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Background to the Brundtland Report

Professor Wayne Hayes 2/20/2011 V 0.4

Update 5/26/2013

Acknowledge role of Brundtland but will need context. These are sample lecture notes to learn and test G-docs. See my wiki page notes on Brundtland.


Note charge to Brundtland Commission in her Preface: all environmental. Continues the Brandt report, UN Conference on Human Environment, of 1972. Distinct hallmarks of Brundtland Report:

  1. Economic development framed with environment and poverty alleviation as triad of poverty (translate as equity or ethics), environment, and economic development --- a conundrum that needed attention.
  2. Multilateralism by necessity, giving parity to developing nations and prominence to North/South divide. The Brundtland Commission thrives on complexity and rejects simplification. This departs from doctrine of neoliberalism prevalent in 80s..
  3. Hidden within was Brundtland Commission’s implicit stance as a response to underlying Neo-Liberalism (Thatcher, Reagan, Kohl) and economic globalization that had emerged in the 1980s. This was, to my reading, an essential subtext to Brundtland that influencced the tone and the substance of the report..
  4. Four constituents were identified: governments, private enterprise, private citizens (especially the young and their teachers), NGOs (a breakthrough acknowledgement).
  5. Report was unanimous among 21 commissioners and translated into 20 languages. The report was an immediate sensation.
  6. The report was thorough, solidly grounded, and regarded as a thought leader --- and probably still is. The audacious tone seems rare for an official UN Commission.

One Earth to One World: Overview

Note the explicit ontology: The Earth (biosphere) and the need to integrate human habitation, the World. The term “World” is phenomenological, referring to world-formation consciousness as a distinct human capacity --- Hegelian Second Nature. Thus, worlding was linked to the biosphere and suggested the problematic of the human habitation of the earth, in my view.

The photo of earth from the Apollo 17 spacecraft crystallized a new era, which we will call the Anthropocene. This changed everything, says Brundtland p. 1. Quote bottom of page “ushering in a new era of economic growth” hospitable to biosphere and its poor. Sets the stage forcefully.

I. Global Challenge

Acknowledges progress but then destruction, eg deserts and forests p. 2. The triple E follows page 3 (quote): ecology, economy, ethics (poverty). This is the interlocking crisis, p 5, culminating with note re international rule-making by industrial nations, aka Bretton Woods. Also, by calling for relief of debt crisis and noting that in the 1980s (the era of economic globalization according to Neo-Liberal principles) that economic growth in poor countries had been depressed (See the important Table 1.3 p 36), Brundtland was implicitly contradicting neoliberalism.

The report gets to the clear and classic statement of Sustainable Development p 8-9. The Policy Directions that follow sets up the substantive chapters of the report. Note the conclusion, p 23, that calls for Rio and The Earth Summit on Sustainable Development five years later. Thus Brundtland built on the 1972 Brandt report and set up the Rio Earth Summit of 1992.

Ch. 1: A Threatened Future p 27

One Earth, but fragmented worlds and shortsightedness. Starts w poverty, pp 28-31. Then problematic section on economic growth --- note top p 31 re power, harkening to Amartya Sen’s notion of Development as Freedom (1999), or capacity-bulding. Dilemma: How to alleviate poverty under condition of constrained growth. Weak response, better later with Daly: development (capacity or human potential) not growth (physical throughputs) --- see my page on defining economics for sustainability.

Report segues to Survival and tipping points, including greenhouse warming (this in mid-1980s was precocious). The report spots its strategic target, pp 35-7, Economic Crisis, with the critical Table 1.3 showing failure of Neo-Liberal policies on its own terms of GDP growth. Thus, the opportunity for next section, New Approaches to Environment and Development, pp 37-41. Note role of women prominent throughout Brundtland report. Strong conclusion pp 40-41. That there was no single blueprint is a swipe at Bretton Woods and prevailing regime of economic globalization: Each country must go its own way. The hegemony of the Washington Consensus is challenged with diverse and autonomous responses that, in the aggregate might also save the Earth (biosphere). Needed is One World. This expanded vision of Sustainable Development within the Brundtland report is a quality that I have not seen in the often critiqued literature on Brundtland.

