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Understanding sustainable development

  • Introduction
  • Activity 1
  • Activity 2
  • Activity 3
  • Activity 4
  • Activity 5
  • Reflection


This module explores the emerging concept of ‘sustainable development’ which is now central to the programmes of many governments, businesses, educational institutions and non-government organisations around the world. The module takes an historical approach tracing the widening understanding of sustainable development from the 1980s up to the present day. This history includes landmark international events such as: the 1987 Brundtland Report, the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero, the 1997 Rio+5 Conference and the 2000 Millennium Summit in New York, and the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

Much has been written in academic terms about the meaning of sustainable development and the need to integrate ecological and economic principles into personal and public decision-making. However, there is no agreed definition of the concept and perhaps there is no need for one. This is because sustainable development concerns a process of change and is heavily reliant upon local contexts, needs and interests. Thus, sustainable development is an ‘emerging concept’ in two ways, first, because it is relatively new and evolves as we learn to grasp its wide implications for all aspects of our lives, and, second, because its meanings emerge and evolve according to local contexts.


  • To develop an understanding of the emerging concept of sustainable development;
  • To analyse the value base behind a range of different interpretations of sustainable development;
  • To appreciate the differences of approach to sustainable development in countries of the North and the South; and
  • To develop your own definition of sustainable development.


  1. What is sustainable development?
  2. Dimensions of sustainable development
  3. The Millennium Development Goals
  4. The World Summit on Sustainable Development
  5. The Earth Charter
  6. Reflection


_____ (2000) Sustainability: Searching for Solutions, New Internationalist, 329, November Issue.

AtKisson, A. (1999) Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist’s World, Chelsea Green, Vermont.

Dresner, S. (2002) The Principles of Sustainability, Earthscan, London.

IUCN, UNEP and WWF (1991) Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Living, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.

Orr, D. (1992) Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World, State University of New York Press, Albany, Ch. 2.

Soubbotina, T.P. with Sheram, K.A. (2000) Beyond Economic Growth: Meeting the Challenges of Global Development, World Bank Development Education Progamme, Washington.

Wackernagel, M. and Rees, W. (1996) Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island BC, Canada.

World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) Our Common Future, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Internet Sites

There are literally thousands of Internet sites about sustainable development. Many sites also provide links to other useful ones. The following sites have many very useful links:

International Institute for Sustainable Development

Second Nature

Sustainability Web Ring

Sustainable Development Gateway

United Nations Commission for Sustainable Development

United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation

World Resources Institute

Worldwatch Institute


This module was written for UNESCO by John Fien and uses some materials and activities prepared by Hilary Macleod for Teaching for a Sustainable World (UNESCO – UNEP International Environmental Education Programme).

What is sustainable development?

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

The global realities explored in Module 1 have led to many calls for a new approach to development. These calls have come from many quarters: community organisations, governments, members of the general public, senior business leaders, scientific researchers, academics and also many young people.

Read Education for Sustainability: The Need for a New Human Perspective (PDF download) which contains a summary of many of these calls.

The Brundtland Report

The term ‘sustainable development’ was popularised by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in its 1987 report entitled Our Common Future. This book is also known as the Brundtland Report, after the Chair of the Commission and former Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland.

The aim of the World Commission was to find practical ways of addressing the environmental and developmental problems of the world. In particular, it had three general objectives:

  • To re-examine the critical environmental and development issues and to formulate realistic proposals for dealing with them;
  • To propose new forms of international co-operation on these issues that will influence policies and events in the direction of needed changes; and
  • To raise the levels of understanding and commitment to action of individuals, voluntary organisations, businesses, institutes, and governments.

Our Common Future was written after three years of public hearings and over five hundred written submissions. Commissioners from twenty one countries analysed this material, with the final report being submitted to the United Nations General Assembly in 1987.

