Chapter 1 - The Origins of Sustainability | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 1 - The Origins of Sustainability 


In music, sustain is the length of time a sound continues after the input energy stops. The toll of a bell happens with the strikes of the clapper, and the sustain is what we hear as the sound decays. The natural world has its own cycle of sustain and we now know that humankind can have an impact on this cycle of change. Understanding and managing this sustain in a positive way is one of the core concepts of sustainability. Over the ages, many great naturalists have pondered the cycle and being of nature, and the human interface. These observers and explorers have studied the world around us, and our analysis of their thoughts allows reflection about the historical changes in our understanding and attitudes about the relationship of humankind and the natural world. In this Chapter of the course, we examine the works of some of these naturalists as well as recent exposition on human dominated ecosystems and a planet in peril.


Chapter Parts

Chapter 1 - The Origins of Sustainability, Part 1 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 1 - The Origins of Sustainability 

Part 1 - The Ancients and Nature

ancient roman columns silloetted against a blue skyJust like the rise and fall of civilizations, the environment experiences a similar pattern of prosperous times followed by depletion and changes in the natural environment. Civilizations such as the Greeks, Romans, and Israelites all benefitted from the thriving and fertile land around them, however just as these civilizations have vanished, so too has much of the fertile, prosperous land that they lived on and around.

The study of these ancient civilizations helps to uncover human opinions on the natural environment, how the environment influenced the development of civilizations, and how civilizations had an impact on the environment, and perhaps even how these factors have influenced attitudes and outlooks today. These interrelationships form the basis of ecology.

The influence and relationship between nature and humankind was recognized early in civilization, with writers such as Hippocrates observing and noting the “effect of climate on human health, temperament, and intelligence and remarked that civilizations arose in lands of moderate or warm climate with light rainfall, where water supply was a major challenge” (Hughes, 1975). However, just as the environment has had an effect on civilizations past and present, so too has humankind had a substantial effect on nature and its processes. Civilizations were only able to be resilient as long as they struck a balance with nature. Many civilizations failed to do so, leading to not only the demise of their empire, but also a demise of the land around them.


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Suggested Reading

  1. Ecology in Ancient Civilizations. J. Donald Hughes (1975) University of New Mexico Press, 181 pages.

  2. Hughes, J. Donald and Thirgood, J. V.(1982) Deforestation, Erosion, and Forest Management in Ancient Greece and Rome. Journal of Forest History, Vol. 26, No. 2, pp. 60-75
Chapter 1 - The Origins of Sustainability, Part 2 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 1 - The Origins of Sustainability 

Part 2 - The Great Naturalists

Seven to ten thousand years ago, the Neolithic Revolution led early humans into the first agricultural revolution. This revolution in lifestyle was a transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture and settlement. Intensifying the use of land must have required the need for understanding the world as they knew it, and communicating that knowledge to the next generation, for simple survival. Learning the limits for survival is most certainly, an instinct to sustain.

Throughout human history, our knowledge of nature - and the potential for human impact - has steadily grown. Although we are still discovering the complex and wonderful bounty of nature on Earth, we have as a foundation, …that knowledge from earlier generations, who also marveled at the great composition of nature. As if by some universal imperative, we wonder about the world around us, …about this pale blue dot in the universe. We see this great work of art …and we seek to understand the painting …and the palette; the seen and the unseen. In all its secretive wonder, nature both tempts us with her meaning, and her glory. 

It was the 19th century poet Walt Whitman who said:
“You must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds, and trees and flowers, and water-craft; a certain free margin, and even vagueness—perhaps ignorance, credulity—helps your enjoyment of these things.”

In the past few millennia, humankind has benefited from a special group of people who we call “the great naturalists.” Observers of the world around them, these great naturalists studied, chronicled, …and wondered. Humankind has benefited from their curiosity, their discipline, and their sense of adventure in a journey without a map. The passion for knowledge of the great naturalists has helped us learn our limits for survival, and nurture our own instinct to sustain.

