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Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming Our Consumer Culture

Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming Our Consumer Culture

by John R. Ehrenfeld

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The developed world, increasingly aware of “inconvenient truths” about global warming and sustainability, is turning its attention to possible remedies—eco-efficiency, sustainable development, and corporate social responsibility, among others. But such measures are mere Band-Aids, and they may actually do more harm than good, says John Ehrenfeld, a


The developed world, increasingly aware of “inconvenient truths” about global warming and sustainability, is turning its attention to possible remedies—eco-efficiency, sustainable development, and corporate social responsibility, among others. But such measures are mere Band-Aids, and they may actually do more harm than good, says John Ehrenfeld, a pioneer in the field of industrial ecology. In this deeply considered book, Ehrenfeld challenges conventional understandings of “solving” environmental problems and offers a radically new set of strategies to attain sustainability.


The book is founded upon this new definition: sustainability is the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever. There are obstacles to this hopeful vision, however, and overcoming them will require us to transform our behavior, both individually and collectively. Ehrenfeld identifies problematic cultural attributes—such as the unending consumption that characterizes modern life—and outlines practical steps toward developing sustainability as a mindset. By focusing on the “being” mode of human existence rather than on the unsustainable “having” mode we cling to now, he asserts, a sustainable world is within our reach.

Editorial Reviews

H. Thomas Johnson

“Ehrenfeld presents a unique perspective on the subject of sustainability that needs to be taken seriously by anyone who claims to talk about the subject.”—H. Thomas Johnson, Portland State University
David Orr

"The author's argument is astute and insightful, eloquent and convincing."—David Orr, Oberlin College
Jonathan Lash

“In Sustainability by Design, John Ehrenfeld eloquently challenges us to confront the scale of change required to achieve a sustainable world and efficient society.”—Jonathan Lash, President, World Resources Institute

Jill Ker Conway

“John Ehrenfeld has written a thought-provoking and fundamentally optimistic book about the interaction of culture, economics and technology in producing our current environmental degeneration. Unlike other writers who lay out only scenarios of doom he lays out a plan for incremental social and technological change which could put us back on a path to a sustainable future. The book is vast in scope, ranging across many disciplines, but the reader who arrives at the closing chapters will find the journey deeply rewarding.”—Jill Ker Conway, President Emerita, Smith College

Ray Anderson

“Drawing from the works of other giants, and adding his own deep insights, John Ehrenfeld has lit the path that can lead humankind away from the yawning abyss that lies so close before us, toward a wholly appealing goal: an ethical human relationship with Nature and technology.”—Ray Anderson, Founder and Chairman, Interface, Inc.
On Sustainability, Part 3 - Matthew May

"[Ehrenfeld] looks at mindset . . . and that's what is so attractive. . . . John's been thinking about this for a long time, and it shows in how he approaches the challenge of sustainability. . . . " —Matthew May, On Sustainability, Part 3

Janice Pryor

"Sustainability by Design, authored by John Ehrenfeld, may be and certainly should be one of the most important books of the 21st century."—Janice Pryor, Host of WUMB’s, The Commonwealth Journal

"Suggests new, holistic approaches to sustainable design that won't act, as others have in the past, as Band-Aids. Instead, Ehrenfeld focuses on the routes we should take to ensure success."—CEO-READ

terrainfirma - Gareth Kane

"John Ehrenfeld's Sustainability by Design is the most intellectually rigorous treatment of sustainability that I have ever come across. . . .this work provides a context and springboard for the next generation of sustainable solutions."—Gareth Kane, terrainfirma

Long Range Planning

"Challenges conventional understandings of 'solving' environmental problems and offers a radically different set of strategies to attain sustainability."—Long Range Planning
Journal of Industrial Ecology - Arnold Tukker

"A daring, well-researched, and convincing case that the sustainability agenda cannot focus on the material part of the equation alone but must encompass the wider questions about what is the purpose of life."--Arnold Tukker, Journal of Industrial Ecology
Journal of Family & Consumer Sciences - Carol L. Anderson

"Ehrenfeld's intellectually rigorous examination of sustainability engages an approach that is interdisciplinary and holistic."--Carol L. Anderson, Journal of Family & Consumer Sciences

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Yale University Press
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Sustainability by Design

A Subversive Strategy for Transforming Our Consumer Culture
By John R. Ehrenfeld

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2008 John R. Ehrenfeld
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-15843-4

Chapter One

Is the Sky Falling, and, If So, Does Anyone Care?

