Sustainability should change the practice of design

Just a short note on a thought I just had:

Sustainability should not be integrated with design, but should change the entire way of looking at and practicing design.

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Thomas Princen – Treading Softly

A couple of days ago I finished reading Treading Softly (2010)by Thomas Princen. Having read one of his earlier books, The Logic of Sufficiency (2005), I had some idea of what I was about to read. Of course, new insights were provided: Next to the principle of sufficiency, additional principles are introduced by Princen (2010). I have to say, the complete picture of the book is absent. I have read the book in my off-time, so I have not exactly studied it thoroughly. Next to this, Princen seems to provide us with many ideas and directions, but, or so it seems to me, they are presented in a somewhat confusing and unclear way. I see no framework serving as the umbrella of his propositions. Hence, this post also serves as a first step to create some order in my thoughts and to see how I can put this book into context. Other posts will follow.

A first important thing to note is that the book can be positioned next to the works of John Ehrenfeld (Sustainability by Design) and Tim Jackson (Prosperity Without Growth); books that I have read a while back and which are discussed in earlier posts. The similarity between these three authors, Ehrenfeld, Jackson and Princen, istheir acknowledgement of the need for some fundamental change (also they are all skeptical about techno-fixes and efficiency efforts). Ehrenfeld discussed this in terms of ‘modes of existence’ (drawing from Erich Fromm 1976) and Jackson in terms of ‘social logic’. Princen (2010) also speaks about the need for a fundamental shift and seems to argue for for ‘a new normal’. Changing towards a new normal seems to require a different set of principles, a different language, new ways of living; these notions all seem to be related to the economy in some way. (Elsewhere in the book he speaks of the need for new practices, a new ethic, the importance of virtues, and so the list of things that need change gets quite extensive and confusing).

In a story-telling manner Princen describes our current situation, and how to get out of it. He speaks of the ‘industrialists’ having faith in the ‘Great Industrial Edifice’, or ‘The Economy’. “That the Great Industrial Edifice … will endure forever, the Faithful have no doubt.” (Princen 2010, 22) This faith that the industrialists have, Princen tells us, is the only thing that keeps The Economy going. The Economy is basically a house of carts, Princen seems to imply, ready to collapse. There aren’t only ‘industrialists’, however. Another group of people, referred to as ‘Doubters’, are not so sure about The Economy and the way it’s functioning. The ‘Doubters’, having found out that The Economy was held together by mere confidence, tried to seek other paths. The trick to do so, they found out, was by imagining the alternative of ‘the Home’ (which the term ‘economy’ refers to in the first place) through which the House of Cards faded from view. Treading Softly serves the purpose of providing images of this ‘Home’, or ‘the Home Economy’.

This envisioned economy requires three things, Princen argues: “Central to this economy are organizing principles that are inherently ecological, sensitive to excess, and structured for restraint; practices that connect ecological and social values; and an ethic for the long term where thrift and prudence are paramount.” (Princen 2010, 58). To start with the principles, Princen introduces four all committed to ‘an ecological order’:

  1. The Intermittency Principle
    Intermittency is a demand from nature: “When the sun shines, we hang laundry and solar cells generate electricity. When the wind blows, the laundry dries faster and the windmills pump more. When it’s dark we go to bed, and when it’s light we get up. When it’s summer we have fresh strawberries and green beans. When it’s winter, we have strawberry jam and canned beans. An intermittency principles thus says that ecological services need not be continuous, let alone ever-abundant and cheap. Instead, they should fluctuate with natural ans social rhythms.” (Princen 2010, 71)
  2. The Sufficiency Principle
    Well described in his earlier book (Princen 2005). In short, Princen states, it is “doing well by doing a little less than the most possible” … it is “that sense of enoughness and too-muchness” (Princen 2010, 73). “Sufficiency thus aims at excess. It is not sacrifice in the negative sense of the term …, not second best. It is first best when users want to do well now and into the indefinite future. It lies at the heart of an ecological order.” (Princen 2010, 74).
  3. The Capping Principle
    This principle is maybe most familiar from the cap-and-trade programs for CO2 emissions in dealing with climate change. Princen emphasizes the capping part of this familiar concept and argues that this principle should be applied in many different areas, from familiar ideas of a cap on harvest rate to “caps on entrants, consumption, technologies and even GDP and trade” (Princen 2010, 75). The principle comes down to the following: “…when human activities are inherently constrained by biophysical conditions, when limits exist, capping those activities according to ecological functioning enables sustainable practice.” (Princen 2010, 75).
  4. The Source Principle
    “The source principle says that it is prudent to preserve the source. People can mine and manufacture, commodify and discard, but a sustainable society cannot destroy the source” (Princen 2010, 76). In a more deeper sense Princen describes how following this principle makes possible reaching the highest form of restraint in our material relations, ‘to find humans’ place in nature’; or, referring to Wendell Berry, “it is to preserve the ends in the means. It is to achieve purpose in life, to connect with the larger world, to gain meaning by protecting the means to the good life, especially the ultimate means which, in the material, ecological world are sources” (Princen 2010, 77).

