Course on Sustainable Development - Module 1 Introduction

e-learning centre on sustainable development



Definitions of Sustainable Development and Unsustainability

The aim of this module is to provide both an introduction to sustainable development, including a general approach to thinking sustainably, and a review of the principles and practices of sustainability as agreed by the international community of nations.


The word sustain means to support for a prolonged period or to keep an effort going continuously. With reference to development, sustainability means to keep the productivity and wealth of our society going continuously into the distant future. Yet we know of no past civilization that has done that successfully; all reached environmental or social limits and collapsed. However, with the rapid evolution of science and technology, humanity has for the first time run up against planetary limits. As the warning signs increased, first the environment and then the broader concept of sustainable development rose on the international agenda. However, we have a hard time defining what sustainable development really is. It is, in fact, easier to measure unsustainability and to try to reduce unsustainable trends.

The concept of sustainable development was defined and put on the international agenda by a World Commission created by the United Nations and chaired by Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. Its report is still one of the best descriptions of the need for and definition of sustainable development.

Development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs
       World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission) 1987: Our Common Future



The beginnings of global environmental concern were reflected in the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. This led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). In 1987, the World Commission created by the United Nations and chaired by Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland put sustainable development on the international agenda with its report Our Common Future. This report led the UN to organize a conference on environment and development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, where over 100 Heads of State and Government gathered, in what became known as the Rio Earth Summit, to adopt a declaration, action plan, and conventions on climate change and biological diversity.

The Rio Declaration contains the principles that all the nations agree provide the basis for sustainable development. The Action Plan, called Agenda 21, contains 40 chapters of detailed recommendations for how to achieve sustainable development. Implementing Agenda 21 has become a major responsibility of the international community. However, the principal focus was still on environmental problems.


The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development,

Having met at Rio de Janeiro from 3 to 14 June 1992,

Reaffirming the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, adopted at Stockholm on 16 June 1972, and seeking to build upon it,

With the goal of establishing a new and equitable global partnership through the creation of new levels of cooperation among States, key sectors of societies and people,

Working towards international agreements which respect the interests of all and protect the integrity of the global environmental and developmental system,

Recognizing the integral and interdependent nature of the Earth, our home,

Proclaims that:

Principle 1

Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.

Principle 2

States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.

Principle 3

The right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.

Principle 4

In order to achieve sustainable development, environmental protection shall constitute an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it.

Principle 5

All States and all people shall cooperate in the essential task of eradicating poverty as an indispensable requirement for sustainable development, in order to decrease the disparities in standards of living and better meet the needs of the majority of the people of the world.

Principle 6

The special situation and needs of developing countries, particularly the least developed and those most environmentally vulnerable, shall be given special priority.  International actions in the field of environment and development should also address the interests and needs of all countries.

Principle 7

States shall cooperate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth's ecosystem. In view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation, States have common but differentiated responsibilities.  The developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command.

Principle 8

To achieve sustainable development and a higher quality of life for all people, States should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate demographic policies.

Principle 9

States should cooperate to strengthen endogenous capacity-building for sustainable development by improving scientific understanding through exchanges of scientific and technological knowledge, and by enhancing the development, adaptation, diffusion and transfer of technologies, including new and innovative technologies.

Principle 10

Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level.  At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available.  Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.

Principle 11

States shall enact effective environmental legislation.  Environmental standards, management objectives and priorities should reflect the environmental and developmental context to which they apply.  Standards applied by some countries may be inappropriate and of unwarranted economic and social cost to other countries, in particular developing countries.

Principle 12

States should cooperate to promote a supportive and open international economic system that would lead to economic growth and sustainable development in all countries, to better address the problems of environmental degradation. Trade policy measures for environmental purposes should not constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination or a disguised restriction on international trade. Unilateral actions to deal with environmental challenges outside the jurisdiction of the importing country should be avoided. Environmental measures addressing transboundary or global environmental problems should, as far as possible, be based on an international consensus.

Principle 13

States shall develop national law regarding liability and compensation for the victims of pollution and other environmental damage.  States shall also cooperate in an expeditious and more determined manner to develop further international law regarding liability and compensation for adverse effects of environmental damage caused by activities within their jurisdiction or control to areas beyond their jurisdiction.

Principle 14

States should effectively cooperate to discourage or prevent the relocation and transfer to other States of any activities and substances that cause severe environmental degradation or are found to be harmful to human health.

Principle 15

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities.  Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

Principle 16

National authorities should endeavour to promote the internalization of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution, with due regard to the public interest and without distorting international trade and investment.

