Design for Micro-Utopias
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Design for Micro-Utopias

Making the Unthinkable Possible

John Wood

  1. 226 pagine
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Design for Micro-Utopias

Making the Unthinkable Possible

John Wood

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Everyone is already painfully aware of our predicament - ecological extinctions, dwindling fossil fuel reserves and economic chaos. The solutions are less obvious, despite the many opportunities that surround us. We have never had more access to resources, knowledge and technology but this is not the problem. What we lack most is creative thinking, fuelled by collective optimism. In a pragmatic world run by careerist experts this is hardly surprising. As voters and consumers we are trained to choose and complain, but not how to envisage what we really, really want. How can we design a better world unless we revive the art of dreaming? For without dreams we are lost. Perhaps it should be the duty of all citizens to imagine alternative futures; in effect, to think more like designers. After all, designers have always been dreamers, and have often found ways to realize their dreams. Design for Micro-Utopias does not advocate a single, monolithic Utopia. Rather, it invites readers to embrace a more pluralized and mercurial version of Thomas More's famous 1516 novel of the same name. It therefore encourages the proliferation of many 'micro-utopias' rather than one 'Utopia'. This requires a less negative, critical and rational approach. Referencing a wide range of philosophical thinking from Aristotle to the present day, western and eastern spiritual ideals, and scientific, biological and systems theory, John Wood offers remedies for our excessively individualistic, mechanistic and disconnected thinking, and asks whether a metadesign approach might bring about a new mode of governance. This is a daring idea. Ultimately, he reminds us that if we believe that we will never be able to design miracles we make it more likely that this is so. The first step is to turn the 'impossible' into the 'thinkable'.