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Suggested Reading

Chapter 1 - The Origins of Sustainability, Part 3 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 1 - The Origins of Sustainability 

Part 3 - Religion and the Environment

Borobudur monks prayingA Muslim ecologist, Fazlun Khalid, once said:  
“Our self-indulgence has led us to compete with each other as consumers, as individuals and as countries sucking things out of the earth at an ever-increasing rate and discharging a level of waste which the earth cannot recycle, thus contributing to the rapid destruction of the habitats and lifestyles of the weakest amongst us. We are rampaging through the delicate balance of nature. Savaging other species to extinction.  Robbing future generations of their inheritance. We have become so trapped in our own self-indulgence we are not even aware of it.”
(qtd. in Chapman, Petersen, and Smith-Moran, 1999)

Religious faiths and spirituality have an incredible influence on the lives of many people across the globe, and we must recognize that circumstance and its power for good, in an already damaged world. We need men and women of faith, and we need spiritual and religious leaders, to mobilize action to change our challenged future. Many have already heeded the call. We need a shared sense of inspiration, and faith, and a higher sense of goodwill for those we will never meet, but who will know us by the world we leave behind. 

Regardless of beliefs, faith, or cultural identity and allegiance, the degradation of the natural world is a challenge that affects all of humanity. For our survival and that of future generations, and the survival of nature in its timeless beauty and wonder, dominion must yield to balance, and harvest must yield to sow. With present and near future population and resource challenges, we need change, lest our last supper is the seed grain of our children.

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Suggested Reading

  1. Tucker, M. E. and Grim, J. (2009) Overview of World Religions and Ecology

    (Hinduism; Jainism; Buddhism; Confucianism; Daoism; Shinto; Indigenous; Judaism; Christianity; and Islam)

  2. Chapman, A., Petersen, R., Smith-Moran, B. (1999) Consumption, Population, and Sustainability: Perspectives From Science And Religion. Island Press. 300 p.

  3. Gardner, G. (2002) Invoking the Spirit: Religion and Spirituality and the Quest for a Sustainable World. Worldwatch Institute. 62 p.

  4. Gottlieb, R. S. (2006) A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet's Future. Oxford University Press, USA. 304 p.

  5. Gottlieb, R. S. Ed. (2004) This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment. Routledge, NY, NY. 762 p.

Chapter 1 - The Origins of Sustainability, Part 4 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 1 - The Origins of Sustainability 

Part 4 - 20th Century Awakening of Sustainability

farmer wlaking in a 1930s dust stormIn the Twentieth century, the intensification of land use, population growth, industrialization, urban decay, suburban sprawl, pollution, and new knowledge about the human impact on nature gave rise to the conservation movement and public policy approaches to limit and mitigate damage to the environment and hazard to people. Trans-boundary and even global impacts started to demonstrate that the concerns would need responses that were often international. In the United States, the growth of Federal and state regulatory controls on impacts to the “commons” were developed in response to public outcry, environmental damage, and increasing concerns about public health and environmental quality. Clean water, clean air, and safe food became entwined with the greater concerns for managing, preserving, and protecting natural resources and their tangible and non-tangible values.

In the United States, development of a body of environmental law and regulations set a pace and pattern that was mirrored and often improved upon across the globe. Episodic events in our shared history, such a national crises in urban air pollution, dirty water, wildlife poisonings, and a food supply with inadequate safety drove us to collectively examine our needs for economic development and expansion, and balance those needs against our desire for a quality of life that includes fishable and swimmable waters, smog-free skylines, abundant and accessible nature, and health. And thus was born a concern for the long-view, by asking not only what is good for the present, but more importantly, what is good for the future.

As a species, we are not good at restraint. Perhaps we are driven by natural prerogatives, instinct, and opportunity to push “Westward”, to expand, to explore, to harvest, to “have dominion”, and to “boldly go.” Rapidly growing human population and environmental degradation are already defining limits of our past notions of unbounded opportunity that consumes, rather than sustains, the natural world. To find balance, we will have to learn restraint, or face the rushing reality that will be our future and our children’s future. For all the misfortune and mistakes of the past, we do stand on the foundation of many who came before and acted well, and made our lives better. We have that continuing and shared responsibility, one of hope that we too can rise to our challenge. The task is great.

