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Sustainism Is the New Black

A new "cultural manifesto" for the 21st century provides more slogans than solutions. And gives us the distracting new word "sustainism."


"Sustainability" has never been great at communicating its true meaning. It has always seemed too broad in its scope: How could any single term put everything from permaculture to green building to renewable energy under one umbrella? Hence, the embrace of the once ubiquitous "Green is the New Black."

Such lack of clarity certainly helps to account for sustainability’s failure to grasp the public’s hearts and minds in the same way as, say, the radically inaccurate but masterfully coined "death panels" meme did. And the environmental movement has suffered.


So it’s disappointing to see two otherwise very smart and creative people approach the problem by introducing an even more elusive term, "sustainism," into the lexicon. In their new book, Sustainism is the New Modernism, cultural thinker Michiel Schwarz and designer Joost Elfers (creator of the fabulously inventive Play With Your Food book) have put forth a “cultural manifesto” that is most successful at making a hard-to-define idea/movement/philosophy even harder to comprehend.


No doubt many manifestos seemed similarly convoluted when they first appeared, but it really is hard to determine what Sustainism’s authors hoped to accomplish. At present, a majority of the U.S. population doesn’t believe in climate change. Others doubt the importance of organically grown produce or fail to see any problem with our dependence on fossil fuel. And earlier this month, the 112th Congress, in one of its first moves, disbanded the one committee devoted solely to climate change and energy issues. In this context, it’s hard to justify a book that consists solely of colorful symbols and logos, and over 100 pages of lite aphorisms such as these:

Local x Global=”Glocal”

Fusions Between Ecodesign and High Tech Become Commonplace

Sustainist Inclusiveness Gives Voice to the Other & the Indigenous

To this, I would add, The Crow Flies at Midnight.

Sustainism is the New Modernism would have benefitted from a small introductory essay. Presenting the "value system of the 21st century" demands a little context; there are, after all still 89 years left to go. The environmental debate will rage on, terms will come and go, but in the end, Elfers and Schwarz did environmentalism a disservice by opting to treat it as just another branding exercise. The book's press release states that, "By naming it, this cultural manifesto makes it visible." But visible to whom exactly? Simply printing "Sustainism is Becoming the State of World"—even if you do so in a graphic red font—doesn’t make it so.


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