A cultural history of sustainability

In “Sustainability Science in a nutshell”, one of the first posts in this blog, I wrote about some of the key literature of sustainability science and mentioned a couple of more general introductions to the concept of sustainability. What I could not do at the time writing was to introduce you to one of my favourites, for the simple reason that it was not out in English but only in German. This has changed by now, so it is about time to come back to this book.

The publication I am talking about is Ulrich Grobers “Sustainability: A Cultural History” published in English in late 2012. In this book, Grober sets out to clarify the concept of sustainability by revealing some of the linguistic and historical development of the term instead of introducing a new attempt to define the contested concept. He takes us on a journey to the word’s inner meaning and the essence of the term, a journey both necessary and worthwhile according to the author:

“The idea of sustainability is not a mere mind game played by modern technocrats, nor the brainwave of some tree-hugging eco-warriors … it is our primal world cultural heritage” (p.13)

And, as I may add, this journey, although sometimes rather long, is worth to make, as some fascinating details can be discovered along the track. Grober comes up with a strong and compelling narrative of sustainability, tracing the concepts history and exploring its origin and development.

Ulrich Grober is a journalist by trade who published on deep ecology, sustainability and ecotourism in many German newspapers and magazines. I was introduced to his work when I was looking for presenters that could talk about sustainability in an attractive way to a large audience, as we had a lecture series on sustainability for all first-semesters of our university back in Lüneburg. Udo Simonis (one of the grey eminences in the sustainability discourse in Germany) highly recommended Grober and sent me an early version of what became the German original of this book. I was fascinated by the richness of details and the compelling way of presenting all that information. Grober is passionate about the topic as you will easily recognize throughout his writing.

So what is the book about in essence? To describe it with the words of Udo Simonis, who wrote one of the first reviews about it:

“The book deals therefore with the emergence of a great idea and the way it relates with the worlds in which it developed. In this way it is both up-to-the-minute and historical at the same time. Viewed from a distance it helps us to both take measure and to set standards, in order to re-assess the thoughts behind it, the term itself and the semantic field of “sustainability” and, as Grober says, to sound out its gravity and to evaluate its elasticity.” (http://www.sonnenseite.com/One+World,Sustainability+-+A+cultural+history,72,a23519.html)

Grober takes us on a long (and this might be the only drawback sometimes rather too long) journey with some of the obvious stopovers, be it the work of Carl von Carlowitz from Freiberg hundreds of years ago or the more recent Stockholm Conference on the Environment. But he also reconstructs the emergence of the concept in ancient texts from a broad variety of authors such as Francis of Assisi, Spinoza, or Goethe. The sheer variety of perspectives, anecdotes and links between seemingly separated events makes it to such a strong narrative. But Grober is not only looking back. In an outlook on the future of the concept, he closes:

“Sustainability will remain the key term in the world’s languages, like in German where its roots go back a long way. It has the necessary gravity and elasticity. It derives its gravity from its existential perspective, its elasticity from its ability to successfully adapt its substance to the relevant conditions.”

So if you are in to sustainability and interested in its origin and development, I highly recommend this book as it will bring you many perspectives you probably haven’t been aware of so far.

Grober, Ulrich (2012): Sustainability: A Cultural History. Chelsea Green Pub Co.
224 pages, ISBN: 978-0857840455
Available as paperback and e-book.


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