The year's at the spring And day's at the morn; Morning's at seven; The hillside's dew-pearled; The lark's on the wing; The snail's on the thorn; God's in his heaven- All's right with the world. -Shelley, Pippa Passes

Is Shelley's wonderful sentiment still valid in today's much-changed world? I think not. The world is different in a profoundly threatening way, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to offer proof of his statement according to the rigorous standards of modern science. And proof-or at least considerable recognition of unease about the future-is important as a mover of change; human history suggests that social change comes slowly, and usually only after a crisis. I have chosen not to spend many pages pointing to the coming crisis simply because so many others have already done this.

Instead, I begin by stating my strong belief that it is important to take action now, long before the unsustainable state of the world does indeed induce such a crisis. We cannot continue to ignore history and the obvious signs of trouble. There is still time, I hope, although the stresses on both the human andthe natural worlds may be reaching a point whereby the system cannot retain its current structure, and it may jump into a new regime even less sustainable than the present. To build my case I will largely stand on the shoulders of many who have looked at our modern, industrial, technological world through a critical lens and found it sorely lacking in qualities essential to the survival of all living species-not to mention to the continuing unfolding and development of the human species.

At the same time, I am convinced that each human being, deep down, lives every day striving to produce a flourishing, sustaining world, such as is found in Shelley's lines. It is this fundamental, perhaps even biologically based, sense that part of what it is to be human means re-creating our selves at every moment-on and on until we die. But because we can be blind in certain areas, this fundamental, positive engine for unfolding human potential has become buried so deeply that it comes to the surface only when our lives are imminently threatened. We strive ever harder to realize the world of our deepest longings, only to find it receding further from our grasp, perhaps unconsciously counting on a crisis to wake us up.

Our cultural history is a series of relatively calm periods punctuated with often-violent social change. We adjust to these altered conditions relatively quickly, as new generations replace those who were vanquished in the violent transitions from one order to another. Meanwhile, the natural world continues inexorably along its slow and steady evolutionary path, with little or no notice of the upheavals occurring in the human sphere.

The world is different today. We have developed weapons of such power that humans no longer can recover their numbers so simply after these periodic hiccups of history. In addition, the rapid spread of modern technological, consumerist economies-a weapon of cultural, if not biological, mass destruction-is wiping out what little remains of cultures that once lived in harmony with the world and with themselves. Nor is evolution left alone to follow its marvelous journey of bringing forth creatures that fit the world they are born into. In Enough environmental writer Bill McKibben raises the specter of losing the most central traits of our humanness, among which are choice and uniqueness, by inducing "designer" genetic modifications to create tailored individuals or to prolong life indefinitely. Relentless demands for energy and materials are upsetting and destroying the habitats and communities of human and nonhuman species, creating a pace of destruction that appears to rival that of the dinosaurs' demise. Evolution no longer can proceed without the indelible markings of human activity.

Let me return to Shelley's poem and ask again whether all is right with the world. What are the signs from which we can draw our answer? Since cutting open the belly of a lamb and seeking answers in the entrails is no longer fashionable, perhaps, then, our news media can serve the same purpose. If so, the outlook is not wonderful. The media are filled with stories of bad things happening everywhere: natural disasters of all sorts; breakdowns of historic proportions in the business community; a war carried on at the cost of destroying the most precious records of our modern civilization's ancient origins; and entertainment media selling violence as diversion and humor, recognizable as humor only through the fake laughter that accompanies it.

But even more telling are breakdowns that are appearing in the social fabric of life: record numbers of people are seeking treatment for depression and other signs of mental distress. Obesity is endemic in America, with recent evidence that oversize portions-a consequence of competition-are a major contributor. Peter Whybrow, Director of the Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles, writes that our compulsive need for ever more stuff is producing individual and societal sickness. One consequence is the fading of relationships with other people, which he claims are the only sources of genuine happiness.

