The history of sustainability

First published: March 5, 2017 for Woroni[1].
Reworked in 2019 for The Grass Ceiling

Although there are elements within sustainability dating back to the Ancient Greeks and even earlier, the idea has risen in prominence greatly since the 1970’s, spurred into public consciousness then by the broader momentum building within the environmentalist movement.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring[2], often credited for kick-starting modern environmentalism, had been released in the early 1960’s and done much in the intervening years to raise awareness within the U.S and abroad that human activities were not only harming the planet, but also humans themselves. ‘Our heedless and destructive acts enter into the vast cycles of the earth and in time return to bring hazard to ourselves,’ Carson told a Senate Subcommittee, not long after the book’s publication[3].

A decade after Carson’s best-selling book had helped launch modern environmentalism, the UN held one of the first conferences relating directly to the idea of sustainability: The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm, 1972. The result of the conference, among other things, was the Stockholm Declaration – a list of 26 principles intended to guide a new kind of development that was more sustainable[4]. A taste of the first five are included below.

1. BOTH ASPECTS OF MAN’S ENVIRONMENT, THE NATURAL AND THE MAN-MADE, ARE ESSENTIAL TO HIS WELL-BEING AND TO THE ENJOYMENT OF BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS THE RIGHT TO LIFE ITSELF.

2. THE PROTECTION AND IMPROVEMENT OF THE HUMAN ENVIRONMENT IS A MAJOR ISSUE WHICH AFFECTS THE WELL-BEING OF PEOPLES AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT THROUGHOUT THE WORLD…

3. MAN HAS CONSTANTLY TO SUM UP EXPERIENCE AND GO ON DISCOVERING, INVENTING, CREATING AND ADVANCING…

4. IN THE DEVELOPING COUNTRIES MOST OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS ARE CAUSED BY UNDER-DEVELOPMENT…

5. THE NATURAL GROWTH OF POPULATION CONTINUOUSLY PRESENTS PROBLEMS FOR THE PRESERVATION OF THE ENVIRONMENT…[5]

United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm, 1972

A few things are immediately noticeable: Gendered language referring to all people as “man”. A focus on economic development, suggesting that capitalism is the answer. The labelling of some countries as “developing”. The suggestion that “underdevelopment” is the major cause of environmental problems in those countries.The suggestion that population growth is an issue 

Many – if not all – of these narratives are challenged today. Flawed as it is here, this idea of ‘sustainable development’ was gaining traction. Reading through that list of principles, the influence of the environmental movement is evident too. There are perhaps only three principles that do not explicitly mention or concern themselves with the environment. The focus of early sustainability here was narrower than it is today, and yet it remains nonetheless heavily fixated on the environment all the same.

The over-greening of sustainability

Environmental motifs sampled from the same Google image search. “Sustainablity” seems to be about gardening, or having the world (almost literally) in our hands. Being mindful of this framing is important.

If you Google beyond cursory image searches and explore different organisations, you may notice that many sustainability-related projects in government are overseen by, or somehow related to, their environmental departments. Within education, you’ll notice the subject is usually taught by environmental departments too. Here at ANU, my own sustainability degree revolves around courses taught by the Fenner School of Environment and Society. Sustainability has its roots (forgive me) in the environment, and it is usually out of those same departments – once focused exclusively on that domain – that sustainability is beginning to emerge.  

It can take quite a bit more digging beyond first impressions to realize that there is more to modern sustainability than just environmental concerns.

The history of sustainability, with its roots in modern environmentalism, has undoubtedly “greened” sustainability. This could be placing harmful boundaries on the concept by focusing it too much on environmentalism. The name of our project, The Grass Ceiling, represents our desire to transcend historical preoccupations with environmentalism.

For over 40 years now the UN and associated bodies have been expanding the earlier environment-focused definitions of sustainability to be more inclusive of other equally important factors. By 1987, the UN’s Brundtland Commission – another famous milestone in the rise of sustainability – was speaking about the idea in terms of the ‘three pillars’; the social, the economic, and the environmental[6].

The ‘three pillars’ idea has remained popular since Brundtland, and cemented itself into much of the research, discourse and practice of mainstream sustainability. Corporate sustainability over previous decades has often used what’s known as the Triple Bottom Line – a framework that encourages focusing on social and environmental outcomes in addition to the economic ‘bottom line’. The three pillars idea is explicit here, as it is elsewhere. 

In subsequent articles, I implicitly and explicitly critique this idea of the ‘three pillars’ in more depth, demonstrating that there are more ways to think about sustainability beyond these three core concerns. For right now, however, they represent a good first glance at sustainability – a more comprehensive idea than the “green” that a quick Google search suggests, and therefore a good first glimpse beyond the grass ceiling.

The Three Pillars: Social, Environmental, Economic.

What are these three pillars, then, and what is sustainability as it relates to them? The idea is relatively simple: societies cannot achieve sustainability by focusing on the environment alone. We could, for example, achieve all the environmental goals laid out by the UN and others, such as carbon emissions reductions, and yet still be living in an unsustainable world destined for collapse. A reduction in ocean acidification, or the complete halt of biodiversity loss would only be a partial victory for sustainability so long as women around the world remain disempowered, poverty continues to destroy lives, and economic inequality heightens to dangerous and unprecedented levels.

These lingering, unresolved issues would also risk creating situations that unwind progress made elsewhere. If countries with alarming levels of economic inequality fall into civil unrest and even conflict, then the progress made on the environmental front is almost certain to slip.

This framework suggests that achieving environmental outcomes depends upon taking a holistic approach. The social and economic impacts of environmental policy are often so significant that tackling just one ‘pillar’ in a vacuum dooms any such process to failure. Consider how much of the pushback against environmental policy is framed as an economic argument. In Australia, for example, environmental policies are often challenged on economic terms – as too expensive, or economically unfeasible. As the arguments go, achieving environmental targets is no good for Australia if the cost is economic turmoil (and implicitly, the social upheaval that entails). The argument is not without merit and echoes the complex interrelationship between our society, the economy, and our environment.

To wrap up then, and keep things simple for introductory purposes, sustainability can be considered as a movement with three core concerns: environmental responsibility, economic equity, and social justice. Sustainable development (one practice of sustainability) aims to tackle each of these three pillars in a holistic, integrated, and interdisciplinary way that ensures progress made in one area does not cause regress in another.

This idea sounds good on paper, and indeed much progress has been made under this framework. As we’ll see in future discussions, however, there is more to sustainability than these three areas, and even within just these three, there remain many challenges ahead.


Footnotes

[1] Blood, N. (2017, March 5). What is Sustainability? Woroni.

[2] Carson, R., & Darling, L. (1962). Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[3] Carson, R. (1963, June 4). Statement of Rachel Carson Before the Subcommittee on Reorganization and International Organizations of the Committee on Government Operations. Retrieved from Rachel Carson Council: https://rachelcarsoncouncil.org/about-rcc/about-rachel-carson/rachel-carsons-statement-before-congress-1963/

[4] United Nations General Assembly. (1972). United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. Stockholm: UN. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/apps/njlite/srex/njlite_download.php?id=6471

[5] As above.

[6] World Commission on Environment and Development. (1987). Our Common Future. New York: Oxford University Press.