History of sustainability

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The history of sustainability traces human-dominated ecological systems from the earliest civilizations to the present. This history is characterized by the increased regional success of a particular society, followed by crises that were either resolved, producing sustainability, or not, leading to decline. [1] [2]


In early human history, the use of fire and desire for specific foods may have altered the natural composition of plant and animal communities. [3] 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". [4]

The Western industrial revolution of the 18th 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. Environmental Health: Ecological Perspectives. London: Jones & Bartlett. ISBN   978-0-7637-2377-4. 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. [5] [6] [7] [8] 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. [9] [10]

Early civilizations

In early human history, although the energy and other resource demands of nomadic hunter-gatherers were small, the use of fire and desire for specific foods may have altered the natural composition of plant and animal communities. [3] Between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago, agriculture emerged in various regions of the world. [11] Agrarian communities depended largely on their environment and the creation of a "structure of permanence". [4] Societies outgrowing their local food supply or depleting critical resources either moved on or faced collapse. [12]

Sumerian harvester's sickle, 3000 BC, made from baked clay ClaySumerianSickle.jpg
Sumerian harvester's sickle, 3000 BC, made from baked clay

Archeological evidence suggests that the first civilizations arose in Sumer, in southern Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and Egypt, both dating from around 3000 BCE. By 1000 BCE, civilizations were also established in India, China, Mexico, Peru and in parts of Europe. [13] [14] Sumer illustrates issues central to the sustainability of human civilization. [15] Sumerian cities practiced intensive, year-round agriculture from c.5300 BCE. The surplus of storable food created by this economy allowed the population to settle in one place instead of migrating in search of wild foods and grazing land. It also allowed for a much greater population density. The development of agriculture in Mesopotamia required many labourers to build and maintain its irrigation system. This, in turn, led to political hierarchy, bureaucracy, and religious sanction, along with standing armies to protect the emergent civilization. Intensified agriculture allowed for population increase, but also led to deforestation in upstream areas with resultant flooding and over-irrigation, which raised soil salinity. While there was a shift from the cultivation of wheat to the more salt-tolerant barley, yields still diminished. Eventually, decreasing agricultural production and other factors led to the decline of the civilization. From 2100 BC to 1700 BC, it is estimated that the population was reduced by nearly sixty percent. [15] [16] Civilizations similarly thought to have eventually fallen because of poor management of resources include the Mayans, Anasazi and Easter Islanders, among many others. [17] [18] In contrast, stable communities of shifting cultivators and horticulturists existed in New Guinea and South America, and large agrarian communities in China, India and elsewhere have farmed in the same localities for centuries. Some Polynesian cultures have maintained stable communities for between 1,000 and 3,000 years on small islands with minimal resources using rahui [19] and kaitiakitanga [20] to control human pressure on the environment. In Sri Lanka nature reserves established during the reign of king Devanampiyatissa and dating back to 307 BC were devoted to sustainability and harmonious living with nature. [21]

Emergence of industrial societies

A Watt steam engine, the steam engine fuelled primarily by coal that propelled the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the world Maquina vapor Watt ETSIIM.jpg
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. [22] 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. [23]

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-criticised 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. [24] [25] [26] 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. [27]

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. [28] However, in the 1930s economists began developing models of non-renewable resource management (see Hotelling's rule) [29] and the sustainability of welfare in an economy that uses non-renewable resources (Hartwick's rule). [30]

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. [31]

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." [32] 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. [33] 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

Environmental problems were now becoming global in scale. [5] [6] [7] [8] 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." [34] 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. [35] In 1980 the International Union for Conservation of Nature had published its influential World Conservation Strategy, [36] followed in 1982 by its World Charter for Nature, [37] 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. [6] 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 '80s, 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 '90s. [38] [39] Also at this time many local and state governments in developed countries began to implement small-scale sustainability policies. [40]

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. [9] [10] 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." [41]

Ecological economics now seeks to bridge the gap between ecology and traditional neoclassical economics: [42] [43] 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. [44]

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. [45] 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. [46] 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. [47] [48]

"Computational sustainability has to do with the use of computational technologies and computational thinking in furtherance of sustainability, and the related matter of reducing the adverse environmental impacts of computing technologies themselves." [49]

See also

Related Research Articles

Sustainable development is the organizing principle for meeting human development goals while simultaneously sustaining the ability of natural systems to provide the natural resources and ecosystem services on which the economy and society depend. The desired result is a state of society where living conditions and resources are used to continue to meet human needs without undermining the integrity and stability of the natural system. Sustainable development can be defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainability goals address the global challenges, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice.

