I smiled as I read this New York Times article on innovations in refillable packaging; well, it’s deja vu all over again! My mind darted back some fifty years to Kolkata, India, where I grew up. I was 10 years old going with my father to buy cooking oil for our household. We went to the mill that was crushing mustard seeds into oil and bought directly from them, and I remember that we took back the used, empty tin containers of oil and got filled containers in exchange. Each time, every time. The same was true for milk, rice, wheat and many other grocery items. We had jute shopping bags that were reused for years. I wasn’t allowed to leave the dining table without emptying my plate! That got me thinking: When did our predecessors start talking about sustainability? Did the ancient scriptures cover the concept? This blog will explore the history of sustainability, how we got lost along the way and how we can course correct. Let’s start with the present and trace our way back.
Modern Concept of Sustainability
The word “sustainability” (and its offshoot ESG) has become a buzzword and, in turn, a false flag. The word is used in recent literature more often than “Steve Jobs”, “Star Wars”, and even “Gandhi.” Despite its prevalence, the word is misunderstood and misused frequently. So, what does it mean?
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “sustainability” as “The quality of being sustainable (capable of being endured or borne, maintained or continued) at a certain rate or level” (italics mine). In the environmental context, the OED continues, “the degree to which a process or enterprise is able to be maintained or continued while avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources.”
Wiktionary defines “sustainability” in three contexts:
- Ecology, “A means of configuring civilization and human activity so that society, its members and its economies are able to meet their needs and express their greatest potential in the present, while preserving biodiversity and natural ecosystems, planning and acting for the ability to maintain these necessary resources for future generations.”;
- Business, “The ability to sustain a business in the long term, which is a state that is partly dependent on, but broader than, profitability today or in the short term; it involves aspects of a plausible path toward eventual profitability (as applies to a startup) and ecologic sustainability (for example, the long-term dependence of the timber/lumber industry on forest preservation and renewal, or of fisheries on viable fish stocks).”; and
- Civics, “The ability to sustain a civic practice or process in the long term, such as democracy, entrepreneurialism, a war effort, or others.”
From these definitions, we first note that that sustainability goes beyond environmental initiatives and includes societal issues as well. Second, sustainability is inherently tied into the concept of finite resources, leading to the need to “preserve” resources for future generations.
Tracing the word “sustainability” back in modern history, we see it sprout up as early as 1713, when German forester Hans Carl von Carlowitz published his book, Sylvicultura oeconomica, and popularized the “sustainable yield” (nachhaltiger Ertrag) concept in the context of sustainable forestry management. Foresters knew long ago that the wood they harvested should not exceed the amount of wood that could grow to replace it!
Digging deeper, the word has roots back to the Middle French “soutenir”, a verb that means: “to support, to keep up, (used with que) to maintain (that), and to argue.” This word, in turn, roots back to the Latin “sustineo”, from sub- (“under, beneath, below”) + teneō (“hold; restrain”), another verb, generally meaning to hold up or upright, uphold, support, guard, protect.
These ideas led to the broader ecological principle of respecting nature’s ability to regenerate itself and then to the dictionary definition above. Seeing the evolution of the word here, we can see a linguistic pattern not unlike a tree: the historic roots, with their wide applications of sustainability, narrowed through the centuries into a solid trunk — focusing on the environmental concept. Now, with the increasing convergence of environmental and social issues, the modern usage widens the sustainability concept again, like new branches and leaves.
Sustainability is Far from A New Idea
But sustainability goes much farther back than the 18th century! Ancient cultures from every corner of the globe deployed sustainability principles, even if using different words. To describe a few:
In South Asia, we find sustainability concepts in the traditional wisdom of the Vedas and in Hindu and in Buddhist philosophies. In the Atharvaveda (written around 900 BCE), the only Veda which is related to both worldly happiness and spiritual knowledge, we find philosophies on agricultural, social, leadership and political matters. This looks somewhat familiar… to today’s craze around ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) factors! Sharma and Tewari (2017) make this connection, and more, in their paper “Teaching Sustainability through Traditional Wisdom: A Conceptual Framework for Business Studies.” They highlight many sections of ancient texts for emphasizing the human connection with nature as well as the need for a “balanced and justified approach towards human values, economic development, and [the] environment” (page 242). They find many connections from old texts to modern concepts.
Wisdom in the Rigveda, Atharveda, and Bhagwad Gita notes that our predecessors were fully aware that natural capital wasn’t infinite, the need for social development, and that money was a way to exchange finance for other forms of capital.
