Taylor & Francis Group

Two centuries of heating our homes. An empirical - historical contribution to the problem of sustainability on a micro level

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Discussions about sustainability are often restricted to statements about energy. However, when the notion was first used, it had a broader meaning. It argued that every generation should strive for economic progress, yet this should affect all generations in a positive way. This interpretation was evolved by the Brundtland commission in 1987. Since the publication of its report 'Our common future', it is widely accepted that sustainable development involves a social, economic and environmental dimension.

Since there is no unambiguous definition of 'sustainable development' on hand, a set of sustainability indicators was developed. However, these indicators are not very instructive about the micro level: can we label a particular commodity 'sustainable' or does this have only relatively limited value? To what extent is mankind capable of producing, distributing and consuming in a 'pure', efficient and cheap way?

To create a long-term view on 'sustainable development', important lessons could be learned from the past. 'Sustainability' has little meaning without an understanding of long-term ecosystem trajectories and a knowledge of baseline conditions, if they ever existed.

The interdisciplinary research project '(Un)sustainability developments of product systems, 1800 - 2000' investigates the (un)sustainability development of four basic needs (potable water, bread, transportation of people over land, and heated living space) in Belgium over the last two centuries, to gain insight into sustainable development on a micro level.

This paper focuses on the case study of the heated living space. It explores the boundaries of the research subject, before examining sources and methodology. The project employs Life Cycle Assessment techniques on historical data, which is a first in historical research in Belgium.

After studying the social, economic and environmental indicators, the results are combined. This leads to several (cautious) conclusions about sustainability on a micro level.

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