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Sustainability Science: Managing Risk and Resilience for Sustainable Development

Sustainability Science: Managing Risk and Resilience for Sustainable Development

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Sustainability Science: Managing Risk and Resilience for Sustainable Development

647 pages
8 heures
Jul 23, 2014


A new, holistic transdisciplinary endeavour born in the 21st century, Sustainability Science: Managing Risk and Resilience for Sustainable Development aims to provide conceptual and practical approaches to sustainable development that help us to grasp and address uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity and dynamic change. Four aspects that permeate our contemporary world and undermine much of our traditional ways of thinking and doing. The concepts of risk and resilience are central in this endeavour to explain, understand and improve core challenges of humankind.

Sustainability and sustainable development are increasingly important guiding principles across administrative levels, functional sectors and scientific disciplines. Policymakers, practitioners and academics continue to wrestle with the complexity of risk, resilience and sustainability, but because of the necessary transdisciplinary focus, it is difficult to find authoritative content in a single source.

Sustainability Science: Managing Risk and Resilience for Sustainable Development presents the state of the world in relation to major sustainability challenges and their symptomatic effects, such as climate change, environmental degradation, poverty, disease and disasters. It then continues by elaborating on ways to approach and change our world to make it a safer and more sustainable place for current and future generations. The natural, applied and social sciences are woven together throughout the book to provide a more inclusive understanding of relevant processes, changes, trends and events.

  • Shows how disturbances, disruptions and disasters have always been intrinsic byproducts of the same human-environment systems that supply us with opportunities, as well as what implications that has for policy and practice towards sustainable development today
  • Introduces a new approach for grasping and addressing issues of risk and resilience in relation to sustainable development that is firmly rooted in a comprehensive philosophical and theoretical foundation and clearly linking the conceptual with the practical
  • Presents a holistic agenda for change that includes a more explicit role of science, reinforced focus on capacity development and the overall necessity of fundamental social change
  • Features more than 150 figures, full-color photographs, diagrams, and illustrations to highlight major themes and aid in the retention of key concepts
Jul 23, 2014

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Sustainability Science - Per Becker

Sustainability Science

Managing Risk and Resilience for Sustainable Development

Per Becker

Table of Contents

Cover image

Title page



Chapter 1. Introducing the Book


Purpose of the Book

Demarcation of the Book

Structure of the Book


Part I. The State of the World

Chapter 2. Our Past Defining Our Present


Conquering Our Dynamic World

Social Change over Millennia

The Invention of Risk


Chapter 3. Our Sustainability Challenges


Our Challenges as Discussed on World Conferences

Our Boundaries for Sustainability


Chapter 4. Our Disturbances, Disruptions and Disasters in a Dynamic World


Our Symptomatic Events

Our Processes of Change


Part II. Approaching the World

Chapter 5. Conceptual Frames for Risk, Resilience and Sustainable Development


Philosophical Assumptions about Our World

Development, Sustainability and Risk

Managing Risk for Sustainable Development

The Concept of Resilience


Chapter 6. Resilience—From Panacean to Pragmatic


Inherent Restrictions for Measuring Resilience

Operationalizing Resilience

Challenges for Developing Resilience

Linking Resilience to Other Frameworks


Chapter 7. The World as Human–Environment Systems


Why Human–Environment Systems?

Systems Approaches and Concepts

Constructing Human–Environment Systems


Part III. Changing the World

Chapter 8. Science and Change


The Sciences of the Complemental

Two Scientific Processes

Reliability, Validity and Workability

Limitations of Science for Change


Chapter 9. Developing Capacities for Resilience


Four Levels of Capacity

Capacity Development for Resilience

Central Ships in Capacity Development


Chapter 10. Social Change for a Resilient Society


Describing Social Change

Prescribing Social Change


Chapter 11. Concluding Remarks


The State of the World

Approaching the World

Changing the World






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Issues of risk, resilience, and sustainability touch all of us on this planet. I have throughout my career had the opportunity to work in many different contexts. I have worked in academia and for local and national authorities, international organizations, and even a short period for a consultancy firm. For a large part of my career I have been involved in humanitarian assistance and international development cooperation, which together with my later academic career have taken me to most continents. This has provided me with ample opportunity to meet a lot of people, who in different ways have shared their views, experiences, skills, and knowledge concerning various aspects covered in this book. I am eternally grateful for all the time and kind attention they have given me.

