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The Norms Derived from Sustainable Development

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In 1972, an international environmental conference in Stockholm established the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP); twenty years later, environmental conservation programmes undertaken in several countries and separate agreements between them culminated in the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro. In the meantime the concept of “sustainable development” was coined and popularised by the 1987 Brundtland Report. Although never formally defined by UNCED, sustainable development henceforth has remained a key item on the global agenda. In the formulation of the Brundtland Report, sustainable development is

development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts: 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 needs.

The concept, then, reaches well beyond the ecological aspect. It combines notions of development and human well-being, as well as economic and social sustainability. There are several normative ideas implied in sustainable development besides environmental concern, such as equity, participation, prudence, and welfare. As Lafferty and Meadowcroft have argued, sustainable development signals a shift in our understanding of the linkages between the environment and development, between different policy domains and between local, regional, national and international political processes. However, the very acceptance of a broad and abstract term like sustainable development has given rise to different, sometimes conflicting interpretations of the concept, complicating its operationalisation and implementation.

Sustainable development is a contested concept, and concern over its precise meaning can arise for either technocratic or political reasons. The technocratic view maintains that sustainable development can only be made operational in policy terms if a single and precise meaning can be agreed upon. Political concern arises (especially among environmentalists) on account of the free for all that may result from a vague definition. If we do not unequivocally establish the meaning of sustainable development first, there is no limit to what can be brought under its heading: even excessive economic growth can then be declared sustainable.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2006

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  • Global Norms for the Twenty-First Century
    Norms in the contemporary world system are no longer established exclusively through inter-state agreement but increasingly, are becoming truly global. This collection brings together critical studies on this complex process. Written by authors from eleven different countries, the book challenges the often convenient rationalisations of regime theory, the governance approach, and 'post-national' or 'cosmopolitan' democracy, in order to explore the practical, theoretical and ethical implications of the new world of global norms.
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