Designing a sustainable life

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By The Staff

John Ehrenfeld’s experience as a professor of engineering, product design and philosophy at MIT ensure that his book, “Sustainability by Design,” is the most impeccable, rigorous, scientifically and philosophically based contribution toward comprehending and possibly achieving sustainability on this planet that I have ever encountered.


In the early chapters he educates his readers about the easily recognizable global material and energy imbalances that currently prevent this from happening.

A brief list includes: the insatiable demands by an ever-increasing world population for an unsustainable energy supply, climate change, particulate matter and human generated gases spewing into the atmosphere, hunger, poverty, global security, soil erosion and dwindling supplies of drinking water.

By distilling the essence of other great philosophers and sociologists works’ such as Descartes, Fromm, Heidegger, Maturana and many others, the author brilliantly and systematically guides his readers toward a deep, frequently difficult contemplation of how the human race has systematically and increasingly been brainwashed into constantly wanting and having more materialistic possessions as opposed to considering less and less what it realistically cares about or needs.

As a result mankind has, without interruption, moved away from a sustainable coexistence with practically every other eco-component on the planet. Earth and humans are therefore no longer flourishing.

Since most of these components are interdependent for survival, the human race must relinquish its role as nature’s dominant rival. People must take drastic steps to ensure that their past, continuing and planned non-flourishing drivers are revised.  When necessary, people must also introduce governmental, industrial and the citizens’ adaptive governance for all of our planet’s components to flourish simultaneously.

Ehrenfeld discusses ongoing adaptive policy actions, which have for example, brought about the manufacture of the two-button toilet flush. Its design disrupts a user’s lifelong habit and causes them to stop and make a decision to use either a high volume or low volume water flush.

This induces a needed questioning as to why we want to use more or less water. As a result, for a split second, this connects the flusher directly to the natural world and the pressures upon it.

It is obvious that Ehrenfeld has only given a broad overview of what is probably mankind’s most complex problem, but he also offers some workable and acceptable remedies – not just temporary fixes. However, there is also a treasury of reference material for people to lay out an adaptable plan of action for the upcoming generation of sustainable solutions. The book requires focus and concentration on its complicated themes. Fortunately these qualities are usually found in those who are concerned about flourishing here on Earth. It is a must read.

Editor’s Note: For 53 years Ansell worked as a research scientist, program, organization manager and teacher for several agencies including Los Alamos National Laboratory. He has co-authored more than 50 technical publications and is  a consultant to the European Economic Union on Sustainable Energy Policy.