I would also like to thank all my colleagues with whom I have had so many interesting dialogues concerning philosophical, theoretical, and practical issues captured in this book. Especially my friends and colleagues at Lund University, Swedish Civil Contingency Agency (MSB), and within the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, whom I have had most time to work with, but also at African Centre for Disaster Studies, University of Edinburgh and various international organizations and NGOs I have had the pleasure to spend time with during my career. Moreover, I would like to thank the Environmental Change Institute (ECI) at University of Oxford for hosting me while writing a substantial part of the book, and to Riksbankens Jubileumsfond: The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences (RJ) for facilitating the visit through their Nils-Eric Svensson Scholarship.

Finally, this book was conceived through a sometimes rather painful birth, with way too many evenings and weekends of labor. I like to believe that I did not loose too much time with my children, since they were sound asleep during most of my nocturnal writing sprees. However, my wife has paid a significant price for the publication of this book, both in terms of pulling most of the domestic weight in our otherwise more equal household, and in terms of having a partner physically present in the house, but mentally somewhere completely different. Thank you for supporting me through one of the more challenging but rewarding processes of my career.

Chapter 1

Introducing the Book


Our world is in a precarious state and we must grasp and address a range of sustainability challenges and their symptomatic events. This chapter presents the overall purpose of the book, which is to present a coherent framework for explaining, understanding and improving issues of sustainability in our uncertain, complex, ambiguous and dynamic world. I, then demarcate its focus to mainly be concerned with on the notion of sustainability in the sense of protecting what human beings value, now and in the future, and not to the same extent on the notion of sustainability in the sense of management of our vital resources. Finally, the chapter presents the structure of the book, with its 3 parts and 11 chapters.


Development; Globalization; Population; Resilience; Risk; Sustainability Science; Transdisciplinary


The world population has been estimated to have increased almost six times (Maddison, 2001: 28), the global economy around 50 times (Maddison, 2001) and the global CO2 emissions about 500 times (Bodenet et al., 2011) from the industrial revolution to the end of our last century. This development continues to place increasing strains on the world’s natural resources and environment (Fan & Qi, 2010; Gadda & Gasparatos, 2009; Grimble et al., 2002; Kalas, 2000; Komatsuzaki & Ohta, 2007; Syvitski, 2008), while vast inequalities persist and even deepen both between and within states (Bywaters, 2009; Gorringe et al., 2009; O’Brien et al., 2009; Rist, 2006: 18). Although the last century saw a global increase in life expectancy (Riley, 2001) and a decrease in child mortality (Ahmad et al., 2000: 1175) and adult illiteracy (Parris & Kates, 2003: 8070–8071), economic development was highly unequal rendering the same wealth in the final decade of the century to the richest 1% in the world as to the poorest 57% (Milanovic, 2002: 50). In order to reduce poverty while striving toward a more viable use of natural resources, it is vital to make future development more sustainable.

Regardless of whether one focuses on economic growth or on more human-centered parameters, most uses of the concept of development have one thing in common. They project some sort of scenario into the future, in which the variables of interest develop over time along a preferred expected course. This scenario is in modern society not believed to be predestined or predetermined in any way, but is dependent on a wide range of human activity, environmental processes, etc. The complexity and dynamic character of the world is, instead, continuously creating a multitude of possible futures (Japp & Kusche, 2008: 80), causing uncertainty as to what real development will materialize (Figure 1.1).

Being unable to see into the future, as well as being largely incapable of predicting it (Simon, 1990: 7–8; Taleb, 2008), modern individuals, organizations and societies resort to the notion of risk in order to make sense of their uncertain world (Zinn, 2008: 3–10). Risk is a contested concept, but to be able to talk about risk at all entails some kind of idea of uncertain futures as well as of their potential impacts on what human beings value (Renn, 1998: 51). This use of risk also entails that risk must be defined in relation to some preferred expected outcome (Kaplan & Garrick, 1981; Kaplan, 1997; Kaplan et al., 2001; Luhmann, 1995: 307–310; Zinn, 2008: 4). If risk is related to potential deviations from a preferred expected future, we must endeavor to reduce such risk to safeguard our development objectives.

FIGURE 1.1   What world do we want?

