If one is interested in the workings of Sustainability as an idea, one could start the investigation by comparing it to other key ideas that structure actions, expectations, and judgements in many communities, states, and organisations around the globe such as democracy, justice, and human rights. Such a comparative view is a helpful first step towards understanding the different meanings of Sustainability that were hinted at in the introduction and that are to be encountered in the following chapters. Therefore, the discussion of this chapter begins by briefly looking at

democracy. Although most people might have an intuitive sense what democracy means, it comes in many shapes and varieties once we are looking beyond a single democratic jurisdiction. The history of political philosophy offers quite a wide range of different democratic theories, which can be labelled, for example, as liberal, representative, republican, direct, discursive, and radical democracy. They all might share fairly general ideas of political self-determination, in particular through voting as the most important exercise of political voice. However, on closer inspection, the various democratic theories can differ significantly. They can be in tension or in contradiction to each other. Similarly, if we look at

the institutions of democracy, we quickly realise that it is hardly possible to find two governments or parliaments that are identical (the whole academic discipline of comparative political science lives on this diversity). Moreover, when people protest against situations where they feel powerless, excluded, or oppressed, they often voice their criticism in terms of violations of democratic rights or basic principles and make claims for more democracy. While political protests can be seen as a further aspect of democratic practice, they often also feed back into democratic thought and institutions when they are redrawn in response to these protests. More recent deliberative, feminist or agonistic democratic theories are closely connected to the activities and values of social movements and the contestation of traditional political elites and majoritarian political institutions. In short, even (perhaps, especially) key ideas such as democracy acquire different meanings in different contexts; they are inscribed in very different institutions and practices, and they are essentially contested. As will be shown in the course of this and the following chapters,

Sustainability shares these characteristics. In addition, however, it has a very distinct feature that makes diverse meanings, practices, and contestations even more likely: its composite nature. Sustainability might be a relative newcomer to the normative architecture of the modern globalised world. However, the contents of this new idea were not entirely unknown. Rather, they existed as individual ideas before and there also is a history of thinking how they interact with each other. What was novel when Sustainability was invented was the way these ideas were recombined. Moreover, the novelty of this recombination was only in part an intellectual development, it was also a significant political reorientation (Dresner, 2012). Understanding Sustainability as an idea is also helpful because it

implies that this concept is neither an objective description of the world nor necessary consequence of the human impact on it. Instead, it is always necessary for someone for certain reasons. Yet, some ideas are so widely accepted that they are perceived to be necessary or ‘true’. And most importantly, this taken-for-grantedness cannot be found in the idea itself but in its history as a social and cultural phenomenon, for example, when people use a concept to make sense of the world, to direct, to criticise, and to legitimate action. Therefore, this chapter does not

investigate how sustainability was ‘discovered’ in history but rather which different versions came to be seen as more accurate than others and how this happened. Since Sustainability is a composite idea, it also traces its different developments before the compromises and innovations that led to this composition. Moreover, this historical narrative is not about a linear development but about phases of stabilisation as well as about ruptures and phases of destabilisation. It identifies three stages in which particular constellations of meanings and practices related to Sustainability were dominant. This understanding in terms of main phases does not deny that Sustainability is always open to different interpretations. At the same time, the more general framing of Sustainability as the need to balance economic, social, and environmental objectives and actions remains its more general framing. This historical account operates at a middle range looking for stability

of an idea and related practices that is at the same time specific but plural and contested on closer inspection, as well as relatively coherent but vague at the most general level. This focus on patterns of stability and processes of stabilisation also opens up a view on power and the political nature of Sustainability and ideas more generally. This implies that attention should be paid not only to the historical development of the contents of the idea of Sustainability but equally to the social and political conditions and forces promoting those contents that attract the strongest support, are most likely to be seen as ‘normal’, ‘objective’ or even ‘true’. From a methodological point of view, investigating how ideas are

historically made powerful and perceived as true is also described as genealogy.1 A genealogical perspective does not aim at uncovering a single most truthful interpretation of historical events but is interested in the turning points and discontinuities that lead to dominant constellations and also in the alternative options and perspectives that struggle along at the margins as minority opinions, political opposition, or sub-cultures. Since a meticulously detailed intellectual history of Sustainability would go against the concise character of this book, we restrict ourselves to roughly sketching three major phases when different versions of Sustainability were paradigmatic (following Kuhn, 1962). Human life, and human well-being essentially depend on the use of

natural resources. In this context, the relationship between human economic activity, the environment, and human well-being has been

the topic of human thought for a very long time. For example, Du Pisani (2006) mentions Roman authors like Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella (4 AD to 70 AD) and Marcus Terentius Varro (116 BC to 27 BC) who investigated – primarily with regard to farming – how negative environmental effects of resource exploitation and economic activity could be mitigated through less exploitative farming practices. This points to a relationship between humans and the environment characterised by a need to care for the latter. In contrast, Thomas Robert Malthus (17661834) made much more rigid assumptions about the limited nature of natural resources leading to his very pessimistic assessment of population growth. In addition to sharing Malthus’s fear of overpopulation, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) also argued that a stationary state should be preferred over continuous growth because the latter would eventually undermine the natural basis for good living conditions. However, also the difficulties implied by this need to care for the environment and in particular for natural resources were already discussed in the nineteenth century. A particularly important idea in this respect is William Stanley Jevon’s (1865) work on ‘rebound effects’, which describes his finding that the invention of more efficient steam engines by James Watt nevertheless led to much higher overall consumption of coal (see also the discussion about peak oil in Chapter 4). Given the importance of wood as the central natural resource since

prehistoric times, forest management is an area where much thought has been devoted to avoiding overexploitation and ensuring sustainable yields. Forestry also was the intellectual home of several writers who are regularly described as ancestors of the contemporary Sustainability discourse, such as John Evelyn in England or Hans Carl von Carlowitz in the German Electorate of Saxony. The latter coined the principle of sustainable forest management to cut only as much timber as the forest can reproduce in his treatise ‘Sylvicultura Oeconomica’ in 1713. In fact, he used the German expression for ‘sustainable’ to characterise this way of forest management. More generally, the notions of sustainability were used in the German, French, or Dutch language for centuries, while the word entered the English language only in the second half of the twentieth century (Du Pisani, 2006). These notes on the ‘prehistory’ of Sustainability do not imply a linear development towards the contemporary debate about Sustainability. However, they illustrate that

the idea is not entirely novel, since the language and further related practices have existed before. At the same time, these historical forerunners do not provide the most important source although regularly mentioned in contemporary debates. This part of the history of ideas is only one aspect within a more diverse field of meanings, practices, and historical reference points. For example, the German historian Joachim Radkau (2011) states that the green movements in Germany and the USA did not feel a particular connection to predecessors of this kind. In particular, German greens were very critical of earlier traditional, romantic, and, at worst, national socialist strands of environmentalist thought. The diversity of possible sources, legitimations, and practices was too broad and too ambivalent to provide a satisfactory narrative.