The demand that countries pursue policies aimed at achieving ‘sustainable development’ or ‘sustainability’ has become a clarion call for many over the past two decades. A number of key events can lay claim to establishing this principle in the policy landscape. Among these are the publication of the Brundtland Report (WCED, 1987), the Earth Summit in 1992 and, more recently, the World Summit in 2002. Yet a moment’s reflection makes it clear that formidable challenges confront policymakers who have publicly stated their commitment to the goal of sustainable development, not least in determining what it is exactly they have signed up to. To this end, a huge amount of literature has been generated and, as we near the twentieth anniversary of the seminal Brundtland Report, it seems timely to provide an account of the considerable progress that has been made in fleshing out these issues. This is the primary purpose of the current volume.

We undertake this task with just a little trepidation. Some might argue that, as sustainable development appears to be such a complex concept, bringing disparate contributions together under one umbrella – moreover in the form of a ‘handbook’ – is a fool’s errand. Others might argue that, while such an account is worthwhile, we have made important omissions. Mindful of both points, we offer the following response. We agree it would be quite wrong to claim there is a unified theory of sustainable development. Indeed, it became clear very early on that interest in sustainable development was drawn from a broad church. For example, the Brundtland Report viewed sustainable development as serving many different (and possibly competing) goals: economic development, a better environment, and a particular concern for human well-being both now and in the future. In fact, the debate has become far broader since then. We have deliberately sought to reflect this diversity rather than impose a narrow and rigid (but ultimately misleading) interpretation of the issues. While we do not claim to have been exhaustive, we are confident nonetheless there is a comprehensive and coherent story about sustainable development permeating this volume. It is the objective of this introductory chapter to summarize what we understand this story to be.



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