"Our habitat is limited, our capacity for innovation is not"

Even before the Club of Rome published its thought-provoking report "The Limits to Growth" in 1972, Ernst Basler had begun to consider the consequences of exponential growth for the spatially limited earth. He emphasized the notion of "sustainability" as a metaphor for an approach to natural resources that would satisfy our needs while preserving an intact environmental basis for future generations.

Ernst Basler was one of the first exponents of ecological sustainability. In his book "Endliche Erde" (Our Finite Earth), he takes a look back to see how far we’ve come.

What led you to publish your concerns about the negative consequences of continued unchecked growth at the beginning of the 1970s?

Ernst Basler: Three realizations played a role. The first was that increases in population, economic activity and consumption – along with their environmental impact – are not linear over time, but exponential. Second, our earthly habitat, or biosphere, is limited in extent. It is but a thin veil wrapped around a lonely planet afloat in the inconceivable vastness of the universe. And third, we humans are already so numerous and powerful that we are capable of triggering environmental processes of a magnitude that is equal to the major processes at work in nature. The conclusion was obvious for me: unlimited growth within a habitat of limited spatial extent will ultimately lead to the habitat’s destruction.

"Sustainability was a compel-
ling metaphor for our whole approach to our biosphere."

Not content to play the role of an admonisher, you went on to consider how we humans might continue to flourish despite the finite nature of our habitat and natural resources. Indeed, you were one of the first to emphasize the notion of sustainability as a guiding principle for responding to our predicament. What led you to that?

I became aware of the term’s significance in a chance conversation I had with a forest engineer, which is no wonder, because the term had been commonly used in the area of forest management. As he explained to me what was meant by sustainable – namely, that a forester will only cut as much timber in a given year as will grow during the same time period – I knew immediately that it was the expression I had long been searching for.

What made the term such a good fit for your work?

I was convinced that sustainability was a compelling metaphor for our whole approach to our biosphere. It was a global expression for a state of balance without excessive quantitative growth and without the long-term despoliation of the very features of our planet that sustain our life. In 1972, I used the term in my book "Strategie des Fortschritts" (Progress Strategy) and in a series of articles I wrote for the Swiss newspaper “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”. In 1987, the Brundtland Commission then used the concept of sustainable development in its report "Our Common Future".

How would you assess our progress since the 1970s when environmental issues first became a focus of broad public discourse?

Our environmental problems were indeed becoming ever more acute by 1970. But figuratively, one could compare them to the initial clouds of a major storm front approaching on the horizon. The clouds included the local contamination of air, soil and water in many of the world’s most industrialized countries at the time. The pollution was disturbing enough to force the implementation of corrective measures at least in Switzerland. Many people continue to believe today that the response proved our capacity to successfully manage the essential conflict between civilization and nature. However, we need to be aware that what we were dealing with at the time was no more than the initial clouds of a storm front, and that darker clouds are on their way. The problems of climate change, species extinction and ocean acidification will not be so easy to solve. And we can expect that it will take generations before the full impact of these global threats is understood. Sadly, that fact makes it easy for people now to simply dismiss the problems.

"The problems of climate change, species extinction and ocean acidifi-
cation will not be so easy to solve."

What can we do about that?

My view is that people tend to act according to their perception of the world. If a majority of people have a basic understanding of ecological principles, appropriate decisions will be made in a democracy. The education we get at school and the information provided to us by the media play a major role in this regard. But the scientific community also plays an immensely important role. In addition to conducting research and providing instruction, universities such as ETH should also play the role of ecological lighthouses by detecting at an early stage what problems are coming at us so that we have sufficient time to respond accordingly. And even if we can’t solve all of our environmental problems with science and technology, we’re not going to be able to solve very many without them. While our habitat is limited, our capacity for innovation is not.

"Endliche Erde" (Our Finite Earth): A Pioneer Takes a Look Back

The book "Our Finite Earth" is a scientific review and a biography at the same time. In it, the author Thomas Sprecher offers us an account of Ernst Basler’s personal view of the history of sustainability. Sprecher describes how Ernst Basler began in the 1960s to examine environmental issues at a time when economists were professing the wonders of economic growth and belief in continued societal progress was commonplace. He outlines how a visiting professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston enabled Basler to take his inquiries to a deeper level and to publish "Strategie des Fortschritts" (Progress Strategy) in 1972, a book whose subject matter has remained fascinating for Basler ever since. Eight principles summarize the conclusions Basler has now drawn after more than fifty years of examining the notion of sustainability.

While many direct quotes give the book an incisive look at Basler’s thought, Sprecher offers a deft historical description of the discourse on sustainability and growth while also highlighting Basler’s contribution to the discourse. Infographics and background texts provide intuitive explanations of the relevant concepts and terminology.