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Brief history of sustainability

How long has the concept of sustainability been around? We take travel back in time to discovery the history of sustainability.
© International Culinary Studio

We can trace the history of sustainability back to early human civilizations, where society would flourish, followed by a sustainability crisis that was either successfully resolved or led to its decline.

Very early civilizations were hunter-gatherers who moved around to where they could find food and water, they would take what they could from the land and then move on. There was no guarantee of food or water, so it was a precarious existence.

Ancient Sumerian Agriculture

Between 8000 and 10 000 years ago, groups of people found a more permanent solution through agriculture, setting up farms to produce their local food supply. This resulted in the depletion of critical resources (water and soil for example) and they would be forced to move onto another area.

Go to the Wikipedia history of Farming

The Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries led to significant technological advances, including the discovery of fossil fuel and coal to power engines and later to generate electricity. These technological advances led to an exponential increase in human consumption of non-renewable resources.

Advances in medicine contributed to increased populations through increased life expectancy, improved fertility, and reduced infant and child mortality rates resulting in over-population. Between 1650 and 1800, the world population doubled from about 500 million to 1 billion people, and between 1800 and today, the world population increased significantly from 1 billion to 7.7 billion.

World Population By Region

During the 19th century, ecologists, botanists and enlightened political economists such as the Reverend Thomas Malthus warned of the environmental and social impacts of industry on civilizations and the world.

In the 1950s, after World War II and the great depression, developed nations began to grow sharply. Concerned environmental groups warned of the costs associated with many modern benefits and innovations such as plastics, chemicals, synthetics, nuclear energy, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and the increasing use of fossil fuels on the environment and rural wildlife. In the 1970s, environmentalists predicted the peak in oil production given the concerns with pollution, the population explosion, consumerism, and the depletion of finite resources.

1940's advert for ladies stocking 'nylons'

By the late 20th century, the world was facing significant environmental problems. The energy crisis in the 1970s alerted the world as to how reliant it had become on non-renewable resources. In developing countries, people faced poverty and starvation and regarded development as essential to raise their standards of living while developed counties were concerned with the over-usage of resources.

The last 50 years

Over the last 50 years, significant historical events have drawn attention to the world’s environmental crisis:

  • In 1980 the International Union for Conservation of Nature published the World Conservation Strategy.
  • 1982 it published the ‘World Charter for Nature’ citing the decline of the world’s ecosystems.
  • In 1987 the Brundtland Commission (United Nation’s World Commission on Environment and Development) delivered its report ‘Our Common Future’ stating that development should be sustainable, meet the needs of the poor and not add to the world’s environmental problems.
  • By the mid-2000s, many countries could not sustain themselves, needing to import resources from other countries to support their needs. Public awareness led to more sustainable living choices, and the first alternate renewable energy sources such as wind turbines, hydroelectricity, and solar and wind power plants emerged.
  • Throughout the 21st century, many commissions and agencies have alerted countries to environmental catastrophes and the threat posed by the greenhouse effect (where the earth’s surface temperature increases causing ice sheets to melt, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and extreme climate events such as hurricanes, floods, and tsunamis). United Nations Environment

2030 UN sustainable goals

United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals

In 2016, the United Nations issued a more ambitious set of Seventeen Sustainable Development Goals said to “banish a whole host of social ills by 2030”. The 2030 193 Heads of State and other top world leaders, unanimously adopted the Agenda for Sustainable Development, at a summit at UN Headquarters in New York. At the time, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “The seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are our shared vision of humanity and a social contract between the world’s leaders and the people.” “A to-do list for people and planet and a blueprint for success” “the 17 goals and 169 targets are to wipe out poverty, fight inequality and tackle climate change over the next 15 years”.


What are your concerns about the environment? Whether you have a family or not, what type of legacy do you want to leave for generations to come? Reflecting on the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, do you think we are making progress? If not, why?

© International Culinary Studio
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Introduction to Sustainable Practices in Food Service

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