Time Travel to Sustainability

Author: Joachim Geiger

Jul 26, 2023 Sustainability

Sustainability is not an invention of modern times. People were already thinking about how to use the earth’s resources as far back as the Middle Ages and antiquity.

As a political metaphor, the concept of sustainability has been booming and transcending borders for years. Nevertheless, its interpretation is still open to considerable debate. One of the fundamental definitions can be traced back to Hans Carl von Carlowitz, the Saxon chief miner who first formulated a concept of sustainability as a basic principle of forestry in 1713. His philosophy was to “cut only as much wood as can grow back through reforestation”. Modern politicians and environmentalists focus on the triad of ecology, economy, and social issues. But what happens to sustainability when the balance between these factors is disturbed? Can behavior that consistently exploits available resources be sustainable? That gives highest priority to securing livelihoods rather than protecting habitat? A look into the past can provide new answers. Historians and archaeologists are also concerned with the question of how people in the Middle Ages, in antiquity, and in prehistoric times dealt with their resources.
In the Middle Ages, the first rules for more sustainability emerged at the Lake of Constance
A journey back in time in terms of sustainability could first lead to the Lake of Constance in the 14th century. At that time, the lake’s local fishermen had formed cooperative ventures and developed a special form of resource management together with the local rulers. The goal was to prevent the stocks in the lake from being overfished due to high demand. The result was a fishing regulation for the protection of fish species, which laid down clear rules with regard to closed seasons and the minimum size of fish to be caught. The regulations certainly served their purpose – after all, they were in place until the beginning of the 20th century. It thus fits into an understanding of sustainability as defined by the United Nations Brundtland Report as early as 1987. According to this report, a development is sustainable if it satisfies the needs of the present without risking subsequent generations being unable to satisfy their own needs.
In ancient times, Greeks and Romans changed the natural scenery
Of course, this way of thinking would have been alien to a person in antiquity. Greeks and Romans left their mark on the landscape over a period spanning more than 1,000 years. Their agrarian cultures were based on the use of renewable energies such as water and wind power, wood and olive oil. Mining and forest clearing were considered advances in civilization. Above all, the construction of settlements and cities consumed incredible amounts of stone and wood. The metropolises of Athens and Rome also consolidated their political power in the Mediterranean region with enormous fleet building programs. Entire coastal regions were literally deforested due to the enormous demand for wood. In later times, building materials finally became scarce and their procurement increasingly costly. Based on new studies, archaeologists have now been able to demonstrate what a sustainable solution to the problem could have looked like in ancient Rome. Recycled components from older buildings were used in the construction of the Pantheon, the Villa Hadriana, and the Baths of Diocletian. However, the motivation for this form of recycling was not ecological – it was simply a matter of keeping construction costs down.
The ancient Romans cultivated a careless use of their resources
The Roman way of life was also closely connected to the use of wood as a resource. In public baths, but also in private houses and military facilities, hypocaust heaters provided comfortable temperatures. In this surface heating system, hot air generated by a strong fire circulated through a system of shafts and tubes to heat water basins, floors, and walls. The fact that there were supposedly about a dozen large bathing palaces and 900 smaller thermal baths in Rome alone in the fourth century AD illuminates how great the demand for firewood must have been in the Roman Empire. In fact, the Romans’ careless use of the earth’s resources and the resulting environmental pollution had already been bitterly resented by prominent authors such as Pliny and Seneca. The focus of their criticism, however, was of their contemporaries’ greed and addiction to luxury – and less an interest in the integrity of the environment.
Resource bottlenecks could be avoided with technical innovations
In the case of hypocaust heating, science now paints a different picture. The energy consumption of these facilities was undoubtedly high. Nevertheless, the popular notion that entire forest areas on the Italian peninsula fell victim to the Roman bathing culture can no longer be upheld. We now know that the heavily karstified landscape in some regions of the Mediterranean is due, among other things, to extensive clearing in the 19th century. But how did the ancient Romans manage the impending shortage of resources for their heating systems? The key was technical innovation. Recent research shows that double-glazed windows and the use of insulation improved the thermal efficiency of hypocausts.
Paleolithic hunters were partly responsible for species extinction
The bottom line is that antiquity was certainly not a golden age of sustainability. A journey several tens of thousands of years back in time to the Paleolithic Age promises more success. The ice age hunters’ way of living seems to come pretty close to the ideal of a unity between man and nature. The meat of prey animals fed the group, the fur was used for warm clothing and blankets, bones, antlers, and teeth for tools, weapons, and jewelry. The resources were used almost entirely to ensure the livelihood of the community. However, if we take a closer look at the circumstances, doubts about this idyll arise. Ice age hunters acquired their dominance in the food chain through technical means for the production and use of hunting weapons. That is the only way they were able to tap into new resources – incidentally, much to the detriment of the game they hunted. Recent research assumes that the complete disappearance of the cave bear and woolly mammoth in Europe, as well as of the mastodon and saber-toothed tiger in North America, is also due to human activities.