The history of sustainability
As the saying goes, “you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you have been”. When we look at sustainability we find good reasons to explore where this concept emerged from, what “sustainable” meant at different stages in time and how it evolved to present day. All of these aspects contribute to the answer we are all looking for regarding sustainability: how will it look like in the future and how are we going to shape its existence.
And since we’re talking history, let’s start from the beginning. What is sustainability? The Cambridge Online Dictionary defines “sustainable” as “causing little or no damage to the environment, therefore being able to continue for a long time”. Sustainability is cited most of the times together with sustainable development, which, according to the 1987 Brundtland Report, is the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Since the 2005 World Summit sustainable development has been described as encompassing three main components: environment, society and economy. Therefore, the concept of sustainability is more than just environmental protection; it involves people and ecosystems together and their common well-being. The UK government has gone further, stating ambitiously that “Sustainable development means a better quality of life now and for generations to come …” with the aim to “… avoid using resources faster than the planet can replenish them …” and to unify “… economic, social and environmental goals”.
However, the debate over the definition of these two concepts is not over yet and many have come up with alternative theories, ranging from the contradiction in terms implied by the fact that development itself leads to environmental degradation and cannot be sustainable, until the need to add more dimensions to the three already mentioned, as to better reflect the complexity of today’s society.
The early days
Agrarian communities who depended largely on their environment in order to grow food and set up shelter were the most common type in the very early development of human settlements. As an unwritten rule, during this time communities who depleted their local food supply or critical resources – in other words who were unsustainable – either moved on or faced collapse.
Sumerian cities, which practiced intensive agriculture, are just one example. They were settlers, living off the surplus of storable food, which gave place for high population density. However, this also led to deforestation in upstream areas, thus increasing flooding and over-irrigation and ultimately raising soil salinity. Together with other factors, the consequent decreasing yields contributed to the decline of this flourishing civilization. Other civilizations such as the Mayans, Anasazi and Easter Islanders shared the same fate, due to poor management of resources.
On the contrary, good practice examples come from stable agrarian communities in New Guinea, South America, Polynesia, China or India that have farmed in the same places for centuries without disturbing the natural balance or depleting resources.
Thus we can see that even in those remote times, when globalization was not even imagined, sustainable practices assured not only the well-being of people, but also the very continuity of a civilisation.
The Western industrial revolution of the 18th to 19th centuries was the peak of all previous technological advances that allowed humans to evolve and control the environment – by maximizing gains and reducing losses. This peak, however, was only the beginning of an accelerated growth based on energy from fossil fuels. Coal, and later crude oil, started to be used on a large scale for powering engines and electricity generation. In this context, the world population increased dramatically, doubling in 200 years and reaching the first billion in 1850. This was the beginning of a period of global human domination, called the Anthropocene, which has continued until present day.
At that time very little concern was raised towards the sustainability of the practices imposed by industrialization. The fast growth and the quasi-infinite possibilities that lay ahead left little room for questions. Some queries about the environmental and social impacts of industry were uttered by a few political economists of that time. Thomas Malthus, for one, brought to the attention the concept of “overpopulation” and the drastic effects it might have, but his theories were harshly criticized by many.
The 20th century
As mentioned above, the industrial revolution led to an unprecedented growth period. However, already at the beginning of the 20th century some voices started to question how sustainable was this growth based on non–renewable resources. In the 1930s economists such as Harold Hotelling and John Hartwick started to analyse this problem and develop economic models to address it.
In parallel, science and research had advanced and knowledge was gained regarding how our planet and its ecosystems are linked, and how these links function in an integrated system. Therefore, many of the notions implied by sustainability came to public attention.
Along with the many benefits that progress brought (advances in medicine, which increased the life expectancy, machines that were taking over strenuous labour, easier travel options, etc), some “faults” in the system started to appear. In 1962 American biologist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which is considered the book that triggered the first environmental movement. The newly developed chemical substances used in agriculture as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers proved to have dire consequences on the wildlife. This discovery pointed out that human activities impact the surrounding environment, sometimes in ways that are not obvious from the beginning.
In 1972 another important report was published by the global think tank The Club of Rome. Limits of Growth concluded that “(…) under the assumption of no major change in the present system, population and industrial growth will certainly stop within the next century, at the latest.” Although a bit dramatic, judging from today’s perspective, this conclusion managed to raise awareness on environmental issues at that time.
In the same year, the UN held the first international Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, bringing together developing as well as industrialized nations to discuss the right of all humans to a healthy and productive environment. During a 1971 preparatory meeting for this conference, developed nations expressed their concern about the environmental consequences of increasing global development, while nations that were still developing pointed to their own continuing need for economic development. Thus the concept of “sustainable development” was born out of an attempt to find a compromise between these two seemingly conflicting demands. The conference resulted in an action plan with detailed recommendations for governments. Also out of the Stockholm Conference, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) based in Nairobi, Kenya was formed with a mandate to promote the idea of environmentally-sound development.
