Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Sustainability - A Cultural History

Ulrich Grober's brilliant and erudite new book (Green Books) shows that sustainability is deeply rooted in many previous cultures that were not obsessed with growth. Goethe is an important figure and is quoted as saying, 'baked bread is tasty and satisfying for one day. But flour cannot be sown and seedcorn should not be ground.’ As it happens, Goethe was involved at the time in a huge re-afforestation programme that called for a sustainable management plan. The pillars of sustainability were first defined by Hans Karl von Carlowitz in terms of environmental equilibrium, economic security and social justice. His original German word was nachhaltig, and it is interesting to learn that the first use of the word environment was a translation by Carlyle of Goethe’s word Umgebung when the latter had been thinking about support for the economy of nature rather than the subjugation of nature. The word ecology seems to have been coined by Ernst Haeckel in the 1860s, where he defined it as the science of nature's household or the relations of the organism to the environment. The more modern use of the word sustainability dates from the Club of Rome report on the Limits of Growth in 1972, while the word biodiversity was coined by EO Wilson in 1985. At the end of the book, the author suggests his own litmus tests for sustainability in terms of reducing the ecological footprint and widening access to good quality of life. He also adds a number of his own experiences to the fascinating narrative. No one will think about sustainability in the same way after reading this book.