Sustainability by Design Redux

big sunflower.

It's been quite some time since my book was published and even I get a little fuzzy about what's in it. I have been using it as a text in a course, Exploring Sustainability, I teach at Marlboro College in their graduate Sustainability MBA program. The course extends over five of the six trimesters in their program. This is the first in the series and serves as an introduction to the alternate vision of sustainability I offer. The students were allowed to pick their topics for the final paper assignment as long as they were consistent with the syllabus. One choose to do a book review of Sustainability by Design. I wish this had been written about two years ago. It might have boosted sales. I think the student, Galen Guerrero-Murphy, captured the essence of the book. Here is his review:

Sustainability by Design by John Ehrenfeld provides a critical perspective on the state of sustainability and the oxymoronic nature of sustainable development. Ehrenfeld grounds the reader with a brutally honest portrayal of modernity, the challenges We collectively face, and the deep-rooted, personal changes we must seek if we are to ever arrive upon something resembling sustainability. Despite the precariousness of our modern life, the book is altogether hopeful, pragmatic, and optimistic. Ehrenfeld elicits the reader to embark upon a journey of self-reflection and to evaluate the roots of unsustainability present in our cultures and our lives, and he challenges us to alter the way we interact with and care for the world.

The book first deconstructs our current consumptive patterns and “shifting the burden” cycles (addictions), as well as the dogmatic, scientific, technological and cultural histories that contribute to our current state of unsustainability. Ehrenfeld then presents an elegant and original definition of sustainability: “the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever (p. 49).” He posits this possibility is only achievable through significant individual and cultural change, not through piecemeal environmental protection, social responsibility, or other forms of “sustainable development.” A quote from Chapter 6 nicely summarizes Ehrenfeld’s position, “Sustainability is an existential problem, not an environmental or social one. . . I believe that we cannot and will not begin to take care of the world until we become whole ourselves (p. 60).” I couldn’t agree more. He further elaborates that sustainability is an emergent property that arises from our culture when the nested, complex systems of our reality—society, governments, cultures, and so on—fully embody nature and his notion of “Being.” This notion is fully developed and defined in a practical and achievable sense. It is the authentic expression of our self and our cultures when we embrace “care” structures over “need” structures—in other Words, coming to understand our self, others around us, and the entire world as objects of our care, rather than objects to satisfy our needs.

The book was quite instructive in describing how to promote such a transformational shift, both personally and collectively. I found it offered a uniquely comprehensive and interdisciplinary tone, philosophy, and problem “dissolving” approach that I have not found anywhere else in the sustainability literature. Ehrenfeld’s vision—sustainability by design—is thoroughly investigated from many angles. Design is introduced as “a process in which new action-producing structures are created and substituted for old ones such that routine acts change from the old, ineffective patters to new ones that produce the desired outcomes (p. 73).” Ehrenfeld’s preferred model to explain how design affects the collective is through Anthony Gidden’s theory of structuration—the cycles of action creating structure creating action, which explain how our social context (culture, technology, science, history, etc.) creates our actions and how our actions shift the social context. Giddens and his structuration theory were new to me, and I thought this set a fine stage for locating and evaluating the “levers of transformation.”

Several key areas for change and transformation are examined toward the latter half of the book. This includes the design of products, design of institutions, design of adaptive governance, and the role of business. In each arena, pragmatism is a priority—this cannot be emphasized enough and I think this book really drove it home in my mind. We cannot predict [the future behavior of] complex systems, no matter how sophisticated our systems of measurement and science and understanding are. Thus, the result of every action should be monitored, and if the result is not what we want, we must modify the action. This may seem simplistic and obvious at first glance. But when one considers what widespread reflection and adaptive response would do to our dominant “charge blindly into the future and never look back” approach, the results would indeed be transformational. After some real meditation on this topic, I am ever more convinced of the profound depth and power of pragmatism if it were really, truly employed on a broad scale.

As someone fascinated by technology and our relation to technological artifacts, I really enjoyed the section on product design and “presencing.” Product presencing involves scripting products to promote reflection, examine authenticity of the action the product promotes, illuminate the domain of care that is relevant to this action, and instill a sense of responsibility to the user; it requires intimate involvement in the routine use of products (e. g., tuning); and it promotes participatory design. While I want to believe that this sort of product design can quickly impart Being on the user (perhaps on those users who can’t find it any other way), I also recognize this will be a slow, uphill battle. I am reminded of my new cell phone, which alerts me every time I remove it from its charger that I should unplug the charger to conserve energy. Given my background, I should be receptive of this type of presencing, yet I still fail to unplug the charger. This small example gets me worried about the feasibility of broad transformation through presencing (but perhaps this is really an example of presencing working, evidenced by my writing of this passage, and I will now begin to unplug the darn thing. . .). I would have liked to see more examples of product design that embodies this type of presencing, but I suppose this indicates a lot of work and possibility lies ahead.

Inspired by the book to evaluate my own patterns, I am conflicted by the satisfaction I feel in domains of “care” (care for myself care for others, and care for the world) juxtaposed with my (normal) level of consumption that is far from sustainable. Certainly, Ehrenfeld doesn’t shy away from his criticism of technology, sustainable development, and consumption. But rather than embrace a doomsday attitude, I was truly inspired by his ability to offer a conceivable way forward. The epilogue provides an important perspective on balance, which I think prevents a mental paralysis. Rather than completely dismiss the present reality despite its detrimental shortcomings, the pragmatic approach requires balance with the present and the future. Ehrenfeld states, “Sustainability rests on the possibility that the system of the present will maintain its structural integrity while the details change (p. 113).” We need not be immobilized by the monumental urgency of our problems, nor should be proceed down dead-end paths of quick fixes and shifting-the-burden. Rather, we must tread onward with balance and care in our hearts, transforming the details of our paradigm step by step until the whole thing shifts and the emergent properties we seek are unveiled.

Thanks, Galen.

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David M Carter said:

This is a very thoughtful, cogent, and caring book review. It has been some time since I read the book, and I appreciate being well reminded of what it contains. Thank you!

One thing that strikes me about the review and, perhaps the book itself (I can't remember), is that it lacks acknowledgment of the power of the supply side of the economy (e.g. advertising, social comparison) to influence the human belief that need satisfaction through material aspiration will provide for our sustained well-being. I, like Galen and John, sincerely believe that we need to tranform at the individual level in order to overcome unsustainable cultural drivers. Yet, we humans are more affected by corporate domination than we think. It is highly unlikely, in my mind, that personal transformation will be enough to truly shift our social fabric from unsustainability to real sustainability (as John defines it). We will need policy-level controls on dominating forces that feast on our inherent irrationality. This will likely require "revolutionary" events that may be highly unpleasant in the short term.