Sustainable development

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Relationship between ecological footprint and human development index (with data from 2009)

Sustainable development is the German translation of the English term sustainable development ("maintainable / sustainable development"). It describes a development that serves the needs of the current generation without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet their needs (shortened definition according to the Brundtland report ) . The origin of the idea lies in the concept of sustainability , which first appeared in German-speaking forestry . Today, the term usually refers to social, economic and ecological aspects of sustainability and has been included in political and scientific discussions at international and supranational level.

Concept history

The term sustainability in the meaning described here can originally be traced back to forestry (see Sustainability (Forestry) ) and was first mentioned in 1713 by Hans Carl von Carlowitz in relation to forest management. The term “sustainability” was first applied to the economy as a whole in 1952. In the principles of the Interparliamentary Working Group for Natural Economy it says: “A natural economy must be operated with the renewing resources, so that, according to the principle of sustainability, future generations can still use them to meet the needs of the increasing human population can."

The term later found its way into international specialist circles as sustainability .

In the composition of sustainable development  - and thus also in the new meaning - the term appears for the first time in the World Conservation Strategy published in 1980 and the study Global 2000 ( Time to Act 1981, pp. 420 ff.).

Apart from the few earlier uses, which of course form a corresponding basis, the current meaning of the term sustainable development has its main origin in the Brundtland definition from 1987. In a certain sense it represents a diplomatic compromise or consensus formula around the to reconcile the conflicting goals between environmental protection and development (economic growth, especially in the countries of the south). This conflict of objectives was taken up conceptually in the ecological discussion with General Ecology. Since that time, the term has grown in popularity significantly and has been charged with various meanings through its use in politics, science, business, and civil society. A major change in meaning has already taken place through a new focus at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The concept was expanded to a mainly technocratic concept through its discursive use, with the attempts to solve the ecological problems mainly based on technology or scientific rationalities. This continues to push back the social component compared to the Brundtland Report. In addition, there are already works that discuss and empirically substantiate the development of the significance of sustainable development and sustainability for the various parts of our society (politics, science, economy, ...) in detail.

Key concepts of sustainable development

The Brundtland Report essentially names two key terms for the implementation and understanding of sustainable development and sustainability that are of central importance:

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without risking that future generations will not be able to meet their own needs." Two key concepts are important:

  • The notion of “needs”, particularly the basic needs of the world's poorest, who should be the overriding priority; and
  • the thought of "Restrictions that the state of technology and social organization place on the ability of the environment to meet present and future needs."

English original:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

  • The concept of 'needs', in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; other
  • The idea of ​​limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs (Brundtland). ”

Sustainable development and equity

In the Brundtlandt Report, the concept of sustainable development is also viewed from the perspective of equity. On the one hand, within the framework of intragenerative justice, a fair distribution of life opportunities and use of resources should be achieved; on the other hand, through intergenerational justice, the future use of scarce resources should also be ensured for future generations. According to this, sustained economic growth must not jeopardize the functioning of ecosystems. In economic terminology, it was formulated that each generation may only use the interest - that is, the increase in accordance with the natural regeneration rate - while the capital stock should not be attacked by the current or future generations.

Guiding Principle of the 21st Century (United Nations)

With the Earth Summit ( UNCED ) from June 3 to 14, 1992 in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), sustainability or sustainable development was recognized as a normative, international guiding principle of the community of states, the world economy, world civil society and politics and was recognized as a basic principle of the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21 anchored. In principle, the focus of the Earth Summit was on all areas of life, in particular the realignment of production and consumption towards sustainability in the industrialized countries, as well as the fight against poverty in the developing countries .

The term sustainability was concretized in the documents of the Rio-Johannesburg process such as Agenda 21, the Framework Convention on Climate Change , the Kyoto Protocol and the Johannesburg Action Plan. At the local level, the term became known through the Local Agenda 21 movement. Scientifically, sustainability science deals with the overall complex of sustainability and sustainable development.

Roughly speaking, sustainability stands in contrast to the wasting and short-term plundering of resources , and describes a careful, responsible use of resources that is also oriented towards future developments and generations. Leading the way for this way of thinking, the report was The Limits to Growth of the Club of Rome .

An example of the modern interpretation is the thesis of the lawyer Felix Ekardt that sustainability obligations arise on the basis of international, European and national rights.

Recent developments

Since the World Summit for Sustainable Development ( Johannesburg 2002), a paradigm shift has been carried out on the sustainability strategy , that is, the focus is on concepts and methods for achieving the sustainability goals. In addition, were the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations an integral part of implementation. The gap between word and deed is due in particular to a lack of funding, as an additional 980 billion US dollars would have to be made available by 2015 to achieve these goals. The Global Marshall Plan Initiative is committed to activating these funds .

In Johannesburg, it was also decided to step up educational efforts to implement sustainability concepts. Since January 1st, 2005 there has been a “UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development ”. Environmental education and global learning should contribute to anchoring ideas and strategies of sustainable development better than before in society.

Various sciences, such as geosciences, also take up the discussion. One example is the research center for the law of sustainable development at the University of Bayreuth. The variety of initiatives is very high, whereby methods with the aim of implementing the sustainability goals are referred to as sustainability strategies.

