I’ve always been really interested in stories and their power to shape history. A great example of this is the Bible and how the stories within it and other religious texts continue to shape our world and our beliefs. Or the role of science fiction comic book stories (like Mr. Skygack, from Mars, 1907) in the beginning of the 1900’s, inspiring the generation that eventually took us to space.
Stories are what guides humanity’s efforts in different directions.
There are so many designers, thinkers, writers, engineers, institutions, charities… you name it, all trying to create a new world paradigm, a new story, to combat what has been called the anthropocene. (from anthropo, for “man,” and cene, for “new”. This term refers to the epoch where humans have altered the atmosphere, depleted resources and caused mass animal and plant extinctions.)
My personal contribution to an alternative is through Design.
I currently teach first years of the Product Design course at Nottingham Trent University and they recently had a brief about upcycling. It was really interesting because a lot of the students struggled to create relevant and impactful solutions. And they are not alone. Professional designers struggle too. It’s hard to give old materials new identities.
Sometimes, upcycling gets interpreted as reusing the waste material in a slightly different application. So, a waste fabric ends up in dog leashes. The kind of upcycling I like is when the waste material is taken to its basic form and from that point, it is used as a raw resource for higher-end applications or for mass-manufactured goods. For example, paper is repulped and completely reshaped into new applications, or it is burned and taken to a different material state, reshaped and reused in a new way. My approach is from the point of view of giving waste materials new identities.
In my point of view, upcycling tries to put a band-aid on the problem of waste. It doesn’t address the underlying reason for it. Waste is a problem of culture, of perspective. Like Victor Papanek said back in the 70’s, we throw away what we fail to value.
Mainstream ideas about sustainable living, recycling, reusing, using resources carefully, etc… all of these are 30 or more years old. In 1972, a study called Limits to Growth was commissioned by The Club of Rome. It basically showed the results of a computer simulation that analysed the amount of available natural resources versus the rate of consumption and established we cannot consume at the same rate and expect the earth to sustain us all. This was 46 years ago, before the 80’s and 90’s consumerist craze, before the rise of the wealthy classes in China and India and Amazon.com.
For some scientists, like Guy McPherson (Professor Emeritus of Natural Resources and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at Arizona State University), it’s too late to do anything. They argue that the damage has been done and we must, instead, focus on living ethically and with kindness and wait for the irreparably damaged earth to get rid of us all. If you want to know more about this take a look at the video below. I do suggest you have a seat first!
But even with all the empirical data and all the evidence, we still don’t have a narrative strong enough to transform how we live with nature. We are still today, depleting finite resources, continuing to burn fuel, using more and more plastics, cutting down forests, polluting the seas and rivers… the list goes on.
I like to think that, although we are in many respects ‘over the threshold’ and will have to deal with increasingly devastating natural disasters, humanity will continue. And I guess the challenge today is to make sure that the chunk of humanity that does survive has a paradigm that empowers humans and nature as well.
And there lies the problem, we think we are separate from nature, that somehow we are outsiders contemplating nature from a distance, using it as a resource. Monetizing it. This has been our paradigm for a long long time. We have lost our roots to nature. We are not connected anymore.
Perhaps we need a new language, a new way to conceive our world. One that will force us to revert to a more primaeval state of mind where all we cared about was to understand nature and its cycles and living in accordance with them. We need nature to become Nature again in our language.
Or maybe we need better stories, an ancient book, like the Bible. A Sacred Book of Nature that will provide the framework and language we need to finally change the paradigm. I think an archaeologist should find this ancient book buried somewhere under a pyramid inscribed with an ancient language and have all the scientist agree on its authenticity. This sacred book would be made up of all the knowledge we can gather from the still remaining tribes and cultures that today continue to live in harmony with Nature and gives us a guideline for a sustainable future.
I think it’s time there was a Unified Green Field… or something like that. Like in Physics there is the Unified Field Theory that joins the fundamental forces and particles in one field, in the same way, we should have a unifying narrative that joining all the efforts everyone is doing toward living sustainably, consuming less, reconnecting with Nature, protecting animals, going vegan. All in one massive, coherent story.
It might not be enough, and like McPherson says, it’s already too late. But at least will leave this earth with the right intention and if there are any survivors, hopefully they will carry the seedlings of a paradigm that will never, ever make the same mistake we already have.
Diana Simpson Hernandez
Designers for Humanity