Design for a sustainable planet

The Story of Stuff

The Story of Stuff is a very clever and well-executed film about our relationship with our planet. You should go watch it now. Come back afterwards and read the rest of this post. It’ll take 20 minutes, but it’ll be worth it. It may come across as a bit preachy at times, but the points it makes are too important to let that you stop you.

Go. Now.

.. so, you’ve seen it? I hope you liked it. What seems to be a long time ago, I posted my review of a book called Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. It was a very worrisome read about the state of the planet. It made the same argument as the Story of Stuff film: That we are too many people on the planet, using too many resources too fast, and that it is ecologically, economically and socially unsustainable. Ishmael suggested the solution was that we should live “as if man belongs to Earth rather than Earth belongs to man.” This basically involved accepting that human life isn’t as precious as we like it to be, and that we should accept plagues and other acts of God in order to stop over-population. It was a very sinister outlook.

Since then, I’ve found that other people have a more positive outlook on these issues. Like the designers Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart who’ve written the intriguing book, “Cradle to Cradle“. They make the point that we’ll never get where we want to go if we only act from our bad conscience. We need a more positive outlook that just having a “sustainable” impact on the planet. Why shouldn’t we go even further, and seek to have a positive impact on the planet?

For a good example of how to do this, McDonough and Braungart suggests ants:

Consider a community of ants. As part of their daily activity, they:

* safely and effectively handle their own material wastes and those of other species
* grow and harvest their own food while nurturing the ecosystem of which they are a part
* construct houses, farms, dumps, cemeteries, living quarters, and food-storage facilities from materials that can be truly recycled
* create disinfectants and medicines that are healthy, safe, and biodegradable
* maintain soil health for the entire planet.

Individually we are much larger than ants, but collectively their biomass exceeds ours. Just as there is almost no corner of the globe untouched by human presence, there is almost no land habitat, from harsh desert to inner city, untouched by some species of ant. They are a good example of a population whose density and productiveness are not a problem for the rest of the world, because everything they make and use returns to the cradle-to-cradle cycles of nature. All their materials, even their most deadly chemical weapons, are biodegradable, and when they return to the soil, they supply nutrients, restoring in the process some of those that were taken to support the colony.

Now, people really don’t like to be compared to ants. Ants are mute, boring, tread-mill workers with no individual identity at all. Nobody wants to be an ant, certainly. But it seems that we have a lot in common with ants when we compare ourselves with them on a community-level. Ants collaborate, they harvest and gather, they build and repair, they live in hives, and they communicate. With huge Internet projects like Wikipedia, we have even begun to collaboratively in a fashion which previously has only been seen among ants and other insects.

So, I figure that the positive challenge to solving many of this world’s problems is to find a way of building communities which take and use the best designs – environmentally, technologically, socially, politically, even aesthetically – from nature and from our own history.

I suppose in saying this, I am framing these problems as wicked design problems to be solved. But that’s not really my idea. I picked it up from Bruce Mau, a Canadian designer and the man behind the Massive Change exhibition, which posed the question:

“Now that we can do anything, what will we do?”

That is a question which is no longer science fiction.

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