Tag Archives: materialism

Take My Computer. Please. (The Case Against Ownership)

I was looking at a photo of an old telephone the other day – one from before cellphones and even before cordless phones. It was a classic Henry Dreyfuss table top phone from the days when Ma Bell – the original AT&T – was the only game in town and, for that matter, the only game in the entire country. The phone model choices back then were only slightly better than Henry Ford’s policy of allowing customers to “have a car painted any color so long as it’s black.” Slightly better because you could, in fact, get this phone in an assortment of colors and in three styles. (Remember the “Princess Phone?”)

Henry Dreyfuss designed telephone, Model 500, 1953. source: Cooper Hewitt https://www.cooperhewitt.org/2014/11/07/model-500-telephone-henry-dreyfuss/

But that’s not my point.

Back then you didn’t buy a phone. When you got a phone number and account for your home, it came with a phone, or maybe a few. They were sturdy things, well-made and designed. They almost never broke and, when they did, all you needed to do was tell the phone company and they would come over and either repair or replace it. At no charge, if I recall correctly.

Our kitchen table phone once stopped working. The repair guy came out to the house, pulled the top off and water came pouring out. One of my little sisters, you see, had decided it was dirty and needed cleaning – by pouring water over it.

That memory may have become slightly embellished over time, but the point is that the telephone guy replaced it. No questions asked. Imagine Apple or Samsung doing that. He just unplugged it. (Actually, I don’t think they were attached by plugs back then. The wires were screwed into the wall jack.) And then just attached a new phone. More likely it was one that had been repaired, but just looked new. It didn’t matter; it worked.

Here’s the real point. Could this old-fashioned system make more sense than ownership? There’s a good case for this from both the consumer and manufacturer points of view, and environmentally as well.

I don’t really want a computer. I want what a computer can do. I don’t really want to own and be responsible for the maintenance of a washer and dryer. I want clean and dry clothes. (Yeah, I know I should use a clothesline instead of a dryer, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic.)

I don’t even want a car. I want mobility. And ideally I want to be able to get around with different types of cars for different tasks. Some days a bigger car to carry a lot of stuff and maybe some friends, but on other days it’s just me going a short distance.

I realize my needs are undoubtedly different from someone not living in a city. But as a city dweller, I was overjoyed when Zipcar came to town and I could get rid of the clunker city car I kept for occasional errands and excursions, and whose insurance and maintenance were ridiculously expensive for the little bit of driving I did each month.

This is all part of the “sharing economy.” An old example of this might be a laundromat. A newer example is Zipcar. Newer still is the concept of “tool libraries.” A few years ago, a study found that a cordless drill purchased by a consumer had an average usage time of under 10 minutes. Typically, someone went to a hardware store to buy one, maybe to hang some shelves, and then the drill spent the rest of its life in a closet. Hardly a good use of either money or materials. An answer to this gross inefficiency is being able to go to a tool library and check out a drill (or a circular saw or a tall ladder) for a few days.

Berkeley Tool Lending Library. source: Berkeley Public Library https://www.berkeleypubliclibrary.org/locations/tool-lending-library

You might complain that it’s inconvenient to have to go that library for a ladder. But it’s also inconvenient to go to Lowes or online to Amazon, select which one you want, spend a hunk of money and then store it as dead weight for most of the rest of the time.

On an entirely different level, this is beginning to happen on a commercial scale. There’s even precedent. Back when copiers were big, expensive and prone to breaking down, offices usually didn’t buy them. They rented or leased them from Xerox or a competitor, who frequently charged them by the copy. Maintaining it was Xerox’s problem, not the office’s. (Which was a good thing because they broke down a lot.)

Philips Lighting recently signed with Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to provide “lighting as a service” rather than the more typical method of selling light fixtures and bulbs. For the airport, this means that not only do they not have worry about maintenance, they also will always have state-of-the-art lighting. What’s more they won’t have to worry about how to dispose of it later on.

Therein lies one of the not-so-obvious environmental benefits. Because Philips retains ownership of the lighting, when it comes time to replace it for remodeling or demolition, they will have to deal with its end of life. That means they will need to design that in – how the lighting can be dismantled for least cost recycling or reuse. Previously, when they sold the lighting, they didn’t have to be concerned with the end-of-life. It was someone else’s problem.

Imagine now that this was true for all your electronics – that Dell or Apple or Samsung had to take it back when you were done, and then had to deal with disposal. Suddenly, they’d be concerned with how to design so that products could be easily taken apart. And, by the way, that would also pave the way for easier repairs, which the company would be interested in since repairs and maintenance would be their responsibility.

But how does such a company make money in this arrangement? Yes, they lose the sale, but they gain a stream of income as their customers effectively rent instead of buying. And that stream of income is steadier, more predictable, less susceptible to the ups and downs of the economy.