New forms of social pathologies are showing up: road rage; mass killings in our schools and offices; rapidly growing divisions between the rich and the poor, with the rich appropriating more and more of the world's natural and economic resources; and homelessness, a historic phenomenon in all cultures, but seemingly out of place in an extraordinarily affluent world that should be able to provide the basic needs of everyone.

The materials that cycle through our economy aren't the only excess; there is also the waste that never makes it to the market. In Natural Capitalism the authors write, "Only one percent of the total North American materials flow ends up in, and is still being used within products six months after their sale." Juxtaposed against the poverty on the streets of affluent nations is the poverty of over half of the world's human beings, who are just barely eking out a living even as they toil to produce the cheap goods that quickly end up on the waste piles of the wealthy. Is this picture one of sustainability? What is it about modern life that requires ever-increasing quantities of goods to produce satisfaction? Can this ever-accelerating pattern of consumption and waste last?

Such concerns as these do not go unnoticed even in the consumerist paradise the United States has become. Our society is, however, largely unwilling to face up to the seriousness of these present problems-not to mention those looming larger in the future. Just as an addict is blind to the causes of his or her pathology, society as a whole exhibits the same pattern. The social conversation picks up problems like pollution, global warming, poverty, or terrorism, and we turn to the powerful and the experts to find a solution. But the conversation is always about getting rid of something bad, never or rarely about creating something good. When we do attempt to follow a positive route, we reduce the most basic human qualities to a simple formula equating economic output to goodness of life, welfare, or some other intrinsic measure of being human. It follows, unfortunately, that this formulation simply leads to striving for more and more without much thinking about whether this mode of living is actually satisfying.

Starting with pollution and waste as primary themes in the 1970s, social talk about environmentalism has broadened to include issues like global warming, ozone layer depletion, and the collapse of the world's great fisheries. In fact, as I began to plan this book some years ago, Canada had just announced the complete closure of its historic cod fishery. This once-rich fishery off the northeastern coast of the United States and Canada has fed people all over the world-it may even have drawn the first visitors to North America from Europe (when Cartier arrived in the New World, it is said that he observed more than a thousand Basque cod-fishing vessels from the Iberian Peninsula). Once a model for what nature can provide without technological intervention, this great fishery is now facing extinction. The loss of such resources raises the specter of unsustainability, the inability to maintain into the future the style of life we now lead.

Global warming is another problem that, in addition to upsetting natural phenomena, is likely to cause great upset to our social systems, unless, as claimed by powerful technocrats, it is properly managed by new, high-efficiency energy technologies. World hunger and epidemics like AIDS are also problems that we in the more affluent nations again look to technology in one form or another to solve or mitigate. Similarly, new and improved psychotherapeutic drugs are seen to be the answer for rising levels of apathy and depression in the industrial world.

In the environmentalist's conversation, we almost always speak only in terms of problems to solve, and rarely in terms of nurturing possibility. Something is missing here. Better, many things are missing. Addressing our unease with the world around us largely as a set of problems to be mitigated through technology is itself a manifestation of modernity. Since the rise of the Enlightenment, with its optimistic ideas about knowledge and technology, change is normally thought to be fundamentally progressive-leading individuals and the societies they constitute to an always-rosier future that is bigger and better than its past. Our job as individuals is to help this movement along by overcoming problems that impede the forward motion-typically by applying what has worked in the past. But such talk and action only can keep us firmly rooted in the past, albeit in bigger and better surroundings.

To escape from the past we must think in radical terms. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream foresaw a whole new world. King's vision of the future was not just better than the past; it was separated from that past by an enormous chasm that required a brand-new story to bridge: "I have a dream ... I have a dream that one day little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers ..."

But unlike King's vision of a new future, the one notion related to sustainability that has received attention from powerful forces in government and business-sustainable development-is not actually a vision of the future. It is merely a modification of the current process of economic development. Sustainable development proponents claim that this path need not cause the terribly destructive consequences of past forms of development. Sustainable development is fundamentally a tool that suggests new means but still old ends-development remains at the core of this concept. At best, our current sustainable development strategies can barely cope with the forces of unsustainability-a state of the world that is unlikely to be able to provide either the biological life support for humans and other creatures or the social characteristics that make life meaningful.

