The paper examines the conceptual history of ‘sustainable development’, from the Brundtland Commission's definition in 1987 to the present day. It argues that the superficial consensus that has characterized much of the early debate has given way to a series of parallel but distinct discourses around sustainability. The underlying assumptions behind much of the discussion are assessed, as is the move, after the first Earth Summit (1992), to focus on rights, rather than needs, as the principal line of enquiry. This analytical attention to rights is linked to the neo-liberal economic agendas of the 1990s, and the growth of interest in congruent areas, including human security and the environment, social capital, critical natural capital and intellectual property rights. The paper argues that increasing attention to questions of biology and science studies has strengthened this ‘rights-based’ approach, as well as interest in the linkages between ‘natural’ and ‘human’ systems, including attention to questions of environmental justice. It is clear that issues of global environmental justice are as important as they were when the concept of ‘sustainable development’ was in its infancy, but the new material realities of science and the environment in the 21st century demand a re-engagement with their social consequences, something which is largely ignored by the (market) liberal consensus. Copyright © 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.