True to the ideals of EcoOptimism, it’s a win-win-win deal.

Here are some things I’d rather not own, but still want to use:
Anything else that quickly becomes outdated technology
Anything that requires a lot maintenance.
Home Appliances
Formal Attire (I’m lucky to have a hand-me-down tux, but if I didn’t…)

Spied at Parsons School of Design:

Flyer at Parsons School of Design. photo: David Bergman

Laser Schmaser

laser pizza cutter

I’m picky about pizza. I’ve lived nearly all my life in New York City — home to pizza meccas John’s, 109 year old Lombardi’s, and block long lines in Brooklyn for newcomer di Fara’s – along with hours logged in New Haven, another pizza culinary center. Back here in NY, we not only have a favorite local pizza joint mere blocks away, but know and love Sal, the incredibly colorful only-in-NYC character who owns it.

It was at his place, where the tables are no-nonsense Formica but the eggplant on his slices escapes deep frying, that we taught one of our nieces the right way to eat a slice. I’m waiting for her pizza-off with Donald Trump on The Daily Show.

Folded and forkless (and laserless).

Folded and forkless (and laserless).


I try not to get too tied up in traditionalism with my food. I’ve openly accepted the outlier cinnamon raisin bagel as legit. (Hey, even Russ and Daughters sells them.) Blueberry, though, is another story. Similarly, I don’t turn in elitist disgust from most pizza toppings — so long as “most” doesn’t include pineapple.

Nor do I knee-jerk reject modern improvements. I make my knee wait a bit past the initial reflex until my head can tell it what it really should do. (I’m getting to the point. Promise.)

Add to this acceptance and open-mindedness to technology that lasers, are really, really cool. I get off on using my laser “tape” measure, especially as it’s an extremely handy tool when you happen to be an architect. But here’s where things cross the (uncut) line: a Tactical Laser-Guided Pizza Cutter.

Now a tactic is, more or less, a means to achieve something. Since the laser doesn’t actually divide the pizza into equal size pieces, which I could see as a valuable goal in some competitive or jealous families, I’m not sure this device is actually tactical at all. Unless the goal is simply some sort of nerdy coolness.

Alongside this object’s nomination as Wrongest Product nominee, I wonder if a better version might be a Strategic Laser Pizza Cutter. Its mission: to disintegrate by laser any wayward pineapple bits. That I could get behind – although, really, a fork would still do.

The next step? Illustration by Lori Greenberg

The next step?
Illustration by Lori Greenberg/Bergworks

The Wrongest Product Awards will go to those products (and their designers) that embody the least amount of redeeming value while incurring the use of unnecessary, often gratuitous, materials or energy.

How is this relevant to EcoOptimism, you might ask? Easy – it shows how extraneous so many products are, often in a “what-were-they-thinking” sense.

Nominations are open. Send yours to ImNotBuyinIt (at) EcoOptimism.com.


Almost Good Advice on Consumption


This CNN article, headlined “Parents, you don’t need to buy more stuff,” seemed promising. Though it’s pretty basic and obvious to EcoOptimism readers, my first reaction was that it’s great to see this type of post-consumer attitude in the “lamestream” media. However, it didn’t end as smartly as I’d expected.

I’m contentedly “childfree,” so the examples mentioned in the article aren’t all that applicable to my relatively small ecofootprint urban lifestyle, but still the advice in the closing paragraph caught my eye: “Focus on buying better time instead of buying better stuff.”  That sounded right for a second until I realized they were a bit off the mark in advising against buying better stuff. What we’re really talking about is buying less stuff. Despite the expensive and less functional high chair example they dwell on, a general rule should be buy less stuff, but when you do buy, aim for durable, high quality (as well as ecologically and socially responsible) stuff.

So I’m all for the advice to “accept every hand-me-down you can find and let your toddler put a vegetable colander on his head rather than hitting the store for the latest Hot Wheels Monster Truck” — even though my favorite toys were my Matchbox (non-monster sized) trucks. But if that colander is getting handed down because the cheap material has broken, don’t replace it with another cheap one that will just break again.

Countering the EcoPessimist


According to New York Magazine and economist Robert Gordon, the good times are over. Forever. In “The Blip,” we learn that the dramatic and unprecedented improvements to our standard of living over the last 250 years or so are a historical aberration. Over the span of the Industrial Revolution, following all of previous human existence in which, relatively speaking, nothing much changed, “human well-being accelerated at a rate that hardly could have been contemplated before.” Plumbing, electricity, medicine, cars, planes, telephones, computers changed almost everything and the result was an era of economic growth that altered civilization to a degree, the article says, we won’t ever see again.