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Our Dysfunctional World
‘We live in a culture centred in domination and submission, mistrust and control, dishonesty, commerce and greediness, appropriation and mutual manipulation… and unless our emotioning changes all that will change in our lives will be the way in which we continue in wars, greediness, mistrust, dishonesty, and abuse of others and of nature. Indeed, we shall remain the same.’
(Maturana, 1997)
Writing this chapter was both agreeable and useful, as it helped me to put together many of my pet hates, and it provided a context upon which all of the other, more positive chapters would build; but I feel that I should apologise to the reader for its uncharacteristically negative tone. I sincerely hope it does not sour the rest of the book, which is intended to offer an optimistic approach. For example, Chapter 8 will argue that, for the first time in its history, humanity has the potential to cultivate planet Earth as a ‘synergy of synergies’. In advocating a more joined up, inclusive and holistic approach to design and ecology (Chapter 9) the book will outline a new form of imaginative organisation to be called ‘metadesign’. In achieving both aims we have a long way to go. Unfortunately, many well-intentioned projects fail because they are conducted against a backdrop of disconnection, alienation, and confusion about politics and money. This sense of contradiction is clear from the way newspapers juxtapose stories about the environment and the economy. On the business page, a headline will dramatise our anguish at falling share prices, job losses and a given corporation’s failure to meet its sales targets. On the following page an environment story will lament the pollution of rivers, loss of ancient woodlands, or the extinction of another few hundred species. We have grown accustomed to state-sanctioned surprises of all types, from illegal wars, the unleashing of untested bio-technologies into the eco-system, global systems of mutual self-destruction, the profligate use of non-renewables, pesticides, and dangerous pharmaceutical products in all regions of our daily lives. Ultimately, it is ordinary voters and citizens who will pick up the tab. However, because consumption is seen to be the engine of economic growth consumers are encouraged to exercise their full rights as individuals.
In the West, 1927 was a good year for individualism. While Heidegger described the experiential aspects of the self in his Being and Time, Henri Bergson received the Nobel Prize for literature, and Wilhelm Reich published The Function of The Orgasm. In the same year Coca-Cola introduced the first ‘one-way’ (that is, non-returnable) bottles for use on ocean liners. By 1948, non-returnable glass bottles were becoming standard throughout the US and elsewhere. Despite environmentalist protests about the growth of such practices, consumer lobbies (for example Nader, 2000) have tended to blame corporations, rather than individuals. However, the need to celebrate difference as a consumer also invites defiance, because the desire to be individual is often associated with a provocative or competitive spirit. The tagging of names, and graffiti, whether sprayed onto walls or etched aggressively onto the windows of buses is a symptom of this kind of assertive individualism, yet the modern individual enjoys the assumed right to choose whether to be courteous, moody, indifferent, or outgoing. In the world of accentuated difference, caring for society as a whole becomes more difficult. In the UK over the last few decades this is manifest in new patterns of conspicuous public selfishness. Many individuals appear to feel little responsibility or shame when shouting into a mobile phone, disposing of chewing gum mischievously, or putting their feet onto the vacant seats of buses and trains. This process reflects an extravagant economic system that is now overheated. Today public places are bristling with iPods, Blackberries, and mobile phones, and pavements are colonised by parked cars – often left with their engines running. The streets are also literally littered with litter. These habits are not just mildly annoying. Some pose a public health issue that transcends any standards of etiquette or social respect. For example, it is no longer rare to find the remains of fried chicken wings in take-away boxes that will encourage the carrion bird and rat population. Similarly it is now common for citizens to cough or to sneeze enthusiastically without attempting to find a handkerchief, paper tissue, or even a sleeve. All of these tendencies reflect a way of being that Chapter 2 will describe, in ecological terms, as solipsistic.
Many of the developments described have not led us to be satisfied, or proud of what we have achieved. In a stridently rights-centred world, if consumers work very hard they may feel perfectly entitled to a short vacation in a faraway country. This process is made easier by tempting them with ‘treats’, such as a carefully designed holiday package in another continent. Although our ability to orchestrate such a remarkable array of managerial and technological processes is remarkable, the end result falls short because it tends to erode the sense of playfulness of less affluent societies. We read of customers suing companies because of airport delays, the wrong kind of weather, or because they inadvertently spilt hot coffee over themselves. Psychiatric ailments seem to have increased in the richest countries, and the suicide rate is shockingly high, even for those of tender years, for whom life has scarcely begun. In many small towns and cities hedonism and reckless public behaviour leads to other health problems and a social nuisance in public places. Nor has an abundance of food and clothing enabled us to create an equitable society. While the number of millionaires increases each year, child poverty levels also continue to rise. We cannot focus all of the blame onto individual corporations. Nor can we simply make small adjustments to the current economic system. Ours is a complex and self-perpetuating predicament that cannot be remedied in a piecemeal fashion. Many possible solutions must be initiated and tested at the local level, but the best ones need to be endorsed by governments, banks and international agencies. At present, many of the most important things in our lives have come to seem remote and mysterious to us. The manufacture of goods, the generation of electricity, and the births and deaths of the animals we eat are all processes that take place at unknown circumstances, locations and dates. As producers, we may know a great deal about our particular professional skill or competence, but little about the adjacent practices that support it. For many people it is therefore a meaningless and humdrum routine that pays the rent.