To me these principles seem quite logical. Yet, they are far from accepted in our Western society. Sharing these principles with others might provide guidance to people on how to ‘live well by living well within our means’. However, more is required to do so. Therefore I’ll continue describing Princen’s work in future posts where practices and a new ethic will be elaborated upon.

To be continued…

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A consumer economy

A consumer economy all too readily becomes a consumer society, giving the appearance of full democratic participation. We are all consumers, after all; we all make choices in the marketplace, voluntarily. But it is a society supremely organized to absolve individuals -consumers, producers, investors, and even rule makers- of responsibility. Consequently, the consumer society can, and does, displace costs in time and place. It concentrates benefits among the powerful few and distributes the costs to the many, often disproportionately to the disempowered. It severs feedback loops that would otherwise put a brake on endless expansion. It constructs a notion of the good life that centers on goods, not on relations, not on service, not on citizenship. And it all seems so rational, so historically inevitable. But it is not the basis of an ecological order; there is no ethic of living within our means.

Thomas Princen in Treading Softly, p.116

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In the consumer economy…

…[e]xcess is only in the eye of the moralizer; sufficiency is for traditionalists and rejectionists, for people with a “different set of values.” What the sovereign consumer chooses is necessary and right; anything less is sacrifice, for the consumer, for the economy, and, therefore, for society.

…to sacrifice in the marketplace is anathema; to sacrifice for the marketplace is acceptable and necessary, especially if the sacrifice is covert … and the risks are incurred by a select few.

Observations about our current ways of thinking in by Thomas Princen in Treading Softly, p. 108-109. The observations are in the context of the modern ‘conundrum of sacrifice’ that Princen describes in chapter 8. After the the text quoted above the author turns to distinguishing between positive and negative sacrifice.

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Treading Softly

Currently I’m reading a book by Thomas Princen called ‘Treading Softly‘. As I’m currently exploring how living ‘the good life’ and ‘living within our means’ can together form ‘living the good life within our means’ Princen’s insights seem to be valuable.

Although my research mainly focuses on ‘good character’, of which my (somewhat flexible) definition originates from virtue ethics and the motivation originates out of the work of Ehrenfeld (2008), I also try to look at good character at a community, or collective level. Thus, human character can then also be described as shared values, norms and beliefs (i.e. culture). This is the level that Princen, in his book, focuses on. He does not speak about good character, but mainly of principles that are ecologically (and ethically) rational. It is these principles that a community can come to agree upon.

Let me turn to the main reason I am writing this post. The way Princen brings across his observations and arguments is by using metaphors and stories. I find this very interesting, as it seems to comply with the argument that the virtue ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre, and others beside him, seem to make: “… man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal” (MacIntyre 2007, p216, emphasis mine). He speaks about our lives being narratives we live out, and interestingly he adds:

I only can answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’

Besides asking what stories you are part of, one can also ask ‘What story or stories do I want to be, or should I be part of?’ MacIntyre would probably, or at least partially, disagree, since we are necessarily part of stories that we cannot abruptly abandon. We carry the fruits, and responsibility, of our family and cultural history. This does not mean we cannot influence these stories, however. After all, we are all co-authors of the stories that we are living together, as MacIntyre mentions. Also, I would argue, if a story (e.g. culture) is fundamentally unsustainable, we ought to take effort in changing the course of the story-to-be-written towards sustainability. Traditions, often highly valued, need to be faced with the reality we are living in today; a reality that, for instance, constitutes ecological limits.

Now, one option would be to criticize the traditions that are unsustainable. And yes, it seems valuable to at least find out where some of the fundamental flaws are located. However, another thing we can do –and this is what Princen does in his book– is to tell new stories. Stories we can look forward to. Princen himself describes the purpose of his book as providing ‘images’; ways of living that we can imagine, that are ‘grounded ecologically and ethically’ (p5). We need to work towards a new normal, a new language. In the book this new normal and language is explained through metaphors and exemplar stories.

One more thought on this latter notion of ‘exemplar stories’: Princen describes certain cases where people have managed to live within their ecological means. In one of his earlier books, The Logic of Sufficiency, he similarly described several exemplar stories to illustrate the principle of sufficiency that he is defending. In Treading Softly he similarly describes cases, however, he describes them in a story-based manner (e.g. personal experiences of people he, most probably, interviewed). Anyway, what I want to point out here is that we can connect this notion of the exemplar story (and its importance for inspiring new stories) to exemplar figures (and their importance for inspiring other persons); the latter which we find central to virtue ethics. It seems to me that what a virtuous person can mean to other persons, a ‘virtuous story’ can mean to other stories. One possible weakness of this idea, however, is that ‘reading a story’ can be rather passive, and it does not necessarily lead to activity. Yet, such activity is required in attaining the good life within our ecological means. Thus, the ‘virtuous stories’ that Princen describes in his book could maybe turned into stories we can follow ‘live’. I guess this already happens to some extent, but maybe appointing it stimulates the idea of learning from virtuous stories.

