While the modern concept of sustainable development is derived mostly from the 1987 Brundtland Report, it is also rooted in earlier ideas about sustainable forest management and twentieth century environmental concerns. As the concept developed, it has shifted to focus more on economic development, social development and environmental protection for future generations. It has been suggested that "the term 'sustainability' should be viewed as humanity's target goal of human-ecosystem equilibrium (homeostasis), while 'sustainable development' refers to the holistic approach and temporal processes that lead us to the end point of sustainability". The modern economies are endeavouring to reconcile ambitious economic development and obligations of preserving the natural resources and ecosystem, the two are traditionally seen as of conflicting nature. Instead of holding climate change commitments and other sustainability measures as a drag to economic development, turning and leveraging them into market opportunities will do greater good. The economic development brought by such organized principles and practices in an economy is called Managed Sustainable Development (MSD).
The concept of sustainable development has been—and still is—subject to criticism. What, exactly, is to be sustained in sustainable development? It has been argued that there is no such thing as a sustainable use of a non-renewable resource, since any positive rate of exploitation will eventually lead to the exhaustion of earth's finite stock. This perspective renders the industrial revolution as a whole unsustainable. It has also been argued that the meaning of the concept has opportunistically been stretched from "conservation management" to "economic development", and that the Brundtland Report promoted nothing but a business as usual strategy for world development, with an ambiguous and insubstantial concept attached as a public relations slogan.
Sustainability can be defined as the practice of maintaining processes of productivity indefinitely—natural or human made—by replacing resources used with resources of equal or greater value without degrading or endangering natural biotic systems. Sustainable development ties together concern for the carrying capacity of natural systems with the social, political, and economic challenges faced by humanity. Sustainability science is the study of the concepts of sustainable development and environmental science. There is an additional focus on the present generations' responsibility to regenerate, maintain and improve planetary resources for use by future generations.:3-8
Sustainable development has its roots in ideas about sustainable forest management which were developed in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.:6-16 In response to a growing awareness of the depletion of timber resources in England, John Evelyn argued that "sowing and planting of trees had to be regarded as a national duty of every landowner, in order to stop the destructive over-exploitation of natural resources" in his 1662 essay Sylva. In 1713 Hans Carl von Carlowitz, a senior mining administrator in the service of Elector Frederick Augustus I of Saxony published Sylvicultura oeconomica, a 400-page work on forestry. Building upon the ideas of Evelyn and French minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, von Carlowitz developed the concept of managing forests for sustained yield. His work influenced others, including Alexander von Humboldt and Georg Ludwig Hartig, eventually leading to the development of a science of forestry. This in turn influenced people like Gifford Pinchot, first head of the US Forest Service, whose approach to forest management was driven by the idea of wise use of resources, and Aldo Leopold whose land ethic was influential in the development of the environmental movement in the 1960s.
Following the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962, the developing environmental movement drew attention to the relationship between economic growth and development and environmental degradation. Kenneth E. Boulding in his influential 1966 essay The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth identified the need for the economic system to fit itself to the ecological system with its limited pools of resources. One of the first uses of the term sustainable in the contemporary sense was by the Club of Rome in 1972 in its classic report on the Limits to Growth, written by a group of scientists led by Dennis and Donella Meadows of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Describing the desirable "state of global equilibrium", the authors wrote: "We are searching for a model output that represents a world system that is sustainable without sudden and uncontrolled collapse and capable of satisfying the basic material requirements of all of its people."