The Human Stain on "Sustainism"

Left to itself -- over time -- nature has had the wherewithal to have created its very own self-sustaining, nurturing, biosphere. And you don't have to be Thoreau to readily recognize a self-contained ecosystem that supports the living organisms that exist within it. The eat-or-be-eaten "food chain" was the original "cradle-to-cradle" closed, perfect system where nothing went to waste from beginning to end. It created a cycle of life that eliminated the weak, rewarded the strong, and perfected itself towards greater machinations of efficiency and bio-diversity. In its infancy, our little blue orb was a perfect place serenaded by little more than the swoosh of winds and the ebb of ocean tides. Man-o-man. It must have been swell.

Enter humans. (Thud.)

He and she, in the blink of an (evolutionary) eye became the ideal hunters, the perfect gatherers, the expert farmers, the brutal conquerors, the greedy industrialists, the publish-or-perish academicians, the cultural mavens, political pundits, and Madison Avenue hawkers of the "new and improved." Then, out of sheer necessity evolved the "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore" planetary "saviors" who applied all of those use 'em or lose 'em skill sets to fight the good fight against selfish mega-corporations and the plunderers of all the natural resources that were once our birthright from Mother Nature. Because of the mess to which we've all contributed, Big Mama is pissed, as she damn-well should be. If you've even half-listened to the echoing Zeitgeist of environmentalism since Rachel Carson penned The Silent Spring, some 50 years ago, you may have heard Ms. Nature as she shouted at the top of her asthmatic lungs about sustainability. She's one angry goddess whose panties are in a twist because unfortunately, what was once the goal of humanitarians and environmentalists -- a salvaged eco-system in which our offspring could exist, thrive and believe - became a civilization brainwashed into believing that "better living through chemistry" would be the answer to all of our world's problems.

"Sustainism" is but the latest in a long list of terms ("the new design," "sustainable design" and part of the cultural movements of "polymodernism," "supermodernism," and "super-hybridity," as identified in a recent New York Times Arts piece by Alice Rawsthorn) being bandied about as we feebly attempt to define how we should live, how we should think, how we should act while we make our sincerest attempts to move forward while avoiding the tipping point of no return. Unfortunately, many researchers suspect that it might have already happened, that it might already be upon us, or might be imminent within the next generation -- in other words, soon.

We should have been afraid because while we weren't looking, while we were kvetching about this or that, the environmental sky had already fallen. (Thud #2). Now ivory-tower intellectuals and symbolists proudly display their "magical seeds" of sustainism. Once planted and properly watered they're intended to save us and our planet from the man-made viruses of greed, waste and indifference that are killing us. Sustainism offers that if properly nurtured through a cultural revolution, its nuggets of wisdom will grow to become the mighty beanstalk of ecological achievement and will bear a cornucopia of contributions toward a sustainable way of life and work as a tidier world is created in their (literal) image.

Built on recycled principles founded on long-established ecological values such as lowered carbon footprints and recycling/upcycling, as we lowered our energy usage, as we attempted to lessen CO2 emissions, etc., sustainism suggests that we'll be led to the promised land filled with better and healthier home and work environments, reforestation, cleaner oceans, lakes and rivers, et al.

Sustainism is intended to include the imposition and implementation of both the "physical" and the 'biological' aspects of sustainability on industry and individuals. Sustainability's original principles, going back to the first Earth Day, however, have included long term perspectives and a tree-hugger community of "be here now," pie-faced, granola-crunching (myself included) individuals who long ago embraced their own eco-welfare as tightly and ferociously as they embraced the eco-well-being of others, locally and globally (Does the term "Think global; act local" ring a bell?). The early pioneers took into consideration fair-trade long before the "cultural revolution" of sustainism arrived to ease our conscience when we buy our $5.00 cup of fair-trade coffee (though I'd gladly wager that none of the gurus of sustainism would ever exchange places with the coffee bean pickers of Guatemala, no matter how "fair" that fair-trade is). Earlier sustainability design movements brought us ergonomic design that included "cradle-to-cradle" models for manufacturing. They fought to redirect mass consumption towards mass participation, and they whistle-blew industrial "green-washing" when they saw it, smelled it, tasted it or stepped in it. And although the sustainability Davids for the most part lost to the Industrial Goliaths in this particular fight, they tried as hard as they could to take greed out of the economic equation so that a "green-washed" public trying to do the right thing by their families and planet weren't charged more for products that were questionably "better" (or shall we say "less-bad"), and unlike the masters of sustainism, many of the old-time "crunchy-granola-ites" fought as hard against the deterioration of the planet as they fought for economic justice.

To be fair, assessing the financial outcomes and the feasibility of proposed results has been essential in almost every enterprise concerning environmentalism -- some more than others. That said, the human stain of bottom-line profitability is as equally present in sustainism as it is in free-market Capitalism (only now with an underlying "new and improved" eco-twist). There's a new cynicism in the sustain-ist manifesto that, in my opinion, offers a sophisticatedly slick false sense of well being and a "nudge-nudge-wink-wink" nod to success as being defined as a positive contribution to all stakeholders, directly or indirectly, while defining 'assets' and 'returns on investment' as mere "concepts," and implying that sustainability and fair-trade, are the true profits on the bottom line. I'm no economist, but I suspect that this particular human stain on sustainism will quickly send their high-minded sustain-ist ideals right out the window when investors and stockholders see the internal rate of return and their dividends shrink away to nothing-ism.

