Is Published

The World Commission on Environment and Development, an independent agency created by the United Nations, published Our Common Future, an important report that publicized the negative consequences of unthinking exploitation of the environment.

Summary of Event

Throughout the 1970’s, many of the governments of the world and multinational institutions were coming to a growing realization that economic issues cannot be separated from environmental concerns. Development degrades the environment on whose resources it is based, and environmental decay erodes economic development. Poverty was seen as both a cause and an effect of global environmental problems. It was recognized that dealing with environmental problems could be effective only if it could be coupled with attempts to address the factors that underlie worldwide poverty and economic inequality. These concerns were the basis for the formation of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). Our Common Future (World Commission on Environment and Development)
World Commission on Environment and Development
Environmental awareness
Brundtland Report
United Nations;environmental policy
[kw]Our Common Future Is Published (Apr. 27, 1987)
[kw]Published, Our Common Future Is (Apr. 27, 1987)
Our Common Future (World Commission on Environment and Development)
World Commission on Environment and Development
Environmental awareness
Brundtland Report
United Nations;environmental policy
[g]Europe;Apr. 27, 1987: Our Common Future Is Published[06450]
[g]Switzerland;Apr. 27, 1987: Our Common Future Is Published[06450]
[c]Publishing and journalism;Apr. 27, 1987: Our Common Future Is Published[06450]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Apr. 27, 1987: Our Common Future Is Published[06450]
[c]Environmental issues;Apr. 27, 1987: Our Common Future Is Published[06450]
Brundtland, Gro Harlem
MacNeill, Jim
Khalid, Mansour
Pérez de Cuéllar, Javier

The WCED was a special independent commission created by the United Nations as a result of General Assembly Resolution 38/161, adopted in the fall of 1983. The resolution called on the secretary-general of the United Nations to appoint the chair and vice chair of the commission, who would, in turn, jointly appoint the remaining members, at least one-half of whom were to be from developing countries. Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar asked Gro Harlem Brundtland, who had served briefly in 1981 as prime minister of Norway, to establish and chair the commission. Brundtland was, at that time, the Labor Party leader in Norway and had several years’ experience as Norway’s minister of the environment. She had also served on the Palme Commission on security and disarmament.

Brundtland and Mansour Khalid of Sudan, who was appointed vice chair of the WCED, together appointed the remaining twenty-one commission members. At the first official meeting of the WCED in October, 1984, the members selected what they viewed as the key issues for analysis: population, energy, industry, food security, human settlements, international economic relations, support systems for environmental management, and international cooperation. The members also proposed strategies that would ensure that they received the broadest range of advice and expertise on these key issues.

The commission decided to hold open, deliberative meetings in all regions of the world in order to provide opportunities for input from persons ranging from scientific experts and government officials to ordinary citizens, and to enable the commissioners to see firsthand the environmental and developmental concerns in each region. Hundreds of organizations and officials gave testimony at these hearings, and more than ten thousand pages of material were submitted in conjunction with the hearings. The commission also appointed a group of experts in all fields related to economics and ecology as well as three advisory panels—on energy, on industry, and on food security—to assist in the analysis of the key issues. During the course of their work, the commissioners engaged experts from research and academic institutions around the world to prepare studies and reports related to the key issues. These were a valuable resource from which the commission’s final report was written.

Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, the result of more than two years of work by the WCED, was released on April 27, 1987. The report represented the most comprehensive overview of the global environmental problem produced up to that time. That it represented a consensus of commissioners from twenty-one countries was itself a major step in the evolution of global responsibility. Our Common Future successfully combined, in one volume, a wide range of topics. It not only dealt with the negative effects on the environment of development but also recognized that an unhealthy environment represents a real threat to further development in a number of countries, particularly the Third World countries.

Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland (center) with U.N. secretary-general Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (left) and U.N. FAO secretary-general Edouard Saouma at the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization headquarters in Rome in April, 1987. Brundtland was chair of the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission), whose report Our Common Future was presented to Pérez de Cuéllar.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The report linked the world’s degraded environmental condition to the policies of the World Bank World Bank and the International Monetary Fund International Monetary Fund (IMF) as well as to global macroeconomic conditions. It also attacked the continued growth of expenditures for arms, noting that military expenditures were rising faster than total world output.

The most important accomplishment of the report was its recognition of the interconnectedness of resources, the economy, the environment, and military spending. It also addressed such issues as population growth, species extinction, deforestation, and global warming, among others. Although the report treated each of these issues and many others in separate sections, the true value of the report lay in its identification of the ways in which the issues are linked. Although it presented many suggestions for addressing each issue, the report also stated that a holistic approach is necessary to cure the world’s environmental ills. It identified the international economy and misuse of the world’s wealth as the main culprits.

The Brundtland Report demonstrated how thinking about environmental issues had evolved and how the world had changed since the Club of Rome Club of Rome study The Limits to Growth
Limits to Growth, The (Meadows et al.) was published in 1972. At that time, growth was seen as the problem, and the solution was viewed as a “steady-state” global society. In contrast, the Brundtland Report argued that growth is essential if poverty is to be reduced and environmental degradation curtailed. Our Common Future stated very clearly that growth that is equally distributed is essential if the world’s poor are to be pulled from their poverty trap and that growth alone can create the capacity necessary to overcome the global environmental crisis.

The WCED report recommended that potential sources of environmental problems be monitored and that national governments and international agencies ensure that their programs and budgets support development that is both economically and environmentally sustainable. Also, the report noted that various environmental protection and resource management agencies must be strengthened to combat the effects of environmental problems. It recommened an increased role for the U.N. Environment Program United Nations Environment Program and proposed a new international program for the identification and assessment of risks of irreversible changes to the global environment.

The report also suggested that the involvement of an informed public, nongovernmental organizations, the scientific community, and industry in addressing environment and development questions should be encouraged and expanded. It listed a summary of proposed legal principles and made suggestions for the adoption of a universal declaration of environmental protection and sustainable development. It further recommended that a new international convention be drafted that would specify the rights and responsibilities of all nations with regard to environmental protection and sustainable development. It pointed to the example of the World Bank, which had made efforts to change its programs in the direction of greater environmental concern.

Implementation of the commission’s recommendations was to be carried out by a U.N. program on sustainable development. This effort involved follow-up regional conferences and an international conference to assess progress, which would require worldwide attitudinal changes. The commission did not attempt to predict the future in its report; rather, Our Common Future was intended to offer a means by which the peoples of the world might increase their level of cooperation in order to solve the global environmental crisis.


Our Common Future demonstrated the severe consequences of the exploitation of the environment. The rapidly growing volumes of scientific data on issues such as atmospheric pollution, the depletion of the earth’s ozone layer, the effects of deforestation, and other problems reinforced the findings of the report. The WCED pointed out that poor health and disintegrating social systems are forces destructive to human life and called for equality and welfare as necessary conditions for continued development.

The lightning rod of the report was the term “sustainable development.” Sustainable development For development to be sustainable, the use of resources to meet present needs must not cause problems for future generations. The concept of sustainable development places humans at the center of the biosphere, acting in harmony with principles that govern life on the earth. Any development that jeopardizes the existence of the human species is not sustainable. Because the natural resources of the planet are finite, the use of various technologies will become increasingly important.

The most lasting accomplishment of the Brundtland Report may be that it thrust the idea of sustainable development into the mainstream of world debate. Many have accepted the concept of sustainable development as the only rational way to confront the interrelated problems of economic development and environmental destruction. It is clear that the earth cannot continue to support the level of production and consumption that the developed countries enjoy. The types and levels of production and consumption of goods on a global level must correspond with the finite ability of the earth to sustain them.

