If you were born after 1990, eco-friendly ideas seem commonplace, but environmental health was not always a global concern.
As I’ve learned more about sustainability in general, curiosity grew about the origins of “eco-friendly” thinking. When did we realize that our interest in growth is in direct contrast with nature’s desire to grow? Civilizations are still developing; when did we become concerned about the effect that has on our environment?
I put together a few notable moments in history that have shaped how we perceive economic growth in relation to our natural environment.
In the totality of human existence, we’ve become concerned with our resource consumption rather recently. But I think it’s safe to say that conversations about conservation efforts had begun long before you'd probably expect; the topic has just gathered more steam over time.
Timeline of Sustainable Economic Growth Concerns
Up to this point, discussions about sustainable development have been focused on maintaining resources so that we don’t run out. In 1962, Rachel Carson shifted the focus with her book Silent Spring. This book sheds light on pesticides like DDT and the damaging effects it had on the environment at the time. Carson was inspired to write the book when a friend of hers described a scene of dead birds around her property, as a result of DDT sprayed in the air.
The upshot of Carson’s book was an environmental movement that influenced the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as a ban on DDT for agricultural uses.
An eco-minded group, Club of Rome, commissioned a study with hopes of the following:
- Gain insights into the limits of our world system and the constraints it puts on human numbers and activity.
- Identify and study the dominant elements, and their interactions, that influence the long-term behavior of world systems.
- To warn of the likely outcome of contemporary economic and industrial policies, with a view to influencing changes to a sustainable lifestyle.
Using a computer simulation, the research team sought to find the limitations of human growth with the rate of consumption we enjoyed at that time. The report has since been heavily criticized as unduly pessimistic, but it undoubtedly began a conversation about global resource consumption and growth possibilities.
Also, the Stockholm Conference was held in 1972; a key moment in the advancement of sustainable development as a global policy.
The United Nations’ World Charter for Nature group released a list of five conservational principles, which all human conduct affecting nature is to be guided and judged. The following are the principles that we should measure our actions against:
- Nature shall be respected and its essential processes shall not be impaired.
- The genetic viability on the earth shall not be compromised; the population levels of all life forms, wild and domesticated, must be at least sufficient for their survival, and to this end necessary habitats shall be safeguarded.
- All areas of the earth, both land and sea, shall be subject to these principles of conservation; special protection shall be given to unique areas, to representative samples of all the different types of ecosystems and to the habitats of rare or endangered species.
- Ecosystems and organisms, as well as the land, marine and atmospheric resources that are utilized by man, shall be managed to achieve and maintain optimum sustainable productivity, but not in such a way as to endanger the integrity of those other ecosystems or species with which they coexist.
- Nature shall be secured against degradation caused by warfare or other hostile activities.
The only nation-state to verbally oppose the adoption of these principles was the United States of America.
Referred to as the Brundtland Report, Our Common Future is a document that covers every angle of sustainable development from the perspective of scientists, citizens, governments, etc. It sought to define environment and development as one issue in the political agenda.
This report was influential for acknowledging existing environmental limits to industrial societies’ growth and also claimed that conservation efforts are heavily dependent on gender equity, poverty reduction, and wealth redistribution.
Within the past decade, we saw the introduction of sustainable development goals; 17 goals to strive for in the pursuit of a sustainable future for humankind. The idea behind these goals is to achieve a balance between economic growth and environmental conservation. Building upon the ideas founded in Our Common Future, these SDG's highlight the interdependence of one goal with another.
After the introduction of these 17 interlinked goals, criticism arose concerning the actionability towards them. Goals are pretty but how do we achieve them? In 2017, the focus was dialed in on creating action steps and metrics to measure progress. After all, the goal for completing these is by 2030, after that may be too little too late.
Who knows what the future holds for sustainable development. Maybe we will find a balance, or we could already be doomed. Will our societies grow alongside the Earth's natural limitations or in spite of them?