The History and Evolution of Sustainability

Though the word sustainability has come to prominence in recent years, the concept is nothing new. The concept has been around as long as people have been concerned about the future of resources. The idea that we must take care over the basic resources – food, water, energy – that provide our most basic needs has been around as long as we have. 

The modern word ‘sustainability’ comes from a German term ‘Nachhaltigkeit’ (‘sustained yield’). It first appeared in a forestry handbook in 1713. It means never harvesting more than a forest can regenerate. The translated term was first used in English in the mid-19th Century. 

Though, in its earliest usage, the term was used in reference to forests, once ecology became a recognised field, the concept of sustainability became much broader. It was used to describe the longevity of any biological system. Then, in the latter half of the 20th Century, the term evolved again. As concern grew over overuse of resources and dependence on finite fossil fuels, the term sustainability was used more in terms of our human society, and how we live on our planet. 

In 1987, the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations defined sustainable development as: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Today, most definitions of sustainability also include the understanding that we must balance how we meet human needs with the avoidance of degradation or destruction of the natural world. Three key goals define sustainable development today: environmental protection, social development and economic development. Both social and economic development should be constrained by the limits of what our natural world can provide, over the short and longer term. 

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are a series of 17 goals, made up of a number of targets, that have shaped the evolution of sustainability in recent years. The 2030 agenda was launched in 2015. They provide a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. In order to leave no one behind, and to transition to a more sustainable future, there is a growing understanding that we must meet these goals by 2030. 

As we reach the end of 2020, examining the history and evolution of sustainability can help us work out how to refine the concept and meet our needs in a sustainable way in the years to come.

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