Principle 17

Environmental impact assessment, as a national instrument, shall be undertaken for proposed activities that are likely to have a significant adverse impact on the environment and are subject to a decision of a competent national authority.

Principle 18

States shall immediately notify other States of any natural disasters or other emergencies that are likely to produce sudden harmful effects on the environment of those States.  Every effort shall be made by the international community to help States so afflicted.

Principle 19

States shall provide prior and timely notification and relevant information to potentially affected States on activities that may have a significant adverse transboundary environmental effect and shall consult with those States at an early stage and in good faith.

Principle 20

Women have a vital role in environmental management and development. Their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development.

Principle 21

The creativity, ideals and courage of the youth of the world should be mobilized to forge a global partnership in order to achieve sustainable development and ensure a better future for all.

Principle 22

Indigenous people and their communities and other local communities have a vital role in environmental management and development because of their knowledge and traditional practices.  States should recognize and duly support their identity, culture and interests and enable their effective participation in the achievement of sustainable development.

Principle 23

The environment and natural resources of people under oppression, domination and occupation shall be protected.

Principle 24

Warfare is inherently destructive of sustainable development.  States shall therefore respect international law providing protection for the environment in times of armed conflict and cooperate in its further development, as necessary.

Principle 25

Peace, development and environmental protection are interdependent and indivisible.

Principle 26

States shall resolve all their environmental disputes peacefully and by appropriate means in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

Principle 27

States and people shall cooperate in good faith and in a spirit of partnership in the fulfilment of the principles embodied in this Declaration and in the further development of international law in the field of sustainable development.

Report of the UNITED NATIONS CONFERENCE ON ENVIRONMENT AND DEVELOPMENT (Rio de Janeiro, 3-14 June 1992), Annex I. United Nations publication.


United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (1992), Agenda 21, the action plan for sustainable development adopted in Rio

Ten years after Rio, government leaders gathered in Johannesburg in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development to review their progress and to define further concrete steps and targets for achieving sustainable development. They recognized that these targets must include the reduction of poverty in the world, giving sustainable development a more economic and social focus.

Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development
adopted at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002)

World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland) 1987: Our Common Future, Overview: From One Earth to One World (pp. 1-23), which includes the definition of sustainable development.

Following the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012, a summit at the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 adopted a new Agenda 2030 and a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals with 169 targets to be achieved by 2030. These represent a new, more compete definition of what sustainable development means at the international level. It is now for each government to translate them into national goals, but everyone can also start to implement them in their own lives and communities.

For a short history of the international movement for sustainable development, which has been punctuated by environmental crises, conferences, legal agreements, and reports, read: United Nations Environment Programme, Global Environmental Outlook 3, ch. 1: Integrating Environment and Development 1972-1992, at

In summary, sustainable development is often described as having three dimensions or pillars: economic, social, and environmental, which all must be in balance to achieve sustainability. There is still debate about the short- and long-term perspectives of sustainable development. We do know that sustainability is about the dynamics of society, that it is more about processes than goals, and that it requires the integration of the whole system in what is called a systems perspective. Most critically, the concept of sustainable development includes an ethical component, in that it requires justice for all the peoples of the world today and for future generations.

One of the challenges in today's world is to find solutions to seemingly intractable problems such as sustainable development, which can be facilitated by searching for and applying relevant spiritual principles. This will be a central theme of this course.

There are spiritual principles, or what some call human values, by which solutions can be found for every social problem. Any well-intentioned group can in a general sense devise practical solutions to its problems, but good intentions and practical knowledge are usually not enough. The essential merit of spiritual principle is that it not only presents a perspective which harmonizes with that which is immanent in human nature, it also induces an attitude, a dynamic, a will, an aspiration, which facilitate the discovery and implementation of practical measures. Leaders of governments and all in authority would be well served in their efforts to solve problems if they would first seek to identify the principles involved and then be guided by them. (Universal House of Justice, The Promise of World Peace. p.13)

While sustainable development was originally adopted as a goal at the global level and governments are trying to apply it at the national level, its principles are equally relevant at the local community level and in our individual lives, although the applications often differ from level to level. The Global Ecovillage Network has prepared a Community Sustainability Assessment questionnaire ( that gives a good introduction to the multiple dimensions of sustainability at the local level, including the spiritual dimension.

Arthur Dahl, The Challenge of Sustainable Development and Prosperity, EBBF (17 pp.)
While this booklet focuses on the issues for the business community, it provides a good overview of sustainable development based on spiritual principles.

What is the goal of sustainable development?

Why do you think it has been so hard to put sustainable development into practice?

How does the concept of sustainable development reflect spiritual principles?

What does sustainable development mean for your own lifestyle and community?

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Last updated 28 September 2017