK and USA) leaders acknowledged their global responsibilities at Gleneagles in 2005 but took
little meaningful action to help poorer nations adapt to altered climates. The creation of an
infrastructure of basic services and public buildings is essential if Africa is to pull itself out of
the current cycle of environmental and social decline. Sustainable development can only be
achieved if aid is directed to the engineering infrastructure needs of water supply, roads and
sanitation and the equally important building infrastructure provision of schools and health
facilities. In both areas climate change and regional conflict elevates construction to beyond that
of basic human rights.

Thanks to the UN, the concept of sustainable development assumed a higher profile in the world
economic order, which led to an inevitable rebalancing of national priorities. Not all nations,
however, accepted the new imperatives, especially the USA, which resisted or diluted
international agreements such as those signed at Kyoto in 1997, The Hague Conference on
Climate Change (2000), Johannesburg (2002), Helsinki (2006) and Bali (2007). The USA's
intransigence has been a particular problem for global ecological health. The USA is the world's
largest consumer nation and, if all of the Earth's population used energy at the rate that the USA
does, the world would run out of fossil fuels in under eight years.

Until the election of President Obama in 2008, the political focus of the USA was on sustainable
development at the level of states rather than the federal government. Hence individual states
such as California could adopt radical green laws while under successive US Presidents (up to
Obama), there was a tendency to block international agreements such as Kyoto. However, four
things have changed the political landscape over the past couple of years in the USA:

The inauguration of President Obama in January 2009


A growing awareness that global warming is a matter of national security
A grass roots movement which has stimulated ecological awareness within the design
professions and business community
Recognition that 'regulation' is a good thing after the collapse of the banking system in
2009.
Although it is now recognised that an unstable climate and scarce fossil fuels add to potential
conflicts both at home and abroad, the main impetus for change has come from ordinary
Americans concerned at the price of fuel and deteriorating quality of life.

At the time of writing, and in the wake of the global recession, governments across the world are
implementing stimulus packages aimed at reviving their national economies. The world
recession of 2009 has focussed political attention on job creation and the role of the green
economy in this. Both Prime Minister Brown in the UK and President Obama in the USA have
signalled the important role they see infrastructure investment, particularly in renewable energy
and energy efficiency, playing in creating the switch from an industrialised old economy to a
slimmer, greener one.

Various forms of green investment are under consideration not just to create jobs for
unemployed automobile workers but to re-fashion economies in new sustainable ways. The new
'green collar' jobs will be in wind and solar electricity generation, in public transport (particularly
urban metro systems and high speed trains), in upgrading water networks, building hydro-electric
dams for both water storage and power production, and in improving the energy efficiency of
existing buildings. Obama wants government buildings to be the initial focus of this re-direction
of resources and policy, tackling he says the poor energy performance of federal and state
property, and then to address the poor infrastructure of 'cities across the land'.

The USA has a lot of catching up to do compared to Europe and Asia. In many ways the current
(2009) recession gives society time to take stock and to rebalance the equation of economic,
social and environmental sustainability.