19 Mar 2013

The discovery of sustainability

There are several events in the twentieth century commonly thought of as key milestones in developing a shared environmental consciousness. The first views of our planet from space (in particular the famous “blue marble” photo taken by Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972) and the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring a decade earlier are such milestones. So is the idea of sustainable development, as formulated by the Brundtland Commission:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

But where does our idea of sustainability come from? A book by Ulrich Grober, recently translated from German into English, takes us on a journey from the humble origins of sustainability several centuries ago to its 21st-century ubiquity. Along the way, Grober also explores the history of ecology and our idea of the environment. One of the many interesting facts the reader learns is that the English words environment, ecology and sustainability all originated in German. Environment, for instance, can be traced to Goethe. In his memoirs, Goethe used the word Umgebung, which was translated into English by Thomas Carlyle as environment, a word he created for that purpose based on the existing English verb environ, and which later acquired the ecological connotation it has today.

After briefly touching on sustainability’s earliest roots (the Earth as a mother goddess), Grober contrasts the 17th century philosophies of Descartes and Spinoza as two extremes of a spectrum. Descartes saw individuals as agents that can and should take possession of and manage the natural world, whereas Spinoza declares nature and God as identical and sees humans as part of it (an important example of what we would call holistic thinking). Spinoza’s thinking is thus easily linked to modern concepts of sustainability. But the book also shows how the German Romantics, especially artists like Herder and Goethe, played a key role in forging the intellectual roots of sustainability. For instance, Grober quotes Novalis, the German romantic poet, as anticipating the Brundtland definition in a more radical form:

“The Earth belongs to all races – everybody has claim to everything. The earlier ones must not owe any advantage to the accident of their earlier birth.” 1

But the real cradle of our current concept of sustainability was the forestry sector. Wood was a key resource for fuel and construction (particularly ships). With the realization that forests were disappearing rapidly, people in countries around Europe realized that they needed to treat this important resource differently. For instance, Sylva, a report written in 1662 for the Royal Society by John Evelyn, detailed the decline of forests and the steps needed to reverse it, and was a big success.

The word sustainability itself was first coined in German, by Hans Carl von Carlowitz, in his Sylvicultura oeconomica in 1713. Carlowitz, like Evelyn in England, had been tasked with solving the wood supply problem for the mines in Saxony. He argued that only as much wood should be harvested as could be replaced by new growth and used the term nachhaltend to describe forestry practices that were soon adopted in Germany. Nachhaltend is the seed of what became Nachhaltige Entwicklung (in English: sustainable development). In the 19th century, the concept of sustainable forestry practices spread throughout Europe, and the term was translated in parallel. It went via multilingual Switzerland from German into French (produit soutenu, i.e. sustained yield) and then into other languages, including English, thus forming the basis for the later creation of the concept of sustainable development.

In later chapters he goes on to describe the further development of environmentalism and sustainable development in the modern era, but the most interesting aspect is the story of its genesis and growth before entering mainstream 20th century environmentalism. The book does a fantastic job of unearthing that history, and is a very enjoyable read.

Ulrich Grober, Sustainability: A Cultural History.
Published by Green Books, October 2012.


  1. Note that this is my own translation from the German book, and likely different in the English version. German original: “Allen Geschlechtern gehört die Erde – jeder hat Anspruch auf alles. Die Früheren dürfen diesem Primogeniturzufalle (dem Zufall der früheren Geburt) keinen Vorzug verdanken”. [return]