Michiel Schwarz & Joost Elffers | Essays

Like the Word or Not, the Era of "Sustainism" Is Here

John Thackara’s recent blog post in which he criticized the word “sustainism” slights a concept that we believe has great relevance to the design community. The idea of sustainism deserves more than a discussion about what we (dis)like about nomenclature. Whatever we choose to call it, one thing is sure: we have moved well past modernist and postmodernist ideas of organizing the world. With the term "sustainism," we give a name to a new era that is emerging in our culture.

We didn't invent sustainism; we found it, as it were, on the street. Our manifesto Sustainism Is the New Modernism charts a new way of doing and seeing that is evident across society, in everything from urban planning 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 localized and more sustainable.

In the 20th century, our world was designed around modernist ideas and values. This could be seen in our architecture, product design, 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 cultural shift. Sustainism, in our view, 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 the new operating context for all of us.

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. Amidst these global trends, we see a growing interest in what’s local, for example in our food (think of the 6,000-plus farmers’ markets in the U.S. alone). To put it simply, sustainism is where connectivity, new forms of localism and sustainable life styles meet.

Sustainism (or whatever you wish to call the new culture) is bringing its distinctive 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.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 cities, food, production, media, knowledge or sustainable development, in sustainism, everyone and everything is linked. This is the culture of networks, sharing, borrowing and open exchange.

Designers and architects have been among the first to see the fundamental shifts we associate with sustainism — for example, how 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.

We see the emergence of a new type of "localism" as one of the hallmarks of sustainism. In the experience of many of us, global and local are no longer in opposition (hence that dreaded word "glocal"). The sustainist world is the world of the local farmer's market and Twitter, corner cafe and Facebook, the neighborhood and CNN. And "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. The growing interest in biomimicry reflects the same mentality, while sustainism equally invites new combinations between "eco" and "hi-tech."

None of these ideas may be new to designers or architects. Many of you reading this post are probably sustainist at heart, if not in practice.

What’s interesting is that we're witnessing similar shifts across many domains of society — 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 of these shifts seem to point in the same direction. In this manner, sustainism can provide a unifying framework 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. But this is not a countercultural movement, as in the 1960s and ’70s. The imperative toward sustainism reflects a widespread global and local effort that we foresee will become mainstream. Even today, the "sustainability movement," which we view as part of the culture of sustainism, already involves more than 100 million people worldwide (or so estimates 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 living environments 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 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.

The authors of can be contacted at [email protected].

Posted in: Business

Comments [15]

This is pretty glib, wishful, and anodyne stuff. No doubt this is going to sell a few books, but I doubt whatever ‘Sustainism’ amounts to will facilitate the kind of thinking needed to counter the true extent of our unsustainability. For me this article seems to package sustainability a bit too much like Žižek’s decaffeinated coffee – something we desire has been delivered in a manner stripped of what makes it dangerous. If designers want to grabble with these issues (as a I think they should), something far more robust is required.

One thing that particularly frustrates me is the uncritical obsession with ‘connectivity’ and ‘networks’. I agree that communications technologies afford opportunities to share ideas and facilitate alternative economies. But more often than not the things that connect us facilitate the very condition of our unsustainability (e.g. compare how Walmart deploys a vast array of technologies to maintain and extend their domination http://bit.ly/bBVOzk, as well as pandemics http://bit.ly/9wxGOW. This is good to read too http://nyr.kr/9Y92DZ). 'Connectivity' per se is therefore disturbingly ambiguous. What we really need to assert is a kind of connectivity that is knowingly directed at dismantling the unsustainable and enforcing the ability to sustain as a sovereign imperative.

Another thing that really bugs me is the failure to register how drastically unsettling the future is going to be. Climate change is already a given. The extent of its impact is still up for grabs, but it will certainly effect food, water, and (post)natural disasters, leading to unprecedented population displacement, and the potential for horrendous outbreaks of violence and humanitarian crises. Design in these circumstance could just as easily be deployed as a form of authoritarian crisis management that will amplify present day inequality.

