Perspectives on greener product development and manufacturing from Sustainable Minds, our partners, customers and contributors.

The death of global warming: Sustainability 2.0 and design’s dirty little secret

By Scot Herbst on November 3, 2008

Escape with me for a few moments here – let’s play a visualization game. Close your eyes. You’ve inherited the role of Climate-Change Agent Alpha. You’re a relatively affluent consuming American, capable of meeting the fight against carbon emissions head-on. Your typical day looks something like this:

Wake up in the morning; refer to a series of wall-mounted monitors in your home that give you an endless relay of appliance energy consumption. You escape to work in a hybrid vehicle equipped with an unavoidable heads-up display offering a relentless series of digital algorithms to immediately inform your driving power usage. You’re greeted at work by an active-energy savings billboard espousing the minute-by-minute virtues of the power friendly LEED certified building. Throughout your day you refer to a special app on your cell phone that intermittently monitors your homes regenerative solar capacity. And finally, at day’s end, you retire confidently, having seen your ‘smart-home’ monitor flash a graphic depicting your ‘carbon neutrality’ for the day! An endless blitz of data and graphic information injected into your cognition, affording you the tools to continue consuming, eating and breathing in a responsible manner. The assumption could be that given an ambiguous concept like the ‘carbon footprint,’ we need constant reminders of our mission’s grand purpose. Mission accomplished Climate-Change Agent Alpha. You’ve made the world one day better by staving off your footprint… right?

The painful reality is this: your ‘carbon footprint’ isn’t a ‘footprint’ at all. It’s airborne. Intangible. An esoteric concept, blown around with the winds of political opportunism. Politicians literally script environmental treatises from the leather seats of their Lear Jets, in a frenzied effort to simultaneously win voter approval and justify their omnipotent role as ‘great messenger change-agent’ bearing a torch too important to be saddled with the burden of personal accountability. Even the science behind global warming is fuzzy. For every renowned scholar identifying the human causes of the global warming trend, another laureate emerges with an empirical analysis citing that same warming trend since the last ice age 10,000 years ago. Then there’s population growth. GDP. Consumption. It’s not going to slow down. Ideology is no match for economics. Bundle this fundamental reality with campaign rhetoric and add to that a litany of ‘green’ marketing slogans on the sides of boxes and you’ve left with one thing: Green Fatigue.

And through it all, design’s dirty little secret is this: we're still more concerned with sustaining humans on the face of the earth than the earth itself, and most of our efforts go toward mitigating externalities rather than changing fundamentals. As designers and engineers we can effect no greater change than the influence that our creations have on the lives of humans in the supply chain. Go to China; see unventilated buildings filled with men painting computer chassis devoid of a single respirator. Go to India and watch the chrome-plating process in all of its glory, the effluents attacking clean water supplies. Or look domestically; stripping metals from discarded electronics has been deemed too sensitive a process by the EPA, forcing spent printed circuit boards to fill cargo containers on the return trip to the Far East for unregulated human handling.

The design community is fortunate to work with companies and organizations with RoHS (restriction on hazardous substances, as originally defined by the EU) compliance. HP is one of LUNAR’s most devoted allies on the front to reduce the downstream effect of product development, and is now fully RoHS compliant across its portfolio spanning thousands of SKUs. But ultimately, the responsibility falls on each of us as individuals involved in the sourcing process. Effecting an immediate impact on a human-scale should be the primary focus of our sustainability efforts.

For too long politics have hijacked the environmental dialogue in an effort to cram ‘global warming’ down our throats, and as the global economy cools off we’ll have time to formulate a new approach to our collective efforts before the manufacturing machine again heats up to critical mass...get ready for Sustainability 2.0: Human Sustainability.

For a glimpse of the efforts we’re undertaking @ LUNAR, visit http://lunarelements.blogspot.com/ to view the Designer’s Field Guide to Sustainability.

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