Gordon believes “we can no longer expect to double our standard of living in one generation” as occurred in recent times, and “the rate of improvement [going forward] will be no faster than it was in the dark ages.” The significance of inventions and the resulting growth in productivity cannot possibly continue.

Here at EcoOptimism, I think it’s fair to anoint Gordon the EcoPessimist.

The thing is: Gordon is right. In fact the data already tell us this is happening.  Many have lamented that this is the first time in recent history that current younger generations cannot expect their standard of living to be better than their parents’. Stories of grown unemployed or under-employed children returning to the parents’ empty nests abound, and the inexorable rise of the cost of college education seems set to pave the way for the trend to continue.

Environmental economics predicts this, too: you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet.

But here’s the other thing: Gordon is also wrong and, depending on how we define growth, so is the previous sentence. Actually, it more specifically depends on how we define standard of living and quality of life. As EcoOptimism and many others have noted, the conventional definition has been based on GDP, which is a deeply flawed measure of economic growth and even more deeply flawed as a measure of quality of life. In fact, it was never intended to be used for this purpose (it was developed as a gauge of wartime production in WWII) and it’s been criticized for almost half a century, going back to a speech by Robert F. Kennedy. Once a basic living standard has been reached – in the case of the US, this occurred in the mid-twentieth century — increases in GDP no longer signal increased well-being. In fact, it begins to work in reverse. Indicators show that quality of life in the western world has gone down since then, even while GDP continued to grow.


This would seem, at first, to bolster Gordon’s pessimism. Not only is GDP destined to remain low – perhaps zero – but our well-being is diminishing even faster. We’re on the downside of “the blip” and “it would be crazy to expect something on the scale of the … industrial revolution to ever take place again.”

OK, but what if something else could follow? Could we have a different kind of revolution – a Human Revolution – in which inventions, developments and policies focused not on improving production and consumption, but on the human qualities of our lives: our self-development, our relationships, our contributions. In the western world, generally, people are housed and fed and live in relative comfort amid a plethora of material goods. We don’t need bigger houses and cars or more meat or more choices of deodorant and televisions. Instead, we need those “things” or, more accurately, lifestyles that will let us – encourage us – to interact with and enjoy each other and ourselves. Quality time as opposed to productive time.

A core part of achieving this is getting off the “hedonic treadmill,” the cycle of working more to buy more within an economic system that falters if we don’t consume enough. The answer is buying less, at least materially, and instead consuming in ways that truly better our lives. Consuming things that aren’t in fact material things, like entertainment or vacations or continuing education.

So that’s how Gordon can be both right and wrong. We can’t have continued growth, economically or materially, as we’re used to defining it. But that’s not at all the same thing as saying we can’t continue to improve the quality of our lives. (And I’m talking here about people in both the rich and poor parts of the world.)

For material and environmental reasons, we can’t have another industrial revolution. But we also don’t need or want one. Yes, there are still people lacking some very fundamental needs like food, shelter and water, not to mention health and education. But we have smarter ways to provide access to those, without expanding and repeating the mistakes of the sometimes crude ways we here achieved them. We need the next revolution, let’s call it the Human Revolution, in which the quality of our lives, beyond survival and beyond comfort, is addressed. Eudaimonic pleasure versus hedonic pleasure. Flourishing versus sustaining.

Gordon says “we need innovations that are eight times as important as those we had before” in order to maintain a growth rate similar to that of the last couple of centuries. Again, right and wrong. We need innovations that are of a different nature from the material-based inventions we’ve grown to expect, courtesy of Moore’s law, every few years. Those innovations have the potential to alter, to improve, our lives at least as much as indoor plumbing and refrigerators did, but in ways that are less material (that’s a good thing both socially and environmentally) and will supersede and surpass the goals of the American Dream (as if others can’t partake in that dream).

Gordon doesn’t deal much with environmental questions. His bleakness, his EcoPessimism, is based on the not incorrect observation that the Industrial Revolution has probably run its course, and therefore we can never have the same expectations of growth as did the past few generations.  Environmentalists would add that the Industrial Revolution, based as it is on an economy of consumption, can’t continue also because we are running out of materials and fuel and creating a climate that will be unconducive to survival, let alone growth.

These viewpoints are consistent with each other and with the prevailing pessimism that says life in the near future will involve sacrifice, for economic or environmental reasons or both, and a diminishment of our quality of life.

EcoOptimism rejects this and says we can simultaneously and symbiotically solve our economic and ecological problems — AND improve the quality of our lives. One revolution, one era, replaces another.

Here Comes the Stuff

Don’t buy me any gifts for the holiday season.

