Designing Sustainability: Making radical changes in a material world

Check out author Stuart Walker's blog post on his new book, Designing Sustainability.

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Sustainability is not so much a goal as it is a way of being in the world. It represents a way of being that rejects the powerful but ultimately superficial rhetoric of consumerism that tells us that happiness can be sought and bought through worldly pleasures. Sustainability represents a way of being that is relational and inter-dependent, where we recognize that each individual is part of and reliant on the greater whole. It is only by recognizing our relationship to and critical dependence on others, community, and the natural environmental that we can hope to overcome the damaging practices that have brought us to the brink of ecological ruin.

If we are to develop ways of being in the world that are sustainable, in the full sense of what that term has come to mean in contemporary culture, we must learn to balance our intellectual, analytical, linear modes of thinking with intuitive, synthetic, holistic ways of encountering the world. We must learn to recognize the importance of the subjective alongside the objective, and give equal place to the imaginative and the creative as to the logical and the practical. Significantly, there is a spiritual dimension to this. A dimension that flourishes from silence, solitude, contemplation and reflection. A dimension that is not only essential to a different way of being but is also strongly associated with human creativity, and with finding inner peace and true happiness. This wisdom has been echoed down the ages – from the teachings of Buddhism and Taoism to the Desert Fathers of early Christianity, from the writings of Matsuo Basho in the Zen tradition of Japan to those of Thoreau, Emerson and Aldo Leopold in the United States. Such an understanding of sustainability offers a more balanced, more respectful attitude towards others and towards the natural environment. From an individual perspective, it allows us to encounter the world more fully, as whole persons employing all our faculties.

Inevitably, this notion of sustainability means questioning a host of things that have become prevalent in today’s atomized, insatiable world of consumer capitalism. This world of endless entertainment, infotainment and technological gadgetry is entirely antithetical to silence and quietness of mind. It is a busy, frenetic grasping world of manipulative marketing and distraction that prevents pause and confounds reflection. Sustainability places a question mark against many of our current assumptions, attitudes and behavioural norms, our ways of thinking and our material expectations.

The creative discipline of design has an important role to play in this sea change. Over the last century or more design, and product design in particular, has been part and parcel of creating and stimulating flagrantly un-sustainable lifestyles. Today, product designers, whose work is so closely associated with consumer goods and consumerism, have an obligation to employ their knowledge and skills to envision very different ways of living that reflect very different ways of being in the world. To do this, particularly within academia where design educators have the freedom and the responsibility to explore alternative directions, many of the discipline’s most sacrosanct conventions have to be challenged. If design is to contribute to sustainability in a manner that is both significant and meaningful we simply cannot maintain the same priorities and approaches that the discipline has adhered to for decades.

The historical context in which modern design emerged can throw some light on how we arrived at our current, unsustainable consumer culture. The beginning of the 20th century marked the end of the American phase of the Industrial Revolution, which had begun in England around 1750. By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, many of the household electrical appliances we now take for granted had been invented – the washing machine, the electric kettle, the electric iron, the toaster, the electric cooker, the vacuum cleaner, the telephone and the radio. The aeroplane and the automobile had also been developed. Industry was moving into a new phase – mass-production – and the profession of Industrial Design arose to create these new products so they could be efficiently produced in large numbers and so they would be distinctive from competitors’ products on the store shelves. In the United States, design was driven by commercial considerations and the market, in Europe the drivers were more intellectual and more ideological. It was this European approach, especially that of the Bauhaus school in Germany, that had such a significant impact on design education and for that very reason, one might argue, has had such a damaging legacy in terms of sustainability.

At the beginning of the twentieth century artists and designers were enthralled by the potential of the new industrial capabilities and there was great hope in the future. Traditional ways of knowing, craft and long established skills were pushed aside. The past was irrelevant - out with the old, in with the new, history is bunk. The new gods were mechanized production, innovation and speed. Surface decoration was rejected as superfluous and new materials and processes were used in the design and construction of houses and for the production of furniture, household goods and the many new electrical appliances. The resulting plain, stark world of whites, chromes and primary colours was the physical manifestation of a rejection of the past. It conveyed a world of antiseptic efficiency, an unadorned, rationalized future of form follows function. This not only created a false impression of sanitized living divorced from and independent of the natural world, it also set the seeds of mass-consumption and the devastating effects of capitalist consumerism, effects that are both social and environmental.

A covenant had been broken. A covenant that had long recognized that the wisdoms and ways of our predecessors were not to be dismissed but were important and relevant to our own times and our own lives. It was an arrogant and ominous rupture that is having ruinous consequences.

Designers who wish to come to grips with sustainability must take a different path. We must retrieve many of those things that were trampled underfoot in the twentieth century’s rush to the future. We must consider again tradition, craft, connection to the earth, connection to community and the benefits, both social and environmental, of localization. And we must find ways of integrating these things with the benefits of contemporary technologies so that, through wise decision-making, selectivity, and drastic reductions in consumerism, we find ways of ‘designing’, ‘living’ and ‘being’ sustainability.

This will not be an easy integration. Contemporary society is implicitly biased towards techno-scientific notions of innovation and progress and towards ‘growth’ understood in purely economic terms. In our government departments and our universities we favour evidence-based research, quantification and facts over experiential knowledge, tacit knowledge, intuition and the human imagination. We favour the physical over the metaphysical and look to what is possible rather than what is ethical. Sustainability and designing sustainability demand a re-balancing of what we consider to be important, a retrieval of principles and values in public debate and education and a reassessment of what is acceptable in contemporary society – from the use of disposable packaging and single-use products to our interpretation of advancement. Also, we must seriously challenge the continued acceptability of a multi-billon dollar advertising industry dedicated to the promotion of dissatisfaction and consumption in a world that can no longer afford or support unconstrained resource use and waste.

In other words, sustainability means systemic shift – in our worldview, our priorities, our modes of education, our economic system and our ways of doing business. It means far more cooperation, common goals, spiritual renewal and a realization of more profound, more meaningful understandings of what it is to be a human being, a community and citizens on this fragile, beautiful and suffering planet that every last one of us has no other option but to call home.

  • Designing Sustainability

    Making radical changes in a material world

    By Stuart Walker

    What is the relationship between design, sustainability, inner values and spirituality? How can we create designs that provide a convincing alternative to unsustainable interpretations of progress, growth, consumerism and commercialism? Building on the arguments first advanced in his widely…

    Paperback – 2014-05-15