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The world has entered a new age. After the twentieth century's modernism and postmodernism, a new cultural era has begun. We have given it name: sustainism.
Michiel Schwarz and Joost Elffers, presenting Sustainism Is the New Modernism in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Photograph by Bert Nienhuis.

Old models for organizing have reached the end of their life cycles, leaving in their wake a new vision of the future. Our manifesto, Sustainism Is the New Modernism charts a new way of doing and seeing that is already evident across society, in everything from urban planning to business practices to food production. We are signalling a transition to a new lifestyle, and offering a picture of a world that is more connected, more localized and more sustainable.

In last century, our world was designed around modernist ideas and values. This could be seen in our architecture, product design, business models, urban planning, and much more. With modernism came a fascination with technology, modes of industrial production, a focus on material goods, underpinned by a particular idea of progress. But the twenty-first century heralds a cultural shift. Sustainism, in our view, represents a new mind-set that, like modernism before it, will turn out to define how we see our world, what we value, and how we shape our living environment. It will become the new "operating context" for all of us. Our new culture.
ABOVE: Trefoil knot, the symbol for sustainism, expressing the cycle of life and interconnectedness.

Sustainism is much more than "going green," though it has some of its roots in the sustainability movement. It's as much concerned with our the internet, social media and open-source information. Amidst these global trends, we see a growing interest in what’s local, for example in our food (think of the 6,000-plus farmers’ markets in the U.S. alone, and growing). To put it simply, sustainism is where connectivity, new forms of localism and sustainable life styles meet.

The transition from modernism to sustainism also involves a shift in how we frame problems and look for solutions. Where modernism failed to account for complexity and diversity, sustainism takes them as its very premise. In the sustainist era everything is interconnected and interdependent. Our visual symbol for sustainism, the trefoil knot, expresses this idea. (It can be seen on the cover of our book.) The trefoil symbolizes the endless cycle of life and an interrelated world.

The metaphor for the new culture is the web; whether we speak about cities, food, production, media, knowledge or sustainable development, in sustainism, everyone and everything is linked. This is the culture of networks, sharing, borrowing and open exchange.

ABOVE: Cradle-to-cradle sustainist symbol.

It is also the culture of sustainable lifestyles. To preempt a frequently asked question: sustainability refers to the movement, sustainism denotes the new culture. By naming the emerging cultural era, we make it visible, we make it happen.

There are some fundamental shifts that we associate with sustainism, for example, how our shift in our perceptions space and time have changed. The internet in particular has given a new meaning to the local: almost every place in the world is globally connected, 24/7. We live in local worlds, but we are also global citizens. We see the emergence of a new type of "localism" as one of the hallmarks of sustainism. In the experience of many of us, global and local are no longer in opposition. The sustainist world is the world of the local farmer's market and Twitter, the pub and Facebook, the neighborhood and CNN. And "local" is no longer just a geographic marker; it has become a quality, a value in itself.

In the new era we also witness other shifts across many domains of society — in the way we address innovation and knowledge, our business models, urban planning, production methods (think of "cradle-to-cradle"), community building, food and much more. All of these shifts seem to point in the same direction. In this manner, sustainism can provide a unifying framework to find answers to the pressing issues of our time.

Sustainism has its own style and perspective: diverse rather than uniform; effectiveness instead of efficiency; networked instead of hierarchical. Sustainism stands for the perspective of long-term investment and appropriate speed, rather than "quick return“ and "faster is better." From functionality to meaning, from space to place.

ABOVE: A page from Sustainism Is the New Modernism.

Sustainism will give rise to new design criteria. "Do more with less" becomes the sustainist reply to the modernist "less is more." We will see more participatory design solutions and designs based on principles found in nature ("biomimicry" as it is called), while sustainism equally invites new combinations between "eco" and "hi-tech." We will move from the modernist credo "make it new" and the postmodern "use it," to the sustainist "revitalize it."

Sustainable life styles, the growing interest in the local, global communication, social media: all are concerned with culture. But this is not a countercultural movement, as in the 1960s and ’70s. The imperative toward sustainism reflects a widespread global and local effort that we foresee will become mainstream. Even today, the "sustainability movement," which we view as part of the culture of sustainism, already involves more than 100 million people worldwide (or so estimates Paul Hawken, who has called it "the largest movement in the world").

The new culture we describe under the banner of "sustainism" poses a great challenge for designers, architects and planners as well as engineers, teachers and artists to shape our lives and living environments in this new era. ). And at the same time the emergence of sustainism is to be seen as a call to action for entrepreneurs, businesses, community groups, governments, and non-profits to actively make space for the new culture and shape the future. What is called for is a new wave of innovation that takes sustainist criteria as its starting point — inclusive, socially available, ecologically responsible and locally oriented (but not provincial).

The era of sustainism has begun. Soon no-one will be able to stand outside it. We are already all part of it.

Sustainism Is the New Modernism has been featured in the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times Global Edition, The Guardian (England), La Tribune (France), NRC Handelsblad (Netherlands) and Il Sole 24 Ore (Italy).

Michiel Schwarz is a cultural thinker, innovator and consultant, based in Berkeley, California and Amsterdam, Netherlands. His publications include The Technological Culture and Speed: Visions of an Accelerated Age.

Joost Elffers is a New York-based designer, "symbol maker" and creative producer of award-winning and innovative books such as 48 Laws of Power, Play With Your Food and Tangram: The Ancient Chinese Shapes Game.

The authors can be contacted at or **All symbols from Michiel Schwarz & Joost Elffers' Sustainism Is the New Modernism are published under Creative Commons "by-nc-nd" license.

Sustainism Is the New Modernism

Sustainism Is the New Modernism

Pbk, 7 x 9 in. / 240 pgs / color.


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