Key Issues

Our Common Future reported on many of the global realities explored in Module 1, and recommended urgent action on eight key issues to ensure that development was sustainable, i.e. that it would satisfy ‘the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. These eight issues were:

  • Population and Human Resources
  • Industry
  • Food Security
  • Species and Ecosystems
  • The Urban Challenge
  • Managing the Commons
  • Energy
  • Conflict and Environmental Degradation

Impacts in the North and South

These issues have different impacts in the developing countries of the South and the industrial countries of the North.

Which issues pose the greatest challenge to sustainable development in your part of the world? (ie. either the North or South. But note that it is possible for people in the South to live a Northern lifestyle and for many poor people in the North to have a lifestyle close to those in the South).

After you have finished this analysis, repeat the exercise for the other part of the world.

Q1: Which issues pose the greatest challenge to sustainable development in your part of the world ?

Q2: Describe the similarities and differences between the key issues in your country and the key issues in a different part of the world.

Q3: Where in your school curriculum do students learn about these important global issues?

Agenda 21

These issues – and many others like them – were discussed at a major international conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992. Known as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development – or more simply as the Earth Summit – this meeting brought together nearly 150 Heads of State where they negotiated and agreed to a global action plan for sustainable development which they called Agenda 21.

The Earth Summit was also attended by nearly 50,000 official observers and citizens from around the world who met in a wide range of official and community-based councils and seminars at a Global Forum.

As well as Agenda 21, four new international treaties – on climate change, biological diversity, desertification and high-seas fishing – were signed in the official sessions. In addition, a United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development was established to monitor the implementation of these agreements and to act as a forum for the ongoing negotiation of international policies on environment and development.

Agenda 21 has been the basis for action by many national and local governments. For example, over 150 countries have set up national advisory councils to promote dialogue between government, environmentalists, the private sector and the general community. Many have also established programmes for monitoring national progress on sustainable development indicators. At the local government level, nearly 2000 towns and cities worldwide have created their own Local Agenda 21 plans.

Source: United Nations Department of Public Information, 1999.

Read more about the actions different sectors of society are taking to help make the future more sustainable.

Further information on sustainable development is provided by many international organisations who are providing ‘gateway’ services for sustainable development. A sample includes:

Towards Sustainable Human Development

Since the Earth Summit, sustainable development has been a key theme at a series of United Nations conferences discussing pathways to development. These conferences have shown that the interdependent links between environment and development are not simply about conservation and economics, but also include a concern for issues such as human rights, population, housing, food security, and gender that are important parts of sustainable human development. This has involved conferences on:

Human Rights: World Conference on Human Rights – Vienna, Austria, 1993
Population: International Conference on Population and Development – Cairo, Egypt, 1994
Small Island Developing States – Bridgetown, Barbados, 1994
Social Development: World Summit for Social Development – Copenhagen, Denmark, 1995
Women: Fourth World Conference on Women – Beijing, People’s Republic of China, 1995
Housing and Settlements: Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) – Istanbul, Turkey, 1996
Food Security: World Food Summit – Rome, Italy 1996

Action on these quality of life issues has been reviewed in a series of follow-up conferences.

Environment and Development – Rio+5, 1997
Human Rights – Vienna+5, 1998
Population – Cairo+5, 1999
Small Island Developing States – Special Session of the General Assembly, New York, 1999
BPoA+10 – Mauritus, 2005
Social Development – Copenhagen+5, 2000
Women – Beijing+5, 2000
Housing and Settlements – Istanbul+5, 2001
Food Security – Rome+5, 2002


Q4: Which of these international conferences on sustainable human development would you have most liked to attend? Why?

These conferences provided an opportunity for the international community to start talking about a Comprehensive Development Framework and, eventually, to agree on a set of Millennium Development Goals. These take a holistic approach to development in which there is a balance between all dimensions of development – social, economic, political and ecological.

See how your country is the progressing towards acheiving these goals at the MDG Monitor.

