Thinking about Philanthropy – and Sustainability

July 15, 2009

David Grant, President and CEO

In her blog post on June 20th, Michelle Knapik invited you to “peer in” as we on the Dodge staff were “peering out” to see what we could learn about the themes of Creativity and Sustainability.

Ehrenfeld Sustainability by DesignI want to continue in that vein and recommend a book we’ve been talking about, John Ehrenfeld’s Sustainability by Design.

If you think the book is going to be about green buildings or cars that get eighty miles a gallon, you are quickly set straight by its subtitle: “A Subversive Strategy for Transforming Our Consumer Culture.”

In fact, if you’ve been feeling good about driving your Prius to a green office building, he says, in effect, that’s not even half of it. “Reducing unsustainability,” he writes, “although critical, does not and will not create sustainability.” He goes on, “The world is awash with books and news items touting the importance and advantages of ‘green’ products, housing, and institutional practices, but such practices and artifacts are at best only Band-Aids, and at worse they divert our attention from sustainability.”

It is sobering to think you can work around the clock trying to promote sustainability but be losing ground because you are focused on the wrong things.

What does Ehrenfeld focus on? Well, it’s a long book, and we haven’t finished it yet. But it is clear from page one that his own vision of sustainability centers on the word “flourishing” and on the capacity of each individual to push back against some of the assumptions of modernity, particularly that the good life is defined by economic output, that human well-being is separable from that of the natural world, and that technology will solve our problems. In regard to our individual lives, he writes, “We must shift back to the flourishing fullness of ‘Being’ from its impoverished modern form of ‘having.'”

When he writes “shift back,” one worries whether he is romanticizing some time in the past: pre-industrial? pre-urban? pre-computer? But Being with a capital B — that’s a Big Idea (with a capital B) worth pursuing at any time. As I head out today with the Dodge Poetry Committee, visiting possible sites for a 2010 Dodge Poetry Festival, I can’t help but think that’s what we are doing.