Discovering Sustainability: The Art of the Past Redesigning the Future

Sustainability means using resources without exceeding their regenerative capacity and leaving future generations a healthy and flourishing world. The reason why the climate and the ecological crisis have reached their current critical level is that the Western development model was built on the wrong assumption. Indeed, the capitalist economy makes sustainability an optional feature, rather than an essential aspect of the relationship between people and nature.

Sustainability, An Ancient Art

Human history offers many examples of civilizations living in harmony with their environment. Many populations developed societies based on sustainability, respecting the natural environment and its non-human inhabitants. Many “sustainable” civilizations thrived by implementing techniques and survival strategies that ensured environmental protection. These populations are well aware of the importance of the natural world for their own survival. This awareness, however, has been lost in the globalized society based on the Western model.

Among the most famous examples of sustainability, of living “at peace with nature”, are the few indigenous peoples who still survive today.

These small communities focus on the natural environment and its resources in their daily lives. From an early age, the members of these communities learn to know and love the nature around them, drawing sustenance from it without over-exploiting it.

Marco Boldrini

Biocultural Diversity, a Treasure Worth Protecting

Indigenous communities are an interesting case, but a far cry from the everyday experience of us Europeans. Yet, even in Europe, there is a vast legacy of traditional knowledge associated with the natural world.

Biocultural diversity – the interplay of the biological and cultural richness of a region – is still high in several areas of our continent, and Italy is among them.

In fact, Italian traditional knowledge is often an unwitting example of sustainability. If your grandparents used to live in the countryside, you probably know what we are talking about: the peasant wisdom that knows the cycles of the earth, the moon, the names of plants and their healing properties…

Traditional cultures comprise a vast and intimate knowledge of the local environment. People who spend their whole lives in a territory, and who draw sustenance from it, practice sustainability every day. They have techniques and secrets, they are familiar with local biodiversity, they are aware of which plants and animals are dangerous and which are beneficial. And, above all, they know how to coexist with all of this, without exploiting it excessively.

Stipe Surac/ UNDP

Italian traditions: an ancient recipe for sustainability

In many inland areas of Italy, this valuable traditional knowledge has survived to this day, in the form of farming practices, traditional agriculture and livestock farming, vanishing crafts and popular beliefs about the natural world.

This cultural heritage may offer solutions to the global crisis we are experiencing. Rediscovering the knowledge of our ancestors may bring unexpected surprises.

However, nowadays these cultures and traditions are disappearing, and this unique body of knowledge and practices may be lost.

Nikoline Arns

What should we do, then? Let us explore the villages, the countryside, the abandoned areas that have long been considered undeveloped, but which may hold solutions for our future. Let us talk to the elderly, ask them to share their memories, their knowledge, their crafts. Let us go with them into the woods, let them teach us how to recognize plants, what are the clues that reveal the presence of an animal, how to cook that unusually shaped mushroom. And above all, let us document everything: this world runs the risk of disappearing, but we can help to revive it. 

Our roots and culture are at stake, and so is our future. Sustainability is an ancient art, and preserving it is the art of the future.

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