The word “sustainable” débuted in 1987 but has since become a hot topic issue, both for scientific research and wider society. Although sustainability may appear to be a thoroughly twenty-first century goal, sustainability science concepts and goals such as balance, endurance, order and change, reach back at least as far as the proto-scientific investigations of alchemy. Both alchemy and sustainability science can be understood as systems or strategies which individuals and societies can use to organise and manage themselves in a complex world filled with dynamic problems. Alchemy never created a panacea or transmuted base metals into gold because those goals proved to be based on fundamentally flawed theories and premises. Nevertheless, alchemy did succeed in helping adherents manage themselves and their societies in advantageous ways. Alchemy also positively and significantly influenced subsequent scientific development. Likewise, science helps humanity manage itself on multiple scales, from the individual to the international, and will certainly contribute to further scientific research and development. However, it is not yet known whether carbon neutrality, entirely renewable energy and other sustainability goals will be achieved or whether these goals will also come to be seen as based on flawed understandings and theories. For this reason, this article explores key features of alchemy, traces how they persisted through Enlightenment-era science and how they continue to be present and influential within scientific efforts today. The article goes on to reflect on how the history, development and continued use of concepts such as balance, endurance, order and change may be useful portents of how humans and human society will manage themselves in the future. Such reflections may also temper the zeal with which individuals that accept or reject sustainability goals treat each other, thereby offering a way for divergent groups to manage their interactions. Flawed theories prevented alchemy from achieving many of its primary stated goals. However, alchemy was very beneficial, both during its period of use and subsequently through its influence on subsequent development. This article identifies ideas from alchemy that were originally beneficial and that have persisted through Enlightenment-era science and into contemporary science. The article also explores how those ideas continue to influence scientific and sustainability goals today. Understanding and reflecting on alchemy’s successes and failures facilitates reflection on the potential successes and failures of sustainability and the human consequences of trying to manage a sustainable future.
- history of science
- philosophy of science
Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms
- Cathie Marsh Institute