Uneconomic growth

Uneconomic growth, in human development theory, welfare economics, and some forms of ecological economics, is economic growth that reflects or creates a decline in the quality of life. The concept is attributed to leading ecological economist and steady-state theorist Herman Daly, though other theorists can also be credited for the incipient idea. Note Uneconomic growth should not be confused with economic degrowth, the reduction of the size of the economy to increase well-being and sustainability.

Ecological economics

Ecological economics, bioeconomics, ecolonomy, or eco-economics, is both a transdisciplinary and an interdisciplinary field of academic research addressing the interdependence and coevolution of human economies and natural ecosystems, both intertemporally and spatially. By treating the economy as a subsystem of Earth's larger ecosystem, and by emphasizing the preservation of natural capital, the field of ecological economics is differentiated from environmental economics, which is the mainstream economic analysis of the environment. One survey of German economists found that ecological and environmental economics are different schools of economic thought, with ecological economists emphasizing strong sustainability and rejecting the proposition that physical (human-made) capital can substitute for natural capital.

Ecological footprint Individuals or a groups human demand on nature

The ecological footprint is a method promoted by the Global Footprint Network to measure human demand on natural capital, i.e. the quantity of nature it takes to support people or an economy. It tracks this demand through an ecological accounting system. The accounts contrast the biologically productive area people use for their consumption to the biologically productive area available within a region or the world. In short, it is a measure of human impact on the environment.

Ecological modernization is a school of thought in the social sciences that argues that the economy benefits from moves towards environmentalism. It has gained increasing attention among scholars and policymakers in the last several decades internationally. It is an analytical approach as well as a policy strategy and environmental discourse.

Exploitation of natural resources

The exploitation of natural resources is the use of natural resources for economic growth, sometimes with a negative connotation of accompanying environmental degradation. It started to emerge on an industrial scale in the 19th century as the extraction and processing of raw materials developed much further than it had in preindustrial areas. During the 20th century, energy consumption rapidly increased. Today, about 80% of the world's energy consumption is sustained by the extraction of fossil fuels, which consists of oil, coal and gas. Another non-renewable resource that is exploited by humans is subsoil minerals such as precious metals that are mainly used in the production of industrial commodities. Intensive agriculture is an example of a mode of production that hinders many aspects of the natural environment, for example the degradation of forests in a terrestrial ecosystem and water pollution in an aquatic ecosystem. As the world population rises and economic growth occurs, the depletion of natural resources influenced by the unsustainable extraction of raw materials becomes an increasing concern.

The green economy is defined as economy that aims at making issues of reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities, and that aims for sustainable development without degrading the environment. It is closely related with ecological economics, but has a more politically applied focus. The 2011 UNEP Green Economy Report argues "that to be green, an economy must not only be efficient, but also fair. Fairness implies recognizing global and country level equity dimensions, particularly in assuring a Just Transition to an economy that is low-carbon, resource efficient, and socially inclusive."

The Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS) is an encyclopedia on the science of sustainable development and conservation of life support systems on earth. The extensive publication is published under the patronage of UNESCO.

Environmental resource management Type of resource management

Environmental resource management is the management of the interaction and impact of human societies on the environment. It is not, as the phrase might suggest, the management of the environment itself. Environmental resources management aims to ensure that ecosystem services are protected and maintained for future human generations, and also maintain ecosystem integrity through considering ethical, economic, and scientific (ecological) variables. Environmental resource management tries to identify factors affected by conflicts that rise between meeting needs and protecting resources. It is thus linked to environmental protection, sustainability and integrated landscape management.

Steady-state economy

A steady-state economy is an economy made up of a constant stock of physical wealth (capital) and a constant population size. In effect, such an economy does not grow in the course of time. The term usually refers to the national economy of a particular country, but it is also applicable to the economic system of a city, a region, or the entire world. Early in the history of economic thought, classical economist Adam Smith of the 18th century developed the concept of a stationary state of an economy: Smith believed that any national economy in the world would sooner or later settle in a final state of stationarity.

