From Iceland — Can We Do This Indefinitely?

Can We Do This Indefinitely?

Published October 6, 2007

Can We Do This Indefinitely?

You are a teacher, and a civil engineer, and an artist, and a designer… How did you come to think about sustainability issues?
I think I came across the term as such for the first time when I was studying at the Royal College of Art in London. We did a project there called, “A journey into sustainable furniture design,” and had a lot of guest lecturers. The one who gave the greatest impression was Edwin Datchefski, he made a workshop with us. At that time I really enjoyed it but never thought much about it before I started teaching a course in packaging design at Lund University. I was given no instructions on how I was supposed to teach it, so I went to study trips with my students; you know, Lund is called the Mecca of packaging, we have a lot of packaging industries there. Once I became familiar with this industry, what struck me most was that we, as consumers, don’t realise its scale. But once you are in a factory, you realise how much material is being used for something seemingly so trivial. And that was the beginning of my interest.

I started to read and I realised that it was not only the packaging industry, but rather the whole pattern of human activities that is affected. In the future, we need to re-learn how to develop products and services with limited natural resources in mind. Today, most natural resources are traded as commodities, if you can pay the price for it, use it or/and process it, and sell the product on the market. The consequences and the bill for the affect on the eco-system are picked up by society.

Many destructive activities, use of ending natural resources or misuse of renewable resources, are sanctioned by nations or international agreements, many times under the blessing of “free trade”. But very few people seem to care that those resources are limited. You begin to understand that most of what we’ve been doing is really destructive. However, what is even more important is that not only are most of the activities destructive per se, they have been expanded to a global scale.

But don’t you think that the solutions you’re suggesting are good enough for the developed Western community, but may not be suited for the developing world? Third-world countries often cannot afford expensive solutions, be it technology or design, and in a way they are forced to pollute…
You know, it has been said that “third-world poverty is a luxury we can no longer afford.” It is true that in these countries people are left with no choice: environmental issues are the last thing one thinks about if you are struggling to feed your family. It’s difficult to tackle this challenge since the distribution of assets on the planet is quite unfair, to say the least. We in “the West” are extremely bad role models, and we are behaving totally irresponsible in that we are selling the new rising nations our old technology.

At your lecture, you spoke about the Internet as the “driving force in the explosion of productivity” in the modern world. Is it a good or an evil from the sustainability standpoint?
Back in history, a written word was a means of any activity’s organisation. You can well imagine that at that time writing systems were used to regulate the division of a harvest, or to transfer messages to people, or to announce upcoming events. You could have passed the information to people; you could have educated them, or enabled them, to make use of those opportunities they had not been aware of otherwise. But simply writing has never been as much influential as the Internet: it’s an extremely powerful means of communication. When used in an efficient way, it can encompass an incredible mass of information.

There is a famous quote from Bill Gates, one of pioneers in this field, who believed that “with the Internet, we would be able to work at home and would not have to travel that much.” However, the development of the Internet has paved the way for low-cost airlines and thus exploded the number of journeys by air; so instead of reducing the amount of travel it increased it. Online shopping generates a lot of extra packaging and thus lots of waste; just think that we are only at the very beginning! On the other hand, email is a good aspect as it saves lots of paper used in the traditional mail. Overall, when you introduce something new, it can be used in different ways; everything has its side effects. History teaches us that when we introduce new technology to solve one problem, it creates 10 new, so its use has to be selective in order to avoid it. I know it’s difficult to reverse the use of a technology, if people have gotten used to it. They will be upset, but it nonetheless needs to be done. But it’s difficult to refuse just like this, almost impossible, I would say. I remember the same thing you’ve said about internal combustion engines, that life can be good without them. However, we are so very dependent on them that if we stop using them overnight the whole economic system will collapse. Would you say it should be a gradual change or a drastic jump from one condition into another?

I would say we need a shift in the working of every planning authority; they play a key role in this development. In the way we plan the society, we determine what kind of transport systems we use. We need to plan densely, and with great variety so that you won’t need to use a car. The necessity of the individual automobile should be reduced, and wise ecological planning could help us here. Most of what has been built since 1930s is rather poor in its quality. Before World War II, they did not plan the cities for the individual automobile as the system of transportation, so now we have to correct it, tear some parts of the cities apart and construct anew.

But what about the architectural value then? The downtowns of many European capitals, like Prague, are masterpieces of architecture and a priceless cultural heritage of mankind. I simply refuse to understand how one can tear this beauty apart.
No, European city centres are fairly well planned. Have you heard about urban sprawl? It is a term for low-dense, poorly planned construction of new buildings around our towns. Big parts of Reykjavík are planned like this. There is no way that you can introduce a cost-efficient public transportation system in this kind of urbanisation. We need to build with high density if we want to cater for good infrastructure and preserve soil. We will need farmland close to cities. We will have to produce food locally. The American author James Howard Kunstler has said that “the age of the three-thousand mile Caesar salad is over.” We need to re-establish regional economic interdependencies, as regional networks have been totally destroyed by hypermarkets and big-scale retail chains. In this time in history, there is no excuse for letting big corporations operate on the simple logic of generating “cash, full stop” determine the fate of the human kind.

So how are you going to make them listen?
I guess it’s about education, everything comes back to it. First, you need to inform people, and then you can only hope that they, based on this information, will start to act. You must then use your power as a citizen, professional, political creature to influence the development. We all have to be prepared to put our vote for someone who we think will create this change, and perhaps not for the simple solutions offered by short-term thinking political opportunists. Unfortunately, most of the politicians today are of this kind.

We want to be optimistic, and this feature sits deep inside the human character. Generally, we should be prepared to stop using destructive technology such as the internal combustion engine, and scale down all of our activities. Afterwards, we need to encourage developing countries not to follow our path and jump over the industrial age based on fossil fuel. This can help scale down the environmental impact dramatically and perhaps save us.

And will it bring us hope?
Let’s hope that we will see the starting point of some intelligent thinking!

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