Skip to main content
Biology LibreTexts

19.3.1: History of Sustainability

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Taking The Long View: Sustainability an Evolutionary and Ecological Perspective

    Of the different forms of life that have inhabited the Earth in its three to four billion year history, 99.9% are now extinct. Against this backdrop, the human enterprise with its roughly 200,000-year history barely merits attention. As the American novelist Mark Twain once remarked, if our planet’s history were to be compared to the Eiffel Tower, human history would be a mere smear on the very tip of the tower. But while modern humans (Homo sapiens) might be insignificant in geologic time, we are by no means insignificant in terms of our recent planetary impact. A 1986 study estimated that 40% of the product of terrestrial plant photosynthesis — the basis of the food chain for most animal and bird life — was being appropriated by humans for their use. More recent studies estimate that 25% of photosynthesis on continental shelves (coastal areas) is ultimately being used to satisfy human demand. Human appropriation of such natural resources is having a profound impact upon the wide diversity of other species that also depend on them.

    Evolution normally results in the generation of new lifeforms at a rate that outstrips the extinction of other species; this results in strong biological diversity. However, scientists have evidence that, for the first observable time in evolutionary history, another species — Homo sapiens — has upset this balance to the degree that the rate of species extinction is now estimated at 10,000 times the rate of species renewal. Human beings, just one species among millions, are crowding out the other species we share the planet with. Evidence of human interference with the natural world is visible in practically every ecosystem from the presence of pollutants in the stratosphere to the artificially changed courses of the majority of river systems on the planet. It is argued that ever since we abandoned nomadic, gatherer-hunter ways of life for settled societies some 12,000 years ago, humans have continually manipulated their natural world to meet their needs. While this observation is a correct one, the rate, scale, and the nature of human-induced global change — particularly in the post-industrial period — is unprecedented in the history of life on Earth.

    There are three primary reasons for this:

    1. Mechanization of both industry and agriculture in the last century resulted in vastly improved labor productivity which enabled the creation of goods and services. Since then, scientific advance and technological innovation — powered by ever-increasing inputs of fossil fuels and their derivatives — have revolutionized every industry and created many new ones. The subsequent development of western consumer culture, and the satisfaction of the accompanying disposable mentality, has generated material flows of an unprecedented scale. The Wuppertal Institute estimates that humans are now responsible for moving greater amounts of matter across the planet than all natural occurrences (earthquakes, storms, etc.) put together.
    2. The sheer size of the human population is unprecedented. Every passing year adds another 90 million people to the planet. Even though the environmental impact varies significantly between countries (and within them), the exponential growth in human numbers, coupled with rising material expectations in a world of limited resources, has catapulted the issue of distribution to prominence. Global inequalities in resource consumption and purchasing power mark the clearest dividing line between the haves and the have-nots. It has become apparent that present patterns of production and consumption are unsustainable for a global population that is projected to reach between 12 billion by the year 2050. If ecological crises and rising social conflict are to be countered, the present rates of over-consumption by a rich minority, and under-consumption by a large majority, will have to be brought into balance.
    3. It is not only the rate and the scale of change but the nature of that change that is unprecedented. Human inventiveness has introduced chemicals and materials into the environment which either do not occur naturally at all, or do not occur in the ratios in which we have introduced them. These persistent chemical pollutants are believed to be causing alterations in the environment, the effects of which are only slowly manifesting themselves, and the full scale of which is beyond calculation. CFCs and PCBs are but two examples of the approximately 100,000 chemicals currently in global circulation. (Between 500 and 1,000 new chemicals are being added to this list annually.) The majority of these chemicals have not been tested for their toxicity on humans and other life forms, let alone tested for their effects in combination with other chemicals. These issues are now the subject of special UN and other intergovernmental working groups.

    The Evolution of Sustainability Itself

    Our Common Future (1987), the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, is widely credited with having popularized the concept of sustainable development. It defines sustainable development in the following ways…

    • …development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
    • … sustainable development is not a fixed state of harmony, but rather a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the orientation of the technological development, and institutional change are made consistent with future as well as present needs.
    Cover of Our Common Future Book

    Figure \(\PageIndex{a}\): Cover of Our Common Future. Image by Sigurður Kaiser in Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA4.0)


    The concept of sustainability, however, can be traced back much farther to the oral histories of indigenous cultures. For example, the principle of inter-generational equity is captured in the Inuit saying, ‘we do not inherit the Earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children’. The Native American ‘Law of the Seventh Generation’ is another illustration. According to this, before any major action was to be undertaken its potential consequences on the seventh generation had to be considered. For a species that at present is only 6,000 generations old and whose current political decision-makers operate on time scales of months, or few years at most, the thought that other human cultures have based their decision-making systems on time scales of many decades seems wise but unfortunately inconceivable in the current political climate.

    Precautionary Principle

    The precautionary principle is an important concept in environmental sustainability. A 1998 consensus statement characterized the precautionary principle this way: “when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically”. For example, if a new pesticide chemical is created, the precautionary principle would dictate that we presume, for the sake of safety, that the chemical may have potential negative consequences for the environment and/or human health, even if such consequences have not been proven yet. In other words, it is best to proceed cautiously in the face of incomplete knowledge about something’s potential harm.



    Modified by Melissa Ha and Rachel Schleiger from Environment and Sustainability from Environmental Biology by Matthew R. Fisher (licensed under CC-BY)

    This page titled 19.3.1: History of Sustainability is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Melissa Ha and Rachel Schleiger (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .