The #GC2022 finalists are out! Read more.

share on: mail linkcopy link to clipboardShare via LinkedInShare via TwitterShare via FacebookShare via Facebook

The world has entered a new age. After the twentieth century's modernism and postmodernism, a new cultural era has begun. We have named this era: sustainism.

Our old models have reached the end of their life cycles, leaving in their wake a new vision of the future. As we proclaim in our recently published 'manifesto'*, sustainism will come to shape our lives and our lifestyles. It will become the culture of the twenty-first century.

Sustainism is much more than just sustainability, or 'going green', though some of its roots originate in the sustainability movement. Sustainism is concerned with our changing media environment, the internet, social media and open-source information. We are witnessing a transition to a new lifestyle, and a new picture of the world: more connected, more localized, more sustainable.

Sustainism is a cultural perspective 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.

In the last century —whether we knew it or not— our life was shaped by modernist ideas and modernist values. We lived in a modernist culture —all this could be seen in our designs and our architecture, our business models, but also in our fascination with techology, our way of life, and our ideas of progress. But the beginning of this century heralds a shift to a culture of sustainism.

In the age of sustainism everything is interconnected and interdependent. Our visual symbol for sustainism, the trefoil knot, expresses this idea. It symbolizes the endless cycle of life and an interrelated world.

Where modernism failed to account for complexity and diversity, sustainism takes them as its very premise. The metaphor for the new culture is the 'web'; whether we speak about the city, food, production, media, knowledge, sustainable development, in sustainism, everyone and everything is connected. This is the culture of networks, sharing, borrowing and open exchange.

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.

In the culture of sustainism we are witnessing a shift in our perceptions of time and space. 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. The emergence of a new type of 'localism' is one of the hallmarks of sustainism. Global and local are no longer in opposition. The sustainist world is the world of the local farmer's market and Twitter, corner cafe and Facebook, the neigborhood and CNN. '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, for example in the way we view innovation and knowledge, how we design our cities, the land, our business models, food culture, and much more. Across many domains of society we see a movement in the direction towards sustainism.

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.

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 designs based on principles found in nature ('biomimicry' as it is called), while equally utilizing 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, internet, localism, globalization, information networks: all are concerned with culture. Sustainism is a cultural force.  This new culture demands a new wave of creative innovation that takes sustainist criteria as its starting point—inclusive, socially available, ecologically responsible, and locally oriented (but not provincial).

Sustainism poses a great challenge for designers, architects, planners, scientists, engineers, teachers, and artists. For the 'creative class' this movement is not only an opportunity, but also a responsibility. As the cultural sphere takes center stage, the creative classes can inspire new connections and inventive solutions. And at the same time, the emergence of sustainism is to be seen as a call to action for entrepreneurs, businesses, community groups, goverments, and non-profits to actively make space for the new culture and shape the future. Our prediction is that sustainism will become mainstream culture. Soon no-one will be able to stand outside it. We are already all part of it.

*Michiel Schwarz & Joost Elffers, Sustainism Is the New Modernism: A Cultural Manifesto for the Sustainist Era (D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, New York).


Originally published in Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad 14 Januari, 2011. 

Authors can be contacted at

Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs