The origins of the concept of sustainable development can be traced back to the 1960s when, the writer and scientist Rachel Carson published her book The Silent Spring (1 962). This book drew public attention to the destruction of wildlife by the use of pesticide DDT (dichloro diphenyl trichloroethane). This work was a turning point in the understanding of the interconnections among the environment, the economy and social well being. Gradually, in this period, the fear of global environmental limits began to emerge. Soon after, the animal population biologist Paul Ehrlich published the book Population Bomb (1968) on the connection between human population, resource exploitation, and the environment. In 1969, a non-profit organization Friends of the Earth was formed which was dedicated to protecting the environment from degradation and empowering citizens to have a voice in decision making.

The governments of the Northern countries began to recognize that the process of industrial development was damaging the environment. For example, the Swedish government had been concerned about the damage caused to their lakes by acid rain. This rain was a result of excessive pollution caused by the neighboring industrialized states. In 1971, the OECD council enacted a Polluter Pays principle where it said that those (countries) causing pollution should pay the costs. The report, Limits to Growth (1972), published by a group of young scientists (Club of Rome) from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), immediately took the world by storm gaining enormous media coverage. It predicted dire consequences if growth was not slowed down.

The United Nations Conference on Human Environment (UNCHE) was organized in Stockholm (1972). For the first time, the idea that the environment was a critical development issue was placed on the international agenda. It led to the establishment of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The first director of UNEP, Maurice Strong coined the term ‘eco-development’ which integrated development with environment protection. Since then, many milestones have marked the journey towards sustainable development.

The concept of ‘Sustainable Society’ emerged at a study conference on Science and Technology for Human Development, convened by World Council of Churches (1974). Interestingly, the concept did not deal with environmental conditions but started with the principle of equitable distribution which subsequently became the cornerstone of the Brundtland Report in 1987. ‘Sustainable Society’ also involved the concept of democratic participation, which became important nearly twenty years later at the Rio Earth Summit (1992).


Yet another term, “Sustainable Development”, emerged in the World Conservation Strategy (WCS) (1980) published by the International Union of Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) by two scholars, Eva Balfour, a soil scientist and Wek Jackson, a geneticist from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). During UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 at Rio de Janeiro, the term broadened up into a full concept of development bringing together government and non-government organizations (NGOs), industrialists, scientists, community groups and grassroots organizations. It became one of the most important interdisciplinary concepts that swept through studies on environment, economics, sociology, political science, life sciences and gender. By 2000, the concept of sustainable development became firmly settled as a guiding document in all international organizations.

Since then UN member states have been publishing reports on the national status of sustainable development programmes and strategies and submitting them to the specially created UN body called UN Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD). The term is modified for different user groups as ‘sustainable human development’, ‘sustainable economic growth’, ‘sustainable socio-economic development’ and ‘sustainable local governance’ and very recently in 2004 ‘Information Communication Technology’ (ICT) for sustainable development.