History of Sustainable Development in the United States

Jan 10th, 2021 | by  Kavya Jain

“Preservation of the environment, promotion of sustainable development, and particular attention to climate change are matters of grave concern for the entire human family.” - Pope Benedict XVI

What is Sustainable Development?


Sustainable development is defined by the United Nations as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The sustainable development goals laid down by the UN are focused on three aspects: economic progress, social involvement, and environment preservation. 

The Beginning of the Movement

In the United States, sustainable development began with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. NEPA was established to encourage harmony between man and environment, and enhance understanding of the ecosystem. It came into being in response to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, where 3 million gallons of crude oil spewed into the ocean, killing thousands of birds, animals and mammals. The event led to the commencement of the environmental movement. 

Image: UN Conference, 1972

The following crucial step in the growth of sustainable development practices was the United Nations Conference of 1972 in Sweden. The conference was essential in order to bring together the developing nations in outlining the rights of humans to a healthy environment, with adequate shelter, food, water and means of family planning. The issue of environmental protection and human welfare was thereby discussed on an international platform, bringing nationwide recognition and concerns to the table. 

Fifteen years later, the World Commission on Environment and Development was given the responsibility to formulate a proposal to address worldwide critical problems related to environment and development. This led to the articulation of the 1987 Brundtland Report, which established a global path for sustainable development and brought the concept of sustainability to the forefront. 

The 1992 UN Conference on Environment & Development was the next ground-breaking step with the adoption of Agenda 21. The conference was attended by representatives of over 178 governments. The Agenda assigned every nation to adopt a sustainable model for development, with social and economic progress, putting forward a path for change. This summit, held in Rio de Janerio, created awareness amongst world leaders about the major challenges related to sustainable development, as it remains today.


Another notable protocol in guiding the international community towards sustainable development was the Kyoto Climate Agreement of 1997. The objective of this protocol was to reduce emissions of the signatories, particularly of developed countries, such as the USA, which are the biggest contributors to air pollution and its consequences. 

The Way Forward

Over the years, several UN conferences have provided a blueprint for the landmark decision taken in 2015. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by all the member states for the shared prosperity of the planet, in the present and the future. The 17 Sustainable Development (SDG) goals laid out in the agenda highlighted the several economic, social, and environmental challenges faced by nations across the world, including poverty, hunger, health, clean water, sanitation, sustainability, infrastructure, and peace. 

The SDGs build on the progress from the Millennium Development Goals of 2000-2015. They are focused on bringing the world to numerous life-altering zeroes, such as zero poverty, hunger, and discrimination. The global sustainability goals provide a road map for the development of a sustainable future. With equality and inclusion as the central drivers for this progress, SDGs unites the most vulnerable in order to uplift the people and society.


The 2018 Sustainable Development Report of the United States gave a detailed state-wise analysis of the progress in the direction of sustainability. Despite being one of the richest countries in the world, the US is not a top performer on the SDG index. The focus of the US economy on profits, at the cost of the poor and the environment, is the major obstacle in sustainable growth. The US had turned its back on several agreements pertaining to the environment, due to greed taking precedence over the future.

Call to Action

The purpose is not to shame the country or any state, but to throw light on the gaps between the targets and the current stage of achievement. The United States needs to step up their actions, resort to better practices, and not destroy the environment or humans at the cost of money and greed. Learn from the leaders on the SDG index and become a frontrunner, not a failure. 



Kavya Jain

Kavya Jain

Post-Graduate Student at CEPT University

More from author