Can words have a tactile quality? If so, what does ‘sustainability’ feel like? Warm and sensual, or cold and artificial? Weighty, or hollow? Do you agree with the former vice president of the International Court of Justice who thinks it “the key to human survival”? Or has whatever genuine value it once had been diluted and drained away by the salespeople who give us ‘sustainable golf’, ‘a sustainable Las Vegas’ and ‘sustainable growth’?

Remember the famous dispute between Alice and Humpty Dumpty over the meaning of words? “When I use a word,” boasts Humpty Dumpty, “it means just what I choose it to mean.” Alice’s puzzled reply, wondering if one can make a word mean just what one wants, gets a curt response: “The question is, which is to be master – that’s all.”

Sustainability is surely territory worth fighting over. Is it too late to reclaim it? Is it still possible to follow Confucius’ teaching and rectify the term?

In his book Sustainability: A Cultural History, the German author Ulrich Grober makes a valiant and convincing attempt to do so. Not, however, by offering a new definition. Like all truly valuable concepts, he insists, sustainability resists simple definition. Instead he invites us on a long and fascinating journey through time and space in order to rediscover the essence of the word, its history and its soul.

Grober reminds us that our modern term ‘sustainable development’ was conceived by a generation that was the first to see the blue planet from space. For a brief historic moment the world’s population was united in wonder at the beauty, loneliness and fragility of its common home. Grober views this moment, celebrated in the music and writing of the counterculture, as the intellectual, emotional and spiritual matrix of the new sustainability discourse as it established itself over the period from the early 1960s to the late 1980s. And the resulting sustainable economics of “Spaceship Earth” is very much a “moral economy” rather than merely a more efficient form of resource management.

From there, Grober’s book works backwards in time, stripping back archaeological layers, one at a time, in order to get at the core of the word’s meaning. He identifies the blueprint for the modern concept in the language of 17th-century European forestry, when virtuosi like John Evelyn at the Royal Society and the German Hans Carl von Carlowitz (who was responsible for the mines of the Kingdom of Saxony) pleaded when faced with timber shortages for ‘sustained-yield’ forestry, which would respect the regenerative capacity and the natural time-cycles of the forests.

The book tells us about the critical metamorphosis of conservatio. This key term of medieval Christian theology described the self-regulating dynamic that God had infused into Creation. The philosophers of the Enlightenment secularised it into conservatio sui, the imperative of self-preservation, which allowed or even required human intervention in the Creation through a wise cooperation with Nature, and which therefore enabled the later adoption of sustainable forest management.

After a long and eventful journey, from Ötzi the Iceman via Confucian China and pre-Conquest South America to John Lennon, the book brings us back into the present. Our fossil-fuel era, which granted us a short interlude of licensed unsustainability, is fast drawing to a close. Before this era set in, we were in a global solar age, based only on renewable energy sources; after it has passed, we will return to that. Finding our way back to the principles of sustainability is therefore not one option amongst others, but the only viable path.

How are we to achieve this? Grober proposes a simple litmus test comprising only two parts. Of every proposal we should ask these questions: does it reduce the ecological footprint? Does it widen access to a good quality of life?

It will be countered that this is too simple. But there is much to be said for simplicity. Grober demonstrates convincingly that the concept of sustainability, and the term, are essential to the green project. Arguably, sustainability is the green project. What are all our efforts directed towards if not sustainability?

“Sustainability will remain the key term. It has the necessary gravity and the necessary flexibility. This word contains everything that matters.”

Dr Ray Cunningham is a freelance author, translator, editor and consultant on comparative Anglo-German issues, especially environmental.