ESSAY: Anti-creative professions
Austin Williams | 3 August 2008
Eco-guru Bill McDonough argues that, for Designers, a ‘sustainable vision is essential’(1); an international product design conference claims that ‘sustainability is a global imperative’(2); and this year’s London Design Festival will host a ubiquitous ‘sustainable design hub… looking at the latest thinking on sustainable design.’(3) The American Institute of Architects currently identifies sustainability ‘as the most important change affecting the future of the profession’(4); meanwhile Prince Charles, speaking on the theme of urban design, says that ‘one of the greatest challenges we face today is that of sustainability.’ Like it or not, sustainability is everywhere
However, while dedicated sustainability advocates bang the drum for the environment, environmentalists constantly point to the public’s flagrant rejection of self-restraint, exemplified by growing car use, the ever-increasing demand for consumer goods and escalating non-renewable energy production as testament to the fact that they aren’t winning hearts and minds quickly enough to avert global devastation. But whatever the sustainability industry may say, the environmental message has been received loud and clear and actually has been internalised by the public and professionals alike.
You cannot read a paper, turn on the tv, or engage in conversation without some heavy-handed reference to sustainability, these days. In effect, the moral case for environmental restraint has been won. The fact that we don’t live up to it is not surprising; and for me, that fact alone is refreshing. The realisation that people haven’t completely fallen for the hype is a sign of hope.
Sustainability, you see, may masquerade as the new big idea, but actually it is premised on small-mindededness. It is a petty, misanthropic philosophy of limits, low aspirations, risk-aversion, moralistic sanctimony and parochialism. It pretends to change the world but merely harangues us into changing our light bulbs. Who needs Mary Whitehouse, when Design guru, Stephen Bayley can chastise all of us for ‘pushing out filth’ because we have the gall to catch an aeroplane (5). And so, not only do sustainability advocates publicly hector us into amending our once-personal habits but they constantly twitter on about the putative harm – rather than the potential benefits – that our ordinary actions cause. As such, uncritical sustainable development poses a real threat to critical thinking and hence, acts as a break on creative practice. As far as I’m concerned, it needs to be thoroughly rejected.
The classic rendition of the sustainability mantra claims that it is development that ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’(6) Even though no-one questions whether future generations will really thank us for restraining our development patterns, it sounds responsible doesn’t it? But one of the founding documents in the sustainability canon states that ‘when an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically’.(7) So even if there is no causal relationship shown, if it is simply believed that certain acts might cause harm (to future generations), then those acts will be restricted until proven otherwise. In today’s climate, this mindset actually transforms ‘innovation’ from an open-minded experimental practice into an exercise in self-doubt, fear and damage limitation.
There’s nothing wrong with precaution of course, but making it a guiding principle gives cause for us look to the future with trepidation, rather than anticipation? For example, last year, the Housing Design Awards introduced a FutureProofing Award implying that we all have to protect ourselves from what lies ahead, as if, whatever it is, it’s bound to be bad. The winner of the History Channel’s ‘City of the Future’ competition ‘shows New York’s street grid taken under floods of biblical proportions.(8) We may pretend that fear creates an opportunity for innovative solutions, but it will be impossible to maintain the illusion of genuine future-oriented creativity if we refuse to challenge our contemporary cultural malaise.
Instead of celebrating ‘more’, we now reinterpret Veblen’s pro-consumption maxim: ‘invention is the mother of necessity’(9) to legitimate campaigns against conspicuous consumption and growing materialism. As such, the leisured – or creative – classes have found themselves in an existential crisis. In a recent interview with Die Zeitmagazine, Phillipppe Starck announced that ‘I was a producer of materiality and am ashamed of this fact’ adding ‘everything that I designed is absolutely unnecessary’(10) and announcing his retirement in two years time. Mayer Hillman, environmentalist and author of ‘How we can save the planet’ has beaten him to it having given up his early career as an architect because he couldn’t reconcile himself to ruining the countryside with all that brickwork.