The Arthashastra (written around 300 BCE) describes effective practices in leadership and governance. It uses ideas that we would recognize today as social capital , manufacturing capital, and financial capital as well as the need to balance them with the natural world.
In my experience, the enlightenment associated with recognizing the interconnected nature of people and planet, are plain to see. The Bhagavad-Gītā 3.17–24 make this so clear one wonders how this knowledge has been forgotten. For example, Text 24 says, “One who understands this philosophy concerning material nature, the living entity and the interaction of the modes of nature is sure to attain liberation.”
In another connection to cross-cultural ancient wisdom, we see a different method for visualizing cause-and-effect relationships and conveying their reciprocal nature. The concept of Karma can be interpreted many ways, as noted in Karma: An anthropological inquiry (1983). Elaborated by Lawrence Babb on page 172, Karma can be used to elude blame but it can also be used to emphasize willful action and genuine moral responsibility. Regardless of the “frame of reference”, Karma draws attention to the connection between one’s actions in life and the corresponding consequences that follow — both rewards and punishments — and forces the individual to reflect on that connection.
Buddhism stresses three kinds of relationships — between humans and nature, between human beings, and the relationship with oneself. Buddhism is essentially about bringing all these elements of life into balance, whether on a personal level, community, or global level, and considers human beings and the environment interconnected at the deepest level, inextricably linked, and interdependent. This means that we cannot build happiness or prosperity upon the destruction or disregard of other life, including the natural environment, for ultimately, we will suffer the consequences.
As the Quran (610–632 AD) notes, the principle of the Amanah (responsibility) is that the earth has been entrusted to man and it must be cared for and protected accordingly. As such, he has the task of using the earth sustainably and maintaining ecological balance.
In continental North America, we find sustainability in the wisdom of the First Nation’s peoples. From the three-sisters agricultural practices to the fire practices, we see the value of understanding and respecting one’s environment. The concept of seven-generational thinking, found among many indigenous groups, “institutionalizes” this way of thinking in that one is removed from their own selfish, narrow perspective. Seven-generational thinking considers oneself in the middle then looks three generations back and three ahead. This brings an awareness of a legacy to honor, or a debt to bear, in mind to those three generations before one’s own, as well as an awareness of one’s own legacy that will be left behind to the three generations that will follow one’s own.
Finally, in native Hawaii, we find the concept of “Kuleana.” In English, this roughly refers to one’s right to use or to own something but also as one’s responsibility to maintain and properly care for that thing — it is a reciprocal relationship. It is akin to the English concepts of privilege or stewardship. Under Kuleana, if one owns a plot of land, that person has a right to use that land how they want. If they want to grow crops, they can, but they have a responsibility to pull weeds, maintain biodiversity, and farm responsibly to keep the land healthy. If they don’t, and the land falls into disrepair, they have neglected their responsibility and should therefore lose their right of use and ownership.
Given that our predecessors knew all along that man must have a harmonious relationship with nature and fellow humans, when and how did the sustainability discourse get obscured?
How and when did we lose our way?
Well, if sustainability is inherently tied to finiteness of resources, which was the reality in olden days, then the deviation from the idea, and its obscurity, must come from some form of collective dementia that takes root in abundance. What makes us forget about the natural environment and fellow human beings? Prosperity and unabashed greed for a few has blinded us to the needs of the many.
Science communicator and author Hank Green, while speaking about the Fermi Paradox in March of 2023, said that “We [humans] take up [all] the available space.” As a biochemist and environmentalist by education, he adds, “That’s not a human thing. That’s how genes work… All life takes up all its available space.” From cyanobacteria , to ants, to human activity this seems to be true.
On the human side, this uncontrolled growth to take up all the space kicked into high gear in the USA in the 19th century. Manifest destiny transformed expansion from an economic goal into a divinely ordained moral imperative. The industrial revolutions, insane fortunes in railroads, oil, and steel, and their transformation on life-as-we-knew-it, steamrolled ahead — generating wealth for some without regard for the costs to those who came before.
Our modern way of being is brand new and unprecedented. Two forces accelerating unsustainable practices are noteworthy.
