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Ngramming Nachhaltigkeit

by Bart Everson

CAT's XX anniversary newsletter contains an article by yours truly which traces the origin of the word "sustainability" to just around 1980. I came to that conclusion by using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, an online phrase-usage graphing tool.

Sustainability Ngram

I stand by that minor feat of scholarly inquiry. (It took me less than five minutes.) However, I was a little puzzled by these results. Surely the concept is much older than that?

My method had obvious limitations. I was looking at the history of a word, not the idea behind the word.

New research by Jeremy L. Caradonna suggests the roots of the idea go back to late 17th- and early 18th-century Europe, when people started cutting down too much forest and endangering their own way of life. Caradonna points to one Hans Carl von Carlowitz as the one who coined the word "sustainability" in 1713.

How did I miss that? The twist is that since von Carlowitz was German he called it Nachhaltigkeit.

Indeed, the Ngram Viewer yields quite different results when searching for this term in the corpus of German texts. There's still a major spike in usage over the last several decades, but it doesn't spring out of nowhere.

The spike is evidence of our contemporary sustainability movement. It's an expression of burgeoning concern, but it's also cause for concern in and of itself. As Caradonna notes in a recent interview for the Boston Globe, "If you have a sustainability movement, you know you have a problem." Hans Carl von Carlowitz started writing about Nachhaltigkeit because of a problem he saw with deforestation. The huge spike in writing about this topic in recent years, in English and German and other languages, is an indication of an even deeper problem.

Sustainability is about coming to terms with our limits — living within our means — and in the modern industrialized West, we have pretended for some time that there are no such limits. This illusion is becoming more difficult to maintain, which is why sustainability is becoming ever more prominent in our discourse, including the college curriculum. Thanks to Caradonna's research, the history of our current concerns is a little clearer.

Jeremy L. Caradonna's new book is Sustainability: A History.

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