Consuming the future: a wide angled perspective

By | January 14, 2013

This was written at the end of August 2007; how far have we progressed?

Even as I have just written about sustainable design and ecodesign, I find myself pondering the larger issues at stake. I didn’t set out to go green and I’m not wholly sure what my outlook is on this topic as yet. There’s a sense of something much bigger than just design or a product or material or whatever here. Its almost as though we – the global we of humanity – are poised at an inflexion point. Is it a precipice sloping down towards utter disaster as some might argue and there is no point doing anything about it? Or are we instead reaching some a point on a natural trend curve that signals the end of an era – one based on massive growth, consumption and the pinnacle of the industrial revolution? Either way, it leaves me feeling like an ant contemplating the proverbial brickwall.

The first inklings of a greater shift in outlook and perspective came during a visit earlier this year to the north of England. For a little more than two weeks, I was a houseguest in an English home in a small village, with a family whose lifestyle choices and purchasing decisions were as diametrically different from any I’d ever seen, in all my continent hopping life. My hostess chose locally produced organic milk sold in containers made from recyclable plastic though it was not as easy to find in the local supermarket which also sold organic milk that was cheaper. Her reasons were logical and manifold – from helping local producers who received a fair price to the fact that supermarket milk came in packaging that wasn’t as easy to recycle. She used cotton nappies on principle, washing them each night in eco-friendly detergent and then choosing to air dry them over the convenience of the clothes dryer or the simplicity of disposable diapers. Every scrap of organic kitchen waste was composted – even her choice of location to purchase vegetables was based on the fact that they provided compostable plastic packaging.  Fair trade and sustainability over convenience and cost, each decision could be rationally justified and defended. My eyes were opened.

While intellectually aware of the problems facing the environment, the issues of poverty and quality of life at the bottom of the pyramid and the link between design and a sustainable future – all topics I’d written extensively about – I’d never been exposed to an entire way of life based on these principles – in a developed country.

That fact was crucial in opening my eyes to the extent that the design of systems play a part in the challenges facing the earth’s future.

For in India, where I lived and worked during my twenties, many of the situations that require extensive municipal systems – recycling of waste, garbage disposal, composting of organic matter and food waste, reuse of containers, conserving energy and water consumption – were either ‘taken care of’ or an ingrained habit developed in an environment of scarcity. Let me explain.

Leftover food was rarely thrown away – there was always someone who needed it more. Ragpickers made a living picking over garbage heaps for scraps of cloth, paper, plastic, metal and anything else that could be resold for some money. Everything was reused, recycled, resold or refurbished. Equipment, appliances and other consumer durables were expected to either last a lifetime or could be repaired or resold – they were never to be thrown away. Scarcity of water and frequent shortages meant rationing, storage and conservation. Throughout my college years in Bangalore – where water in the taps rarely flowed for more than two hours a day from the city’s supply – this meant learning to bathe in one bucket of water, remembering to fill buckets and tubs at 6am, washing clothes by hand and boiling and filtering for potability. Ditto electricity.

On the other hand, growing up as I had abroad, luxury was going home to my parents in Singapore where the comforts of a full shower, uninterrupted power supply and abundant shiny shops were the norm. Who would want to go back to scrimping and saving, if they had a choice?

My friend in England would and did. And we had long talks about her reasons for doing so, especially when – to my eyes – she didn’t have to be as stringent in her lifestyle as she undoubtedly was. It was this new awareness that suddenly opened my eyes to the systems around me. You could call it the global industrial ecosystem, but basically its all that goes into producing, making, creating and doing to support and sustain our lives in the manner to which we are accustomed – those of us who can afford it.  It was a system designed for consumption, and to a certain degree, waste. It is a system based on the principle of abundance. Availability. Choice. It is a system whose future is untenable at most, precarious at best.

Ethical consumption, sharing, conserving what we have, managing it and harvesting it with an eye to the future – systems which echo nature’s systems are not new or untouched subjects.  While I may be the least educated and experienced  on the  subject, its cast a wholly new feel to the way I perceive the future. And the way I’ve analyzed business, design and strategy in the past. Its as though a filter has been changed in my perception of the systems I see. It is this nascent perceptual change of the world around me that I will be exploring further. I don’t know where this journey will take me but it should get interesting, at the very least.

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