SUSTAINISM.  Statement by Michiel Schwarz & Joost Elffers, 2011


The Era of "Sustainism" Is Here

Michiel Schwarz & Joost Elffers

The world has entered a new age.  After twentieth century's modernism and postmodernism, a new cultural era has begun.  We have given it a name:  Sustainism.

Our manifesto Sustainism Is the New Modernism* charts a new way of doing and seeing that is already evident across society, in everything from architecture and design to business practices to food production. We are signalling a transition to a new lifestyle, and offering a picture of a world that is more connected, more localised and more sustainable.

We introduce "sustainism" to the public consciousness, to give a name to the new cultural era. Sustainism represents a new mind-set that, like modernism before it, will turn out to define how we see our world, what we value, and how we shape our living environment.  It will become —we provocatively claim— the new "operating context" for all of us.

In the 20th century our world was designed around modernist ideas and values. This could be seen, for example in our architecture, product design, our business models, urban planning, and much more. With modernism came a fascination with technology, modes of industrial production, a focus on material goods, underpinned by a particular idea of progress. But this century heralds a shift to what we call "sustainist" culture, a different set of values and ideas that will define how we live and what we value. Our bold claim is: Sustainism will be for the twenty-first century what modernism and postmodernism was for the last. 

We didn't invent sustainism; we found it, as it were, on the street. The ideas of sustainism are all around us, if we care to look for them.

Despite the root word "sustain" in our term for the new culture, "sustainism" encompasses much more than just green practices. It's as much concerned with the internet, social media and open-source information. And amidst these global trends, we a growing interest in finding local qualities, for example in our food (think of the 6000 plus local farmer's markets). In one line: sustainism is where connectivity, a new kind of localism and sustainable life styles meet.

Sustainism (or whatever name you wish to call the new culture) is bringing its own style and perspective: diverse rather than uniform; effective instead of efficient; networked instead of hierarchical. It stands for the perspective of long-term investment and appropriate speed, rather than "quick return“ and "faster is better." From functionality to meaning, from space to place.

The transition from modernism to sustainism also involves a shift in how we frame problems and look for solutions.  Where modernism failed to account for complexity and diversity, sustainism takes them as its very premise. In the sustainist era everything is interconnected and interdependent. Our visual symbol for sustainism, the trefoil knot, expresses this idea. (It can be seen on the cover of our book). The trefoil symbolizes the endless cycle of life and an interrelated world.

The metaphor for the new culture is the "web"; whether we speak about the city, food, production, media, knowledge, sustainable development, in sustainism, everyone and everything is connected. This is the culture of networks, sharing, borrowing, and open exchange.

In the world of internet our perceptions of place have changed. The internet  in particular has given a new meaning to the local: almost every place in the world is globally connected, 24/7. We live in local worlds, but we are also global citizens.

The emergence of a new type of "localism" we view as one of the hallmarks of sustainism. In the experience of many of us, "global" and "local" are no longer in opposition. The sustainist world is the world of the local farmer's market and Twitter, corner cafe and Facebook, the neighborhood and CNN. "Local" is no longer just a geographic marker; it has become a quality, a value in itself.

We are opening the debate about how sustainism gives rise to new design criteria. With a wink to the past, we say that "do more with less" is the sustainist reply to the modernist "less is more." We mark the shift from "design" to "design with." Co-design, design with nature, participatory design thinking are on the rise. The growing interest in biomimicry reflects the same mentality, while equally sustainism invites new combinations between "eco" and "hi-tech."

Designers and architects have been among the first to see the fundamental shifts we associate with sustainism. Without using the word, some have become sustainists at heart, if not in practice.

But what's interesting, is that we're witnessing other and similar shifts across many domains of society. For example in the way we address innovation and knowledge, our business models, urban planning, production methods (think of cradle-to-cradle), community building, food, and much more. All seem to point in the same direction. In this manner, sustainism can provide a unifying framework, a “lens,” to find answers to the pressing issues of our time.

Sustainable life styles, the growing interest in the local, global communication, social media: all are concerned with culture. This is not counterculture like the movement of the 1960s and 70s. It reflects a widespread global and local movement, that we foresee will become the mainstream culture. Even today the "sustainibility movement," which we see as part of the culture of sustainism, involves at least 100 million people worldwide (based on the estimates by Paul Hawken, who has called it "the largest movement in the world").

The new culture we describe under the banner of sustainism, poses a great challenge for designers, architects and planners as well as engineers, teachers and artists to shape our lives and our living environment in this new era. What is called for is a new wave of innovation that takes sustainist criteria as its starting point—inclusive, socially available, ecologically responsible, and locally oriented (but not provincial). 

Designers, and all of us, are beginning to think more and more in terms of connections and inventive solutions that acknowledge the interdependent nature of our world. With our "manifesto" we have given a name to that way of thinking. Now we have to discuss how to make it happen. As Alice Rawsthorn, design critic of the International Herald Tribune, has said, "The critical issue for any designer committed to the principles identified in ‘Sustainism’ is how to put them into practice." That's a call to action to all of us.

*Michiel Schwarz & Joost Elffers, Sustainism Is the New Modernism: A Cultural Manifesto for the Sustainist Era (D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2010, New York).

Michiel Schwarz is a cultural thinker, innovator and consultant, based in Berkeley, California and Amsterdam, Netherlands. His publications include The Technological Culture and Speed: Visions of an Accelerated Age.
Joost Elffers is a New York-based designer, "symbol maker" and creative producer of award-winning and innovative books such as 48 Laws of Power, Play With Your Food and Tangram: The Ancient Chinese Shapes Game.

Michiel Schwarz & Joost Elffers, 2011 / Creative Commons by-nc-nd