The Interpreter: Markus Vogt on ”Sustainability“

8 Feb 2021

LMU researchers explain technical terms for general readers

Some scientific terms have made it into everyday discourse. Here, LMU researchers tell us what these expressions mean – and not just with a definition, but with a brief history of their usage.

Markus Vogt: The term ‘sustainability’ contains a sense of moral responsibility toward the future: We should not consume more natural resources than will replenish. This was essentially the idea put forward by the inventor of sustainability, who coined the expression in relation to forestry. A forest manager from Dresden, Hans Carl von Carlowitz used the term ‘sustainable’ just once in his treatise Sylvicultura Oeconomica – actually a lost diary from his journey through Europe – from 1713: You should not cut down more timber than will grow back. Carlowitz was thinking about the destruction of forests, as a lot of woodland was being chopped down in his native Saxony for the smelting of ores. He recognized that in the long run, this threatened national prosperity – and called for clever planning. The right forest should be replanted on the right soil. In the Romantic era, Carlowitz’s essentially economic idea was embraced as a natural ideal. Then the expression disappeared for almost two-and-a-half centuries, before being rediscovered in the English-speaking world in the 1960s in the context of economic theory. The question economists were asking was: How much growth is stable in the long run? I can still recall how in the German Advisory Council on the Environment, we hesitated to translate this English expression ‘sustainability’ with the word Carlowitz used: ‘Nachhaltigkeit.’

Bicycle and pedestrian bridge in Copenhagen

The Danish capital is considered the most bicycle-friendly city in the world.

© IMAGO / Jochen Tack

It was not until the UN Earth Summit in 1992 that the expression assumed its explicitly environmental meaning and broad reception. At the conference in Rio de Janeiro, experts discussed global environmental and development issues and connected consequently the aims of fighting poverty and protecting the environment. This was important in terms of overcoming ideological barriers. Many people in the 1980s still viewed ecology as being at odds with modernity and the economy. This divide was bridged in 1992: thenceforth, sustainable environmental protection, and in particular access to fertile soil and clean water, has been considered vitally important for the improvement of living conditions specifically in the poorest countries. Agenda 21 also emerged from that summit, placing sustainability at the heart of an action plan and as the model for a new kind of global partnership. This was an optimistic document, a new social contract with natural conservation as an obligation. Sustainability brought ecology and economics together and united them with ‘global social justice’ as a third pillar. However, this was also where the problems began. Everything could be subsumed under the new definition, which sounded good. The popularity of the term increased along with its vagueness. But without the will for social transformation, the goals remain just empty words. Sustainability is understood too broadly today, often suggesting a merely apparent unity. Although many researchers say that the term is spent, that it’s a bogus label, it still has substance in my view. In its essence, it’s about connected thinking in consideration of complex systemic interactions as the key for an economy that is compatible with the needs of nature and environmental protection that is attuned to justice. We should tie the term to concrete goals, such as a maximum global temperature rise of two degrees. This corresponds to a maximum of two tonnes of CO2 that each person can emit per year.”

Protokoll: huf

Prof. Dr. Markus Vogt holds the Chair of Christian Social Ethics at the LMU and is the author of several books on sustainability.

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