Sustainability: How It All Began
A Brief History
Where did it all start, and why should you care?
As a concept, it’s rooted in man’s beginnings. As a word, it’s full of moral implications. The very thought of it conjures up delightful images of a better world.
Bright-eyed people, in colorful T-shirts, harvest armfuls of organic leafy greens in lushly verdant gardens. Third world citizens pump pure, sweet water from the barren earth. Fields of majestic wind turbines generate clean electricity for once smoggy cities.
Clearly, sustainability paints a rosy picture of a future, bright with promise.
Until it doesn’t anymore.
Civilization’s dying hope
Somewhere around the late 1990s, sustainability began to lose its luster. Language fatigue set in. The word was tacked on to every conceivable element – sustainable oil production comes to mind — and co-opted for greenwashing and branding by corporations, politicians, and the media.
But is it just a new name for an old concept or some catchall buzzword for our time?
While the word waxes and wanes in public popularity, the principle will never die. It is part of the fiber of all the civilizations that have come and gone and is the only way forward for man’s survival.
Despite the apathy, sustainability is a force for good. But why should you care?
What’s needed is a fresh outlook on this ancient concept. Let’s go back to the beginning and explore the origins, impact, and significance of sustainability on civilization and our modern society.
Leaving the cave behind
Back when some early caveperson decided they were tired of eating raw Mastodon and wild roots, fire was discovered. Chargrilled meat quickly took off, and before you knew it, our ancestors were starting settlements and planting food.
Up until then, these nomadic hunter-gatherers hadn’t needed much in the way of energy and other resources. But around 12,000 years ago, humans started domesticating animals and cultivating crops, marking the start of the Neolithic Revolution.
These early farming societies relied on the environment. If a community outgrew its food supply or exhausted essential resources, it was forced to move or die out.
And so we left our Neolithic roots behind. This was obviously a successful move; by the 1600s, the global population had grown to about 500 million people.
The short road from farming to industry
By 1850 the world’s population had doubled, and man was beginning to tap into the vast energy potential of fossil fuels. When the industrial revolution started in the 18th century, coal quickly replaced steam providing power for machinery and generating electricity.
For the first time, extraordinary luxuries like plumbing and running water became commonplace. Quality of life improved, medicine advanced rapidly, and science and technology developed. And all this progress led to a human population explosion.
Naturally, there were voices of concern. Environmental and social problems created by unchecked industrialization gave us the industrial revolution reformers.
Progress at any cost
When the 1900s rolled around, the industrial revolution had seen a massive jump in humanity’s use of resources. Man, as usual, was galloping along greedily enjoying better health and wealth. The soaring birth rate was merely another sign of progress.
This ushered in the dawn of Anthropocene, defined as:
“The term … the Earth has now left its natural geological epoch […] Human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the Earth into planetary terra incognita.”
By the 1930s economists had started thinking about the use of nonrenewable resources and their management. Questions were raised. Was welfare sustainable in an economy based on nonrenewable resources?
Around this time, the new scientific discipline of Ecology was becoming recognized, and many ideas critical to sustainability were explored.
The birth of environmentalism
In the mid-20th century, after the shortages of the great depression and the horrors of World War II, the world dived into a new frenzy of ever-increasing growth. Sometimes called the “great acceleration,” the post-1950s was a flood of human initiative.
This period in history gave us plastics, nuclear power, synthetic chemicals, and the Green Revolution – that would later prove to be anything but “green.” It also gave us Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, the American environmentalist, marine biologist, and naturalist.
The budding environmental movement was counting the costs of the many material advantages now on offer. Developments in technology were all very well and good but were they worth the growing use of fossil fuels?
American geoscientist, M. King Hubbert posited his peak oil theory in 1956. And by the 1970s environmental concerns were focused on pollution, the population explosion, consumerism and the inevitable demise of nonrenewable resources. And there wasn’t anything funny about that.
Our wakeup call
The western world learned by the late 1970s just how much their economies relied on nonrenewable resources. Man had lived through the 1973 and 1979 energy crises and was reaping the rewards of unchecked development.
The heat was on when The International Union for Conservation of Nature published its World Conservation Strategy in 1980. This was followed by the World Charter for Nature in 1982, clearly showing the decline of the world’s ecosystems.
Yet faced with ongoing poverty and scarcity, developing countries still viewed development as the key to raise the living standards of their people.
In 1987, the term “sustainable development” entered the collective conscience for the first time with the publication of the report Our Common Future from the United Nation’s World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission).
The report established that development was needed but only when it could help the poor without adding to environmental damage.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, visionaries started to rise to the challenge. Renewable sources of energy were developed. Wind turbines, photovoltaics, and greater use of hydroelectricity gave us our first sustainable replacements for fossil fuel.
The 1980s and ‘90s, saw large-scale solar and wind power plants enter the playing field. Small-scale sustainability initiatives began to show up in state and local governments. And there was a growing public awareness that sustainable living meant embracing recycling and renewable energy.
Mankind’s demands on the planet over the last 45 years had more than doubled. Between 1961 and 2005, most countries had gone from meeting their own needs to the necessity of importing resources from other nations.
Thanks to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), no one can be in the dark about the greenhouse effect. It’s no surprise that it’s our own fault. Years of bad management, coupled with the unchecked use of fossil fuels and deforestation, has brought us to this point.
Our new tomorrow
But it’s not all doom and gloom. New models for implementing sustainability are already here. Initiatives like electric cars, green building, recycling, and upcycling of used materials are all moves in the right direction.
We need the innovative thinkers who push solutions like sustainable investment, sustainable societies, and sustainable lifestyles.
In the words of Alan AtKisson, “Sustainability is Dead — Long Live Sustainability!”