A 21st Century

An Ending. A Beginning

‘We need to stop looking to politicians to make our world better. Politicians don’t make the world a better place. Everything that’s ever made the world a better place has come from inventors, engineers, scientists, teachers, artists, builders, philosophers, healers, and anyone who chooses love over hate.’

Don Freeman
On Tuesday the 17th October, 1820, as the sun went down over Hampstead Heath, John Constable stood painting the scene with a line of elms straddling the foreground. The sky was warm, but dappled with frail cumulus clouds.1 Perhaps a kestrel called out in the quiet distance, as the oil lamps around the village behind him, were lit and raised ready for the night. Once done, and ready to return to his home on nearby Well St, Constable annotated his work with not only the date and location, but also the prevailing wind direction. Throughout his career as an artist, one of the most noteworthy details about his process was that he understood the key to developing his technique was to watch very carefully, blending a methodology born more from science with the craft, care and dedication of a spiritually engaged artist.2

Almost two centuries later, as a collective of designers, engineers, scientists and people of all crafts working to a new unified vision, that is essentially all we can do – look more carefully for the patterns that exist all around us, and try to make more meaningful connections between all the different pieces.

What will be the new principles we imagine for living more harmoniously within the Earth’s natural systems? How do we fill these ideas with meaning, in order to add value to the ideas we create? The Sustainable Movement offers us an exciting new frontier which will help revitalise our shared purpose in life for some time to come. For despite all our discoveries thus far, ‘What do we really know?’ as Anna Murray, founder of the London studio Patternity questions rhetorically... ‘Nature is something we’re only just beginning to understand.’3

One pattern that has emerged amongst these pages is that everything is connected. Every movement, ‘ism’ and ‘ity’ throughout history has led from one to the next, sometimes in sequence, sometimes in unison, and sometimes in a state closer to confusion, but always framed and moulded by the circumstances of their own time.

On the Greenpeace vessel’s first voyage to Amchitka, the crew took a break on the shores of Akutan, one of a chain of 14 volcanic islands off the coast of Alaska. Here, amongst the isolation and tranquility, they all connected with the idea that ‘all life is interwoven.’ To quote Bob Hunter: ‘A flower is your brother. The whales, moss, us.’4 Being the 70s, it helped to be on the right drugs, of course. Yet perhaps they were closer to a truth that one day, we might more fully understand.

This century, the Sustainable Movement won’t exist as something you opt in to ‘do.’ It is something that like it or not, we are already holistically a part of. We can either continue to work against the patterns, or we can choose to blend more seamlessly with them, and by so doing, thrive in a way we haven’t before. The challenge becomes essentially one of keeping together in time, otherwise known as synchronisation. As we’ve found on this meandering journey through the recent history of the arts, there are strong comparisons to be found with how we naturally assimilate with each other through dance. Why then should we not look at the planet as our number one dance partner?

To quote Carne Ross: ‘The world is not complicated, or knowable, it’s complex. Billions of actors in constant motion, acting and reacting to each other, and reacting back again. A highly connected constantly fluid state between order and chaos. Top down authority doesn’t work in a complex system because the state of the system is fundamentally unknowable. We can never be sure what the consequence of any one action will be.’5  But this should not stop us from dancing together more thoughtfully, and, with practice, more elegantly too. After all, we won’t synchronise through singular acts of brilliance, only by the efforts of a fully engaged and brightly lit community.

There are no definitive answers here, not for a movement with a lot still to discover. But one detail we can be sure of is that nothing changes without action. The lead singer of the legendary Texas punk band Big Boys, Randy ‘Biscuit’ Turner, had the right idea when he famously closed each of his shows by offering the crowd one simple imperative: ‘Now, go start your own band!6 The spirit of this anyone-can-do-it ethos is already part of the trend which the democratisation of technology is further enabling. It’s the spirit of a time when more and more people are beginning to actively generate.

