Environment, Development and Sustainability

, Volume 6, Issue 3, pp 367–378 | Cite as

Some of the Nineteenth Century Origins of the Sustainability Concept

  • Sarah LumleyEmail author
  • Patrick Armstrong


Interpreting and applying the concept of sustainable development is increasingly viewed as being the way to promulgate just and practicable economic, environmental and social policy. It is thus important that there be increased public and political awareness concerning the origins of economic theory, and its early relationship to sustainability concepts. While the term 'sustainable development' was popularised by the World Commission on Environment and Development report Our Common Future in 1987, it is generally recognised that notions of sustainability were promoted in `limits to growth' and 'green' discourses in the early 1970s (Meadows et al.: 1974, The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome, Potomac Associates and Pan Books, London and Sydney). However, there is little acknowledgement of the way in which nineteenth century intellectuals, from a range of disciplines, conceptualised the importance of balancing economic, social and environmental sustainability in their quest for justice and the conservation of nature.

There was a considerable exchange of ideas on `political economy' and nature across Europe, and later the Americas, from the middle of the eighteenth century. This discourse reached its intellectual peak in the nineteenth century. During that era there was a proliferation of literature that was aimed at improving the human condition and recognising humanity's dependence upon nature. In Europe and the USA the participants in the debate included Cantillon, Quesnay, Condorcet, Galiani, Von Hayek, Marx and George. Due to the breadth of this influential body of work, we focus here on the British Victorian thinkers such as Darwin, Malthus, Martineau and Mill. These thinkers influenced each other in developing their theories and ideas in science, politics, economics and philosophy, and were influenced in turn by an earlier generation of intellectuals, such as Adam Smith. For the Victorian thinkers, conserving nature while trying to improve the distribution of wealth was a not a paradox, but a moral duty, and for them Smith's `rational' pursuit of self-interest could only be followed if it did not interfere with 'the rules of justice'. We argue that the manner in which these thinkers conceptualised their theories and ideas represents the nineteenth century origins of sustainability concepts.

classical thinkers economics eighteenth century environment history nineteenth century policy political economy science sustainability. 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Earth and Geographical Sciences, Faculty of Natural and Agricultural SciencesThe University of Western AustraliaCrawleyAustralia

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