How might we envisage conditions that are better than those described above? One obvious source is to be found in utopian literature that describes a prior golden age. However, some of its stories are symptomatic of a human folly that has emerged over the last few tens of thousands of years, or so. For example, the invention of agriculture evolved out of ancient practices of hunting and gathering, and entails the wholesale planting and harvesting of fewer and fewer cereal varieties. The bible (Genesis, Chapter 41) tells the story of a Pharaoh’s dream of the ears of corn, an East wind, and other omens. In this well-known fable, Joseph interprets the dream as a portent of 7 years of good harvests, followed by 7 years of famine and pestilence. He wins fortune and power by advising the Pharaoh to stockpile grain, in preparation for hard times. Today the staple diets of our most prosperous nations still rely on cereal farming. Although these are perfect feeding environments for a wide range of edible creatures we see these as pests, and devote a great deal of energy in trying to exclude, kill, or eradicate them in order to feed other forms of livestock. In maintaining these unstable systems we also inadvertently erode the soil, use up non-renewable energy supplies, pollute our potable water resources, and attract damage by storms. While scientists are extremely well-informed about these problems, it is astonishing that we still fail to grasp the implications of Joseph’s seven famine years. Most non-experts I speak to about this are unaware that deserts are the logical outcome of our agricultural and trading policies. They believe that the great deserts of Australia, US, and the Middle East are ‘natural’. This is a moot point. In the past, most agricultural societies were able to ignore the long-term effects of de-forestation, pestilence, soil erosion, drought and desertification by moving to new areas. Joseph’s vision was correct, but his diagnosis was merely a short-term fix. Indeed, other major civilisations have collapsed because of advisers like Joseph (cf. Ponting, 1991). It would be nice to think that a modern expert would have recommended re-forestation (Wood, 1976) and a more complex permaculture (Law, 2001) for supporting a rich variety of closely interrelated eco-industries. So far, this remains a dream.
Instead of developing a more stable ecosystem based more upon a vast variety of trees, shrubs and vegetables, scientists are still designing a handful of cereal crops to grow bigger or faster. In the last few decades, this folly has taken a more sinister turn with the development of gene ‘sciences’ that want to create ‘super-plants’ that will rise above the natural scheme of things. Although their developers claim they are founded on bona fide scientific research they do not appear to have followed the same strictures of human health testing that would be expected of the food industry (Smith and Smith, 2004), or the pharmaceutical industry (Ho, 1998). But if it is so difficult and expensive, why are we trying to do it? One answer to this question is that our society is driven to a large extent by the short-term profit-orientation of commercial companies, rather than by the long-term cost-effectiveness of everyone. Many vegetarians are proud that their eating habits require less land than that of meat eaters. In a global market economy, meat consumption is rising, especially in countries where the diet had previously been predominantly vegetarian. On the other hand, the rising concern for fitness and slimness has brought about the Atkins diet, which encourages the overweight to consume mainly proteins and fats from animals and fish. These new habits are made possible only by intensive farming practices and systems of mass distribution, which enable rich nations to live on resources that are often imported across great distances. What also sustains these habits, in the short term, is a belief that we deserve the best, rather than seeing that we are destroying a vital and limited resource. Either we need a miracle, or we must find a new dream.
In his 1931 book The Epic of America, James Truslow Adams explored the US’s reckless craving for the good life, arguing that Americans ‘were always willing to gamble their last peso on a dream’. Indeed, the book is said to be the origin of the term ‘American Dream’. Although many US citizens are becoming aware of its limitations, the idea is alive and well. It seems to be an essential part of the American brand identity, and is certainly its greatest export. The vision of new worlds without frontiers, or a money-based meritocracy based on hard work and ingenuity seem unashamedly American. The US is a pragmatic, money-orientated culture in which entrepreneurs create the jobs, buy the goods and ‘live it large’. Dissenters will, perhaps, be more aware that it is also associated with the profligate burning of non-renewable fuels and an extravagant consumption of animal products. For example, the average US citizen consumes 1.5 times more than the average world citizen, with a diet that is high in animal protein. This is part of a vicious circle. Economic growth facilitates the American dream, and the dream is what sustains the economic status quo. This ‘dream’ inevitably reflects aspects of American history. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson, and others, drew up the American Declaration of Independence. This strongly humanist charter of individual freedom drew upon a mixture of sources, including North American Indian principles of governance, Utilitarian ideas from Britain, and ideas that emerged from the French Revolution. The earlier historical context for this constitution was that of mass immigration by the founding fathers. These were predominantly white farmers, miners and sailors, or unskilled and illiterate workers. This first wave of settlers found little merit in the habits of the indigenous population they encountered. Many of these tribes had lived modestly by following herds of buffalo and conserving the many species of plants, shrubs and trees. By contrast, the settlers found it convenient to slaughter huge numbers of buffalo for immediate consumption of the most accessible cuts of meat, often leaving the carcasses to rot where they fell (Jakle, 1968). No policy for restocking animal numbers was developed until a much later date. These unfortunate habits resemble some of the established practices of rainforest clearance in the Amazon and elsewhere. It is very hard to justify them in any way.
