By Claus Mølgaard (Note: Anja Juhl Jensen updated the first version with additional persons)

Some people believe that the concept of sustainability dates back to the time of the Greek natural philosophers, the time before Socrates, when some philosophers worked with a holistic understanding of nature. Others believe that Aristotle’s concepts of phronesis and virtue ethics can be taken as a starting point.


The first time a word reminding of Sustainability is being used is in 1713, where the German word Nachhaltighkeit (restraint) is for the first time used in a context, which could be reminiscent of sustainability and used in the connection of saving something for the future. That is when Hans Carl von Carlowitz in his book Sylvicultura oeconomica oder haußwirthliche Nachricht und Naturmäßige Anweisung zur wilden Baum-Zucht uses the German word Nachhaltigkeit (restraint) in connection with forestry.

Figure 1 – Hans Carl von Varlowitz

Von Carlowitz was a forester, tax auditor and administrator of some mines in Saxony, Germany. Von Carlowitz did not foresee the land collapsing more or less because of over-consumption or decline in biodiversity, his problem was that there would not be enough wood for his coal mines, if one did not take care to cultivate and consume the forest in a sustainable way.

In the late 18th century, some economists were seeing problems in population growth. One of them was Thomas Malthus, whose father was supposed to be best friends with Rossau (the guy who argued for free child rearing), but as often happens, sons think the exact opposite of their father and so it was with Malthus.

Figure 2 – Thomas Malthus

Thomas Malthus publishes in 1798 “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, where he claims that in a completely happy society the population growth will double every 25 years (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, a geometric row) while the food will only develop linear (1, 2, 3, 4, 5,… arithmetic series). A happy society will collapse if distress do not limit the growth. Malthus certainly did not think it was necessary to support the most disadvantaged, as this would only make the problem of population growth even worse.

Later David Ricardo generalized the point of Malthus to count all resources not only food.

History shows that it did not went as Malthus and Ricardo predicted. The population was not doubled every 25 years. Whether this is because the society was not completely happy, or whether it is not necessary to have many kids in a happy society is unknown. At the same time, due to industrialization of agriculture food supply was increased more than expected.


The environment or nature comes on the Worldmap the day the German genius, scientist, traveller and not least romantic Alexander Von Humboldt in 1802 receives a revelation near the summit of Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador. Here von Humboldt realizes that nature is a large coherent thing and man is not at the center, as you can otherwise read in the Book of Genesis, where God orders man to rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky and all animals that move on the earth. Aristotle also had similar thoughts when he states that nature has created everything solely for the sake of man.

Figure 3 – Alexander von Humboldt

Humboldt conveys a large part of his knowledge in so-called “Naturgemälde” (nature paintings), which are in principle the world’s first infographic. In 1808 Humboldt publishes the book Views of Nature.

The philologist George Perkins Marsh, who is considered to be the first America environmentalist, published in 1864 the book Man and Nature. Unlike others, who believed that the Earth created the man, Marsh believes that the man created the earth. As a result, he warned that man can destroy himself and the earth if we do not maintain global resources and increase awareness of our actions. The first thoughts about the Anthropocene age (the man-made age) were shown.

Figure 4 – Georg Perkins Marsh


The paleontologist and geologist Nathaniel Southgate Shaler did also had thoughts about human influence on Earth, which he wrote about in his book Nature and Man in America from 1891. Shaler’s arguments were based on flooded areas in the eastern United States and arid areas in the western United States. Shaler ended up as a professor at Harvard.

Figure 5 – Nathaniel Southgate Shaler

Both Marsh and Perkins argued that the quantity of resources could be increased by technological development and in this way save the world.


Gifford Pinchot an American forester and politician publishes the book The Fight for Conservation in 1910, in which the concept of sustainability we know today is more or less defined “unless we practice conservation, those who come after us will have to pay the price of misery, degradation and failure for the progress and prosperity of our day.”

Figure 6 – Gifford Pinchot

After World War II, the issues of population growth are resumed by ecologist and zoologist William Vogt, director of Planned Parenthood and naturalist Henry Fairfield Osborn Jr.

Figure 7 – William Vogt
Figure 8 – Fairfield Osborn Jr.

