Tim Swan




Creating sustainability is categorically different from reducing unsustainability

Cover Interview of

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.

“Cultures eventually begin to produce pathological, unintended consequences when the world changes, but cultural habits don’t.”

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.

February 3, 2009

A close-up

A few years ago, I heard a speaker from a large retail chain give an impassioned presentation about what his firm was doing for sustainability. He told us about “dumpster diving,” in which store personnel periodically emptied the dumpsters located at the backdoor and sorted the contents. Cardboard packaging was found to be the major part of the trash. The company realized it could bundle the cardboard and sell it to recyclers, thus behaving in a greener way and making money at the same time. The speaker stopped, and then invited questions.

After a few queries, someone asked, “What you are doing is certainly a step in the right direction, but have you ever thought about all the stuff that goes out of the front door? What about its impact on the environment?” The question stopped him short, and, after a long pause, he responded, “Well, I see what you are getting at. You mean that the real environmental impact of our business comes in the use and disposal of what our customers carry out with them.”

This story is taken from chapter 2, “Solving the Wrong Problem: How Good Habits Turn Bad.” It is typical of responses to daily, normal problems. We tend to deal with the symptoms that bother us, but fail to recognize or address the underlying causes. If we are to change the threatening trajectory we are on, we must, first, recognize that our individual and collective actions are producing unintended consequences. In this case, the result was negative impact created by the stuff that went out the front door.

This book rests on the observation that cultures eventually begin to produce pathological, unintended consequences when the world changes, but cultural habits don’t. Chapter 2 explains how this happens in a way that connects to our own experiences. If we are to stop what we are doing now and adopt new cultural underpinnings, we must first acknowledge that we are in a state of denial. The hyper-consumptionism that so characterizes our culture is the “solution” to symptoms of emptiness and dissatisfaction. It may work for a while, but we always return to a need for more and more things. Remember President Bush’s solution to the angst felt after 9/11: go shopping.

If we see unsustainability merely as a set of problems to solve, albeit very challenging problems, we will miss what goes out the front door and its pernicious impact on both the natural world and on our vitality. There is another, subtler problem hidden in this pattern. Sustainable development simply equates more sustainability to less unsustainability. The Zen notion of a glass half full or half empty suggests that, as we reduce the emptiness, the fullness will appear. In many cases this is true, but not for sustainability. Reducing unsustainability will not create sustainability. They are not two sides of the same coin. Our great challenge is to dig deep into our cultural psyche to uncover and re-design the engine that motors our everyday lives.

“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.”


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
John Ehrenfeld Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming our Consumer Culture Yale University Press 272 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches ISBN 978 0300137491
Tim Swan

John R. Ehrenfeld is currently Executive Director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology. In 2000, he retired as the Director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business, and Environment. He continues to research and write about sustainability and culture change. He currently serves on the Council of the Society for Organizational Learning. In October 1999, the World Resources Institute honored him with a lifetime achievement award. He holds a B. S. and Sc. D. in Chemical Engineering from MIT, and is author or co-author of over 200 papers and other publications.

Cover Interview of
February 3, 2009