In a matter of a few days, different information sources arrived to me, which when combined, made emerge a series of reflections and questioning.
The first of them was the book of Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark “The burning question”, a clever word game, is not only about burning fossil fuels, but also a question that must be answered rapidly. The authors tells us that we know beyond any doubt that the raising of CO2 concentration in Earth’s atmosphere is directly correlated to the raising mean temperature of the planet.
We know too that the exponential growth of such concentration in the last years has predominately an anthropogenic origin, a fact recently supported by the IPCC report (International Panel for Climate Change), where hundreds of scientist, the best and most respected from around the globe, reported that the raise in temperature is unequivocal (Fig. 1), and that reductions in greenhouse gases must be done in a substantial and sustained fashion.
Fig. 1. Relation of mean global temperature and CO2 concentration.
(Source: National Climatic Data Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, USA)
Therefore Berners-Lee and Clark question us: stopping climate change means persuading the World to unquestioningly abandon fossil fuels, proven reserves with a market value of trillions of dollars: could we do this? In political, psychological, economic and technological terms, what do we need to do? Can we do these changes on time? Who can do which part in order to make all this happen?
Fig. 2. Past, present and future of fossil fuels extraction
(Source: the author with data from World Bank, International Energy Agency and others)
Figure 2 shows the past and future (according to proven reserves) of fossil fuel extraction, there are many different charts like this one, the main difference is when the peak take place, some say we already past it, some that is still to come, no far away, but not yet there. The issue is that if burning the amount before the peak took us where we are today, the answer is pretty simple:
We cannot burn all the fossil fuels we still have.
We cannot burn all the fossil fuels we still have.
A few days ago I had the chance to see one presentation by the extraordinary Dr. Hans Rosling, this time in a BBC production. With his characteristic simplicity and powerful data visualisation, he showed that human CO2 emissions are evidently related to economic power, but how big the difference is between rich and poor people?
The first thing Rosling did was organising the World population according to income, from those who earn $100 dollars or more per day, to the ones with $1 dollar or less, which defines the extreme poverty line, and today they are almost two billion people (Fig. 3). The distribution is more or less like this: the richest billion emit 50% of World CO2, the next billion 25%, the next one 12%, and so on. Yes, is an approximation, but does not demerit the argument.
Fig. 3. Income distribution and CO2 contribution
(Source: the author based on Rosling’s visualisation in BBC1 “Don’t panic”)
Be aware that the two richest billions are us, the ones reading this document, us that have a car, wash our clothes in a washer machine, us that have electricity at home, gas in our stoves, television, Internet, mobile phone, etc.
This means that the World today has almost two billion people desperately trying to get out of extreme poverty, and that an increase of their CO2 emissions, even a 100% increase or more, would be insignificant in comparison to what the richest three billion emit, but it could represent an extraordinary raise in their living standards, without considering that we can do this with better/cleaner technologies if we want to.
Us, the richest billion emit very much, yes, and we must reduce it dramatically, not only in quantity but also rapidly. It is a very urgent problem, and other equally urgent issue are the two following billions, which economically are growing very rapidly and they want (and have all the right to) live with the same comfort and opportunities that we have.
Finally us –designers- what are we doing?
A few years ago the initiative “design for the other 90%” was brought up. Someone not so long ago, realised that the majority of designers worked for the richest 10% of the population, and that not only in ethic terms, but in economic ones too, we are ignoring that “other” 90%. A true avalanche of “human” methods, “social entrepreneurship”, “open platforms”, etcetera, has been produced; which, not without some controversies, have created conscience and are changing many things.
This is excellent, it must be done, and in increasing numbers, acknowledging errors and learning from them, not only as a moral duty, but also for the economic opportunity that means for everybody. This does not imply take villainously advantage from the poorest, it means realising that without an economic benefit, even if very small, it will be very hard to see the change in magnitude and speed on which it needs to happen.
On a different thinking, if we must design for the other 90%, we have to REDESIGN the other 10%. As I showed previously the real danger in climate change terms does not lie in the poorest 3 or 4 billions. The way on which the 3 richest billions live, consume, use and discard must change dramatically, and for reasons that are evident, this latter is much more complex than the former, and I would even dare to say it is more urgent, specially because of the incomprehensible denial we can see in this group, even with the high education standards they have, even with undebatable evidence in front of them.
Definitely designers won’t save the World, as some have lately preach, we must lower our ego and accept it. We can contribute greatly, but the questions should simply be: which part of all this is ours? Where to begin? What do we need to do it?
The good news is that there are many people working on this, designers and hundreds of other professions, with great ideas and giving it all to make a difference, but is not enough, no even remotely enough. It is impressive to see how still today, talking about sustainable design, for many people means crazy neo-hippies, tree huggers trying to save the World, and not what it should be: a logic base for fair and egalitarian progress and development.
I came across a beautiful term: “nomological”, from the Greek, like many other beautiful words. It relates to or express basic physical laws or rules of reasoning, things like gravity, which we take for granted and we don’t expect it to be turned off any time soon. There are certain sustainability principles, which I argue are nomological constrains, but we haven’t yet realised fully, I have touched this theme before in other documents, still a lot to research and process.
I will close with the last source of information I was referring to above; it is the speech Noam Chomsky gave at the North Carolina University on September 30th 2010. I recommend you read it fully, but for now I simply allow myself to quote the last paragraph:
“…the only potential counterweight to all of this is some very substantial popular movement which is not just going to call for putting solar panels on your roof, though it’s a good thing to do, but it’s going to have to dismantle an entire sociological, cultural, economic, and ideological structure which is just driving us to disaster. It’s not a small task, but it’s a task that had better be undertaken, and probably pretty quickly, or it’s going to be too late”
Do you want a real design challenge? There you have it, and it is not about designing lamps or chairs with waste. A key part lies in accepting our limits as professionals, and like Chomsky says, create a substantial popular movement which pushes constantly, and among all disciplines questioning the deepest roots of our structures, starting with the economic one, as well as our personal assumptions.
Where to start?
I’ll share with you some ideas and resources in future articles.