Theories on the future and the sustainable need to be far more confrontational. They need to confront us with the extent of our unsustainability and the risks of the future. They need to help us confront our own ‘selves’, and help us to become alienated from the otherwise habitual, beguiling, and seductive nature of the unsustainable. They need to do this so we can confront the unsustainable and counter it, by design, with the imperative of restructuring culture, technology, economy and politics in the interest of what sustains.

I would hate for what I’ve mentioned to be misconstrued as simply being trying to bring down otherwise positive solutions. There is something fundamentally dangerous about settling for easy answers, something far more dangerous than a fully caffeinated double espresso. I would suggest that designers learn to think and read a little deeper, and in ways that might actually threaten to unsettle.

Continuing the discussion on "Sustainism"....

Thanks Matt, great contribution to the sort of debates that are needed. We endorse many of your points. As you rightly stress there are real issues to confront, and designers, and all of us, have to think structurally how to counter the unsustainable.

Our focus on cultural change is fundamental in that respect. We take the debate about sustainability, (+connectivity+localism) into the cultural realm, because we consider it an essential strategy for change. To identify and name "sustainism" as the new emerging culture, we view as empowering. Sustainability is the movement, sustainism is the new cultural era. The culture enforces and empowers the movement.

By naming '"sustainism" (as the new cultural "norm"), we connect the issues, and hope to find a unifying perspective for finding solutions (instead of being paralyzed by the gravity of the issues and old models). In working together towards the necessary structural changes, we feel that it is crucial to take the cultural argument aboard.

We believe in the power of culture. Our manifesto - with aphorisms and visual symbols - was made in that spirit. It's a graphic statement meant to inspire, to imagine a better future, and to make visible the new cultural paradigm that we see as part of the strategy to get there. And yes, we still have a long way to go....
Michiel Schwarz & Joost Elffers

An aside, perhaps, but worth noting: the notion of sustainability, while conveying the admirable intentions of its environmental origins, in fact falls short of the most desirable paradigm. Advocates of permaculture, an holistic approach to energy, farming, and human labor, are inclined to better the concept of "sustainable" with the more radical mandate "regenerative". The comparison they cite is a marriage. When asked "how is your marriage?", few would think "sustainable" to be a description of success. In land use and food production we must move from destructive, through sustainable, and on into regenerative. Why not in culture and design?
Chris Harvey

Sorry, did you say ‘culture’? Excuse me a sec while I fetch my gun …

Thanks for the reply. I agree that the dimension of culture is something that must be engaged if we are to talk about un/sustainability. However unless this is done in a way that fundamentally problematises culture, particularly in terms of anthropocentrism, ethnocentrism, power, and technology, the exercise will remain specious.

I don’t want to come across as a Žižek obsessive, but this quote from his book ‘On Violence’ does seem apt in this respect: “The threat today is not passivity, but pseudo-activity, the urge to ‘be active’, to ‘participate’, to mask the nothingness of what goes on.”

On perhaps a more positive note, a book I would recommend on this topic is ‘Design as Politics’ by Tony Fry. He uses a whole bunch of odd sounding made up words too, like ‘defuturing’ and ‘Sustainment’, so there’s a chance you might like it as well.

Matt, what you say above is right on the money.

I'm going to be writing about Design as Politics — an exceptional contribution to this discussion — for Design Observer very soon.
Rick Poynor

Valid words of warning, Matt. (And yes, "culture" is problematic... let's keep that gun close by :-). Even anthropologist still argue: is culture something we have and make, or something we live inside of?... We suppose both... but still, it's a poverty of language).

And thanks for recommending the Tony Fry book. We're afraid that our visual manifesto for sustainism is much lighter fare. It draws a large circle around many things, design being one --more sketchy, but connecting the issues, sensing a change in collective perception. Our Sustainism book (have a look at it) is neither academic nor journalistic, but hopefully it can invite reflection and inspire.

