Brundtland Report

United Nations | April 1987

The first explicit common reference to sustainable development was in the 1987 Brundtland Report Our Common Future of the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development. In this report, sustainable development was defined as: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

In 1987 the need for cooperating on this was high. The Brundlandt Committee writes:

“After a decade and a half of a standstill or even deterioration in global co-operation, I believe the time has come for higher expectations, for common goals pursued together, for an increased political will to address our common future.

There was a time of optimism and progress in the 1960s, when there was greater hope for a braver new world, and for progressive international ideas. Colonies blessed with natural resources were becoming nations. The locals of co-operation and sharing seemed to be seriously pursued. Paradoxically, the 1970s slid slowly into moods of reaction and isolation while at the same time a series of UN conferences offered hope for greater co-operation on major issues.”

Chairman Gro Harlem Brundlandt in her foreword: “A global agenda for change” – this was what the World Commission on Environment and Development was asked to formulate. It was an urgent call by the General Assembly of the United Nations:

  1. to propose long-term environmental strategies for achieving sustainable development by the year 2000 and beyond;
  2. to recommend ways concern for the environment may be translated into greater co-operation among developing countries and between countries at different stages of economical and social development and lead
  3. to the achievement of common and mutually supportive objectives that take account of the interrelationships between people, resources, environment, and development;
  4. to consider ways and means by which the international community can deal more effectively with environment concerns; and
  5. to help define shared perceptions of long-term environmental issues and the appropriate efforts needed to deal successfully with the problems of protecting and enhancing the environment, a long term agenda for action during the coming decades, and aspirational goals for the world community.

When I was called upon by the Secretary-General of the United Nations in December 1983 to establish and chair a special, independent commission to address this major challenge to the world community, I was acutely aware that this was no small task and obligation, and that my day-to day responsibilities as Party leader made it seem plainly prohibitive. What the General Assembly asked for also seemed to be unrealistic and much too ambitious. At the same time, it was a clear demonstration of the widespread feeling of frustration and inadequacy in the international community about our own ability to address the vital global issues and deal effectively with them.”

In Chapter 10: Managing The Commons, the final statement 126:

“We are unanimous in our conviction that the security, well-being, and very survival of the planet depend on such changes, now.”

“This conception of sustainable development formulated by the UN is an intergenerational one. We must accept the reality of the finite natural resources of our planet, and that these must be used and transformed in a way in which they are not depleted or unusable for future generations. This version remained the dominant one of sustainable development for a long time. Yet, after the announcement of the Millennium Development Goals, it was clear that a new approach also including intragenerational equity concerns could be more far-reaching and effective at different spatial scales, from the global to the local. This new direction was necessary to expand the notion of sustainable development to make more explicit the interrelationship between social, economic, environmental and political factors.” (Parra Novoa, 2019, MOOC KU Leuven)

World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) (1987) Our common future. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

KU Leuven (2019) The UN Sustainable Development Goals: an Interdisciplinary Academic Introduction. MOOC.

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This publication is part of Ecosystem City: Lessons from the Forest