By Robert Fee
(Originally published on Friday, Feb. 1, 2008 in The Chronicle)
Regardless of how it may seem, sustainability is not a well-embraced idea. Many intelligent and conservative people challenge the notion of global warming as the chief threat to our habitat. Science, they say, has not proven with certainty that the planet is getting warmer, or that we are in any way responsible if it is.
Some people piously tell us that none of this matters because the world will go on after we have departed. If you don’t believe this, watch a rerun of the History Channel’s “Life After People” or “The Planet of the Apes.”
I think it does matter, and if I am human with a self-interested philosophy of life, then I take responsibility for it. After all, isn’t it in our self-interest to not consume resources that are beyond the carrying capacity of the planet?
Paul Hawken brought this to our attention in his 1993 book “The Ecology of Commerce,” the same book that inspired Ray Anderson to be an articulate spokesperson for the cause. As founder and CEO of Interface Carpet, Anderson is an in-the-trenches, real, working example of how theory informs practice and practice reveals principle. If you haven’t heard Anderson talk, stay tuned because my job as a member of the Sustainability and Eco-practices Council is to get him back to SCAD soon.*
As designers of products, environments, communications and services, we can all work to improve the sustainability of Earth. Just as we are fast learners regarding our particular design projects, we must quickly learn the science behind the manufacturing processes and materials we use. Janine Benyus’s seminal “Biomimicry” provides a strong foundation, including a detailed description of life in an ordinary field and why specialization can be risky. Take industrial designers’ favorite plastic polymer, cellulosics. Its primary ingredient is cellulose — plant fiber. That is a good thing, but how many of us know the number of toxic chemicals used to refine and manufacture it? I don’t.
Another environmental concern is an abundance of service-oriented obstacles — which we can solve as designers. Easily recycled soda and water bottles exist, but if they don’t get collected, they won’t get recycled. If you buy a new computer, will the manufacturer take your old one and properly dispose of it? How about reusable grocery bags? They are a technical solution to the paper vs. plastic dilemma, but who actually uses them? Do you?
These are all design problems that can be tackled by architects, designers and business leaders.