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Sustainability from the perspective of history

Say "sustainability," and people will tell you what they recycle or what car they drive. The term evokes ideas of "green," "environmental," "economics," "moral responsibility," and such.  Many point to the Club of Rome's "Limits of Growth\ as a starting point for the concept, albeit an extreme start with its dire warnings.  Others point to earlier origins in environmental protections adopted through the 1950s and 1960s in several countries, and we might even point to earlier forest or water management plans on local levels well before that. 

However, the post World War II situation is clear; continuous and accelerating population growth, greatly expanded use of resources in the United States and many other countries, an economic leveling that brought a much broader range of the population into the consumptive patterns of the upper middle class, and emerging recognition of the resulting wide-spread environmental impacts led to the recognition of a "sustainability problem."  Economists began discussing "sustainable growth" and its limits, while wildlife managers called for sustainable hunting, forest management, and other policies to ensure stewardship of the wild. 

Here we are, with a plethora of institutes, institutions, programs, courses, publications, and public websites touting sustainability.   In 2010, to give just one example, Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson edited a collective manifesto, \"Moral Ground.  Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril\" with numerous academic and public leaders lamenting the current state of affairs and calling for action.

But what, precisely, are we trying to sustain?  What does it mean to be sustainable?  And how will we know if we have succeeded?  Economists often speak of "sustainable growth," with frequent references to China.  Or "sustainable agriculture" applauds technologies or cultural-technological systems for expanding productivity in Africa or India, for example.  Such discussions respond to Thomas Malthus's 18th century worries that population growth would outrun available food supplies.  

Here the focus is on what have come to be called "ecosystem services."  Others call for a sustainable planet, which they see a big blue globe covered by water and trees and deserts — and people.  They calculate the total available resources and demands, and see serious mismatches.  There is much room for natural and social sciences to work together to monitor what we have, what we fear, what we want, and what we are doing to move more toward what we want than what we fear.

How can history of science help? As Arizona State University President Michael Crow noted in 2010, neither the U.S. Constitution nor foundational principles of capitalism have demonstrated understanding of how the natural and human systems are connected.  Yet, he notes, "An appreciation of the interrelationship between natural processes and human design is a prerequisite for any adequate conception of sustainability."

The history of science shows that this appreciation was not really possible until two things happened.  First, people had to accept and really understand the implications of evolution.  As long as humans are seen as "special" and "above" nature, the interconnectedness cannot be clear.  Second, the larger public had to become part of the middle class with access to resources and to a feeling that they matter to resource management.  A more global focus, including on the history of science, will also help us to understand the many different contexts and meanings of sustainability, but for now we are mainly concerned with the United States.

Here, the first point is especially important, since the United States has been slow to accept evolutionary thinking very widely.  Far too much of the public denounces the idea that humans are part of nature or dependent on natural systems.  The history of science reveals 150 plus years of why this opposition remains, and sustainability advocates need to understand the continued refusal to see ourselves as natural.

Second, during the international depressions of the late 19th century and again during the 1930s, so many people were poor and malnourished that sustainability meant developing breadlines and feeding workers.  The New Deal embraced the idea that workers' eating, working, and developing national parks and water and forest management systems all went together.  And that effort, along with the effects of WWII, helped to produce a population in which the wealth shifted from the few to the many, even though this trend has been reversed over the last decades.  Socially, this was a great advance.  But the idea that everybody is entitled to more created a tremendous demand for resources.  Scientific and technological tools to improve production and distribution of natural resources in the form of ecosystem services has led to much higher use. 

We see, therefore, that lack of understanding of evolution plus a demand for better lifestyles for all has led to heavy use of our existing resources and to questions about whether the current situation is sustainable.  This has led to calls to study and promote sustainability.  Most of this is good, and even necessary.  But any effort to cause people to think and act differently will benefit from understanding the historical forces that have put us where we are now.  We need to teach evolution, promote understanding of the coupled nature and human systems, and show individuals and communities that -- and how and why -- choices they make can impact their own well-being. 

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