Our Common Future
by the World Commission On Environment and Development,
Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 1987,
paperback, ISBN 0-19-282080-X.
After buying Our Common Future, (popularly
referred to as the Brundtland Report), its 400 pages sat
several months on my priority reading shelf. With the publication of this report, “sustainable development” had
entered everyday vocabulary and I knew that it was required reading for greens.
After Our Common Future was published, I
became increasingly concerned by all the ringing endorsements,
not only by federal and provincial politicians, but also by various mainstream environmentalists and environmental
groups. Was this book really something that all of us could unite around? Was it really “a guidebook for
planetary survival that rationalizes Green politics” as one reviewer in the Fall 1987 The New Catalyst
stated? My gut feeling, prior to reading the Brundtland report, was that somehow the despoilers of the planet had
coined a new mystification in order to continue business as usual. Also, I started relating sustainable development
to “integrated pest management” which I regarded as a second line of defence for the more sophisticated pesticide
pushers, and I wondered whether sustainable development wasn’t a similar deception? Finally, the chairperson of
the Commission was the Norwegian prime minister and Norway has been in the forefront of commercial whaling
and the killing of harp and hooded seals.
There is much to learn from this report,
particularly how the underdeveloped world, with a few significant
exceptions, is becoming poorer in comparison to the developed world and that countries which are poor have
massive debt repayment problems, little productive land available, rapidly increasing populations, etc., and must
necessarily put environmental protection on the back burner. Yet the book’s thesis of sustainable development is
false. Also, apart from moral exhortations, Our Common Future does not address the basic global economic
problem of how to transfer much of the wealth from the developed world to the underdeveloped world.
Sustainable development is defined in the Brundtland
report as “development that meets the needs of the
present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (p. 43) The report
accepts world-wide “a five-to-tenfold increase in manufacturing output” in order that we “raise developing-
world consumption of manufactured goods to industrialized world levels by the time population growth
rates level off next century.” (p. 15) Nothing here about moving to a more frugal lifestyle in the industrialized
countries. The report also projects that the world population will expand to 8.2 billion people by 2025 (p. 101).
All this is sweet music to any “developer’s” ears. Any green, however, must ask what development is ecologically
sustainable? Clearly much of our existing economic activity is already destroying the world around us. To have
a truly sustainable economy, much of our economic activity has to be terminated, not further expanded. Our
Common Future provides legitimation to greatly expanded economic activity.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Brundtland report looks at the world from a human-centered perspective. As
Brundtland says in the Foreword, “first and foremost our message is directed towards people, whose well-
being is the ultimate goal of all environment and development policies.” (p. xiv) The report accepts the
elimination of some species (pp. 164-165) and that choices will be made by humans as to what non-human
species are to be preserved. So, from the world view of this commission, what seems to be sustainable are
humans and only those life forms seen as essential for continued human existence. Also advocated is greater
pesticide and chemical fertilizer use (p. 135), and “game cropping and ranching projects.” (p. 163)
Let Brian Mulroney, Marcel Masse, Joe Clark and
various governments around the world promote this report.
This is one bandwaggon greens have no place on.
David Orton, Pictou County, Nova Scotia
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