Where do we go from here?

‘We know how to do many things, but do we know WHAT to do?’

E.F. Schumacher
Illustration – Re-Everything I of II
Finally a cultural movement to embrace the efforts of every woman, man and child. Everyone gets to be an active participant. But what exactly should we do? And where can we as individuals add the most value? The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset begins to answer the question this way: “We cannot live on the human level without ideas. Upon them depends what we do. Living is nothing more or less than doing one thing instead of another”.1

If you are a person of science, engineering, design, law or economics (and so on), you are blessed with valuable skills which can guide a more sustainable future for everyone. If you’re already working in this territory, you can choose to empower others by either sharing your knowledge and experiences, or by making the language and tools of your craft more accessible. For the rest of us it becomes much harder to identify where we can most effectively contribute. Here the writer Martin Lukacs helpfully observes that ‘Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals’. Instead he tells us to stop obsessing with how personally green we live our lives, and start ‘collectively taking on corporate power’.2

One choice available to us all is to rebel – This is exactly what the organisation ‘Extinction Rebellion’ would like you to do. The surge in peaceful acts of civil disobedience across the UK, which has since spread to over 30 countries (and counting) worldwide, vividly demonstrates this form of peaceful direct action really does embrace the active participation of everyone, regardless of their age. From grandparents to children and teachers to their pupils, they all took to the streets in the spring of 2019, despite the very real risk they could end their day in police custody.

The ‘disruption’ approach references the achievements of past civil rights movements from the Chartists to the Suffragettes, and the work of inspirational leaders like Martin Luther King. This new wave of activism is deeply encouraging because there is finally the tangibility of a ‘Green New Deal’ to mobilise around. Public opinion has been quick to celebrate this loud wave of direct action, understanding that mass civil disobedience might be essential to force a political response.3 Consistent forms of organised mass protest, mixed with sometimes highly inventive performance art, after all does effectively demonstrate to the politicians and corporations, that the overarching will for change is there.

At the beginning of May 2019, UK Parliament became the first in the world to pass a motion declaring a ‘climate emergency’. Whilst deeply encouraging, this vote remains (at the time of writing) crucially non-binding. Revealing one consistent flaw at the heart of the ‘protest option’, where many of the middle steps which lead to plans becoming reality, remain somewhat missing. Galvanising support around a ‘Green New Deal’ should not be confused with the much more complicated challenge of finding a clear path towards implementation – a task which involves both removing obstacles and bridging gaps. Any ‘New Deal’ which finally puts the interests of the planet centre stage, will first need to stand up to scrutiny. Equally this might only stand a chance, if the media grows up to the point where it can responsibly foster honest and meaningful debate.

During the launch of the 'Architects Climate Action Network' in London, October 1st, 2019, one of the founders pointed out that the real beauty of XR, is that they give people the activation ideas and tools needed to take back to their own industry or passion. This is where activism will really inform change – not through protest – but when it is linked together in a nuanced network of people actively bringing about change from the inside of their own specialism. On a rainy autumnal evening, up on the second floor of a small but packed pub in north east London, this was demonstrated by the breadth of skills brimming from both the speakers and crowd – with representatives present not just from architecture, but also the construction industry, teaching institutions, as well as designers and artists too.

In the meantime, only the multi-dimensional approach of a broad cross-sectional movement will be robust enough to ensure the building of a more sustainable longterm vision. As we’ve previously identified, the connections between our choices and actions become as important as the choices and actions themselves. One aspect of this includes growing strong, deeply connected roots between a whole host of complimentary movements and organised groups.

Last century, visionaries like Van Doesburg and Gropius, who ultimately helped define the modern movement, consciously avoided the political debate in favour of making and sharing the tangible results of their activity instead. Their dreams of an alternative future were too big to risk the distraction of being sucked into politics. Sidestepping the option of peaceful confrontation, they chose the progressive path of creative action instead. Through the very things they made, they didn’t just spread their passion – they equally spread the essential knowledge of how to make.

The role of the designer as ‘coordinator’ for more sustainable enterprise, has already taken much of our focus, so perhaps it’s time to talk about the role of the consumer as the new ‘director’. This works if you think of consumers not so much as individuals, but as a group pooling their shared values, and making more informed choices together. Embracing the idea of the power of the ‘Scenius’ - or the talent, and actions of a whole community which is actively generating, and making informed decisions as one.

If Capitalism has taught us to do one thing well, it is how to make carefully considered choices about the things we buy. Perhaps the next valuable shift in our behaviour would be to simply change the parameters through which we make our choices? Here we end the search for where we can add the most value, by changing instead where we perceive there to be the most value. Picture this pivotal collective, and yourself within it, as a powerful generator of change. For in a market driven economy, it is the accumulation of your own daily purchases which could actually steer us in a more sustainable long-term direction.

Just before the turn of the millennium, in the very top left corner of the sleepy Pacific Northwest, and with an estimated $250,000 boost from his parents,4 Jeff Bezos gave birth to a small online bookstore called Amazon. Just twenty years later, online shopping has come to dominate the global marketplace, and unleashed seismic changes to the way goods are produced, marketed and sold. We’re now approaching a new transition towards what some people call a ‘demand driven value network’.

Within this new purchasing model, it is our daily consumer choices which will increasingly effect how quickly market services adapt – For example, changing one’s energy supplier to a renewable alternative, or moving one’s investments and pensions to those with a lighter carbon or environmental footprint. These rank as small gestures in singularity, but when acted out together en masse, they have considerable impact on accelerating which products the financial service markets push more of in the future.

Financial divestment away from fossil fuels is catching on to the extent where much larger organisations have begun to follow the example that we once started as individuals. In 2018 New York City decided to divest $189bn in pension funds, and soon after the mayor Sadiq Khan announced London would follow suit. So far trillions of dollars of investments have already been taken out of carbon-intensive companies. Such is the growing pace of divestment, that Shell announced recently the trend should be considered a “material risk” to its business.5

Continuing this theme of accumulative choices. Tony Davidson, Creative Partner of the Advertising Agency Wieden + Kennedy, once made a bold statement when he predicted: “The brands which survive this century will be the ones which society wants to exist”.6 Less than 20 years into this new century, and we can clearly see a window of opportunity opening for this projection to fully come to life.

Richie Siegel, founder of Loose Threads, explores the territory (where the fashion industry meets technology and commerce). Summing up neatly the dilemma which today’s consumer facing brands are confronting, he confirms: “Today, no single person can ensure the fate of a brand”.7 How a brand is perceived is no longer in the full control of the traditional brand masters. Instead, it is the customers themselves who have become ‘Brand Guardians’. Essentially, how they talk about the brand matters more than how the brand talks about itself.

This shift in favour of the consumer as the collective driver of the bus, is perhaps illustrated best by the collapse of the 20th century ‘supply-driven world’ to a 21st century model which sees production instead ‘driven by demand’. With the release of each new season going forwards, it will be increasingly the shared choices of consumers which effects what gets made, how it gets made, where it gets made, and how it is transported to market. Heightened transparency in all areas of the supply chain will only further emphasise the leverage of these choices, and accelerate the speed by which the most polluting practices behind the shiny labels are cleaned up.

Siegal describes best himself the differences between the processes of the late 20th century fashion industry to those we are just beginning to discover:

‘‘The feedback loop was slow, which would repeat only every season. This often created a monologue between brands and shoppers ... the former would do most of the talking and shoppers were expected to listen … The retail store used to have a monopoly on discovery, but the internet and Instagram have relentlessly challenged the conventional wisdom … The industry used to think about a shopper as the ending. Today, a shopper is the beginning. The feedback loop that often took nine months to get a shopper’s opinion on a design collapsed to weeks, if not days or minutes … Thriving in this world required two related changes:

1) brands have to move more quickly, and...
2) be more decentralised than ever before”.8

The fashion industry has long been touted as the second most polluting industry after oil. The power therefore of the shopper, to act as the catalyst for how this industry acts more responsibly, is yet to reach full potential. Importantly for brands, adding greater transparency to their processes is one way they can give ‘value’ back to their customers. This is a healthy sign that the brand – customer relationship is becoming more sophisticated, and that brands are open to take the relationship to a more meaningful level – Transparency to an organisation’s supply chain becomes no longer a choice, but a responsibility.

