Sustainable development (or sustainability) is a decision-making framework for maintaining and achieving human well-being, both in the present and into the future. The framework requires both consideration and the achievement of environmental protection, social justice and economic development. In that framework, environmental protection must be integrated into decisions about social and economic development, and social justice and economic viability must be integrated into decisions about environmental quality.
As sustainable development has grown in prominence, its critics have become more numerous and more vocal. Three major lines of criticism are that the term is ‘too boring’ to command public attention, ‘too vague’ to provide guidance, and ‘too late’ to address the world’s problems. Critics suggest goals such as abundance, environmental integrity, and resilience. Beginning with the international agreements that have shaped the concept of sustainable development, this article provides a functional and historical analysis of the meaning of sustainable development. It then analyzes and responds to each of the above criticisms. It argues that the critics, understood constructively, suggest ways of strengthening this framework, but do not provide a compelling alternative. The challenge for lawyers, lawmakers, and others is to use and improve the sustainability framework to make better decisions.