A 21st Century

Where Do We Go
from Here?

‘We know how to do many things,
but do we know WHAT to do?’

E.F. Schumacher
Illustration – Re-Everything I & II
Finally a cultural movement to embrace the efforts of every woman, man and child. Everyone gets to be an active participant. But what exactly should we do? And where can we as individuals add the most value? The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset begins to answer the question this way: ‘We cannot live on the human level without ideas. Upon them depends what we do. Living is nothing more or less than doing one thing instead of another.’1

If you are a person of science, engineering, design, law or economics (and so on), you are blessed with valuable skills that can guide a more sustainable future for everyone. If you're already working in this territory, then you can choose to empower others by sharing your knowledge and experiences, or by making the language and tools of your craft more accessible. For the rest of us it becomes much harder to identify where we can most effectively contribute. Here the writer Martin Lukacs helpfully observes: ‘Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals.’ Instead, he tells us to stop obsessing with how personally green we live our lives, and start ‘collectively taking on corporate power.’2

One choice available to us all is to rebel. This is exactly what the organisation Extinction Rebellion (XR) would like you to do. The surge in peaceful acts of civil disobedience across the UK, which has since spread to over 30 countries (and counting) worldwide, vividly demonstrates that this form of peaceful direct action really does embrace the active participation of everyone, regardless of their age. From grandparents to children and teachers to their pupils, they all took to the streets in the spring of 2019, despite the very real risk they could end their day in police custody.

The ‘disruption’ approach references the achievements of past civil rights movements from the Chartists to the Suffragettes, and the work of inspirational leaders such as Martin Luther King. This new wave of activism is deeply encouraging because there is finally the tangibility of a ‘Green New Deal’ to mobilise around. Public opinion has been quick to celebrate this loud wave of direct action, understanding that mass civil disobedience might be essential to force a political response.3 Consistent forms of organised mass protest, mixed with sometimes highly inventive performance art, after all does effectively demonstrate to the politicians and corporations, that the overarching will for change is there.

At the beginning of May 2019, the UK Parliament became the first to pass a motion declaring a ‘climate emergency.’ Whilst deeply encouraging, this vote remains (at the time of writing) crucially non-binding. Revealing one consistent flaw at the heart of the ‘protest option’, where many of the middle steps that lead to plans becoming reality remain somewhat missing. Galvanising support around a Green New Deal should not be confused with the much more complicated challenge of finding a clear path towards its implementation – a task that involves both removing obstacles and bridging gaps. Any ‘new deal’ finally putting the interests of the planet centre stage will first need to stand up to scrutiny. The media too, will need to grow up to the point where it can responsibly foster honest and meaningful debate.

During the launch of the Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN) in London on the 1st of October, 2019, one of the founders pointed out that the real beauty of XR is that they give people the activation ideas and tools required to take back to their own industry or profession. This is where activism will really inform change – not through protest, but only when it is linked together in a nuanced network of passionate people actively bringing about change from the inside of their own specialism. On a rainy autumn evening, up on the second floor of a small but packed pub in northeast London, this is exactly what was demonstrated by the breadth of skills brimming from both the speakers and the crowd – with representatives present not just from the world of architecture, but also the construction industry, teaching institutions, designers and artists too.

So only the multidimensional approach of a broad cross-sectional movement will be robust enough to ensure the building of a more sustainable long-term vision. As we’ve previously identified, the connections between our choices and actions become as important as the choices and actions themselves. One aspect to this puzzle includes growing strong, deeply connected roots between a whole host of complementary movements and organised groups.

Last century, visionaries such as van Doesburg and Gropius ultimately helped define the Modern Movement by consciously avoiding the political debate in favour of making and sharing the tangible results of their activity instead. Their dreams of an alternative future were too big to risk the distraction of being sucked into politics. Sidestepping the option of peaceful confrontation, they chose the progressive path of creative action instead. Through the very things they made, they didn’t just spread their passion – they equally spread the essential knowledge of how to make.