Here the style of relationships which we assume with brands in the future, drifts closer to the way our friendship networks already work. This stands to be of benefit, because in relationships of mutual respect, all parties tend to validate and elevate each other. This is a continuation of the levelling of the playing field which comes with the community being more in control.

The bigger problem which remains, will be the transparency of the umbrella corporations which sit behind the consumer facing brands. How do we tame and get to know the truth behind their alter-egos? History has demonstrated that a powerful motivation isn’t necessarily always one of ethics, but will always be informed by economics. Here the risk of losing ‘custom’ from the bottom up, holds the ability to work around the back and inform wiser choices at the top. Transparency tools which make us more aware of who owns who, and which celebrate the efforts of those breaking away from outdated behaviours, will only help to spotlight the shady characters.

Today there is no such thing as a refund on air quality or erratic weather. So moving forwards, if you want to see changes to how your money is spent, then it should come as no surprise that you have to work with the brands who are spending it. In the longer-term this involves a fundamental shift away from the corporation towards much greater co-operation. In the short-term, shoppers who once held accounts with their favourite brands, now have the power to also hold them to account.

There is no more compelling evidence as to how these paradigm shifts are already underway than with the rise of the ‘Prosumer’ within the energy industry. People all over the world are no longer just consuming energy, and sometimes they aren’t just generating, they’re also generating much more than they can consume. Up until recently, the energy industry’s one way energy flow remained fundamentally unaltered since the age of Edison 100 years ago.9 Whilst today, homes, businesses, schools, and factories are producing. Energy flows have become two way, a partnership, or even a meaningful conversation.

To help illustrate how best we can all make a difference. There is perhaps no better historical example of this transformation in practice than the complete osmosis of the music scene during the UK heatwave of 1989 – a summer so hot it wilted all the flowers at the Chelsea flower show. The writer John Higgs brings to life the spirit of this summer perfectly:

“You only had to look at the crowd to see why rave was different. At rock concerts every member of the crowd faced in the same direction. The focus and attention directed at the stage, where it glorified the musicians who performed there. Compare that to the early orbital rates of the late 1980s, when first thousands and then tens of thousands of kids found their way to outdoor dance parties on the outskirts of London. The crowd point in any direction they damn well please. Instead, the crowd’s focus is turned into itself …The crowd were generating, rather than observing. The result is that they were not elevating the artist. That they were elevating themselves”.10

Illustration – Re-Everything II of II

Next ︎
Chapter 20 —
The Role of the Arts

Credits & Note
Ortega y Gasset
(via E.F. Schumacher – Small is Beautiful)

Martin Lukacs
Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals
(The Guardian – Mon 17 Jul 2017)

George Monbiot
Only rebellion will prevent an ecological apocalypse
(The Guardian – Mon 15 Apr 2019)

Avery Hartmans
Business Insider
Tue 31 Jul 2018

Bill McKibben
At last, divestment is hitting the fossil fuel industry where it hurts
(The Guardian – Sun 16 Dec 2018)

OH via Tony Davidson
@ Wieden + Kennedy London
7 – 8
Richie Siegel
Mickey Drexler and the death of a supply-driven world loosethreads.com

Simon Mouat
A New Paradigm for Utilities – The Rise of the Prosumer
(Nov  2016)

John Higgs
The KLF. Chaos, magic, and the band who burned a million pounds
(Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

The Sustainers — 21st Century Pioneers
© 2017. All rights reserved.