Understanding sustainability through history

Resources and complexity

Authored by: Joseph A. Tainter

Routledge Handbook of the History of Sustainability

Print publication date:  October  2017
Online publication date:  October  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138685796
eBook ISBN: 9781315543017
Adobe ISBN:


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In understanding the meaning of sustainability, it is useful to resort to basics. The term “sustain” comes originally from the Latin sustinere, and into English through the Old French soustenir. Both terms mean literally “to hold underneath”—in other words, to uphold or support. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, sixth edition, lists nine definitions of “sustain.” Two of these are particularly useful. Number three reads “cause to continue in a certain state; maintain at the proper level or standard.” Number five, which is consistent with biophysical concepts of sustainability, reads “support life in; provide for the life or needs of.” 1 Both definitions are consistent with the original Latin and French terms: to sustain something is to support its continuation. Sustainability is the science of continuity. Sustainability emerges therefore from success in addressing existential problems, that is, problems of continuity. As a historical endeavor, sustainability concerns the long-term success of problem-solving efforts.

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