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The German word for sustainability, Nachhaltigkeit, arose (according to Wiktionary) in the 18th century. Ngrams shows this. I was wondering if the concept of sustainability did not exist before the 1980s? At least in English science, wasn't there a technical term, phrase, whatever to describe this problem?

Does anyone know if there were more common terms/technical phrases and when they arised the first time in English science/books? I need some keywords for a historical search.

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    As interesting as those graphs are, it is difficult to get a coherent inference from them, because the frequency of those words, is very dependent on part of speech -and- cultural use. Does the German Nachhaltigkeit have the same connotation as the English sustainability off environmental concerns (sustainability of natural resources and economic growth)? Sustain by itself does not. – Mitch Sep 28 '11 at 20:12
  • FWIW, Google (books) returns about 263000 results for long term feasibility. Google (everything) returns a significantly higher number. – Autoresponder Sep 28 '11 at 20:25
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    @Hauser: Sorry for my misunderstanding: how's the edit? – Daniel Sep 28 '11 at 20:43
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    @Hauser: yes the rapid increase starting in the early 80's is surprising. I would have thought that the concept (and so the word) would have had a steady increase (much less than the exponential we see) starting in the 60's with English books and trends starting from Schumacher's 'Diet for a Small Planet'. – Mitch Sep 28 '11 at 20:59
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    xkcd.com/1007 – Hugo Jan 23 '12 at 11:39

The Online Etymology Dictionary says sustainability is from 1972, though its root words are much older.

1610s, "bearable," from sustain + -able. Attested from 1845 in the sense "defensible;" from 1965 with the meaning "capable of being continued at a certain level." Sustainable growth is recorded from 1965. Related: Sustainability (1972).

An article by Nathan Thanki called Sustainable: a philological investigation gives some background, here's an excerpt that neatly links sustainability with Nachhaltigkeit:

So it is what we are trying to sustain that is usually the meat of arguments about “sustainability”—is it overconsumption, overpopulation, environmental degradation? The term has become synonymous with that “meat” in the past few decades. The Club of Rome, in its 1972 report, “Limits to Growth,” claimed that it was searching for a global equilibrium, “a world system that is: 1. sustainable without sudden and uncontrolled collapse; and 2. capable of satisfying the basic material requirements of all of its people.” When the World Commission on Environment and Development (aka the Brundtland Commission) concluded with the notion of “sustainable development,” the emergence of the concept we know too well today was fully underway. Since that time, sustainability has come to be almost synonymous with “sustainable development, defined in Our Common Future as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
While the origins of the words association with the environmental seem to lie in the emergence of the environmental movement of the 70s, Ulrich Grober points out a deeper root. In “A conceptual history of ‘sustainable development’ (Nachhaltigkeit),” he argues that the term actually comes from 18th Century forestry (at the time timber was a key resource with an uncertain future). German nobleman and forester Hans Carl von Carlowitz wrote “’daß es eine continuirliche beständige und nachhal–tende Nutzung gebe,’ (that there would be a continuous, steady and sustained use).” Sadly, Europe no longer has any primeval forest outside of the Białowieża Forest in Poland and Belarus.So it would appear to me that the quest for “sustainability” is older than we commonly recognise, and, thus, so is our failure to achieve it: marking the failure of civilization.

Edit: The 1972 date is surprisingly late, here are some antecedents from 1906 and 1907.

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    I think the idea that sustainability only came to have its current meaning in 1972 is frankly ludicrous. Obviously the need for that meaning has increased dramatically in recent decades, but, for example, here's a 1951 report from (then Rhodesian, now Zambian) government which specifically mentions the ecological and economic dimensions of the term. – FumbleFingers Sep 28 '11 at 21:19
  • @FumbleFingers: your data about 'sustainability' is corroborated by that for 'sustainable. Etymonline seems to be factually wrong about the shorter word. ngram for sustainable growth[](ngrams.googlelabs.com/ngrams/…) gives examples of 'sustainable growth from earlier than the 60's. – Mitch Sep 28 '11 at 22:56
  • @FumbleFingers The 1972 date is surprisingly late, but please check your report again: there's no mention of Rhodesia and it's from Costa Rica in 1993 (you need to be careful with Google Books' OCR). Anyway, here's a 1906 and 1907 – Hugo Sep 29 '11 at 9:05
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    @Hugo,Mitch: Hmm. My original link was indeed mislabelled. Checking a bit more closely I get the impression sustainable was originally used in respect of law/debate. After WW1 it started to be used of economic development, but I can't actually find anything pre-1972 where it has ecological connotations. If no-one else can, I guess I'll delete my first comment, upvotes notwithstanding. – FumbleFingers Sep 29 '11 at 14:38

From a cursory perusal of on-line thesauruses, it looks like there are no instances of alternates for the word 'sustainability'.

For 'sustainable' there are a number of synonyms, but still none that really match the meaning of 'sustainable'. However, any kind of proposed synonym should work as the beginning of a keyword, historical search. I suggest

  • maintainable
  • endurable
  • supportable
  • manageable

in that order of 'closeness'.

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    I venture to suggest that prior to the last few decades, the need for any such term was largely unrecognised. Even today there will be huge variations between what different people think are truly sustainable practices. That's partly why politicians and admen like these sort of words - they know that nearly everyone thinks they represent "good things", but the words are sufficiently vague that they can be used almost freely without getting tied down by precise definitions and commitments. – FumbleFingers Sep 28 '11 at 21:25

Historically, it was once self-identified conservatives who cared about conserving the environment. (The words do not overlap by accident.) A conservative approach or a conservationist approach was the contemporary equivalent as far as I can tell. The conservation movement was a global phenomenon that Wikipedia, at least, traces to seventeenth-century France and Prussia.

  • Correct. Conservation is a synonym for sustainability that is no longer in use but certainly was last century. Both these words refer to the desire to maintain our environment for future generations. – mike nelson May 26 '20 at 8:55

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