Dimensions of sustainable development

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

One of the most important outcomes of Our Common Future was the realisation that environment and development issues are inextricably linked and therefore worrying about either environment or development on its own was inappropriate. The World Commission concluded that:

Environment and development are not separate challenges. Development cannot subsist on a deteriorating environmental resource base; the environment cannot be protected when growth leaves out of account the costs of environmental destruction. These problems cannot be treated separately by fragmented institutions and policies. They are linked in a complex system of cause and effect.

Source: World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) Our Common Future, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 37.

The WCED therefore argued for an approach to development that would take into account the relationship between ecological, economic, social and technological issues. The WCED called this approach ‘sustainable development’, defining it as:

… development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Source: World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) Our Common Future, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 43.

The ultimate goal of sustainable development is to improve the quality of life for all members of a community and, indeed, for all citizens of a nation and the world – while ensuring the integrity of the life support systems upon which all life, human and non-human, depends.

There is sometimes confusion about the meanings of ‘sustainable development’ and ‘sustainability’ and the relationship between them. A report on Education for Sustainable Development in New Zealand proposed the following explanation:

Sustainability is the goal of sustainable development – an unending quest to improve the quality of peoples’ lives and surroundings, and to prosper without destroying the life-supporting systems on which current and future generations of humans depend. Like other important concepts, such as equity and justice, sustainability can be thought of as both a destination and a journey.

Source: Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (2004) See Change: Learning and Education for Sustainability, New Zealand Government, Wellington, p.14.

Four Dimensions of Sustainable Development

Sustainable development requires simultaneous and balanced progress in four dimensions that are totally interdependent:

  • Social
  • Economic
  • Ecological
  • Political

Q5: Identify examples or aspects of these four dimensions in the photograph.

Click image for larger version.

You may have found it difficult to identify these different dimensions in the photograph. This is because there are always close linkages among them. Similarly, decisions or actions in one area always affect the others.

For example, if economic development is to be sustainable:

  • it cannot neglect environmental constraints or be based on the destruction of natural resources;
  • it cannot succeed without the parallel development of social resources;
  • it will require transformation of the existing industrial base and the development and diffusion of more Earth-friendly technologies;
  • it must consider the needs of all species and their rights to enjoy the same quality of life and share of resources;
  • it must support fairness between all people so that everyone can enjoy the same standard of living and the same level of access to resources and quality of life; and
  • it must consider the needs of future generations.

Investigate why development is more than just economic growth – according to a World Bank Development Outreach report.

A Dynamic Balance

The special contribution of the concept of sustainable development is that it emphasises respect for cultural values and, thus, does not see economic indicators as the sole measure of development. Rather, sustainable development represents the balanced integration of social and environmental objectives with economic development. These three aspects of sustainable development – society, environment and economics – were named as the three pillars of sustainable development at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002.

In relation to Education for Sustainable Development, these three pillars of sustainable development involve:

… an understanding of social institutions and their role in change and development, as well as the democratic and participatory systems which give opportunity for the expression of opinion, the selection of governments, the forging of consensus and the resolution of differences.
… an awareness of the resources and fragility of the physical environment and the affects on it of human activity and decisions, with a commitment to factoring environmental concerns into social and economic policy development.
… skills to earn a living as well as a sensitivity to the limits and potential of economic growth and its impact on society and on the environment, with a commitment to assess personal and societal levels of consumption out of concern for the environment and for social justice.

However, politics and culture are also a key dimension of sustainable development, which influence the interactions of and between the three pillars. They are concerned with the values we cherish, the ways in which we perceive our relationship with others and with the natural world, and with how we make decisions. The values, diversity, knowledge, languages and worldviews associated with culture and politics strongly influence the way issues of sustainable development are decided and, thus, provide it with local relevance.

As a result of the close relationships between the four these dimensions of sustainable development, achieving this goal requires a dynamic balance between:

  • Production and consumption;
  • Ecology and economics;
  • Development and conservation;
  • Culture and ecology; and
  • Democracy and economics.

