April 2009 Archives

Standing in Line for a Nike Air Yeezy


On Thursdays I go into Cambridge to attend class at the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement. Today as I was walking from the T stop, I passed a small crowd gathered in front of storefronts along the way. They had arrayed camp chairs and sleeping bags at the edge of the sidewalk. I thought at first that they were picketing a leather goods store and stopped to ask one of the crowd what was going on.

They were waiting in line for the chance to buy a pair of Nike Air Yeezy sneakers. They has been there since Wednesday afternoon and would wait until the sneakers were available on Saturday. That's three days and nights for a pair of sneakers. The young man I spoke to said he was willing to get in line for a $200 pair of sneakers that might be worth $800 in the resale market. He wasn't sure whether he would actually wear them for himself or not. The store manager told me that they had exactly 18 pairs to sell and mercifully sent all but the first 18 back home.

My curiosity peaked, I went to the Nike website to find out more about these particular sneakers. The soles, the ads say, glow in the dark. I learned that this was a limited edition with something like 5000 pairs distributed globally. Here's the first part of the text on their website:

Nike Sportswear and Kanye West present the Nike Air Yeezy.

The shoe, which takes West’s nickname Yeezy, draws upon the innovations from Nike’s rich sporting history and fuses them with original lines, materials, and design elements that reflect West’s unique style.

Partnering with Nike Creative Director, Mark Smith, Kanye was taken through the product creation process, the same way athletes have with Nike Design for the past 37 years," said Smith. “Kanye is a natural designer—partnerships like this always enhance the creative experience and the end product.” West agrees that the partnership with Nike has been exciting. “Nike is such an important brand to me,” said West. “Whether you are on the court, in the street, in the club, at school, Nike represents excellence, the standard in design.”

From the start, West and Nike’s shared vision was clear: to create a modern classic. An original Nike footwear style, that reflects elements of Nike’s sporting past, and remixes them with Nike innovation to deliver a unique shoe.

A careful balance was sought, each time new elements were added, with existing elements being taken away - a design process Smith refers to as “reductionism”. “ Nike shoes need to function and always be innovative,” said Smith. “So the first thing we did was to make sure the design process that Kanye and Nike Design went through, mirrored that of our athletes.”

Being more than a few years older that 30, I had only a vague idea of who Kanye West was. But that he was a shoe designer as well as a rapper surprised me. A few moments of thought should have reminded me that other celebs have also shown similar talents. Just remember the Air Jordan.

One of the classes I was headed for is about the science of persuasion and influence. Nike used many of the "standard" methods according to Robert Gialdini, considered by many to be a leading expert on this subject. Scarcity (limiting the number available) drives people to stand in a real or metaphorical line. Identification with popular icons is another.

Nike prides itself on being green. I copied a few lines from their site.

Nike sees corporate responsibility as an integral part of how we can use the power of our brand, the energy and passion of our people, and the scale of our business to create meaningful change.

Is this offer consistent with this statement of responsibility? Does it "create meaningful change?" I do not think so because it promotes the having mode of living as opposed to being. The marketing strategy emphasizes consumerism for consumerism's sake at the same time our economy is reeling from too much consumption. Thorstein Veblen who invented the concept of conspicuous consumption in 1899 would have jumped to include this as an example. The design of this sneaker was based on something Nike calls reductionism (see above). I think we would be better off if this principle had been followed to the ultimate extreme, reducing the product to no more than an image existing only in the designer's imagination.

Shades of Green


One of my former PhD students, Andy Hoffman, now at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan is authoring a series of columns this week on the OurValues website. The topic is the competition, not always friendly, between what have become called the "bright" greens and the "dark" green. The first of his columns opens with:

There’s a schism emerging between two camps within the environmental movement.

On the one extreme, the dark green groups—such as Greenpeace USA and Friends of the Earth—seek radical social change to solve environmental problems, most often by confronting the corporate sector. As Alex Steffen explains it, they tend to “pull back from consumerism (sometimes even from industrialization itself).”

On the other extreme, the bright green groups—such as Conservation International and the Environmental Defense Fund—work within the market system, often in close collaboration with corporations, to solve environmental problems. Again, as Steffen explains: This “is a call to use innovation, design, urban revitalization and entrepreneurial zeal to transform the systems that support our lives.”

Steffen coined these terms in 2003. Now, six years later, this division now is widening and resulting in serious sniping.

The three columns that have appeared so far make good reading. This issue concerns me because I have moved toward the dark side over the years. But I don't think the real issues have to be as starkly oppositional, as Hoffman and others observe. I would put myself and my ideas about sustainability in the dark green spot on the palette, arguing as others do, that radical culture change is critical. But I would not agree that confrontation is the route to that change. Confrontation can certainly keep the issues on the news shows and maybe wake up more people, but it is rejected by the mainstream on both substantive and procedural grounds.

Hoffman argues that the dark greens can serve as a foil to the bright greens and make their cause appear more reasonable and politically acceptable. I think he is correct about this. (He is, after all, a former student and was very well taught.) But that is not the whole story. I don't think the bright greens have got it right. Their agenda is almost entirely technocratic and remedial. They are, in my words, working to reduce unsustainability. Certainly something important, but only a temporary respite, even if successful.

The root causes of unsustainability lie deep in our cultural story, as I have written. The dark greens have gotten part of that story correct, but only part of it. They rail against capitalism, but fail to go deeper into the culture all the way to the concepts of modernity on top of which capitalism took root. Fixing capitalism may certainly move us closer to what I call sustainability, that is, a global system that produces flourishing. But such a change would fall short of getting to the very bottom of the barrel and, although a change of astronomical magnitude, would still be only a temporary fix. Given shortcomings in both confrontation or co-optation/cooperation, I argue for a slow, incremental, subversive change process that, first, reveals the human core values of caring at the individual level and, then, enlists everyone in reconstructing our global social system.

Misplaced Social Science


I came across this intriguing item today. Climate Feedback reported on the Open Meeting of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), a research arm of the UN.

One of today's opening keynotes was from Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research. After a daunting rundown of climate change threats, Schellnhuber - a physicist in a sea of human-dimensioners - urged social science to take the front seat on the problem. "Speaking as a natural scientist," he said, "I think 90% of research [on global change] will have to be done by the social scientists."

Physicists, he told me at the coffee break, can describe climate threats increasingly vividly and can tell decision-makers that technological solutions are out there. But it's up to social science, he says, to figure out how we bring about massive economic and social transformation on a tight deadline.

Case in point: feeding solar power from the Sahara where it's plentiful to Europe where it's highly in demand, one of Schellnhuber's favorite ideas. "All the technical problems have been solved," he says, "but it cannot be done." We don't have the legal framework, the transboundary agreements, the international will for this mode of energy delivery.

I agree that the role of social science needs to be enhanced relative to the natural sciences, but Schellnhuber has the priorities mixed up. It is certainly not the anointed role of social scientists to facilitate the introduction of technological fixes to global warming and climate change. The roots of the climate change dilemma lie in the human/social domain in the first place. Social science needs first to lead to an understanding of the cultural roots of the issue and then, working with technologists and technocrats, address these root causes. Technical solutions are important, and understanding of the context in which they are to be implemented is critical in moving forward. But I suspect that we already know what stands in the way of many of these projects. It is not more science that is needed, but skillful communicators and social actors. The issues are largely political and economic. The outcomes of natural scientific research and its applications are more likely to become implemented if the natural scientists listened closely to their social science colleagues before they announce that they have the solutions at hand.