We have the opportunity to be the generation that did great things, or the ones to blame for a future far more desolate and limited than the present we have been given. We need to be smart and practical, compassionate and caring, and understand the diversity of challenges that humanity faces in all parts of the world. We are at a point where no one stands alone. We are all connected and this connectedness should create shared values to sustain our air, our water, and the biological richness that is Earth. Our environmental history does not have to be our environmental future. The lessons of the past can be ignored for profit or power, or they can provide waypoints for future possibility. We have that choice. -GM


Required Reading

  1. History of Sustainability. Sustainability and the U.S. EPA (2011) National Academies Press, Washington, DC. (12 pages; pp 15-26)


(Photo credit: "Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma, USA." Arthur Rothstein, for the Farm Security Administration, 1936)

Chapter 1 - The Origins of Sustainability, Part 5 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 1 - The Origins of Sustainability 

Part 5 - Silent Spring as a Watershed Moment

Rachel Carson’s seminal work, Silent Spring arrived a time in our collective history when technological advancement, increasing human population, and pollution, often largely unregulated, began to have highly visual local and global impacts in an era of increasing insertion of the visual medium of television into common culture. The book itself was highly referenced with the scientific literature, yet written in a style that was accessible to the public.  

In that era, the era of “better living through chemistry,” society was experiencing a rapid influx of products into the marketplace that resulted from the boom of technological advances, in the industrial run out of World War II. New drugs, new agricultural chemicals that were accelerating a green revolution, and new materials, such as advanced plastics, all fueled the vision of a New Frontier and the Great Society. This vision for social change helped focus the internal challenges in our society, challenges that included civil rights, environmental justice, a lack of governmental and marketplace transparency, and an environment that was becoming increasingly polluted. In the US and across the globe, many waterways were visually contaminated; trash was accumulating on roadways, and the urban smog that burned your eyes was so dense that obscured building-tops were a common sight in many major cities.

In the rush to develop and deploy these new technologies, in the absence of precaution and knowledge of the potential for negative as well as positive impacts, it soon became clear that there may be a darker side to many of the products and processes, and that in some cases, the risks of a new technology, may outweigh the benefits of that innovation. The multidimensional social, economic and environmental analysis that Carson undertook was new for its time, and it spoke to a greater concern that humanity has the technology - but perhaps not the wisdom - to control the natural world.

A scientist herself, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, called for caution with technology – not abandonment. Her ability to put voice to nature changed our perception of the natural world, and in doing so she changed the world.

locked file icon Students please contact Professor Möller for the lecture password.

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Suggested Reading

  1. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson (1962) Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
Chapter 1 - The Origins of Sustainability, Part 6 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 1 - The Origins of Sustainability 

Part 6 - A Planet in Peril

Facts are prolific regarding environmental degradation and climate change. However, there is a large normative part of these debates that we as societies still struggle with. We need something more if we want to act on the basis of those facts. Scientists are good at describing the world but values dictate what we choose to do about it. The magnitude of these problems, the unknown consequences and the ethical implications for future generations, for the less fortunate, for children, expose our values and morals and call for unfaltering faith in the human spirit and in the world. These global problems demand what obligation we have to ourselves, to other humans, and to the world. Addressing these problems and creating positive change will require the parts of us that are not rational. These are the parts that love unconditionally, that forgive, that dream, that empathize.

The moral dilemmas we face in regard to sustainability revolve around three moral arguments. One is consequential, if we fail to act, what are the consequences of inaction and what are our moral obligations to act? The second is an argument about integrity, or doing what is right. It asks the question, what is our duty to other humans, and to the earth? The third is a question of virtue and who we want to be. What is the best a human being can be? What virtues should shape our character? Can virtuous people stand by and watch others suffer and can they knowingly destroy the earth? The following excerpts offer arguments and clarity to these moral questions. Although we face our greatest challenge, we can proceed with dignity and grace and enlist the power of the human heart and mind to rectify our relationship with this world and each other. 

These essay excerpts are taken from a collection of essays by over 80 world leaders in the book Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, edited by Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael Nelson. The intentions of this book were to 1) demonstrate global consensus on the ethical reasons for which we have a moral responsibility to respond to climate change and environmental degradation, 2) to provide arguments for this moral action regardless of religion, world view or status, and 3) to reveal that we are moral agents who can live lives that we believe in and we can live with integrity, compassion and joy and change our trajectory and relationship to the world.

Yosemite International Film Festical El Capitan Award Winner 2011 sound optimized for head phones icon


Suggested Reading

  1. Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril. Edited by Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson. Trinity University Press, San Antonio, TX. 2010. 512 p.

  2. The Ethical Implications of Global Climate Change. Report by the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST). United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) 2010. 39 p.
  3. Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene. Steffen, et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 2018.


(Introduction: Irene Shaver and Greg Möller. Photo credit: Trinity University Press and Office of Paul Sahre)