Not that you were planning to (I assume!), but that’s not the point. I’m “consumed,” as it were, by the quantity of things surrounding me and by emotions like garbage guilt. I look around at most of the stuff in store windows and catalogs, and realize that, not only do I not need most of it, I don’t even want a lot of it. Our place is full. If anything, we need to shed possessions. Clothes we rarely wear. Books we rarely read. (Why is it so hard to get rid of books?) Sentimental things we’ve been given but don’t know where to put. Unthinking things we’ve been given and would rather not find a place for.

I’m happy that we have no hamburger-patty-maker type kitchen appliances, and not only because we don’t have anywhere to store them.

When I look at those things, I can’t help it: I see all the materials and energy that went into making them, and I see the space indefinitely occupied in the landfills that they’ll end up in, often sooner rather than later. That’s what I mean by garbage guilt.

Yeah, I know that’s no way to look at a festive season, or at the well wishes and good intentions of those who give gifts. Bah humbug, Grinch and all that. But really I’m happy with – and prefer to have – those well wishes of my relatives and friends, just without the material encumbrances. Let’s have a meal or go to a movie together. Or send a donation to a charity.

Plus I’m picky and hard to buy for, but that’s another topic entirely.

What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more. ~Dr. Seuss




Our apartment is decent sized by NYC standards, though tiny, I’m sure, compared to many a suburban home. It’s certainly much larger than Graham Hill’s Life Edited apartment ten blocks away or many of the other micro digs featured these days in TreeHugger and Inhabitat. But it’s overflowing with stuff, as is our storage space crosstown. Factor in that I’d much rather be a minimalist, and it really doesn’t (or does!) add up.

And this is without venturing into the even more guilt ridden point that there are others who need things far more than I do. So I don’t think I’m being a killjoy in dampening the consumer wave.  (You know, the one that’s supposed to rescue the economy.) What’s the point in having (or being given) something you don’t need – or worse, don’t like? Actually, I think the concept is quite positive.

When you start looking at stuff this way, it quickly becomes a weight on your shoulders. I don’t want go all Buddhist or something on you, but I truly think I’d be happier with fewer material things. I’m not alone in that either. On Grist.org this week, a post is titled “Married father of two seeks Best Christmas Ever. No presents allowed.” But Greg (the author of the post) and I are apparently far from the norm. His idea was deemed so unusual that it warranted not one, but two, film crews and interviews.

Like Greg, I grew up with a mountain of gifts, piled in our case beneath a “Hannukah bush.” (In my teen years, we developed early eco traditions of using the Sunday “Funnies” for wrapping paper and buying live trees, which I would lug out the patio door and plant in the back yard on New Year’s Day – having dug the hole at Thanksgiving.) I remember not being able to sleep on the Christmas Eve when I strongly suspected there was a train set awaiting me on sawhorses in the basement. For theoretically Jewish kids, we made out great. Of course the holidays should be joyous for kids and gifts are part of that. But let it be things with meaning, not plastic throw-aways. I loved that train set and spent many a weekend building elaborate landscapes for it. There were many other gifts, though, whose longevity could be counted in hours.

Fortunately I don’t work in a company where we have Secret Santas. If I did, would it be acceptable for the wrapping to enclose a card acknowledging a charity donation? Or perhaps a gift certificate to a local business? I’d be plenty happy receiving either.

However, if you’re still unconvinced, there are of course things I covet. (That enlightened I’m not.)  But they tend to be expensive and electronic, so I’ll settle for a fun dinner at a local joint.

Is 3D Printing Part of the Path to Sustainability?

Virtually in the shadow of the Unisphere and directly adjacent to a display of actual NASA rockets, the NY Maker Faire set up tents, tables, robots and fire-breathing dragons this past weekend. While the task of grading 50 student essays kept me tied to my desk, I did attend last year’s Faire and marveled at the diversity and inventiveness of the creations.

The whole maker movement – and the NY Faire represents only a tiny fraction of the group which could be said to include DIYers as well – presents, I think, an interesting dilemma in the context of environmentalism.

On the one hand, there are those greenies who promote what has lately come to be called “resilience” – the idea that we need to be able to adapt to and survive in a future that may include major climate changes, resource shortages and food scarcity. One way to do this, they maintain, is by becoming more self-sufficient. This would engender being able to, as individuals or communities, grow more of our own food and make more of the things we need. Those trained in resilience would make good candidates for a remake of Lost or for the current TV series Revolution, set in a near future in which nothing electric works.

Implicit in self-sufficiency is the notion that we should (or must) own fewer things, that we have to become less materialistic. I have no argument with that even though it connotes the unpopular concept of sacrifice and equates environmentalism with giving things up, which might at first be seen as not in keeping with the concepts of EcoOptimism. But as has been observed by many, materialism – once one is past the point of having necessities – does not add to happiness.

