The ‘Sustainable Development’ concept arises from the need of a concerted effort from nations to foster a model of global economic development compatible with the preservation of the natural environment and social equity.

Its precedents go as far back as the fifties, when concerns surrounding the environmental damage from World War II emerged. However, it was until 1987 when the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) of the UN, led by Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, presented the “Our Common Future” report, also known as the “Brundtland Report,” which was widely spread and coins the most known definition of sustainable development:

“Sustainable development is the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (WCED, 1987:41)

Sustainable development has become a “political manifesto;” it has risen as a powerful proclamation that guides citizens, civil organizations, and governments to promote actions, ethical principles, and new institutions with a common goal: sustainability.

In line with the above, sustainable development is based on three analytical principles:

  • Development that satisfies the needs of current generations.                                                                             

This intragenerational thesis means that political participation is needed in order to create new institutions that keep up with cultural changes reducing social exclusion, that is, that the institutions reorganize daily life and social reproduction. This requires broaching issues such as:

a) Demographic pattern. Human mortality reduction and the large sectors of population joining the consumer society, among other aspects, have caused an exponential increase in foodstuff demand, causing food crises in some parts of the world. This is why we need to take action on the demographic pattern and, for instance, introduce voluntary birth regulations that will help stabilize population numbers gradually.

b) Social equity. Intragenerational solidarity is another fundamental aspect for the sustainable development. Goals and politics must be redefined to achieve a greater equality of income distribution and reduce the gap between developed and developing countries. To achieve equality there must be economic growth that generates jobs; that is more equitable so the results of the work benefits everyone and not just a few; that includes the voices of the community through democratization; that strengthens cultural identity; that cares for the natural resources and natural environment to move towards a better future.

c) New policies for new institutions. Political reform is a necessary condition to achieve sustainable development and reduce social inequality. Political reforms can help avoid the destruction of the environment by promoting integral political decisions that won’t have any social or environmental impact in the case of making economic decisions. Likewise, institutional reform requires modification of international cooperation and global governance processes.

d) A new civilizing culture. Historic evolution in regards to the environment, economy and society has become unsustainable. Transformations need to reach the depths of humanity through a change in civilization, a change of values, of priorities, of meaningful options that place the physical realm in the right dimension so that the human being can achieve fulfillment in harmony with his natural environment and community.

  • A development that respects the natural environment                                                                                           

 The central premise of this thesis is that development shouldn’t degrade the biophysical environment nor exhaust the natural resources. This premise is what has given meaning to all international consensus since the Stockholm summit of 1972, which goes through the “Our Common Future” report in 1987, but above all with a strategic sense since the Rio Summit in 1992, promoting reflection on how to make compatible the needs and aspirations of human societies with the preservation of the integrity of natural systems. It’s also recognized that natural degradation produced by human activities is not a homogeneous phenomenon, rather it depends on development styles, life style, and environmental conditions.

  • A development that doesn’t sacrifice the rights of future generations                                                            

There will be future generations that will have to satisfy their basic needs, but it’s hard to know what these basic needs will be and how they will satisfy them. Intergenerational justice is a condition linked both to social equity and the preservation of the environment today. In other words, from now on poverty cannot increase, since the poor cannot afford to get poorer in the future and the rich sectors and countries must reduce their living and consumption standards so we don’t mortgage the present and future of the planet. Likewise, maintaining the integrity of the planet in the long term is also a requirement of sustainability of current generations.

Thus, the notion of development, focused on progressive material development, has been challenged by a broader, complex, and holistic vision, where quantity is subsumed in quality, that articulates the caring of the environment, as well as ecosystem integrity, solidary social relationships guided towards equity, and political institutional environments for the practice of democratic governance, building blocks of the holistic vision of sustainable development.

From this perspective, the sustainable development concept emerges as a holistic conceptual proposal that encompasses at least five dimensions: economic, environmental, social, political, and cultural. These dimensions cover topics like equity, job opportunities, and access to productive assets, good government, and active civil society in regards to social participation, among others, focusing in both the quantity and quality aspects of development.


Sustainable development in Mexico

For decades, development policies in Mexico did not pay attention to the economic and social costs of population growth. The unequal territorial distribution of the population, the impact of productive activities and urbanization on the quality of air, water and soil, ignoring the implications of the degradation and destruction of natural resources, led to the emergence of serious environmental crises, especially in metropolitan areas, as well as the degradation of soils caused by deforestation in rural areas.

Faced with the growing demand of civil society for the emergence of these crises, in the seventies the first institutions were created to address the problems arising from pollution: in 1971, the Federal Law to Prevent and Control Environmental Pollution was enacted; in 1972 the Undersecretariat for the Improvement of the Environment was created within the framework of the Ministry of Health and Public Assistance, and in 1976 the General Directorate of Urban Ecology was established within the Secretariat of Human Settlements and Public Works.