Building a fully resilient movement is, as much as anything else, about connecting all these independent groups of inspired and motivated people together in a way where they all start to elevate each other. We’ve learnt how 100 years ago a whole host of disparate avant-garde artistic groups emerged from the destruction of WWI, all desperate to make contact with each other. As a result of their successful alliances and mutual collaboration, we’re still talking about their great achievements today. Whilst a common failure of the more politicised and radical movements has always been that, blindspotted by naivety and egoism, they tend to think of themselves as ‘the only radical movement.’7

Circumstances for sure will be very different this century from the last, and we aren’t blessed with a huge amount of time to make some fundamentally big changes to how we live, make and play – rapid decarbonisation being right at the very top of the priority list. But we do stand a greater chance of success in all our new endeavours if we keep at least half an eye on the past, and a strong awareness of what people have already learnt for us, on our behalf, before. As the writer Tom Breihan observed: ‘Time does not always move forward in a linear way. History comes in fits and starts – sometimes jumping forward, sometimes easing back.’8 In many instances the keys to the future already exist somewhere within our past experiences.

Capitalism’s whole enterprise from the very beginning was based on playing the game of risk, and the highest-risk players are historically proven to either fail big, or win the highest rewards. Any system wishing to replace this model will need to match the old chutzpah and hubris with brighter forms of boldness, bravery and substance. To our advantage, we have sincerity and relevance firmly on our side, but it takes a mix of courage and careful curation to use these powerful tools advantageously.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the expression ‘forging the future’? For some amongst us, this is done through largely fraudulent activity, and the very literal act of ‘forgery’. The alternative meaning, when applied to the metalworker, involves heating something up and quite literally hammering all the crap out of it. For the blacksmith, this is because it is their job to rework the molten structure of a metal, so that all the individual grains which hold it together become more closely aligned.

For anyone working to help create a thriving Sustainable Movement, a similar process – swapping the blacksmith’s tools for principles that allow deeper levels of scrutiny, will be vital to the ongoing realignment of all the connected pieces. Hammering out the worst insincerities and inaccuracies is essential to the strength and clarity of the movement’s continued progression and growth, especially when it comes to welcoming the contribution of new participants.

All of history, once boiled down to the bare facts, is simply part of the ongoing narrative. Yet only by being in control of the overall narrative do you get a chance to direct history rather than be part of it. James Glave, an adviser to Clean Energy Canada, makes the point that the solution, over time, is quite literally to ‘change the narrative.’9 Not necessarily by seizing control, but by creating a more attractive alternative. In her book Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth quotes the 20th-century British futurist Buckminster Fuller, who once said: ‘You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.’10

We’ve learnt one aspect of capitalisms great success was the incredible show that it put on through literally every channel of entertainment available. In order to deliver the notion that more thoughtful and sustainable ways of living are ‘the new normal’, we will somehow need to lift and energise the narrative in much the same way. One critical foundation of capitalism’s triumph was the huge number of people it took along for the ride. It did this in the West, at least to begin with, largely by not just promising everyone a more prosperous future, but delivering it to people as well.

In a simple game of numbers, the movement that proves to be the most successful will be the one that quite literally takes the most people with it. History shows us you can do this either by exploiting people’s fears, or by being brave enough to resolve them. The young Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat calls this making the flip in how we define our activity – from ‘resistance’ to ‘liberation.’11

This was of course the Greenpeace movement’s accidental power play. Every time one of their boats set sail to stop a nuclear test or take on the cruelty of the whalers, it wasn’t just filled with the hopes of the activists on board, but all the people watching back home as well. ‘In reality, you bring everyone on the boat’… to quote Bob Hunter talking on camera while out somewhere in the Pacific with the wind blowing through his long hair… ‘There’s probably about 14 million people on this boat right now.’12

Both the Bauhaus and later the Ulm School, were exposed to the damaging tension between their ideological ambitions and the practical methods of production at their disposal. Here, inevitably, the ideology had to give. This helps demonstrate there is no such thing as complete purity in any set of new principles. Especially a set of values that somehow will need to reach out to eight billion people worldwide. So perhaps the best ideology should remain flexible; it is after all primarily a tool intended to help change a shared direction. It must then continue to flex and grow organically along the chosen path,
as it is experienced.

What else can we learn from these all individuals who had such a strong sense of vision 100 years ago? For one, they were never looking too far into the future. They were much more concerned with the changes they could effect from each day to the next. This is one of the deceptions of the climate change conundrum – it puts the deadline too far into the future to be easily comprehended.