Ch. 2: Towards Sustainable Development p 43

The preface spells out the definition of Sustainable Development, again, but relates it to needs of the poor, making poverty alleviation central. Note that limits refers to social organization and technology, implying that those limits can and should be expanded. The social and economic organization of development is central and the intergenerational perspective defines the long run. This is thinking big and a step away from all other theories.

        Some points:

  1. Needs are made specific: food, shelter, water, jobs. (Luxury) consumption raises issues of values and carrying capacity, a veiled reference to the “needs” of the global rich p 44.
  2. The “carrying capacity of the resource base” must be respected but can expand with knowledge, resource substitution, and technology, avoiding the Malthusian static assumption error, p 45. There is long-term flexibility about the carrying capacity limit. This is stated in the conclusion of this section, p 46.

Equity and the Common Interest (the Commons) pp 46-9

This important section defines all its key terms as concrete and grounded in ecology and resources (water, forests, land), not abstract economic categories. The “enclosure of the commons” is explicitly acknowledged and local democratic controls are urged, thus addressing a critical issue of subsidiarity within ecosystems.

III. Strategic Imperatives pp 49-65

The Brundtland methodology of Economics of Sustainability is spelled out in this important section. This section lays out a 7-point strategic plan.

1. Revive and redistribute growth: To alleviate poverty, growth must be raised in poor countries and (Box 2.1) 25% of the income growth of the rich must be redistributed to the poor. Look at the math. If population is not held in check, most of the growth will dissolve into the larger population base. So, aim at 4.5% growth in income, 1% in population, and redistribute 25% of marginal growth from top to bottom. (This is not Neo-Liberalism, after all.)

         There is a catch. Global Sustainable Development means that the market for resources purchased by the rich will diminish. Therefore, the internal markets of poor countries must be the source of the demand for ag, mfg, and services. This is a return to the generation of internal markets, anathema to NEL. From ecological economics, the recommendation of material growth might be questionable. The stress on livelihood by Sachs fits in here.

2. Quality of growth: To sustain localized growth, resources (natural capital)  must not be depleted, the distribution of income must be broad, and the economy must diversify. Small, localized, low tech and capital, and diversified enterprise is thus encouraged and maximizing exports of staples (resources or monoculture) must be discouraged --- the opposite of World Bank policy p 53. Resilience and risk-aversion are economic policy priorities. Non-economic values must be furthered for themselves: education, health, beauty, conservation.

3. Meet essential human needs first: This is so Sachs: livelihood defined in terms of food, water, soil, education, health, culture, services. This is intrinsically valuable and not an end. Humans are not resources to be harvested or exploited but to be nurtured for themselves. Care for the mos vulnerable in simple and direct ways. And provide security and buffers.

4. Population: Keep population within carrying capacity. Recognize that emigration to rich countries will be blocked. Raise the status and empower women. Install family planning. Encourage the informal economy. Promote the rural communities to forestall migration to overcrowded cities.

5. Conserve and enhance the resource base: This not only is the moral imperative for future generations but protects the livelihood of those who work the land and waters: farmers, etc. There is plenty of room for research and science here. This also buffers local markets from wild fluctuations in word commodity prices. Very Sachs.

6. Appropriate technology and risk management: Small scale, low capital cost technology suited to the terrain and to the culture must be nurtured. See box p 61 re local folks as gatekeepers. Listen and learn from indigenous culture. Note: neglected is tailoring this technology to the embedded infrastructure.

7. Merge environment and economics in decision making: Again, the economy and the ecology are integrated and must work together. Transcend blind faith in modernity: science, technology, commercial interests, outside expertise. See quote p 63 on overcoming sectoral fragmentation. Develop grass roots leadership and participation, aka subsidiarity. Put civic safeguards on large scale projects and national policy decisions, p 64. And alter international institutions to support local development through trade, investment, finance, and travel. These policies contradict Neo_liberal doctrine.


The conclusion p 65 summarizes these principles of strategic Sustainable Development. Note that these principles can be articulated as an alternative to Neo-Liberal doctrine but that the obstacles and blockages are, so far, neglected. Important is that an alternative path, Sustainable Development, has been explicitly defined.

