Deforestation had created various economic crises by then. Aristocrats from England, France, and Germany studied the problem and came up with somewhat different but related solutions to start the history of sustainability.
The tension between sustainable development and over-exploitation of natural resources started in prehistoric times. Ancient Egyptians and Mayans, for example, followed sustainable principles for thousands of years.
Ancient Sumerian civilization, on the other hand, may have collapsed under the strain of despoiling the land. The Epic of Gilgamesh describes its hero cutting down vast forests and defying the gods. The gods cursed the Sumerians with fire and drought. With nothing growing anymore, its people had to flee to Babylon and Assyria.
The world today seems to be repeating the Sumerian collapse because of climate change. Forest fires have become so intense and devastating that giant sequoia trees can no longer withstand them. A warming climate has exposed northern forests to destructive beetles that can’t grow in cold and wet climates. Where can we flee? Mars? Seriously?
And yet modern principles of sustainable forestry have been in practice now for almost 350 years. Modern rhetoric is in some ways very similar to the earliest literature and in other ways very different.
A brief overview of the modern history of sustainability
The Industrial Revolution lifted many people out of poverty. It seemed like a very good thing, but it caused a lot of pollution of air and water. And after years of struggling with pollution, it turned out that the coal and petroleum that powered the Industrial Revolution also caused the climate to warm unnaturally.
As I explain in my book Before and After the First Earth Day, 1970, wilderness and wildlife suffered from pollution, dams, and wanton slaughter. Four national organizations existed in the US before the Second World War to lobby for conservation.
By the time of Earth Day 1970, conservationists had begun to broaden their activity. They called themselves environmentalists instead. Further broadening of activity worldwide led to the idea of sustainability.
The Brundtland Commission offered the standard definition of sustainability in 1987: “a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The term “sustainable” actually entered political discourse in 1972, when the Club of Rome published its report “Limits to Growth.” The authors introduced the word to describe a state of global equilibrium that would be able to satisfy the material requirements of the entire population of the world.
But that is not the start of the history of sustainability. “Sustainable” essentially translates the German term nachhaltig. That word was introduced in the best-selling book Sylvicultura oeconomis by Hans Carl von Carlowitz in 1713. And Carlowitz depended on the work of English and French predecessors.
The English origins of sustainable forestry
We can trace the history of the idea of sustainability as a response to problems the 1660s. The English royal navy had plans to enhance its power with bigger and better ships. A looming shortage of tall oak trees threatened to hamper them.
By the Restoration, England had been losing woodlands for more than a century and a half. The English Civil War (1642-1651) had accelerated these losses as traditional feudal protections of royal forests collapsed.
English admirals approached the Royal Society with the problem in 1662. John Evelyn became leader of a group of England’s leading intellectuals that discussed it for two years. Evelyn was an ardent royalist and companion of King Charles II. He was also a garden designer who had planted a large arboretum on his estate.
John Evelyn’s solution
His book Sylva or a Discourse of Forest Trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesties Dominions appeared in 1664. It became immediately successful and went through several editions.
The book describes numerous species of trees and gives instruction about how and when to plant, transplant, prune, and cut them down. These practices would enhance both the beauty and economic value of forests.
It also describes well-managed forests in Europe where no one could cut down a tree without planting another. He reported that responsible landowners divided their forests into 80 units. Every year, on a schedule, one would be harvested. The rotation guaranteed trees would not be cut there for another 80 years.
Like many politicians today, Evelyn blamed the opposition (the Cromwell protectorate) for all the problems. But his analysis points out numerous economic and social forces that had devastated English forests. And they seem very familiar today.
Industries such as ship building, glass works, and iron foundries, like needed a steady supply of wood. Wood was either a construction material or a source of fire. Agriculture needed more land for fields and pastures. So everyone cut down trees.
Evelyn called for remaining forests to be carefully preserved and destroyed forests to be repaired. He considered planting new trees the national duty of every landowner. He also advocated moving ironworks out of England to the American colonies.
In later editions of his book, Evelyn claimed that it had led to the planting of millions of trees all over England. But, in fact, it had little impact on the practice of English forestry.
For example, after the great London fire of 1666, the city was rebuilt with wood imported from Norway. And furnaces came to rely on an alternate energy source: coal. With these alternatives, sustainable forests hardly seemed necessary.
Jean Baptiste Colbert and the French approach to sustainable forestry
At about the same time, French King Louis XIV noticed depletion of the royal forests and halted sale of timber from them in 1661. His naval secretary and chief financial officer, Jean Baptiste Colbert, published his own ideas for improving forest management.