However, the particular nature of the balance between these factors will vary between the developing countries of the South and the industrial countries of the North.

Analyse these five aspects of a dynamic balance for sustainable development from the viewpoints of both the South and the North.

Many commentators on sustainable development often refer to what they call “the triple bottom line” of economic sustainability, social sustainability, and ecological sustainability. In such cases, the focus is only on three dimensions of sustainable development – social, economic and environmental.

Sometimes these are referred to as the “3 E’s” of sustainable development – Equity, Economy, and Ecology.

Q6: Do you think it matters that the political dimension of sustainable development is left out? Why?

Different Definitions and Values

The definition of sustainable development proposed in the Brundtland Report and Agenda 21 has been adopted in many countries. However, the idea of ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to satisfy their needs’ has been interpreted in many different ways. In fact, several hundred different definitions of sustainable development now exist.

While these definitions seek to make the broad definition from the Brundtland Report and Agenda 21 more concrete, many tend to reflect different emphases in the social, economic, ecological and political dimensions of sustainable development.

Being able to identify these different emphases in discussions about sustainable development is an important critical thinking skill.

You can practise this skill by analysing the emphases in five different definitions of sustainable development.

Q7: Which of the five definitions did you like best? Why?

Q8: Which of the five definitions did you like least? Why?

Goals for Sustainable Human Development

The General Assembly of the United Nations met from 6-8 September, 2000 in a special Millennium Summit where a special United Nations Millennium Declaration was adopted. This Declaration emphasised the social aspects of sustainable development and the importance of overcoming poverty and inequality. It declared that sustainable human development is central to world peace and future progress:

We recognise that, in addition to our separate responsibilities to our individual societies, we have a collective responsibility to uphold the principles of human dignity, equality and equity at the global level. As leaders we have a duty therefore to all the world’s people, especially the most vulnerable and in particular, the children of the world, to whom the future belongs.

Source: United Nations Millennium Declaration, paragraph 2.

The Millennium Declaration was based upon six fundamental values that underly sustainable human development:

Men and women have the right to live their lives and raise their children in dignity, free from hunger and from the fear of violence, oppression or injustice. Democratic and participatory governance based on the will of the people best assures these rights.
No individual and no nation must be denied the opportunity to benefit from development. The equal rights and opportunities of women and men must be assured.
Global challenges must be managed in a way that distributes the costs and burdens fairly in accordance with basic principles of equity and social justice. Those who suffer or who benefit least deserve help from those who benefit most.
Human beings must respect one other, in all their diversity of belief, culture and language. Differences within and between societies should be neither feared nor repressed, but cherished as a precious asset of humanity. A culture of peace and dialogue among all civilizations should be actively promoted.
Respect for nature
Prudence must be shown in the management of all living species and natural resources, in accordance with the precepts of sustainable development. Only in this way can the immeasurable riches provided to us by nature be preserved and passed on to our descendants. The current unsustainable patterns of production and consumption must be changed in the interest of our future welfare and that of our descendants.
Shared responsibility
Responsibility for managing worldwide economic and social development, as well as threats to international peace and security, must be shared among the nations of the world and should be exercised multilaterally. As the most universal and most representative organization in the world, the United Nations must play the central role.

In partnership with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the OECD, the United Nations agreed on a set of Millennium Development Goals inspired by these fundamental values. The goals came from the agreements and resolutions of the world conferences organised by the United Nations in the first half of the 1990s.

