The United Nations says we have 12 years to take action against climate change, to avoid global disaster. It’s the greatest design challenge in history, says Nicolas Roope.
The climate is in trouble and we’ve now been given a deadline by the UN to pull our proverbial socks up and try to avert a catastrophe.
“Let’s start designing the future that gives us a future”
I’ve already had nights of sleeplessness and worry, with that heavy feeling of inevitable doom. But that worry won’t change anything. We have to move on and do something about it. The clock’s ticking.
We already know we can turn our washing machines down a few degrees, change to efficient lighting (Plumen of course) and reuse shopping bags. But it is now the time to ask what more we can do to scale the solutions that so often feel out of reach by individuals, and the sole preserve of governments and legislators. And more specifically, what can designers and architects do to accelerate an at-scale response to the problem?
Finding efficiencies in each individual product and project is a good start but how can these binary digits become viral phenomena? So that the force doesn’t come from pushing, campaigning and regulation, but from the warm rush of exuberance, cheered by global applause?
It is now the time to ask what more we can do to scale the solutions that so often feel out of reach
First, we need to look at where we are and how we got here. One way to do this is by using my favourite graph, the Kubler-Ross Change Curve, which charts the mental journey we go through when processing grief or trauma.
For the environment, the chart starts about a decade ago – there was a real awakening, with the subject really surfacing in the mainstream. But quickly the clarity was diluted and became vague through the clever antagonisms of anti-fact propaganda. Add to that the tendency of organisations to greenwash and you can understand the eventual despondence and fatigue. It became too complicated, too tiring, too scary, and we all entered a period of denial.
I’m hypersensitive to light bulbs obviously, so over this period I noticed a huge resurgence of Edison-style lamps. They were everywhere, as a collective “fuck you” to climate change, a swan song to a bloated inefficient technology that really had no place in the enlightened world.
Beef, the least sustainable livestock, also had a huge resurgence, with modern quality burger joints popping up in every corner.
We weren’t going to acknowledge climate change, let alone do anything about it. No, we were going to surf our Range Rovers into oblivion in a hedonistic puff of carbonised smoke.
That period was followed by frustration and depression, as the majority finally accepted the problem was real, but the scientific community and media organisations were still rooting out the final naysayers. Frustration and depression often happen when you feel like you’ve been tricked and conned by those in authority. Remember the financial crash? How no one saw it coming?
But look back at the graph. There’s hope. Because when the facts of a challenge or a change finally settle, there’s a change of mindset, a new mood for the challenge and a new will to overcome all the barriers that hitherto seemed unsurmountable. I want us to focus on this part.
Stop pretending that attaching a windmill to a tower block is going to fix anything
What we can do, as designers, architects, culture makers, symbol creators, desire directors, is to stop telling half-truths.
Stop designing things that ride the environmental story, with a lack of real intent or impact. Stop pretending that attaching a windmill to a tower block is going to fix anything. Stop talking about eco retreats at the end of a long-haul flight.
To change anything, we need to get beyond the confusion and the empty virtue signalling. We need real impact.
Shell has suggested the idea of sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere with new technology it is funding. But on further reading you realise that it would take hundreds of thousands of these suckers to make any meaningful impact. And who’s going to pay for that? No one of course, which is precisely why it’s not a solution.
How can a technology that costs trillions to run day and night operate when it’s only a cost on the national balance sheet? When you buy a tank full of petrol, you’re not paying to spew out tons of carbon, you’re buying the transport miles. You’re buying the benefit of getting somewhere. The CO2 is a bi-product. So, to create a shadow industry – to balance every car, plane and power station burning stuff in the world – would reach an impossible scale of economies. Perhaps it could work if the costs were offset by taxation on users but that’s a political quagmire unlikely to pass.
This situation shows the systemic nature of the problem. So many interrelated activities make the behaviours and interdependencies hard to unlock. And yet, as creative thinkers, designers are incredibly well skilled to establish new codes and systems.
Designers are so often in the business of creating desire, of providing the fuel for dreams that drives so much production, commerce and construction. Why can’t we coral this skill, to infect everyone with a lust for the truly progressive objects, projects and experiences?
Great design doesn’t just make things more usable and elegant, it elevates them and makes them cool .
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