History of sustainability

Where does the concept of sustainability come from?

The concept of sustainability has its roots in forestry management of the 17th and 18th centuries in so-called sustained yield. Sustained yield is a way to manage a forest so that it has time to regrow between harvests. In other words, it ensures the forest can keep on producing indefinitely.

But it wasn’t until the 1960s when the growing concerns about the environment drew attention to the link between economic growth and environmental degradation. More specifically, to the fact that the depletion of natural resources and the degradation of the environment limit our ability to grow economically.

One of the first uses of the term sustainability in the present-day sense was by the Club of Rome in 1972 in their Limits to Growth report. It defined sustainability as:

A state of global equilibrium that is capable of satisfying the basic material requirements of all of its people.

Club of Rome (1972)

Notice how close this is to the modern definition of sustainability, already.

The actual present-day definition was first used in 1987 by the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development, in the so-called Brundtland Report (PDF).

That definition has been modified slightly in later years but the core meaning remains the same: Mankind’s ability to survive and prosper.