Chapter 3: Sustainable consumption in history: ideas, resources and practices
A chapter on the history of sustainable consumption might be expected to be very short, if not impossible. After all, history has been a record of increasingly unsustainable forms of life. People started to clear land and extract resources in Southern China and the Near East 12 000 years ago. Irrigation and rice cultivation already started to raise methane levels some 5000 years ago. Whichever indicator we choose, the human pressure on the earth has grown exponentially, especially since the eighteenth century. The world’s population grew more than sixfold between 1700 and 2000. The proportion of land devoted to cropland catapulted, from 2 per cent to 11 per cent; pasture grew even faster from 2 per cent to 24 per cent. The industrial revolution, which started in Britain in the late eighteenth century, intensified coal consumption and mineral extraction. In the twentieth century, synthetic nitrogen started to overtake the natural nitrogen cycle. Global water use increased fivefold. The extinction of species accelerated, as did the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, especially since the 1950s. Notwithstanding greater efficiency, material flows continue to rise per capita as well as in total; the only periods which saw a short-lived pause were the end of the Second World War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, people carry a greater material rucksack on their back than at any other time in history (Klein Goldewijk 2010; Krausmann et al. 2009; Ruddiman 2005; Steffen et al. 2004).
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