John R. Ehrenfeld


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

Cover Interview of February 02, 2009


Sustainability by Design provides a positive, clear way to talk and think about sustainability and lays out a practical framework for inducing transformational culture change.  Culture, itself, produces unsustainability as an unintended consequence of normal, everyday activities.  Transformational change is absolutely necessary before flourishing can emerge.  Modernity, which began as a cultural system bringing progress to humanity, is now inducing pathological, addictive patterns of behavior.

The predominant response to current threats is to apply some technological fix.  At best, technological fixes might reduce unsustainability.  But they cannot create sustainability.  Quick fixes don’t address root causes.  Creating sustainability is categorically different from reducing unsustainability.

We must get the whole complex system back in working order.  This means we must replace old and tired beliefs and values with new ones carrying the vision of sustainability in their DNA.  Fortunately, we can construct a new cultural story based on emergent understanding of how the complex world of nature works and on an alternative model of what drives human action.

We cannot simply wait for this transformation to happen.  We have relied for too long on the hope of modernity that we will always progress toward a perfect world by acquiring and applying more knowledge.  We must deliberately design our way toward sustainability, hence the title of my book.  By design, I mean deliberately injecting these new sustainability attributes into the cultural milieu alongside the old ones.

The method I propose gives the book its subtitle: A subversive strategy for transforming our consumer culture.  I propose to use technology, but very carefully designed technology, to carry and embed these new beliefs and values in the course of everyday, routine actions.  We already encounter such artifacts, like speed bumps, that figuratively speak to us.  These artifacts can tell us to behave responsibly and take care.  Our challenge is to make them commonplace.

Sustainability by Design hopefully carries this message to the entire spectrum of players on whose commitment transformational change depends: consumers, designers, marketers, executive, policy planners, and more.  All need to be convinced that we cannot just wish for sustainability to come nor look to experts to bring it forth.  We must learn, again, that we are all interconnected and part of a global community.  Flourishing can exist only when the world is working as an organic, holistic system, not as the mechanical machine of modernity.

© 2009 John Ehrenfeld