The closing circle and the limits of development

In 1971 Barry Commoner, an American biologist born in 1917, wrote in the well-known book “The Closing Circle”: “The Earth’s life system derived from the consumption of a non-renewable resource, on water and on the geochemical store of organic matter (…) survival became possible because of a timely evolutionary development: the emergence of the first photosynthetic organisms (…). These new organisms used sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and inorganic materials into fresh organic matter. This crucial event reconverted the first life-form’s waste, carbon dioxide, into its food, organic compounds. It closed the loop and transformed what was a fatally linear process into a circular, self-perpetuating one.” The book was written in a particular historical moment – as we have seen in the previous paragraph, interest in ecology was rapidly growing.

In April 1970, Earth Day was established, the Council of Europe proclaimed 1970 “European Year of Nature Conservation” and the United Nations organised a major world conference in June 1972 (Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Development – Stockholm, 16 June 1972). Following the Stockholm Conference, UNEP was established and, together with UNDP, FAO, UNESCO and IUCN, it is one of the most important references for sustainable development worldwide. The United Nations Conference resulted in the Declaration on the Human Environment, a document that states 26 principles on the relationship between social well-being and protection of environmental heritage, according to a criterion of fair distribution of resources, including future generations. The document states that Economic Development Plans should take particular account of this relationship and encourage the adoption of coordinated and integrated measures.

Returning to Commoner, it must be pointed out that the concept of closing the circle became immediately clear from a scientific and ecological point of view, but its correlation with the economic sphere was not immediately understood.

An interesting fact: do you know when ecology was born? Well before the 1970s. More precisely, the word ecology was coined in 1866 by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) who, in publicising Darwin’s discoveries, had suggested the need for an independent discipline aimed at describing the influence that the environment exerts on living beings. This discipline was intended to describe both exchanges of matter and energy between living beings and the atmosphere, water, sea, soil, and living beings’ exchanges among themselves, united by food chains and networks. It is not surprising that Haeckel defined ecology as the “economy of nature”.

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