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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.

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Read the guest commentary from F. J. Brueggemeier about the concept of sustainability throughout history

Who said it? And when? Here’s a small collection of quotes on the topic of sustainability:

Baked bread [is] tasty and satisfying for one day; but flour cannot be sown and the fruits of the grain should not be ground.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1821 (Certificate of Apprenticeship from Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years)
Poet and natural scientist (1749–1832)

Sustainability is not a question of charity, but rather our strategy for success.

Jürgen Hambrecht, 2005
Chairman of the Board of Executive Directors at BASF from 2003 to 2011

We live in a dangerous age. Humans control nature before they have learned to control themselves.

Albert Schweizer
Physician and philosopher (1875–1965)

Therefore, the greatest art/science/industry and organization in this land shall rest upon / how to thus conserve and cultivate wood / so that there is a continuous and sustainable use of it / because it is an essential thing / without which the essence of the land cannot remain. 

Hans Carl von Carlowitz, 1713 (Sylvicultura Oeceonomica)
Mining administrator (1645–1714)

We don’t want to hide anything: The services and burdens created by BASF are two sides of the same coin. You cannot simply tack the front side onto the reverse. 

Detlef Dibbern (1929-1995), 1989
Member of the Board of Executive Directors at BASF from 1980 to 1992

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.

Stanislaw Jerzy Lec
Poet (1909-1966)

Sustainability is a competitive factor [...] We welcome this competition, although we know that there are many challenges ahead of us.

Jürgen Strube, 2002
Chairman of the Board of Executive Directors at BASF from 1990 to 2003

The earth belongs to all generations – each person has a claim to everything. Those born earlier may owe no advantage to the chance of primogeniture.

Novalis
Writer (1772-1801)