For most of humanity’s existence we have not thought or worried ourselves much about sustainability. Homo sapiens, like all of the other life forms on this planet, concerned themselves (consciously or not, mostly not) with survival. We ate, drank, procreated, hunted, gathered, and eventually died. We climbed trees, moved under their branches hand over hand, straddling one tree while we shifted our weight on our new evolved pelvic bones to another tree. At some point we came down from the trees, freed up our hands for gathering stuff and evolved our two other appendages for walking and running—and started worrying.
Once out of the trees and on the ground we began to worry where our food and predators were. Up in the trees our food was relatively easy to get at. However, because of climate change there were fewer trees so we had to get creative at acquiring food. On the ground there were more predators too. They were often larger than us, faster, stronger, so we got running. Opportunities for worrying grew exponentially once out of the safety of the trees. Our brains grew in proportion to our worries and became very large indeed. Because we shared our worries with each other, our social skills increased and we were able to hunt together for those creatures who worried us so. (I suspect, since most animals are wary of humans on their first encounter, our predators began worrying about us in return.)
Besides worrying, our large brains made it possible to think about ways to keep ourselves warm as the climate changed. We learned how to control fire. We learned how gather up all kinds of eatables and hunt for all kinds of animals. We learned to cook many of our foods, a sort of pre-digestion tactic, which dramatically increased our food choices. We still worried about dying and finding enough food. But we also addressed our worries by increasing our ability to plan ahead for better hunting and gathering and even storing and planting for more food for the future.
We began to worry about how much food we could accumulate to keep our families and whatever ruling groups (chiefs, kings, high priests) we institutionalized. We worried about storms. We worried about the seasons and what time of year to start moving to better hunting grounds. We worried about when to sow and when to reap.
These sustainability worries were not simply aimless, fruitless concerns. We acted on our worries. We made stronger houses, developed better weapons, developed better hunting stills, communicated more effectively for more efficient gathering teams, and found ways to predict some disasters like floods and dangerous seas.
Who knows when this capacity of ours to worry about our future, to endure, to live sustainability, began. It might be hardwired into all creatures intent on survival. But as a conscious worry sustainability only occurs in modern humans. Other creatures just do it or die.
When we created large communities and began farming on a large scale, we started worrying on a much greater scale. We worried that some other group might take our stuff and jeopardize our ability to endure and so we went to war with those groups. We started gathering as much land and water as we could, thinking perhaps if we acquired enough land and water we and our descendants would never perish.
At some point, some of us began to worry about our effect on our environment, on our life support system. Native Americans, who probably suffered the effects of over-hunting, starting thinking more about their actions and their long-term survival. Seven generations sustainability is a conscious effort to be mindful of at least seven generations after you go. This kind of thinking creates the communal habit of thinking about where your peoples’ next meal will come from. But the majority didn't heed this wise advice.
In 1864, George Perkins Marsh wrote a very influential book—“Man and Nature”--about how many European societies failed because of their lousy treatment of their environment. In this book, Marsh warned Americans and future generations to take it easy on nature if you want it for a tomorrow. He wasn’t against development and getting ahead. He just thought we should live more sustainably so our wants would last and last. Marsh’s warnings and the counsel of many other early naturalists after him help slow down our some of our wasteful and damaging effects on our air, land, and water. But not much. The Industrial Revolutions unleashed a lot of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. Around the same time we developed an indifferent and amoral attitude towards our environment called ‘economics,’ which created a great estrangement between us and our life support system. Heedlessly we struck hard at the core of our environmental vitals.
From the mid-1800’s our development and our negative effects on our environment took off like there was no tomorrow. We chopped down forests of forests, dammed every river and stream we could, and dumped old and new toxins into our air, water, and land.
It got really bad. Some of our rivers caught on fire they were so polluted and so the public rose up in the millions to protect our home planet on the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. Sustainability was becoming a worldwide worry a planetary scale. With the advent of nuclear weapons and incredible jumps in human population, the nations of the world started to come together to address what sustainability actually meant and how we would achieve it.
We decided sustainability was about us, humans and our desire for more stuff. The rest of creatures and plants were on their own.
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report)
Then, in the mid-1990 the climate talks began one after another until the 21st in Paris resulting in Paris Agreement. The world has come to understand that all our problems with sustainability are intertwined with wildlife and plants and soil and poverty and justice and all dependent on addressing Climate Change.
This Earth Day the world comes together to celebrate our environment and watch our leaders sign the Paris Agreement that will make the agreement official.
Our worries about sustainability are far from over. In a way, they’ve just begun. In the sense that we are just beginning to truly understand how humanity must curb its own selfish tendencies to attain sustainability, the road ahead is clear.
Be worried. Be very worried.