Flourishing Forever

The author of Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming Our Consumer Culture says the current craze for going green is all wrong.

Photo: John Ehrenfeld

John R. Ehrenfeld is Executive Director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology. He retired in 2000 as the Director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business, and Environment, an interdisciplinary educational, research, and policy program.

He has been thinking about sustainability for a long time. “In 1967," he says, "I founded a research company called Walden Research, a good name for someone in the greater Boston area, to do air pollution research. And it was one of the handful, literally, four or five companies at that time devoted to studying the environment. I stayed there for a while and in 1978 I was appointed by President Carter to run a small resource agency here in New England called the New England River Basins Commission. I ran that until Reagan took office and abolished the agency. I’ve been the executive director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology since it was started in 2001. And then in-between I found time to do some lecturing, a little teaching, but primarily I spent the last five years, in putting a book together, my book, Sustainability by Design.” Ehrenfeld spoke with Michael S. Hopkins, Editor-in-Chief, MIT Sloan Management Review.

Let’s start by talking about how you define sustainability and how your ideas differ from those of others.

Economic development is about making things and buying and selling them in the marketplace. A lot of people, when they speak about sustainability, are really talking about sustainable development. I don’t want to sound snide here, but this is something I truly believe—that sustainable development is about making and using things more efficiently. If you look at almost every strategy that has been developed under the rubric of sustainable development, it’s some form of so-called eco-efficiency.

My definition of sustainability is fundamentally different. I define sustainability as the possibility that human and other life will flourish on the planet forever. It’s a definition about as far from the central notion of sustainable development as night is from day. But, to me, it represents a truer idea about what sustainability is all about. Flourishing, like many other desirable qualities, is an emergent property. It has no thing-like character. It’s like health, or liberty, or freedom: It appears only when the whole system is functioning properly. And just like you can’t produce a Rembrandt from a paint-by-numbers kit, you can’t build a machine to produce flourishing, and you can’t measure it.

Now, many people belittle this kind of notion, because in the world of business and management you find the mantra, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” But sustainability is not about managing and measuring. It’s about getting there, and staying there.

EHRENFELD’S SUSTAINABILITY TAKEAWAYS
Definition

How do you define sustainability?

  • The possibility that human and other life will flourish on the planet forever
Drivers

Which sustainability issues will have the biggest implications for managers?

  • Rising levels of unsustainability, measured by global warming and collapse of fisheries
  • Dissatisfaction with technology that has moved humans from a being mode of life to a having mode of life
  • The domination by humans of nature to the point where nature is threatened
Threats and Opportunities

What threats and opportunities will sustainability-related concerns present?

  • Threat: The focus on greening may make companies complacent to the bigger cultural changes that are necessary
  • Opportunity: Designing everyday, behavior-steering artifacts to carry different messages for a culture that could become hungry for them
Impediments

What obstacles keep organizations from acting on sustainability problems/opportunities?

  • There are few corporate models for taking sustainability seriously: Companies that are green exemplars, such as Seventh Generation, Patagonia, and Ben & Jerry’s, are simply selling into their niche markets
  • Modern technology makes acting responsibly problematic because it hides the actor from the act
  • U.S. is behind Europe in creative industrial design that could build behavior-steering objects
Etc.

“Sustainability” is an emergent property that only appears when the whole system is functioning properly ... Culture change is very, very hard (which is why the subtitle of Ehrenfeld’s Sustainabilty By Design is A Subversive Strategy for Transforming Our Consumer Culture) ... the most powerful, immediate opportunity is to have world leaders start to tell the truth about where we’re going and that we can’t do things the way we used to

Why isn’t there a way to count what you’re after?

It’s the nature of emergent properties. The world is complex. It’s the relationships between all the parts that count, not the parts themselves. If we don’t get it right, we’re just not going to see these qualities come forth.

Now, what people do measure are attempts to reduce the level of unsustainability. That’s different, because unsustainability can be divvied up into little pieces. Global warming, fisheries collapse—you name it, there are a myriad of different categories which we talk about today. All these problem areas need to be lessened and made less harmful because we’re not going to be able to flourish until we get these under control. They’ll never go away entirely, but they can be brought under control.

