June 20, 2007

Ideas of the EGGheads

eggdinner.jpgExtreme Green Guerrillas (via www.we-make-money-not-art.com) is Michiko Nitta's graduation project at RCA. She takes extreme green lifestyle to the extreme, inventing the “Extreme Green Guerillas” (E.G.G.): "They are a network of amateur self-sustaining people who have shortened their lifespan to sustain the ultimate green lifestyle. Whilst going to extreme lengths to protect the environment, they try to enjoy a decadent quality of life by utilizing urban waste and biosystem. This consists of embracing emerging technology to develop the ultimate green solution."

This involves using RFID marked migratory animals for messaging (since it would be bad to play into the hands of the corporations running normal networks), giving up on healthy or fairtrade food (since it has to be transported) in favor of locally produced food and genetically modified urban vermin like the Piguail Pigeon-Quail hybrid and the Rattit rat-rabbit hybrid. And at 20 they get an earring that will euthanize them painlessly at 40.

It is a nicely researched and designed piece, which neither seems to be satire over green extremism nor buying into it. Rather, it shows that radical solutions are possible if somebody just wants to do them. At the same time the EGGs give the impression that they have also become a kind of parasitic urban vermin, dependent on the infrastructure they claim to work against.

A sea of glassThe report on recycling in The Economist June 11 instead shows another approach. Thanks to emerging single stream recycling it is becoming increasingly simple to do: rather than laboriously separating all substances in the home (with varying correctness) and taking up excessive space on the sidewalk the separation can increasingly be done at the processing plant. This improves recycling rates, saves time and money, and achieves the vision expressed by Bruce Sterling: "Make the things do the Green thinking". Because if you have to rely on people doing it, they will only do it when they are filled with ideology or it profits them directly.

This is the exact opposite of the recycling being promoted in Sweden and Britain, where ideology seems to be dominating over all other concerns. Back where I lived in Stockholm they introduced a new system with great fanfare a few years back. The old trash chutes were modified by the addition of a plastic partition wall to only accept newspaper (right) or paper (left). Kitchen waste should go into the new pneumatic chute on the bottom floor. Everything else (glass, plastics) should go to the boxes on the street, except for those things that should go the the "environment cottage" on the yard. A proud banner with a grand sunrise (or was it a sunset?) proclaimed: "Recycling: for your childrens' and their children's childrens' future!" That my grandchildren apparently did not get any future might be a first sign of the problems of the project.

A leaflet arrived, explaining it all in very simple Swedish. Heavily ideologically biased, it protrayed the sceptical voice that asked questions as a curmudgeonly plastic bag. That the area had many people who might not understand Swedish well enough did not deter the organisers, you could order more leaflets in translation for your family. That the oversimplified explanations did not fully explain how everything was supposed to work was however ignored (this is a trend I found recently on the Oxford Council website, where the new recycling and waste disposal system is so educational and colorful that nobody can figure out whether they can throw away their kitchen waste tomorrow or not). Mistakes were made (kitchen waste in the paper chute!) and the other side of the project showed up: angry, threatening signs.

Recycling nirvanaThe streetside collectors tended to overflow, attracting rats and posing a real fire hazard. The plastic separator of the chute system of suffered damage because bundles of newspapers of course fell along it 14 storeys, mixing up the paper types. The pneumatic chute only worked with the neatly biodegradable paper bags delivered by the project, not the "ecofriendly" paper bags from the store. The mess in the environmental cottage first led to its temporary closure, and when enough junk had begun to pile up around it, to hiring a man to guard it during very restricted opening hours. If your television set imploded you better store it at home until next thursday (of course, people still just put the junk around the cottage. At least it made the playground far more interesting!)

The fault of the project was the ideological drive. The landlord, the council, environmental and educational organisations all tried to do the right thing. But if the people who are supposed to live in a green way are not enthusiastic or involved in the design process it will not work. Anything that forces people to change their habits or expend extra time, money or energy will fail unless it is rigidly enforced (which is how recycling is often handled - including measures such as spy cameras recording "criminals" that make mistakes in what goes where or ex-police "trash spies" that monitor the recycling) or people are as ideological as the EGGs. But the majority will never be that radical, and hence green solutions have to be convenient. Single stream recycling does not require the dedication of the EGGs, yet it provides a major environmental benefit.

There are likely many other "unbelievable" solutions to environmental problems. It is interesting to see how quickly the idea of carbon sequestration has gone from laughable to seriously considered - even if it never works out it shows how easy an environmental debate can get locked into a standard solution set (and where are the well-funded studies of how to adapt societies to climate change? Again, something which ought to be an obvious response has largely been ignored). Genetically modified organisms, whether for fuel production, manufacture or safety could fulfill a host of very green purposes - but they will of course have to overcome a compact ideological resistance that is likely more based on values than any rational facts. Movements like the Viridian Design Movement seem to be open to many interesting possibilities (which immediately leads to the questions what possibilities they don't recognize), and hopefully they will convince the rest of the environmental establishment that design works better than EGG earrings and trash spies.

Posted by Anders3 at June 20, 2007 10:51 PM