The goal of sustainable development requires that two basic questions be asked: Is it possible to increase the basic standard of living of the world’s growing population without depleting the earth’s finite supply of natural resources and causing further degradation of the environment? Can humankind lift its poorest members to a level of basic health and dignity without compromising the environment? In the years after the publication of the Brundtland Report, worldwide response to the idea of sustainable development appeared to be favorable, and the term came to be used commonly in multilateral settings when environmental and economic development questions were considered.

In December, 1989, the General Assembly of the United Nations recognized the urgency of these questions and called for a meeting of all nations. The U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, Conference on Environment and Development, U.N. (1992) also known as the Earth Summit, Earth Summit (1992) commenced on June 3, 1992, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As a culmination of this conference, delegates from 172 nations adopted Agenda 21, Agenda 21[Agenda twenty one] a comprehensive blueprint for confronting and overcoming the economic and ecological problems of the twentieth century. Thus, within a few years of the publication of Our Common Future, the idea of sustainability had been embraced as a planetary goal by most nations, the United Nations, and the World Bank. In July, 1989, the leaders of the Group of Seven Group of Seven —the seven major industrialized nations—called for the adoption of policies that would foster sustainable development.

In the years between the Brundtland Commission report and the Earth Summit, people from all over the world voiced concerns about the future of the planet. Reports that formed the basis of the main agreement of the Earth Summit were prepared by people from many walks of life and from many nations. The period leading up to the Earth Summit represented an era of effort of global proportions that had tremendous historical, social, and political significance. Our Common Future (World Commission on Environment and Development)
World Commission on Environment and Development
Environmental awareness
Brundtland Report
United Nations;environmental policy

Further Reading

  • Borrelli, Peter, ed. Crossroads: Environmental Priorities for the Future. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1988. Collection of essays by environmental activists and scholars examines trends within the environmental movement and offers perspectives on the state of the environment and the future of the environmental movement. Includes index.
  • Goodland, Robert, Herman E. Daly, and Salah El Serafy, eds. Population, Technology, and Lifestyle: The Transition to Sustainability. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1992. Collection of essays focuses on various aspects of the Brundtland Report.
  • Goodstein, Eban S. Economics and the Environment. 4th ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2005. Presents in-depth, balanced analyses of environmental policy debates. Includes author and subject indexes.
  • MacNeill, Jim, Pieter Winsemius, and Taizo Yakushiji. Beyond Interdependence: The Meshing of the World’s Economy and the Earth’s Ecology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Extends the WCED’s analysis of the complex relationships among the economy and the environment, issues of global change, and the international politics of environment.
  • Rogers, Peter, Kazi F. Jalal, and John A. Boyd. An Introduction to Sustainable Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Division of Continuing Education, 2006. Accessible introductory-level textbook includes discussion of the impacts of multinational corporations and globalization on the world environment.
  • Sitarz, Daniel, ed. Agenda 21: The Earth Summit Strategy to Save Our Planet. Boulder, Colo.: Earth Press, 1993. Abridged version of the final official text of Agenda 21, as adopted by the 172 nations in attendance at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro. A good resource to educate lay readers on steps needed to protect the environment.
  • Taylor, Ann. Choosing Our Future: A Practical Politics of the Environment. New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, 1992. A personal but rigorous analysis of environmental problems and ways in which they might be addressed, written by Great Britain’s first cabinet-level politician with specific responsibility for environmental protection. Features a foreword by Gro Harlem Brundtland.
  • Troyner, Warner. Preserving Our World: A Consumer’s Guide to the Brundtland Report. Toronto: Webcom, 1990. Nontechnical version of the WCED report is intended to help lay readers understand the issues involved and to encourage participation in the solution of global environmental problems.
  • World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. The WCED report itself is very readable. In three major sections, it looks at common concerns, challenges, and endeavors in addressing the world’s environmental problems. An appendix describes the workings of the commission as it responded to the U.N. General Assembly’s call to action on the problems of world ecology.

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