Obama, Science, and Consumption


President Obama spoke to the National Academy of Sciences reversing the isolation of science from the Bush White House. One notable line was the ad lib addition of a caveat to the young to be more than consumers. The cause for sustainability and a shift from our hyper-consumerism would be greatly enhanced if President Obama would address this topic with more than an aside. Without some major shift in the culture, all the science in the world cannot reverse the growing unsustainability. While global climate change is arguably the biggest issue, it is only one of many. Science can do little to satisfy the existential concerns of humankind, without which sustainability will continue to be only a distant vision. But, in any case, this shift in emphasis from that of the last President is most welcome. We may begin to do some necessary fixing in a timely manner.

America’s young people will rise to the challenge if given the opportunity — if called upon to join a cause larger than themselves. And we’ve got evidence. The average age in NASA’s mission control during the Apollo 17 mission was just 26. I know that young people today are ready to tackle the grand challenges of this century

So I want to persuade you to spend time in the classroom, talking — and showing -young people what it is that your work can mean, and what it means to you. Encourage your university to participate in programs to allow students to get a degree in scientific fields and a teaching certificate at the same time. Think about new and creative ways to engage young people in science and engineering, like science festivals, robotics competitions, and fairs that encourage young people to create, build, and invent — to be makers of things [added extemporaneously: not just consumers of things.]

Escaping from the Academic Iron Cage


Universities play a major role in adding new beliefs and norms to the cultural structure that drives society. They have been largely responsible for maintaining the Cartesian model of reality and the scientific method by which we create knowledge. This centerpiece of modernity has been credited with much of the progress generated over the past 3 to 4 centuries. In more recent times this central belief has come under fire for several reasons. The most critical is that it is not up to the task of understanding the world in all of its complexity. The second is derivative of the first. The failure to appreciate this complexity and act accordingly has created unintended consequences that threaten the very idea of progress. Unsustainability of the human and natural worlds is the outcome that I focus upon in my book.

Universities are notoriously institutions with deeply embedded cultures. As "protector" of the world's knowledge they claim special privileges. Arguments for changing their disciplinary and pedagogical foundations are many, but little change has taken place. The disciplinary structure has gotten even more entrenched as sub-disciplines proliferate. Writing in the NYTimes, Professor Mark Taylor sketches out a set of proposals to "End the University as We Know It." His stance is highly practical, focusing on the growing inadequacy of experts and their highly specialized knowledge to take on the key problems of modern society.

And as departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less. Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems.

Of the six steps he proposes, the first one, addressing the issue of complexity and interdependence, most closely matches my own sense of what is needed for sustainability.

Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of political scientists who had gathered to discuss why international relations theory had never considered the role of religion in society. Given the state of the world today, this is a significant oversight. There can be no adequate understanding of the most important issues we face when disciplines are cloistered from one another and operate on their own premises.

It would be far more effective to bring together people working on questions of religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy to engage in comparative analysis of common problems. As the curriculum is restructured, fields of inquiry and methods of investigation will be transformed.

Perhaps the market will play its hand in bringing about change as debt-ridden graduates find little or no opportunity to find satisfying jobs that compensate them sufficiently to discharge these debts. Universities, like government and large business enterprises, tend to become more and more bureaucratic over time, as Weber wrote. Pressure from thier clients, students and other knowledge-seekers, may eventually garner enough force to open their iron cages and return them to their rightful and important role.

A New Book: "Design is the Problem"


Industrial designer Nathan Shedroff has recently published released his latest book, Design is the Problem: The Future of Design Must Be Sustainable. He explores many of the ideas and themes in a long interview with Core77's Editor-in-chief Allan Chochinov.

Chochinov raves about the book.

Filled with insanely pragmatic advice, persuasive argument, and impassioned calls for action, Nathan's book is essential reading for all designers, design students, business people, business students, innovation specialists, and advocates of all stripes.

Shedroff clearly does understand the power of objects to affect people's beliefs and values.

Connecting to people's values and meanings is going to be critical in order to change behaviors and choices and reach more sustainable goals. There's nothing inherently off-putting about sustainability at all. I challenge you to find someone who is in favor of purposely ruining the future. The problem is in helping people become aware of their impacts and connecting their perfectly adequate values to the effects their activities have. Most of the issues and imperatives around sustainability are simply invisible to people and if we can make them visible, in their languages, we can get more people on board. It's more than merely design but design thinking and processes can contribute tremendously to making this happen quickly.

But like so many other designers, he appears to have failed to recognize that sustainability is much more than greening or reducing unsustainability. The main chapters of the book ring with familiar themes: reduce, reuse, recycle, and, a new one for Shedroff, restore. I have ordered and will read the book, but if the interview tells the whole, or most of, the story, I suspect I will be disappointed. But only in that designers continue to follow traditional paths. They have power to change behavior towards authentic satisfaction and true sustainability, not merely to respond what the market tells their clients.

More Financial Woes


The NYTimes is running a series of vignettes about the impact of the recession on people. I thought this one about “What’s a Necessity” was interesting. It focuses on a bunch of everyday devices we all use. The data come from a poll by the Pew Research Center. Here’s a few pieces of the data.

The response that most impressed me was to the question of whether home air conditioning was a necessity. In 2006, 70 percent deemed it a necessity. This year the figure was down to 54 percent. Dishwashers, clothes dryers, microwave ovens and television sets are also seen as necessities by fewer people now than in 2006.

Overall, 52 percent think a television is a necessity. That is the lowest figure since that question was first asked in 1973… And appearances to the contrary, only 4 percent of Americans think an iPod is a necessity.

And most of those 4 percent must be under the age of 30. More on the Pew study from Sightline Daily.

Only time will tell if this is a lasting trend, or just a blip. But it’s sure an interesting demonstration of a fact that’s well understood in academic circles, but is perhaps a surprise to a society that’s grown accustomed to plenty: our needs are, to a large extent, a social construction. We need a lot less than we think we do; and much of the time, our perception of need is defined by what our peers and neighbors have, or what they want, and not by what makes us genuinely happy. In fact, we often have absolutely no idea what makes us happy or fulfilled.

(Credit to sannelodahl for the photo.)

Plugging In to the Right Socket


Finding that life doesn’t hang on some piece of consumer electronics is a rare event in today’s busy world. But some do manage to discover the satisfaction available from engaging directly in the world without the filters that gadgets place in front of you. Bella English has an article titled, ‘Young and Unplugged,’ in the daily magazine section of the Boston Globe. She pictures a young couple living without constantly “plugging” into TV, iPods, mobile phones, etc. They are among a small cohort of their age group that lives without such devices.

“Worshiping at the church of the pixel comes at the expense of real-life experience,” says Alan, who teaches biology at Lexington Christian Academy. His students are aghast at the fact that he doesn’t watch TV. But by limiting their use of technology, they have freed up time for activities they love. She works on craft projects. He restores old jukeboxes, pinball machines, and furniture… [T]he couple listens to music and radio shows. They read a lot. They’re involved in church activities. They cook from scratch and have friends over for dinner. They love board games. They play music: Cara the guitar, Alan piano, organ, and Dobro.

This is a real-life example of one of my central arguments in tracing the root causes of our current state of unsustainability: that the ubiquitous use and presence of technology has diminished our sense of what life is all about for human beings. And having lost something essential, we look to consumption as the source of meaning. Note the direct engagement—playing games with each other (not with a computer), playing an instrument (not listening on an MP3 player), or cooking (not dining on fast food or prepared meals).

Dr Peter Whybrow, whom I quote on my book, explains.

Whybrow, head of the Department of Psychiatric and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA’s School of Medicine, says the preoccupation with high-tech tools is understandable. “By nature we are curious creatures and we love trinkets and novelties,” he says. But the fast pace of technology has created a glut of gadgets - and a slight backlash.