Tim Brown, CEO and President, of IDEO, a worldwide design consultancy firm stated that "Sustainism will drive the creativity of the twenty-first century. By connecting the issues of sustainability, social networks, localism, biomimicry, community, urban planning, food and a host of others..." And he and his prestigious firm are to be applauded for having done a great deal in holistic eco-areas such as health care, energy, and childhood mortality. Yet, as stated in that same NY Times article, "'he also provoked a vigorous debate... on the need to develop reliable ways of assessing the efficacy of design projects in those fields, where the outcomes are often intangible -- rather than tangible things, like products, which are easier to assess...' Practical proposals like this are what designers need, as well as data, definitions, exemplars of success and cautionary tales of failure if they're to realize the potential of sustainism or whatever else anyone wants to call the next 'ism.'"

(Ummm? Was that another thud?)

At the other end of the spectrum, as Cynthia Smith, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum curator who brilliantly brought to life the exhibition "Design for the other 90%" showed, "sustainism" in the developing world is about staying alive just one more day; making fetid water potable; and valuing innovations by indigenous peoples and scientists, architects and engineers from the developed world equally. Modernity is a concept beyond the day-to-day reality of 90% of our brothers and sisters in the developing, draught-ridden, tsunami-flooded, famine-suffering, often corruptly governed, cramped, poverty-stricken countries in which they subsist. Perhaps the "sustainism" cultural manifesto would be best re-worded as "subsist-ism" if it is to have any true meaning to the majority of the world.

(Ouch -- thud #4! But who's counting.)

How can sustainism be the new modernism or even a replacement for modernity? 90% of the world's population lives in pre-20th century conditions; only 3% of our planet's water is potable and almost none is available to them; and the vast majority have limited access to even rudimentary technologies. (Eh-hem? Electricity?) Sustainism is a manifesto being promoted as the cure-all to modernism, without even examining the biomorphic, social, socio-economic, and elitist values that led to its birth after World War I, and its cousin, post-modernism that sprang up in the aftermath of World War II in the primarily white developed world. Comparing modernity, a term particular to art, culture and an elite few with sustainability, a crisis that is systemic, viral, and problematic is like forcing a Mies van der Rohe chair, an uncomfortable yet pricy interior design furnishing icon, on a homeless individual in need of anything but an uncomfortable yet pricy interior design furnishing icon. Considerate or not, to the homeless individual, the "form follows function" of the Mies van der Rohe chair really doesn't matter. Instead of an uncomfortable yet pricy interior design furnishing icon, what he really wants and needs is just something, anything, to sit on; the practicality and comfort of a warm and dry place to crash; and a solid meal. In his moment of need, the average homeless individual doesn't give a rat's ass about "form." What he really cares about is "function." Period. This (albeit simplistic) comparison shows how disconnected the intellectuals of the world really are from the real, often life-threatening, problems on which they continue to pontificate from on high.

(Thud. That's the sound of the poor homeless guy's backside meeting up with the cold hard pavement as the leather on the Mies chair finally wore through..)

Sustainism as a manifesto for the 21st century is being touted as a signal of a new cultural era, where the world is re-designed as more connected, more localist, more digital and more sustainable, and it's strongest proponents have also created a "universal" language to illustrate how sustainism is already reshaping global and local cultures, business practices, technologies, and the media.

I am often weary when a new "ism" is rung up the flagpole to see who salutes, since, for the most part, "isms" have been established to take or abuse power, oppress others, impose moral or religious beliefs on "non-believers," etc. (Consider just a few: fascism, Nazism, egoism, religious extremism, racism, Imperialism, sexism, nihilism, ageism, terrorism.) Ultimately, "isms" are rarely inclusive and respectful of the collective good, but rather create walls of separation. The same kind of walls that have created "us vs. them," "us over them," "pomposity vs. humility," etc. And of course, there are "isms" that are or were benignly intended for the social good, such as objectivism, egalitarianism, transcendentalism, humanism, rationalism, humanitarianism, utilitarianism, abolitionism, socialism, existentialism, hedonism, nudism, agnosticism, deism, etc. Thrown against the wall like a piece of under-cooked pasta, most of them have not stuck because contrary to popular belief, "one 'ism' does not fit all!" And there were "isms" that were exclusively particular to artistic cultural movements such as Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Expressionism, Hyper-Realism, Minimalism, Conceptualism, etc. But even the "form'-alism follows 'function'-alism" of the Bauhaus School that brought us that Mies van der Rohe chair never believed itself to be the salvation of every aspect of human society and endeavor.

(It must be time for someone to declare the Thud-ism manifesto.)

Only time will tell which "ism" category the protagonists of "sustainism" will land -- the dictatorial, the socially benign, or the culturally artistic. The intent is that sustainism will mark a shift not only in thinking and doing but in collective perception -- of how we live, who we do business with, how we feed ourselves, what we design, where we travel, and with and how we communicate and how we deal with nature. Sustainism, it is believed, will recast our relationship to all that was modern in the 20th century (good, bad or indifferent), yet also bind ecological issues into one larger picture of our world. What hasn't been factored in is the human stain in sustainism -- the greenwashing of the public images of some of the world's worst polluters, the petty philanthropic endeavors of the world's most egregious destroyers of the natural order, and on the micro-level -- the greed and egotism of con artists and snake oil salesmen, and those who want to exploit what is the "hot" new trend for their own fame and fortune until the next thing comes along or the Emperor is proven to be completely "butt naked."

"Sustainability" might be achievable as a relevant goal for eco-conscious individuals, NGOs, not-for-profits, government municipalities, social entrepreneurs, and even Big Oil, Big Pharma, etc., if their intent is to reach that goal increment by increment. "Sustainism," on the other hand, might sadly be just another elitist marketing bandwagon for which a small privileged percentile in the developed world will be affected, but close to 100% of the under-privileged in the developing world won't be affected in any meaningful way. I suspect that sustainism is just the hot air of intellectuals and those who consider themselves superior with the sole intention to profit either financially, academically or as part of a desperate eat-or-be-eaten quest for immortality by self-defining their haughty intentions as yet another "manifesto."