D&T8: Alastair Macdonald – Counter Cultures and the Ethics of Design Practice

Alastair Macdonald, Craig Whittet’s predecessor as the head of PDE at the GSA, ran a lecture on Thursday this week concerning the current planetary crisis, and how as designers we might act ethically in an attempt to curb these environmental issues. Alastair spoke of counter-cultures, and how people have been pushing for climate change action since the 60’s. Counter-culture refers to culture that acts as a reaction against mainstream society. Counter-culture is often referred to as hippy, free-thinking, flower power communities. For PDE’ers, as Alastair puts it, it is useful to know some of the designers emerging from this era who also anticipated todays concern for the health and survival of our planet.

An example of this is James Lovelock and his Gaia Hypothesis, who stated in the 60s after working with NASA, that every living and non-living components of the Earth come together to form a ‘self-regulating single organism’. He stated that nature favours organisms that leave the environment in a better shape for their progeny to survive, and that in its current form, civilization has not got long left! 60 years later we have Greta Thunburg and David Attenborough preaching the very same message. I would argue that these two modern opinions are having more of an effect on mainstream behaviour than ever before, but we are still very much losing the battle to save our planet.

Alastair showed us the film, ‘No Impact Man’, which is a documentary following Colin Beavan and his family in New York as they set out on yearlong experiment to live with no negative impact on the planet. The family gradually phased out their customary habits such as fuel powered transport, plastic, non-local foods and even electricity. It was a huge challenge for the family and put a strain on everything they did, but ultimately they got through the year revealing some fascinating insights into a zero impact life. The family started with the ‘easier’ aspects of life to change such as eliminating all waste, changing their diet, and selling their TV. Many of these changes, despite being incredibly difficult at first (Colin’s wife, Michelle, took some convincing to make these changes), eventually started to make considerable social changes to their lifestyle. Michelle started the year with underlying health concerns and had been diagnosed as being prediabetic. After a year of eating no meat and eating only seasonally available food she had no sign of these medical concerns. In their ordinary life watching the TV had become habit, however without it, they learnt to be more ‘in the moment’, resulting in them being better friends and better parents.

The movie made a considerable point of mentioning how the experiment did not go down well with the media, with many painting it as a gimmick. To me this self-awareness solidifies the fact that it was an earnest experiment. After being made aware of the negative feedback, the family were shown to be under a significant amount of moral distress as they toiled with whether the experiment was worth the considerable effort they were contributing toward it. This was especially prevalent during the black-out months of no electrical use.

Toward the end of the documentary Colin said, ‘Why do I have to wait for congress to do something?’ At the end of the program you see the family turn the electricity back on and return to normal, but they hold on to the values that have been installed into them over the yearlong experiment. I believe this is the underlying message of the documentary. Changes will come about not by one family in the middle of New York making zero planetary impacts, but by the greater population starting to appreciate what they can realistically contribute to reducing the effects of climate change, without the constant belief that change will not come about without the government and large corporations making the first steps. The documentary essentially highlights how it is possible to find a way to get what we need in a sustainable way.

As designers, we must be aware of the impact that we have on the planet. There is an ever-growing movement to produce products that are environmentally responsible. The use of plastic is now recognised to be detrimental to the environment, and designers and manufacturers are more conscious to choose sustainable materials and processes. Last year on a PDE trip we visited Hope Tech, a bicycle manufacturer just south of the Yorkshire Dales. Their components are mostly milled metals, so they are very conscious of the waste they produce, and hence recycle 100% of their metal waste. They are just one example of many modern companies who are making considerable changes to their practices. If we are to make any change to the environmental crisis as designers, we need to fully get on board with the mentality shown in the No Impact Man documentary. It may be difficult, but it will be possible to get what we need in a sustainable way.

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