“A small group of people are reacting to what is overload,” Whybrow says. “They are fascinated by this initially … but after a while, they find it erodes time as opposed to saving time, and time is the only thing we’ve really got that is our own. If you become consumed by new technology and forget you are fundamentally creatures of the natural world, you do end up diminishing your life.”

Perhaps a bright side of the loss of employment and the resources it provides is the discovery, as with the case of this couple, that real meaning comes not from the gadgets, large and small, but from one’s relationships with others and through engaging authentically and deeply in even what appear to be mundane activities. Engagement comes with caring, not needing, and is an indicator of Being. It is our caring for self, others, and the world that is at the heart of our Being as opposed to existing merely as biological creatures. Technology makes it all too easy to pass caring off to some gadget. At a deeper level, when caring begins to show up as a norm in the culture, the possibility that sustainability will emerge looms larger.

EARTH DAY 2009--Just Before Logging Off


I went by train today to New Haven to visit my International Society for Industrial Ecology office at Yale. To my surprise and delight, the cab driver turned to me before we pulled away from the station and handed me a tote of recycled materials and a well-designed information card. The tote carried an Earth Day logo and the company name, Metro Cabs. Nice way to start the day.

On the positive side, the day continued with a highly complimentary note from a faculty member at Penn State who had just read my book. Such feedback always makes my day, but coming on Earth Day, this seemed extra special.

Then I sat down and did my usual web searches looking, today, for more positive material to add to this post. Maybe I am getting jaded or my critical filter was in full sway, but I could not find anything much that set this day apart from an ordinary day on the Web. Google changed their logo on their main page for the occasion. A humorous collection entitled, You’re Doing it Wrong: Five Earth Day Pitches That Failed from Greenbiz. Here’s their first choice.

First Prize: Organic Spa Magazine

This isn’t really going to be a ranked list, but one pitch stands head and shoulders above all the other silly pitches, the not-really-green pitches, and everything else that crossed our paths this year. This pitch, from something called “Organic Spa Magazine,” really deserves special attention for having missed the mark so completely:

“Go Organic In Time for Earth Day With the New Lauren SPA Collections from Ralph Lauren”

Please, go back and read that line again again. Something about that combination of words makes my blood boil and my eyes burn. It just screams “missing the point” in every imaginable way.

Then this one popped up. From the NYTimes Green Inc. blog—A Decline in ‘Green Guilt

According to a new survey commissioned by the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation, a non-profit group formed by the rechargeable battery industry to promote battery recycling, just 12 percent of Americans now feel guilty that they’re not doing everything they can for the environment. That’s down from 22 percent in last year’s survey.

Earth Day shouldn’t be about guilt at all. If guilt is what drives people to think about and care about the Earth and other people as well, the outlook for sustainability as flourishing is not so good. Worse, one explanation for this drop given in the article is that people care less about the environment in bad economic times. This follows from a culture that puts monetary value on everything. Caring for the world and for others is not something that can be monetized any more than sustainability, flourishing, health, or any similar desirable quality can be measured. Maybe next year, after we have struggled for a while with the new circumstances we find ourselves in these days, Earth Day will be reborn as a celebration of flourishing for all life on Earth.

Earth Day 2009--Still Stuck


It is easy to find much written this day by people deeply involved in environmentalism and the greening world. I found an unlikely source with a highly relevant lesson for this day. One of the most respected management gurus and teachers, Henry Mintzberg, steps out of his usual role and delivers a powerful critique of business. His words ring far beyond the world of MBA’s who take the brunt of his blows, reaching to the core of our stuckness in unsustainability.

Mintzberg is seeking the roots of the financial crisis and lights on management. Citing an analysis he and colleagues did tracking a group of “star graduates” from the Harvard Business School, only 4 out of 19 were rated as successful. Ten were ultimately moved out of their offices because their firms fared so badly.

What we have here is a monumental failure of management. American management is still revered across much of the globe for what it used to be. Now, a great deal of it is just plain rotten - detached and hubristic. Instead of rolling up their sleeves and getting engaged, too many CEOs sit in their offices and deem: They pronounce targets for others to meet, or else get fired.

And the new U.S. administration? It rushes in with dramatic actions, paying out “cash for trash,” deeming the movement of massive amounts of money around the economy, much of it to prop up dying businesses in the short run. More quick fixes for an economy brought down by quick fixes.

His use of the words—detached and hubristic— are on target. They reflect the belief that complex systems, including firms, can be treated like machines and run without authentic engagement. He points to the roots of the larger issue of global unsustainability, the predilection to solve all problems by treating the symptoms with some sort of quick fix. As I have written, this practice eventually leads to a collective unconsciousness and a failure to identify and address the roots of the systemic failures. Mintzberg continues:

In this, we have America’s problem in a nutshell: the utter absence of collective introspection, whether it be the current crisis, the relationship between the Vietnam and Iraq debacles, even what might have contributed to 9/11, as well as the way it has been compensating and educating its corporate “leaders.” The country seems incapable of learning from its own mistakes.

Put differently, the U.S. appears to be in social gridlock. Thanks to vested interests and their powerful lobbyists, as well as an economic, individualistic dogma that has been embraced so thoughtlessly, it is business as usual in America. And beyond: Our planet is becoming as sick as many of these corporations, yet we are being implored to get back to consumption. Fix the problem now; continue to forget about the future. Except this time, we may be consuming ourselves.

No country in the world has been more admired for its capacity to change, to learn with the times. This remains true of technological change; but, on the social front, America seems incapable of changing.

As long as technology is held up as the Holy Grail, what else would we expect. Mintzberg is focused, as he should be, on his world of management. The story he tells in this excellent article is, however, a metaphor for the larger world we inhabit. Everything he says applies to the general conditions of unsustainability. On Earth Day, we should stop and listen carefully, for it will take a huge effort to stop applying quick fixes, reflect on what is really wrong, and then turn to address whatever that turns out to be.

(Hat tip to Garry Peterson)

Renewing Responsibility: A Lesson for Earth Day 2009


The recovery of responsibility is one of the critical pieces necessary to create sustainability. The other two are, first, a renewed sense of the place of humans within the world, not outside of it looking on, and, second, a recognition that our species acts out of care rather than need (being not having). It is very interesting to me that David Brooks, writing about his impression of President Obama’s economic future speech at Georgetown University picked up on the theme of responsibility.

We’ve all heard liberal speeches on the economy. The central concern is inequality. Power and wealth tend to concentrate at the top of society, so government must stand as a countervailing power. It must defend the people against the powerful to ensure fairness and opportunity for all.

It is interesting, therefore, that when President Obama summarized his economic policies in a speech at Georgetown last week, he departed from this story line and worldview. Obama’s chief concern was not inequality. It was irresponsibility. Obama didn’t sound like an economic liberal at Georgetown. He sounded like a cultural conservative.

Here are a few of the pertinent tidbits from the President’s speech:

No one really knew what the actual value of these securities were, but since the housing market was booming and prices were rising, banks and investors kept buying and selling them, always passing off the risk to someone else for a greater profit without having to take any of the responsibility… .

But we have been called to govern in extraordinary times. And that requires an extraordinary sense of responsibility - to ourselves, to the men and women who sent us here, and to the many generations whose lives will be affected for good or for ill because of what we do here.

On the eve of Earth Day 2009, I hear a different message, one not about political ideology, but rather a call for deep-seated culture change towards sustainability as flourishing. Personal responsibility has become problematic as technology separates the actor from the act, or stated another way, transparency is lost. Clearly this has been a major factor in the collapse of the financial system.

Responsibility has another meaning also related to sustainability, a sense of duty to care for others. Modern culture which values the means more than the ends erodes this sense of the word as well. The President’s speech is full of irony for me. While calling for the recovery of responsibility, he simultaneously pictures a world much like ours used to be a few short months ago. We may return to some sort of financial sustainability, but without a change in beliefs and values, the system is very unlikely to produce flourishing. As long as human being is measured along any scale, any system designed like a machine to push us ever upward along that scale is highly unlikely to lead us toward flourishing.

A Resilient Definition of Sustainability

isprouting in concrete.jpg

It’s important to define resilience and sustainability in ways that are both resilient and sustainable. If we do not, efforts toward creating these properties in a real world setting will always be aimed at a shifting target. Some of my earlier posts spoke about fears that sustainability and its cousin, greening, were in danger of becoming mere buzzwords. I certainly hope not. Jamais Cascio, writing in Foreign Policy, adds to the confusion by miscategorizing the above two terms. Here’s his cut.

Sustainability is inherently static. It presumes there’s a point at which we can maintain ourselves and the world, and once we find the right combination of behavior and technology that allows us some measure of stability, we have to stay there. A sustainable world can avoid imminent disaster, but it will remain on the precipice until the next shock.

Resilience, conversely, accepts that change is inevitable and in many cases out of our hands, focusing instead on the need to be able to withstand the unexpected. Greed, accident, or malice may have harmful results, but, barring something truly apocalyptic, a resilient system can absorb such results without its overall health being threatened.

These terms are poorly used here. First of all, both are properties of complex systems. They are fundamentally descriptive of the system. They are both dynamic in the sense that they describe the ability of a system to continue to function in the face of changes to its environment. Sustainability is the general capability of a system to continue to produce some desired qualitative output. It is not, as Cascio writes, the maintenance of a system in a fixed state. For many years, the global financial system exhibited sustainability as it continuously produced confidence, security, and trust along with wealth in the form of money or monetized assets. But over that period the financial system changed dramatically in size and scope. Sustainability is always associated with some reified emergent property or with some real output; it never stands alone although we often do talk about it as if it does.

Resilience is the capability to maintain a system’s sustainability in the face of changes. It refers to the system, not the output properties. Given that the world is always changing in uncertain or unpredictable ways, it it difficult to imagine that a system that is not resilient will exhibit sustainability for long. In designing and governing large social-environmental systems both of these properties need to be built-in: sustainability in the sense that the system will produce whatever we want in the first place, and resilience so that the system will be able to withstand and adapt to changes as they come. For me, the system is the whole Earth for which sustainability is associated with the creation of flourishing for all life. Speaking about sustainability without referring to whatever is to be sustained lacks meaning in a practical sense.

Cascio has also written a longer piece in Fast Company about resilience. Again he places sustainability in a secondary spot.

You don’t have to be trying to come up with a new global economic 
model to appreciate resilience. Increasingly, the concept is taking 
root in organizations of all types as a strategic guideline, and becoming part of the language of design 
for everything from software to cities. In some circles, it’s starting to replace 
”sustainability” as an environmental driver.

Resilience alone is never enough. If the system is not producing what you want, resilience is the worst design criterion. Antibiotic-resistant bugs display a form of resilience for which medical science is looking for ways to counteract it. When cultural change is needed as in the case of sustainability as flourishing, resilience is not a positive attribute.

For those interesting in learning more about complex systems and their properties, I recommend the book, Panarchy, by Lance Gunderson and C, S. Holling.

Playing With Life Cycle Assessment


Life cycle assessments (LCA) are one of the most important tools in reducing unsustainability. They enable designers and managers to determine which of several product or service options will create the least environmental impact. They are not perfect, but can point to the most impactful aspects of a product over its entire life cycle. Slate did an LCA comparing credit card use to paying cash.

What’s the most environmentally friendly way to spend my money—cash or credit card? Credit cards are made out of plastic, which I know I’m supposed to avoid. But it can’t be good for the planet to make all that cash and truck it around the country. …

Ah, cash or credit—the million-dollar question. As far as the Lantern can tell, no one has published a cradle-to-grave analysis of either a dollar bill or a credit card. (Funny, the financial industry must have other things on its mind.) So we’ll have to do the best we can with some back-of-the-envelope calculations.

I won’t tell you the outcome because I think that is not the most interesting feature of this story. You can find the answer in the article. The real story is the use of either cash or credit cards to fuel consumption. To do a full LCA one should include the objects being purchased. And that is where the real impact is to be found. Whatever is bought will almost certainly add to the unsustainability of the natural world. And consumption itself is a key culprit in the unsustainability of humankind, leading to having rather than being. It would be very interesting and helpful to those seeking to create sustainability to develop an LCA framework that could tell how much being is lost for each dollar spent to satisfy the need to have more of something. Money spent authentically to take care of one’s set of concerns wouldn’t enter into this calculation.

Flourishing: The Vision of Sustainability

Picture 2.png

Behavioral economics is a new branch of economics that has emerged to explore the reasons people behave differently from the way standard economic theory says they would. And the theories being developed in this field have potential to help guide people’s actions toward some social norm. Reporting in Yale’s Environment 360, Richard Conniff writes:

This new way of thinking about — and some would say manipulating — behavior is likely to be an important tool for addressing environmental issues over the next few years. Behavioral economics is the theory behind a variety of measures now being promoted by environmental groups, power companies, and green businesses — from smart meters for cutting electricity consumption to the use of social networks to promote weatherization.

Conniff continues later:

That may include reshaping the central message of the environmental movement itself. “We know from a lot of psychological research that people are loss averse,” says Leiserowitz, “and the environmental community has done a terrific job of depicting the problem in terms of loss — endangered species, climate change, deforestation. The flip side is that the environmental community has been pretty bad at describing solutions, which often get framed in terms of loss as well: Get rid of your car, turn down the heat, get by with less. It’s disempowering. It makes people give up and do nothing.”

Human nature demands a positive alternative, he says, like the British Transition Towns movement, in which residents of a community together devise a plan for greater resilience, and even happiness, in the face of climate change. For instance, Totnes, in Devon, uses its own currency to encourage reliance on local retailers, and has also developed community-wide campaigns for weatherization, energy-efficient lighting, tree-planting, and gardening. “Martin Luther King didn’t say ‘I have a nightmare,’” says Leiserowtiz. “He said, ‘I have a dream.’ And that’s what made people willing to put their bodies on the line, to bring that vision into being.”

The basic lesson from the behavioral approach, Leiserowitz says, is that the environmental movement also needs to present a vision, to show people what a sustainable world could look like, and what we can do now to make it a reality.

It’s this last paragraph that caught my eye. Sustainability, at heart, is intimately tied to a positive vision of the world producing a set of conditions that we would agree are good. I use the metaphor, flourishing, to suggest just such conditions. I agree that the history of environmentalism is one of painting a picture largely depicting what is going wrong. This stance may have been essential in the early days of the movement when few people were paying much attention to the environment. This negativity underlies the basic critique in Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberg’s controversial critique on environmentalism as it has been conceived over the past few decades.

Leiserowitz, Nordhaus and Shellenberger, and others with the same criticism stop short of articulating such a vision. This failing may have its roots in their inability to transcend the present cultural beliefs about what is good and how to attain goodness. Sustainability by Design recognizes this limitation and points to a radically different world view that can enable our society to realize the possibility mentioned in Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s book title.



More unintended consequences of technology. Not only unintended but very much unwanted. The San Francisco Chronicle reports on the environmental impact of Internet spam.

There are plenty of reasons to hate spammers. Add this to the list: They’re environmentally unfriendly.