The role of the designer as a ‘coordinator’ for more sustainable forms of enterprise has already taken much of our focus, so perhaps it’s time to talk about the role of the consumer as the new ‘director.’ This works if you think of consumers not so much as individuals, but as a group pooling their shared values, and making more informed choices together as one. Embracing the idea of the power of the ‘scenius’ – or the talent and actions of a whole community that is actively generating.

If capitalism has taught us to do one thing well, it is how to make carefully considered choices about the things we buy.Perhaps the next valuable shift in our behaviour would be to simply change the parameters by which we make our choices. Here we end the search for where we can add the most value, by changing instead where we perceive there to be the most value. Picture this pivotal collective, and yourself within it, as a powerful generator of change. For in a market-driven economy, it is the accumulation of your own daily purchases that could actually steer us in a more sustainable long-term direction.

Just before the turn of the millennium, in the very top left corner of the sleepy Pacific Northwest, and with an estimated $250,000 boost from his parents, Jeff Bezos gave birth to a small online bookstore called Amazon.4 Just 20 years later, online shopping has come to dominate the global marketplace and unleashed seismic changes to the way goods are produced, marketed and sold. We’re now approaching a new transition towards what some people call a ‘demand-driven value network.’

Within this new purchasing model, it is our daily consumer choices that will increasingly affect how quickly market services adapt – for example, changing one’s energy supplier to a renewable alternative, or moving one’s investments and pensions to a socially responsible option with a lighter carbon footprint. These rank as small gestures in singularity, but when acted out en masse, they have considerable impact on accelerating which products the financial service markets push more of in the future.

Financial divestment away from fossil fuels is catching on to the extent that much larger organisations have begun to follow the example that we once started as individuals. In 2018 New York City decided to divest $189bn in pension funds, and soon after the mayor Sadiq Khan announced London would follow suit. So far trillions of dollars of investments have already been taken out of carbon-intensive companies. Such is the growing pace of divestment, that Shell announced recently the trend should be considered a ‘material risk’ to its business.5

Continuing this theme of accumulative choices. Tony Davidson, creative partner at the London advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy, once made a bold prediction when he said: ‘The brands which survive this century will be the ones that society wants to exist.’6 Less than 20 years into this new century, and we can clearly see a window of opportunity opening for this projection to fully come to life.

Richie Siegel, consumer economy analyst and founder of Loose Threads, explores this territory (where the fashion industry meets technology and commerce). Summing up neatly the dilemma that today’s consumer-facing brands are confronting, he confirms: ‘Today, no single person can ensure the fate of a brand.’7 How a brand is perceived is no longer in the full control of the traditional brand masters. Instead, it is the customers themselves who have become ‘brand guardians.’ Essentially, how they talk about the brand matters more than how the brand talks about itself.

This shift in favour of consumers as the collective driver of the bus is perhaps illustrated best by the collapse of the 20th-century ‘supply-driven world’, in favour of a 21st-century model that sees production instead ‘driven by demand.’ With the release of each new season going forwards, it will increasingly be the shared choices of consumers that affect what gets made, how it gets made, where it gets made, and how it is transported to market. Heightened transparency in all areas of the supply chain will only further emphasise the leverage of these choices, and accelerate the speed by which the most polluting practices behind the shiny labels are cleaned up.

Siegel himself describes best the differences between the processes of the late 20th-century fashion industry to those we are just beginning to discover:

‘The feedback loop was slow, which would repeat only every season. This often created a monologue between brands and shoppers ... the former would do most of the talking and shoppers were expected to listen … The retail store used to have a monopoly on discovery, but the internet and Instagram have relentlessly challenged the conventional wisdom … The industry used to think about a shopper as the ending. Today, a shopper is the beginning. The feedback loop that often took nine months to get a shopper’s opinion on a design collapsed to weeks, if not days or minutes … Thriving in this world required two related changes: 1. Brands have to move more quickly, and... 2. Be more decentralised than ever before.’8

The fashion industry has long been touted as the second most polluting industry after oil. The power of the shopper, therefore to act as the catalyst for how this industry acts more responsibly, is yet to reach full potential. Importantly for brands, adding greater transparency to their processes is one way they can give ‘value’ back to their customers. This is a healthy sign that the brand-customer relationship is becoming more sophisticated, and that brands are open to taking the relationship to a more meaningful level – transparency to an organisation’s supply chain becomes no longer a choice, but a responsibility.

