In honor of Earth Day, here’s a break from the economic foundation of our current consumption crisis. I’m going to tell you a bit of my own story.
I just had a birthday. I’ve had a lot of them now, but I’m not someone who believes in ceasing to celebrate them. We who grow older are the lucky ones. We are those who didn’t die young. A few wrinkles can be evidence of experience lived and, hopefully, wisdom gained.
I do feel old, though. I went back to school in my 40’s so I could earn an M.F.A. degree in Design for Sustainability from Savannah College of Art and Design. It’s a fabulous, give-up-sleep-until-you-graduate, revelatory, and well-directed program under the guidance of Scott Boylston and Kwela Hermanns. It’s full of 20-somethings who still have tight skin holding up their perky boobs and naivete. I love them. Not the boobs, but these remarkable, intelligent, young people determined to change the world.
I’ve been incredibly isolated among them, though. I’m from Seattle, which is basically a different country than Georgia, with a different dialect, diet, political leaning, culture, topography, and climate, not to mention driving habits and the Georgian proliferation of American flags. I’ve had to leave and come back more than once due to illness, personal matters, or covid-19, and with my studies I really haven’t had time to socialize. Plus, no one really wants to go to school with someone who could be their mom, or at least, they don’t want to hang out with them.
Suburban residents have never looked me in the eye, which I suspect has something to do with my unmotherly hair and the tattoos in Arabic and Hebrew running down the length of my right arm. Since I’m a bit terrified of the evangelical and fundamentalist churches here and I’m not one to go to clubs, I haven’t really known where to go to make friends. The people with whom I most relate are my professors, and there’s a strict professional line that has to be drawn between me and them.
It reminds me of my childhood. I was the stereotypical lonely-only, without the stereotypical spoilage, and spent most of my time in my bedroom or outside climbing trees. When I was 11 I went to work with my father, mowing yards every night after school and on weekends, and then through the summer. As a result, I was highly unsocialized when I got to high school, and have been a bit socially awkward ever since.
Below: Me at 13
Nature was my solace. I loved the flowers, the trees, and the beautiful beds my dad created. I made friends with all the clients’ dogs. I hated the heat and the dirt that stuck to my glistened skin as though it were making compost of me, but I loved the plants and the life. They were friends. I was a treehugger in Oklahoma where “treehugger” was an epithet, but I couldn’t help it. Nature was my first crush and my first love.
It was this same love that drove me to go back to college a third time, to learn more about how to care for those who’d cared for me. Surprise surprise, here in this new, isolated world of Savannah, the glory of trees speak to me. They hug the streets, shielding them from the Southern sun by reaching their bent, draped arms overhead, and whispering about the past. They don’t deny what has happened here, although many saw Savannah’s founding. They do speak to hope, that being bent can be beautiful, and that life can flourish even next to the concrete insensitivity of humanity.
In school I’ve learned so much about how we got to the place where nature has become increasingly invisible while consumption has become increasingly a means of virtue-signaling. It says we’re supporting the economy, that we’re successful, even that we love our country. We like it big here. It’s part of being American; it just isn’t, well, sustainable.
photo credit: shutterstock_244366837.jpg
We call sustainability “the s-word” in my program. People are either already on board or never believed in it in the first place. They shut down out of hopelessness, quibbling over human involvement, or general disgust. To be sustainable means we must change, and change is hard.
The “s-word” is commonly misunderstood, but it’s simple, really. To meet school deadlines I’ve tried going without sleep for many days in a row, and it has proven unsustainable in the extreme. Stop eating. It’s not sustainable. Continue to fill the earth and atmosphere with toxins and waste that doesn’t return to soil for hundreds or thousands of years with over 7 billion people on the planet, and that’s not sustainable, either. This isn’t a personal judgment. God knows, we live in a system that has been designed to be unsustainable since the Industrial Revolution and, more recently, World War II (Wagner et al., 2018). It’s freaking hard to try to change the course of a ship when it’s this massive, even if it’s heading through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and straight into the maw of the tentacled beast we, ourselves, created.
This is why a person can get an M.F.A. in studying the situation and developing solutions for the challenges we, as a society and species, currently face. It’s a call for creativity. It’s a call for intentionality, reflection, emotional connection, justice, empathy. Designers hold a great deal of responsibility for getting us into our current mess. We should own that same responsibility for getting us out of it. I’m a designer and I feel this on a visceral level. Victor J. Papanek (1923–1998), Austrian-American designer, educator, and author, delivered the most polemic condemnation of design, saying,
“There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them.”
