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Sustainism, Eco-mentalism & inbetweenism

Sustainism is the new Modernism
A Cultural Manifesto for the Sustainist Era
by Michiel Schwarz and Joost Elffers

Of course, I latched on to this book as soon as I saw Alice Rawsthorn’s piece in the (digital) New York Times about it. Datelined London, Alice begins: ‘Here’s the skinny. Modernism is dead, an design needs a new “ism” to define it.’ She sems to quietly approve of this unusual book, but puts her finger on the problem: ‘The critical issue for any designer committed to the principles identified in “Sustainism” is how to put them into practice, which always threatened to be problematic, but is proving to be even more so than expected. Those problems are particularly acute when it comes to environmental issues. Progress is hindered by the general confusion over fundamental questions such as what does — and doesn’t — constitute environmentally sensitive design, sourcing, manufacturing and disposal; and how we should judge them.’

Determined to develop ideas of my own which I have already roughly outlined in these pages – the philosophy and practice of ‘Eco-Mentalism’© (not the derangement of windmills, sandals and muesli, but a set of principles designed to empower us poor earthly weaklings to make the behavioural changes we need to make), my heart sort of sank when I saw the name of the book and concluded that someone else had got there first. But it ain’t quite like that, I’m glad to say. Schwarz and Elffers, a cultural theorist and a creative producer / designer, both Dutch and both working in the US, have created a fairly  extraordinary work in book terms, and set out a simple but heady stall in eco-thinking terms. Most of the ideas contained within are already familiar, and one thing that this book is not is a work of densely argued, scholarly discourse, so it’s as easy on the mind as the eye. But it is indicating a new path, one which many writers, commentators (including me) and thinkers must also tread, upon which we define the problem as we see it – from the point of view of design – and engage our readers, positive and critical, in debate about how we are going to cope. Or even fix said problem.

It’s a graphic designer’s tour de force. Elffers has created a whole family of signs, symbols and logos to communicate and enshrine the essential elements of ‘Sustainism’ – most notably the trefoil knot. There are logos for recycling, for localism, for globalism, for technologies (acknowledged as social designs), for sustainist high-tech (light – versatile – low-energy – minimal-resource – interactive – open – shared – recyclable); the list goes on. Almost every page is set in a different typeface; there are pages of luscious patterns; much is made of the eloquence of display type, with many a reference to the classic American fonts of the pre- and post-war eras (the ones that remind you of the Chrysler Building or a Cadillac Diner).

As a manifesto, it probably works. Let’s at least say that it is better that such a book exists rather than it doesn’t, because it will set people talking and thinking, and – we hope – co-operating and collaborating. Because that is Schwarz and Elffers’ basic message, without being academic about any of it; ‘Sustainism is a cultural force… a movement without historical precedent: worldwide but rooted in localism, and with a cultural power that needs no formal authority…. Sustainism, unlike Modernism, builds on a mass of engaged people organized in millions of citizen-led organisations, “the largest movement in the world”. (They’re talking about non profit organizations.)  It’s networked, it’s digital, it’s localist (why not local?); it’s ‘how we make our world, how we relate to nature, what we see as possible, desirable and acceptable.’

As a critic, I started to find a few holes, a weakness here and there. Sustainism, for instance, is proposed as the next logical step on from Modernism, which Schwarz and Elffers apparently believe held the world in its machinistic, mechanistic, rationalist, linear grip for a large part of the 20th century. This is arguable, and possibly a weakness which to some extent, thought critical me, undermines their proposition; because surely the two great cultural forces of the 20th century have been capitalism and communism, the latter now discredited and the former wondering what the hell is going to happen next. Modernism, in all its numerous forms (of which architecture and design are but two), was – and still is – a way of making sense of a new world, but I think it’s fair to say that as a life principle it passed the majority of the human race by.

I was also a bit uneasy about the whole language thing. This might stem from the fact that Schwarz and Elffers are Netherlanders and don’t have English as a first language, but then the Dutch are the most polyglot nation on earth and I can find you many a Dutchman who can speak English better than many an Englishman (or woman). ‘Sustainism’ as a word seems a bit awkward somehow, which awkwardness may well spill over into the expression of the ideas. And on the page where they do their definitions, it seems to veer towards ‘sustainity’, another neologism whose distinction from ‘sustainism’ is not immediately apparent.

Enough of this carping. As I compared my own thinking about ‘Eco-Mentalism’© with the proposals that Schwarz and Elffers are making, I realized that in this very critical response is, somehow, lodged part if not all of the problem. Initially I was fearful – have they stolen my thunder, I should have been quicker with my thing, etc etc – until I realized that if I was going to live by my own principles – which are very much based on the sharing, collaborative, open-minded, open-sourced ideals of ‘Sustainism’ – then I should be glad about what they’re doing, and get in touch with them to share ideas and begin colloquy (which is why I sent this text to them at the same time as I sent it to our esteemed Ed.) It has to be a matter of people working and thinking together, hammering things out, swapping ideas, building a common good out of a common cause.

The difference between Sustainism and Eco-Mentalism© is that with Eco-Mentalism I am aiming to propose a template for personal practice. As Alice Rawsthorn says at the top, and as anyone who has tussled with the behavioural aspects of the ‘eco-problem’ (let’s call it that for now) knows full well, it’s all very well saying what we’ve got to do. We all kind of know the best wisdom. How the hell are we going to make ourselves do it? Eco-Mentalism, currently in preparation to break on an unsuspecting and ever-to-be-grateful world at Ecobuild on 2 March (you might already have missed it) is based on a set of human powers that we already have, we just don’t know it. To make the human changes necessary for the ideal world of Schwarz and Elffers to become a reality, we need a practical roadmap of self-transformation.

It isn’t a preaching, nagging, punishing, do-this-or-you-will-be-for-ever-doomed sort of thing. It has to be presented in a way that will make people want to do it. Compare the enormous self-improvement industry, for such it is, and the countless books about how to love better, live better, be thinner, richer, a better golfer, designer, writer, salesman, miner. Not all of us subscribe to that sort of thing, but many millions feel innately that they are capable of so much more. I humbly recommend that you follow Eco-Mentalism (I’ve got the domain but there isn’t anything on it yet) to make your own mind up about whether this too is a useful blueprint for a survivable tomorrow. And you’ll be a better designer for it as well. Better humans make better designers. No guarantees.

Sustainism is the new Modernism
A Cultural Manifesto for the Sustainist Era
by Michiel Schwarz and Joost Elffers
Distributed Art Publishers, New York
Distributed in the UK by Thames & Hudson, £16.95
ISBN-10: 1935202227
ISBN-13: 978-1935202226

Posted in Ecology of the Soul.