The eight Millennium Development Goals are to:

1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • Reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than one dollar a day;
  • Reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.
2. Achieve universal primary education
  • Ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling.
3. Promote gender equality and empower women
  • Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education preferably by 2005, and at all levels by 2015.
4. Reduce child mortality
  • Reduce by two thirds the mortality rate among children under five.
5. Improve maternal health
  • Reduce by three quarters the maternal mortality ratio.
6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  • Halt and begin to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS;
  • Halt and begin to reverse the incidence of malaria and other major diseases.
7. Ensure environmental sustainability
  • Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes; reverse loss of environmental resources;
  • Reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water;
  • Achieve significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020.
8. Develop a global partnership for development
  • Develop further an open trading and financial system that is rule-based; predictable and non-discriminatory. Includes a commitment to good governance, development and poverty reduction – nationally and internationally;
  • Address the least developed countries’ special needs. This includes tariff- and quota-free access for their exports; enhanced debt relief for heavily indebted poor countries; cancellation of official bilateral debt; and more generous official development assistance for countries committed to poverty reduction;
  • Address the special needs of landlocked and small island developing States;
  • Deal comprehensively with developing countries’ debt problems through national and international measures to make debt sustainable in the long term;
  • In cooperation with the developing countries, develop decent and productive work for youth;
  • In cooperation with pharmaceutical companies provide access to affordable essential drugs in developing countries;
  • In cooperation with the private sector, make available the benefits of new technologies – especially information and communication technologies.

The eight Millennium Development Goals are interdependent and action is needed on all of them simultaneously if they are to be achieved. Many countries and regions are making progress towards them:

The goals for international development address that most compelling of human desires – a world free of poverty and free of the misery that poverty breeds … Each of the goals addresses an aspect of poverty. They should be viewed together because they are mutually reinforcing. Higher school enrolments, especially for girls, reduce poverty and mortality. Better basic health care increases enrolment and reduces poverty. Many poor people earn their living from the environment. So progress is needed on each of the seven goals.

The goals will not be easy to achieve, but progress in some countries and regions shows what can be done. China reduced its number in poverty from 360 million in 1990 to about 210 million in 1998. Mauritius cut its military budget and invested heavily in health and education. Today all Mauritians have access to sanitation, 98% to safe water, and 97% of births are attended by skilled health staff. And many Latin American countries moved much closer to gender equality in education.

The message: if some countries can make great progress towards reducing poverty in its many forms, others can as well. But conflict is reversing gains in social development in many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. The spread of HIV/AIDS is impoverishing individuals, families and communities on all continents. And sustained economic growth – that vital component for long-run reductions in poverty – still eludes half the world’s countries. For more than 30 of them, real per capita incomes have fallen over the past 35 years. And where there is growth, it needs to be spread more equally.

So, the goals can be met. But it will take hard work.

Development Goals and Indicators

Development indicators, such as the Millennium Development Goals, can be used at all levels – local, national and global.

Match different goals and indicators to clarify your understanding of sustainable human development.

Development indicators are important tools for monitoring changes in sustainable human development. They can help identify where successes are being achieved and where further action is needed.

However, we need to be cautious in our use of indicators. For example:

Indicators are numbers.
They summarise all the influences that affect the human experiences of love, happiness, health, etc., as numbers. This makes it easy to forget that indicators actually apply to people.
Indicators should not be used in isolation.
No one indicator is ‘proof’ of anything – at least by itself. It is only when used in combination with other indicators that reliable patterns can start to be identified.
As a result, the Human Development Index has been developed to measure the average achievements in a country in three basic dimensions of human development: longevity, knowledge and a decent standard of living. As a composite index, the Human Development Index thus contains three variables: life expectancy; educational attainment (adult literacy and combined primary, secondary and tertiary enrolment); and real GDP per capita.
Indicators are averages.
They summarise all the differences in a country into a simple number. Thus, they can disguise differences in development between different regions in a country (e.g. urban – rural), people of different ages, people at different income levels, the life experiences of people from different ethnic groups, etc. And, unless gender-sensitive, indicators can disguise the different experiences of males and females.
The importance of gender in development is recognised by the way development goals and indicators now focus explicitly on women and girls. The Gender-Related Development Index, for example, measures achievements in the same dimensions and variables as the Human Development Index, but takes account of inequality in achievement between women and men. The greater the gender disparity in basic human development, the lower a country’s Gender-Related Development Index compared with its Human Development Index.

