We live in strange times. Times in which many people live very well, with comfortable homes, two cars in the drive and holidays in the sun. And yet, dark clouds hang over this seemingly idyllic scene. Clouds of social injustice and looming environmental disaster. There is also a cloud hanging over each of us. A cloud of doubt and unease that we are overlooking something vitally important which is somehow linked to these larger problems.
The theme of Design Month Graz – ‘Better Future’ – begs a number of questions: What do we mean by ‘Better’? and What basis do we have for assessing it ? and even if we can find answers, How do we get to ‘Better’? What direction do we take?
There are major contradictions in current approaches to design for a better, more sustainable future. I’d like to discuss these here, then suggest a rather different direction – a Third Way.
For too long we have been trying to achieve mutually exclusive goals. We encourage economic growth, which is largely dependent on resource extraction, energy use, mass-production and consumption – all of which result in habitat destruction, waste and pollution. Our competitive market system also fosters dissatisfaction, and results in gross socio-economic disparities. At the same time, we claim we are striving for sustainability. Unsurprisingly, it’s not working.
This system is spurred on by the continual development and relentless marketing of new products and services. Its rapid expansion, through globalization, ‘free trade’ and turning a blind eye to human rights and environmental standards, also means that highly diverse ways of life have coalesced into one principal direction. People everywhere now find themselves on a superhighway of sameness characterized by advertising, acquisition, atomization and the other effects of uncontrolled growth. And even though this is a relatively recent phenomenon, the serious failings of this system are all too clear.
In looking for alternatives, two interrelated approaches have become prominent:
This environmental philosophy argues for scientifically-based, technological solutions to our current dilemmas. It is closely associated with materialism and naturalism and, as such, is essentially a continuation of Modernity. But it is more scientism than science and amounts to a kind of faith – faith in the idea of human progress.1
Technoscientific solutions are now being employed to tackle all kinds of environmental problems. They can make important contributions, but there is a need for caution. If regarded as the solutions to the environmental crisis – as they often are – they can do more harm than good because: 1) they serve to reinforce outdated values and priorities, and 2) they are frequently implemented with little sensitivity to context. Nonetheless, they are popular with business and government because they lead to new products and sales, and support growth. But like any other products, their production and use depend on exploitation of the natural environment. Consequently, ecomodernism is rather limited in its thinking. It nourishes rather than challenges our addiction to growth-based economics and keeps us on our present course.
In recent times, sustainable development has grown in importance around the globe. It is usually understood as the interrelated environmental, social, and economic effects of human activities – the Triple Bottom Line. Programmes designed to implement sustainable solutions have proliferated; they include: Life Cycle Analysis; Cradle to Cradle; The Natural Step; Product-Service-Systems; and the Circular Economy. It has also yielded the UN Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement targets.
Yet, despite these initiatives, emissions continue to rise, species continue to disappear, and disparities between rich and poor remain unconscionably high, within and between nations.
As with ecomodernism, sustainable development is primarily concerned with extrinsic values and benefits and it, too, is largely consistent with the economic growth and the promotion of consumption. On a finite planet this is untenable. Indeed, Elkington, the proponent of the Triple Bottom Line, recently said it hasn’t worked because it hasn’t been adopted in an integrated way. The different components have been separated out and the economics always take precedent.2
Sustainable development may be more comprehensive than ecomodernism but it is similarly limited by conventional thinking. More fundamental change is needed if we are to move away from current ideas of what constitutes a good life. Some, for example, have suggested a steady-state economy and development without growth.3 There is also a need to reduce overall consumption of goods and services. Such suggestions, however, are unlikely to be welcomed by political and corporate decision makers.
We are constantly being told we can have it all, we can buy now and pay later, we owe it to ourselves. But the mood is changing. Not only is all this consumption ruinous, it is also incompatible with personal happiness. Mounting concern, especially among young people, is beginning to break the spell.
Research indicates that in high-consumption societies like the US, some people are now questioning the links between possessions and the good life. We have also seen the emergence of less consumptive business models that: replace short-lived products with product longevity and service provision; product sharing via tool libraries; maker and repair spaces; and shopping malls selling only restored products. All these make important contributions – but they are nowhere near enough, given the magnitude of the task. In addition, we must drastically reduce net demands on the natural environment. Dematerialization can help, but there is also need for de-consumption. This will not be easy because consumerism is so entrenched in our ideas of development, progress and growth
A Third Way
If we continue to only look ‘out there’ and keep our focus on extrinsic problems we will not get to the crux of the matter. We also have to address something deeper inside ourselves. The road to recovery must also involve inner development and intrinsic rewards. It requires a change in values and priorities; a change of heart.
Spiritual teachings have long warned against acquisitiveness and allowing ourselves to be dominated by the senses and insatiable curiosity because they are obstacles to contentment and true happiness. When our thoughts are caught up by fashions, trends, and the latest products, we lose our sense of self, which can only be restored through restraint and self-control. Tellingly, contemporary spiritual leaders have characterized our current system as one of inequality, exclusion, indifference and destruction – a system in which we become incapable of feeling compassion.4
All the major spiritual and philosophical traditions tell us that we develop inwardly when we shift from self-oriented to self-transcending values and priorities. Personal flourishing and the creation of a meaningful life are cultivated through such values and, accordingly, our actions in the world take on an altered tone and emphasis and lead to qualitatively different solutions. Inner and outer become mutually informing and unified, blurring the distinction between subjective and objective, facts and values. Rather than seeing the world as a resource ‘out there’ to be exploited, a more holistic understanding emerges in which we see ourselves as integral to the world.
Critically, this unified understanding recognizes the importance of non-rational ways of thinking such as intuition and imagination, as well as human experience and traditional knowledge. These are associated with questions of purpose and notions of virtue, and with ‘right brain’ thinking, synthesis and creativity. This direction, therefore, is strongly related to the ideas, thinking processes and practices of design, and in particular design that goes beyond just functional or economic benefits and takes a more holistic approach.
This third way for design is rooted in inner development. It rejects agendas that foster social division, dissatisfaction and feelings of vanity, and it questions innovation for its own sake. It is a form of design that values sufficiency; localization; making and maintaining the things we have; and developing initiatives and services that help rebuild a sense of community.
This direction can be facilitated through more cooperative business models and through government policies that support positive change at the local level. All these areas help define a more comprehensive and substantive role for design in shaping a more meaningful material culture and a sustainable future.
Professor Stuart Walker is Chair of Design for Sustainability at Lancaster University, UK where he co-founded the ImaginationLancaster Design Research Lab. He is also Visiting Professor of Sustainable Design at Kingston University, London and Emeritus Professor, University of Calgary, Canada. His research explores environmental, social and spiritual aspects of sustainability. His conceptual design work has been exhibited internationally and his numerous books include Sustainable by Design; Design for Life and Design Realities.
1 Gray, J. (2018) Seven Types of Atheism, Penguin Books, London, p.3.
2 Elkington, J. (2018) 25 Years Ago I Coined the Phrase “Triple Bottom Line.” Here’s Why It’s Time to Rethink it, Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business Publishing, Brighton, MA, 25 June 2018, available at: https://hbr.org/2018/06/25-years-ago-i-coined-the-phrase-triple-bottom-line-heres-why-im-giving-up-on-it, accessed 4 June 2019.
3 Daly, D. (2007) Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development: Selected Essays of Herman Daly, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, UK, pps.228-236.
4 Bergoglio, J. M. (Pope Francis) (2013) Evangelii Gaudium, Vatican Press, Vatican City, pps.45-48.