Conservationism, Resiliency, and Sustainability: the Etymology of Environmentalism

Conservationism, Resiliency, and Sustainability: the Etymology of Environmentalism

Paul Andreas Fischer


Dr. Amy Seidl


Conservationism, Resiliency, and Sustainability: the Etymology of Environmentalism

William Cronon is an environmental historian who prefers to think of himself as more of a follower of trends. The most recent trend which he focused on in a recent lecture at the Ira Allen Chapel at the University of Vermont is the prevalence of the word sustainability and its roots in the history of American environmentalism. The literal roots of the word sustainability come from the latin word, suste, which means to lift or bring above. Another explanation of this would be as buoyancy, which is quite appropriate given the nature of many of the country’s largest cities’ predicament should the global industrial, political, and economic bodies fail to take heed of warnings in relation to the rising global temperature as a result of human activities, pursuant melting ice caps, and rising ocean levels.

This is not the first time that such a word has come to encapsulate the aims and goals of the environmentalist movement in modern times. In his own time as a student, resiliency carried a similar sort of rallying call for the short-lived federal and local efforts to break OPEC. This term was particularly appropriate to the time period as the intent was to indicate the ability of the United States to achieve geopolitical goals using neither violence nor by methods of massive destruction to the Earth and the ecosystems supported here. It indicates a necessity to preserve the extant structures and systems which have been in place, while instituting barriers and defenses against potential shocks to the natural resource flows which could include natural consumption, without unnatural controls at the time.

The ways in which this resilient-focused environmentalism surfaced are multi-faceted. Reducing consumption was encouraged, but also a number of innovations occurred which fostered a manner in which humans could live in harmony with the earth. As can be seen in the film Metropolis (1929), the process of tearing apart the mechanisms of industry can be costly and wasteful. Humanity constitutes of delicate and unique creatures and the same can be said of the creations of humanity, after all. The field of solar-panel technology was pioneered, ration cards instituted for gasoline, and even some scandalous pseudoscience which indicated that coal could be turned into oil (perhaps true with technology produced much later, and still under development in terms of energy independence) all played roles in breaking the back of OPEC demands and radicalizing the insistent increase in the price of oil which surrounded 1973. Even President Carter gave a televised address in a sweater and turned down the thermostat: America realized that the environment was not a luxury to be enjoyed by a few, but a fundamental right, and one which failure to protect could result in severe discomforts at home.

At the time, solar panels were inefficient, wind and tidal power only on the horizons of the imagination and the focus was on achieving a political goal rather than transforming societal demands on the Earth. Global warming as a theory celebrated its 50th or 60th anniversary but would not be the focus of environmental movements until ten or twenty years later in the 1990s, it was still at best publicized as a consequence of the nature of the mutually assured destruction that nuclear warfare might entail, a sticker on the billboard advertising the sale of these weapons. The seeds of modern environmentalism had been germinated, however, and the achievements of the period’s movements were both real and necessary.

The destruction of human life from the actual nuclear weapons testing has been hinted at, but cannot be quantified precisely. Radioactive isotopes in the air which then settled into the groundwater and living organisms certainly had an effect on the Earth’s inhabitants as did the massive release of CO2 ignited by these efforts. It can be said without a doubt that without cessation of such testing that the increase in temperature would have occurred sooner, and more catastrophically. Natural disaster does lead to human strife, after all, though the recent disaster in Fukushima could perhaps be seen as an exception to this rule and may herald a new era of diplomacy and co-operation (though this might be as simply naive as making a similar statement about the global response to the Spanish Influenza).

Some discussion was given in the lecture to the origins of the environmental movement, as one of conservationism. This is a word which also has roots in latin, conserver in French is a verb both embraced and rejected by classical European environmentalists. The word environment itself comes from the latin root viron, or life, and en, or around. Conservationists see the environment in this way: unlike the resiliency and sustainability which came to mark later movements, this was something to be preserved, left untouched, and without human interaction by any means possible, but by implication barren and generally useless.

Understanding that humans are a part of that which is universally known as nature is critical to the march of modern environmentalism, and William Cronon uses this to trace the origin of actual events from the words which emblematize these movements. Social environments collide with physical ones to give motion to an idea or concept which was frozen almost in time, as a conflict between known and unknown. This gave way to the resiliency, necessity to discover the unknown, identify the problems which confronted mankind and to find or innovate the answers which were needed. Now one must incorporate these into the national idealisms which are demonstrated as green entrepreneurship, renewable energy sources, and sustainable housing, for the human and the environment.

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