Translation variants of "sustainable development"

There are a total of over 70 translation variants for the term sustainable development in the German language. In addition to “sustainable development”, another widely used translation variant is “future-proof development” or “future-proofness” for sustainability . This term was introduced in 1995 with the study Sustainable Germany. A contribution to global sustainable development introduced by the Wuppertal Institute .

Other translation variants, but less in use, are: permanent development (Brundtland Commission), sustainable development (ICLEI), sustainable development ( Enquête Commission on Globalization of the German Bundestag ), sustainable development ( Erhard Eppler ) or sustainable development ( Meadows )

An example of practical translation problems is the use of the term sustainable in the Maastricht Treaty on the European Union . In the Maastricht Treaty, the Community undertook in Article 2 of the EC Treaty to bring about “constant, non-inflationary and environmentally friendly growth” or, in the English version, a sustainable and non-inflationary growth respecting the environment . In the German translation, this reference to the concept of sustainable development is far less clear. This only appears in the German text of the treaty in Article 130 u of the EC Treaty, which regulates development cooperation. In the English version of the text, however, both Article 2 of the EC Treaty and Article 130 u of the EC Treaty say sustainable . Article B of the Maastricht Treaty also mentions an economic and social progress which is balanced and sustainable in the English text , while the German text reads "balanced and lasting economic and social progress". In addition to the German version of the contract, there are only three different translations of the term sustainable in the Greek version.

Popularization of the term

Uses of "sustainable" as an adjective

We often find terms such as sustainable urban development , sustainable agriculture, sustainable tourism, sustainable growth. This means that the object such. B. Urban development is understood in the sense of the Brundtland definition and the Rio-Johannesburg process .

Parallel use of the term in its common meaning and in the sense treated here

The meaning of the terms sustainable and sustainability in the sense of “permanently maintainable” described here may correspond to the “etymologically original sense of the word sustainability” ( Konrad Ott from the Advisory Council for Environmental Issues), but it does not coincide with that which has been used for a long time Colloquial common language meaning of the terms ( sustainable : "has a strong effect over a long period of time"; sustainability : "long-term effect").

Whether the use of the terms as a German translation for the English terms sustainable and sustainability , which are undoubtedly difficult to adequately translate , is actually a kind of conscious recourse to an etymologically original one that has been blurred over the centuries in colloquial language and in a 200 Years old text is once again demonstrable meaning, or whether we are dealing with a kind of "postponed legitimation" for the invention of a translational makeshift aid, should hardly be demonstrable. Regardless of this, however, we encounter here a conscious attempt to establish a meaning for a common term that is new to the vast majority of speakers.

Due to the frequency with which the term is used, especially in the media, both meanings now exist in parallel in the speaker's consciousness. The suspicion is that due to this popularity the meaningfulness of the term has decreased significantly and that the two meanings are often blurred and mixed up. The term is therefore often used today without an actual understanding of its background ("sustainable price development of stocks", "sustainable climate development"). Often it is actually meant to be permanent or permanent .

German discussion

Up until 1995 there were only a few centers for discussion on sustainability in Germany. The most important centers initially included the Wuppertal Institute under the direction of Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker and the Forum Environment and Development in Bonn (NGO). It was not until 1994 that the documents from the Rio Earth Summit, such as Agenda 21, were available in German. This also means that a broader implementation discussion has started. A contribution to the discussion that continues to have an effect to this day was made by the Study Sustainable Germany published in 1996 by the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy .

First implementation

The first major model project for the implementation of sustainability and the study "Sustainable Germany" was the national project awarded by Federal President Roman Herzog , the Altmühltal -Agenda 21-Projekt (1995–1998) of the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt , where over 100 measures in 25 project areas were carried out. The first Local Agenda 21 processes also started , in which local sustainability strategies were developed or decided.


As a result, the political discussion was conducted by several Enquête Commissions of the German Bundestag and on February 21, 2001 the Council for Sustainable Development was appointed and the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Sustainable Development (PBnE) set up in the German Bundestag for the first time on January 30, 2004 . Current issues relating to the term sustainability are discussed in events (called "opinion groups") at annual Council conferences. At the conference taking place in June 2011, as an example, opinion groups on the areas of economy, values, consumption, change, global issues and politics were put on the agenda.

In Germany there was a change of government after the 1998 Bundestag election on September 27, 1998 ; the first red-green coalition at the federal level took over the government (until the 2005 federal election on September 18, 2005 ) and Jürgen Trittin became Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety . This changed the environmental policy considerably; For example, in June 2000 the government implemented a nuclear phase-out based on the amount of residual electricity in the so-called nuclear consensus .

The Federal Statistical Office regularly prepares a biannual report entitled Sustainable Development in Germany . This describes the situation in Germany and the sustainability policy using sustainability indicators.

In January 2017, the federal government adopted the current sustainability strategy - it defines Germany's goals for all 17 “ Sustainable Development Goals ” (SDG).

international Developement

Constitutional law

Individual states have included sustainable development as a national goal in their constitution . This affects the Swiss Federal Constitution (Art. 2) since 1999 as well as the constitutions of Bhutan (see Gross National Happiness ) , Ecuador and Bolivia (see buen vivir ) .

