A 21st Century

Defining Sustainabilism

‘There is a new spirit abroad, it is the spirit of construction and synthesis, moved by a clear conception of things. Whatever one may think of it, this spirit animates the greater part of human activity today. A great (new) era has begun’.

Le Corbusier, L’Esprit Nouveau.
Paris 1920.

It would appear the term ‘Sustainabilism’ falls into many of the same traps that the ‘Modernism’ label has already shown us to be there. A hundred years apart, both these umbrella terms have suffered from being thrown around too loosely, and too often. One problem that has always existed with the word ‘sustainable’ is that it can be used with little evidence or proof to back the claim up, and sometimes only the very vaguest of theories. Something can be ‘modern’ by the simple virtue of it being new, but it cannot be ‘sustainable’ simply by the wish of its creator for it to be so. In fact ‘sustainability’ has become a word so often exploited, it is now almost devoid of meaning.

Words are important, because they are the very foundations of the ideas by which we live. When words are misused, they risk devaluing the cause they were originally tasked to represent. Most importantly, a process or system does not become sustainable until it has been measured to the point where there is tangible proof to back the claim up. Thus, especially with the design of objects, processes or systems, the ‘sustainability’ word should be used much less than the specific details of the puzzle, which work together to make this notable achievement more possible – design after all, is in the details.

To continue the Modern Movement comparison, art historian Christopher Wikl writes: ‘Vast numbers of articles and books – including very good ones – use the term Modernism without the authors ever explaining what they mean.’1 In fact the term ‘Modernism’ over time developed multiple meanings, its ambiguity suiting a period of great complexity, despite the best efforts of those at the beginning who sought purity of form and pushed for tighter definitions. Whilst the Sustainable Movement traverses a similar period full of intricacies, ongoing vagueness sadly does nothing but disservice to the overall cause.

Herbert Girardet, co-founder of the World Future Council, argues ‘the concept of sustainability has been abused like few other terms in history... For 25 years, sustainable development has been held up as the solution to the world’s problems. But instead we have had ever more pollution, biodiversity loss and climate change.’2 Today, global corporations, marketeers and development groups overuse the term with much the same frivolity as a London property developer, who might describe a 32nd-floor studio flat as ‘luxury’, simply because it is new.

The term ‘sustainable development’ first came into being when it was agreed as the guiding principle for collective human action in the run-up to the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. The introduction of this language falls at a peculiar time in human history – the same year Bill Clinton was elected to the White House in the US. The documentary maker Adam Curtis argues that Clinton became president of the world’s most powerful nation on a strategy where politics would no longer be led by ideology, ‘but by opinion polls.’ This was what some modern historians came to refer as the ‘Third Way’, ‘a political discourse dominated by spin, where it was not what you did that was important, but how that played out in the press.’3

As the writer John Higgs explains: ‘The escape route from the nihilism of the early 1990s was, in the end, mindless optimism.’4 Two years later in the UK, powered by the song ‘Things can only get better’, and with a professor of physics at the keyboard, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown took a majority in the House of Commons with a campaign that mirrored Clinton’s focus group led strategy practically to a T.

This was a distinctly ambitious strain of optimism, which still believed that nature’s concerns could be swept under the same rug that was already busy hiding (amongst other things) the impending sub-prime mortgage crisis. This same blindness gambled a government could take its country to war based on lies and misinformation, despite the dawn of a new information age where those in charge had much less control over how the truth emerged.

Rather peculiarly, in a remote corner of British Columbia at around this same time, a Canadian logger by the name of Grant Hadwin was awakening to doubt the virtues of his chosen profession – having spent his adult life bringing down the giant trees of the Canadian coastal wilderness. In the midst of a personal breakdown that would one tragic day come to also test the national spirit, he circulated a memo in 1991 covering a range of observations about the prevailing collective zeitgeist of the time, including the following points:5

3. Professionals appear to ‘DENY’ or ignore ‘The Negative’, particularly about themselves or their projects.

4. Professionals appear to create and positively reinforce façades and perceptions until these façades and perceptions are ‘perceived’ to be fact (media do this all the time).

7. ‘NORMAL’ today appears to be ‘professional values’ rather than say ‘Spiritual Values’ or a reverence for life.

Gandhi once talked disparagingly of ‘dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.’ Yet the accepted system at the end of last century, which Hadwin successfully identified, turned out to be little more than glossing over the details. This same mindset dictated how ‘sustainable’ international development was to be packaged by the NGOs, and how our path would continue to be defined by the financial corporations and global mega-brands.

At the Copenhagen Climate talks in 2009, president Obama continued this trend by famously offering us ‘HOPE’ whilst simultaneously caving to the oil and gas lobbies who virtually own the Senate. Don’t forget this was the era during which people were told the most effective way to combat global warming was to switch off the lights, or buy energy-saving bulbs.

