John Ehrenfeld ’53, PhD ’57

Sustainability by Design offers a plan for a living planet

The aspirations of John Ehrenfeld’s 2009 book are summed up by his e-mail signature: “Sustainability is the possibility that human and other life will flourish on the planet forever.” 

In that book, Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming Our Consumer Culture, Ehrenfeld argues that reducing the unsustainable aspects of modern society through steps such as cutting pollution is not enough—people need new ways to live that focus more on being and less on having

After earning his MIT degrees in chemical engineering, Ehrenfeld progressed through engineering and management posts in public and private organizations, such as Arthur D. Little, as well as teaching appointments worldwide. 

“I thought technology was going to save the world,” he says. “Over time, I began to realize that it took more than good technology ideas to create the world I wanted. I fell into environmental work.” 

In 1967, he founded Walden Research Corporation in Wilmington, Massachusetts. “My research company was hired to help prepare the first set of air pollution regulations for the brand-new EPA,” he says. “Since then, I have continued my work on the social and regulatory side of things.” After a Carter administration appointment heading the New England River Basins Commission, Ehrenfeld returned to MIT in 1986 as a lecturer and the director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business, and Environment. 

“We chose to look at organizational behavior, not just the technical side,” he says. “My students and I took one question to heart: Why doesn’t business do what they say they are going to do for the environment? We found there were huge differences in how corporations were employing new environmental tools—and it largely had to do with organizational barriers and power structures.”

After retiring from MIT in 2000, he served as executive director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology until 2009 and continues his work there as a journal editor. He also writes a blog, Sustainability by Design. He and Andy Hoffman, SM ’91, PhD ’95, are working on a book sparked by Ehrenfeld’s keynote at the 2011 MIT Sustainability Summit, where he discussed the evolution of sustainability as an academic field. His honors include a lifetime achievement award from the World Resources Institute.

Ehrenfeld and his wife, Ruth, live in Lexington, Massachusetts. They enjoy time with their nine grandchildren and take courses at the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement. “Lifelong learning is good for your health,” he says. 

The latest Insider Conversation is live! Listen to the story behind the story.

Subscribe today
Already a Premium subscriber? Log in.

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look. Exclusive early access to stories.

    Insider Conversations. Listen in as our editors talk to innovators from around the world.

  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.