Sustainability in its Historical Context

by Anne-Maria Brennan Published on: 2nd August 2010

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[Proceedings of the conference 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World organised by FSTC, London, 25-26 May 2010]. Departing from a definition of sustainability as a concept that involves the management of resources with intergenerational equity in mind, with a deep cultural dimension, Dr Brennan investigates briefly examples from the past that may help us today to solve present problems in resources management. Those examples include water use in antiquity, the environmental concept of Hima in Muslim civilisation and ancient Chinese eco-engineering. They cast light on the ways in which we can learn from the history both in terms of our mistakes and past attempts at solving problems of sustainable development.


Dr Anne-Maria Brennan

Figure 1-2: Dr Anne-Maria Brennan presenting his lecture in the “1001 Inventions” conference. © FSTC 2010.

Firstly some definitions –this is helpful as sustainability is such a misunderstood word.

Resources: these can be either renewable or non-renewable

Sustainability involves the management of resources with intergenerational equity in mind.

Sustainability is deeply cultural as it involves thinking across time and space – it is only in that way that we get a perspective on the situation. Humanity is both part of the problem and the source of the solution, an integral part of the equation. However, we frequently divorce ourselves from the situation. Often by denying the past. Yet this is the very knowledge and experience we need, and we are lost without it.

In a headlong rush towards what we see as progress and a wish to follow the latest trend, we can forget the past. So let us take some lessons from the past – the first of these is a case study concerning water use.

Although humankind is dependent on groundwater, lakes and rivers, this is only a very small part of the global extent. Approximately, 97% is in the ocean, 2% in polar and glacier ice, <1% in lakes, rivers and ground water and 0.001% in the atmosphere [Figure 3].

Figure 3: Present-day salinization (Beeby & Brennan, 2008): [Beeby, A.N. and Brennan, A-M (2008) First Ecology: ecological principles and environmental issues. 3rd Edition Oxford University Press, Oxford].

Even though water is ultimately renewable by means of the hydrological cycle, the fact that we a dependent on less than 1% makes it a precious and often fought over commodity; and when we get our hands on it we often do not use it wisely.

When land is excessively irrigated in arid or semi-arid regions, salts are drawn to the surface of the soil. This is both an ancient and modern problem. This is a growing problem worldwide as over 76 million hectares of land are salinized. However, it has a long and ignoble history. The cradle of agriculture nearly became its grave when early Mesopotamian agriculture collapsed along with the fledging civilisation that was starting to build around it. The peoples retreated north and were able to take their know-how with them to the Karacadag region of what is now Turkey, and continued to add value to it.

This bitter lesson was never quite forgotten and early Islamic civilisations used water-raising technology wisely and developed the technology to a fine art [Figure 4]. It is interesting to note that many great civilisations have fallen through salinization –Rome and Egypt being classical examples– but as noted above this remains still a problem.

Figure 4: Al-Jazari’s water raising machine preserved in the manuscript copy held in Topkapi Sarayi Libray, Ahmet III collection, MS 3472. See Salim T. S. Al-Hassani and Colin Ong Pang Kiat, Al-Jazari’s Third Water-Raising Device: Analysis of its Mathematical and Mechanical Principles.

The second case study starts with a riddle: in the sands on the outskirts of Esfahan in present-day Iran stand a pair of ancient towers that appear to be identical [Figure 5].

Figure 5a-b: Views of the granary/pigeon loft in Isfahan, Iran. (Source).

One of the towers is a granary; the other is a granary with pigeon holes. Some of the harvested grain was sacrificed as bird food. The artificial habitat (in this case a fake cliff face) had an interior where the pigeons perched, and as they perched they defecated and after a while the community would have a supply of phosphate rich fertiliser in the form of bird droppings.

This is not just a nice historical oddity of ‘thinking outside the box’, rather it is crucially important to us today.

We are used to the concept of fossil fuels, but do not stop to think that inorganic fertiliser is non-renewable. Since the 19th century, we have become dependant on fossilised deposits of bird guano (much coming from large mines on Pacific islands). They are non-renewable as the birds are long gone, plus we have to use precious fossil fuels to extract, transport and distribute the material.

Figure 6: Ancient Chinese manuscript documenting an early example of ecoengineering. (Lee, 1985): [Lee, L.W.Y. (1985), “A review of vegetative slope stabilisation”, The Journal of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers, July, 9-22].

The third case study concerns the historical and cultural origins of ‘soft’ engineering, with an example of a Chinese manuscript from the 1500 CE [Figure 6]. It concerns the use of willow in flood protection schemes alongside rivers. However, this is not a simple fix by simple folk; rather it is a sophisticated and elegant application of engineering know-how. The influence of Chinese science, technology and medicine on our own culture has been considerable. We must also note that the ‘Silk Road’ was a two-way street which led to cultural enrichment of those who were involved in direct trading links. The danger today is that we view the use of plant material in civil engineering (so-called eco-engineering) as new, not recognising its long history. Materials that are sustainable and self-renewing are not only cheaper to construct but are mechanically strong and can be maintained indefinitely when managed appropriately. They also have the additional value of intercepting the rain, thus protecting the soil from erosion.

In the Old World, we have a concept of people being involved in the landscape, a working partnership even in protected areas such as national parks. This contrasts with the New World concept of the national parks which have at their heart wilderness. In the Old World, our relationship with the land has strong cultural ties. An example of this is the Islamic concept of Al-Hima. Here, lands are protected from indiscriminate harvest on a temporary or permanent basis. The name derives from the word for protected or forbidden place. It existed in the Middle East before Islam, possibly as a result of the underlying folk memory of the desertification that stalled early attempts at settled agriculture. The responsibility of humans to manage land sustainably was viewed as essential duty.

We see much of what we take for granted in land use codified here. In Europe, national and nature Parks and nature reserves recognise the importance of the human dimension. Indeed many iconic landscapes such as the maquis, meadows, heaths and moors are semi-natural –the result of human activity. In the Middle East, there has been a renaissance in the Al-Hima concept for the management of nature reserves. In a world which is increasingly urbanised (50% of the population currently live in cities), the role of people within the landscape becomes ever more important.

The above case studies seek to show how we can learn from the history both in terms of our mistakes and past attempts at solving problems of sustainable development.

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