There are many courses of events and their underlying processes that may negatively impact development, in either the short or the long term. Abrupt changes in political leadership, global financial crises, algal bloom, epidemic outbreak, droughts, cyclones and outbreaks of communal violence are just a few examples of initiating events that may set off destructive courses of events. Behind these often dramatic courses of events lay processes of change which are less sensational, but may have far-reaching indirect impacts, such as environmental degradation (Geist & Lambin, 2004; Lewis, 2006; Pimentel, 2006), demographic and socio-economic processes (Satterthwaite et al., 2009: 11–19; Wisner et al., 2004: 62–74), globalization (Beck, 1999; Murad & Mazumder, 2009; Yusuf, 2003), changing antagonistic threats (Kaldor, 1999; Kegley, 2003) and the increasing complexity of modern society (Perrow, 1999; 2008). In addition, we have the mounting threats of climate change, not only potentially increasing the frequency and intensity of destructive extreme weather events (Elsner et al., 2008; Gravelle & Mimura, 2008; Kasei et al., 2010; Nordhaus, 2006; von Storch & Woth, 2008; Syvitski, 2008; Webster et al., 2005), but also changing everyday life for vast numbers of people.

These courses of events and their underlying processes rarely exist in isolation, neither from each other nor from the development activities and processes that they impact. It is thus not only vital to ensure that development gains are durable in the face of destructive courses of events and their underlying processes, but also that the means to reach the development gains do not augment, or create new risks that hinder development for future generations (WCED, 1987: 43) (Figure 1.2).

FIGURE 1.2   We are keeping us dry for now, but what about later? Source: Photobank Gallery/Shutterstock.com.

Purpose of the Book

As I attempt to show in this book, the increasing complexity and dynamic character of our world demand conceptual and practical approaches to sustainable development that help us to grasp and manage uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity and dynamic change. I argue that risk is a key concept in this context, as thinking about sustainability requires us to think ahead into an uncertain future. I also reassert that the concept of resilience is central, and take it further by providing a conceptual framework of resilience that also gives practical guidance for analyzing and developing the resilience of societies, communities, organizations, etc. This book is therefore necessarily transdisciplinary, drawing upon contributions from a wide range of disciplines (e.g. anthropology, archaeology, design, engineering, geography, public administration, sociology, etc.) and integrating them under the promising premise of Sustainability Science. The premise of bringing together scholarship and practice, global and local perspectives from north and south, and disciplines across all sciences (Clark & Dickson, 2003: 8060) to address the core challenges of humankind (Clark & Dickson, 2003; Kates et al., 2001; Olsson & Jerneck, 2010).

Sustainability Science asserts that to facilitate the much needed shift toward sustainable development, we must be able to span the range of spatial and temporal scales of various phenomena, manage complexity, and recognize a wide range of perspectives as usable knowledge from both society and science (Kates et al., 2001: 641). This is a formidable task, but I intend to contribute by presenting one approach to risk, resilience and sustainability that is designed to tackle it, leaving you to judge if this approach is useful for your purposes or not.

The book is both descriptive, in the sense of describing how the world is, and prescriptive, in the sense of prescribing what it ought to be and what we ought to do to get there. However, I attempt to maintain scientific rigor in both, showing how traditional science and design science can complement each other, when our needs for explanation and understanding of various phenomena shift to needs for solving real world problems. In other words, shifting from being mainly concerned with the pursuit of knowledge (Checkland, 1999: 50; Ravetz, 1996; Weber, 1949) to focusing on designing artifacts for satisfying predefined purposes (Cook & Ferris, 2007: 173; Poser, 1998: 85–87; Simon, 1996: 4–5, 114).

In short, the purpose of the book is to present a coherent framework for grasping and addressing issues of sustainability in our increasingly complex and dynamic world.

Demarcation of the Book

Sustainable development is both conceptually and practically a broad and multifaceted issue (Kates et al., 2001; WCED, 1987). It is an issue of paramount importance for the continued existence of the world, as we know it. At its core lies the idea that in planning for the future, we must think about what to do and not to do today, in order to bring about that future (Simon, 1990: 11). The main part of sustainability must in other words be forward-looking, although we must also learn from our past and recognize our present challenges.