A report being released Wednesday by security company McAfee Inc. finds that spammers are a scourge to your inbox and the environment, generating an astounding 62 trillion junk e-mails in 2008 that wasted enough electricity to power 2.4 million U.S. homes for a year.

The “Carbon Footprint of E-mail Spam Report” estimated the computational power needed to process spam — from criminals tapping their armies of infected PCs to send it, Internet providers transmitting it, and end users viewing and deleting it.

What's Still Wrong With Kansas?


E. Thomas McClanahan, Kansas City Star Editorial Page columnist bad mouths Earth Day:

With another Earth Day coming up, we’re hearing the usual blather about sustainability — an essentially meaningless term. The Wikipedia entry on the topic says that “For humans to live sustainably, the Earth’s resources must be used at a rate at which they can be replenished.”

McClanahan’s impression of sustainability, like so many others, is distorted by the misuse of this important concept. Sustainability certain does have meaning. It is the ability of any system to produce something we want indefinitely or, at least, over a long period. This is not just a casual dictionary word. It has great relevance in our lives. We have recently learned, to our chagrin, that our financial system lacked this property. It collpsed in a veritable moment. Along with all the money that evaporated, confidence, security, and trust have been lost. Those in charge of getting the system running again know that it will be easier to restore the flow of money than to rebuild the qualities, like security, that have disappeared.

His referral to Wikipedia is highly selective. Here is how that entry begins: “Sustainability, in a broad sense is the ability to maintain a certain process or state.” The sentence he quotes above is a good example of why Wikipedia is not the ultimate arbiter of the truth. Sustainability is a noun and defines a property of systems. Sustainable is an adjective and sustainably an adverb. Both these two grammatical forms modify something. To live sustainably is a bit oxymoronic. To live is fundamentally to continue to function.

The rest of his column is devoted to a criticism of the idea that the Earth’s resources are limited, suggesting that we have no reason to worry about sustainability.

We aren’t “running out of resources,” as many environmentalists constantly claim. If that were so, commodity prices would have risen over time. But the opposite is true.

The truth of this statement depends entirely on how long a period of time is involved. We have lived through a very long period of extraordinary technological advancement and economic growth. The continuation of that growth is in question these days given the recent abrupt reversal of the economic trend. His statement is also dismissive of the rest of the world outside of Kansas, that is, most of the inhabitants on Earth. I wonder what McClanahan might say if he included the whole 6 plus billion, heading for 9 billion, people in his use of “we.” Many of those have not even begun to utilize these resources. If and when they do, all bets about limits would have to be reconsidered.

Flourishing (Continued)


Here’s another reference to flourishing as the condition that underpins human existence. The website, Citizen Renaissance, is well worth bookmarking and following. It’s very encouraging to find others who see sustainability as I do and am trying to convince others to recognize that this way will change their efforts from trying to fix what’s wrong to realizing a positive vision of life on the Planet. Here’s a few key paragraphs.

The idea of wellbeing is more complex than just ‘happiness’ - in fact, it is more about leading a flourishing, meaningful or virtuous life. The Greeks referred to this more holistic view as ‘Eudaimonia’ - a state where public and personal interests are in accord. In Aristotle’s view, to be a truly flourishing individual, you must be an active participant in the flourishing of community. Thatcher had it all wrong - there really IS such a thing as society. Not just in a self-interested manner, but in a deeper way which respects the lives of all.

The novelist Ben Okri summed it up so very well recently, when he said, ‘The meltdown in the economy is a harsh metaphor of the meltdown of some of our value systems. Individualism has been raised almost to a religion, appearance made more important than substance. The only hope lies in a fundamental re-examination of the values that we have lived by in the past 30 years’.

And how might we do that? Personally, I’m with Vaclav Havel who believes ‘that the only option is a change in the sphere of the spirit, in the sphere of human conscience. It’s not enough to invent new machines, new regulations, new institutions. We must develop a new understanding of the true purpose of our existence on this Earth. Only by making such a fundamental shift will we be able to create new models of behaviour and a new set of values for the planet.’ This calls for what Professor Tim Jackson of the SDC describes as ‘the re-emergence of some kinds of meaning structures that lie outside the consumer realm.’

Can Twitter Feel My Pain?


If you follow this blog, you already know I have a skeptical or worse opinion of social networking technology. My concerns come from a general critique that points to the tendency of technology to suppress the essence of being human. Now cognitive science adds a more solid grounding to that general concern. Writing in Fast Company, futurist Jamais Cascio, commenting on a new publication by Antonio Damasio and colleagues that claims that the human brain is relatively slow writes that “to recognize and empathize with emotional pain, or to acknowledge and celebrate virtue or skill. What this means is that, in a media environment where our social encounters happen very quickly, we may not be giving our brains a chance to generate appropriate compassion or admiration.”

Putting this finding in the context of the evolving array of social networking systems, like Twitter, the rapid frequency of messages may inhibit the communicating parties from fully capturing the affective context of the relationship, thus diminishing the strength of the interpersonal ties, which is supposed to be the main feature of the software in the first place. Cascio writes further:

What Damasio’s work suggests to me is that there’s a point where an insufficient amount of attention given to a potentially moving encounter means that little or no empathy—compassion or admiration—will result. And while paying attention to another person is important, offering empathy is much more critical. Social numbness simply can’t be healthy for a functioning society.

For more than a decade, tech pundits and business consultants have gone on about the “attention economy,” arguing that attention has economic value due to its limited availability. It strikes me that this may miss the greater point. From a social perspective, what’s limited isn’t attention, but consideration. Not just hearing, but listening. Not just seeing a message, but understanding its meaning.

This might help explain why so many people accepted Burger King’s promotional offer to delete 10 names from their Facebook list of friends. Relationships built through Facebook, Twitter and others lack the fullness of empathy that creates authentic, caring relationships. Like technology in general, social networking systems can produce positive results for the users. If they didn’t, they would not last long. But uncritical use of these systems will also diminish understanding of what it is to be human and push flourishing, the key to sustainability, farther into the background. This tendency is of great concern given that so many users of this technology are young people who are still forming their worldview and mindset. Their sense of caring for others can only be diminished. The Burger King offer revealed the value of a friend as amounting to one-tenth of a hamburger. Those who did this may find, sometime in their lives, that friendship cannot be measured in economic terms and that the relationship is what gives meaning to their lives, but this discovery will surely be made more difficult by their incessant Twittering.

Design to Seduce


I have just returned from a week in the Netherlands talking about the ideas in my book, Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming our Consumer Culture. My host was the Director of the Design for Sustainability section within the Industrial Design faculty at the Technical University of Delft. This is where I began to learn about the centrality of design to sustainability. On this visit, I was deeply impressed with their progress in the 7-8 years since I spent a year as a Visiting Professor. So when I come across articles like the one I write about here, I wonder where the US design profession really stands towards sustainability.

Under the headline, “Want True Sustainability? Then Design to Seduce,” Gadi Amit writes in Fast Company that:

Sustainable design is a hot topic. While most people applaud the idea of designers using ecofriendly materials, others insist that that’s missing the point—that by designing for mass consumption, designers are still part of the problem, not the solution. I disagree.

The Designers Accord, the global initiative that unites designers, engineers, educators and others around the idea of incorporating sustainability into all practices and production, is a remarkable achievement. Yet, before I signed on, I wanted to have a talk with Valerie Casey, the founder of the movement.

I told her that it bothers me that almost invariably, sustainability is framed as an ‘anti’ movement. It mostly tells us what not to do. While that’s often right, I would add a caveat. For true sustainability, we need to make a more profound culture change—one that involves more than the right standards, specs, or agreements. We should harken back to design in its classical sense, in which an object is so beautiful or functional or otherwise pleasing that it elicits an emotional reaction.

