Sustainability is a popular buzzword. It’s used in so many contexts and with so many slightly different agendas that it borders on meaningless some of the time. There are environmental thinkers who argue that we should scrap it altogether, and talk about restorative or regenerative approaches instead.
How did we get to this point? Where does sustainability come from as a concept, and how did it reach such ubiquity? That’s the topic of Jeremy L Caradonna’s book Sustainability: A History.
The roots of the idea are in forestry, and pre-date the industrial revolution. Before fossil fuels, it was shortages of wood that people worried about – and sometimes experienced. Europe cleared millions of hectares of forest as its population grew, and the earliest mutterings of sustainability are around stewarding woodlands to maintain timber yields.
From those roots in the early 1700s, environmental thought grew and developed during the industrial revolution. Many observed the destruction of nature, the subordination of labour, and the sweeping away of traditional ways of life, and responded in a variety of ways. The Romantics responded in literature and art. The Luddites took direct action. Malthus looked at population and wondered about natural limits. Henry David Thoreau retreated to the woods. Friedrich Engels, who coined the term Industrial Revolution in the first place, witnessed the social inequality and squalor of city life and formulated Communism in response.
Most of these thinkers were not motivated by a care for nature, as Caradonna observes, but laid the groundwork for what became environmentalism. At this point the book skips forward from the turn of the century to the 1960s, as if nothing of consequence happened in the first half of the 20th century. I was disappointed by this, as all sorts of interesting things happen in that period and too many histories of environmentalism start in the 1960s. (Among other things, this overlooks the dustbowl, early organic farming, the ‘Great Smog’, thinkers such as Fairfield Osborn, 1950s consumerist critiques such as Vance Packard’s – and not to ignore the ugly side of it, the eugenics movement.)
Caradonna jumps to the 1960s because he says that modern sustainability advocates tend to do that. Which is true, and fair enough if you’re writing a history of how sustainability evolved as a line of thought. But it does still feel like it’s missing a step.
Anyway, in the 60s and 70s we get the environmental movement as we understand it today. Sustainability emerges out of this movement, and the author argues throughout that “sustainability is not just another term for environmentalism”. One of the important differences is that environmentalism stands against the abuse of nature. It resists and opposes. Sustainability on the other hand is “a philosophy of hope and resilience”, a positive invitation to create something better.
The book’s chapter on sustainable economics is very good, tracing the lineage from early thinkers to the heterodox economists of the 1970s to it’s growing acceptance today. Then the book explores how sustainability grew into a movement, particularly how it was adopted by the UN – making it global and taking it beyond political divides. Finally we scan the state of sustainability today, and end with 10 challenges facing the idea in the 21st century.
As a history of an idea, I really liked Sustainability: A History. The book is balanced, accessible, and supportive of the ideas without being blind to their limitations. It won’t satisfy those in the green movement that think sustainability is too tame and too compromised – Caradonna suggests that being a broad term is part of its strength. Neither will it please those who see Agenda 21 as a conspiracy theory. But for those in the middle, this is a great introduction to one of the most vital ideas of our time.