The Oxford Dictionary defines the word sustainable as able to be upheld or defended (New Oxford American Dictionary, 2011). This indicates a somewhat double meaning, which not only provides a linguistic link between safety and sustainability, but also indicates two requisite parts for sustainable development. Safety, the condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury (New Oxford American Dictionary, 2011), is in other words closely related to the notion of being able to be defended. Though, safety often connotes immediate or short time spans, while sustainability normally connotes gazing further into the future. That said, both entail acting now and Sustainability Science asserts the necessity to be able to integrate such range of temporal scales (Kates et al., 2001: 641). Safety is, in other words, a part of sustainability if looking beyond the immediate. If focusing on the potential of future destructive courses of events, at least partly resulting from or related to human activity, we typically assert that such activity or development is not sustainable. While the same situation, but with an immediate focus, would instead evoke notions of an unsafe condition or practice.

The other requisite part of sustainable development, related to the notion of being able to be upheld, is equally important and brings into focus the importance of how we exploit our resources to maintain or develop some aspect of society over time. Regardless of how closely related these two parts are, this book will focus mainly on the notion of sustainability in the sense of protecting what human beings value, now and in the future, and not to the same extent on the notion of sustainability in the sense of management of our vital resources.

Structure of the Book

It can always be debated how to structure the contents of a book to best guide the readers through such a multifaceted topic. I have chosen the way of dividing the book into parts addressing issues of sustainability from different angles—the descriptive, the conceptual and the transformative. Going from the concrete, to the abstract, and back to the concrete again. In other words, in addition to the current introductory chapter, this book consists of three parts, with three chapters each, and a concluding chapter (Figure 1.3).

The first part, Part I—The State of the World, set the stage in Chapter 2 by presenting a broad historical overview of our development and past sustainability problems, of related social change and of the invention of risk as a reaction to our increasing appreciation of our own agency. Chapter 3 is devoted to our current sustainability challenges, as depicted in two strings of world conferences starting in Stockholm in 1972 and now most lately in Rio again in 2012. I end the first part with Chapter 4, presenting a comprehensive account of symptomatic events of the dire state of our sustainability, which the final document from the latest world conference in Rio at last includes as core sustainability challenges. The chapter also emphasizes the dynamic character of our world by presenting a number of key processes of change that continuously transform it.

The second part, Part II—Approaching the World, is devoted to providing a coherent conceptual framework for grasping and addressing sustainability challenges in our complex and dynamic world. Chapter 5 presents a set of philosophical assumptions and key concepts that provide the foundation for my approach to facilitating sustainable development, such as development, sustainability, risk and resilience. Then, in Chapter 6, I operationalize the concept of resilience by connecting the conceptual to the actual and link this approach to other established approaches to risk, safety and sustainability. Finally, in Chapter 7, I elaborate on why it is helpful to approach our world as a human–environment system, as well as on how to do it. Including a number of key aspects of the intrinsically human in our human–environment systems. Aspects that we still have to keep in mind when attempting to see parts of our complex world as wholes.

The third part, Part III—Changing the World, starts in Chapter 8 by presenting ideas of science and change. Here, I focus on the role of science for change and on demonstrating how traditional science and design science complement each other and provide a rigorous way of bridging the divide between is and ought. Chapter 9 prescribes what we must be able to do in order to develop capacity to build a resilient society, and I end the last part with Chapter 10, presenting ideas describing and prescribing social change for a more sustainable world.

Finally, the book is concluded with my final remarks in Chapter 11, closing the attempted rhetorical loop by tying the three parts together and reflecting on how each contribute to grasping and addressing issues of sustainability in our increasingly complex and dynamic world.

FIGURE 1.3   The three parts of the book.


Our world is in a dire state and to steer it toward a more sustainable future we must be able to grasp and manage uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity and dynamic change. This is a truly transdisciplinary endeavor, requiring the contribution of various disciplines, while integrating them under the emerging umbrella of Sustainability Science. Although direct conservation of natural resources also is a requisite for sustainability, this book is mainly focusing on sustainability in the sense of protecting what human beings value, for our present as well as for our future. The concepts of risk and resilience are central for this enterprise and constitute vital frames for all three parts of this book.

Part I

The State of the World


Chapter 2. Our Past Defining Our Present

Chapter 3. Our Sustainability Challenges

Chapter 4. Our Disturbances, Disruptions and Disasters in a Dynamic World

Chapter 2

Our Past Defining Our Present


We are increasingly realizing that our world is in a dire state. Although this is not the only time in history we have been faced with significant sustainability challenges, it may be the first time the entire planet is at stake. The question is if we can learn from our past when understanding our present and possible futures. This chapter presents a brief overview of our history in relation to sustainability. How we conquered our planet and how we changed the way we understand and interact with our environment and amongst ourselves. Particular attention is given to the invention of risk, as intrinsically linked to modernity and our appreciation of our own agency.


