Sustainable development is commonly traced to the ‘Bruntland Report’. However, its origins wind their way back through earlier UN conferences, 18th and 19th century political economic thought, Rousseauian ideals, the modernism founded on Bacon and Descartes, early Christian utopianism, and classical utopias such as Republic and New Atlantis, which expressed themes of social justice, environmental stewardship and economic growth. This article follows these utopian themes back through the history of sustainable development thought, relying on contemporary histories and reviews of the field as well as certain original texts. We also identify these threads within, and their impact upon, contemporary narratives and debates. We conclude with the suggestion that awareness of these discursive streams can assist in the effective use of the tools and concepts available for sustainable development efforts. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.