Vance Packard’s claim that people’s ‘buying habits (are) directly controlled through subliminal techniques’(11) has effectively been co-opted by mainstream politicians and sustainability lobbyists in order to do away with that awkward business of actually politically engaging people and winning them round to a point of view. Instead, there are a range of sinister mechanisms to do it. In February 2007, Education Secretary, Alan Johnson said that educating children out of their desire for fashionable consumer goods ‘is as important as the pressure they put on their parents not to buy a gas-guzzling car.’(12) Children’s ‘morally correct’ pester power is encouraged by animated TV character Bob the Builder, who has been enlisted in the hope that ‘by seeing what I’m doing, children will realise there’s another way of living on this planet – a way which will help look after it.’(13) There’s nothing worse than a preachy puppet.
Children are an easy target and in the last couple of years, Thackara’s Design of the Times includes a curriculum-based ECO design challenge targeted at Year 8 school students telling them to ‘redesign some aspect of their school making it more user-friendly, with less impact on the environment and the planet’s natural resources’(14) Environmentalism, shorn of any pretence of educational content, has materialised as a brazen attempt to manipulate children into the new green morality.
For example, a recent UK survey pointed out that a small sample of children think that cars are ‘something to be admired’. So appalled were the ‘researchers’ at this expression of consumer aspiration that they concluded that they had a duty to ‘prevent this “love” of cars’ meaning that ‘children need to be educated at a very early age of the negative effects of the car; the age at where (sic) it may be too late is approximately six years of age.’(15) Unsurprisingly, the UK’s National Curriculum now states that children should have a knowledge of the environmental impacts of transport from the age of five. By which they mean – obviously – transport’s ‘harmful’ environmental impacts rather than the fantastic benefits that transport can provide.
For those then who want to design innovative transport solutions, the framework has been established: ‘ambitions and dreams of extensive new (transport) networks… should be put on hold… some of the best projects are small-scale, such as walking and cycling.’(16) So, accepting the sustainable design challenge to create the future of transport becomes nothing more than a Build-A-Better-Bike competition. An interesting undergraduate project maybe, but hardly Blue Skies design thinking.
Instead of getting on with designing and minding their own business,.it has become acceptable to interfere in education for moral reasons. But it’s not just children. John Thackara has said: ‘daily life is a design opportunity’(17) – an opportunity for Designers to step in where politicians fear to tread and to design our lives with moral impunity. The RSA say that Designers ‘are in a position to understand people and to give them the ability to help them help themselves’ by replicating the government’s message that we need to ‘exert self-control in the many faces of temptation’(18) (and presumably deliver us from evil). As such, the erstwhile creative professions have simply become little more than nodding dogs for government engagement strategies.
But there is an even more insidious logic to sustainability’s unquestioned orthodoxy which, rather than recognising humanity as the source of creativity, sees it as destructive and in need of reduction. One sustainable design commentator argues that ‘we can trace (the) decline (of the planet) directly to the activities of one species: humans’.(19) James Lovelock goes further and says that the planet is suffering a ‘plague of people’(20).
The Malthusian logic is all too straightforward. Guardian journalist Madeleine Bunting says that there are simply ‘too many people’ (21); Reith Lecturer Jeffrey Sachs is applauded for speaking contemptuously of the world ‘bursting at the seams’ (22) . People, you see, are now deemed to be a problem – producing and consuming too much – and breathing out all that carbon dioxide. Whereas, the Design fraternity would once have rubbed their hands with glee at the rise and rise of potential consumers, they are now wracked with guilt about encouraging the global population to aspire to Western standards of consumption. Oblivious to the fact that one third of the world’s population still lives in absolute poverty, contemporary commentators suggest thatinventing more only makes us want more and that is deemed to be irresponsible.
David Barrie, of John Thackara’s Design of The Times’ (Dott) Urban Farming Team (ye gods!) told me that: ‘The planet’s population has doubled in my generation’s lifetime… and yet we persist in the pursuit of “labour-saving” devices.’ The fact that Designers, those very people responsible for some of the great advances in labour-saving devices, seldom criticise this type of misanthropic view of the world is testament to the pervasive anti-progressive content of sustainability. As it happens, reducing human effort – freeing people from the chains of labour-intensive production and the limits of basic needs – remains a damn sight more important than a slavish adherence to saving resources.