It’s critical that all the activities that are going on in the name of greening—greening campuses, greening companies, continue. If the level of unsustainability rises, we’re in danger that the system will collapse and then there’s no way we’re going to get back to where we were or want to be.

I’m also wondering why sustainable development can’t be defined the way you talk about sustainability. When a lot of people think of sustainable development, they're thinking about enabling people, especially in the poorer parts of the world, to have the opportunity to live the kind of productive life that we all take for granted.

Well, I don’t know you, but from these few moments we’ve had together I would say you’re not fundamentally arrogant. But your question is. The way you posed it was, “isn’t it right that people in the poorer parts of the world have the same economic opportunity that we do?” feeds into an argument that’s very prevalent. Should we import democracy to the rest of the world? It’s an argument, it’s a debate.

There’s no question that every human being born in this world has a right to a minimum set of standards: clean water, sufficient food, a variety of things. I’m not going to attempt to quantify that.

But at the same time, people have a right to retain their culture. People flourish in their own cultures without having a lot of money. There was a really interesting piece on ABC News about a group going into the Amazonian jungle and encountering the remnants of what was once a large civilization. Only six people are left. They will have no more offspring so they’ve been brought to extinction by the encroachment of loggers and others in their area. But from everything I got out of that interview, these people have been flourishing. And it’s the pressures on that culture, not the need for development in our way, that have really threatened their civilization.

So there is a point at which it is arrogant to say that our way is the right way. The problem with defining sustainable development in this way is that once the momentum gets built and the technological, technocratic machinery is put in place, it’s like being on the Titanic. It’s very hard to say, “Okay, whoa. We’ve done it. You’re on your own.”

Let’s talk about the biggest implications for business in thinking about sustainability this way. What is going to drive businesses to pay attention?

Once again, I take a pretty different view from most of my colleagues. First of all, I talk about identifying and addressing the drivers of unsustainability. And, to make a long story short, I see unsustainability as an unintended consequence of modern cultures.

Some background. In addition to my work at MIT before I retired, I’ve been the executive director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology since about 2001 when the society was started, and for the last five years I’ve been putting together my book, Sustainability by Design (Yale University Press, 2008).

As technology has increased and become more ubiquitous, it’s being used to provide satisfaction in ever more places. And that has created problems both with nature and with how we view ourselves as human beings.  In the book I talk about three critical problems that have arisen. The first is that we’ve lost consciousness of what it is to be human. We’re “need” machines. In the words of Erich Fromm, we’ve moved from a being mode of life to a having mode of life.

The second is we’ve forgotten our place within nature. We still have Enlightenment ideas that humans are separate from nature, which is here to be mastered for our purposes. So it’s not surprising that, slowly, but surely, we have indeed dominated nature—to the point now where it’s threatened as our life support system.

And the third critical problem, particularly interesting one to me is that modern technology makes acting responsibly problematic, because technology tends to hide the actor from the act in time and space. It changes our perceptions of the world we’re in. If I take my glasses off, I see the world not so clearly. When I put them on, they’ve changed the world I see.

Are you saying it will be very individual, human sets of needs that challenge the ways that business thinks about operating?

Interestingly, I think within companies, the same kind of technology that has created these unintended consequences and pushed us into the having mode can be used like in as a jujitsu match. You take the force and throw it back. Redesign the technology we use everyday. That’s why the title of the book is Sustainability by Design.

You can design artifacts we use every day to carry different messages than they do now. The messages we get now are often along the lines of, “Buy me in the store put me on at home and then you’re going to be beautiful.” But those kinds of messages can be shifted to tell stories about taking care, like speed bumps that say, “Whoa, slow down, there might be a child crossing this. Take responsibility.” Or the simple little program that pops up every 20 minutes on my computer screen telling me to take a timeout. It says, “Stop, take 20 seconds.” I could turn it off and avoid the interruption, but, it’s a good reminder to hear, “John, you’ve got to take care of yourself.” Sitting for four hours straight, which is what I would probably do otherwise, is not good for one’s health.