Sustainable development has also been one of the goals in the basic treaty of the European Union since 2009, but there it competes with potentially conflicting goals such as the obligation to economic growth .


At the global level, the World Economic Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) supports companies in making their activities more sustainable and taking social and environmental aspects into account. In addition, attempts are being made in various branches of the economy to take up and discuss an economy that is in harmony with the principles of sustainable development . These include, for example, the construction and paper industry, the logistics and transport sector, green logistics, but also the electronics industry, which is discussed in more detail in the article Green IT . Under sustainable management , the integrated management of social, economic and ecological aspects is understood at the level of a company increasingly. In the meantime, the financial industry has also discovered the advantages of investing in sustainable assets.


After a long start-up phase, a large number of main areas of work developed in science from 1997. Today they range from the microeconomic view of “corporate environmental protection” to functional relationships such as “sustainable mobility”, “ sustainable consumption ” or “sustainable investment” to considerations of global relationships such as “global sustainability and WTO” and similar development policy . Since 2001 there has also been a sustainability science .

In terms of content, science took up the question as early as the 1980s, e.g. B. under the term general ecology. But these efforts were only able to take hold slowly. With the 2030 Agenda , the demands for a transformative science gain institutional importance.


On February 6, 2020, the first day of issue, Deutsche Post AG issued a special postage stamp with a face value of 80 euro cents on the topic of sustainable development . The design comes from the graphic artist Florian Pfeffer from Bremen.


Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Klaus-Georg Wey: Environmental Policy in Germany: Brief History of Environmental Protection in Germany since 1900 . Westdeutscher Verlag , Opladen 1982, ISBN 978-3-531-11578-8 , pp. 157 .
  2. Iris Borowy, Defining Sustainable Development: A History of the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission), Milton Park: Routledge 2014.
  3. Hannes G. Pauli : The "Spider" model. Vision and proposal of the working group for the promotion of general ecology, in: UniPress 67, Bern 1990
  4. Johannes Dingler: Postmodernism and Sustainability. A discourse theoretical analysis of the social constructions of sustainable development. oekom Verlag, Munich 2003.
  5. Siegmar Otto: Meaning and use of the terms sustainable development and sustainability - an empirical study. Bremen: Jacobs University Bremen 2007. (PDF file, approx. 5 MB)
  6. Volker Hauff: Our common future. The Brundtland Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development . Eggenkamp Verlag, Greven 1987, ISBN 978-3-923166-16-9 , pp. 46 .
  7. Volker Hauff: Our common future. The Brundtland Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. Eggenkamp Verlag, Greven 1987, ISBN 978-3-923166-16-9 , p. 48f.
  8. ^ Kurt Promberger / Hildegard Spiess / Werner Kössler: Company and Sustainability. A management-oriented introduction to the basics of sustainable business . Linde Verlag, Vienna 2006, ISBN 3-7073-0972-X , p. 25f.
  9. ^ Research center for the law of sustainable development - University of Bayreuth
  10. Karin Wullenweber: Word catch. What the language reveals about sustainability. in: Political Ecology. Munich 63 / 64.2000, pp. 23-24, ISSN  0933-5722
  11. Webpage ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability
  12. ^ Nigel Haigh, R. Andreas Kraemer: “Sustainable Development” in the treaties of the European Union. in: Journal for Environmental Law. Berlin 5.1996, pp. 239-242. ISSN  0943-383X
  13. Duden. German Universal Dictionary, 1996.
  14. ^ Franz von Assisi Academy for the Protection of the Earth - Project report on the Altmühltal Agenda 21 (PDF file, approx. 0.5 MB).
  15. ^ Events of the Council. (No longer available online.) German Council for Sustainable Development, archived from the original on February 8, 2011 ; Retrieved March 17, 2011 . Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  16. ^ Annual conference of the Council for Sustainable Development on June 20, 2011 in Berlin. German Council for Sustainable Development, archived from the original on February 6, 2011 ; Retrieved March 17, 2011 .
  17. Federal Government | News | New German sustainability strategy adopted. Retrieved January 20, 2017 .
  18. German Sustainability Strategy - New Edition 2016. (No longer available online.) Archived from the original on January 21, 2017 ; accessed on January 21, 2017 . Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  19. Hannes G. Pauli : The "Spider" model. Vision and proposal of the working group for the promotion of general ecology, in: UniPress 67, Bern 1990
  20. Visions of the researchers. Research on Sustainability and Global Change - Science Policy Visions of Swiss Researchers . ProClim, Bern 1997
  21. World in Transition: Social Contract for a Great Transformation . Main report 2011. Scientific Advisory Council of the Federal Government on Global Change WBGU, Berlin
  22. ^ Andreas Kläy; Anne Zimmermann; Flurina Schneider (2016). Instead of unwillingly intervening - reflexively transformative science. Bulletin of the Association of Swiss University Lecturers, 42 (3/4), pp. 46–52.
  23. Sustainable development special stamp