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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


September/October 2008

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20 Years into Our Common Future

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Our Common Future, written by the World Commission on Environment and Development. Also known as the “Brundtland report” for the commission’s chair, Gro Harlem Brundtland, this seminal work announced in its prologue, “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable—to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Since the report’s publication, studies and analyses of “environment” and “development” have changed radically.

How radically? And what does our common future—looking ahead from our vantage point today—hold in store? Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development has published a 10-part series of articles examining these very questions.

These articles, commissioned expressly for Environment and written by experts from across the globe, summarize the current state of sustainable development, including the successes and failures since 1987. They assess how well the original report addressed the issues; describe what would be in the Brundtland report if it were to be written today; and, finally, take a look forward: What are the current challenges? What are the hurdles in addressing them? Where do we go from here?

The series takes as a starting point the six common challenges identified in the original report: population and human resources, food security, species and ecosystems, energy, industry, and the urban challenge. Although the Brundtland report did not cover the challenges associated with water as a specific chapter, in recognition of water’s critical role in the welfare and health of our planet’s people and ecosystems, Environment has added an article to this series examining water’s role in sustainable development. These seven articles on common challenges are complemented by three articles that offer current perspectives on the Brundtland report’s “Common Endeavors” section: managing the commons; peace, security, development, and the environment; and institutional and legal change. We begin with David Satterthwaite’s thoughtful reflection on how urban problems and potential solutions—along with our knowledge and perception of these challenges—have changed or magnified since 1987.

In the past 20 years, environmental science has evolved from narrowly focused studies on topics like pollution or degradation to wide-angle issues that encompass broader implications, such as the economic impacts of climate change or the social and environmental adaptations needed to address the increasing migration of nomadic peoples into urban areas. Mirroring this transformation, Environment changed its subtitle in 2005 from “Where Science and Policy Meet” to “Science and Policy for Sustainable Development.” As part of the magazine’s continuing commitment to sustainable development issues, Environment is proud to offer its own update to the landmark report that called for this evolution at a time, not unlike the present, when the world was ripe for such a change.  

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