The problem of sustainability; 1500-1987
‘Sustainability’ is today almost universally seen as a good thing – although it is less easy to agree what it means. Paradoxically, sustainability is often both seen as something many in the world have only recently discovered, and as something that has been forgotten in the passage from ‘traditional’ societies to modernity. In other words, arguments about sustainability are simultaneously arguments about history. But what is the history of sustainability? This paper examines the long history of a problem-setting that we now think about as ‘sustainability’: how does society develop without destroying those parts of nature needed for its long-term survival? When and how have different societies and groups asked this kind of question, and what kinds of solution have they proposed? Today, there is a long list of candidates to explain our contemporary environmental crisis: Judeo-Christian beliefs about dominion over nature, the scientific revolution, the imperatives of capitalism, an over-weaning faith in technology, or simply human nature as evolved over millennia. Are all or none of these true? What kinds of evidence would one need to know?
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Image: Extract of Alexander von Humboldt’s influential diagram of plants growing on the slopes of Andes Mountains, Tableau Physique (1807).