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Sustainability by Design

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

John R. Ehrenfeld
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Sustainability by Design
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14280-8
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xi)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xii-xii)
  5. Foreword
    (pp. xiii-xvi)

    Today, more and more people are waking to the realization that we cannot continue on our present path. What best personifies the deeper imbalance that exists? We could select any one of a number: carbon in the atmosphere and climate change, global insecurity, dwindling supplies of drinking water, the plight of poverty, lost topsoil, unhealthy food, or hundreds of millions of displaced farmers worldwide. But this deeper imbalance is felt more than thought. It shows up in a deep sense of alienation and pervasive anxiety. It shows up in the growing culture of fear and distrust—of large institutions, of...

  6. Preface
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  7. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
  8. Chapter 1 Is the Sky Falling, and, If So, Does Anyone Care?
    (pp. 1-9)

    Is Browning’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.¹ Instead,...

  9. Chapter 2 Solving the Wrong Problem: How Good Habits Turn Bad
    (pp. 10-21)

    About ten years ago I participated in a workshop on industrial ecology and the service sector. This was one of an annual series that was sponsored by the National Academy of Engineering to delve into the then-emerging field of industrial ecology and to look for opportunities to improve ecosystem health. Industrial ecology is based on the idea that healthy ecosystems can also serve as a metaphor for sustainable human socioeconomic systems. One of the central themes in this field is the closing of material loops—in other words, recycling most everything we use in the same way materials flow in...

  10. Chapter 3 Uncovering the Roots of Unsustainability
    (pp. 22-34)

    In 1967, in what is now considered to be a classic article exploring the “roots of our ecological crisis,” Lynn White, Jr., argued, “What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny—that is, by religion.”¹ He claimed more specifically that our environmental crisis was the result of our particular “Christian attitudes towards man’s relation to nature. . . . We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.” Perhaps this...

  11. Chapter 4 Consumption: A Symptom of Addiction
    (pp. 35-47)

    Modern living means the consumption of vast quantities of stuff. In the mid 1990s, Americans daily consumed approximately 120 pounds of resources such as coal, oil, metals, stone, and cement—an amount that was just about equal to their average body weight.¹ This statistic does not include the even larger, perhaps tenfold, quantities of wastes resulting from the production of these resources. Nor does it include the air and water used to produce thestuffthey consume. For example, the authors ofStuffestimate that almost seven hundred gallons of water are required to put a cheeseburger on the table....

  12. Chapter 5 A Radical Notion of Sustainability
    (pp. 48-57)

    Missing almost completely from the problem-oriented activities of today is a vision of a world that is sustainable—even a definition of sustainability is missing. No wonder that we move forward only occasionally, instead drifting mostly sideways or backward. Perhaps it is because the very distinction, sustainability, is fuzzy and linguistically complex. Is it a property of a system? Perhaps, but even then one would need more information to understand its meaning. What is it about the system that is being sustained? For how long? Considered as a property, sustainability, like all “-ities,” is not very satisfying. One always needs...

  13. Chapter 6 The Tao of Sustainability
    (pp. 58-63)

    Flourishing can occur only if we pay close attention to the three critical domains that the forces of modernity have dimmed:

    Our sense of ourselves as human beings: the human domain.

    Our sense of our place in the [natural] world: the natural domain.

    Our sense of doing the right thing: the ethical domain.

    These three domains form a set of overlapping fields that underlie any activity designed to produce sustainability Sustainability can emerge only if we address all three domains simultaneously. Preserving nature will not suffice if we lose our human distinctiveness in the process, and vice versa. And without...

  14. Chapter 7 Change, Transformation, and Design
    (pp. 64-77)

    I have argued that the addictive mode of modern living, with its unconscious repetition of harmful patterns, is one—if not the most significant—cause of unsustainability. To change our behavior as individuals and as a society, we must find ways to break out of that pattern. But as any alcoholic or other addicted person knows, kicking addiction is very difficult. One must first acknowledge that his or her behavior is leading that individual away from the desired end state. Then one must always accept that he or she is indeed an addict. Only then is there any possibility of...

  15. Chapter 8 Culture Change: Locating the Levers of Transformation
    (pp. 78-98)

    Every design exercise is built on a foundation of theory, whether that theory is explicit or not. Even the artist has a model of the world behind the words, picture, music, or solid object that represents and reveals the artist’s handiwork. The ballerina sculpts herself in the dance playing out a vision of her world. The models that have been both hidden and hinted at in this book need to be made explicit before proceeding further.

    Two models are at work within these pages, one nested in the other. The first is a model of collective action, attempting to capture...

  16. Chapter 9 A New Story for Nature
    (pp. 99-107)

    Since flourishing is etymologically derived from flowering, natural systems seem like a very good place to begin a search for inspiration. Nature, the wellspring of human life, is the source of mystery and enchantment. In discussing the foundations for the definition of sustainability, I noted that flourishing is one of several emergent properties of natural living systems, along with resilience, health, and others. Is there anything about these systems that can explain these properties or cause their appearance? “Cause” here does not mean the usual lawlike relationships that are used to indicate the result of applying a set of rules...

