I recently received an email from a student in Portland State University’s MBA+ program and the Center for Global Leadership in Sustainability. This student was looking for information to help chronicle the history of sustainability in the northwest. I began writing an email reply and then realized that it would be more informative to the broader community if I posted my response here on the SHP website and then invited this student (and anyone else) to respond.
I will begin by saying that an answer to the question “what is the history of sustainability in the Pac NW?” is actually more complex than one might imagine. Firstly, no one has yet written a comprehensive history of sustainability in the region. Some people from a variety of disciplines have attempted/are attempting to write purportedly comprehensive national or global histories of sustainability, and, for what it’s worth, I’ve begun a listing of such sources here.
From my standpoint, in any attempt to trace a regional history of sustainability one must first narrow one’s purview to a particular kind of sustainability. My understanding is that there are three kinds of sustainability: 1) sustaining a single environmental resource, 2) sustaining an ecological system, or 3) sustaining a balance of economics, environment, and society (aka, Brundtlandian sustainability) (for more on this see Defining Sustainability).
Pursuing research into #3 would be seem to be more straightforward (relatively speaking, of course), because it would, by definition, extend no further than the mid-1980s. Using the Brundtland Commission’s 1987 definition of sustainability (aka, “sustainable development”), one would then identify those agencies, organizations, individuals, and initiatives that refer explicitly to this three-pillar-based definition.
It gets more difficult from here, however . . .
To investigate the history of sustainability in this region earlier than the mid-1980s, one must first make a decision among two options. The first option is to apply the analytical lens of the Brundtland Commission’s description of three co-equal pillars (economics, ecology, and equity). However, if one does attempts to apply this definition earlier than the mid-1980s, one must resolve the issue of how will the study address the anachronism that will result when applying a ca. 1987 idea to events in the 1950s, 1900s, 1850s (etc.). How would a study of this kind deal with the potential anachronism of extending equity considerations into the past, to eras when these considerations likely were not understood in the ways articulated in the Brundtland Commission report?
The second option is to apply one or both of the other two conceptions of “sustainability” to investigate the extent to which the historical agents at the time were applying, modifying, ignoring, etc., their understanding of what “sustainability” meant. If one is pursuing sustainability definitions #1 or #2 above, then two sources that come immediately to mind are Nancy Langston’s Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares, and Jay Taylor’s Making Salmon. I could offer other sources, but these are the two that come immediately to mind.
The following SHP links may provide some other food for thought:
** The “working definition” of sustainability that we apply in class: https://sustainabilityhistory.org/defining-sustainability/
** The general blog post category of “What is Sustainability?”: https://sustainabilityhistory.org/category/what-is-sustainability/
** A post spurred by input from a New Zealand scholar working on this issue: https://sustainabilityhistory.org/2010/06/01/toward-an-understanding-of-historical-philosophical-antecedants-of-sustainability/
In summary: You have a great topic, and I look forward to continuing this dialogue in the comment thread!