Alternative measures of development

The adequacy of current measures of economic performance, in particular those based on GDP figures, has been a concern for a long time. Moreover, there are broader concerns about the relevance of these figures as measures of societal well-being, as well as measures of economic, environmental, and social sustainability.

There are a number of other alternative tools for measuring economics human development than those already mentioned above. Some of them include:

President Sarkozy (France) launched a Commission in 2008 to look at a broad range of issues in measuring progress. The aim of the Commission was to to identify the limits of GDP as an indicator of economic performance and social progress, to consider additional information required for the production of a more relevant picture, to discuss how to present this information in the most appropriate way, and to check the feasibility of measurement tools proposed by the Commission. Their work was not focused on France, nor on developed countries.

The Commission was led by by Professor Joseph E. Stiglitz, Columbia University, Professor Amartya Sen, Harvard University, and Professor Jean-Paul Fitoussi, Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, and was made up of renowned experts from universities, governmental and intergovernmental organisations, in several countries (USA, France, United Kingdom, India). The Commission’s report was released in September 2009.

The Cost of Progress

How much would achieving the Millennium Development Goals cost? Can the world afford sustainable human development?

Yes, it can.

In fact, the cost of making significant progress on eighteen different actions needed to achieve these goals would be less than one-third of the $780 billion the world spends on military activities each year.

See a chart of this estimate in relation to annual global military expenditure.

Review details of what this alternative expenditure could achieve:

UNESCO acknowledges the support of the osEarth Inc. (OSE) for providing this section of Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future. OSE promotes the activities of the World Game Institute (WGI), a non-profit research and education organization.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development

Ten years after the Rio Earth Summit, in 2002, the United Nations General Assembly organised a World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. The purpose of the World Summit was to synthesise the conclusions and agreements of the series of international conferences of the 1990s, review progress on progress towards achieving the goals of Agenda 21, and make plans for cooperative efforts to progress sustainable human development.

The conditions under which the World Summit took place were generally positive. For example, it was a time of increasing recognition that many countries had not paid sufficient attention to their commitments in Agenda 21, increased importance of the need to address global poverty, and positive commitment to cooperative action on the Millennium Development Goals. However, it was also a time of rising uncertainty about global security and the negative impacts of globalisation. These conditions produced both optimism and caution as government and non-government delegates engaged in two weeks of intense discussion.

As largest ever gathering of world leaders, the World Summit clearly showed that sustainable development is of key concern around the world today. In addition to government delegations, over 21 000 participants from nearly 200 government, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, the private sectors and the scientific community attended.

Summit Outcomes

The outcomes of the World Summit included:

  • A Political Declaration agreed by all the Presidents, Prime Ministers and heads of government delegations of the world who were present.
  • A Plan of Implementation for agreed improvements in sanitation, energy, trade, health, education, human rights, biodiversity, climate change and so on.
  • Many action plans and agreements under which different United Nations agencies, governments, corporations, industry associations, professional and scientific organisations, trade unions and/or non-government organizations agreed to work in partnership to attain the goals in the Plan of Implementation.

Read a summary of the Key Outcomes and Commitments of the World Summit.

As one observer noted:

Through signing the 54 page Summit Implementation Plan, those present committed to using and producing chemicals in ways that do not harm, reducing biodiversity loss by 2010; restoring fisheries to their maximum sustainable yields by 2015, establishing a representative network of marine protected areas by 2012, and implementing a Global Programme for the Protection of the Marine Environment – the most important outcomes were commitments made to half the proportion of people without access to sanitation and safe drinking water by 2015. The US, EU and others committed over a billion dollars to bring this about. Similar financial commitments and type II partnerships were made to improve access to energy. The shifting of commitments towards socio-development issues such as poverty, health and sanitation was seen by delegates as the key successes of this Summit.

