Theories and Principles of Sustainability: Looking Back in Time

The world is actively pursuing sustainability. Nations are, more than ever, aware of the detrimental impacts of poorly thought development and expansion, as can be experienced by millions across the globe. The industrial age has caused methane levels to rise by 148% and CO2 levels by 38%; both gases directly linked to global warming and the rise of sea levelsEnvironmentalists are of opinion that, for a truly sustainable future, instead of trying to shape the world into what we humans of the new age, perceive as progress, efforts should be focused on embracing nature, fellow humans, and the diverse societies and cultures which constitute this planet. And it makes sense! Looking back in history, societies that thrived durably are those which were in symbiosis with their environments. 

What is Sustainability? 

The term sustainability grew in prominence in 1987, after the publication of the Brundtland commission’s report: our common future. It is defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The term “sustainable development” has often been used without a proper understanding of its real value and implications, due to the openness to interpretation of the Brundtland’s definition. 

Watch: Theories and Principles of Sustainability

Is Sustainability a Modern Concept? 

Looking back in history, enough evidence shows that various ancient civilizations have been practicing sustainability models throughout their existence, which as a result ensured they transitioned through time, generations after generations. 

Learning from the Past 

 Our cavemen ancestors lived their lives as either hunters or gatherers. Should an increase in the members within a particular group arise, some of them would set forth to explore new lands due to the depletion of resources. Others would decide to settle in a particular spot to breed animals and harvest plants. Sustainability at that time was either to leave an area and allow it to replenish naturally or stay in one place and actively take part in its replenishment 

Sustainability Models from Yesteryears  

The Aztecs 

One such civilization that practiced sustainable agriculture were the Aztecs. The Aztecs decided to settle for a sedentary agricultural lifestyle known as agrarian urbanism. For the Aztecs, sustainability was recycling, viewing waste as a valuable resource that can be bought and sold. Like food leftovers, crop residue, and even human faeces, their stringent recycling practices created an economy that was competitive, reduced waste, and kept cities clean.

Interesting fact: The University of Montana studied ancient agricultural techniques, like the chinampas, used by the Aztecs and tested how these can be implemented to modern day horticulture. They concluded that this technique is the most intensive and prolific production system ever developed, and Furthermore, chinampas could provide a series of desirable ecosystem services, including water filtration, regulation of water levels, microclimate regulation, increased biodiversity, and carbon capture and storage. 


Ancient Indian literature evidently shows that sophisticated holistic methods of sustainability have always been encouraged and practiced. Buddhism and Jainism both advocate sustainability in the form of biological conservation. Buddhism allows the killing of animals and deforestation only when it’s necessary and Jainism condemns the killing of even insects, as it views all living things as equal and that they need to be protected. This commitment to non-violence comes from the core belief that “as one sow, so shall one reap.” The fruits of one’s action return to oneself multi-folds. Ancient Indian literature even regards rivers as being divineTapovan or forest purity is a literary text outlining how the Indian civilization has been distinctive in locating its source of regenerative material and intellectuality in the forest, not the cityIndia’s best ideas have come when the man was in communion with the trees, rivers and lakes, away from the crowd.

Interesting fact: The traditional agricultural method, Vedic agriculture, is being revived across India. Numerous studies outline the merits of this practice and the in-depth understanding of variables affecting cultivations, like weather cycles. This will help to naturally re-fertilise and re-mineralize hectares of land devastated by over-usage of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in the last decade.

Yoga and Ayurveda also originate from ancient India and have been popularized recently as viable methods to counter ills surfacing from modern lifestyles.


From its origins dating back to 6000 BCE to presentlylocal traditions and beliefs have always been tightly bonded between the people of Africa and their environments. The Bantus, Semi-Bantus, and Sudanese tribes of Cameroon in Central Africa exemplify this. They have successfully passed down the knowledge of sustainability to future generations. They have learned how to effectively manage their agricultural lands using crop rotation and mixed cropping without ever exploiting. They made hunting only accessible to veteran hunters who are allocated confined spaces of land. Farming and logging are banned from sacred parts of the forest. People even grew fruit-bearing trees around their houses and farms to maximize land use 

Were all Ancient Civilizations Icons of Sustainability? 

Not necessarily. Let us look at the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations. At some point in time, these civilizations all faced sustainability problems such as deforestation and loss of soil fertility as a result of excess farming and logging. Ancient literature indicates that the people around the time period were fully aware of these problems. They even suggested maintaining the everlasting youth of the Earth and care for it. However, history has shown us that these civilizations often conquered new land to replenish depleting resources 

Historical examples of sustainability and sustainable development demonstrate the extensive application of its theories and principles. Such examples include efficiently recycling their resources and creating a competitive economy, conserving nature as part of religious beliefs, practicing local sustainability, among others. These traditions have been passed down hundreds of generations and advocated against unsustainable practices. It is evident that history is filled with great examples of sustainable development which our current modern civilizations can learn from. The solution might not be to search for a single definition, theory, or principle of sustainability and sustainable development, but instead, learn and implement sustainable practices from our rich ancestral history rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. 

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