Human impact on the environment Impact of human life on Earth

Human impact on the environment or anthropogenic impact on the environment includes changes to biophysical environments and ecosystems, biodiversity, and natural resources caused directly or indirectly by humans, including global warming, environmental degradation, mass extinction and biodiversity loss, ecological crisis, and ecological collapse. Modifying the environment to fit the needs of society is causing severe effects, which become worse as the problem of human overpopulation continues. Some human activities that cause damage to the environment on a global scale include population growth, overconsumption, overexploitation, pollution, and deforestation, to name but a few. Some of the problems, including global warming and biodiversity loss pose an existential risk to the human race, and human overpopulation is strongly correlated with those problems.

Anthropogenic metabolism, also referred to as 'metabolism of the anthroposphere', is a term used in industrial ecology, material flow analysis, and waste management to describe the material and energy turnover of human society. It emerges from the application of systems thinking to the industrial and other man-made activities and it is a central concept of sustainable development. In modern societies, the bulk of anthropogenic (man-made) material flows is related to one of the following activities: sanitation, transportation, habitation, and communication, which were "of little metabolic significance in prehistoric times". Global man-made stocks of steel in buildings, infrastructure, and vehicles, for example, amount to about 25 Gigatonnes, a figure that is surpassed only by construction materials such as concrete. Sustainable development is closely linked to the design of a sustainable anthropogenic metabolism, which will entail substantial changes in the energy and material turnover of the different human activities. Anthropogenic metabolism can be seen as synonymous to social or socioeconomic metabolism. It comprises both industrial metabolism and urban metabolism.

Green jobs or green-collared jobs are, according to the United Nations Environment Program, "work in agricultural, manufacturing, research and development (R&D), administrative, and service activities that contribute(s) substantially to preserving or restoring environmental quality. Specifically, but not exclusively, this includes jobs that help to protect ecosystems and biodiversity; reduce energy, materials, and water consumption through high efficiency strategies; de-carbonize the economy; and minimize or altogether avoid generation of all forms of waste and pollution." The environmental sector has the dual benefit of mitigating environmental challenges as well as helping economic growth.


Degrowth is a term used for both a political, economic, and social movement as well as a set of theories that critiques the paradigm of economic growth. It is based on ideas from a diverse range of lines of thought such as political ecology, ecological economics, feminist political ecology, and environmental justice. Degrowth emphasizes the need to reduce global consumption and production and advocates a socially just and ecologically sustainable society with well-being replacing GDP as the indicator of prosperity. Degrowth highlights the importance of autonomy, care work, self-organization, commons, community, localism, work sharing, happiness and conviviality.

This page is an index of sustainability articles.

Sustainability Process of maintaining change in a balanced fashion

Sustainability is the ability to exist constantly. In the 21st century, it refers generally to the capacity for the biosphere and human civilization to co-exist. It is also defined as the process of people maintaining change in a homeostasis balanced environment, in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development, and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations. For many in the field, sustainability is defined through the following interconnected domains or pillars: environment, economic and social, which according to Fritjof Capra is based on the principles of Systems Thinking. Sub-domains of sustainable development have been considered also: cultural, technological and political. According to Our Common Future, sustainable development is defined as development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Sustainable development may be the organizing principle of sustainability, yet others may view the two terms as paradoxical.

Sustainability measurement is the quantitative basis for the informed management of sustainability. The metrics used for the measurement of sustainability are still evolving: they include indicators, benchmarks, audits, indexes and accounting, as well as assessment, appraisal and other reporting systems. They are applied over a wide range of spatial and temporal scales.

Index of environmental articles Wikipedia index

The natural environment, commonly referred to simply as the environment, includes all living and non-living things occurring naturally on Earth.

Environmental impact of the energy industry

The environmental impact of the energy industry is diverse. Energy has been harnessed by human beings for millennia. Initially it was with the use of fire for light, heat, cooking and for safety, and its use can be traced back at least 1.9 million years. In recent years there has been a trend towards the increased commercialization of various renewable energy sources.

EPA Sustainability

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established in July 1970 when the White House and the United States Congress came together due to the public's demand for cleaner natural resources. The purpose of the EPA is to repair the damage done to the environment and to set up new criteria to allow Americans to make a clean environment a reality. The ultimate goal of the EPA is to protect human health and the environment.


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