Development; Garden-variety concepts; Genetic fallacy; Hunter-gatherer; Industrial Revolution; Neolithic Revolution; Risk; Social change; Upper Paleolithic Revolution


We are increasingly appreciating that we are rapidly approaching crossroads from which there are no returns once we fail to choose the right direction (Rockström et al., 2009). We may even have passed some of them already. This is however not the only time in history society has been at such crossroads, although it may be the first time the entire planet is at stake. We have been challenged before and we have prevailed. The question is if we can learn from our past when understanding our present. I think we need to.

Although there are valid objections against mixing up the origins and the validity of an idea, often referred to as the genetic fallacy (Cohen & Nagel, 1934: 388–390), there are strong arguments for why history matters. One of the more influential of these comes from the great sociologist Ernest Gellner (1989: 12), who do not object against the genetic fallacy in itself, but against how it is mistakenly extrapolated to argue that we do not need to be concerned with our past when assessing options for our future. Gellner advises instead that we study our past in order to understand our options for our future, and not to prejudge our potential choices (Gellner, 1989). There are two very silly doctrines about knowledge and the world: that we can do whatever we wish, and that everything is completely determined (Hall, 1986: 5). None of these standpoints holds in our dynamic and complex world. Social change over time is instead the result of a combination of choices made in particular historical contexts that influence what choices are possible. It is in other words not one necessary mechanism leading to social change, but instead a complex mix of economic, ideological and political factors (Hall, 1986: 5–6).

This chapter attempts to present an overview of our history in relation to sustainability; how we conquered the earth and how we changed the way we understand and interact with our environment and among ourselves. Although such task is daunting and I am aware of the inevitability of crude simplifications that may provoke devoted archaeologists, anthropologists, historians and sociologists, I view it as necessary to at least hint at the rich knowledge that these disciplines and others have to offer to understand the core challenges for our present and our future.

Conquering Our Dynamic World

We live on an extraordinary planet. During its more than 4.5 billion years of existence, it has been changing continuously, from a burning inferno without atmosphere, to a planet with continents and oceans. Although early forms of life had appeared around four billion years before, it was not until 200,000  years ago that the first anatomically modern humans treaded the African soil (Haywood, 2011). This relatively young species turned out to be exceptionally good at adapting to new environments and spread from continent to continent, replacing the Neanderthals and other earlier human species (Mellars, 2006: 9381). Around 10,000  years ago the entire world was colonized, except Antarctica (Haywood, 2011) (Figure 2.1).

The more successful early migrations out of Africa 60,000  years ago, seem to have coincided with favorable climate conditions (Eriksson et al., 2012) and our ancestors reaching full behavioral modernity (Mellars, 2006), i.e. the appearance of fully articulate speech, intelligence and creativity relative to humans today (Eaton, 2006: 2). Regardless if this cognitive change was sudden or more gradual, it represents a fundamental transformation and is referred to as the Upper Paleolithic Revolution (Bar-Yosef, 2002). The resulting boost in the complexity of the technological, economic, social, and cognitive behavior of certain groups gave them a competitive edge over others (Mellars, 2006), who in turn would either learn or loose. Although our prevailing ancestors remained hunters and gatherers, systematic exploitation of raw material and tool production became common practice; specialized utensils and hunting tools appeared; symbols, decorations and jewelry emerged; and long-distance exchange networks for raw material and manufactured products were established (Bar-Yosef, 2002: 365–368).

Although humans had colonized all corners of our planet in 10000 BC, the global population remained at 4 million (Kremer, 1993: 683) and the environmental impact nominal. Even with all the advances of the Upper Paleolithic Revolution, humans lived of their environment without consciously changing it. The challenge for these hunter-gatherer societies was the production of sufficient quantities of food, which was regulated by the natural carrying capacity of each ecosystem, meaning that local overpopulation had only two outcomes: migration or starvation (Fischer-Kowalski & Haberl, 1997: 66).

Then suddenly, between 8000 and 5000 BC, groups of humans in a number of independent locations around the world started to cultivate plants and domesticate animals (Gupta, 2004). This change marked a second fundamental transformation of society and is referred to as the Neolithic Revolution. Regardless of the reasons behind this transformation, which have been heavily debated over the years (Weisdorf, 2005) and nobody is quite sure why such step was taken (Hall, 1986: 27), it marked the start of humans actively changing their environment to suit their purposes (Haberl et al., 2011: 2).