Here the style of relationships we assume with brands in the future drifts closer to the way our friendship networks already work. This stands to be of benefit, because in relationships of mutual respect, all parties tend to validate and elevate each other. This is a continuation of the levelling of the playing field that comes with the community being more in control.

The bigger problem which remains, will be the transparency of the umbrella corporations that sit behind the consumer-facing brands. How do we tame and get to know the truth behind their alter-egos? History has demonstrated that a powerful motivation isn’t necessarily always one of ethics, but will always be informed by economics. Here the risk of losing ‘custom’ from the bottom up, holds the ability to work around the back and inform wiser choices at the top. Transparency tools that make us more aware of who owns who, and which celebrate the efforts of those breaking away from outdated behaviours, will only help to spotlight the shady characters.

Today there is no such thing as a refund on air quality or erratic weather. So if you want to see changes to how your money is spent, then it should come as no surprise that you have to work with the brands spending it. In the longer term this involves a fundamental shift away from the corporation towards much greater cooperation. In the short term, shoppers who once held accounts with their favourite brands, now have the power to also hold them to account.

There is no more compelling evidence of these paradigm shifts than the rise of the ‘prosumer’ within the energy industry. People all over the world are no longer just consuming energy, and sometimes they aren’t just generating it themselves, they’re also generating much more than they can consume. Up until recently, the energy industry’s one-way energy flow remained fundamentally unaltered since the age of Edison 100 years ago.9 Whilst today, homes, businesses, schools and factories are producing, energy flows have become two-way,
a partnership, or even a meaningful conversation.

To help illustrate how best we can all make a difference. There is perhaps no better historical example of this transformation than the complete osmosis of the music scene during the UK heatwave of 1989 – a summer so hot it wilted all the flowers at the Chelsea flower show. The writer John Higgs brings to life the spirit of this summer perfectly: ‘You only had to look at the crowd to see why rave was different. At rock concerts... every member of the crowd faced in the same direction. The focus and attention of the entire audience was directed at the stage, where it glorified the musicians who performed there... Compare that to the early orbital raves of the late 1980s, when first thousands and then tens of thousands of kids found their way to outdoor dance parties on the outskirts of London. The crowd point in any direction they damn well please... Instead, the crowd’s focus is turned into itself… The crowd are generating, rather than observing.’ The result is that they were not elevating the artist, ‘they were elevating themselves.’10

Illustration – Re-Everything III & IV

Next ︎
Chapter 20 —
The Role of the Arts

Credits & Notes

Ortega y Gasset
quoted by  E.F. Schumacher
Small Is Beautiful
Vintage Books (2011)

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

George Monbiot
‘Only rebellion will prevent an ecological apocalypse’
The Guardian (15 Apr 2019)

Avery Hartmans
‘Jeff Bezos’ parents invested..’
Business Insider (31 Jul 2018)

Bill McKibben
‘At last, divestment is hitting the fossil fuel industry where it hurts’
The Guardian (16 Dec 2018)

Tony Davidson
Executive Creative Director
Wieden + Kennedy London

7 – 8
Richie Siegel
‘Mickey Drexler and the death of a supply-driven world’, Loose Threads (The Archive), loosethreads.com

Simon Mouat
‘A New Paradigm for Utilities: The Rise of the Prosumer’
Schnieder Electric Blog
blog.se.com (Nov  2016)

John Higgs
The KLF: Chaos, magic and the band who burned a million pounds
Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2012)


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