I think Amit, although seeing the imitations of what has been standard eco-design practice, has missed the point. Yes, we do need a culture change, but not the kind he calls for. To make designs evoke emotions is already part of standard practice. He later implies that designs that do evoke deep connections to our emotions will become objects of permanent value, and will not get thrown away so easily. My Dutch colleagues recognized this some time ago and published a neat report on the project called, Eternally Yours. But as much as long-lived objects may slow down unsustainability, they will continue to feed affluent society’s basic addiction to consumption. And by making them explicitly seductive, this aspect will only be worsened.

What designer’s need to do is make objects that wake us up, not things to be loved or hated. We will not be able to flourish, the key to sustainability, unless our everyday tools help us break through the unconsciousness that the tools produce so that we can recover our sense of being, not having. Paradoxical as it may seem, our tools can be designed to carry messages that raise our senses of what we care about and dispel the sense that we simply need these things because they are there and we have the resources to acquire them. I looked at the website for the Design Accord and see that some 150,000 people are affiliated with this young entity. Their guidelines speak about introducing sustainable design intheir work, but if this article is a clue as to what this means, I do not believe that they will get far in creating sustainability. They should take a hard look at what is going on in Europe and at places like TUDelft.

Paying for Nature

48 monteverde.jpg

Most of the times I read something about the environment by Tom Friedman, my hopes go up a little and then usually come back down. His op-ed piece on Costa Rica evoked the same feelings. Friedman was extolling the effectiveness of Costa Rican policy in preserving biodiversity.

These days, visitors can still see amazing biodiversity all over Costa Rica — more than 25 percent of the country is protected area — thanks to a unique system it set up to preserve its cornucopia of plants and animals. Many countries could learn a lot from this system.

He calls this system unique beause it forces people who use environmental services to pay for those services.

More than any nation I’ve ever visited, Costa Rica is insisting that economic growth and environmentalism work together. It has created a holistic strategy to think about growth, one that demands that everything gets counted. So if a chemical factory sells tons of fertilizer but pollutes a river — or a farm sells bananas but destroys a carbon-absorbing and species-preserving forest — this is not honest growth. You have to pay for using nature. It is called “payment for environmental services” — nobody gets to treat climate, water, coral, fish and forests as free anymore.

This idea is not unique or practiced only in Costa Rica. Virtually all regulatory schemes balance the values of standard economic outputs against the harm done to the environment, that is, make the polluter pay. What is different about Costa Rica is that they set higher values on the non-impacted environment than most others do. This means that commercial projects that would go forward in other places are not “profitable” in Costa Rica. And the reason they can set such high prices is unique. As Friedman points out, “it did something no country has ever done: It put energy, environment, mines and water all under one minister.”

“In Costa Rica, the minister of environment sets the policy for energy, mines, water and natural resources,” explained Carlos M. Rodríguez, who served in that post from 2002 to 2006. In most countries, he noted, “ministers of environment are marginalized.” They are viewed as people who try to lock things away, not as people who create value. Their job is to fight energy ministers who just want to drill for cheap oil… But when Costa Rica put one minister in charge of energy and environment, “it created a very different way of thinking about how to solve problems,” said Rodríguez, now a regional vice president for Conservation International. “The environment sector was able to influence the energy choices by saying: ‘Look, if you want cheap energy, the cheapest energy in the long-run is renewable energy. So let’s not think just about the next six months; let’s think out 25 years.’ ”

So rather than create conflict between commercial and environmental interests that typifies most countries and allows the richest or most powerful to hold sway, this arrangement forces a single decision maker to balance all the issues. Rodriguez recognized the value of ecosystems to key sectors of the Costa Rican economy: tourism and agriculture. And if these services were not properly valued and actually paid for, they would be overly utilized and harmed

This system has solved a major difficulty found in countries where the responsibilities are split among competing agencies, but still falls short of what is needed to create sustainability, that is, a holistic understanding of the place of humans within the “environmental” world. This system does a great job in preventing unsustainability from showing up, but does little in changing the understanding of our species’ place within and as a part of the planetary ecosystem. Any framework that puts values on nature still sees nature only as a source of resources producing something accountable in economic terms. The higher the value we set, the less of nature will be used. But the important consciousness of our place as part of the world will be ignored. Both are critically important. I observe that we stop before taking this critical second step whenever we think we have solved the environmental problem at hand.

Satisfaction in Work


Maybe the positive side of the financial collapse is beginning to show itself. I haven’t seen much in the blogosphere that does not talk about the need to get the consumption machine going. Frank Rich writing his Sunday column in the NYTimes changes this tune a bit—only a bit, but that is still a good turn.

Using Harvard as his source, Rich criticizes Larry Summers for his accepting large sums from financial institutions while serving as President of the University. Perhaps by osmosis, but certainly by example, students ran to the finacial sector.

The Harvard Crimson reported that in the class of 2007, 58 percent of the men and 43 percent of the women entering the work force took jobs in the finance and consulting industries.

But then he turns to the current Harvard President, Drew Faust, who has been encouraging students to seek meaningful pursuits and adds some words from Obama.

Find work you love,” she implored the class of 2008. The “most remunerative” job choice “may not be the most meaningful and the most satisfying… This same note was hit a month earlier by the commencement speaker at Wesleyan University, Barack Obama. “The big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy,” he said, amount to “a poverty of ambition.” He wasn’t speaking idly. As America knows, Obama turned down the lucrative career path guaranteed to the first African-American president of The Harvard Law Review to pursue the missions of service and teaching instead.

That leaders at high levels are speaking to young people to find ways to satisfy their concerns (my term for meaningful pursuits) is critical in creating sustainability. Without a shift from the having mode of life, exemplified by the financial world, to the satisfaction of deep-seated human concerns, the individual, social and environmental pathologies are almost surely to persist. For a human being who is flourishing the choice of career is more than something one “loves” to do. (Faust has fallen into the banal way we speak of love. Love is not about doing things; it’s about relationships and respect for the other) Career is the place one takes care of his or her concerns for other, family, and several other of the basic domains of caring. It takes a reading of the whole chapter from my book to make this explicit. Sorry.

In any case, not all Harvard people are so positive that this shift will happen.

One skeptic is Howard Gardner, the Harvard education professor who has created seminars at several elite colleges to counsel students in the notion of pursuing meaningful, ethical and effective work — “Good Work,” as he has titled it. He believes that many students may still be operating on the assumption that the world of finance will just pick up where it left off in a few years. “But we’re not going to be back there,” Gardner told me last week, “and we shouldn’t be back there.”

Lessons from a Roofer


I am often taken to task over my assertion that technology tends to push our humanness into the background, and interfere, as well, with our relationships with others. I rarely see this in action in specific cases, unlike my more academic analyses. Goerge Packer, telling a story about the travails of a roofer in this current crunch, has a perfect example of what I labor to describe.

“It’s the technology,” the roofer said. “They [his customers] don’t know how to deal with a human being. They stand there with that text shrug”—he hunched his shoulders, bent his head down, moved from side to side, looking anywhere but at me—“and they go, ‘Ah, ah, um, um,’ and they just mumble. They can’t talk any more.” This inadequacy with physical space and direct interaction was an affliction of the educated, he said—“the more educated, the worse.” His poorer black customers in Bedford-Stuyvesant had no such problem, and he was much happier working on their roofs, but the recession had slowed things down there and these days he was forced to deal almost entirely with the cognitively damaged educated and professional classes.

