One: Introduction

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Since the 1980s, ‘sustainable development’ has become a watchword for governments, international organisations and businesses. Indeed, the concept has become so widespread as to constitute a ‘norm’—albeit one often honoured in the breach—that governments are expected to follow as they work toward enhancing the economic wellbeing of their citizens. At its core, sustainable development is about improving human welfare in ways that do not harm the environment, or more realistically it is about promoting economic development while using natural resources sustainably and minimising harm to ecological systems. Sustainable development was most famously defined in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission after its chairperson, former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987, 43). According to the Brundtland Commission, sustainable development is premised upon two key ideas: “the concept of ‘needs,’ in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organisation on the environment’s ability to meet present and future goals” (WCED 1987, 43). Sustainable development encompasses questions of human welfare and justice (domestic and international), economic development and environmental health. It cannot be achieved without all of these questions being addressed. In short, according to its advocates, for sustainable development to be realised, economic activity must be managed so as to advance environmental protection and social welfare.

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