I had the opportunity to meet Michiel Schwarz last September when I spoke at the Hello Etsy conference in Berlin.   His purpose at the conference was to present his concept and book: Sustainism: A Cultural Manifesto for the Sustainist Era.

The New York Times did a fantastic review of the book – calling out its good points and problem areas. Alice Rawsthorn writes that the book is more an exercise in branding and that today’s “designers are already well aware of the principles outlined in the book, most of which have been analyzed in greater depth elsewhere. “ Very true, but although the book was originally created for designers, I see it more as a place for non-designers to find tangible manifesto points that they can easily process and assimilate into daily life. Truth be told, we human beings need things simplified for us sometimes and I think that the tidy graphics might just find a voice on office walls and farmers’ market pamphlets. At least I believe that it is worth a conversation.

In his talk in Berlin, Michiel admits that the book is “naively optimistic,” in that it doesn’t address the real issues that we need to overcome: climate change, “social inequalities, and the degradation of nature.”  However, he says, “We believe that it is important to shift from the negative to the positive,” and mentions a conference talk given by William McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle, where McDonough decries the focus that is always placed on what we are NOT supposed to do.

“We hear over and over again that we need to reduce everything to zero, that we need to reduce emissions to zero, zero this, zero that. In this way, we are making the future on the things that we don’t want. We need a future on the things that we DO want. That’s why it was so important for us to name where that future is.”

Michiel’s point is that, “we are moving into a new cultural era,” and that hopefully the manifesto of Sustainism will give us symbols to describe the move from modernism to sustainism.

Michiel and his manifesto partner, Joost Elffers, have taken inspiration from some of the best in 21st Century environmental, social, and economic theory literature, including Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, Wendell Berry’s What Are People For?, and Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest, not to mention McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle and E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful.  The list goes on and on…


“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 the 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. We can see manifestations of Sustainism all around us if we care to recognize them. This Sustainist manifesto charts some of the emerging features and patterns of Sustainism.  It provides pointers for a future we already inhabit.” – Page 5


What Schwarz & Elffers have done is create a collection of symbols that can be used for non-commercial purposes under the Creative Commons copyright license to help provide a universal language for understanding sustainability.  Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, they have created a surprisingly simple framework where conversations about sustainability can grow.


A farmer’s market in New Orleans (more on that next week) could use the local symbol above with numbers in the middle to denote how many miles from the market a specific product was grown in addition to the seasonal symbol below to denote an item that is only available for a short period of time.


A clothing manufacturer in Minneapolis might use the Local symbol above to denote that her product is made locally and use it in combination with a global symbol to visually define her philosophy of business.

I think that I will be returning to these images and concepts many times as we move forward into 2012.  Let’s start our conversations now; let us figure out our role in Sustainism.

Join us today, Tuesday, January 3rd from 12 noon – 1 pm CST, on our Facebook Page for a chat with Michiel Schwarz on Sustainism. Get Sustainism Is the New Modernism: A Cultural Manifesto for the Sustainist Era, D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers.

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