A 21st Century

Roughly Where We
Stand Now

‘The magical thinking of the mind fails, more often than not, when it tries to move beyond the immaterial and affect the material world’.

John Higgs
For any new movement to be successful, first it will need to demonstrate that it is not fundamentally at odds with the existing world. This is perhaps why, so far, the Sustainable Movement has failed to reach a convincing tipping point of gathering momentum. Our tendency over this last century has been to gravitate to changes which make systems cheaper, easier or more efficient than what has come before (ironically even when they prove to make only a few individuals richer). A new movement running against the grain, suggesting the addition of extra layers of complexity to our daily choices, has been a much harder sell.

One dilemma with moving towards more sustainable methods of living is that this requires revolutions to all the essential systems by which we live. Things like energy, industry, transport, commodities, economics and logistics all need to change at the same time. But which of these comes first when they are all interconnected and moving with each other?

So instead, the dichotomies keep piling on top of the dichotomies. How is it possible to live or work to sustainable processes within a capitalist system? How will anything work with the rise of automation and a robot workforce? How does design perform socially under fundamentally antisocial conditions? These are all fundamentally huge puzzles to solve, especially if the sustainable filter is applied to all of them on top. Changes to any one of these systems is hard; changing them all at the same time would take nothing short of a miracle. The task, instead, must become how we redesign within them.

In 1919 Walter Gropius wrote: ‘Today’s artist lives in an era of dissolution without guidance. He stands alone. The old forms are in ruins, the benumbed world is shaken up, the old human spirit is invalidated and in flux towards a new form. We float in space and cannot perceive the new order.’1 Exactly one century later, here we are, practically back here again. Neoliberalist capitalism is still working for the 1%, whilst, by and large, the climate is still working for most people. In the near future, we face the entirely unexplored possibility of the climate only working for the inordinately wealthy minority too.

According to Mark Goldring, chief executive of Oxfam, ‘eight men own more than 3.6 billion people do.’2 Our system of economics isn’t just in bad shape, it’s completely broken. Those using the most resources also hold the most wealth. A hundred companies in the world are responsible for an astonishing 71% of carbon emissions. 3 One of the significant root causes of global warming is effectively corralled in protection by its own wealth. Meanwhile all the cash that could help us transition more quickly, is effectively locked away and out of reach.

So strong is this system’s grip that philosopher and political theorist Fredric Jameson observed: ‘It seems easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the Earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; and perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imagination.’4 How do you break late capitalism’s spell?

Back in 1960 George D. Culler helpfully noted: ‘The present dilemma of the corporation is that its need for order and system tends to inhibit its capacity to make decisions involving change. The future of the designer will depend on how well management can solve the problem of corporate adaptation, of finding a way … to achieve innovation within order, freedom within useful discipline.’5

This is an important observation about how the number of people working together can affect their ability to make decisions and adapt quickly. Throughout the 20th century corporations generally got bigger rather than smaller, some swallowed whole by much larger conglomerates. Each organisation’s ability to innovate was effectively squashed by the ever-growing weight of the boardroom above. Only advances in technology that have enabled lighter and more agile styles of structure to form, have brought fresh thinking back to the mix.

As well as management saturation, another detail dogging us at the start of this new digital age has been the complete and overwhelming information saturation that we face on a daily basis. Through this mist, our own cultural imagination has been slowly drowning. The sheer volume of options available to us, by which we can travel with our minds and imagination, has become altogether stifling.

The historian Norman Stone once observed: ‘There is a mysterious process in the defeat of any army – the point at which the men give up hope.’6 Forces of pessimism and apathy can be disabling to the point of collectively freezing action, particularly if the ‘human spirit becomes invalidated’, as Gropius once described. Freezing someone’s spirit is effectively the same as hitting their ‘off’ button. Zombie apocalypses aren’t necessarily a result of viral infection. Perhaps down here in reality they are the result of much more subtler afflictions of the human spirit, or even information overload.

Institutions, organisations, movements, communities, societies and even whole civilisations through history have failed for a multitude of complex reasons. But to boil it all down to one simple explanation, systems tend to fail and then collapse when enough people fall asleep on the job at the same time (alternatively phrased as collective delegation to a higher level). Sometimes just one person’s eyelids losing their battle with gravity can bring significant harm to what would otherwise be considered an impervious structure (as the plot of many a heist movie would prove through the peaceful snoozing of a security guard). If a significant enough proportion of the same generation does so, then all bets are off as to what happens next.

The resurgence of voices on the right, the growing aggression displayed within many a Twitter feed or comments stream – trends like this perhaps serve as a pertinent wake-up call to
the kinder sides of humanity.

