Book Review

Sustainability By Design, (2008, New Haven and London: Yale University Press). Written by: John R. Ehrenfeld
Reviewed by: Pablo Medina, December 2008

“Our environmental crisis is the result of our particular attitudes towards man’s relation to nature… we are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to begin to use it for our slightest whim.’” “Reducing unsustainability does not and will not create sustainability.” “Nothing is really ecofriendly – perhaps some are ecofriendlier.” “Consumerism is an addiction.” With ideas like these Ehrenfeld’s Sustainability by Design seeks to challenge the way we think about sustainability and to make us “stop and think” about the role we can play in taking humans closer to a sustainable way of living.    

He acknowledges that his view and proposals are radical and invites “readers with opposing ways of explaining action to suspend their disciplinary judgments and accept [his] choices for what they are – a pragmatic guide to locate and move towards sustainability.”

He begins by defining sustainability as the “possibility that human and other life will flourish on the planet forever.” He warns that some words have a special meaning that he has to define and explain to us (like flourish, possibility, Being) and he uses approximately the first two thirds of the book to build a referential basis to allow us to understand their particular meaning.

To define flourishing Ehrenfeld takes us through the works of Abraham Maslow and Manfred Max-Neef, among others, to explain that there are three basic domains that need to be attended before flourishing can be achieved. These are: natural, human, and ethical domains.
Natural domain is the caring for the world, everything that is not human.

Human domain is the caring for oneself; things like subsistence, dignity, self-expression, leisure, learning, and spirituality correspond to this domain. Ethical domain is the caring for others; family, participation with others, providing for others are elements of this domain. Ehrenfeld claims that “for human beings, flourishing means that everyone on the planet must be free and able to lead dignified, authentic lives.” Here authentic means free of cultural constructs such as consumption and the hegemony of technology.

Consumption is seen by Ehrenfeld as an addiction at the root of our unsustainability problem. He borrows from the economist Victor Lebow to say that “our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of good into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption.” To exemplify he points to President G. W. Bush call to go shopping and continue to do business as usual as a solution to the problems caused by the attacks of 9/11.

Related to consumption Ehrenfeld syas that “affluence beyond certain point does not correlate with assessments of happiness or with other subjective measures related to well-being” and criticizes the use of economic indicators, such as GDP, to measure flourishing (i.e. satisfaction with life). He suggests that a better indicator would be suicide rates and points that “male suicide rates have about doubled worldwide during the same period in which per capita GDP has also doubled.”

With regards to the hegemony of technology he shows that modern technologies displaced the consequences of our actions making it difficult to take responsibility for what we do, i.e. it’s hard to consider the consequences that our actions have on the ethical and natural domains.

Another big problem with the hegemony of technology is that its reductionist approach to problems and its intent to solve everything with a combination of specialists fails to see the real cause of unsustainability and instead is only able to offer temporary solutions. He claims that the technocratic belief is that sustainability and unsustainability are related and that reducing one increases the other.
Ehrenfeld claims that this is not true. In his view we can only be sustainable when the natural, ethical, and human domains are worked at the same time. He believes that our technocratic approach to solving unsustainability results in what we call sustainable development which does not assess the ethical domain; hence, by continuing to use this approach, we can’t reduce unsustainability and increase sustainability.

In the last third of the book Ehrenfeld proposes that artifact design is one way by which sustainability could be achieved. His argument is that through design it is possible to send a message to the user. The design can say: stop, think what you are doing and why you are doing it. He uses the example of the toilet with double flush buttons. His claim is that, confronted with two buttons, a user of the toilet would stop to think what to do, that this would lead to ethical considerations and that the user would be able to make a decision that takes the consequences of his or her act into account, i.e. flushing (and wasteing) more or less water.

Sustainability by Design presents interesting and intellectually challenging ideas which are important to be considered by anyone interested in the subject of sustainability. However, I believe Ehrenfeld could have expanded the book to dedicate more pages to his ideas of using design as a way to achieve sustainability by means of communicating with the user. As is, the book appeared to me more as an anthology of theories on sustainability than a book on how to use design to achieve it.


One Response to Book Review

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