Sustainability discourse has long been dominated by the imperative to maintain human life and civilization under conditions similar to those that we now enjoy. This focus on the needs of human beings—rather than the needs of other-than-human creatures, biospheres, or ecosystems—has come under recent attack by some ecocritics. Yet even if we grant this anthropocentric premise, the concept is haunted by unanswerable questions: which human beings? How many? For how long? And, of course, how? This chapter traces the origins of the sustainability concept in nineteenth-century discourses of population and resource management, particularly Malthus and his successors and Victorian writings on coal exhaustion. By tracing the economic roots of sustainability in the nineteenth century, this chapter helps to reveal its inherent complexities, contradictions—and, ultimately, bad faith.
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