Who coined the word ‘sustainability’? A question that could spawn a thousand PhD’s with more answers than angels on the head of a pin. But for me there is one clear originator, Baroness Jackson of Lodsworth in West Sussex. Who? Let me explain.

She (and for reasons that should become really obvious, a she) was Barbara Ward. An economist with a strong sense of morality and deeply held Christian values, she wrote a series of books on various aspects of economics prior to WW2. Her first book, titled “The International Share-out”, gives an idea of her idealism. After the war she travelled widely (with her knighted Australian husband Commander Robert Jackson), often in the third world, which prompted a formulation of economic approaches for greater support from wealthy nations, epitomised by 1961’s The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations.

Searching for a more wholistic approach to economics, in 1966 she writes Spaceship Earth. In the book she discussed the “dual responsibility" of care of the environment and concern for the well-being of all peoples. She believed that wealth distribution, combined with conservation, was essentially a rational policy: "We are a ship's company on a small ship. Rational behaviour is the condition of survival”.

These ideas presage the ‘triple bottom line’, a currently widely held economic philosophy, first described by John Elkington in his curiously tilted Cannibals With Forks as recently as 1998. The meme has evolved into ecology / equity / economy or planet / people / profit; and this now forms the backbone of the wider interpretation of sustainability. No self-respecting large corporation has an annual report without it.

But back to Spaceship Earth in which the concept of sustainability of a whole planet takes shape. And the title is hers, even though the world thinks it was coined by R. Buckminster Fuller in his 1968 book Operating manual for Spaceship Earth. Published two years after Ward’s book, and with Bucky’s characteristic chutzpah, it has a much more masculine title: not just identifying the spaceship but saying you can ‘operate it’. Bucky is a hero for many designers, but his ideas were often north of wacky – think of the proposal to air condition the whole of New York under a giant dome – but plagiarism is another thing altogether. We'll take him out of the story at this point.

Barbara Ward continues to write: Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet, her book in 1972 with Rene Dubois, was written for the 1972 UN Stockholm conference on the Human Environment. This is where the word sustainability first appears fully fledged, albeit without a definitive definition that current researchers crave. Environment writer Richard D North calls Ward and Dubois the ‘parents’ of the term and goes on to describe it as a “concept that did not know its own name at first”.

Her penultimate book in 1976, The Home of Man, is worth mentioning for two reasons: a woman uses ‘Man’ in the title just as the first feminist movement is in full swing, betraying her English upper-class origins but untrue to her belief in worldwide equity and equality. Secondly it became a widely used university text, indeed I came to read it as a tutor for the wonderful Roger Johnson, inaugural head at Canberra CAE, where he used it in a foundation unit for three different design courses.

Much of Ward’s work was based on the pioneering work of two women earlier in the decade, one urban, one rural. In 1961 Jane Jacobs writes The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a riposte to modernist planning in general and Robert Moses and Le Corbusier in particular. Defying attempts to drive freeways through New York she writes one of the great books on urban design – still one of the best books that planners and urban designers need to read.

At the same time scientist and journalist, Rachel Carson, writes Silent Spring, about the pernicious nature of the long-lived chemicals such as DDT in the soil. Many believe that the US Environmental Protection Act (and others such as Australia’s) are a direct result of her work.

These two essential researchers / writers are at the heart of the book Women in Green by Kira Green and Lance Hosey, who seek through research and interviews to see women’s place at the centre of green science and sustainability, which they clearly establish. The lack of regard for Barbara Ward’s work can only be put down American insularity reaching as far as US academia. Nevertheless, it is crystal clear that ‘environmentalism’ is a feminist movement.

One last from this decade of awakening books, all written or co-written by women: The Limits to Growth in 1972 by Donatello Meadows et al. Almost 50 years on it is still a leading text. It’s sub-titled A Report for The Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. Mankind? Really? Sustainability is set into motion, but not everything from this period passes the test of time.


The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not necessarily held or endorsed by A&D.