So despite the stock market crash of 2008 being perhaps the first reality check that all was not well, in many aspects of our economics and systems of living, the Clinton era of blind optimism gave way to a new period of pure snow blindness itself. The rise in disinformation, combined with the sheer volume of information that we are bombarded with on a daily basis, has led us to an era which the author Douglas Coupland calls the ‘Extreme Present.’6 Here, so many things appear to be happening all at the same time that it sometimes feels like the only option is to hold on tight.

Therefore, in order to create cut through, sincerity must be embraced in the choices of the words we use. Herbert Girardet argues that ‘it is time to think not just about sustaining the world’s badly damaged ecosystems and human communities, but about regenerating them instead.’ The argument here is a compelling one. In Girardet’s eyes regenerative development aims to fill the gap left by two or more centuries of degradation to soils, forests, watercourses, wildlife habitats, and the ever more polluting urban environments which have arrived in their place. ‘It means that we need to develop comprehensive rules for an environmentally enhancing, restorative relationship between humanity and the ecosystems from which we draw resources for our sustenance.’7

An open letter published by 23 scientists and activists in April 2019, followed this example by asking governments to support natural climate solutions such as ecological restoration. Arguing that this (in tandem with the rapid decarbonisation of our global economy) presents our best option when it comes to removing dangerous levels of carbon from the atmosphere.8

The net positive side to this reframing, is that the word ‘regeneration’ places more emphasis around the idea of ‘bouncing back’, and giving more than we take. There’s a lot of potential energy packed within this word, and the next steps are largely already known because they involve regaining something that occurred previously, while enhancing the positive impacts of our activity. However the term isn’t necessarily applicable to all parts of the overall ‘sustainable’ puzzle. Regeneration works less well, for example, within the realms of adapting negative, wasteful or polluting manufacturing processes. Unless of course, we were to regenerate our thinking as well.

Making systems and processes more sustainable can be infinitely harder to realise, because it involves much deeper forms of interrogation into how interlinking elements come together and function, whilst avoiding conditions that lead to parts of a system wearing down or causing wastefulness. Intervention in this instance, is the only way to reduce unfavourable side effects and work incrementally towards a more sustainable outcome, which may or may not be entirely possible.

In favour of clarity, there’s a strong argument to suggest that the term ‘sustainability’, and the senseless optimism that once prevailed with it, should be ditched altogether. (Modernism shot a similar own-goal with its ambition to build utopia – rather than adopting the more honest approach of simply trying to build things better than what had come before).

In an age where buzzwords are so often misused as marketing clickbait, the crucial question to keep asking is: ‘Does it stand up to scrutiny?’ Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, calls this the art of ‘critical thinking.’ The more difficult and searching questions are demanded by increasing numbers of people, the greater the opportunity will exist to distill a movement into something which becomes truly robust. Positive outcomes rely on equipping people with tools that empower them to scrutinise the world around them through a more mindful lens. And part of this transition involves us progressing from ‘ity’ to ‘ism’, or as the illustration on page 133 shows – from hopeful theories, to well-documented and proven principles.

‘Sustainabilism’, therefore, is definitely not the ‘thing’ we are doing right now. It is, however, the aim we are reaching towards. It will eventually be made up of all the little details that we are presently exploring, and which are most relevant to the end goal being achieved. But whilst the word remains essentially an empty and yet to be validated vessel, more often than not it would benefit from being substituted by much more effective articulations of all the individual and important actions that lead towards it – the interconnectedness of all parts of the puzzle. Herbert Girardet is completely correct, to identify ‘regeneration’ as one of those fundamental steps.

So whilst Sustainabilism is the territory we are exploring, it is categorically yet to become a map of how to get anywhere particularly useful. And whilst a name is useful in order to help define the outer boundaries, it means a lot less once on the ground exploring all the exciting nooks and crannies. During this tentative period of discovery, far beyond the efforts of one individual, defining a territory of this scale will rely wholeheartedly on the energy of collective effort. The task here is to quite literally fill the word (or territory) with meaning, so that it’s bursting with engaging ideas and meaningful forms of action to work out from.

In 1989, a group of scientists in Sweden already started this process for us by developing a definition of sustainability with four basic principles:9

1. Reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and heavy metals.

2. Reduce our dependence on synthetic chemicals.

3. Reduce our destruction of nature.

4. Ensure that we are not stopping people globally from meeting their needs.

Thirty years later, we’re still yet to completely work out what these action points mean to us as individuals. So within the making of a Sustainable Movement, our failure thus far to create something tangible which everyone can relate to, easily understand and fully engage with, lies at least partly in this challenge of the wider framing and storytelling. The process of identifying problems and then creating meaningful solutions is first and foremost an act of honesty – honesty to all the most relevant details.

For example: reducing pollution will make urban living environments healthier, and in turn this will reduce pollution-related illness. Building and converting homes to create more clean energy than they use will mean people get to be part of the solution, rather than the ongoing problem. Increasing electric transportation will make our cities and towns more peaceful, reducing a source of stress and improving our ability to reconnect with ourselves and each other. Buying goods from brands that are carbon neutral and pay their employees fairly, will help knock out the ones that don’t, or at least force more to adapt.

It becomes hard to disagree with ideas when they demonstrate ways of improving the human condition. But somehow these same ideas must first engage and motivate the communities that they intend to help. Part of the ongoing task therefore lies within this space of opening up meaningful conversations, and then uncovering ways to guide people, organisations and businesses with consistently meaningful modes of action.

Objectives must be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. But first of all, they must capture the imagination. Conversely, falling into the trap of ‘glossing over’ the specifics remains a black hole which will ultimately prevent the chosen ambition of ‘sustainable forms of living’ ever being reached. Honesty, of course, in any relationship, builds mutual trust, and is more sustainable by default. It is entirely plausible a fully sustainable world is simply not possible. But only by setting realistic and incremental goals that are within our immediate grasp, will we start to find out if the long-term goal will ever be within our extended reach.

Whilst Modernism’s gaze fell towards the relationship between form and function, it largely ignored the environmental footprint attached to all the objects it made. Whilst the movement’s allure lay in its cleansing spirit, with its white walls and pared-back detailing, a more sustainable future’s strength lies much deeper, in the very makeup of how elements come together and interconnect. Arguably still cleansing, but on the next level down in terms of detail, and finally past the façade of surface appearances.

More realistic in its foundations and aims, this movement will need to grow and flourish through an unstable era full of unpredictable changes, where countless jobs are set to be replaced by emerging technology. If anything, this new period presents us with an unrivalled opportunity to look deep inside ourselves, and also reinvent what we consider to be our own true worth.  

One hundred years ago, one important leap the Bauhauslers made was to recognise that good quality craft underpinned all good quality art – and that by focusing first on truly great craft, they believed art could in turn be elevated even higher. A similar leap of thinking is required this century, in order to embrace the idea that more sustainable methods of living will need to underpin all our future craft, and wherever possible the greater part of all human action – if we do this, then once again we open up the opportunity to elevate all the art we make even higher again.

In a time where increasingly both the statements ‘art is life’ and ‘life is art’ are equally true, then both pursuits are very much in the focus of thoughtful design and mindful craft. There has never been so much pressure on all the world’s natural systems. So the challenge to the art of life must adapt to living and building through more sustainable and resilient means. The more we regenerate the world around us, the more we will be rewarded by also rejuvenating ourselves.

Perhaps one reason we have struggled to realise this future so far, is because this sort of human progress is somewhat counterintuitive. It works against our eternal quest for simplicity. Instead it involves drilling down into greater detail and analysis, in order to perhaps achieve simpler and more intuitive solutions for the next generation of makers.

The natural human condition has always been to look to the sky or to the stars and aim higher for progress. Who would have guessed the secret to healthier and happier forms of living was to dig deeper within ourselves and our own imagination instead? The economist E.F. Schumacher calls this process ‘opening the door ever wider to wisdom.’10 Or incorporating more meaningful ways of thinking into everything with which we interact.

When a system or a process can be proven to be sustainable, then there really is no better reward to describe this notable accomplishment – it has become ‘Sustainable by Design.’ Perhaps then, Sustainabilism, Sustainism, or a label like this will still hold value in the long context of history. So long as it is used either as a goal to aim for in the future, or retrospectively as the name of a movement of individuals that began to thrive somewhere close to the beginning of the 21st century. Those who choose to take on this task might one day be celebrated as the most generous and daring of pioneers.

Illustration – Words are important

Next ︎
Chapter 17 —
Sustainable by Design

Credits & Notes

Christoper Wilk
Modernism: Designing a New World
V&A Publishing (2006)

2 / 7
Herbert Girardet
‘Sustainability is unhelpful: we need to think about regeneration’
The Guardian (10 Jun 2013)

Adam Curtis
The Century of the Self
BBC Documentary

John Higgs
The KLF: Chaos, magic and the band who burned a million pounds
Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2012)

Grant Hadwin cited by John Vaillant
The Golden Spruce
Arrow Books (2007)

Douglas Coupland
The Age of Earthquakes:
A Guide to the Extreme Present
Penguin Books (2015)

‘A natural solution to the climate disaster’
The Guardian (3 Apr 2019)

Sustainability Principles

E.F. Schumacher
Small Is Beautiful
Vintage Books (2011)


To purchase your own exclusive copy of the book, or a limited run A3 / A2 poster.

Head over to the shop ︎︎︎