You can call these technologies, “behavior-steering artifacts.” One of the oldest examples can be found when you go to a European style hotel and they give you your room key. It’s not an encoded plastic card, but rather an old-fashioned key with maybe a half-pound weight attached to it. That key is talking to you. As you go down the steps to go out, that key is saying, “Leave me at the desk.”

Another example is the toilet. In much of the rest of the world, new toilets all have two buttons, a big one and a small one. You can’t flush it without being reminded that it’s your job to take care of the earth, to be responsible.

If companies turn the same innovative power to make the tools talk to us in these voices, rather than in “you don’t need it, but buy more anyway” voices, we would create a virtuous circle: people would ask for more, and companies would innovate more, and so on and on.

The process starts in the innovation of design practices. You find much more of this in Europe than you see in the U.S. now—they’re already teaching it in the industrial design departments of their universities, whereas which we have very few such departments in the U.S. I learned all about this during a year in Delft, where I spent a year in the industrial design faculty.

You’re talking about threats and opportunities—the opportunities for businesses to cultivate a market, and the threats to businesses of missing the boat.

Companies are missing this opportunity. The green exemplars—say, Seventh Generation, Patagonia, Timberland, Tom’s of Maine, Ben & Jerry’s—are not doing this. They’re missing this. They’re selling into the markets which are already there. Niche markets. But those markets themselves aren’t going to help in the long run, because the people that go to Seventh Generation and Green Mountain Coffee are just shifting the burden. They think they’re going to save the environment, when what they’re really doing is just reducing unsustainability a little bit. And that may very well make them complacent. Buying and using recyclable this or recyclable that is not enough.

Business as an institution is a very powerful force in both changing and maintaining culture. Societal cultural values infiltrate companies and drive them. But companies can voluntarily begin to change the way they do things to create a different set of beliefs. And when employees go home at night they take these beliefs home, so companies have an opportunity to be part of the agency for cultural change beyond embedding ideas in the stuff that goes out the front door.

Speak to me as an executive, a manager. What are the biggest things getting in the way of me acting on all this?

One is we don’t know very much about how to design this kind of technology that talks. It seems to be kind of airy-fairy, based on French deconstructionist philosophy about artifacts and how they work. So even if you set out tomorrow to say, I’ll build speed bumps and all kind of things that people will buy and use, you’d have a hard time finding a designer in the U.S. that really knows how to do that.

Another issue is that businesses can get too caught up in greening. Greening is the word of the moment. Almost all of the businesses that use it are well-intentioned. They believe what they’re doing is critical. And in a way it is critical. But they’re not thinking beyond that little niche that they’re now serving.

We’ve had a sustainability consortium that’s been going 8 or 9 years in this Society for Organizational Learning at MIT, and my experience is that it’s hard to get the companies that are interested in sustainability to stay with it for the long pull. You find one or two people at a company who really know what they want, but they have limited power to inject it into the corporation. Harley Davidson has been an exception: it’s a consortium member, and a fabulous company.  It surprises me, because the image of motorcycle doesn’t sound sustainable, but a couple of their folks really have got it.

So it’s really little seeds sprouting, but that’s all. That’s as far as this kind of thinking has gotten.

If you could undertake any sustainability initiative, what would you like most to do?

Well, I don’t think that you change people’s minds from the top-down. Culture change is very, very hard. The subtitle of my book is A Subversive Strategy for Transforming Our Consumer Culture. Because it is so hard, you have to sneak it in.

Having said that, I think the most powerful, immediate opportunity is to have world leaders start to tell the truth to their flocks. The key thing is to get people to think—and I’m using that word carefully—about where we’re going.  Not to promise anything, but to begin to tell them that the world is complex, and we simply can’t do things the way we used to. We need leaders to say, I don’t know what the answers are, but I do know we can’t do things the same way we did it.

That would give companies a bigger window to start to doing what they have to. I think that’s the biggest thing that can happen to kick this off. And it’s just a kickoff.

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