Lately my preoccupation with Donald Trump’s potential impeachment has been eclipsed by a far more worthy obsession, Greta Thunberg. In truth, it’s not so much the girl, but the message she’s promoting worldwide. Finally, it’s becoming impossible to ignore global protests around climate change, and cries from my own industry about the needless production of new stuff when we don’t even know what to do with the old stuff.
What’s irrefutable is that things are broken. What we yet don’t know is how to fix it. Working in design, where our very raison d’être is fuelled by the acceleration of fresh ideas and the innovation of new things, there has been an interesting response to the problem of the earth’s demise.
According to scientists, we have entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene era. Not because we were due to transition into a new geological era of the earth’s evolution but because we’ve forced it. We’ve wiped out plant and animal species, filled the oceans full of McDonalds wrappers and jinxed our atmosphere beyond repair. Human impact has now become the dominant force on the planet.
While some voices have used the Extinction Rebellion movement cynically, as a platform to criticise the industry that has fed their careers, others in the design community are taking the opportunity to employ their skills for change. Rather than focussing on making yet another sleek, contemporary piece of occasional furniture, some are starting to evaluate their choices, determine a new value system and innovate for a better future.
Against the grindingly tedious news cycle, perpetually documenting our impending doom, this approach feels pleasantly optimistic. More importantly, it’s incentivising designers to explore how technology can provide a life support system for the planet.
This year, the Better Nature exhibition curated by Alexandra Ginsberg at the Vitra Design Museum housed a series of concepts as a response to the Anthropocene. One of these concepts, Designing for the Sixth Extinction, predicted a future where synthetically created species would exist to support the regeneration of endangered ones. The idea being to create biological diversity that would help life on earth to thrive. It’s the stuff of sci-fi; where slug-like creatures neutralise toxicity and self-replicating organisms trap airborne pollutants. Much like the Star Trek tech that was subsequently realised by clever scientists, many of these ideas are already being seriously researched.
Aric Chen, the new curator for Design Miami this year, used the same topic as the event’s headline exhibition, exploring how we will use materials in a new geological age where the planet is stuffed full of folk and our resources are dwindling. My favourite was undoubtedly Erez Nevi Pana’s ‘guilt-free’ vegan furniture, made with salt and oil. Edible furniture, you say? Well there may be no accounting for taste, but his Dead Sea salt-covered stools are as covetable as they are kind to Gaia.
Perhaps the most poetic expression of the Anthrocene was presented at this year’s Milan Triennale, by Canadian artist Kelly Jazvac. She displayed chunks of ‘plastiglomerate’ found on a tropical beach in Hawaii. The creepy man-made mineral rocks are as horrifying as they are beautiful; amorphous blobs composed of shells, sand and coloured plastic fused together by beach campfires. These naturally formed art pieces spat back out by the sea, tell the story of an earth permanently scorched by human behaviour. Over and above the uncomfortable aesthetic of these pieces, they are now part of history, documenting a moment of extreme environmental contamination.
Historically, design has always been informed by how we live and what’s going on in the world. It’s been about exercising our egos, building and creating on an industrial scale, and consuming with abandon. Now, as we contemplate the future of the planet, design will need to roll up its sleeves and prepare to be a guiding force in discovering how to save it.