Although many governments did not recognise the importance of
global environmental problems, they were forced by community pressure
to respond to local pollution problems. During the 1970s many
countries introduced new environmental legislation to cope with
the gross sources of pollution. Australian state governments,
following the international trend, introduced clean air acts,
clean water acts, and legislation establishing regulatory agencies
to control pollution and manage waste disposal.
The decade that followed saw a backlash against the early environmentalists.
Various writers argued that global catastrophe was the fantasy
of doomsday forecasters and that scientific discoveries and technological
innovations would easily cope with any problems that might arise.
Government departments and agencies found it extremely difficult,
in this new climate of opinion, to administer properly the legislation
that had been put in place at the height of the first wave of
environmentalism and businesses did their best to ignore the laws
or get around them.
Back to top...
To Sustainable Development
The renewed interest in sustainability in the 1980s moved away
from the original conception that economic growth cannot be sustainable
to a new formulation which seeks to find ways of making it so.
The limits-to-growth model has been replaced with the sustainable
development model, and the gloom and doom scenario
has been replaced with one of hope.
Earlier environmentalists had used the term sustainability to
refer to systems in equilibrium: they argued that exponential
growth was not sustainable, in the sense that it could not be
In contrast, sustainable development seeks ways to make 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. This new formulation recognises that economic
growth can harm the environment but argues that it does not need
Many of the ideas associated with sustainable development had
been previously articulated in the 1980 World Conservation Strategy
produced by the International Union for Conservation of Nature
and Natural Resources (IUCN) in collaboration with the UN Environment
Programme (UNEP) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF, now the World
Wide Fund for Nature). This document, which was circulated to
all governments, defined conservation as:
the management of human use of the biosphere [the
thin covering of the planet that sustains life] so that it
may yield the greatest sustainable benefit to present generations
while maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations
of future generations.
The World Conservation Strategy argued that while development
aimed to achieve human goals through the use of the biosphere,
conservation aimed to achieve those same goals by ensuring that
use of the biosphere could continue indefinitely.
National conservation strategies based on this World Conservation
Strategy were adopted in fifty countries including Australia,
which adopted a national conservation strategy in 1984 following
two conferences and 550 submissions. The Australian national conservation
strategy, like the World Conservation Strategy, argued that development
and conservation were different expressions of the one process
and that economic growth could be achieved through a more appropriate
use of resources. It called for sustainable modes of development,
a new international economic order, a new environmental ethic
and population stabilisation.
The World Conservation Strategy and the Australian equivalent
have had little impact and few people have even heard of them.
However in the mid-1980s the World Commission on Environment and
Development rejuvenated the concept in its report Our Common Future,
(also referred to as the Brundtland Report, named after the commissions
chair, Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was prime minister of Norway
at the time). In October 1987, the goal of sustainable development
was largely accepted by the governments of one hundred nations
and approved in the UN General Assembly.
The commission defined sustainable development as:
development that meets the needs of the present without
compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own
Source: Sharon Beder, The Nature of Sustainable Development
2nd ed. Scribe, Newham, Vic, 1996.
Back to top...