Sustainability: A History
Hardback: Oxford UP, 2014
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Reviewed by Taylor Brorby
Sustainability is, for better or worse, the buzzword of our time. Sustainable agriculture. Sustainable city planning. Food sustainability. Business sustainability. A quick Google search yields over 118,000,000 results for the word sustainability. As Jeremy L. Caradonna points out in the introduction to his book, Sustainability: A History, Bill McKibben was most definitely wrong in his New York Times opinion piece in 1996 when he said sustainability was a “buzzless buzzword” that was “born partly in an effort to obfuscate.”
At just over 250 pages, Sustainability: A History, is a book that takes the reader on a historical journey which examines the origin of the word sustainability, the conditions of the Industrial Revolution–which helped bring about the idea of sustainable development–the advent of the modern Environmental Movement, a new view of economics–eco-nomics–and a call-to-arms as the final wrap-up, “The Future: 10 Challenges for Sustainability.”
Perhaps best in Caradonna’s book is his ability to paint vivid historical concepts in easily-understood terms. Deft writing aids Cardonna’s critique of modern industrialization in his chapter, “The Industrial Revolution and Its Discontents”:
The idea that the Industrial Revolution has made us not only more technologically advanced and materially furnished but also better for it is a powerful narrative and one that’s hard to shake. It makes it difficult to dissent from the idea that new technologies, economic growth, and a consumer society are absolutely necessary. To criticize industrial modernity is somehow to criticize the moral advancement of humankind, since a central theme in this narrative is the idea that industrialization revolutionized our humanity, too.
And, too, Caradonna allows questions to stand alone in his book, providing platforms of inquiry for the reader:
But what if we rethink the narrative of progress? What if we believe that the inventions in and after the Industrial Revolution have made some things better and some things worse?…Moreover, what if we write social and environmental factors back in to the story of progress? Suddenly, things begin to seem less rosy.
The third chapter, “Eco-Warriors: The Environmental Movement and the Growth of Ecological Wisdom, 1960s-1970s,” of Caradonna’s book begins with a close examination of the differences apparent between discussions of sustainability and environmentalism. Caradonna states that the topic of sustainability is often viewed as “cheery.” Caradonna argues–and rightfully so–that the modern concept of sustainability owes its origins to the like of Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson. Much of the third chapter creates the crux of the book: sustainability would not exist if it were not for environmentalism. To help with this argument, Caradonna focuses several pages examining Rachel Carson’s seminal work, Silent Spring. From Caradonna’s perspective Silent Spring “helped define environmentalism as a new kind of worldview that rejected ecosystem destruction and industrial growth in the name of ‘progress,’ and it forced citizens in industrialized countries to take sides on environmental regulation.” Carson, as Caradonna points out, faced war with Monsanto, Velsicol Chemical Company, DuPont, American Cyanamid Company, among others.
Caradonna’s ability to help guide his readers through dense and sometimes arcane research is balanced with his light prose and his ability to anticipate readers’ questions: “What do these economists see as the problem with growth? What troubled them so much was that industrial society seemed to have enough stuff, enough wealth, and enough people. Anything more just seemed excessive.”
From “eco-nomics” Jeremy Caradonna moves to the modern notion of the sustainability “movement,” intimately bound with the environmental movement. In his chapter, “From Concept to Movement,” Caradonna traces the development of modern sustainability thinking from roughly the late 1970s-1990s with such organizations as the Worldwatch Institute, the Rocky Mountain Institute, and the United Nations. During this period, as Caradonna highlights, ideas–books, conferences, organizations–gathered around the concept of sustainability blossomed. Sustainability, at this time, particularly in the United States, grew into a political agenda.
The chapter “From Concept to Movement” highlights Caradonna’s brilliancy as a historian where he does much of the heavy lifting in terms of siphoning and sorting through sources to help shed light on the important–and often contradictory–tendencies of the United Nations and its approach to sustainability. Caradonna’s prose, though thorough and lightly peppered in an academic style, never drags–always he is pushing the reader further on to new insight, new levels of environmental and political history, which help prepare the reader for Caradonna’s final chapter.
In the chapter, “Sustainability Today: 2000-Present,” Caradonna examines the framework around modern notions of sustainability, documenting the multiplicity of sustainability-focused academic programs harboring within institutions, the number of organizations and communities that practice sustainable living–whatever that might mean. Caradonna is clear, though that this portion of the book “is not meant to suggest that our world is sustainable.” And, like every good historian, Caradonna hedges in his chapter. Instead of bringing to light his personal opinions or insights, he merely tells us about the developments around the concept of sustainability over the last fifteen years.
Finally, in Chapter Seven, “The Future: 10 Challenges for Sustainability,” Caradonna gets to the meat of his scholarship and its bearing on the current conversation around sustainability. Here are Caradonna’s ten challenges for sustainability: 1) Create a shared vision for the future–and stick to it; 2) Move past neoclassical economics, deregulation, and the growth obsession; 3) Face shortages, become resilient; 4) Harmonize the needs of rich and poor, the developed and the developing; 5) Rethink environmental management, safeguard ecosystem services, and restore natural capital; 6) Climate change is a gigantic problem…; 7) …But it’s not the only one; 8) Fight greenwashing and the denial industry; 9) Galvanize public support and political action without getting politicized; and 10) Finance the revolution. Admittedly, this is the most interesting and enticing section of Caradonna’s book. Understandably, the book is a book about the history of sustainability. But if Caradonna were to take seriously Patricia Limerick’s charge that academics must bring their scholarship to light for the benefit of the public these ten “challenges” would not occupy a mere twenty pages of this book. Saving the best for last makes the book go limp and deflate. This is the portion of the book where Caradonna would be better off pressing these issues, bringing his own theories to bear as to what might be the best approach for these ten challenges. As Usula K. Le Guin recently said in her National Book Awards acceptance speech, hard times are ahead of us. It seems that we need scholars who are willing to help inform our present by examining our past, like Jeremy Caradonna, but we also need more scholars who are willing to go beyond academic exercises and help us see into the future.