John Ehrenfeld has a blue pill/red pill proposition. As in The Matrix, we have but two choices: We can continue to be “Havers” or we can become “Beings” again. We can consume like there’s no tomorrow because it feels good now, or we shift our minds back to Caring—for our bodies, our family and the world.
“I’m talking about acting out of one’s self, rather than conforming to a culture where consuming is just the thing to do,” says the author of Sustainability by Design.
Thoughts like, ‘how can I reduce my impact?’ are deeply flawed, says Ehrenfeld. They’re the reason why true sustainability alludes us.
Shocking to the sustainability advocates in the room was Ehrenfeld’s assertion, “metrics are meaningless.”
“Ask why you’re collecting (metrics). If you’re talking about the very nature of sustainability, you can’t define it with metrics.
"Look at beauty. It’s a classic example of an emergent quality. You don’t define it. Thinking about metrics is thinking in the wrong place. Think about what is it about this system that isn’t aligned with these beliefs?”
Ehrenfeld preached this whole system view of sustainability at MIT. He spoke to Case students and professors yesterday about the need for a new pragmatism that emphasizes real experience and collective wisdom.
The alternative is staying in the fabricated reality; the blue pill; more “reductionist” thinking. Born in the Enlightenment, reductionism teaches us to pigeonhole problems like climate change as a business failing that has a tech solution.
“Climate change is not just a technological challenge,” he insists, “put a cap on it or create a cleaner engine.”
“We think the world is a big machine that we operate. No, it’s a complex system. We don’t know the rules. It’s more like a garden that we nurture than like a car we operate.”
We need to go beyond doing less bad, or sustainability will continue to be an empty word.
“I define sustainability as ‘flourishing’, as in humans and all other species will flourish on the earth forever.”
Audience questions tried to drill in to Ehrenfeld’s (deceptively?) simple message.
Is this vision doomed to failure in America’s capitalist system?
“Maybe other forms of capitalism will evolve from this. We’re all fundamentally caring. We’re all born to mothers. If we don’t (adopt this view) then all the fixes, all the Band-Aids aren’t going to change it. In 2008, the financial system collapsed. We went from a regime producing what we want to one that no longer did.
“I am equals what I have, but to flourish is to be authentically human. To experience life through caring. Authentic being is found in our biggest figures...Erich Fromm to Buddha.”
But Cartesian or reductionist thinking has produced all of our engineering and medical advancements—what kind of education system based on pragmatism is ready to take its place?
“Talk about it. Have the conversation between departments. The answer has to evolve from a group here in the university. People are fundamentally caring. Its the nature of human relationships.”