History of sustainability

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The history of sustainability (english for originally German "Nachhaltigkeit") as a term is closely connected to the developement of the mining industry in the Ore mountains and its use of forestry ressources for construction, fuel and tooling. History of sustainability in generic terms is part of environmental history.


Sustainability has three basic meanings

  1. originally an persistent effect[1][2]
  2. in forestry science the concept of harvesting only the amount of timber that is regrowing in the same region and time frame[1]
  3. generically the principle of restricting the use of ressources to the amount that is available by regenerative means[1]

Already the early interaction between man and environment comprises struggles over resource control, crises, catastrophes, but also arrangements between competing interests, frugality and limitated resources for different purposes. Comparable fears of scarcity - real or not – caused already in the middle ages interventions that changed not only the traditional forms of economy but also the ecosystems itself.[3]

E.g. the medieval mining rushes resulted in regional wood shortages. The forest regulations of the (German) high middle ages took this into account and express an awareness of the finite nature of forest and of a mobilisation for its conservation. This was however a regional matter, as the transport means where rather limited. Nevertheless the late medieval period experienced large-scale clearances.[4] [5]

Later on, planning and regulation began to appear more and more as principles for the authorities dealing with the environemt, especially forests. Forest conservation, the restriction of access and use rights became a policy matter, around which both state authority and regional community structures were being developed. In so far the modern use of the term needs a larger, less regional perspective with came along with the absolutist governments in early modern times. Therefore the first use of sustainability as a forestry principle in the generic sense was provided by German nobleman and forestry expert Hans Carl von Carlowitz 1713 in his Silvicultura oeconomica.[6] According Carlowitz

wie eine sothane [solche] Conservation und Anbau des Holtzes anzustellen / daß es eine continuirliche beständige und nachhaltende Nutzung gebe / weiln es eine unentbehrliche Sache ist / ohne welche das Land in seinem Esse nicht bleiben mag (how to preserve and cultivate forests, that a continued and sustained usage is given, since it (wood) is an essential thing, without the land will not stay in its essence)


Environmental history

Main article: Environmental history

The history of human-dominated ecological systems from the earliest civilizations to the present is dealt by environmental history and the regional success of a particular society, followed by crises that were either resolved by sustainable means or not and lead to decline and major changes of some societies and nations.[8][9]

In early human history, the use of fire and desire for specific foods may have altered the natural composition of plant and animal communities.[10] Between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago, Agrarian communities emerged which depended largely on their environment and the creation of a "structure of permanence."[11]

The Western industrial revolution of the 17th to 19th centuries tapped into the vast growth potential of the energy in fossil fuels. Coal was used to power ever more efficient engines and later to generate electricity. Modern sanitation systems and advances in medicine protected large populations from disease.[12] In the mid-20th century, a gathering environmental movement pointed out that there were environmental costs associated with the many material benefits that were now being enjoyed. In the late 20th century, environmental problems became global in scale.[13][14][15][16] The 1973 and 1979 energy crises demonstrated the extent to which the global community had become dependent on non-renewable energy resources.

In the 21st century, there is increasing global awareness of the threat posed by the human-induced enhanced greenhouse effect, produced largely by forest clearing and the burning of fossil fuels.[17][18]

Emergence of industrial societies

Further information: Fossil fuels
A Watt steam engine, the steam engine fuelled primarily by coal that propelled the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the world

Technological advances over several millennia gave humans increasing control over the environment. But it was the Western industrial revolution of the 18th to 19th centuries that tapped into the vast growth potential of the energy in fossil fuels. Coal was used to power ever more efficient engines and later to generate electricity. Modern sanitation systems and advances in medicine protected large populations from disease.[12] Such conditions led to a human population explosion and unprecedented industrial, technological and scientific growth that has continued to this day, marking the commencement of a period of global human influence known as the Anthropocene. From 1650 to 1850 the global population doubled from around 500 million to 1 billion people.[19]

Concerns about the environmental and social impacts of industry were expressed by some Enlightenment political economists and through the Romantic movement of the 1800s. The Reverend Thomas Malthus, devised catastrophic and much-criticized theories of "overpopulation", while John Stuart Mill foresaw the desirability of a "stationary state" economy, thus anticipating concerns of the modern discipline of ecological economics.[20][21][22] In the late 19th century Eugenius Warming was the first botanist to study physiological relations between plants and their environment, heralding the scientific discipline of ecology.[23]

Early 20th century

By the 20th century, the industrial revolution had led to an exponential increase in the human consumption of resources. The increase in health, wealth and population was perceived as a simple path of progress.[24] However, in the 1930s economists began developing models of non-renewable resource management (see Hotelling's rule)[25] and the sustainability of welfare in an economy that uses non-renewable resources (Hartwick's rule).[26]

Ecology had now gained general acceptance as a scientific discipline, and many concepts vital to sustainability were being explored. These included: the interconnectedness of all living systems in a single living planetary system, the biosphere; the importance of natural cycles (of water, nutrients and other chemicals, materials, waste); and the passage of energy through trophic levels of living systems.[27]

Mid 20th century: environmentalism

Following the deprivations of the great depression and World War II the developed world entered a new period of escalating growth, a post-1950s "great acceleration ... a surge in the human enterprise that has emphatically stamped humanity as a global geophysical force."[28] A gathering environmental movement pointed out that there were environmental costs associated with the many material benefits that were now being enjoyed. Innovations in technology (including plastics, synthetic chemicals, nuclear energy) and the increasing use of fossil fuels, were transforming society. Modern industrial agriculture—the "Green Revolution" — was based on the development of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides which had devastating consequences for rural wildlife, as documented by American marine biologist, naturalist and environmentalist Rachel Carson in Silent Spring (1962).