Much of Maker Faire, as well as a rapidly growing new industry, now revolves around 3D printing. As you might surmise, 3D printing is the capability of “printing” 3-dimensional objects. The technology is evolving incredibly fast and what, only a few years ago, required a commercial stove-size piece of equipment and a sizeable investment, can now be accomplished, in some cases, by something not much larger than a home microwave and around the same cost as a decent refrigerator. (I’ve no idea why this became a comparison to kitchen appliances.)

(Image source: MakerBot.com)










In fact, the technology is bringing us that much closer to Star Trek “replicators.” One can now input a 3D model computer file instructing the machine (the popular available one is called a MakerBot) to print a piece of intricate jewelry made of stainless steel, a replacement part for your car – or a recipe. It’s not quite that advanced yet – don’t expect a soufflé – but just a few years ago, the only things you could output were objects made of plaster-like materials. The media – the “ink” – available now includes metals and even organic matter to make meat.

Clothing aside, I could see this shot from Star Trek as an ad in a mid-century (20th, that is) magazine. (Image source: 3dprinterreviews.blogspot.com/2011/04/star-trek-replicator-roots.html)











There is great EcoOptimism potential in this disruptive, as it’s termed, technology. It will enable us to make virtually anything anywhere on demand. That funny shape screwdriver you need to open your iPhone? Well, you’ll no longer have to special order it from somewhere halfway around the world. (Predictably, one of the major markets for 3D printed objects is iPhone accessories.) You will download the 3D file (or if you’re really handy, create it yourself) and then print it out perhaps in your garage or your home office, or if it’s a larger piece than your printer can handle, have it sent to a Kinkos-like service in town. Resources will be saved (stores wouldn’t have to stock – or overstock — things), less transport energy will be incurred, more things may be repaired rather than thrown out. And the whole process of design and fabrication should become more accessible and egalitarian.

But there’s a potential conflict here between the environmentalist goal of being less materialistic and the increased ease with which we’ll be able to make things. That conflict is analogous to the non-appearance of the predicted paperless office. The reality turned out to be that it was so easy to print things, in multiple drafts and widespread copies, that people ended up going through vast reams of paper even more than before.

Suppose, in our 3D printer world, you feel like you want a new salad server set for your dinner party tonight? Just print one out. Want a different color earring to match your (newly printed?) hat? You might have it printed and on your ear in an hour or so.

In fact, MakerBot is opening a store near me in few weeks. Will it be full of things I didn’t know I wanted? Will it enable me to make things that I couldn’t previously afford because it would have been too expensive as a one-off? Is that a good thing or bad? (Hint: it’s both.)

An architect friend of mine, with whom I often have, ahem, political differences, says the most important people around are “Makers of Things.” The service economy? Not for him. Unsurprisingly, I’m not convinced he’s right. For one thing, I’m not sure that self-sufficiency is that great a goal. We’re far past the point, barring apocalyptic events, of returning to rural agrarian living. It’s more likely that we will see major increases in the costs of energy and transportation, to the point where we will choose or be forced to make changes in how and where we make things. 3D printing raises the possibility of removing much of the transportation costs and perhaps even encouraging making things differently in different parts of world (as we used to before globalization).

But is it a problem that it will also make it easier to satisfy immediate desires, to make or buy things as we, perhaps impulsively decide we “need” them? We already shop and acquire too impulsively. Perhaps 3D printers need to come with an admonishing voice that says, in a HAL-9000 tone: “Just what do you think you’re making, Dave?”

What’s an architect to do?

Some not-so-startling news – at least to those of us directly affected – was released last week by the American Institute of Architects.  The gist of the sobering report: architectural firm billings have dropped 40% since 2008 and more than 28% of positions have disappeared.

(We always, by the way, seem to be one of the professions hardest hit by economic cycles. In a previous period, I recall a newspaper headline that went something to the effect of “In This Recession, Be Glad You’re Not an Architect.” I couldn’t find that despondent headline in Google just now. But, searching the New York Times, I turned up apparently similar articles from other downturns: “Recession is Ravaging Architectural Firms” (1992), “Many Architects Are Losing Jobs in the Recession” (1983), among others.”)





The situation assessed more bluntly at planetizen.com

I brought this up in my return visit on Curtis B. Wayne’s radio show “Burning Down the House” this past Sunday (archived here) in which we were discussing ecodesign and economics. While our larger topics concerned the origins of suburban sprawl and how that subsequently became the “American Way of Life,” I used those statistics as a segue to talk about what it is that architects and other designers can or should be doing in a future that is likely to preclude making things – buildings and objects – on the same material scale as in the previous century.

