- Global Futures PastOur Common Future, Postcolonial Times, and Worldly Ecologies
Each one of these speeches belongs to a different time. I would say that the speech of the discourse of the rubber tappers is of the present time. The government speech is that of the past time and that of the UN of the future.—Mary Allegretti, World Commission on Environment and Development public hearing
In their maps of the future, there is no sense of place, no touch of embeddedness, no names of towns smacking of magic and memory.—Shiv Visvanathan, “Mrs. Brundtland’s Disenchanted Cosmos”
Our Common Future, published in 1987, was a highly influential policy report that optimistically outlined a global framework for a sustainable form of development. It was the culmination of the work of the World Commission on Environment and Development (widely known as the Brundtland Commission after its chair, Norwegian Labour leader and prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland), which had been given a mandate in 1983 by the United Nations General Assembly “to propose long-term environmental strategies for achieving sustainable development by the year 2000 and beyond.”1 While the concept of sustainability popularized by the Brundtland report had a prolific future, remaining a buzzword well into the twenty-first century, the Brundtland Commission conceived of a future now past. Our time is its beyond.
Can we now say that sustainable development is a future that did not come to be? A “generation’s time” has passed since the World Commission [End Page 21] urged its audience “to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” still the classic definition of sustainable development.2 The needs of people in the “present” of the commission were not met, much less their varied political-ecological demands, some of which were recorded at the public hearings held by the commission from 1985–87 and quoted extensively throughout the report. And what of us, who were once the future—did we arrive at our “now” without compromised ecologies? Or might we conclude that the future of sustainable development came just as predicted, in that its much-criticized embrace of economic growth contributed all too readily to the neoliberal futures that followed, with intensified privatization and enclosure of ecological commons: waters, forests, agricultural lands, and seeds, not to mention the global markets in carbon emissions?3
Taking Our Common Future as a global “future past” or “the past’s future,” an approach to futurity conceived in an earlier time and place, might seem to misjudge its intent.4 The World Commission insisted that Our Common Future was not “prediction,” “forecast,” or “blueprint,” explicitly distancing itself from the infamous ecological predictions of the 1970s, ridiculed when they did not come to pass or when utopian blueprints, like The Ecologist’s 1972 “Blueprint for Survival,” faded like fads, showing themselves to be all too much of a particular time, place, and class.5 Instead, as “a call to action” with a set of ethical and political commitments and international signatories, the report and commission were an aspirational political project, somewhat parallel to the 1955 Bandung conference that announced the solidarity of decolonizing and newly independent, nonaligned Third World nations.6 Many would thus aver that sustainable development could still come—thatit remains a viable political vision and that it is premature to relegate it to that clichéd repository, the so-called dustbins of history, where what is no longer useful is labeled “waste.” That the Bandung project has been variously declared a past future once valid but now obsolete in the new “problem-space” of globalization, revisited as a utopian project still relevant in its prophetic promise of an alternate present, and rejected as a mystifying “dead-weight” gives some sense of the political stakes involved in the project of retrospective futurity.7
Our Common Future is both similar to and different from other kinds of past aspirational political projects and environmental discourses, [End Page 22] which is why I turn back to how it conceived—and narratively constructed—a global environmental futurity. Some aspects of the World Commission’s global futurity...