Monthly Archives: September 2012

Introducing The Wrongest Product Awards

In the 1960s, the comedy show Laugh-In had a recurring bit in which they presented an award to people responsible for dubious achievements. While we can’t hope to match the notoriety (or the alliteration) of their Flying Fickle Finger of Fate, with this post we’re starting nominations for the Wrongest Product. Simply put, 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.

Our inspiration. Image source:











I’ll start the process with some suggestions of my own, but nominations will be open to all. Send them to ImNotBuyinIt (at)

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.

For our inaugural nomination, I submit the usually hidden but pervasive plug-in air freshener: a devourer of fossil fuels in two directions (it’s made of petroleum-based plastic and then requires electricity) as well as an emitter of synthetic “fragrance.” No modern home is complete without one. Or six.

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

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.

The EcoOptimist’s Alter Ego — More News of Impending Doom

[EcoOptimism is not blind. We have our moments of despair. Occasionally, we’ll post a story that tries its damndest to ruin our day raise the alarum.] 

The Interwebs have been flooded, as it were, with articles and posts about the record melting of the Arctic icecap. In case you’ve missed the “deluge” (sorry), here are a couple of links – both from the respected site — along with some bullet points added by me to emphasize the significance of this:

‘Astounding’ Record Arctic Ice Melt May Make Weather Extremes More Likely

Earth’s Attic Is On Fire: Arctic Sea Ice Bottoms Out At New Record Low











Extent of Arctic sea ice, at a record low on Sept 16. Image credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center via ThinkProgress.

This is not the same issue as the previous post from the EcoOptimist’s alter ego on the melting of the somewhat nearby Greenland ice cap, but is in many ways more insidious in the feedback loops it creates. It’s several-fold:

  • As the ice cap melts, it reflects less heat and, because ocean water is dark colored, absorbs much more heat, which in turn causes more melting … and you can see where this is going.
  • But it’s more than that because the warmer air over the arctic causes changes in the jet stream and contributes to an increase in extreme weather and “climate events” like drought, flooding and extreme temperatures.
  • The melting ice cap is also theorized to disrupt the Gulf Stream as colder, fresh water infiltrates the North Atlantic, but you all knew that, of course, if you saw “The Day After Tomorrow.”
  • And don’t forget that the melting Arctic makes drilling for the oil under it easier. It’s another “positive” feedback loop: melting allows drilling, which allows more burning of fossil fuels, which creates more warming, which….

The EcoOptimist’s first – -and very superficial – reaction is that we need to change the phrase “positive feedback loop” into something less, well, positive.

The more substantial and useful reaction is that environmentally frightening news serves to emphasize still more the need for optimism. The Alter Ego provides the stick and the EcoOptimist brings the carrot (organic, non-GMO, of course).

We return you now to EcoOptimism.

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.

Planets Are People, My Friends

Let’s try this out and see where it takes us. In the blogworld a few days ago, I came across a post about a river in New Zealand being given official legal personhood. Elsewhere in the world, animals and nature are being awarded human-like rights. And just last week, a group of prominent scientists including Stephen Hawking declared that there is no unique difference between humans and other animals.

Call that point #1. Point 2: In the US, as we all know, corporations are people. (Some would say corporations are animals, so I guess that makes sense, though a few would say that’s an insult to animals.)

All this makes it but a minor leap to conclude that, if animals, rivers, forests and corporations have legal rights, why not the planet? You know, Gaia, Mother Earth and all that. This, of course, could profoundly change how we see ourselves — legally and morally — in relation to the other occupants, both living and inert, of this planet.

But I’ve got another reason for contemplating this vast, to put it mildly, extension of the definition of personhood. I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about the fundamental economics explanation for pollution: externalities. A decent definition of an externality is “an effect of a purchase or use decision by one set of parties on others who did not have a choice and whose interests were not taken into account.” A classic example would be the evil factory dumping its effluent into a river.  The cost of that pollution is borne by the people and governments downstream. Similarly, when a fossil fuel burning power plant dumps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, its owners don’t pay for the resulting climate disruption. Want a more tangible example? Look at the towns whose water sources are being polluted by nearby fracking.

But what if nature – the planet – had rights and, furthermore, had standing in court? What if nature could sue for damages? Would that, in effect, lay the economic and legal groundwork for internalizing those externalities? Among other outcomes, we could have the equivalent of carbon pricing – without involving the government so it wouldn’t be vulnerable to attack as a tax.

We can take this idea – odd as it may sound – further and say that the Earth owns all the natural resources “onboard.” You want some steel? First you have to buy the ore from Earth Inc. (Notice that twist? If the planet becomes a corporation, it has rights through that legal standing as well.) Same for baby seals (unless the seals themselves are granted rights), or for oil or the Amazon rainforest.





Logo by Lori Greenberg/Bergworks

There is at least one major problem, aside that is from figuring out who the signatories on Earth Inc.’s checking account are. Mother Nature would be the biggest monopoly imaginable. OPEC’s oligopoly would seem like an unfettered free market in comparison. And imagine an antitrust suit against the Earth.

Could this be a conservative’s dream? A solution based upon free market principles and an expansion of both individual (if you can get your head around seeing the planet as an individual) rights and property rights.