On the face of it, there’s a conflict of interest in a designer advocating a less materialistic world. Are we, in effect, talking ourselves out of jobs? (You know, the jobs that don’t exist in the first place….) Certainly we have to spurn McMansion commissions, or at least urge our less eco-minded clients to adhere to the advice Sarah Susanka provides in the Not So Big House. And it’s rather hard to justify designing yet another chair or teapot when the world is not exactly lacking in those.

But – and here comes the EcoOptimist’s sunny side of the storm – architects and designers are particularly well suited to the imminent task of advocating for and persuasively cajoling us into the “better place” that can be the outcome of our dual eco crises. As I’ve mentioned previously, designers are, virtually by definition, optimists; “Designers look at a thing or a problem and immediately start imagining what could be.” And as my blog’s alter ego might say, “problems, have we got problems.” So that optimism has plenty of targets to address.

Designers, obviously, also have to be visionaries. How else to see to possibilities amidst the economic and ecological rubble? Or to envision potential utopias where others fear post-apocalyptic dystopia? Accompanying that, most designers have the ability, developed through years of sometimes contentious client and public agency meetings, to communicate their visions. (One hopes, of course, that they are not so good at communicating that they are able to white- or green-wash a less than visionary idea. I’m looking at you, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. Plan Voisin and Broadacre City, as enticing as they may have looked at the time, did not help.)  Environmentalism and ecodesign have long-standing PR and image problems, with most people connoting the movements with personal sacrifice. Designers, working in teams with others as they often do in their projects, can both devise positive solutions and create imagery that allows the public to envision how our lives would be affected.









It’s often been stated that architects are “Renaissance men” (apologies for the gender specificity), with their endeavors encompassing math, physics, sociology, psychology – and sometimes, for those designing private residences, couples counseling – as well as, of course, the expected 2D and 3D arts. This generalist background, which unfortunately is becoming less the norm in architectural education, is necessary for dealing with complex, multidisciplinary issues in a systems manner. Specialists, on the other hand, are not usually equipped to synthesize the factors outside their expertise; consciously or subconsciously they focus on what they are familiar with. (Old medical joke: What’s the difference between a general practitioner and a specialist? One treats what you have; the other thinks you have what he treats.)

Here, then, is the upside of that AIA survey. Yes, conventional building and object design, along with their attendant jobs, are going away. That’s a good thing in terms of environmental solutions. Turns out it’s also a good thing for architects and designers, as well as the world at large, in that their abilities can provide a much-needed service as we all search for and develop those solutions.

A post in The Atlantic Cities about the AIA survey asks: “Where are all the out-of-work architects going? Possibly to jobs in real estate and city government. And that could be good news for everyone.” In past recessions, architects, especially recent grads, have often found their careers re-routed. Coincidentally, a few years back, the AIA embarked on an initiative to encourage architects to run for public office, observing “architects learn creative problem solving and other skills that can make them effective community leaders.” The emphasis there is on architects’ strengths in listening and consensus building. Fair enough and important enough, but the potential goes beyond that I think, to employing those multidisciplinary, generalist skills mentioned above into a – and I use the word hesitantly – holistic synthesis.

So designers have both an opportunity and a responsibility to redirect their talents. For reasons of both necessity and choice, we designers need to apply ourselves to developing and communicating our constructed futures. We need the work, and it’s good work to be doing.

Falling Forward

Political slogans are, almost of necessity, excruciatingly bland and generic, typically with a cap of whatever you’d call the Muzak’d version of patriotism.

I won’t spend time on the recent Republican convention slogan “We Built It,” particularly as it’s built, as it were, on several fallacies. The DNC’s slogan, too, was marvelously vague, with “Forward” replacing “Yes We Can.” It is, presumably, a good way to point out that the Republican Party’s direction, as hijacked by the Tea Party, is somewhere between sideways and backwards.









This question of directionality came to mind as I was perusing Andy Revkin’s blog where, in the “about” sidebar he quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Let us draw a lesson from nature, which always works by short ways. When the fruit is ripe, it falls. When the fruit is despatched, the leaf falls. The circuit of the waters is mere falling. The walking of man and all animals is a falling forward.

Revkin then concludes “The human trick in this century is to foster practices and policies that result in us FALLING FORWARD without falling down.”

Now I’m not sure how far the metaphor of nature falling and “always work[ing] by short ways” holds up. Many of nature’s systems are highly complex and, furthermore, often battle gravity. Before that fruit that Emerson refers to can fall, its tree has to grow. Before water can fall, it has to evaporate upward into the atmosphere.

But “falling forward” is still an apt way of looking at EcoOptimism. I proposed the term EcoOptimism because we seem to be in such a depressed and pessimistic state – a state of falling. The “trick,” as Revkin terms it, is to use that falling motion, the energy of that movement, to transport us in a better direction. In other words, don’t fall back.