For example, Friends of the Earth say that ‘there is a lot to learn from the developing world, where a scavenger mentality, grass roots recycling and sheer necessity can lead to imaginative leaps in redeploying waste.’ But to revel in the joylessness of ‘sheer necessity’ and the creative benefits of restraint reflects a decadent Western rejection of affluent consumption. This is not some abstract ‘less is more’ slogan, but a worrying contemporary advocacy that we should all learn to live with less. The former president of the World Green Building Council suggests, for example, that ‘everyone would do well to read “Platinum Buildings in Ancient India,’ a forthcoming book on how ancient Indian construction methods meet (America’s) sustainability standards.’ Well, I’m afraid that bamboo and bullshit aren’t going to meet the needs of a modern first-world economy, nor should they be good enough for the developing world either.
The worrying thing is that not only do Designers seem to find solace in this restricted universe, but many people suggest that sustainability is a great driver for greater creativity – working imaginatively within constraints. Under the moral orthodoxy of restraint, we can still be creative – in the same way that shackled chain gangs still manage to sing the blues beautifully – but gradually, the essence of a truly creative freedom becomes corroded. As far as I’m concerned, the devious contemporary framework of sustainability places limits on ambitions (not just on the palette of materials that we are expected to use to realise those ambitions) and diminishes intellectual engagement.
For Stephen Bayley, sustainability is an opportunity: ‘Better, not more. Quality, not quantity,’ he says. This is a false opposition: there’s nothing wrong with ‘better’ and ‘more’. It is about time that progressives reclaimed the future, dropped the ‘sustainable prefix and started arguing for real development. It’s never been more important.
Published in LBiQ magazine – for LBi, the UK’s first complete digital agency (see: www.lbiq.co.uk)
(1) William MacDonough, ‘The Hannover Principles: Design for Sustainability’, Prepared for EXPO 2000, The World’s Fair, Hannover, Germany. 2000
(2) ‘Towards Sustainable Product Design’, 13th International Conference, Malmo University, Sweden, 27th-28th October 2008
(3) Press release, ‘London Design Festival Press Conference’, 9 May 2008, www.londonDesignfestival.com
(4) Daniel Williams, The American Institute of Architects, ‘Environment/Sustainability’, www.aia.org
(5) Stephen Bayley, in Paul Kingsnorth, ‘The bad environmentalist’, New Statesman, 3 October 2005
(6) United Nations, ‘Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development,’ General Assembly Resolution 42/187, 11 December 1987.
(7) Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle’, Wingspread Conference Center, Racine, Wisconsin, 23-25 January 1998
(8) Scott Geiger, ARO quoted in Samantha Topol, ‘Waterworlds’, The Architect’s Newspaper, 11 December 2006.
(9) Veblen, T. ‘The Instinct of Workmanship’, New York: Macmillan. 1914, pp. 314
(10) ‘Alles, was ich gestaltet habe, ist absolut unnotig’, Phillippe Starck quoted in ‘Ich shame mich dafur’, Die Zeit, 27 March 2008
(11) Packard, V, ‘The Hidden Persuaders’, Pocket Books, 1957
(12) Alan Johnson, quoted in Richard Garner, ‘All pupils to be given lessons in climate change’, The Independent, 2 February 2007
(13) Bob the Builder quoted in press release, ‘Friends of the Earth, www.foe.co.uk
(14) Dott 07 ECO Challenge, ‘Who Designs Your Life?’, Designs of the times, www.dott07.com
(15) Simon Kingham & Sarah Donohoe, ‘Children’s perceptions of transport’, in ‘World Transport Policy & Practice Volume 8, Number 1’, 2002, p10
(16) Rod Eddington, ‘The Eddington Transport Study – The case for action: Sir Rod Eddington’s advice to Government’, December 2006
(17) Helen Walters, ‘Driving Sustainable Design’, Business Week, Special Report, 2 July 2007
(18) RSA Design Directions 2007/08, www.rsadesigndirections.org
(19)Ann Thorpe, ‘The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability’, Island Press, 2007, pg23
(20) James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crising and the Fate of Humanity. Allen Lane, 3006
(21) Madeleine Bunting, ‘Greens need to grasp the nettle: aren’t there just too many people?’, Guardina, CommentIsFree, 10 September 2007
(22) Jeffrey Sachs, ‘Bursting at the Seams’, Reith Lecture 1, Wednesday 11 April 2007, 9am