Yeah, there are a lot of details to be worked out in this hypothetical monetizing of the Earth. Some ethical ones, too. Would it amount to commoditizing nature? That’s bad, right? Right? Is it worse than assigning no value to nature, which is essentially what the market does now?

Corporations, of course, have shareholders. I propose that every person on the planet be granted a share in Earth Inc. (Yes, I know. What about animals and rivers and forests? If they have personhood rights, shouldn’t they have shares in Earth inc. as well? Yes, they should, but the problem is figuring out who represents them, as well as who their signatories are.  I didn’t say this would be simple.)

So if the planet’s resources are polluted or drawn down, compensation is paid to the shareholders. Now that sounds really odd. The effect would be higher prices for many industrial processes and products as those companies had to pay fees to Earth Inc., but those fees would be redistributed back to us, the shareholders. Many things would be more expensive, but we’d get money back in the form of dividends. In theory, we’d be no worse off financially, but we’d be paying the true cost of things and making our consumption choices more accurately.

In a modern context, all of this evolves from philosophies of animal rights. Kant said treating animals well is “good practice” for treating humans well. (Not trying to show off here and I’m certainly no Kant expert. It’s part of the material I cover in one of my Parsons courses.) “We can judge the heart of man by his treatment of animals.” In his world, though, animals were considered non-sentient (which, in case you’ve been mislead by Star Trek episodes, means non-feeling, not non-thinking) and soul-less, barely more than the mechanical vessels described by Descartes.

Just as there are varying beliefs as to what constitutes a soul, there are ethics and religions that believe the Earth has a soul. But that isn’t the issue here, at least as long as we’re defining corporations as people; I don’t think anyone could argue that a corporation has a soul.

Could this possibly work? I’m treading here into the realms of economics, law, ethics, religion and who knows what else. But maybe this type of fundamental re-envisioning is just what we need.

Optimism = Possibility

Can it be coincidence that, only two months after the launch of the EcoOptimism blog, Ode Magazine has changed its name to The Intelligent Optimist?

Uh, yeah, it’s coincidence. Much as I’d love to think we’ve already had that kind of influence, they’ve been around a lot longer than we have, and co-founder Jurriaan Kamp writes about the name change here. He relays a discussion about the renaming he had with Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, in which Zander says “I think of intelligent optimism as a discipline, the rigorous discipline to stay in the state of mind of possibility.”

As I write this, their new website is not yet fully launched and the “about” section is labeled “Under Construction.” That may be unintentionally appropriate given Zander’s point about possibilities: “The disciplined intelligent optimist says, ‘It’s too early to judge,’ and asks, ‘What’s next?’”

Possibility is always under construction.

But we can check back with OdeWire’s “about” page (OdeWire is their online component), which says “…OdeWire is always looking at the most authoritative news sources for stories that focus on solutions rather than problems, and on positive changes rather than negative ones.”

Not surprisingly, given the related names, there is a strong parallel between Ode/The Intelligent Optimist’s mission and ours.

EcoOptimism seeks to show how we can come out the other side of our concurrent ECOlogical and ECOnomic crises (ECOoptimism, get it?) in a better place than we started; that not only will the planet be healthier, but we, as individuals, as families, as communities and as a species, can feel fulfilled and be more prosperous.

Our emphasis on optimism doesn’t mean we are always optimistic. We see clouds as well as silver linings. (I’ve never quite understood the phrase ‘every cloud has a silver lining.’ Wouldn’t it mean that we see the silver outer lining rather than the storms awaiting us inside, meaning things look better than they are? But whatevs, as ‘the kids’ are saying these days.)









Regardless of occasional digressions from optimism (‘reality checks’ some might call them), it strikes me that optimism is the only productive route. In terms of environmentalism, the alternative pessimistic route would be adaptation – acknowledging that the sky is indeed falling and we’d better strengthen our roofs.

But does EcoOptimism imply that we not pursue adaptation, or its more positive variation: resilience? Not at all. That would put it in the category of one of my nemeses: the false dilemma. (Note to self: create comic book villain named “False Dilemma.”) We can – and should – work on both prevention or mitigation and adaptation or resilience. The vastly preferable path, in terms of both cost and disruption (“disruption” would be an optimistic/euphemistic description of the potential perils), is prevention. But it may well be that we are past the point of prevention of some ecological disasters. For instance it may be that climate disruption has already been set in motion and, therefore, it would be foolhardy to ignore the steps necessary to lessen the impact. Perhaps there are responses available there, too that are in the vein of EcoOptimism – adaptations that also improve our economy and lives, only without the ecological benefits.

The other appeal of EcoOptimism is its very nature. Fear is usually a great motivator, but it hasn’t been working here, probably because the things to be afraid of are too abstract. We aren’t directly experiencing them or have trouble ascribing seemingly isolated events to a larger picture that we’d rather not see.

Fear motivates in crises like war or epidemics or severe weather (as opposed to climate) where the danger can be felt or easily anticipated, or where we have experienced it before. Ecological disruption falls into none of those categories and that means we need a different motivator. If not fear, then the motivator needs to be desire, which is where the purpose of EcoOptimism comes in.

Optimism is also a nearly genetic part of being a designer. (Non-designers are welcome; it’s not an exclusive gene pool.) Designers look at a thing or a problem and immediately start imagining what could be. Pretty much by definition, that’s optimism. It also means that, in the eyes and minds of designers, things are always “under construction.” There are always possibilities.

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 (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.