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Sustainability in history


For sustainability as a moral imperative see Morality & sustainability;
for sustainability as a global practical program seeSustainability analysis; for a discussion of the categories used to assess sustainability see; for plant dispersal across the planet see garden history articles and Phases of plant introduction.
This series of articles examines world history through sustainability criteria.

In a series of articles I explore world and European history in terms of sustainability and plant-human relationships as viewed through the windows of environmental, socio-political and economic history during ancient Greek and Roman history and the periods 1300-1500, 1500-1750, 1750-1830, 1830-1914, 1914-1945, 1945-1960, 1960-2010.

Each article first gives a broad outline of world history with emphasis on Europe and Asia. Britain is given special mention for its relevance to Australia before other countries.

History can be viewed through many lenses. Sustainability history examines history through those categories considered most relevant to the future well-being of the community of life. These factors can be expressed in a traditional academic way by integrating environmental history, socio-political and cultural history, and economic history. However, in this series of articles, after a brief establishment of context, sustainability is considered through categories focused directly on sustainability itself, listed briefly here as: population, social organisation, technology, transport and communication as they impact on the consumption of the biophysical resources energy, water, materials, food and biodiversity. Environmental impacts are considered in terms of the effect of consumption of biophysical resources on Ecosystem Services at the world, regional and country scales when appropriate.

Consideration of sustainability criteria inevitably focuses on information-rich countries and regions. This is a ripe field for research with much base-line data difficult to access.

If it were possible to experience the whole of human history as a slice of the planetary history then the most obvious indication of human presence an influence would be the changing cultural landscapes. This topic is dealt with elsewhere.

When the environmental aspects of sustainability are emphasised then sustainability history has much in common with environmental history, the difference being in the emphasis on sustainability criteria. As each article is confined to a particular period a brief overview is given here.

Big history

Environmental history is sometimes taken to encompass the entire 5 billion-year history of the planet, as part of Big History. However, environmental historians concerned with the human period generally recognise four broad episodes that relate mainly to energy systems and landscapes: they are equally useful in considering sustainability:


1. NATURA – 200,000 – 12,000 BP – Hunter-gatherer to c. 12,000 BP
2. AGRARIA – 12,000-1800Early civilisations, the Neolithic Revolution beginning c. 10,000 BP involving sedentism, urbanisation, and population increase; agrarian solar agriculture and animal domestication. Energy as water for mills, wind for ships, wood, charcoal, for fuel, olive oil for lamps
3. INDUSTRIA – c. 1750-1950 Industrialisation in the Industrial Revolution (c. 1750 but gathering momentum c. 1830) centered on the use of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas, electricity) and development of science and technology especially machinery
4. INFORMATIA – 1950-present the consumer society and ‘Great Acceleration’ c. 1960. Massive acceleration of population growth and resource consumption with rapid globalisation increased sophistication of transport and electronic communication (computers) facilitated by cheap energy


Although the idea of sustainability in relation to the planet only fully emerged in the 1980s, if we are considering primarily human influence on planetary sustainability then we must go back into prehistory.

Some authors draw attention to the cognitive revolution that took place about 70,000 years ago.[1]

Today human biomass has been estimated at about 300 million tons and domesticated animals at 700 million tones making up more than 90% of the biomass of large animals. Up until the agricultural revolution human environmental impact (except by fire) would have been minor.[1]

By considering the sweep of history it is easy to forget the overriding impact of the Great Acceleration in the last two generations: it dwarfs everything that has gone before. Our age is an age of transition whose significance and impacts on the planet far outweigh those of the Industrial Revolution. However, it is most important that we understand as best we can those small changes in past ideas, technology and choices that produced such momentous changes for today.

Behavioural change

Knowing what is best for ourselves, or for others, is frequently insufficient to change our behaviour.

Aristotle (as an ancient cognitive behavioural therapist) knew that ultimately desirable behaviour does not happen automatically: it is difficult because on many occasions we must fight our instinctive inclinations. We can overcome this by developing appropriate habits (habituation) and these habits become easier over time.

This observation might seem obvious, but it must be re-learned from one generation to the next, and day to day. Mothers know it well but that does not mean that they find it easy to put it into effect for themselves. It is one of the most difficult psychological processes for us all to accomplish – behavioural change.

Though Aristotle described humans as ‘rational animals’ he realized that even when we possess knowledge and reason, reasonable outcomes are not guaranteed.
I was once told about a highly infectious and deadly disease spreading rapidly through a community. Inoculations with a 100% guarantee of success were offered but this entailed walking a short distance to a medical centre on a hot day. Everyone was offered inoculation, no-one turned up, with the inevitable consequences.

History, until recent times was the history of peoples, nations, cultures, civilizations. Globalization has created a new awareness, that of our collective global responsibility – and we will try to find ways to follow our separate interests and inclinations. Just one way we do this is by pursuing short-term benefits at the expense of long term gains. Our slow response to climate change is just one example.

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