How was sustainable development born? “The ecological warp”, 1970-1990

When in 1972 I started to campaign for a vision and concepts I had in mind, this vision and those concepts were  still in there infancy. Basically, it was all about Sustainable Development, but in those years the term was not even coined. What people were concerned about was nature, ecology, and the numerous assaults and the degradation from which nature was suffering. Even in circles of engaged ecologists there were no clear cut ideas on where it came from, where it had to go and how it should be done.

There was a general feeling though that this degradation could not go on like that. One of the very first people to have put a milestone was Rachel Carson with her book “Silent Spring” (1962). Carson was a US marine biologist and had seen the dramatic consequences of the then unlimited impact of the chemical industry on the environment in her country. Due to her writings and actions, the insecticide DDT was eventually prohibited in agriculture. There was the Club or Rome which, in 1972, published their first report, “Limits to Growth”, which made quite an impression, as it was the first of its kind to use computer simulations. I felt quite concerned by this report that described the extremely complex interactions between all kinds of human actions and nature, and the consequences that would have. But it did so in a cold, mathematical way; my generation missed the warm, human touch of Carson’s approach.

In 1983 an English scientist, James Lovelock, coined the concept of “Gaia”: planet Earth is not a dead rock, but a living organism. His approach included the early ideas of biodiversity, self-regulation and stability within living nature, and therefore also the impacts that CO2 emissions would have. He was able to demonstrate that the bigger the living diversity, variety and interactions on it, the more stable the planet would be.

As the cherry on the cake there was the report of the so-called Brundtland Commission, in 1987, called “Our Common Future”. It was this last report that coined the term Sustainable Development: Development that fulfils the needs of actual generations without compromising the possibility for future generations to fulfil their own needs. A 317 page report condensed in  one sentence!

This report was widely published, but not really read, and even less put to practice; and still today, 27 years later, you will find very few people who would be able to give a clear account on it. Many conventional social actors, companies, marketing people and the likes took it and bent it to their advantage, without real concern.

In the seventies, a direct consequence of all this was to campaign for the substitution of fossil raw materials (coal, mineral oil, uranium) who were on the landslide to depletion, by substances from living nature, which are theoretically unlimited. As with most fellow campaigners  this was mainly based on gut feeling; the underlying ideas, concepts and arguments developed themselves only in a slow way. I created detergents, cosmetics, polishes, paints, colourants and the likes and produced them on a small scale. People liked them as they brought back textures, scents and experiences which they had lost since their childhood, or – for the younger people – even never known at all.

At the same time there was not yet a real economical and commercial carrier to sustain such an activity. The numbers of interested people were far too small. Many ingredients we would have needed didn’t yet exist, were not available or far too expensive. Retailers were not interested.

Nonetheless we went on. There were some circles throughout Europe – mainly in the north – who started to build the much needed ideas and insights to structure the concepts. Between 1980 and 1990 a whole series of initiatives, in a large variety, came to life. Some were study circles, some were companies, others created the first ecological fairs, gave courses, published books or started magazines. Many of them still exist today and a heart-warming development of the last decade is to see that many amongst them started to cooperate, sharing knowledge and expertise over the country and cultural borders. When pollution is not respecting country borders, why should sustainable development?

By and by small and bigger conventional companies, producers as well as retailers, started to be aware that this development was not only seriously backed and accepted by the general public, but that it was also able to give answers to a lot of uncertainties and to create future proof trajects.

The expert

Peter Malaise

Ricercatore belga e consulente per la sostenibilità dal 1972, è fondatore e Amministratore Delegato di Meta Consort Partnership, che aiuta le imprese e le ONG a livello mondiale nello sviluppo pratico di prodotti e servizi su base sostenibile. Nel 1976 Peter ha co-fondato Meta Fellowship, organizzazione no-profit per lo sviluppo e la promozione di “soluzioni…


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