Sustaining What?

Scarcity, growth, and the natural order in the discourse on sustainability, 1650–1900

Authored by: Gareth Dale

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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Questions of sustainability—the interaction between human economic practices, on one hand, and natural resources and the web of life, on the other—are ancient. Concerns over deforestation and soil erosion are documented in literatures from ancient Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, and Mauryan India, to name a few. 1 But in the early modern era a distinctive discourse of sustainability arose, even if it initially lacked a standardized vocabulary. 2 The capitalist heartlands of Europe and their ex-colonial appendages deployed economic and military advantage to seize control of the world’s land surface—from 10 percent in 1700 to 30 percent in 1800 and 85 percent in 1900. The transformations associated with capital and colonialism sparked, and propelled, a revolution in nature-society relations, with the construction of what Jason Moore terms regimes of abstract social nature: spatio-temporal practices of quantification, mapping, and standardization that facilitated the “quantitative expansion of abstract labor.” 3 With new regimes of economic order and abstract social nature came new ideas concerning the purposes and dynamics of economic activity and the management of nature.

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