Sustainable development represents a cooption of the term sustainability which once represented ideas of stability and equilibrium and harmony with nature. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the term was used in the context of the limits to growth debate as part of the argument against economic and population growth. For example the editors of the magazine The Ecologist argued that economic growth could not continue on into the future without disaster:
The principal defect of the industrial way of life with its ethos of expansion is that it is not sustainable... By now it should be clear that the main problems of the environment do not arise from temporary and accidental malfunctions of existing economic and social systems. On the contrary, they are the warning signs of a profound incompatibility between deeply rooted beliefs in continuous growth and the dawning recognition of the earth as a space ship, limited in its resources and vulnerable to thoughtless mishandling.
In contrast, advocates of sustainable development in the 1980s sought to find ways of making economic growth sustainable, mainly through technological change.
In 1982 the British government began using the term sustainability to refer to sustainable economic expansion rather than the sustainable use of resources. Third World environmental activist Mohamed Idris argued:
The term `sustainable' from the ecological point of view means the maintenance of the integrity of the ecology. It means a harmonious relation between humanity and nature, that is, harmony in the interaction between individual human beings and in their interaction with natural resources. The term `sustainable' from the point of view of non-ecological elites means `how to continue to sustain the supply of raw materials when the existing sources of raw materials run out.'
The term development is also ambiguous and in the context of sustainable development, development is a synonym for economic development, and therefore economic growth. The editor of the environmental science journal, Ambio, Arno Rosemarin, wrote in April 1990:
The two words sustainable and development are in a strict sense contradictory. Sustainable implies the elements of long-term renewal, maintenance, recycling, minimal raw material exploitation and management of people's needs on a collective basis. Development can be interpreted in many different ways but according to our present industrial-based culture it implies short-term planning, minimal maintenance, waste, maximal exploitation of raw materials and emphasis on the individual.
With this change in conception of sustainability, and the focus on economic development, has come a more pervasive use of economic language in environmental discussions. Much of the discussion of sustainable development describes nature and the environment in economic terms, as natural resources or natural capital, and the community's stock of assets.
Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of Britain, described environmental protection in these terms: "no generation has a freehold on the earth. All that we have is a life tenancy - with full repairing lease".
The extent of the takeover of the environmental agenda by economists was indicated by a speaker at an OECD workshop in 1990 who observed: `one can track the evolution of environmental concern over twenty years by watching it move from the back page of major newspapers to the front page, and now to the financial page'.