Another way to put it is with the old and overused (and perhaps inaccurate) statement that the Chinese character for crisis is the same as the character for opportunity. Putting translation issues aside, the idea that opportunity can arise from crisis is a powerful one. Crises shock us and allow us to look for answers in places that complacency either kept us away from or blocked our view of. It could also be termed “throwing caution to the wind” (so long as we’re casting idioms about), but I prefer to think of it in terms of seeing things that were not visible before.

Perhaps even more significantly, crises can jolt us into questioning our assumptions. I stress this questioning process with my design students – and I hope to write about it some more. Bringing the point back to EcoOptimism, it can involve wondering about the things that we take for granted and asking whether these things really are our values. How, for instance, did single-family suburban homes become the “American way of life?”










A family in Pearland, Texas, 1993 with their belongings. Image from Material World: A Global Family Portrait.

(In the post “The Story of Change/Changing the Story,” I wrote “The irony of the vaunted ‘American way of life’ of commuting from detached houses in suburbia is that it was created by exactly the kind of government intervention and social policy that conservatives now decry. Without tax deductions for mortgages and without the massive investment in highways and bridges (accompanied by disinvestment in mass transit), the great suburban exodus would not have occurred.” How were we unwittingly maneuvered into thinking that a lifestyle of car commuting, child ferrying and lawn mowing is what we yearn for?)

The thesis of EcoOptimism is that we can solve our interdependent crises and end up in a better place. It doesn’t say there won’t be areas of painful changes such as industries that no longer make sense, but there will be greater new ones to take their place. And if we do this right, the new jobs will be more satisfying and healthier.

I don’t mean to imply one-size-fits-all solutions here. I fully realize, for instance, that my love of urban living is not everyone’s cup of tea. But let’s look at our choices clearly rather than through the lens of, if I may borrow a term usually applied differently, the nanny state. Some complain that the government has become a nanny state in which it tells us what’s best for us. (Wear your seat belt, don’t drink too much sugary soda, don’t do this or that or you’ll get a ticket.) But that assumes that we live the way we do now by our own unmanipulated choice. And that simply ain’t true.

The subtitle of EcoOptimism is “Finding the Future We Want.” It has meaning, for me, on at least two levels. The first is that we shouldn’t let our future be determined by default. We have the unique ability to change things, to play an active role in events.

It also, though, means we shouldn’t let our future be determined by forces or groups that don’t necessarily have our best interests in mind. In today’s politicorporate (dang, I thought I’d just created a new term, but Google says otherwise) reality, what that translates into is whether those with deep pockets will maneuver us (again) in directions in their favor. Because, you see, we are indeed falling. What we haven’t determined is whether we will fall martial arts style, guiding the momentum of the fall so that instead of injuring ourselves, we roll out into an advantageous position.

Damn, I think I just used a sports metaphor.

Who do designers think they are anyway?

Are you what you own? And if so, does that mean designers — the people who think up most of the things you own – are in fact designing you?

A fascinating online discussion this past week has led me to ponder this question of designers’ roles and responsibilities – and limitations. The discussion began with the posting of an essay called “Designing Culture” by Colin McSwiggen, a postgrad student at the Royal College of Art in London. McSwiggen starts out by offering that one of the standard definitions of design (“Giving form to culture”) is “delusional. It seems to be gesturing toward the all-too-common notion that designers have some kind of sociocultural superpower: by shaping the physical objects that mediate and regulate people’s behaviors and interactions, they are shaping society itself!”

This, he says, is a vast overstatement of designer’s roles, “a classic credit-hogging move on the part of the design world’s plentiful narcissists,” because

The reality is that most designers work under some pretty heavy constraints: There’s a client or employer who gives them a mandate and makes the final call on what will actually be manufactured, printed or constructed. There are precedents set by existing designs that simultaneously inspire and circumscribe the designer’s work and limit the range of possibilities that clients and users will find acceptable. Finally, designed objects, spaces and images are frequently reinterpreted and repurposed by people who have no idea what the designer had in mind. In short, design is subject to the same limitations as any other so-called creative practice, and designers are no more authors than, well, authors are.

There are certainly elements of truth there. When I am designing someone’s home, I can’t (and wouldn’t want to) run unfettered with my own ideas because, well, there’s that client – who has interests and tastes of their own.









Who makes the design decisions? (Fictional architect Howard Roark altering his modern design at the request of his clients. Image from The Fountainhead, 1949)

Perhaps this is the difference, along with the pesky need for functionality, between an applied artist such as a designer or architect and a fine artist: the presence of a client or employer and – depending on how you view it – the limitations or opportunities in the accompanying constraints.

McSwiggen’s deflating of designers’ roles was picked up on by Cameron Tonkinwise who, until the summer was head of a program I teach in at Parsons (he’s now moved on to Carnegie Mellon and is missed here). He tweeted: “every idiot who leapt on then off the #designthinking bandwagon needs to read this.”

