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Sustainable Development: a History of Two Words and Few Facts

Author: Marcela Amado

In 1987, the United Nations Environment Programme, led by the former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, worked examining the position of the contemporary world and demonstrated with scientific data that the global society was destroying the environment and affecting wide segments of the worldwide population by submitting them to poverty. This analysis was published in a book named “Our Common Future”, based on the Brundtland Report conclusions. In this report, the term sustainable (or sustainable development) was used for the first time, defined as satisfying the needs of the present without compromising the generations .

The purpose of the Brundtland Report was to find practical tools for reverting the development and environmental problems. In order to achieve this, the commission destined three years to public hearings and received over 500 written comments, later on examined by scientists and politicians from 21 countries and different ideologies . As the book indicates. the work of so many people with different histories and cultures made necessary the strengthening of dialogue, which is why the result of this synergy is more than any of them would have gotten individually.

However, the concept that encloses the term Sustainable Development had been being gestated before the 1987 meeting. In fact, in June of 1972 the Declaration of The United Nations Conference at Stockholm was held, where the Human Environment and two fundamental aspects that compose it: the artificial and the native, we actively discussed. It is pertinent to highlight those conclusions that indicate the concern of the contamination index and the inequality in the necessary conditions for development. It is clear that even though the term Sustainable Development was not used until 1987, some worldwide events revealed the need to check the definition of development and construct a comprising, interdependent and equitable perspective.

The theme has been spread and debated in multiple scenes. After ten years of the United Nations Conference of 1972, in May of 1982, at Nairobi (Africa), another conference was held, whose central axis was the environment. Once again, the themes and topics that needed to be included in a new term were discussed: Sustainable Development.

The impact attained by the Brundtland Report at including this new term can be corroborated in the following United Nations Conference called the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro, 1992. While in previous conferences the general theme was based on reflections and concerns, at the Earth Summit guidelines and goals were designed in order to protect our planet.

This is how, for the first time in humanity’s history, 180 countries represented at the Earth Summit joined on behalf of the Climatic Changes Treaty, to take measures that mitigate the effects that this produces, due to the increasing emissions of greenhouse gases. At present, there are 181 governments part of this treaty, who meet annually to analyze the advances and to continue looking for problems’ solutions.

At a later time, in 1997, all the countries compromised with climatic changes met in Kyoto, Japan, and established bases for the commitment of reducing emissions by 7% in the following decade, a commitment attained by the countries that met in Rio five years earlier. In 1998, the industrialized countries increased their emissions up to 10%; for example, the USA surpassed the limits over 20%.

In the same year of the Kyoto meeting, the second Earth Summit was held at the seat of the United Nations in New York. But when doing the balance between the established at the first Summit of Rio Janeiro and the achieved within the same, the result was discouraging. Although the agreements were reaffirmed, the drawn goals to stop the damage of the planet did not come true. In fact, the economic globalization had destroyed the advances obtained by Río's agenda, has established an exploitative worldwide economy and has exposed the natural resources to the voracity of the market. These are some current signs of warning :

• A lot of places in North America registered their warmer seasons or days at the end of the decade of 1990.

• Since 1980, Earth has registered 19 of its hottest years, 1998 being the warmest, with 2002 and 2003 as second and third, respectively.

• In 2003, the extreme heat waves caused over 20.000 deaths in Europe and over 1.500 deaths in India.

• Mosquitoes, which carry diseases, are propagating as the climate changes allow them to survive in areas that used to be inhospitable for them. Mosquitoes that can carry the dengue virus were restricted to heights of 1.000 meters, but they have recently appeared to 2.200 meters in the Andean Mountains of Colombia. Malaria, in higher areas of Indonesia, has also been detected.

• According to NASA, the polar icecap is melting at an alarming rhythm of 9% per decade. From the decade of 1960, the thickness of the arctic ice has decreased 40%.

• The current rhythm of sea elevation is three times higher than the historic rhythm and it seems to be accelerating.

• A recent study published in the prestigious publication Nature discovered that at least 279 species of plants and animals are already answering to global warming. The geographic zones of distribution of the species has moved over to the poles to an average rhythm of 6,5 km (4 miles) per decade and their sprouts are ahead in an average of 2 days before for each decade.

