Sustainability and sustainable development are much-used concepts, but due to their complex and abstract nature, interpretations vary. Adding to their complexity are the relations between the micro-level (individual products) and the macro-level (entire nations or even the planet) and between the environmental, social, and economic points of view.
Although sustainability is about the future, investigating the past can be a useful way to gain insight into these complex relations. That’s why the Flemish research institute Vito and the History faculty of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) joined forces. They studied the evolution of the sustainability of four products between 1800 and 2000 in Belgium: bread, water, transport and domestic heating.
The conclusion of the study is that, in general, our society has never been sustainable. Between 1800 and 1950, it wasn’t sustainable for socio-economic reasons; and since 1950, it hasn’t been sustainable for environmental reasons. During the period studied, the environmental burden per product unit has been systematically reduced (by great improvements in efficiency, for example). But, due to the large population growth and greater consumption per capita, the overall environmental burden has been rising.
The most obvious example is domestic heating. The average volume of space that was heated per capita in the 19th century was about 10 m3. By 2000, this volume had gone up to 110 m3. Nevertheless, and in spite of the population growth, CO2 emissions due to domestic heating increased by only a factor of 2 between 1800 and 2000. The highest value was reached in 1975. This relatively low increase is mainly attributable to the improved efficiency of the heating devices - from fireplace, to stove, to central heating - and to the improved thermal insulation of the houses.Log in to post comments