In recent years, “sustainability” has evolved into a term that is difficult to avoid. Corporations launch projects focusing on sustainability and the concept is also an integral part of negotiations such as in the United Nations. Given how strong the trend around sustainability is, at first glance it might seem that it is a relatively new idea. But as Jeremy L. Caradonna’s book “The History of sustainability” says, the concept goes much deeper into history.
The first real ancestors of sustainability can be found in the Enlightenment period in late 17th and early 18th centuries in Europe. At first, people started talking about sustainability especially in Germany, France and England. At that time, it was mainly around excessive deforestation. Forests were extremely important to the pre-industrial society, not just for Europeans, but also for people all over the world, because wood represented a major source of energy. With the growing volume of agriculture and forestry, personalities appeared that begun to worry about the fact that reckless exploitation of natural resources could threaten the economy. Therefore they started focusing on exploring possible consequences of such massive forest loss.
They argued that these losses would not necessarily lead to the collapse of society, but certainly the society, as we know it, would not continue to exist. So they promoted a concept, which was later known as sustainable forestry. In this time, Hans-Carl von Carlowitz first came with the term of sustainability (in German: Nachhaltigkeit) in 1713. He spoke of the need to ensure a continuous supply of timber, so forges and mines in Saxony would continue working.
A short-term solution to this problem represented coal mining. Between 1700 and 1850 Europe lost about 25 million hectares of forest. Not until mid 19th century did we see the decline of deforestation, which was due to coal mining. It solved the problem of deforestation, but as we know, coal mining and industrial revolution brought new problems.
One of the first sustainability rhetoricians was also the conservative preacher and early demographer Thomas Malthus, who was concerned that people will soon exceed their natural resource limits. He warned about the possible destruction caused by overpopulation, which had a particularly large impact. It was a hot topic, as in the period between 1650 and 1850 the population size doubled from 500 million to 1 billion.
The 1970s energy crisis clearly demonstrated the extent to which civilization is dependent on non-renewable energy sources. This also helped strengthen the interest in sustainability and the discussion about it then resulted in the first official definition of sustainable development, as we know it today. It was published in 1987 as part of a UN report “Our Common Future”.
The concept of sustainability has evolved in different directions over the years. But what all of those movements share is the belief in the need to respect natural resources.