His seminal publication Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change (1971), provided a strongly worded critique of profit-driven design. Papanek considered design as a political tool and used his designs to provoke an examination of the social purpose of design in everyday life. He used design as a power for good in the world.
The IDSA (Industrial Designers Society of America) defines industrial design as the professional practice of designing products, devices, objects, and services based on appearance, functionality, and manufacturability. The goal, they claim, is to provide the “lasting value and experience a product or service provides for end users” (2022). Every object with which we interact daily is the result of a design process, and the stated goal is to improve lives through well-executed design. This is all well and good if we set aside the current use of materials that are not biodegradable or recyclable, and reliance on technology that has resulted in what Ezio Manzini calls in his essay, Prometheus of the Everyday,
“A world of objects designed for rapid consumption, objects requiring a minimum of effort and attention to use, but also objects that leave no lasting impression on our memories—a throw-away world that requires no effort but, at the same time, produces no real quality” (Buchanan et al., 2010).
This brings us back to nature. Manzini, founder of the Desis Network and one of my favorite authors, helps us here by encouraging us to think of a garden of objects.
“Now imagine a garden with flowers and fruit trees,” he says. “Think of the attention, time, and energy required, and think of the results: flowers and fruit. For those who have grown them, value cannot be measured in banally economic terms. Of course, a garden should produce flowers and fruit, but the person tending it does so for a more general reason—love of the plants. Now try to imagine an analogous relation between objects. Think of objects that are beautiful and useful as trees in your own garden, objects that endure and have lives of their own, objects that perform services and require care” (Buchanan et al., 2010).
This resonates so deeply for me. It’s actually a fundamental premise of my thesis. What if every environment, every product, was like a garden? How would that change the world? Does this paradigm exist somewhere already? The answer is yes, but a yes in small letters hidden in the middle of a word puzzle. It needn’t be.
The world of craft and craftsmanship isn’t dead. It’s become dominated by industrial mechanization, but people are compelled to create beautiful, quality items. They are out there if we look for them and are willing to care for objects that delight our senses, are meaningful and potentially, generational. In this way they bloom, and if we will stop for long enough, we will smell their fragrance. We can support local economies and our own communities. We could spend a little more up front to find just the right thing that could become our favorite, precluding our need to buy more of the same to fill up some existential or utilitarian hole. It’s a lovely dream, but it’s also a practical one. It’s achievable.
Did I mention that I just had a birthday and, oh yes, that it’s right next to Earth Day? In fact, I was born in the same month and year in which the first Earth Day took place, which could in part explain why I emerged from the womb as a natural treehugger. The thought comforts me as I continue to age and wrinkle like the bark on a tree.
image credit: shutterstock_2017302749.pdf
This year I would love to ask if we could give a gift to ourselves and care more about the objects with which we surround ourselves. This doesn’t mean I want us to embrace materialism. Quite the opposite. By owning fewer things of higher quality for longer periods of time, we can turn our paradigm of disposability on its head, reduce our inadvertent support of slave labor, and distribute our spending amongst makers rather than industrial magnates and machines. We can embrace the idea of the garden and experience the loveliness of its solace and beauty. When the world feels unjust and lonely, we can enter that garden and be comforted not only by its loveliness, but the fact that we’ve done something to make the world a better place. A person doesn’t have to be 20-something to do that. In fact, it’s never too late.
Home. Papanek Foundation. (2021, October 19). Retrieved April 22, 2022, from https://papanek.org/
Manzini, E. (2010). Prometheus of the Everyday. In R. W. Buchanan & V. Margolin (Eds.), Discovering design explorations in design studies (pp. 219–239). essay, Univ. of Chicago Press.
Wagner, M., Eriksen, M., Thiel, M., Prindiville, M., & Kiessling, T. (2018). Microplastic:What Are the Solutions? In S. Lambert (Ed.), Freshwater Microplastics: Emerging Environmental Contaminants? (Vol. 58, pp. 278–298). essay, Springer Open.
What is Industrial Design? IDSA. (2022, March 29). Retrieved April 22, 2022, from https://www.idsa.org/what-industrial-design