There is really no one straight answer for that question. The concept has probably been around since the start of human civilization when societies realized they had to leave the environment healthy enough to leave them sustenance for the next year. When the industrial age and the agricultural revolution kicked in many people forgot the importance of the environment because of high yields of food and goods. It was quickly remembered once the impacts of pollution and soil deterioration were felt. Progressives like Theodore Roosevelt inspired by people like John Muir started to enact the first significant environmental legislation.
When the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) was passed by the EPA in 1970, sustainability was concretely established as a goal to account for present and future generations. Depending on your position in society, the perception of sustainability may vary – conserving natural resources, protecting historical sites and buildings, or the capability for ecosystems and species to remain viable and survive.
In a more general sense, the concept of sustainability can be traced to early civilizations but to negligible degrees. Only recently in human history has the idea of sustainable activities been a legitimate consideration, and one that warrants policies and laws to encourage the proper use of virtually any resource.
This concept has been around for much longer than has the current environmental discussion. Some would argue that the Native American traditions practiced sustainability for many generations, long before European settlers colonized the land. Lyida Sigo, an activist and member of the Suquamish Tribe, explains that, “in traditional cultures, we try to look to the next seven generations.” Winona LaDuke is another Native American activist with a similar message. She is a member of the Anishinaabe and describes that “elders used to tell younger generations how to live in one location for 1,000 years without destroying the land. In modern America, we do not practice that at all, which has created many problems for us.
As mrraccoon’s response implies, I think the concept of ‘sustainability’ necessarily implies environmental degradation, since a society that is inherently sustainable, or at least whose activities pose no existential threat to its environment (and thus, itself), would have no need to consciously think about ways to be more sustainable, or in better equilibrium with its land-base. That said, it’s only been very recently, within the last 200 years or so, that mankind’s economic footprint has caused serious, trans-cultural alarm such that a robust, multi-national sustainability agenda has become necessary (I’m thinking of the UN Millenium Goals on sustainability, for instance).
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