This may come as a surprise, but the link between sustainability and environmentalism is actually fairly recent. Before 1980, sustainability was an uncommon variant of sustainable, as in “capable of being upheld,” and it could be used in any context. But in 1980 that all changed when the International Union for the Conservation of Nature published the World Conservation Strategy, including an entire section called “Towards Sustainable Development.” Since then, the word’s popularity has skyrocketed.
The concept of environmental sustainability—but not the phrase itself—is present in Rachel Carson’s seminal work, Silent Spring, published in 1962. This book is widely considered the beginning of the modern environmental movement. In fact, the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) starts the “Sustainable Development Timeline” with its publication.
Sustainability was a major theme of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in 2009 (also called the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change or COP15). The word sustainable appears frequently throughout the Copenhagen Accord, the non-binding agreement that was the result of weeks of negotiations between the 193 participating countries.
“I know of no instance in our State, in which the sustainability of such a lien has been directly adjudicated, as between the Bank and strangers.”
–Georgia Supreme Court, Reports of cases in law and equity, argued and determined in the Supreme Court of the State of Georgia (1847)
“Achievement of equitable, sustainable development requires implementation not only of the measures indicated above but also of the World Conservation Strategy.”
–IUCN, “Towards Sustainable Development,” World Conservation Strategy (1980)
“The volunteer architects behind the structure even planned to make it a paragon of sustainable living, with passive solar heating and a rooftop hydroponic irrigation system.”
—Emily Badger, “The Building Code Violation Behind Occupy D.C.’s Sunday Standoff,” The Atlantic Cities (2011)