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Sustainability: A History

Author(s):Caradonna, Jeremy
Reviewer(s):Hill, Joshua P.

Published by EH.Net (December 2014)

Jeremy Caradonna, Sustainability: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. vii + 331 pp. $28 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-19-937240-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Joshua P. Hill, Department of Economics, Montana State University-Billings.

Jeremy Caradonna’s stated purpose for his book is “to demonstrate that the fundamental idea of creating a sustainable society has a long genealogy that stretches back at least to 1700” (p. 254). He also seeks to summarize the major themes of, and the occasional tensions in, “sustainist” thought and to draw lessons from the last three-hundred years for members of this movement.

Caradonna (Associate Professor of History at the University of Alberta) begins his history with pre-industrial societies, recognizing that ecological problems pre-date the industrial revolution. He contends that there was recognition in these societies that certain behaviors were unsustainable but that it was from the industrial revolution that a school of thought emerged that is recognizably “sustainist.”

Caradonna rapidly traces a thread through centuries of thinkers and political movements. Along the way he ably documents the fact that interest in environmental quality has grown over the last three centuries and that government has as often been used to undermine environmental quality as to support it. He examines some of the literature on the link between wealth and happiness, questions whether GDP is a useful measure of well-being, discusses alternative measures, and lambasts government-led growth. He documents the success of private efforts (including an extensive summary of those by entrepreneurs and businesses) to improve environmental quality and the repeated failure of centrally-led efforts to do so.

A central theme through the book is that we may not have the optimal mix of material prosperity and environmental quality. There is little attention paid, however, to how we should figure out what balance we should have. Instead, it is assumed that this mix is already known and that what is necessary is to marshal grassroots, commercial, and governmental forces to pursue it. The words “overpopulation” and “overconsumption” recur incessantly with no examination as to how we know that people are over-consuming or over-populating. This is unfortunate since this is the core of the issue.

Caradonna spends a great deal of his book on economics. He has clearly read enough to identify shortcomings within the discipline (such as an over reliance on GDP and upon mathematic formulation) and to use economic vocabulary like “externality.” He concludes from his foray into economics, however, that omitting externalities from mathematical models was the goal for practitioners rather than an oversight. In a telling quote, he states that “Instead of calling pollution what it was, it became euphemized as ‘spillovers’ or the ‘spillover effect.’ (p. 127).

He lambasts neoclassical economics “with its ‘growthmania,’ general indifference towards pollution and ecosystem destruction, and dogmatic belief that ‘tastes and preferences’ are innate in humans rather than culturally shaped” (p. 112) as being the root of much ecological evil in the last two hundred years and lauds the emergence of sustainability economics as a separate field which contends “that society needed a stable, just, and ecologically sound economy” (p. 116).

There is certainly a kernel of truth in his criticisms of economics. Institutions were neglected for a period, some economists have become overly reliant upon GDP as a measure of well-being, government economic planning certainly caused environmental degradation (not to mention human suffering), and ethics and morality do not have a large place in most academic articles. However, these issues have been recognized by economists. Nearly all introductory economics textbooks provide extensive examination of the shortcomings of GDP. The Nobel prizes of Ronald Coase and Douglass North were recognition of the importance of property rights and institutions. Those of James Buchanan and Friedrich Hayek highlighted the difficulties of using government for social policy.

Caradonna’s misinterpretation of economic thought is unfortunate precisely because of how crucial tradeoffs are. He highlights the difficulty of placing a value on spillovers but misses the fact that this is precisely the strength of a system of private property rights coupled with the common law doctrine of trespass and nuisance. These generate prices which reveal individuals’ preferences and facilitate cooperation and coordination. Such a system is, in truth, the only way that anyone can answer the question of what the ideal mix is.

In the end, this book is two intertwined but distinct pieces. The first highlights increasing interest in environmental issues, that material wealth does not necessarily translate into happiness, that government and centralized solutions to social problems often go awry, that mathematical formulation can be deceptive, that how we quantify the world around us matters, and that entrepreneurs and social groups can ably solve spillovers if given an arena in which to do so. The second piece is a polemic. It largely ignores what is documented in the first and argues for greater government control, for heavier reliance upon alternative quantitative measures of well-being, and for a smaller role for individuals to express their preferences in the realm of voluntary exchange.

Taken as a whole, this book will be of less use to those seeking to understand the rise of the “sustainist” movement or practical solutions to environmental issues than it will be to confirmed members of the movement who are looking for an encouraging story of how they are destined to overcome.

Those looking for deeper treatments of the issues raised in this book should look to, among others, Terry Anderson and Donald Leal (2001), Diane Coyle (2014), and Paul Heyne (2008).


Terry Anderson and Donald Leal (2001), Free Market Environmentalism, New York: Palgrave.

Diane Coyle (2014), GDP: A Short but Affectionate History, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Paul Heyne (2008), “Are Economists Basically Immoral?” and Other Essays on Economics, Ethics, and Religion [edited by Geoffrey Brennan and A.M.C. Waterman], Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Joshua P. Hill is Assistant Professor of Economics in the College of Business at Montana State University-Billings. His research focuses on the interface between firm structure, political economy, and economic growth.

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII