Sustainability by Design


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A Subversive Strategy for Transforming Our Consumer Culture

John R. Ehrenfeld

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Treating the symptoms of global ecological stress isn’t enough; we need to think about sustainability in an entirely different light

The developed world, increasingly aware of “inconvenient truths” about global warming and sustainability, is turning its attention to possible remedies—eco-efficiency, sustainable development, and corporate social responsibility, among others. But such measures are mere Band-Aids, and they may actually do more harm than good, says John Ehrenfeld, a pioneer in the field of industrial ecology. In this deeply considered book, Ehrenfeld challenges conventional understandings of “solving” environmental problems and offers a radically new set of strategies to attain sustainability.

The book is founded upon this new definition: sustainability is the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever. There are obstacles to this hopeful vision, however, and overcoming them will require us to transform our behavior, both individually and collectively. Ehrenfeld identifies problematic cultural attributes—such as the unending consumption that characterizes modern life—and outlines practical steps toward developing sustainability as a mindset. By focusing on the “being” mode of human existence rather than on the unsustainable “having” mode we cling to now, he asserts, a sustainable world is within our reach.

John R. Ehrenfeld, who before his retirement was affiliated with the MIT Center for Technology, Policy, and Industrial Development and the Departments of Chemical Engineering and Civil and Environmental Engineering, now serves as executive director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology and is senior research scholar at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. In 1999 he became the first recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Resources Institute. He lives in Lexington, MA.

Read John Ehrenfeld's "Sustainability by Design" blog here.

“Ehrenfeld presents a unique perspective on the subject of sustainability that needs to be taken seriously by anyone who claims to talk about the subject.”—H. Thomas Johnson, Portland State University

"The author's argument is astute and insightful, eloquent and convincing."—David Orr, Oberlin College

“In Sustainability by Design, John Ehrenfeld eloquently challenges us to confront the scale of change required to achieve a sustainable world and efficient society.”—Jonathan Lash, President, World Resources Institute

“John Ehrenfeld has written a thought-provoking and fundamentally optimistic book about the interaction of culture, economics and technology in producing our current environmental degeneration. Unlike other writers who lay out only scenarios of doom he lays out a plan for incremental social and technological change which could put us back on a path to a sustainable future. The book is vast in scope, ranging across many disciplines, but the reader who arrives at the closing chapters will find the journey deeply rewarding.”—Jill Ker Conway, President Emerita, Smith College

“John Ehrenfeld has been pondering sustainability longer and more holistically than most, and this book represents the delicious fruits of those labors. It is the story of his journey of discovery—the simple truths that turn out to be complex, the unintended 'side effects' that shift burdens but don't solve them, the half-measures that are necessary but insufficient to address our global challenges. In short, it is the story of all who deign to strive for 'sustainability.' Along the way, Ehrenfeld deftly weaves physics and philosophy, storytelling and system dynamics to show what it will take for us to be healing to the planet and to ourselves. This is an extraordinarily valuable contribution.”—Joel Makower, Executive Editor,, Author, Strategies for the Green Economy

“Dr. Ehrenfeld teaches us how to replace consumption-based thinking with practices that create wholeness and wholesomeness so that all species may flourish for all times.”—Roger Saillant, retired executive and former CEO of Plug Power

“Drawing from the works of other giants, and adding his own deep insights, John Ehrenfeld has lit the path that can lead humankind away from the yawning abyss that lies so close before us, toward a wholly appealing goal:  an ethical human relationship with Nature and technology.”—Ray Anderson, Founder and Chairman, Interface, Inc.

"Ehrenfeld takes a systems look at a systemic issue. He looks at mindset . . . and that's what is so attractive. . . . John's been thinking about this for a long time, and it shows in how he approaches the challenge of sustainability. . . . Woven throughout the book is a subtext of respect, of simply caring about others and the world we live in enough to wrap our designs around that thought in a mindful and purposeful way."Matthew May, On Sustainability, Part 3

"Ehrenfeld addresses the obstacles and problematic attitudes to this vision, and offers practical steps to adopting a sustainability mindset on both the personal and corporate levels."—800-CEO-READ Blog

"Sustainability by Design, authored by John Ehrenfeld, may be and certainly should be one of the most important books of the 21st century."—Janice Pryor, Host of WUMB’s, The Commonwealth Journal

"Suggests new, holistic approaches to sustainable design that won't act, as others have in the past, as Band-Aids. Instead, Ehrenfeld focuses on the routes we should take to ensure success."—CEO-READ

"John Ehrenfeld's Sustainability by Design is the most intellectually rigorous treatment of sustainability that I have ever come across. . . .this work provides a context and springboard for the next generation of sustainable solutions."—Gareth Kane, terrainfirma

"Challenges conventional understandings of 'solving' environmental problems and offers a radically different set of strategies to attain sustainability."—Long Range Planning

"A daring, well-researched, and convincing case that the sustainability agenda cannot focus on the material part of the equation alone but must encompass the wider questions about what is the purpose of life."--Arnold Tukker, Journal of Industrial Ecology

"Ehrenfeld's intellectually rigorous examination of sustainability engages an approach that is interdisciplinary and holistic."--Carol L. Anderson, Journal of Family & Consumer Sciences

A Library Journal Bestseller in Environmental Sciences (4/09)
ISBN: 9780300158434
Publication Date: August 25, 2009
272 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
11 b/w illus.