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Sourcing Sustainability

In Columns, Culture, Spring 2015 by Guest BloggerLeave a Comment

Science and the humanities form opposite ends of a spectrum — science provides the facts and the humanities provide the story. United, the two motivate action much more strongly than either could alone. In the sustainability movement, though, the two often remain divided, a troubling claim in a time when motivation seems a greater challenge than persuasion. Looking at the history of sustainability in Germany, a nation where the sciences and the humanities have had distinct and significant influences on sustainability, can help us to better understand how the two fields could work together. Along the way, we will discover some interesting truths about American sustainability and the sustainability movement in general.

We start with the word “sustainable” itself, or rather, the German equivalent, nachhaltig. The first recorded use of the word was in 1713 by mining director Carl von Carlowitz, who proposed replacing clear-cut forestry with a more staggered approach “in order to achieve [forestry’s] continuous, durable, and sustained use, for this is a matter without which our country cannot remain in its wealth.”[i] Interestingly, then, in contrast to the modern framing of the sustainability debate, sustainability in the 18th century was a tool for, not against, economic growth.

From this, eighteenth-century Germany witnessed the birth of forestry science, heavily influenced by Enlightenment principles and with sustainable forest management at its core. This development reached a climax in the early 1800s as the world’s first forestry science schools opened their doors across Germany. These schools spread across the continent as Europeans and Americans alike flocked to the newly created institutions. Bernhard Fernow, the third chief of the US Division of Forestry, and Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief Forester in the US, both studied this German science and brought sustainable forestry principles to the US.[ii] In this way, Germany’s formalized and scientific conservation ideas helped develop less institutionalized American views that could be found in countless Native American and grassroots communities. Pinchot, appointed to his brand new position by President Teddy Roosevelt, would go on to partner with the president to launch one of the most prolific waves of conservation efforts in American history.

While the scientific development of sustainability had its roots in the Enlightenment, German Romanticism also made its mark. Throughout the 1800s, Romanticism contributed philosophical, religious, and even mystical elements to German sustainability. It was in this period, after all, that the Grimm Brothers collected fairy tales like “Hansel and Gretel” (giving the forest a certain magical element), Goethe wrote his Faust and philosophized about the natural world, and Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings showed humans overpowered by nature.[iii] Early American Transcendentalists drew their inspiration from this German Romanticism. We see evidence of this in the famed Emerson poem, “Waldeinsamkeit,” which derived its title from the German word meaning “the feeling of being alone in the woods.” German Romanticism transformed early environmentalism — what had been a staid scientific concept became a movement fueled by urgency and emotion. Sustainability literally became storied.

German environmentalism has a troubled heritage, however. In the first half of the 20th century, the Nazi regime established nature preserves, furthered sustainable forestry, and made early efforts at reducing air pollution. Indeed, both the Nazi’s persecution policies and their environmental preservation efforts stemmed from an ideology that emphasized a need to preserve the “pure and natural” way.[iv] This demonstrates the danger of a bifurcated approach to sustainability; rather than the sciences and the humanities being brought into dialogue with one another, the humanities were used merely as a tool to justify a flawed science, with disastrous results.

Following this tragic era, the post-war period saw developments such as the birth of the Green Party, the rise of urban ecology, and a renewed focus on sustainable development as the country went through a period of massive rebuilding to recover from wartime destruction. Germany quickly became one of the most sustainable nations in the modern world, but it would seem the sciences and the humanities continued down separate paths.

Just what does this look in the rearview mirror show us? We realize that the sciences and the humanities both distinctly influenced the sustainability movement in the US and abroad, but that those influences were hardly unified. We also note that a flawed science without a tempering moral force may have led to some sustainability progress in Nazi Germany, but with a significant and unrecoverable cost. Only by drawing from the storied pasts of both the sciences and the humanities, then, can we yield all their unique benefits and create a more powerful movement, one that turns stats into stories and motivates the action our planet needs to survive.


Image courtesy of wilderutopia.com

[i] Richard Hölzl “Historicizing Sustainability: German Scientific Forestry in the 18th and 19th Centuries”

[ii] Schmithüsen “Three Hundred Years of Applied Sustainability in Forestry”

[iii] Hinchman and Hinchman “What we owe the romantics” and Joachim Radkau’s The Age of Ecology: A Global History

[iv] Brügeemeier, Cioc, Zeller How Green Were the Nazis?

Guest BloggerSourcing Sustainability

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