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Is It Time for a New “Ism”?

March 2011

By William Hanley

Decades have passed since a single idea has held as much sway over as many areas of Western culture as Modernism did in the 20th century. But with a new book, two Dutch-born, U.S.-based authors, Michiel Schwarz and Joost Elffers, say that a force has emerged that will dominate the culture of this century, shaping everything from design to politics to grocery shopping.

Sustainism Is The New Mordernism
Michiel Schwarz & Joost Elffers, Sustainism Is the New Modernism: A Cultural Manifesto for the Sustainist Era (D.A.P. / Distributed Art Publishers, New York, 2010)
View a sampling of symbols from Sustainism is the New Modernism: A Cultural Manifesto for the Sustainist Era. slide show
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Drawing on notions of sustainability found in disciplines from construction to farming, Schwarz and Elffers posit that a common outlook has emerged that weaves together complementary perspectives on localism, globalism, ecology, and digital media. The authors call it “Sustainism,” and they believe it will become nothing less than an epoch-defining idea.

Sustainism is the New Modernism: A Cultural Manifesto for the Sustainist Era makes their case with short texts punctuated by quotations, aphorisms, and other writings—by authors from Paul Hawken to Buckminster Fuller to Barack Obama—compiled predominantly by Schwarz, a sociologist and consultant. The text is illuminated with symbols drawn by Elffers, a designer and book packager. The authors present each grouping under big-idea headlines, such as “Sustainist Cities,” “Sustainist Time,” and even “Sustainist Religion,” articulating their premises in poetic assemblage rather than straight prose. 

GreenSource: Why introduce the idea of “Sustainism” over and above what we commonly call sustainability?

Michiel Schwarz: A shorthand that I’ve been using for “Sustainism” is that it’s where connectivity, localism, and sustainability meet. One of the ideas we live by in the 21st century is ecological sustainability, but we also need to take into account new forms of localism and a connected world.

GS: “Sustainism” is an awkward name. How did you arrive at it?

Joost Elffers: At first, we didn’t like the name. Then over the course of a year, we met at least 20 people who also hated the name. They all said they would come back tomorrow with a better one. But they could never come back with anything, and in the end, it grew on us.

GS: Why make your point by pairing short texts with symbols, rather than, say, writing an essay?

MS: The form of the book shows a connection between what’s happening in, say, food culture, or in business, or in perspectives on time that normally wouldn’t be under the caption of sustainable design. It’s very much about gathering things into a single perspective. A really good example is the symbol that Joost designed for “the local.” It’s a hexagon, but an open hexagon. It started as a citadel, in the spirit of farmers markets and local production, but it’s open because we live in an interconnected world. In that one symbol, we have the old citadel, where you have your place-based integrity and culture, and the open-source, network-connected world.

JE: We also see the book itself as a symbol on the table, marking the beginning point of an era. If you are knowledgeable in the field, you know every line in the book. The form of the book puts a grammar to your perspective.

GS: What do you want someone involved in the building industry to take away from the book?

MS: They should take three things from it: One is seeing connections between what they do and other fields. The second is inspiration toward new creative solutions derived from those connections. And the third is the knowledge that sustainable building is part of this cultural wave. That they’re at the core of this new thing is almost a form of empowerment. It’s a challenge. It’s an opportunity.

This article appeared in the March 2011 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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