  17. Chapter 10 The Importance of Being . . .
    (pp. 108-122)

    Fromm’s observation that we have moved from a mode of “Being” to one of “having” is another sign that all is not right with the world. Recalling and questioning Browning’s affirmation of life, we ask, Can this trend be reversed? I believe so, but it will take some thinking about what these two modes of life are all about and about what can be done to recover the lost domain of Being. Transformation toward sustainability carries with it the onus of change at the deepest levels of the structure that creates both individual and social/cultural action. Our beliefs about what...

  18. Chapter 11 Consumption and Need
    (pp. 123-132)

    One of the basic premises in this book is that technology, in spite of its negative side, will continue to be the primary means for virtually all cultural activities. For satisfaction humans will continue to rely on things made by others. This book’s critique of technology is not a Luddite call to destroy the evil machines that enslave humankind. Although I believe that technology has eroded the Being mode of living, I also hold that the culprits are the nature of the particular technology and our attitude toward it. By designing our tools and resources with Being in mind, it...

  19. Chapter 12 To Care Is Human
    (pp. 133-145)

    The products and services we employ in carrying out everyday, routine activities can provide meaning in our lives far beyond the fleeting satisfaction of needs implied by the standard economic model of human behavior. The first step in exploring this possibility is to replace the elusive concept of needs with the notion of “care,” a concept central to Being. Care connects one to the world of nature, other humans, and self rather than isolating the actor via the narcissistic, innerdirected source of action related to need. To get to the core of what care means, I begin with an examination...

  20. Chapter 13 Creating Possibility with Products
    (pp. 146-156)

    How can we revolutionize conventional wisdom about technology and technological artifacts? On the one hand we have the centrality of technology in our modern culture with its promise of leading the way to a better and better life. On the other, we have the addictive power of technology that lulls us into unconsciousness. Its grip is so powerful that Heidegger, near the end of his life, was afraid that “only a god can save us.” There are few, if any, signs that a dialectic evolution is taking place with some new synthesis of technology and humanity emerging. The response of...

  21. Chapter 14 Presencing by Design
    (pp. 157-169)

    Some years ago the toy company Mattel brought out a new line of talking toys. In 1960, the company introduced “Chatty Cathy,” a doll that would speak single sentences and make requests such as “Please brush my hair” each time a string protruding from the doll’s back was pulled and then released. This was in the days before such toys had batteries and electronic guts. No matter what a child was doing with the doll, the voice making a statement or carrying a request stopped the action and the doll became very much present. The child could do as requested...

  22. Chapter 15 Creating Possibility Through Institutional Design
    (pp. 170-181)

    Heidegger focused on equipment and space in his work, taking the social context as a given. Authenticity depends on the degree to which one chooses among the possibilities offered up by the social milieu. He saw the technological character of the modern milieu as so dominating as to reduce such choice virtually to zero. In the end he was very pessimistic about the possibilities of flourishing, although he never spoke of it in those words. For him, recovering Being was paramount. Given the modernist social milieu, I would have to agree with his diagnosis.

    But what if that cultural milieu...

  23. Chapter 16 Implementing Adaptive Governance
    (pp. 182-196)

    This chapter draws heavily on works on adaptive management of environmental systems as outlined by the creator of this concept, systems ecologist C. S. (Buzz) Holling, and his many collaborators.¹ Management as a deterministic notion has been rethought and redefined by these scholars in the light of complexity. Managers typically presuppose that a system can be directed to a desired end point by pulling levers and turning cranks according to a deterministic model of the system. One critical outcome of the work of Holling and others is that complex systems require a fundamentally different approach to management than do merely...

  24. Chapter 17 The Special Role of Business
    (pp. 197-209)

    The institution called “business” has a very special role in modern societies with respect to sustainability. Business is the largest and most powerful global institution in terms of financial power, exceeding the historically dominant role of governments. It is the largest employer and, with assistance from academia and governments, the major source of technological innovation. Business is now a global institution matching the scale of the largest set of unsustainable symptoms. Business, more than any other major institution, is focused on innovation and change.

    Business is indirectly the “agent” of much of the damage to the environment. I use quotation...

  25. Chapter 18 Epilogue
    (pp. 210-216)

    The unsustainability of modernity should be clear by now. But this should not be taken as an absolute rejection of all its underpinnings. Instead, this is a call for the restoration of balance among different worldviews and a more critical choice of where and when to live and act within one or another. The most basic of choices offered herein is the one between objective reality and pragmatic understanding of truth. There are times in one’s private life and also in public discourse when one choice will produce the desired results, and times for the other to work its wonderful...

  26. Notes
    (pp. 217-224)
  27. Bibliography
    (pp. 225-232)
  28. Index
    (pp. 233-246)