In my recent Internet meanderings I happened upon an intriguing and rather complex timeline of key people, events, movements, and ideas related to “Sustainability” that will likely be of interest to our readers. Authors Amir Djalali and Piet Vollaard call their project “a subjective attempt to historically map the different ideas around the problem of the relationship between humans and their environment.” Their timeline was published in 2008 in the journal Volume, produced by Archis, “an experimental think tank devoted to the process of real-time spatial and cultural reflexivity and action.”
In their brief introduction to the project, Djalali and Vollaard make some assertions worth responding to. First, they’re primarily concerned with one of the three “pillars” of sustainability in particular, the environment, to the exclusion of economics and equity: “Speaking about the environment today apparently means speaking about Sustainability.”
Next, they write that “Theoretically, no one can take a stand against Sustainability because there is no definition of it [italics mine].” I would challenge the categorical tone of this statement by referring to the working definition of sustainability that informs the efforts of the Sustainability History Project (SHP). There are, in fact, definitions of sustainability, as can be seen in the SHP’s working definition and in the definitions that many authors compare and contrast in this recent issue of the journal Academic Questions.
The authors also write that, in addition to their not being a definition of sustainability, “Neither is there a history of Sustainability. The S-word seems to point to a universal idea, valid anywhere, at any time.” Immediately after writing this, the authors contradict their assertion of a history-less “sustainability” by observing that “Western society has always been obsessed by its relationship with the environment [italics mine],” and then continuing with:
- Although the notion of Sustainability appeared for the first time in Germany in the 18th century (as Nachhaltigkeit), in fact Sustainability (and the creative oxymoron ‘Sustainable Development’) is a young concept. Developed in the early [nineteen-]seventies, it was formalized and officially adopted by the international community in 1987 in the UN report ‘Our Common Future’.
The authors contradict themselves by first asserting that “sustainability” does not have a history, and then following this statement with a brief interpretive sketch of the very history that they claim this concept does not have.
The definition informing the SHP, linked above, explains how important it is to understand the historical and cultural contexts within which any given practice is said to be “sustainable.” Perhaps in their statement above the authors actually meant that no one has yet written a comprehensive narrative tracing the key ideas and practices of “sustainability,” and how these have changed over time? If so, then their statement that “Neither is there a history of Sustainability” does have some validity (although people are making attempts to fill this gap in the literature).”
Finally, the authors write that “even today there are various trends and original ideas following old ideological traditions. Some of these directly oppose Sustainability.” Djalali and Vollaard are certainly correct in this regard, as we’ve discussed in class and in some places on the SHP website (here and here).
These discussions aside, Djalali and Vollaard have created an intriguing visual representation of “Sustainability” that is both fun to click through and quite thought-provoking.
 Amir Djalali and Piet Vollaard, “The Complex History of Sustainability: A Timeline of Trends, Authors, Projects, and Fictionhttp://www.archis.org/history-of-sustainability/ (accessed July 5, 2010). In their introduction, Djalali and Vollaard capitalize the “S” in “Sustainability,” and by this I’m led to believe that they intended to specify Brundtlandian sustainability, as put forth in the UN report Our Common Future (1987).
 However, I do wonder how Djalali and Vollaard imagine that “various trends and original ideas” can “directly oppose Sustainability” if “there is no definition of it?” If one cannot determine a definition for Sustainability, then how can one possibly know when an idea or action is in opposition to it?