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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


November 2007

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Editorial - Our Common Future Comes of Age

Our Common Future, the 1987 agenda-setting report by the World Commission on Environment and Development, likely graces the bookshelves of most Environment readers. The frayed book with brown-tinged pages probably rests buried under a sampling of the voluminous literature that ensued. After 20 years, it’s time to dust it off and reconsider the progress, pitfalls, failures, and successes in the quest to create societies that meet the needs of present generations without sacrificing the ability of future generations to do the same.

After 20 years, Our Common Future emerges from enthusiastic, unquestioning endorsement in its youth and defiant soul-searching in its teenage years. Is it possible to actually define sustainable development? Which of the three prongs of sustainability—environmental, economic, or social—takes precedence? Does human poverty feed environmental poverty or vice versa? Reports and papers fill shelf after shelf. As teenagers turning 20 quickly realize, the relevance of soul-searching fades in the face of the real world. Climate change, urban slums, re-emerging diseases, and burgeoning inequalities dictate the need to dig out from under these debates and tackle the challenges head on.

The article “Place-Based Conservation: Lessons from the Turtle Islands,” by Raul Lejano and Helen Ingram, does just that. As much as scientists and managers would like a blueprint for achieving harmony between local communities and conservation, the authors illustrate a different reality. Approaches that work in one place do not necessarily work in another. On the Turtle Islands in the Philippines, effective conservation was a long process of interacting with the community to devise local solutions—producing a carefully constructed, successful approach for sustainable egg collection that disintegrated under the top-down command of the central government. The authors conclude, however, by stressing that conservation programs need not reinvent the wheel; rather, their guidelines offer ways to tailor “a program to the needs and aspirations of a specific community.”

The Ripple Effect: Biofuels, Food Security, and the Environment” by Rosamond Naylor and her colleagues, is another reminder that unintended consequences lurk behind every well-intentioned decision. The energy and agricultural sectors are, as never before, competing for land. Biofuels answer the imperative to wean society from fossil fuels, but are food-insecure countries at risk as markets for biofuel crops and food crops become more intertwined? Will the biofuels boom bring us closer to or further from the Millennium Development Goal of halving the world’s undernourished and impoverished by the year 2015?

Finally, this issue of Environment brings the first in a series of articles examining the evolution of thinking and practice of sustainable development. As Our Common Future predicted 20 years ago, half the world’s population now lives in cities. David Satterthwaite provides a retrospective and prospective look at urban issues in the article “The Urban Challenge Revisited.” The original report highlighted the challenges of urban poverty. This article points us toward what has been discovered since—that environmental burdens from cities extend over space; that high-income lifestyles drive ecologically unsustainable development; and that low-income residents in cities are most at risk from storms, heat waves, droughts, and other disasters.

With the coming-of-age of Our Common Future, we must acknowledge that the quest for sustainable societies is still in its infancy. As these three articles suggest, the first step is to recognize that most problems are more complex than they initially appear.                   
—Ruth S. DeFries

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