This is the title of a new book in German by the Professor of Medieval History at the University of Mannheim, Annette Kehnel, subtitled ‘A Brief History of Sustainability’. Where Jared Diamond (in Collapse) focused on the things human communities had done wrong, destroying themselves on Easter Island and in Greenland, for example, Kehnel concentrates on the things our ancestors got right, mostly in the Middle Ages, but reaching back to the Cynic teacher Diogenes, and forward to the 18th century. Her thesis is not that we should return to the Middle Ages, but that, when we look at what was accomplished then, we see that not only is it possible to do things differently, but also, as a species, we are brilliant at it.

Sustainability is the only survival strategy we have, and medieval society in many ways practised it.

The book concentrates on five areas we can learn from: cooperative cultures, recycling, microcredit, crowdfunding for the common good, and a culture that believed that less was more. Under the first comes the monastic economy, the importance of the commons in many areas of life and, what I imagine will be new to many readers, the Beguine communities: communities of women organised in small garden cities, which supported themselves and practised market gardening. Ebenezer Howard, founder of the Garden City movement, did not know about them, or he would have realised that many of his ideas had already been put into practice.

With regard to the second area, Kehnel points out that the word ‘rubbish’ did not exist in dictionaries before the early 20th century – and indeed, when my village in mid-Devon was asked in the 1920s whether they needed a rubbish collection, the parish council said ‘No’. None of the councillors could imagine what rubbish was! In medieval towns there were more than 1,500 trades, mending and repairing; there was a thriving second-hand market, but also the print revolution was based on recycling. The books of the late Middle Ages did not depend on the destruction of forests of trees.

The idea that less is more was already central to the Cynics, who thought of wealth as the vomit of fortune, and of the reduction of needs as the way to freedom. In this sense asceticism was not life-denying, but precisely the opposite: a training for life. A thousand years later, Francis of Assisi thought the same, and had the same attitude to money and property. Kehnel thinks of Francis less as the apostle of Nature than as the patron saint of a minimalist lifestyle.

The Franciscan movement also produced noted econo-mists: the founder of double-entry bookkeeping, and also Peter Olivi, who outlined an economy oriented to the common good, which allowed profit so long as it was subordinate to real human needs.

Reflecting on these rich examples, Kehnel notes emphat-ically that there are no patent recipes for the changes we need to make in order to survive: each generation has to find its own way. At the same time we can learn from the priority of cooperation in medieval society; from the attempt to balance between individual and community; from the knowledge of boundaries. We also learn that individual action counts: the great infrastructure projects of the Middle Ages were all started by the energy and imagination of some person or other, often someone who has not left much trace in the history books. Above all, perhaps, as Rudolf Bahro noted long ago, we can learn from a culture that had a spirituality of life over death.

The book is beautifully produced and illustrated. The publisher is part of the Penguin Random House group, so hopefully we can look forward to an English version before too long.

Tim Gorringe is Emeritus Professor of Theological Studies at the University of Exeter. He is the author of The World Made Otherwise: Sustaining Humanity in a Threatened World, published by Cascade Books.