The North/South divide was exacerbated by the stress on the environmental considerations, perhaps missing the theme of ethics and poverty reduction. However, there is little here to entice elites from either the North or the South.

The Role of the International Economy, pp 67-91

The international economy remains central to World Sustainability and was deemed so within the Brundtland report. At the time, this was the domain of the Bretton Woods institutions like the World Bank and the IMF. Will Brundtland tread lightly or defer? No. The role of trade and debt in exacerbating ecological damage and generating greater inequality is highlighted at the start, p 67. In particular, the IMF conditions on debt remediation is singled out for social and ecological damage.

II. Decline in the 1980s

Table 3.1 reveals trends toward the flow of capital out of poor (debtor) nations and toward rich (creditor) nations. Prices of extractive and agricultural exports fell relative to industrial commodities. This section reveals several aspects of world trade that contradicts the prevailing ideology of trade:

  1. The terms of trade became more disadvantageous for developing nations who ramped up extractive industries (timber, for example) and non-renewable minerals --- although oil was protected by the OPEC cartel. Thus, resources were depleted, ecological damage aggravated, and the sheer volume of such commodities flooded markets and depressed prices. Africa was cited as a case.
  2. The debt crisis of Latin America deepened. Structural adjustment programs (SAPs) installed by the IMF followed the debt crisis as foreign exchange, pp 69-70. The impact on Latin America was severe. See especially p 74.

The Brundtland report refuted the Neo-Liberal doctrine strongly in this section. The advantages to the rich and disadvantages to the poor exacerbate environmental damage. Note that Brundtland is not calling for more aid, but for Fair Trade.

III. Enabling Sustainable Development pp 75-89

This is the main thrust of this chapter. Brundtland calls for rich nations to expand trade with poor nations, to lower interest rates, and to lessen protectionism (agricultural and industrial). There are four main sections:

1. Enhance flow of resources, pp 77-8: More financial aid to Sustainable Development not extractive commodities for exports. Brundtland calls for diversifying local economies and for smaller scale lending projects, and for reversing SAPs.

2. Link trade, development, and environment, pp 78-84: Here, Brundtland sees the opportunity to reconfigure trade to support Sustainable Development. Commodity prices collapsed in the 1980s as the world economy experienced recession and as poor nations competed with each other to flood commodity markets, p 80. (Oil remains the exception.) Instead, (1) seek balance of exports with a more diversified economy (import substitution) and (2) establish compensatory finance for temporary price depressions. Thus, look to a longer run monitoring of trade relative to both development (social impacts) and environment. This discussion in Brundtland is technical. Ask industrial nations to end protectionism, p 83 --- ironic since the rich nations argue for free trade. End the trade policy of developing nations to specialize in polluting industries (remember the Summers Memo) such as paper, aluminum, and oil.

3. Responsible transnational investment, pp 85-7: Transnational corporations (TNCs) are typically oligopolistic firms controlled by the USA, GB, Japan, and Germany --- the really rich countries. Brundtland calls for the exercise of responsibility --- see UNCTAD. Little detail is offered (?) but a fair deal is suggested by calling for symmetrical negotiations and for codes of conduct. (No bribery issues are discussed here.) This sections may have fallen short of what might be needed but NGOs aim at this issue.

4. Technology, pp 87-89: The report calls for more diffusion of technology in energy, pollution control, and agriculture. This is written before the explosion in communications. Intellectual property rights are mentioned, but are critical --- see the array of issues around TRIPS and Sustainable Development. This section seems to fall short on the potential and the property rights controversy.

IV. Building a sustainable world economy, pp 89-90

Brundtland calls for more economic growth (sic), freer market access by rich to poor nations, lower interest rates (perhaps debt restructure), technology transfer, and larger capital flows, presumably to poor from rich nations. Two key steps:

  1. diversify economies of developing nations, meaning less export promotion policies;
  2. less material- and energy-intensive development patterns --- to come in the chapters to follow (5, 7, 8, 9)
  3. more multilateral dialog --- reversing the trend noted in the report.


While the chapter began with a departure from the prevailing NEL doctrine of the 1980s, it seems that the alternatives to economic globalization had not been thought through yet. The Brundtland report did not detail a strong case for an alternative for World Sustainability in this chapter.

Brundtland Part II starts on another page.