The 20th-century makers who helped lay the foundations for the Modern Movement were all filled with a desire for change, and somehow they managed to thrive through difficult and turbulent times. Yet crucially the names with which we’ve become the most familiar within this story, who emerged as the most widely celebrated founders, did so by wherever possible choosing the path of least confrontation.

Cultural movements that reach the furthest into the shared human spirit seem to find a way of rising above politics. House music, for example, was always an openly embracing place. The clue was in the name, and the lyrics backed it up: ‘It’s one house, there’s room for all.’ The summer of 1989 helped break down barriers of class, race and gender by offering a different choice. And it came out of a tough political era when disillusioned people were seeking a new form of community.

The year 1989 coincidentally fell right at the very end of the Modernist era, by which time pretty much all the objects of the 20th century had been fully redesigned. We’re talking about an entirely new era of this activity beginning right now, and the sense of potential that lies ahead is quite simply huge. The opportunity exists, to quite literally redefine and reinvent all the objects, systems, processes and values by which we live. The Modern Movement heralded an era that embraced efficiency with a view to maximising profit, whilst the Sustainable Movement offers a much more thorough embrace of efficiency, with its focus deliberately leaning towards more compassionate depths of detail.

Now that we are connected by new digital tools, and even the Dalai Lama has a Twitter account, then at least in theory, any collaboration becomes possible. Recently he tweeted: ‘Protecting our environment is not a luxury we can choose to enjoy, but a matter of survival.’ David Attenborough has said much the same many times over. And likewise, Dieter Rams, the modern product designer’s spiritual guru, declared in 2009 a poignantly simple ambition: ‘The future of design is in enabling us to survive on this planet. This is no exaggeration.’13

The will for change surrounds us, patiently waiting for the inspiring ideas by which we make this movement happen. Ok, accepted, ‘Sustainabilism’ might not necessarily be the right long-term label, but at least it is marking out the correct territory to explore. Emerging principles will help by lighting the path before us, and act as boundaries that guide the direction of our shared energy.

Perhaps this all begins to explain the resurgence of placards, banners and t-shirts across the world these last few years declaring ‘CHOOSE LOVE.’ The slogan is clearly a reaction to the re-emergence of darker forces. But the resounding message should be interpreted less as a choice, and much more urgently, as a call to action. For if the truth be told, we cannot really teach or tell people to do anything. We can only love them enough to help them discover it within themselves.

We learn facts when they’re delivered to us in a digestible way, but we learn to innovate when we foster environments where curiosity is openly encouraged. The knowledge of how we make remains one of humanity’s most precious resources. So the schools that embrace sustainable theory over practice risk ignoring the fact that making is also an active way of thinking. Here it is worth noting our present-day teaching curriculums have completely surpassed their expiry dates, and demand to be urgently reframed through the sustainable lens (as our children’s will to strike over study evidently already proves).

All new concepts have a tendency to feel almost impossibly complex at first. Yet it is only by practice, through the process of ‘making’ that they become much simpler again. In fact craftspeople throughout the centuries have always learnt most effectively this way. Problem solving is a constant attritional cycle of unfolding new possibilities, and when we become absorbed in the process of making, things happen we didn’t necessarily plan. So it is altogether here within our activity, where the most exciting forms of innovation are most likely to occur.14 The 'power of making', as you will have no doubt heard before, can only be set free once you begin.

For all professionals, sometimes this will involve standing up in meetings and sharing concerns that an idea is outdated, or does not try hard enough. Don’t worry, it is highly unlikely there won’t be other people in the room already thinking the very same thing. In Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 futuristic film Total Recall, the rebel leader Kuato reminds Hauser (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger): ‘A man is defined by his actions, not his memories.’15 Our actions of course begin with choices, and our choices come from where we place our priorities, but they only become shared when they are vocalised and become ingrained within the wider conversation.

Undeniably one of the most positive sides to a Sustainable Movement is that it shows the potential to be giving. To circle back to one of our key words, ‘regeneration’, it should give back at least the same amount, if not more than what you put in. Compassion for the planet must start equally with compassion for fellow people. The two are the same thing and you cannot have one without the other.