In the year that American Independence was declared, The Wealth of Nations, mentioned earlier, Adam Smith’s influential blueprint for an economics of self-interest, was published (1776). The idea that diligence by the individual will produce wealth for the many is still a cornerstone of the American economic system. That the work ethic originally emerged from American Protestant values of unvarnished modesty is clear, but there is an irony inherent in hard work (cf. Schama, 1987). The more you produce, the more you have. Moreover, if you take Smith’s logic too seriously, you may begin to value individual rights above individual responsibilities. Soon, simplicity was not enough. By the end of the 19th century designers were being asked to create new products that would appeal to different individuals (Forty, 1986). Since then, the artificial creation of new markets has become increasingly important for sustaining the new American Dream. By developing advertising, market research and promotional systems the US created a justification for desire, and then a desire for desire. The advent of an effective rail network and Henry Ford’s development of the first mass-produced car created even greater potential for business and consumption on all levels. Greater personal mobility led to new vending opportunities and enterprise became rife. The American Dream became immensely appealing to the rest of the world, largely through the enviable charm, glamour and potency of the lifestyle that could be embodied and exported via novels, movies, automobiles and other products. By the 1980s it was very clear that this system was eventually going to eat us out of house and home. This is largely why we are in such a mess. It is why the Brundtland Report on ‘sustainable development’ was commissioned (Brundtland, 1987). It was clear that the American Dream might eventually kill us all and we had to look for an alternative. There is a sense in which consumerism is just the latest manifestation of this creed. But there is another unwelcome irony in America’s vision of wellbeing. Despite the enduring Protestant tendencies in the US, the American Dream is not a million miles away from the old French Dream of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. Both visions are aspirational, emancipatory and deeply humanistic. Each emphasises rights, rather than responsibilities. How is this relevant to the issues of climate change and the extinction of species on Earth? The clue is in the three guiding principles, liberty, equality, and fraternity. What is missing is ‘Nature’.
In order to design viable ‘micro-utopias’ it will be necessary to ensure that we are all more aware of the way in which our style of living affects the ecosystem. One way to achieve this is by measuring the area of land and water that a society, community, or individual requires to support itself indefinitely. This is called its ‘ecological footprint’ (Wackernagel and Rees, 1996). The implied supposition behind this method is the desirability of the American Dream. In 1995, London was estimated to have an ecological footprint of 125 times its own size. In 2000, this was re-calculated. The new figures suggest that it has increased to 293 times its size – roughly twice the size of the UK (City Limits London Report, 2002). Up to a certain level the global population will sustain itself without harming the ecosystem. However it has been estimated that if we were to share resources equally across the globe – at the level of the US – we would need several more planets, perhaps as many as four or five. At present, the enormous increase in economic activities such as those in China and India will add to the existing burden. How is the Earth coping with the additional load we are putting upon it? Unfortunately, we are currently living at the ‘overshoot’ zone, in which we are using up resources that will compromise our ability to survive in the future. Beyond this point, we risk depleting and damaging the ecosystem, perhaps irreparably. During the early 20th century, the Taylorist – or Fordist – principle emerged in the countryside as the intensive farming system. Like any other manufacturing industry, agribusiness focuses on the limited task of ensuring high volume yields, rather more than on the implications for shared benefit. In comparison with traditional methods, intensive farming practices consume large amounts of fossil fuel and water resources. They also emit harmful gases and chemicals because the approach of industrial farming systems is monocultural. They pose a threat to biodiversity because they represent a very poor habitat for wildlife.
In describing the advantages of this system, however, the word ‘efficiency’ should be used with caution. Grazing and grain-fed animals need far more water than grain crops. Almost half of the water supply in the US and 80 per cent of its agricultural land is needed for this purpose. Meat, milk and eggs deliver a mere quarter of the energy that went into producing them, and the protein output is less than a fifth of that which is contained in grains, vegetables, legumes, seeds and fruits. Where the advocates of the GM food industry warn us that we do not have enough land to feed ourselves, the energy industry is asking us to give up large arable areas for the growing of crops as bio-fuels. Part of this folly is the result of thinking from within the limited mindset of GDP, economic growth and a blind faith in Nature to remain endlessly benevolent, irrespective of our actions.
Some routine practices that make sense to professors of economics are sometimes inexplicable to non-experts like the author. One of these practices is the tendency to include all work-related activities as useful endeavours towards the GDP. A great deal of work, however, is either counterproductive or even damaging. According to a 2006 Report from the New Economics Foundation, in 2004 the UK imported 1,500 tonnes of fresh potatoes from Germany but exported the same quantity in the opposite direction. Likewise, it imported 9,900 tonnes of milk and cream from France exported 10,200 tonnes into France. This example shows that the principle of auditing the costs in financial terms is helpful, provided it includes a large enough sample of space and time. One economic study showed, for example, that a switch to organic production could save the UK economy £1.13 billion per year. Hence the wider distribution of farm and other food products has brought new costs, in real terms. At the time of writing, 28 per cent of goods transported on UK roads are agricultural produce. This adds an estimated external cost of £2.35 billion per year. The cost of transporting food from the shop to home adds a further £1.28 billion per year to total external costs. Of course, the shopper may not be aware of all these costs, because some are hidden within government subsidies. It has been estimated that the real cost of the weekly shopping bill could be reduced by 11.8 per cent simply by encouraging food production to be more local.
Unfortunately, consumer-...

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Stili delle citazioni per Design for Micro-Utopias

APA 6 Citation

Wood, J. (2017). Design for Micro-Utopias (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2017)

Chicago Citation

Wood, John. (2017) 2017. Design for Micro-Utopias. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.

Harvard Citation

Wood, J. (2017) Design for Micro-Utopias. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Wood, John. Design for Micro-Utopias. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2017. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.