Human Nature Forecast: Michiel Schwarz on Sustainism

“Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we can see a new era emerging, one that embraces more sustainable ways of living and an interconnected world. It is marked by new attitudes to both manmade and the natural environment, and new approaches to both local and global issues. What is coming into being is nothing less than a change in cultural perspective, a new mindset, a worldwide remaking. Moving beyond ideas of modernism and postmodernism, this shared outlook promises a networked, globalized, sustainable future. The world has entered the Sustainist age.”

Positive, idealistic and bold – a perfect opening for a manifesto which signals and pleads for a change in thought and action in people’s daily lives. Sanne talked with Michiel Schwarz, a cultural thinker and co-creator of the Sustainism manifesto,at the hugely popular PICNIC festival 2012 in Amsterdam.  What’s behind the idea of Sustainism, and why did he, together with designer Joost Elffers, feel the need to present it as a manifesto?

Thinking beyond green

First things first: Sustainism is much more than just sustainability or ‘going green.’ Sustainism has emerged around the ideas of environmental and social sustainability, equity, community and the open exchange of information. It is concerned with our changing media environment, the Internet, social media and open-source information as well as things ecological. To name this new reality Michiel Schwarz and Joost Elffers coined the word ‘Sustainism’. As Schwarz explains, “Sustainism is a transition to a new lifestyle and a new picture of the world. Sustainism marks a shift not only in thinking and doing, but a change in collective perception – of how we live, do business, feed ourselves, design, travel, and communicate as much as how we deal with nature and development and of our roles in them.”

Fuzzy boundaries

Schwarz sees the emergence of this new cultural paradigm as a shift that moves us beyond modernistic and postmodernistic values. He’s very careful though, not to describe it as an established movement in the traditional sense: “Sustainism has no concrete forms yet. If you look at modernism, it took decades for the ideas to land in the values and practices of people. So it’s a process, not a monolithic idea or an exact scientific concept. I cannot give you a hard definition of Sustainism that tells us what we mean by “human nature” in the new cultural era. It´s a modernistic idea that we can divide the world into hard distinctions and categories. In the era of Sustainism, boundaries are actually more like cross-overs, they are changing over time and socially-defined.”

“In the era of Sustainism,” Schwarz explains, “crossovers are essential, because everything is interconnected and old distinctions begin to fade.”  Take our changed view on the experience of place, which is not divided anymore by the traditional boundaries of global versus local: “Sustainism changed our perspective on location – geography shifts from space to place. We have moved beyond the space age idea of the world as one global village. Rather Sustainism recognizes that we now live in what we better call ‘a globe of villages’. In the age of internet and mobile communications all locals are globally connected. We no longer live in either local or global worlds, but in some combination between the two, call it ‘glocal’.  If, for example, you read Geert Mak’s In Europa, ‘the local’ in the lives of the people at that time meant something completely different, from what we experience today. ”

In other domains the borders have become a bit fuzzy too.  Schwarz:  “What we see as ‘natural’, for example, is a cultural construct.  In the new cultural era we’re seeing a shift in how relate to our environment. Nowadays, we consider nature as a source rather than a resource”. Similarly he observes a shift in how we relate to our living environment: “In the Sustainist era, we’re moving from a world where ‘you are what you have’ to ‘you are what you share’.”

Time for new models

As old models of thinking – technological change, business models and financial models –have reached the end of their life cycle, Schwarz and Elffers’ manifesto signals the need for new ways of thinking. So where will the new models come from? Well, according to Schwarz, from the world of culture: “I see two things happening in world where culture makers become increasingly important. First of all, the creative sector often holds the key to innovation, finding new combinations, and niches in society and business. We don’t know how and in what forms this sustainist creative innovation will emerge, but it’s clear this culture of creativity is a going to grow. The recent focus on the so-called ‘creative industries’ is a case in point. Secondly, Sustainism brings together three things: sustainability movement, technology movement and now at the forefront of the open source movement you have the link to community and people. Now that community, technology and sustainability are coming together for the first time, new ideas and solutions become possible,  for example community-based, high-tech, sustainable energy solutions.”

Just do it!

If Sustainism sounds idealistic, Schwarz assures me that idealism can be very well combined with pragmatism: “You may call our manifesto naively optimistic, but we always need some kind of idealism, as well as inspiration otherwise you would have neither vision nor hope. And when wishful thinking becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, that’s how culture changes.”

Schwarz emphasizes that Sustainism doesn’t claim to be a blueprint which tells us what to do to change the world: “It’s a shift in perspective which is needed to address the big issues of the world in an integrated way, whether it’s climate change, inequity or poverty. Sustainism provides a framework for a new way of thinking that is emerging. Culture changes not only because people look at the world with different eyes, but also because people actually start behaving differently.”

That’s why Schwarz hopes that people will not only look at the Sustainism Manifesto as a lively description and visual vocabulary of the current shift in cultural paradigm (with a series of symbols designed by Joost Elffers, charting the culture of Sustainism) , but also view it as an inspiring call for action: “One should see it as a vantage point, as lines of sight. But equally it also represents a set of guiding lines. It enables you not only to track and trace the new culture of Sustainism, but also to shape it and to design for it. In Dutch this two-edged terminology sounds even better: zichtlijnen en richtlijnen.”

And today we only have to look around, to see examples of sustainist thinking, as Schwarz explains: “We could only write the manifesto for Sustainism because many people are already living by sustainist ideas, in my estimate already some 200 million. Sustainist culture is already here, so we just have to make it happen. If you value the quality of connecting or the quality of sharing you will find ways to do that. People don’t necessarily ask ‘How can I be more sustainist?’. But they are concerned with what I call the new sustainist values such as sharing, connecting, localism as well as sustainable living, and how we can design our lives for that. People mistake Sustainism for an end goal which you can reach with a good strategy. That’s like asking the strategy for vegetarianism; you don’t organize a meeting where you sit together and try to figure out how to be a vegetarian. You just do it.”

Further reading (and do!)

– You can read all about the new movement of Sustainism in the manifesto by Michiel Schwarz and Joost Elffers and on the Sustainism bookwebsite. The manifesto is available in bookshops or via amazon.

– As Michiel Schwarz argues, Sustainism is something that needs to be done. Do you have great examples or Sustainist practices or design? Join the discussion initiated by The Beach, and contribute to the Open Book of Sustainist Design!

– Check other Human Nature Forecasts on our website. For example eating designer Marije Vogelzang, or Next Nature philosopher Koert van Mensvoort.

Photocredits: 1. Michiel Schwarz at PICNIC by Gerlinde de Geus, 2&3: Joost Ellfers

This interview is also published on TEDxAmsterdam

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