Sustainability is perhaps most commonly imagined as eco-oriented, that is, primarily concerned with the bio-natural environment and its eco-systems. This approach can be traced to the rise of modern environmental consciousness and social movements in the 19th century. In general eco-oriented frameworks emerged as a reaction to rapid urbanization and industrialization, and were largely advanced by middle-class social reformers. In some cases, such as the work of Patrick Geddes, 19th century ecological frameworks emerged that sought to find a better balance between cities and their regional biome. In other cases, such as in the work of John Muir, ecology was associated with romantic movements in literature and the arts, premised upon the separation of cities/humans and nature, and seeking an alternative rooted in the preservation of wilderness and/or the pastoral ideal. In combination, these early ecological approaches gave rise to wildlife conservation organizations such as the Sierra Club; early environmental legislation and state agencies including the National Park Service; as well as the scientific fields of ecology and conservation biology.
This approach to sustainability was resurgent in ecologically oriented movements, academic fields, and political shifts of the 1960s and '70s. This included fields of “deep ecology” and environmental studies; national and international environmental organizations, like The Nature Conservancy and Greenpeace; and landmark environmental events, legislation, and agencies, such as Earth Day, the Clean Air Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Counter-cultural and back-to-the-land experiments, from the 19th century through the '60s to today, may also be seen in large part as eco-oriented.
Eco-oriented sustainability often positions itself as distinct from other forms. For instance, it has been used to critique purely instrumentalist, human-centered and/or market-oriented modes of development and conceptions of nature. To the degree that it privileges the non-human environment, this approach may also de-emphasize or discount cities, human populations, and/or social justice concerns.
However, eco-oriented sustainabilities are frequently combined with other forms. We see justice and ecological linkages made when, for instance, ecologists collaborate with environmental justice groups on urban reforestation campaigns, identifying the best tree species to be introduced into neighborhoods lacking access to green space. We see vernacular and ecological linkages when, for instance, agro-ecologists work with immigrant gardeners to find hybrid strains of traditional plants that can thrive in a new climate, and thus sustain cultural practices and livelihood. And we see market-oriented linkages when eco-oriented groups become entrepreneurial, lending their expertise and/or directing their efforts towards the demands of large-scale commercial markets and green industries.
Image: Famed naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir; photo: the Sierra Club