The first farmers were cultivators of wild cereals, such as einkorn, wheat, barley, rye, etc. (Bar-Yosef, 1998: 151), which is often considered a lucky coincidence as gatherers may accidentally have dropped seeds on fertile places in or around their dwellings (Weisdorf, 2005: 568). Initially, these early hunter-gatherer farmers were semisedentary, still moving around seasonally to secure their livelihood. In addition to farming, humans also started to domesticate animals, such as goats, sheep, cattle and pigs, which they had been hunting for millennia and were familiar with (Bar-Yosef, 1998: 151). As farming and animal rearing proved viable, they completed the transition to be fully sedentary.

FIGURE 2.1   Early migration of modern humans. Based on Haywood, 2011.

The Neolithic Revolution did not only result in changes in food production practices and movement patterns. Technological advances in farming, such as irrigation (Goring-Morris & Belfer-Cohen, 2011:S204), made surplus food production possible, and developments in storage technology, such as pottery (Goring-Morris & Belfer-Cohen, 2011), made it possible to store food over time. This greater reliability of food supplies increased the fertile age span of women (Bar-Yosef, 1998: 151) and the shifts in diet and living conditions resulted in major impacts on health and body size (Bar-Yosef, 1998: 147). Consequently, the population growth increased more than seven times between 10000 and 5000 BC and doubled again as the new practices spread over the world in the next 1000  years (Kremer, 1993: 683).

Growing populations in combination with permanent settlements and surplus production resulted in the formation of villages, allowing an emerging division of labor and the accumulation of wealth (Childe & Shennan, 2009: 3–5). When villages were large enough they became viable gene pools, reducing or removing the necessity to move long distances to find partners (Bar-Yosef, 1998: 151). The division of labor did not only emerge within villages, but also between villages with different specialties and access to different resources (Kelly, 1979: 39–40; Childe & Shennan, 2009: 13), which further developed organized trade. More complex levels of social alliances emerged and the importance of territory and ownership increased (Bar-Yosef, 1998: 151).

More advanced institutions for inheriting wealth between generations developed in agrarian societies, which also coincided with interesting patterns in the inheritability of skills and social networks (Borgerhoff Mulder et al., 2009). The division of labor had in other words not only an impact on production, but on social status (Borgerhoff Mulder et al., 2009), resulting in increased social stratification based on competition for power within communities (Kuijt, 2000: 77). With the potential of accumulating wealth, together with new notions of territory, ownership and power, came organized armed conflict (Childe & Shennan, 2009: 59–60).

Villages started to be protected by palisades (e.g. Childe & Shennan, 2009: 60), and purpose-made weapons for war appeared (Weir, 2005). The discovery of copper and the subsequent invention of bronze in the Near East around 3300 BC made weapons deadlier and tools more efficient. Pack animals, boats and wheeled vehicles made it possible to gather food in a few locations (Taylor, 2012: 420), which also facilitated protection. Then, as the invention of bronze spread over the world, the surplus of food in the more advanced communities could support a substantial number of individuals who were themselves fully released from food production and could focus on other functions (Childe, 1950: 8). The world population had in 3000 BC reached 14 million (Kremer, 1993: 683) and the first cities had emerged (Taylor, 2012: 420) (Figure 2.2).

These cities were locations of centralized administration that asserted domination over their surroundings, which at times grew too substantial but initially short-lived empires (Taylor, 2012: 437–439). However, the finer division of labor in these more advanced societies resulted in plenty of remnants of their existence in the form of architecture, art and other cultural artifacts (Childe, 1950). It was also in these early Mesopotamian cities that the first known true writing appeared (Richardson, 2012).

Aggregating large populations in cities turned out not only to be beneficial, but also challenging. The higher population density led to new diseases (Emberling, 2003: 256), overirrigation caused salinization of agricultural land and overuse of soil led to erosion and desertification of large areas (Desvaux, 2009: 224). Insufficient knowledge about maintaining soil fertility caused in other words the deterioration of agricultural land on increasing distances from the cities, eventually contributing to their downfall (Taylor, 2012: 429). Humankind had experienced their first significant sustainability problems. However, the local character of these problems, extending over a few thousand square kilometers at most, limited their effect on the planetary systems as wholes (Desvaux, 2009: 224).