Kate Bush, a former curator at the Barbican, observed of the Olympic games that ‘no other global event strives to pool the synergetic forces of the world community, in accordance with the ideal of promoting international understanding.’16 So perhaps one of the most reliable ways by which we can protect life on this planet is to wholeheartedly celebrate it. And vice versa, the most meaningful way we can celebrate natural forms of life is to ensure they can sustainably continue.

One secret to the longevity of festivals is of course that they are cyclical and repeat – they automatically sustain themselves because each time they finish, we are already that much closer to the next. They come alive in our minds because they have no definitive end, just like all our most meaningful relationships. Similarly, Eno, whilst talking about our natural desire to synchronise with each other through dance once said: ‘there was no point to it. No religious overtones, ideological message or money to be made. Just the chance, which we need much more of on this crowded planet, to acknowledge the miracle of our simultaneous existence with some sort of celebration.’17

If the Bauhaus Movement can be summed up today as ‘Art as Life’, then the Sustainable Movement is finally the movement of creating a lifestyle that works. Further nodding to the Bauhaus’ focus on craft, if we can craft a lifestyle that works for both people and our planet, then this lifestyle will naturally become the finest of all art.

To a packed auditorium in the heart of Mayfair, London, in 1836, John Constable observed: ‘We see nothing truly till we understand it.’18 Through his painting he embraced the idea that wherever we look hard enough, we find patterns that have the potential to enrich our lives. By starting from the idea that the Earth, and natural life, is something of value to be protected, we create the powerful potential to rearrange and restructure everything we have built for ourselves thus far.

Many unknowns lie out in the future up ahead, but amongst all the uncertainties also exist some more solid guarantees. One idea to seize with open arms and all our best minds is that climate change is not the problem – it’s actually the solution. In fact it is the best opportunity we will have for centuries to wholly reinvent the world and ourselves within it.

Here the Sustainable Movement has a huge advantage in that the opportunities it creates are fresh, whilst many of the ideas they are replacing are old, tired out, overused and increasingly confused. In youthfulness there is mystery, great energy, vitality and vigour. There is enormous power within the spirit of unexplored potential yet to be fully tapped, so during these formational years, now is also a time to be actively enjoyed.

To travel full circle and end practically back where we began with a quote from Lauryn Hill: ‘Everything you did has already been done’. Except perhaps living in a world that is Sustainable by Design. This ambition demands to be fully explored, because if nothing else, it is the only method presently available to us to guarantee our ongoing survival. Thinking big, the most exciting output from the Sustainable Movement doesn't necessarily lie in this next great flurry of activity, but in the even bigger ideas and possibilities that slowly bubble to the surface and emerge in its wake.

Credits & Notes

1-2 / 17
Peter Moore
The Weather Experiment
Vintage Books (2016)

Anna Murray in conversation with Jeremy Lent
Patternity presents The Patterning Instinct
Second Home, Spitalfields London
(12 Jul 2017)

4 / 11
How to Change the World
Film written / directed by Jerry Rothwell (2015)

Carne Ross
Accidental Anarchist – Life Without Government
BBC Storyville (2017)

Randy Turner cited by Mark Owens
‘The Power of Three’
Statement & Counter-Statement: Notes on Experimental Jetset
Roma (2015)

7 / 10
Srećko Horvat & Brian Eno in Conversation
EartH, Hackney (May 2019)

Tom Breihan
‘With Total Recall, Schwarzenegger got
to blow things up and blow minds’
A History of Violence
AV Club (2 Feb 2016)

James Glave
Energy Connections 2017
SFU Centre for Dialogue
Vancouver, BC, Canada (4 Mar 2017)

Dieter Rams cited by Objectified
Directed by Gary Hustwit
Film First (2009)

Daniel Charny
Power of Making
V&A and Crafts Council (2011)

Total Recall
Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Kate Bush
Bauhaus: Art as Life
Barbican Art Gallery
Koenig Books (2012)

Brian Eno
John Peel Lecture
BBC Radio 6 (2015)


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