John R. Ehrenfeld


On his book Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming our Consumer Culture

Cover Interview of February 02, 2009

In a nutshell

Sustainability is all the rage.  Political and business leaders talk earnestly and passionately about going green. A growing number of books, movies, and public conversations signal a general unease about the present, growing uncertainty about the future of both the environment and our own human species.  While this growing attention is a positive step, the popularization of sustainability may in the long-run do much more harm than good.  For sustainability itself—as it is currently conceived—fails to address a deeper problem threatening the earth.

Sustainability by Design exposes the roots of unsustainability, pointing to the failure of modernity and its reliance on technology to solve all problems—big and small.  Modern cultures have become addicted to solutions that produce serious, even pathological, unintended consequences, particularly mindless consumption posing as the magic elixir of satisfaction and happiness.

The book offers a radically different conversation about sustainability.  It starts with a new definition: sustainability is the possibility that humans and other life flourish on the Earth forever.  Sustainability is at heart a story about flourishing and care, coming forth from a transformed culture.  The path toward transformation starts with the restoration of the caring and ethical behavior that makes the human species distinct from all other life.  Beyond the definition, the book lays out a framework for designing new forms of everyday artifacts and institutional routines that can break the addictive patterns of current individual and organizational life-styles, and also embed new beliefs and values aligned with sustainability into the culture.

Central to the story is a model of being that rests on care, not need, as the feature that underpins human action.  Readers should be prepared to confront and suspend their own stories about how the outside world works and how they act and experience life.  They need to be open to a new story, based on beliefs and practices that are sharply different but somehow feel right.  Elie Wiesel once said that “[p]eople become the stories they hear, and the stories they tell.”  Sustainability depends on these new stories.