FIGURE 2.2   The myth of the Tower of Babel was inspired by the great architecture of the early Mesopotamian cities.

New technology was developed to sustain the growing populations of cities, such as terracing (Figure 2.3) and river replenishment of fertility (Taylor, 2012: 429–430). Our ancestors were in other words not only actively changing their environment in the sense of clearing fields and creating monocultures, but also changing the flow of rivers and the topography to suit their purposes. The capacity to move soil and rock had improved as the tools developed from bones and antlers, to increasingly refined tools of bone, wood, stone and bronze (Hooke, 2000: 843). Although the Paleolithic flint mines were impressive considering the available technology, the pyramids of Egypt and other massive Bronze Age structures around the world are still mesmerizing scholars and visitors alike.

The use of bronze tools was limited by accessibility and cost, prioritizing its use for weapons and to meet other purposes of the rich and powerful, while restricting its use for ordinary people (Hooke, 2000). Then, around 1300 BC, again in the Near East, iron was discovered. The new metal turned out to be even more versatile than bronze, and more democratic in the sense of being more abundant and accessible for ordinary people (Hooke, 2000). While the human capacity to shape the landscape increased as this new discovery spread over the world, resulting in increased productivity and more astonishing artifacts (Hooke, 2000), the way of life stayed more or less the same for the vast majority of people.

FIGURE 2.3   The ancient innovation of terracing. Photo by Tine Steiss, shared on the Creative Commons.

It took centuries for the use of iron to spread over the world, reaching Britain around 800 BC (Cunliffe, 2005: 90), China around 600 BC (Higham, 1996: 103) and South Africa around AD 200 (Miller & Van Der Merwe, 1994: 12). During this time empires rose and fell, at least sometimes as a result of sustainability problems in terms of balancing resources, population and political ambition (Tainter, 2000: 19–23). Although hard labor and new inventions repeatedly helped to overcome locally experienced ecological constraints, unexpected side effects emerged in the form of new risks, environmental problems and increasing demands for labor and energy (Haberl et al., 2011: 4).

Gradual change over millennia caused the development of notably different agrarian societies around the world (Haberl et al., 2011). However, regardless of their differences they all shared one fundamental obstacle for their development that could not be solved by gradual expansion and improvement of their agrarian mode of production. All these societies depended almost entirely on biomass from agriculture and forestry for covering their total energy needs in terms of both food and labor, with only marginal contributions from water- and wind power (Haberl et al., 2011). The population grew from 190 million in AD 200 to 350 million in 1400 (Kremer, 1993: 683) and the dependency on biomass made the availability and use of land increasingly crucial for the sustainability of each society (Haberl et al., 2011: 4). Although the causes are heavily debated, intense migrations started early in this period and rearranged the ethic map. New geopolitical entities formed and the population growth fluctuated heavily from century to century as armed conflict (e.g. Mongol Invasions) and disease (e.g. Black Death) recurred (Kremer, 1993: 683). There was a constant pressing need to find new solutions to the sustainability problems.

One response to these problems was exploration of unknown territory, at least partly with the intention of acquiring additional resources through colonization or trade. Although there are records of early Phoenician, Greek and Chinese explorers, as well as of legendary explorers like Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, Leif Eriksson, Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, it was not until the fifteenth century that the intensity in exploration exploded (Gosch & Stearns, 2008). The emerging and fiercely competitive European powers (re)discovered America, found the sea route to India and circumnavigated the world. The ensuing colonization of new continents provided additional land for producing food and accumulating wealth (Desvaux, 2009: 224–225), largely to the detriment of the original populations (Figure 2.4).

Another response was science. Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese and Arabs had endeavored into scientific inquiry much earlier, but the late Renaissance ideas of Descartes and the following Enlightenment thinking of Locke, Newton, Voltaire, Hume, Smith, Kant and others marked a clear change. The scientific knowledge production intensified significantly (Hassan, 2003) and the availability of the printing press, which had been invented a couple of centuries earlier, made it possible to make the results available to large groups of people (Eisenstein, 1980). Further increasing the speed of knowledge development and innovation.

The combination of the increasing accumulation of knowledge and access to additional resources from the colonies incubated around 1750 in Britain the start of a third fundamental transformation of society: the Industrial Revolution (Desvaux, 2009: 225). After having been more or less completely dependent on biomass for millennia, fossil fuel emerged and provided a solution to the main sustainability problem of agrarian society (Haberl et al.,

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