In contrast, sustainability is a distinction perhaps as old as humanity and the emergence of human cultures. It springs from reflection on the awareness of the passage of time and the consciousness of the mystery of birth and death. It undoubtedly has formed the cultural basis for the emergence of magic and religion, which serve both to illuminate sustainability and to seek it as part of one's living experience. In our modern view of reality, the separation of mind from world hollows out the meaning of sustainability.

To recover the full meaning of sustainability, a radical stance is critical. I begin with a new and distinctive definition of sustainability: the possibility that human and other life will flourish on the planet forever. Flourishing is the key to a vision of a sustainable future, and this way of conceptualizing sustainability connects to every kind of audience I have addressed. We must shift back to the flourishing fullness of "Being" from its impoverished modern form of "having." Immersion in the modernist cultural paradigm has disaffected human beings in three critical domains of living.

The human, arising out of our (lost) sense of what it is to be a human being,

The natural, arising out of our (lost) sense of our place in the natural world, and

The ethical, arising out of our (lost) sense of responsibility for our actions and our relationships to others.

Evidence of these lost senses abounds in the form of ever-increasing levels of unsatisfying and wasteful consumption, family and personal breakdown, litigiousness, and environmental degradation, and in what many see as banality and shallowness in public and private life in general. I will use capital Being throughout this book to point to the unique way of existence that human beings possess, and lower-case being for things in general in the everyday objective sense. Without recovering our sense of Being and ethical responsibility, it is virtually impossible to start to take care of the world and our own species in ways to produce flourishing.

Unsustainability springs from the cultural structure of modernity itself: the way we hold reality and ourselves as human beings, and the hegemony of technology as the solution to every problem facing individuals and the society at large. Unsustainability is an unintended consequence of the addictive patterns of modern life. Almost everything being done in the name of sustainable development addresses and attempts to reduce unsustainability. But reducing unsustainability, although critical, does not and will not create sustainability. The world is awash with books and news items touting the importance and advantages of "green" products, housing, and institutional practices, but such practices and artifacts are at best only Band-Aids, and at worse they divert our attention from sustainability.

Sustainability is an outcome of the way we choose to live our lives. Sustainability is an emergent property of living systems different from the functional properties of mechanistic systems and objects. To look at it another way, we would never describe a machine as possessing sustainability. We might speak about its durability or reliability, but never about its sustainability. To me the most basic symbol of sustainability is that of flourishing. It pertains to all natural systems, both human and other living systems. For humans, flourishing means more than just remaining healthy. It also means living the good life, following precepts handed down over the ages by sages and philosophers.

Can the kinds of stories we now tell about how the world works, coupled to our present ways of coping with its problems, sustain human cultures and individual lives? Given the history of progressive human development under circumstances that seemed just as unsustainable, it is difficult to answer "no" convincingly. But does this mean that we should put all of our eggs in the basket of modernity and take a chance that our modern systems of thinking and acting will continue to produce the progression toward enlightenment and the realization of the flourishing of human potential I spoke of? I think not.

Alternatives do exist; it is more a question of how deeply we are buried in our habitual ways of acting individually and socially. The popularity of self-help books and quick cures to all problems from obesity to terror strongly suggests that our cultural habits keep us mired. This book takes the stance that there is a direct but challenging way out of this stalemate. It springs from the tried and true practices that deal with other forms of addiction and routine pathological behavior. Yes, the patterns of modern, consumerist life are exemplars of addiction.

The first step, similar to that used in programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and in many forms of psychotherapy, brings destructive patterns into view, raising them from the unconscious corner to which they have been sent. Step two is to replace the modernist vision that has been maintaining the endless revolutions of the vicious cycle with an evocative vision of the world that can continuously pull one and all into new possibility. Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset put a positive spin on this idea, saying, "Life is a series of collisions with the future; it is not the sum of what we have been, but what we yearn to be."


Excerpted from Sustainability by Design by John R. Ehrenfeld Copyright © 2008 by John R. Ehrenfeld. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

John R. Ehrenfeld, who before his retirement was affiliated with the MIT Center for Technology, Policy, and Industrial Development and the Departments of Chemical Engineering and Civil and Environmental Engineering, now serves as executive director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology and is senior research scholar at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. In 1999 he became the first recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Resources Institute. He lives in Lexington, MA.

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