For more than twenty years from the late 80s on, Earthscan was the world's leading publisher of books on sustainable development, producing well over 1,000 titles in that period including many influential landmarks, and benefiting from the impetus and good will of having been founded by IIED.
Beginning: from IIED’s basement to independence
From 1974 to 1986, Earthscan had been a donor-funded information programme within IIED. After the funding came to an end, when most of the staff moved out to establish a new development communications institute, Panos, Richard Sandbrook decided that the most cost- and above all impact-efficient way of preserving the momentum and good-will that had been created was to re-configure Earthscan as a commercial publisher with international distribution. Earthscan Publications Ltd was incorporated in 1987 and its first title in April 1988 was a collection of essays edited by (the late) Joan Davidson and Irene Dankelman on Women and the Environment in the Third World.
Discovering successes in sustainable development publishing
No mainstream publisher would have imagined a book on this subject could do well, but it and other early titles demonstrated the extent of concern and awareness about environmental and development issues, rapidly establishing Earthscan as an important and distinctive new voice. In the early years, working from the basement in Endsleigh Street, the output was aimed at what a 'trade' market – a broad readership, alerted to the issues by the Brundtland Report and increasingly aware of what would be at stake at the forthcoming Earth Summit in Rio – helped by media that had begun to give prominence to the environmental challenges to future prospects and prosperity and which reviewed and discussed many of the new titles at length.
Early best sellers: Club of Rome, Al Gore and David Pearce
Two early success were Beyond the Limits, a new edition of the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth which in 1972 had thrown down a challenge to prevailing economic orthodoxy prompting much of the opposition to environmental and sustainability arguments that continues to the present day, and Al Gore's Earth in the Balance.
Eclipsing both in sales, acclaim and influence, however, was a work of more orthodox economics by David Pearce and his colleagues at the Environmental Economics programme at IIED, Ed Barbier and Anil Markandya, Blueprint for a Green Economy. It showed how inextricable environmental factors are from the conditions of economic life, how 'the environment' is a fundamental contribution to and constraint on whether and how social arrangements and economic institutions can survive and flourish. This broader understanding, generated by the debates of the early 90s, was captured by the concept of sustainable development – a term introduced by the World Conservation Union in the early 80s and given wider currency by the Brundtland Report.
Servicing the growing international sustainable development agenda
The rhythm of Earthscan's publishing was dictated partly by the international agenda – with peaks such as the Earth Summit and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg 10 years later, and smaller waves accompanying the climate and biodiversity conventions, the MDGs and other more specific initiatives. A significant proportion was published in association with other organizations, international ones such as UN agencies, or independent research institutes such as Chatham House, IUCN, Worldwatch, WWF and of course IIED. Earthscan and the publishing service it provided played an important part in demonstrating the interlinked nature of the resource, social and governance issues we confront, while offering those working in the very diverse sectors affected the opportunity to reach the extended international community involved.
This very diversity of subject matter and markets, however, placed unusual demands on the publishing, in an industry where narrow specialization is often a condition of success. Earthscan however thrived, its output expanded ever more rapidly, and evolved to meet the changing information needs relating to sustainability.
With its significance established at Rio, research into the implications of sustainability for policy and practice intensified, and the publishing focus moved from the polemical to the more academic, in support of policy recommendations. And as the policies began to be implemented, it expanded to include environmental technology with a growing proportion of the output focused on applications and solutions for professional users.
20 years later: a world leader, straddling and provoking the debate
After 20 years, Earthscan was publishing over 150 new books a year along with a growing stable of journals. The list encompassed the main strands of sustainable development: climate and energy; biodiversity and natural resource management; the built environment; economics and business; science, technology and risk; governance, politics and law, with a strong emphasis throughout on social justice and poverty alleviation.
Series of atlases, readers and textbooks provided introductory and popular resources; manual and technical works supplied professionals with tools for innovation; and works of research and synthesis were enlarging and deepening the understanding of how inter-related, intricate and difficult the problems we face are.
But the hallmark of the publishing continued to be original and often radical books that set out to push back boundaries of understanding and ambition as to what is possible, such as Factor Four by Amory Lovins and Ernst von Weizsaecker, Capitalism As If the World Matters by Jonathon Porritt, Prosperity Without Growth by Tim Jackson, or The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity series edited by Pavan Sukhdev.
In 1992 Earthscan moved from IIED, becoming a subsidiary of Kogan Page Ltd, a business publisher. Ten years later it became independent, merging with an environmental technology publisher and being renamed as just Earthscan Ltd. In 2009, it acquired the Resources for the Future Press, giving it an office in Washington, DC, and in 2010 its success as a publisher was acknowledged with the Independent Publisher of the Year Award. In 2011, Earthscan was acquired by Taylor & Francis Ltd, the academic publishing subsidiary of Informa plc, and its list was incorporated into the Routledge imprint.
The sustainable development goal: 25 years in gestation?
Over the last quarter century, the full extent of the revolution implied by the goal of sustainable development has become apparent: few if any areas of public policy, commercial practice, or individual behaviour, whether as citizens or consumers, are unaffected. The extent and diversity of the information surrounding sustainability have multiplied correspondingly – whether real-time data for decision-making, results and analysis across broad scientific and technical research fronts, practical instruction tailored to individual industries and functions, or teaching tools, as well as continuing analytical discussions and debate – making it unrealistic for a single, not very large publisher to meet all the requirements.
New emerging questions: contentious technologies, market benefits, consumerised democracy…
As well as the magnitude of its objectives, some fundamental theoretical challenges to sustainability have also begun to emerge. What, for example, should be the role of technology, such as GM, nuclear power or geo-engineering? Will extending economic instruments and market valuations to ecosystems and other commons secure their futures or imperil them? Will democracy, increasingly propelled as it is by consumer demand rather than citizen responsibilities, deliver justice to the future? Fissures along these lines are already appearing among those committed to sustainability. What seems clear is that if these are to be resolved and sustainability promoted more widely and thoroughly, then education will have to play a central role.
Role of information today: from presentation to engagement
All of which argues for the crucial role of information provision at a scale to meet the need and the demand. But in an age of digital communication, the forms in which Earthscan provided material – full-length books or specialized and peer-reviewed journal articles – are becoming less effective or efficient vehicles. Moreover, simply putting material into the public domain can achieve only a limited amount.
More direct engagement is needed to develop and disseminate understanding and to motivate action for sustainability. Two future components of which might be,first, a comprehensive and inter-active digital reference on all aspects of sustainability, as the basic resource for, secondly, a curriculum of educational modules delivered online and covering the principles of sustainable development and their application to specific areas and problems.
To make the most difference, they should perhaps be aimed at decision-makers and professionals, offering short, bespoke courses tailored to their responsibilities. We could think of them as an online EarthLibrary and Earthscan University.