A Short History of Sustainability

Sustainability has gone mainstream. It now serves as the universally accepted cornerstone of political and ethical guidelines for dealing with the planet’s ecological and social crisis. Just as environmental issues are now entrenched within the popular media, sustainability and sustainable development have become global buzzwords that unite environmentalists, legislators, and industry the world over. As a result, the politics of sustainable development constitute a happy marriage of Northern environmental lobbies and Southern development interests, identifying and stressing their common concerns and building multilateral cooperation toward realizing a greener and more prosperous world.

Here’s the rub: sustainability is a concept whose definition has shifted over time and place. Its history indicates that its goals are increasingly obscured by political compromising and diffusion. While the vagaries of the idea are appealing insofar as they can bring wildly disparate parties together and breed a superficial consensus, the fact that sustainability means different things to different people has resulted in little substantive change in terms of lasting efforts and successes in curbing the global environmental crisis. To make matters worse, just as sustainability and sustainable development have crashed into the popular imagination, they have continued to evolve without a clear notion of what the goal of global environmental politics should be (witness, for example, the continuing failure to develop any tangible plan to confront climate change).

This is a problem that strikes at the very root of contemporary global environmental governance. After several years of reading and thinking about historical and contemporary issues that influence the global environment—from biodiversity loss and the widespread release of toxic chemicals to resource extraction and climate change—I have begun working toward writing a short book (100 pages) on the history of sustainability, an intellectual and political examination of the idea and its application in the global arena. While sustainability’s political history can be traced through a series of Earth summits and studies—notably Our Common Future—and more focused international conventions that were initiated shortly after the creation of the United Nations, its intellectual history is far older and more nebulous. Both histories and their interactions are pivotal for a deeper understanding of the political climate that is steering our contemporary efforts to address the tenuous state of the global environment.

Historicizing sustainability provides an important contextual lens for engaging with contemporary debates about our environmental future, but I think it also serves a further intellectual purpose insofar as history can help to illuminate one of the foundational obstacles associated with misunderstandings or miscommunications about applying sustainability in a global context. The evolution of sustainability as an idea has emerged out of older strains of environmental thinking that can be linked to stewardship, husbandry, management, conservation, and ecology. With these intellectual ancestors, sustainability shares an energetic capacity for planning for the future, but it is unique insofar as it gives little or no thought to the past. As an unfortunate result, sustainability implies a concerted effort to imagine a greener future, but this effort suggests as its goal an unrealistic end of crisis—or end of history. At the same time, however, sustainability implies hope, which is a much-needed quality in contemporary environmental practice. And its meteoric rise in social, political, economic, and cultural circles warrants careful attention as a valuable lens or portal through which we can examine critical aspects of global politics and nature’s impact on the human condition.

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