Wednesday 23 September 2009

Comments on: 'Exploring Behaviour Change Barriers at Greengaged'

This is a comment I left on an article by Ed Gillespie over on Greengaged...

There is some great stuff here, lots of people are beginning to sit up and take notice of the fact that people don't 'hurt' the environment because they hate it. They hurt it because they love doing other things like 1. travelling, 2. expressing themselves through their appearance, 3. eating(!) and 4. having a warm, well lit home. Those four categories are just the tip of the iceberg, they have many sub-categories: People like driving Ferrari's, people like wearing Diesel jeans, people like eating Tesco's finest strawberry cheesecake and people like buying the latest SMEG fridge... The reasons why people like doing things are hugely complex and they all make sense to us in some way at the decision making moment. A lot of things don't make sense to us when we have our eco hats on but they do make sense to us when we have our 'Keeping up with the Joneses' or 'I want to be sexy' hats on. To use academic speak here, we have 'plural rationalities'; for example, something can seem completely irrational from an environmental perspective but entirely rational from a marital harmony perspective (and the latter in that example almost always wins out!) Design has a massive role to play in making our lives more eco-efficient, but and this is a big BUT... the reasons why people want fashionable clothes and for that matter fashionable homes, holidays, food and all the rest of it, are complex. They involve the interrelationships we have with our peers, our heroes, our family, our community, our old school friends as well as brands, governments, environmentalists, celebrities and social networking sites (that bring all these thing into one intense space)!

We have been infantalised by the kings and queens of consumerism into feeling that we need a multitude of goods and services to be 'happy', 'normal', 'unique', 'cool', 'young', 'vibrant' and so on. Eg: in 2009 we discovered that we MUST twitter, so we all do! The cultural world around us creates anxieties, it makes us feel we are missing out and that we are inadequate, behind the times and un-cool as a result. Nearly all this adds up to education AGAINST sustainability because we are encouraged to buy goods, services, holidays, etc that are only ever really pseudo-satisfiers of our insecurities and more often than not environmentally damaging in their manufacture, marketing, transport, use and disposal (reused and recycled or not).

If we are not careful 'being green' will become just another one of these insecurities and will mix in with all our other insecurities as we struggle to create and maintain an acceptable public image. For many 'being green' is already something they aspire to, but is it because they genuinely understand and feel the need to be deeply, in the same way as they are not racist, or is it because everyone else seems to think it is pretty important to 'be green'. If most people are in the latter category the result is widespread shallow environmentalism; greenwash at the individual level transferring to societal wide greenwash. In the UK today, it is much harder to be deeply green than it is to be a non-racist. Not being racist is not a chore, it does not conflict with the rest of our lives. Being green is much harder as it can compromise our desires to buy/do things that promise to relieve our manufactured and genuine needs, wants and insecurities. Things like being cool, being relaxed, being safe, being young and sexy and, when it comes to commuter travel choices, being on time! We can't have all these things in 'sustainable' ways so it is good that designers are trying to make these things more eco-efficient, but often we can come to not feel the need for the things at all and that is the important point to remember.

The human race is still evolving, it is still incredibly immature and insecure. We need to mature as people and as a species so that we are less reliant on external confirmations that we are 'ok'. We need to be more secure in who we are and more efficient at satisfying rather than buying into 'pseudo' satisfiers of both our material and non-material needs. Designers have a huge role to play in this, they can design the material things we need 'cradle to cradle' and resist the temptation to add un-related meanings to their products. 'This fridge will keep your food cold with minimal environmental impact and it will look as 'ok' as a lump of metal in the corner of your kitchen can look' as opposed to 'This fridge tells people that you are successful, glamorous, artistic and on the pulse.'

Education FOR sustainability and Environmentally responsible behaviour change is about far more than just working out 'greener' ways of having a jacuzzi or playing a computer game, it is about empathy, kindness, respect, maturity, status anxiety, the music of Crass, Kramer vs Kramer, Into the Wild and Tobias Jones' excellent book 'Utopian Dreams'. Systemic change is needed because we can't keep having it all, we need an economic and cultural system that understands that and does not foster a desire in us to want, want, want, buy, buy, buy.

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