The origins of sustainable development: “Sylvicultura oeconomica” by H.C. Von Carlowitz

by   P.-E. Bouillot

The emergence of sustainable development is commonly attributed to the economic doctrine among the 70’s. However, the sources of sustainable development probably sprang 300 years ago inSaxony, at the end of the thirty years war, thanks to the work of Hans Carl Von Carlowitz, a mining and forest administrator. Inspired by a French legislation, he wrote a treaty in 1713 which was the first to mention sustainable development.

He entitled his book “Sylvicultura oeconomica, oder haußwirthliche Nachricht und Naturmäßige Anweisung zur wilden Baum-Zucht”. This book is like an instruction to a sustainable management of the forest aroundFreiberg (currentGermany), which was a silver mining city. The consuming of wood for the extraction of precious metal caused a lot of damage to the border forest. The wood resource was also essential for other human activities like construction, heating and cooking. In this context, where economic, social and environmental issues were linked, H. C. Von Carlowitz suggested a way to preserve the forest in order to guarantee reasonable prices and wood availability to satisfy the industrial and domestic needs.

He spoke about “a continuous, constant and sustainable exploitation” of forestry resources. He used “sustainable” in the temporal sense of the word as “long-lasting”. Although H. C. Von Carlowitz did not use the term sustainable in the same meaning as we can use it nowadays, some of his ideas are relevant concerning the implementation and the conceptualization of sustainable development. For example, he brought to light a link between economic, social and environmental goals when he said that the preservation of forests was necessary to continue the industrial activities of Saxon, to save employments and allow the population to earn a living. Moreover, H. C. Von Carlowitz made a reference to another topic of sustainable development: the future generations. He underlined the importance of “the liability of present generations against future generations in order not to over-consume the resources”. His idea was to transmit the forest resources by a thrifty consumption and a simultaneous reforestation.

To conclude, we can say that H. C. Von Carlowitz was really a forerunner, because he criticized the “illusion” of the short-time profit driving to an intensive exploitation of wood and causing an “irreparable damage” to the environment.

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