For most of my adult life I’ve been obsessing about homeostasis, the scientific concept for stable state equilibrium of systems and organisms, currently popularized by the term sustainability. My first two published design essays 1997 & 1999 were about the conflicted state of design criticism in the clash between biophilia and what I then termed “technophilia.” It seemed to me at that time that there was really not a choice between the two. While we tend to think technology is ascendant, biology is true destiny and will prove out in the end. Whether or not it will be an end that benefits humans is the great unknown.
More recently, I’ve marveled as the activity related to sustainability, so long overlooked, has reached fever pitch in some circles. The events in Copenhagen during early December and in online campaigns in support of an accord there have been intense. Yet, on a recent episode of Charlie Rose, economist Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia’s Earth Institute stated that we have failed utterly in our treaty obligations under the 1992 Global Climate Treaty, ratified by Congress in 1994. So, if the U.S government can’t deliver on its treaty commitments, and the UN organizers in Copenhagen are now admitting that maybe they aimed a bit too high, what’s to stop others from trying?
Sustainable initiatives among designers, for example, have recently been approaching a level that can best be described as fashionably PC. In October 2009 I participated in The Designers Accord’s global “summit” on sustainable design education. Around 100 people adversely affected their carbon footprints to travel to San Francisco for two days of rigorously focused head banging in an effort to outline what a sustainable design curriculum might entail. Representatives of sustainability initiatives at Pratt, Forum for the Future, Worldstudio and elsewhere participated as both presenters and group mentors.
One of The Designers Accord summit’s sponsors, Sustainable Minds, actually produces life cycle analysis (LCA) software designed to “enable environmental life cycle assessment and rapid iteration of product concepts in the earliest stages of design.” Invoking “Okala”, a life cycle assessment method for evaluating environmental and health impacts of the products marketed in North America, Sustainable Minds is running workshops that “teach participants how to design whole systems from a life cycle perspective, and how to estimate, model and make design decisions based on environmental impact.”
Almost all of the plenary speakers at the summit were incredibly upbeat about design’s influence on the world. In fact, one of Worldstudio’s initiatives is entitled Design Ignites Change. It took waiting until the final speaker of the weekend to hear a balanced presentation. Philosopher Cameron Tonkinwise of the New School, like the boy observing the emperor’s nudity, deflated the collective euphoria when he pointed out that, if designers truly wanted to be sustainable, they were not doing nearly half enough; even our language is insufficient to the task.
The AIGA and its minions, never far from any source of current cultural hysteria, is very active in its efforts to colonize sustainability. Having recently created a Center for Sustainable Design (unfortunately, a CFSD already exists in the UK), AIGA has gone on to develop The Living Principles for Design. This document compiles “the collective wisdom found in decades of sustainability theories” and attempts to apply them to a “quadruple bottom-line framework for design” that includes culture along with economy, environment, and equity. Most AIGA activities, including their upcoming education summit, response_ability, and many of their regional chapters, are heavily promoting this initiative following its introduction at the national conference in Memphis in October.
Not to be outdone by the AIGA in this land rush to commercially annex sustainability, the good men and women at IDEO, perennial conference attendees and professional media darlings, have developed a blog entitled Living Climate Change, a site that invites participants to “imagine what life will be like in 20 to 30 years.” While this sustainability-leaning version of South Park style quickie animations may not exactly be the solution to our woes, it does invite playfulness and participatory speculation, and may even provide IDEO with some fresh ideas from outside the boardroom, although all the posts to date seem self-promotional.
Oh, and let’s not forget JWT’s initiative. Over there the green group is known as JunkWasteTrash, three things the agency has created plenty of in its history. Perhaps this knowledge has even added guilt to the company’s own anxiety index.
Lest you breathe the word “opportunist” when wondering aloud where all these “thought leaders” were twenty years ago, they’ll be at pains to remind you that, at that time, sustainability was an idea whose moment of critical mass had not yet arrived. Of course, it’s a truism of free market economics that, if the government stays out of things and markets are allowed to develop independently, then free enterprise will find necessary solutions. Last year’s near economic meltdown is an excellent indication of the wisdom of this philosophy, right?
If you’re not entirely comfortable following the assurances of either “the world’s leading design firm” or the blandishments of “the association for design” regarding sustainability, there may be hope for you yet. There isn’t one reference in The Living Principles to Herbert Simon, Rachel Carson, Victor Papanek, Aldo Leopold, or Barry Commoner and, outside McDonough and Braungart’s Hannover Principles, a lot less recognition of the concept of species interdependence than what James Cameron offers in Avatar. Most of the “collective sustainability wisdom of the last fifty years” dates post 1985, and the great majority favors design initiatives.
One of the best initiatives I’ve come across, John Thackara’s recent posts on his Doors blog (including a positive post-Copenhagen take), isn’t even mentioned in The Living Principles. Thackara, who was once a great believer in electronic networking and an avid conference attendee, has proved himself capable of reform. These days he eschews his former faith in the technosphere, and, like Candide, prefers to metaphorically “tend his garden” by reducing his globetrotting conference attendance.
As for IDEO’s donation to the literature, other than authoring a few tomes on human centered design and proselytizing the business community, it seems designers there, as elsewhere, are busily expanding the concept of sustainability beyond what it can, uh, well, sustain. Designers are bound to muddy the distinction between the scientific meme and the cultural one. Since design is increasingly a hybrid of the creative arts and the social sciences, designers are destined to have it both ways, often with confusion and conflict (not to mention “conflict of interest”) ensuing.
As we approach the fortieth anniversary of the first Earth Day, the brazen capitalization of our environmental crisis by those working in design circles seems less like the co-opting of a forty-year-old environmentalist philosophy by a business plan than an admission by the profession that it neither sees the future clearly, nor cares much about anything beyond its own economic survival. While profiteering from sustainability by any profession may seem a lame undertaking, substituting our immediate personal prosperity for Our Common Future, it is yet another instance of business-as-usual for what McLuhan called the “frogmen” of sales rhetoric masquerading as social entrepreneurs and science popularizers.
Furthermore, few if any of these people are qualified to make the determinations being called for of what we really need in the future. For this they turn to TED presentations by scientists like Janine Benyrus and Amory Lovins and fascinate over concepts like biomimicry and systems thinking, as if there’s something new about them. Should we think locally AND act locally, as Thackara seems to be suggesting? Do we need the Iliad more than microwave popcorn? For that matter, should there be a law against printing on paper altogether? Until such a statute is passed, is publishing The New Atlantis more culturally significant than publishing Superman comics? Is Slow Food different from or better than the more traditional organic or macrobiotic food? Is driving an all electric car more ethical than reducing personal freedoms? Until we bring world population under control do any options much matter?
The one thing I’m certain of in this life is that those who boast most loudly about their current high standards, numbers of awards, and level of innovation are probably not the ones we want standing guard along the watchtower. Who better you ask? Well, perhaps some of those pesky activists who, while designers were busy burning from one excess to the next, evolved from treehuggers to WTO demonstrators to carbon tax advocates. Or maybe some of those modest science-types who’ve spent whole careers trying to get the world’s attention focused on this issue.
Least that way, when the call comes up to the ramparts saying there’s a sixty-foot high sculpture by Jeff Koons (the Odyssean master of recycling cultural detritus for gold) standing outside the gates, perhaps the guards will have the good sense to examine it carefully before claiming it to be the next great culture meme and dragging it inside the gates to auction for cap and trade credit.
David Stairs is the editor of Design-Altruism-Project