And, not coincidentally, filling the royal coffers. Colbert embedded his thoughts on sustainable forestry in a program of tax reforms and mercantilism. Modern industry, new manufacturers, foreign trade, and commerce would create more taxable income and enhance the king’s glory.
It all depended on a steady supply of wood for ship building and charcoal. Between the beginning of the 17th century and the king’s edict, woodlands had decreased from about 35% of France’s territory to about 25%.
Colbert supervised a detailed inventory of the forests, including the money value of felled trees. It uncovered some chronic abuses. As a result, Colbert set about to increase the government’s control of forests and reduce their use to keep it within their capacity. Unlike Evelyn’s appeal to landowners, Colbert resorted to government micromanagement.
For example, his strict regulations forbid clear-cutting in order to leave trees less than 10 years old and a certain number of old seed trees.
Colbert’s forest ordinance became effective in 1669. At first, his reforms increased royal revenues from the forests, but the success didn’t last long. The general decline of French forests continued unabated. And the harshness of the ordinance became a root cause of the French Revolution.
Colbert’s ideas of sustainable forestry for the sake of posterity influenced subsequent generations of intellectuals, including Rousseau. He had a somewhat greater impact on the history of sustainability than Evelyn. The idea of good management of natural resources led directly to Ernst Haeckel’s concept of ecology, first proposed in 1861.
Hans Carl von Carlowitz and sustainable forestry in Saxony
Deforestation in the German region of Saxony caused the same problems as elsewhere. The Thirty Years War, which mostly took place in Saxony, made it even worse.
Hans Carl von Carlowitz was born in Saxony in 1645 near the end of the war. His family had been in charge of Saxon royal forests for generations.
Carlowitz began the customary grand tour in 1665. He later mentioned Louis XIV’s edicts, probably meaning Colbert’s forest ordinance, as a complete summary of his own ideas. He probably also studied Evelyn’s book when he visited London in 1666, although he never mentioned it.
After his tour, he began his service at the Saxon court and became a high-ranking official in the administration of Saxon mines. Charcoal for mining operations had denuded nearby forests. It had become necessary to transport timber long distances.
Carlowitz had attained the position of head of the mining administration when he published his Sylvicultura oeconomica in 1713. Some sources claim that this book started the history of sustainability.
He foresaw a collapse of the Saxon economy if the forest devastation continued. He sharply criticized those has no other goal than making money. Such people thought of forests as inexhaustible. So they wasted wood. Since farming was more profitable than forestry, they cleared forest land to make more fields. They didn’t plant new trees because, after all, they wouldn’t live to harvest them.
Carlowitz’ proposals for saving timber included designing more energy-efficient stoves, improving the efficiency of heating buildings, and substituting fossil fuels for burning wood. He also encouraged reforestation. He advocated finding a balance between planting and cutting trees to ensure renewable and sustainable forestry.
The word he introduced to describe this balance, nachhaltig, is translated in English as “sustainable.” He introduced not only the word, but an early description of the three pillars of sustainable development.
Carlowitz’ greater success
Evelyn and Colbert were highly respected thinkers but failed halt deforestation. Carlowitz succeeded posthumously, having died the year following publication of his book.
The Saxon Duchess Anna Amalia initiated the first general survey of forestry of any German state in 1761 and explicitly based her instructions on Carlowitz’ concept of nachhaltigkeit (sustainability).
Anna Amalia’s foresters planned for sustainable timber reserves as far into the future as 2050. They did so by planting monoculture timber plantations. This practice stopped devastation of woodlands, but at the expense of biodiversity.
Her efforts led to new schools that taught scientific forestry. Influenced both by Anna Amalia and Carlowitz, Heinrich Cotta founded Germany’s first forestry college in Zillbach/Meiningen in about 1795. Gottlob König established another one in Eisenach. In turn, these schools attracted students from all over Europe. Foreign graduates returned home. Carlowitz’ idea of sustainable forestry thus spread all over the world.
Under the influence of Cotta and König, forest management became data driven and less dependent on monoculture plantations. Periodic surveys counted trees and assessed their age and health. This data helped identify overexploited and underexploited areas of forest. It also identified any species that needed special protection. Over time, the concept of sustainable forestry has become less quantitative and more qualitative.
Sustainable forestry finally arrives in the United States
The United States only embraced sustainable forestry decades after the concept swept Europe. Its land mass was so vast that its forests seemed inexhaustible. It took immigrants to introduce the idea of sustainable yield. At first, it met resistance.
Carl Schurtz, Secretary of Interior from 1877 to 1881, established a Bureau of Forestry and appointed another German immigrant, Bernard Fernow, as its head. Fernow came across as impractical and theoretical. He managed to alienate even his supporters.
American Gifford Pinchot took over the bureau in 1898. His family had made a fortune from timber in Pennsylvania. He studied forestry in Europe and had a chance to observe professionally managed forests. The German forests seemed to be overregulated. He was much more favorably impressed with Swiss forestry, which depended entirely on selective cutting and regeneration of natural forests.
Pinchot was hardly alone in his criticism of German monoculture plantations. In 1841, Gottlob König warned that the new practice sought only the highest possible yield of timber and money. It failed to depend on a natural forest’s capacity to regenerate. He warned that nature would get its revenge. Forests should be more than timber plantations. They should function as habitats for animals and other plants. They should protect watersheds.
President Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent naturalist himself, reformed the forest service and appointed Pinchot as its head. Using terms like “wise use” and “conservation,” they started a movement of conservation that adapted Carlowitz’ idea of nachhaltigkeit to the American way of life and landscape.
Industrial interests attempted to undermine these goals, but the greatest resistance actually came from wilderness advocates who preferred preserving a pristine wilderness. The debate between sustainable yield and wilderness preservation continued through Earth Day in 1970.
Some implications of history for 21st-century sustainability
Today, sustainability means more than sustainable forestry, but it follows the same general principles laid down centuries ago. It also suffers from some of the same shortcomings and blindness we’ve seen in history.
The problem of greed
Evelyn and Carlowitz attacked the greed of the various interests that exploited forests for their own purposes. Modern environmentalists likewise attack greed, but Evelyn and Carlowitz were aristocrats attacking the greed of the lower social and economic ranks. Today’s environmentalists attack the greed of the upper classes.
Neither the aristocrats nor today’s self-proclaimed 99% recognize any faults of their own. The old monarchies asserted absolute power and authority. They failed to establish sustainable forestry by laws and regulations. No one asserts absolutism today. How can modern sustainability advocates succeed with class warfare any more than the absolutists did?
Moving problems rather than solving them
Evelyn advocated moving ironworks out of England to the English colonies in America. He assumed that American forests were inexhaustible. Moving the ironworks could not have accomplished anything except moving the problem out of sight. But observing his principles of sustainable forestry here would have at least avoided exporting the problem of wanton deforestation.
Anna Amalia’s reforms did not move the problem of deforestation. Instead, they introduced new problems caused by monocultures and lack of biodiversity.
We are coming to recognize that there is no such place as away. In other words, we can’t just move environmental problems out of sight. We can’t throw anything away, because it remains somewhere in the world. Unless perhaps we can find an asteroid or another planet to exploit in the same short-sighted way. We need to find a way to solve problems instead of just rearranging them.
Solutions that become new problems
Too often in the history of sustainability, the solution to one problem itself becomes a problem for future generations to solve. Fossil fuels at first seemed like a good way to protect forests. After all, coal burns well and doesn’t require cutting down trees. Plastic packaging also seemed to preserve trees.
Throughout human history, most economic problems have resulted from shortages of goods and commodities. After the Second World War, the United States faced economic disruptions from an excess of production and a shortage of buyers. So business and government encouraged the public to abandon saving and adopt wastefulness and consumerism.
Like the Industrial Revolution, new electronics technology has greatly benefited society. It has also caused pollution by mining rare earth metals, which no one had noticed before. It has also created a whole new kind of waste problem with high-tech trash. We’re even seeing problems with trash from renewable energy.
Evelyn, Colbert, and Carlowitz all advocated planting trees to combat deforestation. Planting trees is good, but we are finding out that we can’t grow enough trees to counter global warming. By the same token, plastic recycling is good, but we can’t recycle our way out of the environmental devastation caused by plastic pollution.
We need to learn to anticipate what problems may arise from new technologies and plan solutions before they become crises.
Deep roots: A conceptual history of ‘sustainable development’ (Nachhaltigkeit) / Ulrich Grober, WZB Discussion Paper, No. P 2007-002. February 2007
Hans Carl von Carlowitz: the father of sustainable forestry / Horst Sprossmann, Pollmeier Sustainability is not as new an idea as you might think—It’s more than 300 years old / Erika Schelby, Down to Earth. February 11, 2022