Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 84, December 2009

The green garden of forking paths

A few weeks ago I visited a “teach-in” in London about Ecoliteracy. The point of departure was a call to design schools to make ecological literacy a central principle within all levels and projects of the education curriculum. This impressive initiative assembled highly knowledgeable speakers and participants from green foundations, universities, design firms and NGOs.

The more I listened to the discussions, the more the simple green imperative seemed to expand into a complex network of branching passages, not only taking different pathways, but also leading to very different futures. Throughout the day I came to think of an essay of Jorge Luis Borges called “The Garden of Forking Paths”.

The essay is in classic Borges style; a spy story which and at the same time is a tale about an ancient lost book and labyrinth, where it is revealed that the book is the labyrinth. Like in many of Borges’ essays the book is a metaphor for an infinite labyrinth where all storylines bifurcate to a vast overlapping meshwork. Borges informs us that the ancient author “must have said once: I am withdrawing to write a book. And another time: I am withdrawing to construct a labyrinth.” Both declarations mean the same thing, and in the branching pathways of non-linear narratives the same person can be an enemy in one trail, and a friend in the next.

a green garden of forking paths

We can see more and more of the same type of perplexing contradictions in other gardens today, especially in the green gardens of sustainable and ecological design. Here the “green” philosophy has branched into a complex and often contradictory flora of pathways to action, some scientific, some utopian, some highly mystical – yet paths that we as designers somehow have to deal with.

Indeed, green design is not a single linear journey towards a better and more ecological friendly world, but is a maze of confusion and contradictory strategies. Let us just look at a few expressions and their ideological basis for action, to which it seems one can in one minute be a friend and the next an enemy.

The “Light green” is a perspective based on consumer power and lifestyle choices. The hope is that the world can change if citizens and consumers take individual responsibility and then, through a collective “voting with the dollars”, transform the world to a more green place without any sacrifices. From a light green stance the task of design is to “save the planet in style” as “green is the new black” – that means to affect consumers through greener aesthetical products and sustainable consumerism.
The “Bright green” approach sees a systems thinking role for design, as society needs to be redesigned on a deeper level. Here we can see a merging of new technologies, social engagement, policy reform, basically putting design thinking as a leading role towards a brighter future. Here design will remake our lives to the better, even if we face a future with no oil or drastic climate change. Where politicians and protesters stand hopeless, designers come to save the day with better designs which will reform society at all levels to a utopian place.

The Dark Green stance is less optimistic to say the least. Here the calamitous collapse is inevitable and capitalism, industrialism and also design is to blame. Peak oil and climate change will lead to dreadful futures with flooding, famine, refugees, civil wars and millions of dead, just to start with. Neither politics nor design can save us and if you are to design anything at all it should be a post-disaster tool-kit for survival, a lifeboat or remote rural farm. Here ecological design will deal with a post-disaster life, a sort of cynical rebuilding of a simple and somewhat primitive utopia.

another green garden of forking paths

Intersecting with these pathways, movements like the Transition Initiative and Permaculture tries to draw new action plans for the future with social engagement and local farming as points of departure. Here small initiatives form the foundation to bigger change. A farmers market, a local seed bank, a composting or pruning course can be a change in itself. Yet, some critics mean such undersized initiatives induce no viable transformation of a generally unsustainable situation, but rather drains political energy better spent in the formal political channels.

If we examine Permaculture and other green design pathways closer, we can see that they are founded on a quite classical design approach. Creating a food forest, or a well insulated passive house, or a new range of smart composts – it is an approach where we are building the new things and reconstruct a better world form scratch. Usually this happens to be somewhere close to nature, rather than in crowded cities.

But what shall we do about the existing world? What should we do with our urban centres and the millions living there? Creating a new generation of green products or new post-disaster lifeboats will most certainly affect the world in negative way. Some designers wants us to put new aluminium-framed triple glass energy-saving windows in our houses – but how many decades does it take until you have really saved any energy in this scenario? Or just think of a new green mobile phone or other gadget, which alone accounts for about half a tonne of waste material during its production. How much waste does not the production of a new electric car produce? Or your new eco-house? How about your post-catastrophy survival equipment? Yet this is what most of our green designs propose – the new stuff, and it is a friend that might turn out to be an enemy.

What about the route of retrofitting and updating rather than build totally anew? When are we to design those green hybrid engines that just fit into our old cars? Or the simple add-on insulation to our houses? I would love to see a simple method that transforms any gym into a human-powered washing establishment - where the training bicycles wind the washing machines, the stair-master machine powers the driers. A healthy dose of exercise for your freshly washed clothes. All these small add-ons that will not produce the new, but rather reconnect and reenergize the old in greener ways. They probably won’t look good in the design magazines or flashy green design books, but they might just be a realistic step towards change to the better with the infrastructure and equipment we already have at hand. It won’t be more simple designs, no primitive solutions, but rather other forms of recircuiting today’s complex societies.

The green maze is certainly a garden or forking paths, with many parallel tracks to take, some cynical and without agency, others more ethical and constructive. To get somewhere through the labyrinth we will need one foot among the grass roots and one moving forward, as well as an elevated overview from which to orchestrate collective and political actions. We certainly need connections between these two perspectives, and design can help us with that. But design must not only be about producing the new flashy objects, gadgets or houses; we must encourage designers to also do dull updates. Our designs must be both books and labyrinths at the same time if we are to turn our enemies to friends.

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