• During the past 25 years, some penguin populations have lessened 33% in parts of Antartica due to reductions of the winter habitat in the marine ice.

The hidden meaning of disagreements focuses on the tackling form of the problem. That is, all participating countries agree with the existence of the current problem of models of development; but no one coincides in the forms of implementing solutions. This is because such solutions require adjusting the economic growth to the welfare of the planet like an ecosystem, something that the Western modern society has never contemplated.

Since the surging of the term Sustainable Development in 1987, its significance has focused on the environmental sustainability, generating a domino effect of Global Summits and Meetings guided towards reaffirming the need to confront the same problem: The satisfaction of human needs is not sustainable in time in the way that future generations will not count with the same resources that we currently have.

With the meetings held ever since, we can highlight the 1998 Nobel Awards from 63 countries that elaborated a Manifesto reaffirming the climatic crisis of the planet in 1997, before the signature of the Kyoto Protocol in Japan. In the same year the Rome Agreement was celebrated, focusing on the correct use of fertile lands.

At a later time, in 1998 Expo Lisbon focused on the protection of the oceans. In 2000 the Climate Summit was held in La Haye, Netherlands, concluding once again that the goals had not been reached. In 2002, in Johannesburg, South Africa, another Earth Summit with similar conclusions was held. ( cast.htm )

Although it seems incredible, the fundamental axis of all the debates has concentrated on agreeing on the way how contaminant emissions should be measured to determine if the established goals for its decrease have come true. Granted, though, not always those who offer the bigger force to this debate are the countries that most contaminate the planet.

An example of this is that, recently, a documentary was released, titled An inconvenient Truth, sponsored by Al Gore, who has played an important role in the political positioning of this subject in the United States. The documentary shows the backward movement of numerous glaciers by means of photos taken for several years, as well as a study carried out by researchers of the University of Berna Physic Institute and the EPIC that shows data of the Antarctican nucleus of the ice with concentrations of carbon dioxide—nowadays higher than during the past 650,000 years.

Likewise, the documentary reveals an investigation held by Dr. Naomi Oreskes (2004), which consists on a revision of 928 scientific articles related to the global climate change, published between 1993 and 2003. The investigation, published in the magazine Science, proved that each article either blamed global warming on men's actions or did not comment about it at all.

The scientific bases that document that our planet is on a critical and unprecedented phase are ample and revealing; today more than ever the awakening of an environmental conscience is necessary, based on a Sustainable Development perspective, to reach a balanced coexistence with the ecosystems that supports our life like species.

The improvement of the environment is a commitment of companies as well as citizens. In order to initiate this stage, big sacrifices, or difficult and innovative methods, are not necessary; the solution is simpler than we thought: it is in your hands. From your home, begin with these 10 things to do recommended by An inconvenient truth. (

1. – Change a Light
Replacing one regular light bulb with a compact fluorescent light bulb will save 150 pounds of carbon dioxide a year.

2. - Drive less
Walk, ride a bike, carpool or use mass transit more often. You will save one pound of carbon dioxide for every mile you do not drive!

3. - Recycle more
You can save 2.400 pounds of carbon dioxide per year by recycling just half of your household waste.

4. - Checks your tires
Keeping your tires properly inflated can improve gas mileage by more than 3%. Every gallon of gasoline saved keeps 20 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere!

5. – Use less hot water
It takes a lot of energy to heat water. Use less hot water by installing a low flow showerhead (350 pounds of CO2 saved per year) and washing your clothes in cold or warm water (500 pounds saved per year)

6. – Avoid products with a lot of packaging
You can save 1.200 pounds of carbon dioxide if you cut down your garbage by 10%.

7. – Adjust your thermostat
Moving your thermostat just 2 degrees in winter and up 2 degrees in summer. You could save about 2.000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year with this simple adjustment.

8. - Plant a tree
A single tree will absorb one ton of carbon dioxide over its lifetime.

9. – Turn off electronic devices
Simply turning off your television, DVD player, stereo, and computer when you are not using them will save you thousands of pounds of carbon dioxide a year.

10. - Become part of the solution
Spread the world! Encourage your friends to see An Inconvenient Truth and send them the following PDF document: Http://

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Sustainable Development: a History of Two Words and Few Facts


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