The evolution of sustainability

  • Charles V. Kidd


Six separate but related strains of thought have emerged prominently since 1950 in discussions of such phenomena as the interrelationships among rates of population growth, resource use, and pressure on the environment. They are the ecological/carrying capacity root, the resources/environment root, the biosphere root, the critique of technology root, the “no growth”/“slow growth” root, and the ecodevelopment root.

Each of these strains of thought was fully developed before the word “sustainable” itself was used. Many of the roots are based on fundamentally opposing assessments of the future of mankind. Many of the roots, such as the ecology/carrying capacity root, are based on physical concepts, and they exclude normative values. Others, such as the ecodevelopment root, include such values as equity, broad participation in governance, and decentralized government.

When the word “sustainability” was first used in 1972 in the context of man's future, in a British book,Blueprint for Survival, normative concepts were prominent. This continued to be the case when the word was first used in 1974 in the United States to justify a “no growth” economy.

“Sustainability” was first used in a United Nations document in 1978. Normative concepts, encapsulated in the term “ecodevelopment,” were prominent in the United Nations publications.

After about 1978, the term “sustainability” began to be used not only in technological articles and reports but also in policy documents culminating in the use of the term in the report of the summit meeting of the Group of Seven in 1989.

The roots of the term “sustainability” are so deeply embedded in fundamentally different concepts, each of which has valid claims to validity, that a search for a single definition seems futile. The existence of multiple meaning is tolerable if each analyst describes clearly what he means by sustainability.


sustainability environment ecology development resources carrying capacity eco development 


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Copyright information

© Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Charles V. Kidd
    • 1
  1. 1.American Association for the Advancement of ScienceWashington, DCUSA

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