Sustainability 101: A Brief History of Sustainability

Originally uploaded Jan 5, 2021

Now that we have covered the more science-y need for the rise of the sustainability concept, we’re ready to explore the positive actions people have taken over the last sixty years or so to grow this potentially humanity-saving idea.

This lesson will take you through some of the major events and ideas that have shaped what sustainability means today… but first we should start at the beginning.

The emergence of stable agrarian civilisations some eight to ten thousand years ago suggests a planned strategy for survival, alongside nature within these communities. Polynesian communities have survived on small islands with limited resources for three thousand years using rahui, a form of environmental governance restricting access to certain resources.

Sketched reconstruction of a Māori horticultural settlement 600-700 years ago (Source).

Environmental preservation to an end of sustained wellbeing is as much an instinct as it is a philosophy or technology. Just as your dog doesn’t like to go to the toilet near their bed, we have created an external environment based on these instincts (now common knowledge), that have allowed us to live in cities of tens of millions.

Now let’s get familiar with the graph/timeline concoction you see above. The graph bit shows how often the word “sustainability” appears in books. The timeline bit shows a selection of notable events or ideas that have shaped our understanding of sustainability over the last sixty years (Source 1, Source 2). If we use the abundance of the word “sustainability” as a proxy for popularity in science and culture, we can see the effect of each event on the prevalence of the concept over time.

Okay. Starting in 1962 I’ll take you through to today with some James Bond-related reference markers

1962. The same year that the first Bond film was released, Silent Spring hit the shelves. Rachel Carson (left in the image below to avoid confusion) was an environmental scientist whose book looked at the use of synthetic pesticides (notably DDT) in the US agricultural system. The title of the book comes from the absence of birdsong in springtime as a result of pesticidal use. Now named one of the 100 greatest non-fiction books of the 20th century, Silent Spring has been hugely influential, leading to the banning of DDT, establishment of the US Environmental Protection Agency and small but penetrative grassroots environmental movements in the US. David Attenborough named Silent Spring as the book that changed the scientific world the most, second only to Darwin’s Origin of Species.

1972. A decade and six Bond films later and on the eve of the last Sean Connery appearance, Limits to Growth was published. This rather academic book was commissioned by the Bond-villain-supergroup-sounding Club of Rome, and set out to find the limits of our world. The authors looked at the world like one big spaceship (like the analogy used in Lesson 1) and simulated the complex, systemic interactions between humanity and our natural world – all very complicated but I will return to this in Lesson 3. The main take home from Limits to Growth was that if we carry on with the trends of resource use and population growth as they were in 1972 we would hit a crunch point in 2072, where humanity would experience a “sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity” – big talk. Their predictions were however criticised for not accounting technological solutions, so please don’t take their doomsday prophecy with a pinch of salt.

If Silent Spring tugged at the general population’s heartstrings, Limits to Growth put a tear in the eye of our scientists. With the dawn of the silicon age and with it the ability to handle large data sets and model global scenarios, Limits to Growth set the ball rolling for what the climate scientists are doing today with their graphs and forecasts. This was a very important book for the scientific community because it made us look at environmental issues and sustainability at a global scale and far into the future. Perhaps even more importantly it laid out the simple message that business as usual means a threat to our very existence (note this message was given 50 years ago – yikes!).

1987. Eight bond films and at the end of the Roger Moore era, Our Common Future (The Brundtland Report (Ms Brundtland on the left) was published. This was one of the first major international governmental reports on sustainability. The term “sustainable development” was defined in its modern form here. The report placed environmental issues firmly on the global political agenda, pushing for intergovernmental cooperation to solve these large scale problems.

We can see from the sustainability-popularity graph that it is at this point that sustainability begins to become more of a household term.

1988. At the midpoint of Timothy Dalton’s short run as Bond, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is established. This marks a significant international push to monitor climate change so that the world’s governments can make climate positive, evidence based decisions.

1992. In the midst of a six year bond-film hiatus, the Rio Summit is held. This marked a major effort for countries to collectively combat global problems such as climate change and deforestation.

1997. In the heyday of the Pierce Brosnan epoch, the third of the yearly United Nations Climate Change Conferences (known as COP3) was held in Kyoto Japan. On top of symbolising more efforts towards international cooperation to fight climate change, what’s important about this one is the Kyoto Protocol. This was the first legally binding agreement between countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within given timeframes. A watershed in international environmental treaty making, the Protocol introduced emissions trading and clean development mechanisms as tools for countries to meet these targets. The efficacy of this agreement was largely undermined in 2001 when the Bush administration rejected the protocol.

2006. With the dawn of the Daniel Craig Bond franchise, another film takes to the theatres. An Inconvenient Truth was released when I was 11 and is my earliest memory of the wild climate graphs we see today. It raised global awareness of the effect of human-made greenhouse gasses and showcased the debate, especially in the US, to whether climate change was a human or natural phenomenon.

2009. A year after Quantum of Solace we entered the Copenhagen climate negotiations. COP 15 held high hopes to reach an agreement regarding emissions reduction commitments beyond the Kyoto Protocol which was set to end in 2012. This agreement is widely regarded as a failure due to the fact that the Accord was not legally binding. The Accord also set no real targets and was only drafted by five countries – ouch. The momentum for progressive countries shifts to national and regional efforts to reduce emissions.

2015. Spectre is released as representatives of each country gather in Paris. Here, the “well below 2°C” (sometimes 1.5°C) target is set. This is the biggest agreement since Kyoto almost 20 years and sets a clear target for countries to adhere to. Again, it is not legally binding and there is no penalisation for countries breaking the rules. In this same year the UN Sustainable Development Goals were established as a blueprint for a sustainable future.

2021. We’ve got a new Bond film on the horizon, No Time to Die, and a new COP. COP26, to be held in the freshly Brexited UK, could be an important one. With a crisis such as Covid-19, change tends to happen more freely and this could be an opportunity to rebuild the global economy in a more sustainable fashion. But that’s just political drivel, let’s see if anything meaningful can come of this year.

Thanks for taking this journey through time with me. I hope you now understand how perfectly the major events in the global sustainability movement align with the succession of bond actors. I will talk about how these events and developments have (or haven’t) worked to actually tackle the problem of climate change and global biodiversity loss in Lecture 4.

Class out.