Why We Need Ecological Design

“Too much attention to the wrong detail….” (M.E.Smith)

“Many people react to arguments against growth-based economics with horror; getting the message across that the current system of endless consumption and economic growth will cease is not going to be easy.” (Mandy Meikle)

Moving from the fringes of design to the mainstream we find ourselves immersed in the flow of greenwash and lobbying from commercial or governmental vested interests. Meanwhile the rise of new superpowers sees Europe increasingly marginalised, reducing our leverage in the world of ideas as we become economic migrants or service suppliers in the energy, leisure and construction industries.

To engage in such projects requires compromise, and to do this with any integrity we must maintain an understanding of our role in the processes involved and how much or how little influence we have over them. At best this can lead to the honing of ideas in the face of financial and physical constraints; at worst it is dumbing down while still paying lip service to the green agenda.

The alternative for the ecological designer might be to stand back from all this, but by standing aloof we risk isolation and limiting our engagement to new eco-elites – intellectually gated communities of interest – and to making prototypes and exemplars which become noted more for their own prestige rather than for any potential wider application.

These concerns apply not only to those whom we normally think of as designers – architects, engineers, product designers, gardeners – but also to politicians, academics, administrators, agronomists, economists and business entrepreneurs involved in decisions affecting how society is organised and how we leave our mark on the physical world.

What then, should be our priorities as ecological designers?

The “non-modern” world was mentioned in the last SEDA Magazine: there is much traditional knowledge which has in the past been overlooked or crudely exploited for short term gain. But its appeal is in part a reaction to corrupt science – and we also need to connect with honest science in a truly modern, enlightened and sceptical way. How else will we find out whether a painted timber window is less damaging to the planet than a plastic one? Or how the health hazards from off-gassing plastics compare with the aromatic dioxins and PCBs of a wood fire?

We need to challenge assumptions about risk. Why is business risk-averse when it comes to embracing ecologically based innovation, but quite the opposite when it comes to addressing risks which threaten the planet and everyone living on it?

We need to connect across cultural and political boundaries in a world of increasing inequalities. We need to address the increasing militarisation and mechanisation of society at the expense of the human and the humane: what has happened to the concepts of peace, fairness or equality?

And perhaps most importantly as designers we need to look at energy availability and the limitations to economic growth when we design for our disparate futures.

It seems to me that it’s not a matter of seeing the elephant in the room – it’s deciding which one to look at!

Paul Barham, Barham Glen Architects 10/11/2011

Fist published in the SEDA (Scottish Ecological Design Association) Magazine

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