First, Berle and Means noted in 1933 that the idea of the corporation was altering social structures (page 3), concentrating power (page 17), and widening the rift (page 119) between ownership, control, action, and impacts. Those who call the shots, those who do the work, those who benefit, and those who suffer are often invisible to each other, making us insensitive to others’ plight. To make matters worse, Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman published his famous op-ed in 1970 that the social responsibility of the business was to make profits and the runaway period of the corporation — where profits could be reaped at the cost of the planet and its people was born. This is how leadership lost their way.
I want to hammer this home: The consumption mania in the USA was socially engineered.
Choices were made to use the technological progress of the last century for greed and to turn people from humans into “consumers.” This sounds like cartoon villainy — to reshape the social fabric of society and meaning of life so that a few men can enrich themselves — and yet, it is true.
In one shocking and transparent example, Victor Lebow, a retailing analyst, wrote this (now infamous) piece in the Spring 1955 issue of the Journal of Retailing. Titled, “The Real Meaning of Consumer Demand” My bold added in the quote below for emphasis.
“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats- his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.”
Further manipulation was required to reduce prices for goods so low that every day people could afford to purchase, discard, and repurchase ad nauseam. Many industries externalized their own costs so that the retail price wouldn’t reflect the costs of unchecked pollution, unhealthy working conditions, underpaid staff, etc. Today, consumers, or what were formally people, are not exposed to these gross realities. They are exposed to other forms of manipulation to ensure that they continue to consume: celebrity endorsements, fashion trends, and moral infusions.
Consumption “mania” is unnatural, and it has sunk into our society with grave consequences. Personal consumption expenditures in the US have skyrocketed over the last century. Global carbon emissions have followed a similar dangerous rise. Please notice! The correlation between these two is uncanny.
Looking at carbon footprints, the world annual average individual footprint is between 2.9–4.1 metrics tons. The average in the United States is 20.6. This means that five to seven global lives are used to subsidize only one living the “American way of life.” The consumption, and subsequently emissions, inequity deviates even within the USA: the richest 10 percent of Americans, or those who make more than $233,600 a year, produce 56.5 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per person, per year on average — nearly twenty times the world average.
While all life needs to consume to survive (although some survive to consume), the amount of consumption is constrained by the “carrying capacity” of the environment. We live on a planet with finite resources where all life in an ecosystem exists within a balance of each other. Currently we are on a collision course with nature. No living creature can exceed the carrying capacity of its environment for very long. Any species who does so will deplete its own source of food, water, and other necessities and begin to die off.
Moving towards a sustainable future
The sustainability discourse has resurged thanks to the Club of Rome, the IPCC reports, the Larry Finks of the world, and much more, not to mention our firsthand experiences with floods, draughts, and hurricanes. But this time, it’s not just the right thing to do — it’s also the smart thing to do, now that our backs are against the wall.
I would like to draw a parallel here between recent developments in neuroscience and mindful choice on the one hand and the sustainability narrative on the other. Recently, we have been hearing a lot on how we can “rewire” or brains to free ourselves of the shackles of societal conditioning and unveil our true selves. The same approach can be used in the context of sustainability. Given that sustainability was so important in our ancient cultures, deep within, most, if not all of us must know that we are all custodians of the natural and social environment we inherit. Our forefathers knew it and the people in resource-constrained economies know it all too well even today.
The hankering for profit at all costs, excessive consumption, living beyond our means, … these are the elements of modern-day conditioning in affluent societies that have obscured the importance and relevance of sustainability. If we can look at the evidence and agree that we’ve been fed the big lie of consumerism as a panacea for all ills, we should also be able to debunk that myth and redefine our identities. We can make responsible consumerism cool. We can push back against unwarranted forays by companies and influencers that want to take our money and own our souls. Not only that, but we can also push companies to be more sustainable by voting with our wallets and calling out those that still refuse to adhere to the new normal. We have the power as individuals and as a collective, but we do not have the luxury of procrastination.
Finishing the Hank Green quote from earlier, he ends his speech with the idea that “This property of life [as we know it] — taking up [all] the space available to it — is something that [humans] can get beyond… it is possible that sufficiently advanced species with sufficiently advanced philosophies and societies start to think more about quality than quantity” (italics my own).
He has a lot of optimism about the future, as do I. If the consumption mania was socially engineered — we can reengineer it to make “waste not want not” cool instead. Little efforts of positive change, within our individual spheres of influence, can result in unintuitive and seemingly impossible changes. Small actions, big difference!
Research assistance for this blog was provided by Alexander T. de Almeida.
Copyright © CB Bhattacharya, 2023. All rights reserved.