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Living the good life in my garden :)

A bit less than two months ago, me and my girlfriend moved in together. We have, for Dutch (urban) standards, quite a big garden. The coming months, as it gets warmer and the garden starts turning green, we’ll be growing some vegetables and do some composting. Finally there is some activity next to the thinking I’m doing lately (for this blog and for my thesis work).

Below are 2 photos with text that illustrate the (modest) plans we have.
P1060526 bewerkt

P1060532 bewerkt

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Bicycle slipstream: Using others vs. helping others

It’s been a while since I posted and the topic I am posting about after all this time might seem a little insignificant. Yet, it crossed my mind and somehow relates, I think, to more important matters.

Today I had an interview; it was one of many more that I have been and will be conducting for my thesis research (hence my inactivity on this weblog). It was quite far away (3 hours by train and bike), and because of that on my way back I arrived late at The Hague Central where I had to ‘transfer’ to my bicycle. The weather was not so comfortable. Thankfully, there was no rain, but the wind was quite strong and, sadly, not in my back. With a confused stomach (not knowing whether it needed food or had other issues) and my body low on energy in general, it was quite an annoying ride. Still I managed to overtake some other cyclists.

At some point I was overtaking two cyclists. They were not together, as far as I know, yet they cycled quite close to one another. The one in front was a lady struggling to keep moving forward, the one in the back a young man looking kind of bored. As you might guess from the title of this post, he was in her slipstream. I felt sorry for the lady who was fighting the wind. Then I started asking myself why I felt sorry. The feeling related to the irritation I experience when  I am in a similar situation as the lady was.

I think I do not even need to explain what is ‘not cool’ about the guy cycling behind the woman. Yet, some ways of describing it might give more insight in what is going on here: In Kantian terms we could say that the guy used the woman ‘as a means to his own end’. This, according to Kantians, would indicate a lack of ‘respect’ of the guy towards the woman. In Aristotelian terms, we could say that the young man is showing weak character. His attitude is a lazy one and rather egoistic. A truly virtuous person would be able to judge the situation and might even choose to cycle in front of the lady to help her…! This Aristotelian account sounds rather silly, at least the part of ‘helping’. The reason it sounds silly is that helping another, expecting nothing in return, is quite uncommon nowadays. It feels awkward to help people. Especially in this case, where it takes quite some effort to help.

But it’s not just an awkward feeling to help. Sometimes, when I try to be helpful to others, I get awkward reactions by the people I’m helping. Reasons for such responses might range from “Do you think I need your help? I can handle this myself!” to “What is going on here, does he have bad intentions?” to “Huh… I am being helped…!”. In short we can label these responses as a desire for independency, distrusting others (or being on guard), and a sort of spontaneous confusion.

The latter response can still result in sincere appreciation (and of course many people are thankful when being helped with something). However, one can imagine a person just not knowing what to do when being helped, as the situation that is occurring does not often occur. We are individuals after all, not a community. We are autonomous, not heteronomous. We have rights! We do not need to care for each other as long as we have these rights. As long as we are ‘tolerant’ we can all live our own individual lives the way we want to live them.

Obviously what I am describing above is not anything I desire, but something I observe in daily life and is observed by many others. I wonder if my observations are reliable as they might be labeled ‘subjective’. Maybe I observe the things that I read about. Still, I am quite certain of the accurateness and the importance of such observations. Also, thankfully, I think important changes in public consciousness about these issues are already taking place. Community is something being strived for by a diversity of people. This often happens through local initiatives, although it is not always clear for those people how they can actually obtain such community feeling. Yet, in some instances the feeling seems to more or less spontaneously emerge.

I think one of the goals these days is to find out what ‘ingredients’ are required for such community feeling to emerge. This will significantly contribute to living the good life. Like MacIntyre argues in his book Dependent Rational Animals, “the good of each cannot be pursued without also pursuing the good of all those who participate in [their] relationships” (p107). Thus the ‘ingredients’ I am mentioning here can partly be found in the individual and his character. The individual has to become a ‘relational’ person, heteronomous as opposed to autonomous. I am not denying here that there are many other influences that either discourage or encourage community building. Thinking about these structural influences if of importance well; after all, acknowledging our heteronomy also entails acknowledging the influences of our social, material and institutional surroundings. I would even argue that being a relational person strongly depends on the way we have been raised, another point acknowledged by MacIntyre. Thus a vicious cycle seems to be reality. But, at the same time like I mentioned above, this reality is being redirected by different ways of thinking.

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