And if our recent post in Design Observer can continue to incite the kind of thoughtful and critical comments that you (Matt) bring to the design debate, we've contributed something. It feels to us, that we're all looking in the same direction.
Michiel Schwarz & Joost Elffers

One glaring omission from this statement is any realistic assessment of the mess Capitalism is causing the World and how it is the main block to any kind of livable, sustainable society. Capitalism is a short-term for profit only train with the a brick on the accelerator pedal, it doesn't 'work' any other way, and even though the system has essentially collapsed, we are now being offered more Neo-Liberal medicine as the supposed antidote.

So in what sense are business models or practicises fundamentally altering? 500 Corporations control 80% of World trade, emissions continue to rise, the US continues to consume the world (however many farmers markets it has), and so how can we sensibly say there is a shift to long term thinking and sustainability?

What gave Modernism it's edge was the fact it came about and through huge political socialist movements that attempted to end Capitalism, I see no such claim here for 'Sustainism', is it because too many designers and design thinkers are too comfortably middle class to really recognise the problem?
Noel Douglas

Spot on Noel. We have to 'design' money, wealth and social stratification out of the system before any truely sustainable/ regenerative 'civil'ization can be formed. Fortunately there is already a massive awareness campaigne to this effect underway in the form of the Zeitgeist Films and Zeitgeist movement. They are incredible and feature the futurist social engineer genius Jaque Fresco who proposes that science and design should replace politics as the ruling activity of society. The latest film is here:
Rick, I look forward to your design as politics piece.
oliver amoros

Wow, what a post... where does one begin?

It would take much more time than I can spare to really analyse what you (Michiel and Joost) have written here. I think Matt, Chris and Noel have made excellent points that begin that process. And I think they do a better job than I can.

My initial responses are:
You write in a reply to Matt: "…hope to find a unifying perspective for finding solutions (instead of being paralyzed by the gravity of the issues and old models)"

Is this paralysis something the design community suffers from? When I look around me - outside the "Design" community - I don't see such paralysis - I see action and reflection on action. I see people struggling with problems and seeking to solve them. I find this action taking place in the Permaculture design community, and elsewhere. Conversations about these issues were raised before Victor Papanek wrote Design for the Real World in the 1970s. What have "designers" been doing since then?

We live our values.
What are the values of designers? Perhaps designers need to take a tougher more critical look at the core of their practice and how their values are expressed through it. Perhaps the "paralysis" fear comes from a fear of acknowledging their practice might require a radical and fundamental shake up and that a fear that practice won't look the same as it used to. Such a fundamental challenge isn't easy for most people who have invested so much in a specific form of practice. While apparently optimistic and positive, this "sustainism" leaves me wondering just how far is "Design" willing to be challenged? When a person takes a long deep critical look at their values and how those values align or do not align with "Strong" sustainability, much much more than a practice changes. The person changes too. Then the practice inevitably changes. It cannot not change. I fear what is described here continues a conversation as a "weak" form of sustainability.
Chris makes the point better with the description of the shift from "sustainable" to "regenerative". Any one who has spent serious time reading and thinking about these issues (and reading outside of the "design" community) and reflecting upon the implications for practice - whether that be a "design" practice or a "life" practice - easily sees the problems with not making this mental shift.

We might all be "…looking in the same direction." however reading about your "sustainism" I feel that "Design" is a long way behind on that road and sees the glimmer of others that started that journey a long time ago.

Michiel, I notice you are "based in Berkeley, California and Amsterdam, Netherlands".
Have you found a way live AND practice the values of "re-localisation" in your "distributed" practice? (Emphasizing few of the now buzz words - which actually have great depth of meaning - but once taken up by marketing and design seem to become diluted and to loose their significance...)

Have you perhaps embraced social media to achieve this distribution of practice and powered it using 100% green renewable energy on technology that is fairly made and that has positive impact upon the environment?
It is easy to be critical - don't I know it as I type these words!
But there are many before you that have made the tough choice on these matters and chosen restraint and simplicity.


