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Let’s ride the wave of sustainism

Michiel Schwarz is a cultural thinker, innovator and policy consultant working from Amsterdam and Berkeley.

Our economy is shaped by our culture, Michiel Schwarz argues. The “sustainist” culture that is emerging will fuel a shift in economic orientation and the rise of an “ethononomics”.

Nothing less than a radical change in economic thinking is needed in our quest for an “inclusive and sustainable economics”. In fact, what is rightly called for is a paradigm shift indeed. But not just in economic terms. “Sustainism”—as Joost Elffers and I have termed it in our Sustainist Manifesto that was published in New York earlier this year1 captures the new paradigm. It’s the name of the emerging culture of the 21st century. Whilst sustainism has some of its roots in the sustainability movement, it goes well beyond purely ecological concerns: it is where connectivity, localism, globalization and sustainability interact. Sustainist culture, as successor to last century’s modernism, will come to shape our collective perceptions of wellbeing and how we wish to design our living environment.

Economics is part of culture, not the other way around. Those concerned with growth and sustainable economic models often loose sight of the fact that wellbeing, and indeed economics, ultimately depends on what people and societies value, what they see as desirable, and how they perceive the future. In other words: culture. What is needed is a reassessment of the cultural framework in which issues of economics and growth are being cast. The fact that such a “cultural shift” in perspective is already underway is a hopeful development. It is present in what Paul Hawken calls “the largest movement in the world”—the one million plus non-profit groups involved in ecological issues, social justice and sustainable development. If sustainability is the movement, sustainism is the culture that will make it possible.

Values are at the core of any culture. Today, new values are emerging. Concepts such as time, information, community, and creativity are becoming valued resources, socially as well as economically (as Juliet Schor has argued eloquently in her book Plenitudes). Meanwhile, we see a new set of “sustainist qualities” that is arising, such as sharing, being connected, place-based experiences, ecologically and socially responsible living, and human scale in development. In the next decades—I contend—sustainism will become the new operating context for redefining our economic models and our strategies for change.

The rise of “ethonomics” has been one way to signify the shift in economic orientation in sustainist culture. We’re just beginning to reimagine what an economics of sharing, connecting, collaboration and openness could look like. An ethical economics, based on—yet to be operationalized—sustainist values should be placed at the center of the debate. Seen through the “lens” of sustainism, our need to incorporate new values and qualities into our models is being exposed. At the heart of a “sustainist economics” should be concerns such as eco-equity, social and ecological responsibility, commons thinking, open exchange, inclusive design, appropriate scale, and local meanings. Let’s ride the cultural wave of sustainism, as we refocus our agendas and our strategies.


  1. Schwarz, Michiel, and Joost Elffers. (2011). Sustainism Is the New Modernism: A Cultural Manifesto for the Sustainist Era. New York: DAP Distributed Art Publishers:


Author: Michiel Schwarz

About the author

Michiel Schwarz is a cultural thinker, innovator and policy consultant working from Amsterdam and Berkeley.

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