John R. Ehrenfeld


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

Cover Interview of February 03, 2009

The wide angle

The germ of this book sprouted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where I had returned in my mid-50s to start an academic career, after spending some 35 years working in the environmental world.  I was a charter member of the Alliance for Global Sustainability, a joint program of MIT, The Swiss Federal Technical Institute, and the University of Tokyo.  Even with sustainability in the program title, we talked mostly about sustainable development.  I was always uneasy because there was something about this term—sustainable development—that seemed a bit oxymoronic.

When people talk or write about sustainability, they usually loosely refer to it as a noun.  Most of the time they talk about “sustainable something,” like sustainable development, buildings, business, even sustainable style, and so on and on.  When sustainable is used in this adjectival sense, the object of attention is always on the word it modifies.  Sustainable development is not really about sustainability, a noun.  It’s all about economic development albeit a particular form of economic development that is supposed to be more benign than the way it works today.

My colleagues at MIT and so many others were doing their best to attack threatening problems like climate change.  I saw extremely talented people seeking technological fixes, like higher efficiency automobiles.  But few if any were probing the roots of these threats.  I started to teach a graduate seminar on technology and society.  We explored the historic benefits of technology, but I also saw a darker side, and eventually a link between this dark side and the arrival of unsustainability.  Some five years later the book emerged.

Sustainability by Design addresses what I believe is the most important issue of our time.  While we certainly have to deal with two wars, a horrendous financial mess, fisheries disappearing, global warming, and more—deeper down we are worried about the sustainability of the whole system.  Can the social, economic, and planetary systems that support us continue to deliver all the qualities of life we hold important?

We heard much about the American Dream during the last election season in the United States.  This image changes over time, but it usually includes words like freedom, liberty, opportunity, and happiness.  Alternately, people associate it with things like home ownership, or a chicken in every pot, or a car in every garage.  To understand sustainability, one must see a sharp distinction between these two lists.  The second grouping is about things that we can usually buy in the marketplace.  The items in the first are very different.  Properties like happiness are intangible.  They show up almost as an aura when the world around us is working right.  We know when they are present, even if we lack instruments to detect and measure them.  But we can’t get them by building machines to produce them.  One can’t produce the beauty of a Rembrandt from a paint-by-numbers kit.

Sustainability belongs in this category.  My vision of sustainability is the possibility that human and other life will flourish on the planet forever.  In my book I say, “Possibility may be the most powerful word in our language because it enables humans to visualize and strive for a future that is not available to them in the present nor may have existed in the past.”  But we cannot create sustainability without examining the roots of the present unsustainable state of the world.

The book points a finger at the most basic of our cultural beliefs and values.  Our normal behavior in modern societies rests on a foundation of beliefs and values that was built centuries ago by the creators of the Enlightenment.  They created ideas like an objective world and the idea of progress pushed along by knowledge and technological innovation.  These and other beliefs and values are still the story we use to guide our individual and collective actions.

The book exposes this story, and starts to tell a new one consistent with an emerging, contrasting understanding of the way that humans and the natural world work.  A key theme, for example, contrasts the difference between living a life of having and one of being/caring.  The hyper-consumerism of our times is a consequence of living according to the having mode.  If we can reverse this, the caring needed to produce flourishing can slowly emerge.  After writing a new story that leads to new beliefs and values, the book sketches some practical steps designed to embed them into our consciousness and in our private and public actions.  By such careful design, the current trend towards collapse can be reversed opening a door to sustainability.