It was a new group who had moved from Manhattan in the past few years, and who could not detach themselves from their communications devices long enough to look someone in the eye or notice the source of a leak. This was a completely new phenomenon in the roofer’s world: a mass upper class that was so immersed in symbolic and digital cerebration that it had become incapable of carrying out the most ordinary functions—had become, in effect, like small children with Asperger’s symptoms. It was a ruling class that, out of sheer over-civilization, was quickly losing the ability to hold onto its power.

Case closed or certainly more likely to bring a guilty verdict. Many others now becoming detached from their technological support systems are likely to show the same symptoms the roofer describes. The article ends with his claim that these folks will soon be calling for socialism because the government is the only source they recognize that can help. What all (and Packer) miss is that help is contained within themselves, but needs to be released and tuned up through reflection and acknowledgment of their over-reliance on all that technology.

Design for Depression


Several of my posts discuss the question whether the recession/depression will change fundamental consumption patterns, now designers themselves are asking the same question. Allison Arieff writes in the NYTimes:

The impact of the economy on design has generated a lively round of journalistic debate. In “Design Loves a Depression,” a piece in The Times in January, design writer Michael Cannell argued that designers need to be taken down a notch and shift gears from creating luxury high rises and limited-edition Nymphenburg porcelain cows and “actually find a new sense of relevance in the process” . . .

Looking positively at the slowdown in work, Arieff sees this period as an opportunity for reflection and learning. If the clients really do stop coming, the reflections will almost certainly come without any conscious effort to produce quiet moments. She continues:

Maybe one way the recession as good for design is to see it not as a form of punishment for frivolous designers but rather as an opportunity to allow for a rethinking of design itself — and the role of the designer within it. . . This rethinking needs to come not just from designers but from the manufacturers, companies and other clients who decide what products and projects will be produced. There’s no excuse not to examine and re-examine what’s made, how it’s manufactured, what materials are used (and which are recyclable), what benefit it’s giving the consumer (or lack thereof) and what contribution, if any, it’s making to anything other than landfill.

And all of us who purchase these things should be thinking — and no doubt are, more and more these days — do I need this? Is there another one that’s more efficient? That uses less packaging? Will last longer? Has less square footage? Looks better? Is more fun to use? Is something I want to pass on to my grandkids?

It is very encouraging to see designers recognize the importance about thinking about the impacts their works have on the environment. What’s missing from this story is mention of the impacts the artifacts have on the people that “consume” them. To the extent that this article can be generalized to the whole design community, this sentence capsulizes the blindness to what I define as sustainability. "Instead of creating a need for things, designers can now focus on responding to things we do need." Do we need "more fun" as mentioned above. Maybe as the economic situation creates signs of clinical depression. But this is a pretty banal response. People don't need things as I see it. They live to take care of concerns for themselves, others, and the world. Erich Fromm asked a key question through the title of his book, To Have or To Be. Recovering "being" is essential to human flourishing, the quality central to the concept of sustainability. People do "need" to have things in their pursuit of taking care, but not for the things, per se.

How can designers create artifacts that help people satisfy their concern for relationships? Is Facebook the best way to do this? Do beauty products in fancy bottle really create beauty? When designers stop focusing on need and start thinking about the existential concerns of our species (being), then they will be able to contribute to sustainability.

Half a Loaf is . . .

Toilets show up in my sustainability book as an example of design for sustainability. I got inspired by the two-button toilet as a means to change behavior and instill consciousness of responsibility to take care of the environment. Two separate flushing buttons or levers, one big and one small, adjust the volume of the flush. The presence of two-buttons forces the user to stop and think about the next step and make a conscious choice. After a while the actor will embody that sense of responsibility and hopefully will exercise it in other situations where caring for the world is involved. I ran upon this Inhabitat story about an adjunct to a toilet that collects water from the adjacent sink and uses it for flushing.
Who says plumbing is boring? The forward thinking folks at Sloan Valve Company have come up with a compact greywater system for your bathroom that is easy to install and works with the existing fixtures. The Sloan® AQUS® Greywater System filters the water that goes down your sink drain and then uses it to flush your toilet, potentially saving a household up to 5,000 gallons of potable water each year.

This system helps contribute to LEED accreditation and could posibly lead the way for more wider adoption of extensive greywater recycling systems and public education of just how important water re-use is. Either way, it’s a pretty sweet gem to have hidden under your sink saving you water, money and peace of mind.

This is a great example of greening, reducing the stress on the environment. For that reason, it is something that should be seriously considered in new construction and fixing up projects. But there is a key problem with it signaled by the last phrase in the quote, "peace of mind." Peace of mind signifies being able to live with your actions. Yes, in this case, if all you care about is conserving water. But if you are more involved in understanding your role in the world and acting on that understanding, then you need to be aware that what is being flushed does not simply go away. Away is not a real place. The two-button toilet takes you toward that fuller consciousness. It's a pity the the vendor did not add this simple feature as well.

Conspicuous Consumption Starts at 2 Years Old


The financial crunch has not appeared to stop the incessant search for beauty in a bottle. Writing in Newsweek, Jessica Bennett reports that the spa business for very young children is as robust as ever. I know that our leaders are desperately (?) trying to get the engine of our economy back in gear. But this way?

On a recent Sunday in Brooklyn, I stumble into a spa that brands itself for the 0 to 12 set, full of tweens getting facialed and glossed, hands and feet outstretched for manis and pedis. “The girls just love it,” says Daria Einhorn, the 21-year-old spa owner, who was inspired by watching her 5-year-old niece play with toy beauty kits… Sounds extreme? Maybe. But this, my friends, is the new normal: a generation that primps and dyes and pulls and shapes, younger and with more vigor. Girls today are salon vets before they enter elementary school. Forget having mom trim your bangs, fourth graders are in the market for lush $50 haircuts; by the time they hit high school, $150 highlights are standard. Five-year-olds have spa days and pedicure parties. And instead of shaving their legs the old-fashioned way—with a 99-cent drugstore razor—teens get laser hair removal, the most common cosmetic procedure of that age group. If these trends continue, by the time your tween hits the Botox years, she’ll have spent thousands on the beauty treatments once reserved for the “Beverly Hills, 90210” set, not junior highs in Madison, Wis.

I see in this stark evidence of our society’s continuing slide into the “having” mode of living. Our habits of thinking and acting start building early—like, beauty can be found in a “bottle.” Historical data show that beauty products were used millennia before the modern era. Maybe something like our spas and Body Shops existed at those times, but I doubt it. Nor was there a thriving business bombarding the young with seductive messages and images. Bennett writes, “It’s been estimated that girls 11 to 14 are subjected to some 500 advertisements a day—the majority of them nipped, tucked and airbrushed to perfection.”

The notion that applications of stuff can make one beautiful unfortunately doesn’t stop with the mascara brush. With modern tools, the body itself can be tweaked and shaped. Bennett continues:

In Susie Orbach’s new book, “Bodies,” the former therapist to Princess Diana argues that good looks and peak fitness are no longer a biological gift, but a ceaseless pursuit. And obsession at an early age, she says, fosters a belief that these are essential components of who we are—not, as she puts it, “lovely add-ons.” “It primes little girls to think they should diet and dream about the cosmetic-surgery options available to them, and it makes body the primary place for self-identity.”

And if the grown-ups that emerge from this process think that they can “have” beauty, there is nothing to stop them from believing that everything good in life can be found in a metaphorical bottle. Sustainability is as much about human flourishing as it is about “nature.” (I put the scare quotes here to point to the error of thinking we are not part of nature.) Flourishing can’t be produced by a machine. Beauty comes from living an authentic life and engaging in the experiences that show up, including those about the body that you received from your genes, not your cosmetician. Human beings are not paint-by-numbers kits.

