The history of sustainability | Work of Arts
The history of sustainability | Work of Arts

The history of sustainability

Historian’s research examines our current ecological, economical, cultural and population predicaments, and the history that led us to where we are today

More is always better.

It’s a common saying and for many of us, it’s a sentiment that govern many aspects of our lives — anything from overindulging at a buffet, purchasing consumer goods in bulk, to acquiring the latest, biggest vehicle on the market.

However, advocates of the sustainability movement would argue that more is not always better, especially when the world’s population continues to increase with each day and finite resources are being depleted at an alarming rate. In fact, more can and will have severe long-term consequences.

“We’ve designed for ourselves a society, an industrial economy, that is rooted in the notion of growth and consumption,” explains Jeremy Caradonna, a researcher in the Department of History & Classics, who specializes in the history and practice of sustainability. “Why not have policies based on sustainability and stability, rather than thinking about more?

IMG_1605“[Sustainability’s] essence is building a society that’s designed for permanence,” says Caradonna. “What we’re trying to get away from… is a society that is based on short-term gain, at the expense of long-term stability and prosperity.”

A small step towards living sustainably can be as simple as eating locally, which uses less fuel to produce and consume food, or getting solar panels in your house. “Ultimately, it boils down to some pretty basic ideas: we need to live within our limits, we need to plan wisely, we need to de-centralize, we need to localize.”

Certain factors still hinder the development of a completely sustainable society — for example, an over-reliance on fossil fuels, as well as continual unsustainable industrialization. However, many corporations have started moving towards more sustainable practices, such as using recyclable materials, reducing waste and using less energy to produce products. In addition, some corporations have started implementing a “triple bottom line” accounting model, which takes in account people, the planet and their own financial bottom line.

A history of sustainability

Caradonna recently released a book, Sustainability: A History, that looks at the origins of the concept and movement. Although sustainability may seem like a relatively recent concept — and certainly is a word that is currently used with increasing frequency by corporations and institutions alike — Caradonna says the movement took root more than 250 years ago, during the Industrial Revolution.

Written for the general public, the book outlines our current ecological, economical, cultural and population predicaments, and examines the decisions and factors that led us to where we are today. “I’m trying to historicize the sustainability movement, trying to figure out where it came from,” says Caradonna, who believes in connecting the past, present and future.

“Why not have policies based on sustainability and stability, rather than thinking about more?”

“You have to understand the mistakes, you have to understand the hurdles, you have to understand the cultural baggage that has gotten us to the point where we are today. Simply put, understanding the past better informs you on how to deal with the future.”

The book also looks at the voices of the past who were more interested in economic stability and cultural growth, but were often ignored — points of views that could help inform how to build a sustainable society and economy now. For example, famous economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill proposed a concept known as the “stationary state,” in which economies should only develop to a certain point and then maintain what they have.

“[These economists] had different assumptions for how the economy should work…. They had a different idea of what a society should be,” says Caradonna.

It would be great if his book convinces someone to start biking to work instead of driving, says Caradonna. However, he also wants his book to be read by policy makers, politicians and economists and investors; he wants them to think about how they “conceptualize the world,” and perhaps re-evaluate their own practices, particularly when it comes to capital investment.

For instance, investors are less likely to invest in sustainable fuels and technologies because they don’t yield the same quick, high returns as traditional investing models. Caradonna hopes that by reading about “alternative forms of capitalism, to learn about new forms of investment that aren’t based on quick returns,” investors might consider changing their investment models.

Living green

Caradonna’s interest in sustainability was partially inspired by his other research focus: the Enlightenment period, which he views as a turning point in history. “I’m always interested in studying the impact and legacy of the European Enlightenment on the world. Sustainability is an Enlightenment concept.”

“Understanding the past better informs you on how to deal with the future.”

However, Caradonna also tries to live sustainably in his personal life; he has a keen interest in biofuels and green politics, and even has a car that runs on Canadian-made recycled biodiesel. In addition, he’s worked closely with the UAlberta Office of Sustainability to guide university policies and played a major role in the creation of the Certificate of Sustainability, which was recently launched.

The history of sustainability may have started as a way for him to connect his academic and personal interests, but he’s excited to help establish this growing field as its own historical discipline.

As for what’s next, Caradonna wants to continue studying sustainability, and perhaps write a book on the history of the organic food movement. Above all else, he is interested in developing a dialogue with the public by making his research accessible to a general audience.

“As historians, and broadly, academics, we could be doing more to engage the public…. I think that’s ultimately, at the end of the day, what we should be doing in this intellectual endeavour. Educate and engage the public, so that’s what I want to continue to do.”


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  • tiredofshills

    How sustainable is it to be a frequent flier between Edmonton and Vancouver?

    But super glad he has a car that runs on Canadian-made recycled biodiesel.