A New Concept With a Long History
Author: F. J. Brueggemeier
Sustainability became something of a buzzword at the turn of the millennium. In fact, it has become so strongly established in politics, business and society that the 21st century is also spoken of as the century of sustainable development.
The concept of sustainability originally had a clear, but limited meaning. It was first used in the year 1713 by Hans Carl von Carlowitz, who demanded that the relationship between logging and reforestation remained balanced. He wanted to ensure the sustainable, i.e. long-term supply of wood as a raw material, but did not pursue any further goals. This only changed almost 300 years later, when the Brundtland Commission formulated the concept of sustainable development on behalf of the United Nations. This concept stated that sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
At this time, sustainability comprised more than just ensuring the availability of raw materials. The first additional aspect was the protection of ecosystems, a factor which was soon followed by sustainable targets being set in the fields of society, politics and economy. After all, life in a future world is not desirable and therefore not sustainable if ecological goals are met and the supply of raw materials secured, yet at the same time political suppression is rampant, inequality and injustice are widespread, or discrimination due to age, sex, descent or religion prevails.
This comprehensive understanding of sustainability is important and has resulted in the concept enjoying such widespread use. Everything should be sustainable. However, this also resulted in growing uncertainty with regard to the specific meaning of the concept and how sustainability can actually be achieved. To pick out a single area as an example: What does a sustainable economy entail? Should the economy continue to grow, which the less industrialized countries are demanding so they can escape poverty? Should economic growth in prosperous countries tend towards zero, or should areas such as education, health or recreation continue to grow? What about science and technology? Do these areas not have to continue expanding in order to find sustainable solutions, particularly to prevent the further increase of CO2?
In other words, there is no clear definition as to what sustainability specifically means. Rather, the concept emphasizes the necessity of considering long-term consequences, as well as the interlinked nature of politics, society, economy and ecology. It describes the necessity of discussing and arguing these topics; it does not specify clear goals, but describes a process which requires ongoing effort and hard work.
Who said it? And when? Here’s a small collection of quotes on the topic of sustainability: