"Sustainism": the New Modernism?

Honestly, when the book Sustainism is the New Modernism: A Cultural Manifesto for the Sustainist Era (D.A.P. / Distributed Art Publishers, New York) first crossed my desk, I wasn't sure how to react. The book's graphic aesthetic was a bit cluttered but the concept of the book was intriguing—the authors Michiel Schwarz and Joost Elffers propose that "Sustainism" (a term they've coined to describe a new cultural movement related to sustainability)—is the "new ecology of our networked world." "Sustainism in the twenty-first century will be what Modernism was in the last," the authors state. It's "the confluence of globalization, the web, climate change, localism, media democracy, open source, environmentalism, and more," and "a collective worldview that stresses the interdependence among cultural and natural environments." The rallying cry is "do more with less"—in contrast to Modernism's ubiquitous "less is more." Here, Schwarz and Elffers talk about Sustainism (the book, and the concept) and why they think it's the way forward.

Sustainism book

Can you tell me how this book came to be?
We were talking about the changing times: the age of climate change, the internet, farmer's markets, globalization, the growing interest in the local, social media networks. But also, for example, how modern art museums don't seem to connect with the zeitgeist. Then it dawned on us: a new culture is emerging. The world has outlived modernist ideas and ideals, and now we find ourselves in a new cultural era. It just didn't have a name yet. Once we came up with the word "sustainism," things fell into place. Our book became a "sustainist" view of the world, a perspective that we foresee will shape the future.
How and when did you arrive at the idea of 'sustainism'?
What really astonished us is that—despite all the talk about sustainable lifestyles and the internet generation—nobody called it a new culture. We're the first to talk about it in the same breath as modernism, which shaped our living environment in much of last century. So we began to look for a word, another -ism, to name the new cultural era of the 21st century. The "age of sustainism."

The front and back cover of the book.
The front and back cover of the book.

Why "sustainism"? What's behind the idea?
Under the rubric of "sustainism" we reveal a culture that is more connected, more localized and more sustainable. It builds on the 100 million-plus "sustainability movement," but it's also the culture of sharing, social media, the we-generation and new forms of localism. But this is not some new theory that we've come up with. We didn't invent sustainism, it's all around us. By naming it, we could draw a large circle around the new times, and make it visible. We're not replacing things like sustainable design, we just recast them, and place them at the very heart of culture. We see that as an act of empowerment for all those interested in shaping a better future.
Elffers and Schwarz propose that this is one of the central tenants of 'Sustainism.'
Elffers and Schwarz propose that this is one of the central tenants of 'Sustainism.'

In the book you raise the idea of "sustainist architecture" and "sustainist design." What do you mean?
It signals new forms of architecture and design, conceived out of an integrative perspective that has as much to do with the networked world and connecting people as it has with ecology or sustainability. Sustainist architecture is not just "green," but includes it. We're moving towards an architecture where criteria such as renewable energy and sustainable materials are integrated with a whole series of other interrelated factors—connections to locality and nature, human-centered design, sharing, global networks. We already have vegetable roof gardens on hotels, urban farms, buildings as 'hubs"… it's just the beginning. We see it all as part of a new ethos. It will give rise to new forms, new aesthetics and new meanings. We believe sustainist architecture will become mainstream culture—it will become the norm.
Why do you call the book a 'manifesto'?
We designed the book as a series of aphorisms, quotes, observations and graphic symbols that together chart some features of the new culture. It's a forward-looking agenda for change. That's a manifesto. The form allowed us to sketch the contours of a future-in-the-making without writing a blueprint. We made an open-ended manifesto, very much in the opensource, sharing spirit of the sustainist times. Our book is a manifestation of the new culture. We present it as a manifesto as a way of opening the debate on the new culture.
How did you develop the visual language of the book?
The visual language we designed for the manifesto is based on the triangle. Where the square was the cornerstone of modernist culture, sustainism takes the triangle and the cyclical forms as its bases. Most of the sustainist symbols are designed on a triangular isometric grid. The triangle is the strongest structure found in nature, Buckminster Fuller's domes are built on that. We're using the triangle not as a pyramid, but instead we turn it on its point: not hierarchical but shared, and pointing towards the earth, with minimal impact.
Some of the sustainist symbols the authors developed for the book.
Some of the sustainist symbols the authors developed for the book.

What role did each of you play in writing/designing the book?
Michiel: the words are mine. I'm the writer. I've spent many years looking at global issues and the future (I started as a sociologist of technology). Joost: I designed the symbols and visualizations. We worked closely together, going back and forth between text and image. An inspiring, yet time-consuming process, to end up with this unusual form where words and graphics reinforce each other.
Tell me about a few of the symbols you've developed for the book, most notably the trefoil knot as the symbol of sustainism and the hexagon for 'local.'
The trefoil knot is our main symbol for sustainism (it can be seen on the book cover)—a closed three-dimensional cycle, based on three loops. It symbolizes the closed loop of sustainist life, a world where everything is interconnected and interdependent. We wonder whether our trefoil can grow into the worldwide symbol for those who want to communicate their alliance to sustainist ideas (somewhat like what the "peace sign" was in the second half of the 20th century). About our "Local" symbol: it's perhaps the most significant new sign of the times. It can be used to flag or advertise local produce, or local production. The local "icon" consists of an open hexagon, based on the old town citadel and the beehive. We've opened it up to signify the open and inclusive nature of sustainist life. "Local" will be the next big thing in sustainist culture—witness, for example, the rising number of local farmers' markets, currently 6,000 in the U.S. alone.
In the book, you write that 'sustainism' is more concerned with "proportionality rather than scale." Can you elaborate on that?
Remember E.F. Schumacher's saying "Small Is Beautiful"? That's the counterpoint to "bigger-is-better" but it's still about scale: large scale or small scale. In a sustainist culture we see the focus shifting to "proportionality." It defines size or scale in proportion to something else—to nature, for example, or human experience. That's not a new idea for architects. Already half a century ago, Aldo van Eyck, for example, and the architects' group "Team10" architects were calling for an appropriate "measure of things," and spoke of "human proportion." We need to develop sustainist design criteria, and at every stage of the process question whether our design interventions are in context and have the appropriate scale.
The trefoil knot is the symbol of sustainism.
The trefoil knot is the symbol of sustainism.
The hexagonal symbol for 'local.'
The hexagonal symbol for 'local.'

Your book is not copyrighted, but rather 'copylefted.' Can you explain what this is, and why you went this route?
Open source, sharing, collaboration and exchange are at the heart of sustainist culture. We've given a name to what's happening in the world, and now we're returning to you and everyone what we've made. All our symbols and texts are essentially in the public domain. We make them available under a Creative Commons license allowing free non-commercial use. As we say in our sustainist manifesto: "You are what you share." Please share your thoughts with us at share@sustainism.com.

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