I recently read the following quotation, “the problem with history is that it repeats itself.” Although I cannot recall who said it, the point is that we need to learn from the past, not just repeat it. In a recent discussion with a co-worker, I started to think about the ebb and flow of environmental movements and consciousness in this country and the greater world. While far from an exhaustive history, I think a little perspective is helpful.
The environmental movement seemingly began with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and the first Earth Day in 1970. The oil embargo, peak oil, and the move to nuclear power are but a few of the major events of the first wave of environmentalism. In the early 1970s, the publication of Limits to Growth and systems thinking entered the conversation. Later in the decade, then president Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the roof of the White House, which were removed during the succeeding presidency.
There was seemingly a lull in the late 1970s on through the 1980s. However, the Brundtland Report, also known as Our Common Future, from the United Nations in 1987 provided perhaps the most oft quoted definition of sustainable development, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Five years later, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro brought environmental concerns to the forefront. Books like The Ecology of Commerce and Earth in Mind made striking arguments for the importance of environmental stewardship in business and education.
For the second half of the 1990s and into the beginning of the 21st century, the environmental movement seemed to wane. In the past few years though, both “green” and “sustainable” have become buzzwords. The United States Green Building Council has been in the works for nearly two decades, with the first platinum building earning certification in 2000 under their LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) protocol. As a result, the second green revolution, along with the general greening the economy, became more prevalent. Issues of anthropogenic climate change and various concerns about environmental degradation resurfaced.
Is this third movement the final one that will put society and the economy on a sustainable course? If not, I suppose we can wait another generation for the fourth movement, but it would be a lot easier if the current push is a sustainable one.