In 1948 Vogt and Osborn are publishing the books Road to Survival and Our Plundered Planet. Vogt and Osborn believed that the size of the population should remain within a sustainable size and that the problems could not be solved technological. The problems are just postponed and will get bigger.

Rachel Carson published the book Silent Spring in 1962, where she warned of the changes to all natural systems from the misuse of chemical pesticides such as DDT, and questioned the scope and direction of the modern science.

Figure 9 – Rachel Carson

She is today mostly remembered for challenging the notion  that humans could obtain mastery over nature by chemicals, bombs and space travel than for her studies of Ocean Life.  She was always aware of the impact humans had on nature and published several books like Under the Sea-Wind in 1941, The Sea Around us in 1951 and The edge of the Sea in 1955, where she brought focus on the ecosystems.

In the year 1968 something new is happening again, as the biologist and educator, Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich, and his wife the biologist Anne Ehrlich publish the book The Population Bomb, where they argued that the world’s large population growth will destroy the environment and food availability. The same argument as Malthus just with the environment as an extra dimension. Unlike Malthus, however, the Ehrlich did not think, that the less well-off should simply perish. Paul Ehrlich believes that the United States, as the largest consumer, must take the lead in the fight against population growth and he “floated” the idea of adding “temporary sterilization” to the water supply or staple foods!

Figure 10 – Anne and Paul Ehrlich

 In 1970, the I-PAT model was developed as the result of a debate between Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren on the one hand and Barry Commoner on the other. John Holdren, who is trained in aero, astro and plasma physics, was like Ehrlich affiliated with Stanford. Later in life, Holdren became President Barack Obama’s adviser on science and technology. Barry Commoner was a biologist and professor at Washington University.

Ehrlich and Holdren believed that population growth was the most important factor, while Commoner believed that the most important factor was the pollution from the new production technologies developed after World War II.

Figure 11 – John Holdren and Barach Obama
Figure 12 – Barry Commoner

 The I-PAT model was agreed, which states that the environmental impact (I) is the product of population (P), affluence (A) and technology (T).


Gaylord Nelson was an American activist and politician who also served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was an instrumental figure in the passage of crucial environmental acts. Some of these acts include the Wilderness Act, Federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and Clean Water Act. During the 20th century, Gaylord was a prominent environmental activist highlighting environmental issues and fighting for social justice.  

Figure 13 – Gaylord Nelson

Gaylord’s most significant contributions to the conservation movement was his creation of Earth Day. Since its inception in 1970, the world continues to celebrate this day. 

Figure 14 – Earth Overshoot Day

 In 1972, The Club of Rome published the report The Limits to Growth, written by Donella and Dennis Meadows in collaboration with the Norwegian Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III all environmental and systems analysis researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Figure 15 – MIT researchers

 The researchers from MIT developed the model named World3, in which the following 5 trends were analyzed: accelerated industrialization, rapid population growth, pronounced malnutrition, depletion of non-renewable resources and deterioration of the environment.

The main conclusion of the report:

 1. With the current growth of population, industrialization, pollution, food production and depletion of non-renewable resources, the limit of growth will be reached within the next 100 years. The most likely outcome will be a sudden and uncontrolled decline in both population and industrial capacity.

2. It is possible to change growth trends and establish conditions for ecological and economic stability that is sustainable. The global equilibrium can be designed in a way where basic needs of every person on earth are met, and every person has equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential.

The World3 model has been criticized. In 1973, a group of researchers at the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex published Thinking about the Future, A Critique of The Limits to Growth. The Sussex group examined the structure and assumptions in the World3 model and concluded that the simulations were very sensitive to a few key assumptions, suggesting that the MIT assumptions were unnecessarily pessimistic. Some of the criticism was recognized as valid and improved in the overall understanding of dynamic models. In the article, the Sussex group thanked their sponsors, which included: BP, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) and the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA).

Several others have also criticized the World3 model for not matching the real world. Among other, energy and security analysts Amy Myers Jaffe and Robert A. Manning wrote in 2000 in the journal Foreign Affairs that, according to the 1972 report, the remaining oil reserves “would run out in 1990” and that this prediction, as we know, had turned out to be fundamentally wrong.