In 1956, American geoscientist M. King Hubbert's peak oil theory predicted an inevitable peak of oil production, first in the United States (between 1965 and 1970), then in successive regions of the world - with a global peak expected thereafter.[29] In the 1970s environmentalism's concern with pollution, the population explosion, consumerism and the depletion of finite resources found expression in Small Is Beautiful, by British economist E. F. Schumacher in 1973, and The Limits to Growth published by the global think tank, the Club of Rome, in 1975.

Late 20th century

Further information: Sustainability and Sustainable development

Environmental problems were now becoming global in scale.[13][14][15][16] The 1973 and 1979 energy crises demonstrated the extent to which the global community had become dependent on a nonrenewable resource; President Carter in his State of the Union Address called on Americans to "Conserve energy. Eliminate waste. Make 1980 indeed a year of energy conservation."[30] While the developed world was considering the problems of unchecked development the developing countries, faced with continued poverty and deprivation, regarded development as essential to raise the living standards of their peoples.[31] In 1980 the International Union for Conservation of Nature had published its influential World Conservation Strategy,[32] followed in 1982 by its World Charter for Nature,[33] which drew attention to the decline of the world’s ecosystems.

In 1987 the United Nation's World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission), in its report Our Common Future suggested that development was acceptable, but it must be sustainable development that would meet the needs of the poor while not increasing environmental problems. Humanity’s demand on the planet has more than doubled over the past 45 years as a result of population growth and increasing individual consumption. In 1961 almost all countries in the world had more than enough capacity to meet their own demand; by 2005 the situation had changed radically with many countries able to meet their needs only by importing resources from other nations.[14] A move toward sustainable living by increasing public awareness and adoption of recycling, and renewable energies emerged. The development of renewable sources of energy in the 1970s and 80's, primarily in wind turbines and photovoltaics and increased use of hydroelectricity, presented some of the first sustainable alternatives to fossil fuel and nuclear energy generation, the first large-scale solar and wind power plants appearing during the 1980s and 90's.[34][35] Also at this time many local and state governments in developed countries began to implement small-scale sustainability policies.[36]

21st century: global awareness

Through the work of climate scientists in the IPCC there is increasing global awareness of the threat posed by the human-induced enhanced greenhouse effect, produced largely by forest clearing and the burning of fossil fuels.[17][18] In March 2009 the Copenhagen Climate Council, an international team of leading climate scientists, issued a strongly worded statement: "The climate system is already moving beyond the patterns of natural variability within which our society and economy have developed and thrived. These parameters include global mean surface temperature, sea-level rise, ocean and ice sheet dynamics, ocean acidification, and extreme climatic events. There is a significant risk that many of the trends will accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts."[37]

Ecological economics now seeks to bridge the gap between ecology and traditional neoclassical economics:[38][39] it provides an inclusive and ethical economic model for society. A plethora of new concepts to help implement and measure sustainability are becoming more widely accepted including: the Car-free movement, Smart Growth (more sustainable urban environments), Life Cycle Assessment (the Cradle to Cradle analysis of resource use and environmental impact over the life cycle of a product or process), Ecological Footprint Analysis, green building, dematerialization (increased recycling of materials), decarbonisation (removing dependence on fossil fuels) and much more.[40]

The work of Bina Agarwal and Vandana Shiva amongst many others, has brought some of the cultural wisdom of traditional, sustainable agrarian societies into the academic discourse on sustainability, and also blended that with modern scientific principles.[41] In 2009 the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States determined that greenhouse gases "endanger public health and welfare" of the American people by contributing to climate change and causing more heat waves, droughts and flooding, and threatening food and water supplies.[42] Rapidly advancing technologies now provide the means to achieve a transition of economies, energy generation, water and waste management, and food production towards sustainable practices using methods of systems ecology and industrial ecology.[43][44]

See also


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  2. ^ Jacob Grimm, Wilhelm Grimm: nachhaltig. In: Deutsches Wörterbuch. Band 13, Hirzel, Leipzig 1869, Spalte 69.
  3. ^ Frank Uekötter, Umweltgeschichte im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Enzyklopädie deutscher Geschichte, Bd. 81, (hg. v. Lothar Gall), München 2007, S. 8.
  4. ^ Joachim Radkau, Technik in Deutschland. Vom 18. Jahrhundert bis heute. Frankfurt/New York 2008, p. 74.
  5. ^ review of Joachim Radkau Wood: A History Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012. 399 pp. by Vaso Seirinidou University of Athens
  6. ^ Ulrich Grober: Urtexte – Carlowitz und die Quellen unseres Nachhaltigkeitsbegriffs. In: Natur und Landschaft. Jahrgang 2013, Heft 2, S. 46.
  7. ^ Hans Carl von Carlowitz: Sylvicultura oeconomica. Braun, Leipzig 1732, S. 105.
  8. ^ Beddoea, R., Costanzaa, R., Farleya, J., Garza, E., Kent, J., Kubiszewski, I., Martinez, L., McCowen, T., Murphy, K., Myers, N., Ogden, Z., Stapleton, K., and Woodward, J. (February 24, 2009). "Overcoming systemic roadblocks to sustainability: The evolutionary redesign of worldviews, institutions, and technologies." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 106 8 2483–2489. Retrieved on: 2009-08-20.
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