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History Of Sustainability

Jeremy Caradonna wrote a history of sustainability in his book, Sustainability. (I read the revised edition from 2022). This work draws linkages from early ideas of sustainability and looks at where we are now. Things have moved forward, and back, on the sustainability front. There is some interesting history. As someone who lives in Georgia, I do think we should be crediting Jimmy Carter more for putting solar panels on the White House. Carter certainly was ahead of his time, even if Ronald Reagan was probably more accurately reflecting the spirit of his time in taking them down soon afterward.

Jimmy Carter, ahead of his time on solar panels. Credit: The Carter Center

The History Of Sustainability

There were interesting points in Caradonna’s book. He highlights Hans Carl von Carlowitz, from Saxony (now part of Germany), who wrote a book on sustainable forestry practices in 1713. He was an early contributor to the development of the idea of sustainability and was seemingly influenced by the rapid loss of forests across Europe.

We shouldn’t assume that woodland loss “caused” Carlowitz to fight back against deforestation, since many deforested societies around 1700 showed no apparent interest in resource depletion, but it’s nonetheless clear that the idea of sustainability occurred as a reaction to the mishandling of forests.

Caradonna, 2022, page 48

Interestingly, environmental problems were often seen as a national security issue. (Something that occasionally, but too rarely, happens nowadays). Countries represented by some tin-pot ruler — called Saxe-Coburg or similar — needed a healthy economy, and that was threatened by environmental degradation. In the 18th century, the same rulers also needed wood from healthy forests for the military, e.g., ships. Sustainability has been a national security issue for centuries.

History And Dates

Many historians can become annoyed if you want them to be obsessed with dates. There is much more to history than an endless recitation of dates. That said, I must confess to wanting a few more dates and random facts in this book. Caradonna’s history didn’t have enough ‘history’ in it for my liking. (I’m more than happy to admit that this is probably more about my issues rather than the author’s). About a third of the work focuses on the year 2000 onwards. I know we have modern history, but it all seemed a bit too modern for a proper history.

Too much of the book, to my mind, was simply recounting where we are now and what is being done (or not). There isn’t anything wrong with that at all. I worried though that a lot of the book restated points from other sources that aren’t history-based, rather than adding new details on the history of sustainability that I was hoping to see.

Malthus’ Again

Where I often cringe is when sustainability writers seem to lose their moral compass. Caradonna does share his thoughts about some people and ideas but doesn’t seem to have any concerns about Thomas Malthus. (See my thoughts here).

[Malthus’] cautionary, even curmudgeonly, book of 1798, An Essay on the Principle of Population, came across as misanthropic to a culture enamored by technological advancement.

Caradonna, 2022, page 87

Maybe Malthus’ book came across as misanthropic because it was. You don’t need to have any thoughts on technology either way to know that Mathus being happy to leave the poor to starve was not great. If we aren’t trying to prevent poor people from starving, then what is the point of it all?

Can I Be A Visionary Too?

The Limits to Growth introduced its sponsor as “Dr. Aurlio Peccei, an Italian industrial manager, economist, and man of vision” (Page 9). (Sustainability circles still often discuss this report, see here). Caradonna describes Peccei as “an Italian industrialist and visionary” (page 132). Who is doing Peccei’s public relations? They should definitely get a raise. To be fair, they probably got that raise back in the 1970s when the “Italian industrialist and visionary” foresaw how good they would be at burnishing his name. I must confess I find all that fawning nonsense a bit off-putting.

Indeed, a fair amount of Caradonna’s writing wasn’t to my taste as he veered between neutrality and opinion in a way that confused me. Sometimes I wasn’t sure what his point was. For example, I think that different ideas on campus are a good thing but he doesn’t seem as sure.

[Discussions of sustainability on university campuses] can get complicated for students, who are unknowingly exposed to conflicting bodies of knowledge.

Caradonna, 2022, page 226

If many students are not expecting to be, and so become ‘unknowingly’, exposed to ideas in their university studies, I have a suggestion. Maybe we should do a better job of telling students what universities are for.

For some history-related posts see here, here, and here

Read: Jeremy L. Caradonna (2022) Sustainability: A History, Revised and Updated Edition, Oxford University Press

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