Also in 1972, the UN’s Stockholm Conference was held, where an international environmental policy was formulated. It was probably mostly industrialized countries who had a problem, and they could see that if developing countries starts to behave like the industrialized countries with similar consumption, the problem would first become really big. Developing countries was only focusing on the environment and it all ended quite badly, best described by the Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi’s who said: “Aren’t poverty and need the most important pollutions? How can we talk to villagers and slum-dwellers of the need to protect the air, the ocean and rivers when their own life is contaminated? The environment cannot be improved in conditions of poverty.”

Figure 16 – Indira Gandhi

In a way it was the beginning of the social and ethical dimension of the concept of sustainability.

In 1975, geochemist Wallace Broecker, coined the term “Global warming” to describe the impact that human activity was having on the world’s climate. 

Figure 17 – Wallace Broecker

Broecker’s term was a break with tradition. Earlier studies of human impact on climate had called it “inadvertent climate modification.”2 This was because while many scientists accepted that human activities could cause climate change, they did not know what the direction of change might be. Industrial emissions of tiny airborne particles called aerosols might cause cooling, while greenhouse gas emissions would cause warming.

UN established in 1983 the World Commission on Environment and Development. The commission was manned by 21 international celebrities and led by former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. The report Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, was published in 1987 and included the famous definition of sustainable development: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Figure 18 – Gro Harlem Brundtland

Al Gore is the former vice president of the United States and a committed environmentalist. He focused on climate issues throughout his political career.

Figure 19 – Al Gore

in 1981, he co-ordinated Congress’s first hearing on man-made global warming. In 1992, he led the US delegation to the UN Conference on Environment and Development, which resulted in the introduction of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Since leaving government, he has maintained a leading role in the climate change movement. In 2005, he founded the Climate Reality Project, which unites and supports climate change activists around the world. He is a frequent speaker at environmentalist events and, along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on global warming.


In 2002, the German chemist Michael Braungart and the American architect William McDonough published the book Cradle to Cradle. Where a “technical” system was inspired by the biological system of the nature – “waste equals food”.

Figure 20 – Michael Braungart and William McDonough
Figure 21 – Cradle to Cradle

In general, Braungart and McDonough work with the importance of recycling of materials and avoiding toxic chemicals, but they are not particularly concerned about the underlying energy system, that drives the entire system and cause climate change.

On 7th of February 2005 Ellen MacArthur broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe with time 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes, and 33 seconds. On a long sailing trip, it is important to save resources, which should inspire MacArthur to the idea of the circular economy.

Figure 22 – Ellen MacArthur

 The circular economy launched in 2009, when the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is established. The “theory” behind the circular economy is developed by the management consulting company McKinsey and the first report towards the Circular Economy was published in 2013, which includes the well-known butterfly diagram.

Figure 23 – Butterfly Diagram


Just like Braungart and McDonough, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is initially mainly focused on the flow of materials and not the underlying energy system. The problem is addressed years later in 2019 in the report Completing the Picture: how the circular economy tackles climate change was published. Unlike previous reports written by McKinsey, this new report is written by the Swedish management consulting firm Material Economics. A group of 26 of the world’s leading environmental and climate scientists, led by Swedish Johan Rockström, came together in 2009 and identified the processes crucial for the global ecosystem.

Figure 24 – Johan Rockström

The group listed nine key processes: climate change, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, biogeochemical (nitrogen and phosphorus), freshwater use, changing land use, biodiversity loss, atmospheric aerosol loading, chemical pollution. The nine key processes are today best known as the planetary boundaries.

Link til artikel om planetary boundaries

Figure 25 – Planetary boundaries – 2020 data

In 2017, Kate Raworth publishes her book Doughnut Economics, in which she reviews many older economic theories and is certainly not enthusiastic about the liberal economist Milton Friedmann. Raworth argues that we must develop an economy, which ensures that we stay within the planetary boundaries, while ensuring the population food, health, education, income and work, peace and justice, political voice, social equality, gender equality, housing, networks, energy, and water.

Figure 26 – Doughnut Economic

Greta Thunberg starts her school strike for the climate in 2018, which brought her to speak at the UN in 2019 and the World Economic Forum in 2021.

Figure 27 – Greta Thunberg

There is most certainly many more important persons that could be mentioned in connection with the history of sustainability, so please do not hesitate to reach out to us, so we can have them added into this document.

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