My Misrepresentation of Bruntland’s Definition of Sustainability

The commonly used definition of sustainability that comes from the Bruntland Commission is predominantly inter-generational; “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

I recently considered the apparent unfairness that future generations are covered without mentioning the needs of the overwhelming numbers of people in today’s population who don’t have enough.  I wondered what ethical approach created this prioritization.

However, I just read Wikipedia’s description of the Bruntland Commission and see that the commission intended two key concepts, the other of which is “in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given.”

Somehow the shorthand definition we all use loses that concept (at least it did as I absorbed it).  I wonder if it was considered a politically more palatable statement – or perhaps it was taken for granted that we already cared for the poor of today’s world, but that we had overlooked those of tomorrow.

Sustainability as envisaged by Bruntland is just as much about avoiding compromising the needs of the population across the dimension of geography,  as it is about avoiding compromising the needs of the population across the dimension of time.

Next time I quote the Commission’s definition, I will be sure to stress that part of the intent that focuses on the essential needs of the world’s poor today.  I would urge you to keep it at the forefront of your mind too when you hear Bruntland quoted.


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