A hundred years ago, the Bauhaus school signalled a return to the crafts. A similar trend has grown over the last two decades, by which people have not so much rejected new digital tools, but harnessed them to promote more meaningful activities and occupations. Engaging the inner energy which exists somewhere between our hands, eyes, mind and heart. From a new appreciation of mindfulness or meditation, to a resurgence in the use of fresh ingredients and simple home-cooked food. Yoga and Pilates studios worldwide are alive with the shapes of the cobra and downward dog. And even within the traditionally commercial worlds of fashion and product, young designers are busy rejecting more impactful materials in favour of less harmful alternatives.

These are of course baby steps in the grand scheme of things. But perhaps if we were able to zoom out far enough in time, we would see trends like this less as a cultural or urban stereotype and more as an entire stratum of society returning not just to craft, but to simpler, sounder, kinder, more thoughtful principles too. Partly, maybe, as a form of resting and retraining for the future – like Rocky Balboa lifting rocks and chopping wood somewhere deep in Siberia before his next fight with Ivan Drago. This return back to basics could well be humanity’s way of recalibrating before the next great flurry of activity.

Waves build their momentum in mysterious ways. For those standing on the shore, it’s almost impossible to see how the invisible energy builds into something tangible on the surface. But don’t forget at least some of the activity is taking place at much deeper levels, closer to the ocean floor. As we’ve learnt over the last decade from events such as Tahrir Square and the Occupy movement, it is impossible to replace any fully functioning system without first providing a fully functioning alternative. It also helps if the replacement proves to be more welcoming, cheaper, and promises continued security and prosperity.

In 1932 the painter Paul Nash wrote: ‘Whether it is possible to ‘Go Modern’ and still ‘Be British’ is a question vexing quite a few people today.’7 Likewise the question of whether it is possible to lead a sustainable life and still retain the living standards and luxuries to which we have become accustomed has been troubling many people since the environmental movement first began in the 1970’s.

Modernism, rightly or wrongly, only really gained momentum as a movement once artistic opinion accepted the idea that the new techniques of mass production were reconcilable with the notions of the individual artistic spirit. Likewise, whilst still detaching ourselves from the tentacles of the 20th century, we will need to witness a similar compromise where the spirit of intense individualism fostered by the consumer capitalist age, will somehow need to simultaneously embrace the divergent idea that everything is also connected; that only by being more mindful, caring and thoughtful towards all the systems with which we interconnect, will we also stand a chance of looking after ourselves better as individuals.

In February 1909, the first Futurist manifesto launched an art movement that rejected the past and celebrated speed, machinery and industry. Today a manifesto that is equally relevant to our present circumstances will first need to accept that many aspects of our past should not necessarily be sources of pride. In September 2015, the Leap manifesto published in Canada takes greater responsibility for mistakes made within the country’s colonial history and also recognises a much deeper and more intimate relationship between humankind and nature. Its motto, ‘A Call for a Canada Based on Caring for the Earth and One Another’, is very much an outcome of this new exploration of the meaning and mindfulness that comes from deep within.

Perhaps this platform in Canada might never have been so widely embraced had it not been for the ‘lost decade’, commonly known as climate policy during the Harper era. This period had one net-positive effect, in that he single-handedly built a nation of resistance. ‘Now is the time for boldness,’ ends the manifesto;8 the era of pessimism must come to an end. The challenges facing us might be huge, but the rewards for confronting them head-on are even bigger.

With the ending of any century, there is usually some latency before the events that came to define it finally lose their grip on the next. Likewise, there is usually a delay before the cultural movements that come to define the next century slowly find their feet. For example, the historian Norman Stone marks 1916 as the year when the world of 19th century Europe died – an appropriate symbol of this being the death of Franz Joseph, the old emperor of Austria.

If one of the most accepted units of measurement in human history is this hundred-year cycle – which we commonly refer to as the century. Then perhaps it is important to recognise that the direction of this 21st century is already being set by the actions, events and decisions taking place right now. In an age where the boundaries between art and life are blurring, then we should note that one of the very first processes to any new production involves ‘setting the stage.’ It is crucial to be brave and bold right from the beginning, for this next decade (the next five years in particular) will be pivotal to how all the subsequent events of this century play out.

Next ︎
Interlude —

Credits & Notes

Walter Gropius
Yes! Votes for the World Council for Art in Berlin (1919) cited by Christoper Wilk, Modernism: Designing a New World
V&A Publishing (2006)

Mark Goldring
‘Eight men own more than 3.6 billion people do: Our economics is broken’
The Guardian
(16 Jan 2017)

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

Frederik Jameson
The Cultural Turn
Verso Books

George D Culler (1960)
Quoted by IDEO Instagram feed
(28 Jun 2017)

Norman Stone
World War One – A Short History, Penguin Books (2008)

Paul Nash
‘Going Modern and Being British’, Weekend Review
(12 Mar 1932)

The Leap Manifesto
A Call for a Canada Based on Caring for the Earth and One Another


To purchase your own exclusive copy of the book, or a limited run A3 / A2 poster.

Head over to the shop ︎︎︎