(I think Cameron’s digital outbursts of indignation are great and sorely needed, but when they are forced into Twitter’s length limitations they sometimes trend toward incomprehensibility in a language that I once called “websperanto.”)

McSwiggen goes on to write that the things we possess are an integral part of our cultural class definitions:

Without physical stuff to remind us of how we supposedly differ from one another, our hierarchies would be awfully ramshackle; stripped of our possessions, categories like “class” start to look like just a bunch of learned behaviors and confused ideas. Whether prohibitively priced cars, gendered garments, or separate schools for blacks and whites, social hierarchies are always maintained with the help of physical objects and spaces designed to reflect those hierarchies. Otherwise everyone’s claims of superiority and difference would be quite literally immaterial.

Cameron’s tweet about McSwiggen’s post in turn prompted Lloyd Alter of Treehugger.com (you with me still?) to post “Colin McSwiggen suggests that if [we] really had nothing, nobody would know who we are or what we stand for. Our stuff defines us.”

And therein lays, I think, a contradiction. (Sidenote: so long as I’m complimenting folks here, Lloyd is my singularly favorite eco-blogger, managing to post a range of incredibly relevant topics with a neat balance of acerbic insight and criticism. My opinion, of course, is wholly unprompted by his writing a great review of my book.) If physical objects define us, and designers design those objects, then something like the law of transitivity must apply here, resulting in “designers define us.”

But that’s not my real problem. It’s with the “stuff defines us part” and the idea that we become an indistinguishable mass of life without things to differentiate us. Now that’s probably an unfair exaggeration of what McSwiggen means, but even without hyperbole it strikes me as quite a cynical view of humanity. Yes, we live in a highly materialistic world – and that’s a topic very relevant to EcoOptimism — but I think the materialism is more about how we feel about ourselves than how we see others. A large part of materialism involves attempting to sate what we view as needs. Those needs are a result of the things available out there in the world (though perhaps not within reach) creating desire for them. It’s the combination of exposure via advertising and the breakdown of global distances enabled by the Internet, along with that old “keeping up with the Joneses” false sense of self-value.











Barbara Kruger, untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am), 1987.

The differentiation McSwiggen is writing about, I think, is not as much about cultural classes as it is about self-image. Am I successful if I don’t have the things others do? Am I really defined by how new and large and flat my television is? Or what version number iPhone I’m using? (Not being a car owner and knowing virtually nothing about current models, I’m hard pressed to come up with a vehicular interpretation here.)

Either way — whether we’re talking about self-esteem or class differentiation — we come to the conclusion that objects have an effect on us, perhaps a profound effect. And those objects get designed by someone.  So an individual or a group is responsible for the emergence of those objects.

Does this mean designers determine what we are? Of course not. That would indeed constitute a “sociocultural superpower.”  But it’s an unavoidable fact that designers have at least a very significant role in determining what kinds of objects – electronics, buildings, clothes, plug-in air fresheners — are produced.  That role can be reactive or proactive.

In a model sustainable world, we would re-evaluate the real utility and real happiness that material objects lend us. This would lead to questioning what the things are that we really need and what the best ways to fulfill those needs are. The result could well be a dramatic change in the demand for various things.

Typically, designers would react to this, adapting as best they can to the new “market.” (Only occasionally are there visionaries such as Steve Jobs and his minions who create markets.) But reacting is not sufficient, given the role of designers in the development and emergence of material objects.  This is where the proactive part comes in. It’s also where the survival of designers emerges. In short, we have both a social and personal (if we are to have jobs and careers) responsibility to use our training and experience to participate in – if not lead – that re-evaluation of the purpose – the utility and joy — of material objects.

The re-evaluation process may in some cases lead to “dematerialization” where we (designers and users, for lack of a better term) conclude that some objects are in fact not desired. Which might lead to fewer design opportunities and, hence, fewer designers. And it presents designers with a bit of an existential dilemma: if we (designers) advocate dematerializing and owning fewer (but better?) things, as sustainability requires, are we talking ourselves out of jobs? Not if we take a larger view of designers’ roles. That view, which also happens to lead to the continued existence of design and designers, involves us having a leading part in imagining and advocating for things that are truly beneficial and enable us to thrive.

That doesn’t grant us sociocultural superpowers (or the accompanying egos). But designers do have some important abilities, most significantly to envision alternatives and, as I always emphasize with my students, to question our assumptions. When those abilities are combined with a realization of ethical responsibilities (and with other values like entrepreneurship), we get the potential for the inventions and reconceptions that can transform us not only from an unsustainable existence, but past a merely sustainable one and to a place where we flourish.