Source: Tilbury, D. (2003) The World Summit, sustainable development and environmental education, Australian Journal of Environmental Education, Vol. 19, p. 110.

However, in the years immediately following the World Summit – perhaps before there has been time to see too many improvements – there has been growing concern that the promise of the World Summit are being achieved too slowly. Some feel that too much attention was paid at the Summit to the symptoms of global issues and problems and that their root causes were not sufficiently addressed. Others are concerned that the threats to sustainable development from globalisation, unfair trading practices and low levels of international development assistance were not dealt with strongly enough.

Projects and Progress

This does not mean that exciting sustainable development projects are not being undertaken in all parts of the world. In fact, more people than ever before are working towards a sustainable future. Many projects for integrating cultural concerns and indigenous perspectives into sustainability planning are under way. And new laws and policies are being developed to secure environmental and human health, promote gender equity, protect and conserve biodiversity, oceans, fisheries and the world’s freshwater supplies, and to support sustainable agriculture, sustainable tourism and sustainable community development – and to improve education’s role in enhancing individual and national capacity for sustainable development.

There are case studies of many such projects in Theme 3 of this programme.

See case studies of projects aimed at achieving Millennium Development Goals in Senegal, Moroco, Tanzania, Eritrea, Yemen, Turkey, Bulgaria, Tajikistan, India, Bangladesh, China, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru.

Nevertheless, change is not coming fast enough and there is grave concern that many of the indicator targets for the Millennium Development Goals will not be meet. Progress seems to be uneven across different Goals and across different regions of the world. The different colours in the 2004 Status Chart show the wide range of uneven rate of progress being made.

Click image for a PDF of the 2004 Status Chart.

The areas in green show positive trends where different regions are ‘on target’ or where targets have been met already.

However, all the areas in pink and orange in the Status Chart indicate targets that are unlikely to be met in different parts of the world unless there are major improvements in government activity, business support and international development assistance.

Check the latest MDG Status Report online.

The Earth Charter

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

The Earth Charter

We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.

Source: Preamble, The Earth Charter.

A People’s Charter

The need for an Earth Charter was first raised in the Stockholm declaration’s call for “a common outlook and for common principles to inspire and guide the peoples of the world.” In its 1987 report, Our Common Future, the UN World Commission of Environment and Development issued a call for a new charter that would consolidate and extend relevant legal principles, creating “new norms … needed to maintain livelihoods and life on our shared planet” and “to guide state behaviour in the transition to sustainable development.”

An attempt was made to take up the challenge of drafting the Earth Charter at the Rio Earth Summit, but the time was not right. In the wake of the Rio Earth Summit, a new Earth Charter Initiative began in 1994 under the leadership of the Earth Council and Green Cross International.

A global consultation process was instigated to help provide widespread input into the deveopment of the Earth Charter. Hundreds of groups and thousands of individulas became involved in this process. For example, between 1997 and 1999 over forty national Earth Charter committees were formed, and numerous Earth Charter conferences were held, all under the general coordination of the Earth Charter Commision.

The first draft of the Earth Charter (Benchmark Draft I) was largely based on a review of values and principles embedded within existing international laws, treaties and declarations. This document was released at the Rio+5 conference, and then circulated around the world for comment. Recommendations were integrated into a new version (Benchmark II) released in April 1999. The global reivew and consultation process continued throughout 1999, culminating in the launch of the Earth Charter at a meeting in March 2000 at UNESCO’s Paris headquaters. The aim now is to both circulate the document as a People’s Treaty and to have it taken to the United Nations General Assembly for endorsement.

A Declaration of Interdependence and Sustainable Development

A key feature of the Earth Charter campaign has been an investigation of local and national cultures in order to identify the common beliefs and values that underlie a global ethic for living sustainably.

The Earth Charter is a declaration of interdependence and universal responsibility as well as an urgent call to build a global partnership for sustainable development.