However, the concept of sustainable development as such began to given importance in Mexico until the end of the eighties, thanks to the work done by research groups that promoted it from the academy and the official position to comply with international agreements that proposed its implementation, moving in this way towards a second stage of creation of new dependencies and laws for the realization of this process aimed at sustainability at the national and local levels.

Although the first antecedent in the country is from 1983, when the Undersecretary of Ecology was created within the Secretariat of Urban Development and Ecology (SEDUE), which assigned new responsibilities and grouped functions related to the environment that they were dispersed in different federal dependencies, it was in 1988 when the world process agitated by the “Brundtland Report” opens the way towards sustainability and in a particular way did echoe in Mexico with the promulgation of the General Law of Ecological Equilibrium and Environmental Protection (LGEEPA).

In 1992, the SEDUE was transformed into the Secretariat of Social Development (SEDESOL) to promote a more articulated institutional framework between social and environmental policies. Shortly afterwards, the Undersecretariat of Ecology separated its functions from regulations and those of inspection and verification, giving rise to the National Institute of Ecology (INE) and the Federal Attorney’s Office for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA). In the same year, the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO) was also created.

In 1994, Mexico did a big institutional leap with the creation of the Secretariat of Environment, Natural Resources and Fisheries (SEMARNAP), which strengthened the government’s management considering ecological conservation and the sustainable use of resources. In 2000, SEMARNAP became the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) and the area of ​​responsibility for fishing was absorbed by the agricultural sector. And from that moment on there have been several changes in the institutional engineering of the government sector associated with environmental management, which seek to better respond to the complex tasks involved in this activity. Some relevant laws that have been enacted are:

In addition to the strengthening that has been given to the institutional framework with the creation of the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) in 2000 and the National Forestry Commission in 2001.

However, in order to establish the priority of sustainable development, institutional changes are required at different levels that allow to efficiently operate and specify integrated policy decisions that go beyond the secretarial jurisdictions, that is, these changes must involve all sectors and the three levels of government.

This is due to the fact that the modus operandi of traditional state structures for the formulation of public policies continues to predominate and is inadequate to induce the transition to sustainable development, since it reproduces an institutional dynamic that does not favor information for the public, transparency of the management and accountability, as well as the effective participation of the stakeholders and the definition of viable scheduled goals subject to scrutiny and compliance with regulations and policies.

In Mexico, environmental degradation and depletion of natural resources has been growing. The Institute of Statistics, Geography and Informatics (INEGI) has estimated through the System of Economic and Ecological Accounts of Mexico (SCEEM) that the negative impacts by determining the total costs for depletion and environmental degradation, in 2016 was equivalent to 4.6 % of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This measurement is expressed through the Ecological Gross Domestic Product (GDPE), an indicator that allows to identify the impact that the use and deterioration of natural resources has on the economy due to the economic activities of production, distribution and consumption.

Added to this and in a synchronic manner, the social aspects have deteriorated markedly since the implementation of the international opening economic model and the emergence of neoliberal policy since 1982. This deterioration has been manifested mainly in the weakening of formal employment and purchasing power of salaries, in the loss of quality of health care services and education, as well as in the increase in the cost of housing.

To assess this problem, the National Population Council (CONAPO) created the index of marginalization that accounts for the state that state social and municipal conditions. In 2005, the percentage of urban population with very high marginalization rate was 5.1% and with a high marginalization rate of 15.8%, while for 2010, the percentage increased to 4.6% at the very high level of marginalization and to 20.1% at the high level; giving this sample of what was indicated above about the increasing deterioration of the economic and social conditions of the population. Continuing with the above, in 2005 the proportion of urban population with marginalization of middle level was 24.8%, low level was 33.5% and very low level of 20.9%; while in 2010 the percentages were of 35.6%, 20.4% and 19.3%, respectively.

Also, within the challenges to move to sustainability, it is important to highlight the complicated process of transition to democracy, which has a turning point in the student movement of 1968, which derives a social process that seeks to establish an electoral system representative of the different political forces of the country. The creation of the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) in 1990, the establishment of the Federal Institute for Access to Information in 2003; the constitutional reform in political-electoral matters, published on February 10th, 2014, redesigned the Mexican electoral regime and transformed the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) into a national authority: the National Electoral Institute (INE), in order to standardize the standards with which the federal and local electoral processes are organized to guarantee high levels of quality in our electoral democracy. And the Attorney General’s Office (PGR), in order to reaffirm in the national and international spheres, the conviction of the government of the Republic to fight corruption by averting all practice of impunity, on March 12th, 2014 published in the Official Gazette of the Federation Agreement A/011/14 establishing the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office in the area of ​​Crimes related to Corruption Events, which has as its object the investigation and prosecution of crimes related to acts of corruption, with the exception of those committed by public servants of the PGR. Which are part of the changes necessary for democratic life.