Do you remember the first time you were introduced to the word sustainability, it was probably a middle school science class where a teacher, you were not that fond of, was teaching you about caring for our environment and the future generations. Although mildly stimulating it wasn’t as interesting as the recess you were looking forward to.
But if you think about it the reason why a kid like you had to learn about heavy topics the fate of our planet and ways to protect it, was the urgency and significance of sustainability in our life. Something that is pretty evident to you now. Being an essential practice when it comes to the survival of our race the idea of sustainability has been around for ages and naturally, has made its way into our culture and literature. And has had fascinating implications throughout genres.
So put on your reading socks, turn on the lamp and remember your school days because we are going to dive back into books. Here is a look at sustainability through the lens of literature.
Silvicultura oeconomica - First mention of environmental sustainability
The idea of sustainability goes back to times immemorial, as communities have always worried about the capacity of their environment to sustain them in the long term but the first mention of sustainability being used in a context that we are familiar with can be traced back to Hans Carl von Carlowitz (1645–1714) and was applied to forestry. He used this term in the sense of a long-term responsible use of a natural resource in 1713 in his work Silvicultura oeconomica.
Fun fact the concept of sustainability is called Nachhaltigkeit in German.
Our common future - A report
Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, was published in October 1987 by the United Nations through the Oxford University Press. The report helped bring "sustainability" into the mainstream policy discourse and popularize the concept of "sustainable development". This report is responsible for bringing environmental sustainability on the political map and is widely shaped the idea of sustainability that we are familiar with today. The report defined 'sustainable development' as "Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".
Sustainability in Science fiction
Science fiction as a genre always looks at the world with great intrigue and has a way of portraying important ideas and harsh realities in a surprisingly digestible manner. Therefore, naturally, the concept of sustainability has been a theme in many science fiction novels. Let’s take a look at some of them.
A. The Mars Trilogy
In Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars” trilogy (1993–1996), about terraforming Mars to create an atmosphere and enable human colonization, technology is used to make these canals a material reality. The trilogy represents the viewpoints of several different factions over the decades-long process of changing the surface of Mars, including characters who argue in defense of leaving its environment unchanged. This is the best-known science fiction series about engineering planetary environments, most of which express themes about environmental protection and sustainability, but some of which celebrate a fantasy of total human control over the environment and planetary weather.
A popular series that just got adapted into an oscar-nominated movie, Frank Herbert’s Dune(1965) is often understood as a prescient novel about climate change, given its desert setting and its invention of several technologies for survival with a minimum of water. Apart from the power struggle among the humans the story also highlights the struggle of humans with nature.
The Uninhabitable Earth - Non-fiction
The book released in 2019 talks about the consequences of global warming and the need to act on it. Wallace-Wells argues that even with active intervention, the effects of climate change will have catastrophic impacts across multiple spheres: rising sea levels, extreme heat events, extinctions, disease outbreaks, fires, droughts, famines, and increased geopolitical conflict, among others.
While the book is not focused on solutions, it recognizes solutions exist to prevent the worse of the damages: "a carbon tax and the political apparatus to aggressively phase out dirty energy; a new approach to agricultural practices and a shift away from beef and dairy in the global diet; and public investment in green energy and carbon capture".
A story about an egocentric landlord, his hubris, and the road to his ultimate fate, the story was written by Bengali writer Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay and was later adapted into a movie by Satyajit Ray. Nature and its erraticness play an important role in the story and there is repeated mention of river banks being errored due to the change in the flow of the river. It highlights the need for adaptation and acceptance in a beautiful yet tragic manner. Coupled with the ideas of economic stability and inheritance the story talks about sustainability in all three forms. (ie economic, social, and environmental).
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