Off for a Week or So

| | Comments (1)
I will be in the Netherlands for the next ten days, mostly in Delft, see photo. I will be participating in the 40th anniversary Jubilee of the Industrial Design Engineering Faculty at the Technical University of Delft. I spent a year there in 2001 and got many of the ideas about design while visiting. My host, Han Brezet and his group have been leaders in developing, first, methods for Design for the Environment (DfE) and now, design for sustainability (DfS). Posting may be irregular until I get back.

The Economy of Enough


Out of all the zillions of words being written about our current crises, almost all are about getting back to where we were. Some talk about the pain to be felt as we recover. Some wonder about what the world be like whenever we recover and try to visualize how that world will look. the blogosphere has no end of stars that write about this, but here is some wisdom coming from a local columnist in Sonoma, CA. Here’s the final touch.

Perhaps this economic slowdown provides the moment to evaluate how a truly sustainable economic system functions, and to consider that the type of consumption that got us into this mess is most likely not the solution to solving it. Perhaps we need to examine the economy of enough.

When people were nomadic, enough meant what you could carry. When ancient fixed agricultural communities were developed, enough meant what you could store against an uncertain future. In today’s modern age of seemingly unlimited credit, wealth and resources, enough has lost its meaning. The feverish consumption of material resources has its analogy in our over-consumption of food, and we carry our financial debt as heavily as the extra pounds around our middles. As a nation we are suffering from a case of economic diabetes; our major financial organs are failing.

Though the media continues to hawk products and inducements to consume as if nothing has changed, we have been forced to consume less. As this continues, we may rediscover and renew the meaning of enough in our personal lives. As a world economy, however, it’s difficult to imagine what the economy of enough might mean. One thing is for certain; it wouldn’t look anything at all like what we’ve had for a very long time.

It is only a few days before the eve of Passover. One of the best-known parts of the Seder liturgy is the recounting of all the gifts God gave his children—liberation from slavery; wonderful miracles; and the Torah and other evidence of Himself.. After each successive item it spoken, the assembled family says, “Dayenu,” translated as “it would have been enough.”

What if "No Product" was the Strongest Brand?


This is the question asked by John Hockenberry in an interesting essay directed to the industrial design community.

What if, suddenly, the strongest product brand was No Product and the strongest consumer impulse was not buying? Last year there was ample evidence that the muscle consumers were flexing most was that of restraint. The inclination not to spend almost did in the entire U.S. auto industry. It still might. At the end of 2008, Chrysler sales dropped 53 percent. Toyota reported an operating loss for the first time in more than 70 years. Retail sales for the end of 2008 actually shrank. Fewer people bought fewer things. Instead of growth numbers and fashion trends, market analysts reported that nonbuyers were driving the market. Not making a purchase was the most powerful impulse in the global economy. No Product was the strongest brand. These abrupt and mass-scaled changes in behavior suggest that, at least in theory, many basic assumptions about retail capitalism are being reexamined and reevaluated by consumers all over the world.

Rube Goldberg.jpg

He asks how designers might be able to cope in an economic world where consumers made very few purchases. The response is to design a different kind of product altogether: products that might last a life-time through periodic upgrading, products made from the part of older products bought during a consumer’s “binge years.” One compnay that is doing something like this is Terracycle. Using used containers from juiceboxes, candy wrappers and similar discarded objects, Terracyle makes pencil cases, backpacks, totes and other things from these materials.

Hockenberry does not offer any reason that consumers might simply stop consuming in the old fashioned way, but pointed to the decline in the last year as a sign of that possibility. In any case, he sees major implications for industrial designers. He sees designers as centrally involved in creating demand large or smalll.

Americans are accustomed to assembling their economic identities in quasi-sociological categories with names like consumers, bargain hunters, outliers, trend spotters, and opinion leaders. Design is part of this identity- making process. By appealing to human notions of beauty, convenience, and pleasure, designers help invent the desires that grow to become economically measurable demands, and that then have the chance to generate mass markets. Designers celebrate consumer demand as a kind of validation of the mission of improving the human condition, at best, or postponing some tawdry bit of individual boredom, at worst. Design lives in the demand side of global capitalism, which in only a few generations has gone from a narrative of technological ingenuity to a frenetic quest for personal identity through brands and objects, before finally turning into an extreme ideology of shopping as a form of geopolitical defense. When George W. Bush famously urged Americans in 2001 to buy in response to terrorism, the aspiration ceased to be personal; it became a full-fledged nationalistic ideology.

My book follows the same argument—that designers have a central role in designing satisfying products—but with a significant difference. Designers concerned about sustainability need to have a different kind of identity in mind. Rather than “consumers, bargain hunters, outliers, trend spotters, and opinion leaders,” the identity should be related closely to “being” and wake the user up to the area of care involved with the object. It may be taking care of the self, but can also reflect care for the world and for others. “Tawdry boredom” has little or no place in a flourishing world. Neither does consumption for consumption’s sake.

Sustainability and Economics

G20 protesters.jpg

With the G20 meeting in London to deal with the global reach of the current financial meltdown, I thought it would be relevant to devote a post or two to the subject of capitalism. I am by no means knowledgeable in the subject so I have chosen a few posts giving some diverse points of view. Tom Friedman, always a booster (remember The World is Flat), thinks some repairs are all that is needed;

This system was a powerful engine of wealth creation and lifted millions out of poverty, but it relied upon the risks to the Market and to Mother Nature being underpriced and to profits being privatized in good times and losses socialized in bad times. This capitalist engine doesn’t need to be discarded; it needs some fixes. For starters, we need to get back to basics — accountable lending, prudent saving, reasonable leverage and, most important, more engineering of goods than just financial products.

He does admit that the present system has done much harm to Mother Nature.

That’s what “Market to Mother Nature” accounting is all about. It begins with the premise that the distinction between the G-20 and the Copenhagen climate change negotiations is totally artificial. They are just flip sides of the same global problem — how we as a world keep raising standards of living for more and more people in ways that will not, as a byproduct, have both the Market and Mother Nature producing huge amounts of toxic assets.

I think his arguments are a bit simplistic. So would the next writer, also a non-economist. Writing in the McKinsey & Co blog, What Matters, Kim Stanley Robinson takes a much more critical view even while pointing out the same flaw, failure to price goods and services properly.

Am I saying that capitalism is going to have to change or else we will have an environmental catastrophe? Yes, I am. It should not be shocking to suggest that capitalism has to change. Capitalism evolved out of feudalism. Although the basis of power has changed from land to money and the system has become more mobile, the distribution of power and wealth has not changed that much. It’s still a hierarchical power structure, it was not designed with ecological sustainability in mind, and it won’t achieve that as it is currently constituted.

The main reason I believe capitalism is not up to the challenge is that it improperly and systemically undervalues the future. I’ll give two illustrations of this. First, our commodities and our carbon burning are almost universally underpriced, so we charge less for them than they cost. When this is done deliberately to kill off an economic competitor, it’s called predatory dumping; you could say that the victims of our predation are the generations to come, which are at a decided disadvantage in any competition with the present.

The way the global economic system distributes wealth over the present world and over generations to come will be a key determinant of sustainability. With all the talk about sustainability, I have yet to hear that this will be a subject at this G20 meeting. There are cetainly many bleeding wounds that need immediate treatment, but unless world leaders take a deeper and longer-term perspective alongside their political necessities, we are probably still on an unsustainable trajectory. The use of “probably” here is consistent with my view of a complex world where the future cannot be foretold. But deep in my heart away from any such intellectualizing, I do believe we are on such a trajectory, moving further from our noble and virtuous aspirations.