Meanwhile, the dependency on non-renewable resources grew stronger and escalated to global level. The energy crises of 1973 and 1979 fully demonstrated this. In 1980 and 1982 the International Union for Conservation of Nature published two reports (World Conservation Strategy and World Charter for Nature), which further promoted environmental protection.
By far the most cited definition of sustainable development was formulated in 1987, in the report Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland report, published by the United Nation's World Commission on Environment and Development. The commission was formed at the request of the Secretary General of the UN in order to come up with solutions for the most pressing environment and development issues and it was chaired by Norway’s Prime Minister of that time, Gro Harlem Brundtland.
According to their report sustainable development means the “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The report highlighted the fact that economic development cannot stop, but it must change course to fit within the planet's ecological limits. “This commission believes that people can build a future that is more prosperous, more just, and more secure. Our report is not a prediction of ever increasing environmental decay, poverty and hardship in ever more decreasing resources. We see instead the possibility for a new era of economic growth, one that must be based on policies that sustain and expand the environmental resource base…We have the power to reconcile human affairs with the natural laws and to thrive in the process.”
With the sustainable development now in the front line of public attention, an assortment of sustainable living practices also started to develop. Renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and increased use of hydroelectricity emerged for the first time as alternatives to the unsustainable fossil fuels.
The work of the Brundtland Commission paved the way for the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. The Summit was the largest international meeting to discuss environment and development issues since the Stockholm Conference 20 years before. Representatives of 179 countries and more than 1,000 NGOs attended. The goal was to reach a global consensus on actions to be taken in order to continue the development and minimize the harm on the environment. The outcomes of the Rio Summit were two international agreements, two statements of principles and a major action agenda on worldwide sustainable development.
Agenda 21 is considered to be the most important agreement related to UNCED. Its aim was to raise awareness on the state of environment and development and to assist people in making sustainability-focused decisions. The topics addressed range from hazardous waste and eco-tourism to agriculture and biodiversity. Secretary General of UNCED, Maurice Strong, summarized Agenda 21 as, a “program of action for a sustainable future for the human family and a first step towards ensuring that the world will become a more just, secure and prosperous habitat for all humanity.” One strong point of this document is that besides the global agenda, it also addressed the local level: “Local authorities construct, operate and maintain economic, social and environmental infrastructure, oversee planning processes, establish local environmental policies and regulations, and …as the level of government closest to the people, they play a vital role in educating, mobilizing and responding to the public to promote sustainable development.”
The implementation of Agenda 21 was discussed and reviewed in a special session at the Earth Summit + 5, in 1997 in New York.
Climate change, a challenge equally faced by all the world’s nations, became of global concern. In December 1997, more than 150 nations adopted a historic agreement, known as the Kyoto Protocol, committing to limit their greenhouse gases emissions. 38 industrialized nations agreed to reduce by 2012 their emissions by 5% compared to the 1990 levels.
In the new millennium
Ten years after the Rio Summit, the 2002 Johannesburg Summit reunited again heads of state and governments, as well as representatives of business and NGOs to assess and adopt concrete steps for better implementing Agenda 21 and refresh the commitment towards sustainable development in five priority areas: water, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity. The concept of “sustainable consumption and production” was introduced at the Johannesburg Summit, setting up a link between productivity, resource use and levels of pollution.
As the effects of climate change started to be more and more visible, research in this area also intensified. The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) issued a series of reports, which signalled the unprecedented level of climatic changes and their potential impact on the Earth’s fragile balance. In March 2009 the Copenhagen Climate Council, an international team of leading climate scientists, stated: “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.”
A series of new disciplines emerged, trying to define and promote ways of reconciliation between the dimensions of sustainable development. Ecological economics, for one, seeks to bridge the gap between ecology and traditional economics. Moreover, rapidly advancing technologies now provide the means to achieve a transition of the old practices towards sustainable ones.
In Brundtland’s definition of sustainable development a key word is “future”. Thinking about the future, about how the things we are using or building today will stand firm and be used by our successors, is, in fact, the very essence of sustainable development. Moreover, not only the assets that we leave as legacy are important, but also the problems and challenges. Actually, these might prove even more important, especially if future generations will conclude that there was something we could have done today to prevent or minimize their impacts but we have failed to do so.
Climate change may be just such an issue. Unfortunately, as we can predict today, it will have a greater impact on the daily lives of people in poor nations than on those in wealthy ones. The G8 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, UK and USA) leaders recognized in 2005 at Gleneagles their global responsibilities towards poorer nations but took little meaningful action. In order for sustainable development to be achieved, the gap between poor and wealthy nations needs to decrease, and basic needs, such as water supply, sanitation or transport routes must be fulfilled in poor countries as well.
The current global recession seems an appropriate time to reflect on the best ways to start over and to find a suitable balance between economic, social and environmental sustainability. In many countries stimulus packages to revive national economies are being implemented, focusing on the creation of new jobs. The green economy, particularly in the renewable energy and energy efficiency fields, can be an excellent motor.
In the years and decades to come sustainable development is likely to become common practice. However, since the resources we use today are disappearing at an ever increasing pace, we’d better start that practice today, if we want future generations to inherit something worth preserving.