legitimate causes

Happy new year to all. Sorry I’ve been away from the blog a little longer than usual in the transition to the new year. During this period I’ve been thinking a lot about the question of legitimate causes for activists to pursue. This is a question that concerns designers, but others as well.

From my reading, a number of designers seem to position design activism, or design for social change, on the “humanitarian aid” end of the spectrum of potential causes. And there’s no argument against these as central and legitimate causes. One need only gesture to Haiti’s earthquake and similar natural disasters, with weather-related disasters likely to increase. Housing for underserved populations, humanitarian technologies such as Project H’s life straw for clean drinking water, are other good examples.

But lately I’ve been thinking about the other end of the spectrum. What about those “causes” that essentially concern the problems of overconsumption? The problem of making sustainable consumption palatable, or at least viable, to “wealthy” westerners (here I mean average inhabitants of North American and European countries)? Ultimately these patterns not only cause us to overshoot natural limits, but also pave a cultural path that many want to follow. These are also the patterns that I live in and struggle to navigate. I recently happened upon an article in the Bangladeshi Financial Express pointing out that although “overconsumption” is thought of as a problem of western countries, increasingly the wealthy in all the world’s cities are getting on the consumption treadmill.

beyond “reduce” to “reverse”?

Recently I attended a meeting of a nascent De-growth Network here in London, with speakers from many major European “de-growth” groups. One speaker in particular, Leida Rijnhout, ANPED (Belgium) , pointed out that sustainability is traditionally conceived as “three pillars”– economic, ecological, and social– that need to be kept “in balance.” But she contends this is a real fallacy, since the economic “pillar” is already way out of balance with respect to the other two.

I’ve written before about the challenges for designers of working toward sustainable consumption, and I continue to be concerned about the question of how we make the necessary and most probably drastic changes in lifestyle that are required. The recent financial crisis hasn’t served as the obvious turning point for dealing with the problems of economic growth — what will?

As yet there seem to be few consolidated efforts to delve in to design’s potential roles in sustainable consumption, either in products or architecture. The main efforts that I’m aware of  — certainly there must be more — are concerned with the broad categories of sustainable cities, service design, and social innovation, for example the Desis network (see for example Desis USA at Parsons) on design for social innovation and sustainability. In the UK we’ve recently had the Urban Buzz project. And the Young Foundation also does social innovation work in the UK.

But it’s not clear to me that these initiatives are explicitly acknowledging the need for de-growth. Maybe it’s taboo to say so. In a recent article on “common wealth” economist Richard Norgaard says, “rather than talking about market failure we’re talking about how to work within the market and make it better. If you are on the wrong path, optimizing doesn’t help a lot.” Also, in some of these initiatives it doesn’t always feel as though design or architecture has clearly articulated a role for itself. Perhaps this represents the tension between “design thinking” as applied across all sorts of endeavours, versus old fashioned design-as-formgiving. Or perhaps it just presents too much of a fundamental, even existential, conflict with what design is perceived to do–make more and better stuff.

breuer chair2.jpg
more and better stuff

What’s your view? what are the substantive efforts underway to position design activism in the overconsumption, de-growth area? Is it a legitimate “cause” and if so how do we frame it? At this point I don’t have answers (will I ever?) I only have questions…

4 Responses to legitimate causes

  1. Jody says:

    Hi Ann, Perhaps the best place to start is the Sustainable Development Commission’s recent report ‘Prosperity Without Growth’. The report demonstrates that an economic system dependent on growth is fundamentally unsustainable. While similar arguments have been made by ecological economists for decades, this report by a government agency is significant.

    The design community could help. The issues need to be trashed out in the public arena. EcoLabs is looking for graphic / information designers to help us do this for our next issues of EcoMag which will focus on ecological economics. We have recently posted a call for submissions: http://eco-labs.org/dev/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=191:ecomag-no2-&catid=1:latest&Itemid=82

  2. Ann Thorpe says:

    Jody, thanks for your comment. I’m a big fan of the Prosperity Without Growth report (note that Tim Jackson will be speaking about it in London on 4th March at the Quaker Centre) and agree with your assessment about its significance.

  3. Dear Anne,
    I wanted to say thank you for your blog, and to note that another area where designers have potentially a great role to play is education, though at the moment it is very patchy and usually is on a volunteer bases. The OpenDoors Kingston project http://ecoideaz.wordpress.com/ that I initiated during MA Design for Development course (thank you so much for your presence at our event!) continues to evolve. Last week I presented it at Sustainable Schools Conference Kingston, where with regards to consumption and waste a topic on school lunches was discussed. An issue that food in a lot of cafeterias is such a poor quality that children choose to bring their own packed lunches, which results in a lot of wasted food and school bins fool of plastic/paper packaging. A call to be creative in how to approach this and other problems of sustainable schools seems to indicate that there is plenty of space for designers to apply their talents. Best wishes, Ksenija

  4. Ann Thorpe says:

    Hi Ksenija,
    Thanks for your comments. The example you mention regarding school lunches is an interesting one because it is so thorny, related to health, the environment, academic achievement, income group differences and so forth. I think it epitomizes the challenges of contemporary causes which are very difficult to “sound bite” in terms of both stating the problems and the solutions. But I agree there is a big role for design, however you frame it.

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