The focus of the Earth Charter is sustainable human development, which as we saw in Activity 3, includes the care and protection of the Earth. The Earth Charter recognizes that environmental, economic, social, cultural, ethical, and spiritual problems are interconnected.

The Earth Charter is a layered document with a Preamble, 16 guiding principles and 59 supporting principles that, together, outline an integrated vision for human rights and sustainable development.


The Preamble to the Earth Charter provides an expanded sense of our responsibilities for sharing the Earth as part of a global community. These responsibilities embrace all people, future generations, and the larger community of life on Earth. This is a rationale for sustainable human development.

Guiding Principles

The first four guiding principles of the Earth Charter are:

These four principles illustrate that the concept of sustainable development in the Earth Charter embraces the view that the problems of poverty, environmental degradation, ethnic and religious conflict, and social injustice are all interdependent, and that policies that address one problem can impact and improve other issues.

The remaining guiding principles are organised into three groups:

Ecological Integrity
Protect and restore the integrity of Earth’s ecological systems, with special concern for biological diversity and the natural processes that sustain life.
Prevent harm as the best method of environmental protection and, when knowledge is limited, apply a precautionary approach.
Adopt patterns of production, consumption, and reproduction that safeguard Earth’s regenerative capacities, human rights, and community well-being.
Advance the study of ecological sustainability and promote the open exchange and wide application of the knowledge acquired.
Social and Economic Justice
Eradicate poverty as an ethical, social, and environmental imperative.
Ensure that economic activities and institutions at all levels promote human development in an equitable and sustainable manner.
Affirm gender equality and equity as prerequisites to sustainable development and ensure universal access to education, health care, and economic opportunity.
Uphold the right of all, without discrimination, to a natural and social environment supportive of human dignity, bodily health, and spiritual well-being, with special attention to the rights of indigenous peoples and minorities.
Democracy, Nonviolence, and Peace
Strengthen democratic institutions at all levels, and provide transparency and accountability in governance, inclusive participation in decision making, and access to justice.
Integrate into formal education and life-long learning the knowledge, values, and skills needed for a sustainable way of life.
Treat all living beings with respect and consideration.
Promote a culture of tolerance, nonviolence, and peace.

Supporting Principles

The supporting principles clarify the meaning of the main principles and provide an overview of the many issues that were raised by various groups in the course of the international consultation process to develop the Earth Charter. Taken together, they outline major strategies and provide an action plan for achieving sustainable development.

Using the Earth Charter

The Earth Charter Initiative recommends many ways for individuals and groups to become involved. The following recommended strategies can be used by classes, schools, teachers’ unions and other professional associations of educators:

  • Explore the Earth Charter website for more information.
  • Study the Earth Charter and discuss it with friends, family and colleagues.
  • Join a group to reflect on the Earth Charter and how its principles can be put into action and implemented in our schools, communities, and workplaces.
  • Use the Earth Charter as an educational resource to promote a sustainable way of life by integrating it into curriculum as a framework for learning about sustainable development.
  • Use the Earth Charter as a theme for workshops, conferences, forums and meetings.
  • Begin a campaign for your school, university, or local government to endorse the Earth Charter.

Q9: Explain how the principles in the Earth Charter could be applied in your school, local community and country.


Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Completing the module: Look back through the activities and tasks to check that you have done them all and to change any that you think you can improve now that you have come to the end of the module.

Q10: Make a list of the five issues or points that you believe ought to be included in any good definition of sustainable development.

Q11: Now use the five points you listed in Question 1 to write your own definition.

Q12: Read a discussion of the concept of of sustainable development. Does this discussion provide ideas for revising your definition?

Q13: Describe ways might you be able to use one of the following teaching resources developed by the United Nations CyberSchoolBus to teach about sustainable human development:

  • Primary School: Pook in the World – an online adventure game about solving world problems.
  • Secondary School: The Poverty Curriculum – a seven unit teaching plan that can be printed, complete with all student handouts and teaching notes.