I've recently bought a house (our very first) and we're trying our very best to make it consume less energy. We have plans to put in rainwater tanks to feed our washing machine and toilet. We've got a compost bin going, and we intend to build a vegie patch to grow some of our food. I'm hoping to swap my produce with my neighbour who already has mature lemon, nectarine and fig trees. We've made a consious decision not to install air conditioning but we've put insulation in our roof and double-glazing. We have chosen to live close-by to the city where we work, so we won't have to buy a car - we ride our bikes instead.

I've done this, not because I am a designer, but because I live in an environment where I can do these things. My partner and I earn an income where we can pay for these rennovations. We are young and healthy to be able to do it and we have friends who are doing similar things, who provide practical and emotional support for such living standards (and lets us borrow their cars when we need to). And to some extent, the local council and the Australian government offer rebates to provide some financial assistance and incentive.

What I worry most about this rah rah rah by many of you here - I understand why there is a desire to talk 'big' - is that its always in a negative, lecturing tone. Whatever words are used, they sound awfuly idealistic, and it gives me a headache.

I think we really need to be careful how our ideas translate into action, both as designers AND as citizens of where we chose to live.
Yoko Akama

Pharaoh: Can you make it with four corners and a point on top? Oh, and put polished limestone on it to make it "shiny?"

Sustainism-ists: We propose making it with three corners, using normal red bricks and a flat top. It will save xx amount of labor, xx amount of materials and xx amount of time.

Pharaoh: We'll get back to you.

(Sustainism-ists were found 3000 years later -- in a little red brick tomb -- on the outskirts of Cairo, with the hieroglyph "difficult to work with" over their bones.)
Joe Moran

Well, words and language and nomenclature do matter - and my initial impression is that this a terrible word. The idea and practice of sustainability is already fraught with misinterpretation and hype, and that's sure to bleed into any identification of the word with a epoch. So, while I find your ideas right on track and beautifully expressed, I'm choking on the word sustainist. As Joan Baez wrote, "Give me another word for it, you who are so good with words."

I find the word Sustain to be the flavor of the month, but I actually opened my store with the name "Sustained Style" because the reality is most people over the age of 40 (I am well over 40) don't even think about it. It is a new word to the masses.

Despite the overuse and dumbing down of the word, the need to be sustainable is frighteningly real.

So...a word is just a word is just a word, but we must, as a species live a sustainable lifestyle to continue as we know it - our resources are being pushed to their limits. No matter what word we choose to describe what we need to do to help the human condition - it will be overused and abused by media, when that happens...then the point is finally getting to some of the masses. It's okay. Most people don't read blogs like this, they watch FOX and NASCAR - when they finally get to sustainism, then they start thinking local...let's be optimistic that although Sustainism isn't a pretty word, it needs to become a mantra for everyone.

Really interesting post, I am currently putting together a research paper on sustainability in graphic design, and find the concept of Sustainism as a new design movement intriguing, although contradictory (the last word I would use to describe design movements is sustainable!)

Anyway, if any graphic designers would like to participate in a survey to gauge experiences and opinions on the subject, please click the link below:

Richard Brown

First kudos to both Michiel Schwarz & Joost Elffers for their thoughts, time and energy writing and creating a book that's due its time. Second, critics and critiques can say 'whateva' disagrees or agrees on anything it doesn't matter...it's a new [sustainist]world out there, like it or not. Fact is our planet is finite and idea/s supporting PROPORTIONALITY should be fostered and encourage everywhere - local, regional and global level. We are one big human family of nearly 7billion now, in case people forgot we passed our ecological carrying capacity back in the 80s!- that in mind it's better to develop quality rather than linear quantity ie. [un]sustainable-growth of the old paradigm.

Of course being a new 'ism' [cause i believe the authors must have studied past ideas on this theme] - sustainism will need some time to germinate, sprout and be understood in people's mind. For those action oriented start a small kitchen waste management project incorporating a vermicompost like i did [i live in a small apt!]
trust me you will feel better everyday knowing you are creating precious topsoil. If you are into thinking then start writing anything relevant to sustainism! be good, be grateful n goodluck, i know it's hard to transit to a new culture.
ivan fukuoka

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