Thursday, 5 February 2009

The Language of Things

PJ and I had a disagreement while I was reading Outliers. When I told him what it was about he asked what Gladwell had to say about the environment. I told him it was a study in sociology and cultural anthropology not an eco book.

PJ thinks it's too late in history for writers to use up resources publishing books that aren't ecologically conscientious, either by subject or in material. I can definitely see what he's saying though I disagree when it comes to knowledge, but wholeheartedly agree when it comes to things like junk made from plastic and multi-million dollar blockbuster movies that endorse violence and the role of women as love interests only.

But now I see that PJ has a point.

I have just finished reading Deyan Sudjic's The Language of Things, given to me for my birthday by my dear friend, E. As the cover suggests, it is about objects and the things we consume and surround ourselves with. It was published in 2008 in the UK, where Sudjic lives and works as the Director of the Design Museum, London.

Now, can you imagine a book about design and consumerables published only last year that does not mention eco-design, sustainability or waste?

That's not entirely true. There is one mention, on page 14, in relation to Apple products:
Earnest Elmo Calkins coined the term 'consumer engineering'. In Consumer Engineering: A New Technique for Prosperity, published in 1932, he suggests that 'Goods fall into two classes: those which we use, such as motor cars, and safety razors, and those which we use up, such as toothpaste, or soda biscuits. Consumer engineering must see to it that we use up the kind of goods we now merely use.' Apple has made it happen, just at the moment that the world is beginning to understand that there are limits to its natural resources. It has given the relentless cycle of consumption a fashionable gloss, cynically endorsed by hipsters in black jeans and black T-shirts, rather than corporate suits.
And that's it. In the book's 223 pages only 116 words are dedicated to ecological purposes. What a wasted opportunity and what a waste of materials. Sudjic points the finger at Apple for producing products that use non-renewable resources, but he has done the same thing by printing his book on chlorine-bleached, non-recycled paper from non-sustainable forests.

I guess I would forgive Sudjic's environmental oversight, as I have Gladwell's, if I thought the book was worth it. But I don't. I found it stale. So why did I finish reading it? In one sense I felt like I should read it, not just because the book was a gift and came recommended, but because I thought it would be good for me, like I feel in museums reading the wall label next to each old artefact.

All those pages and all those words surrounding me like objects in a stuffy old design museum. I'm with Will, the narrator in Dave Eggers's You Shall Know Our Velocity who says he would rather give things away than endure "the slow suffocation of accumulation".


Anonymous said...

Where SHOULD writing end up that has no ecological premise? The book advertised on his blog, is that purely of an ecological nature? Writing to some degree is self centered and if it's anything like his blog, it'll contain bits of himself (putting aside the enviro). Publishing is such an obvious venting of ideas, frustrations, exhalations, but I agree that using more paper in publishing is bad news. Does he think that a blog IS the only answer for publishing material? How about all the other uses for books and knowledge (I'm with you on this one)..elderly who cannot use computers, children, people in remote areas (to whom he should be thanking for their 'ancient chick peas'). If he cares so much about the environment, why sell his own book online when he could just put it online, 'free' for all to read. Ah, that's better.

Meg said...

If PJ had it his way he would give everything he owns away, including both his books. Unfortunately for him he lives with me and although I am not an extreme materialist by any means, I am aware that we have a mortgage and need to pay the bills by working and sometimes asking people to pay for the things we create.

It sounds to me as though you are taking what PJ writes on his blog to heart. He doesn't think he has all the answers. He is just some guy doing his best and wanting to make changes in the world around him. Just like Dr Ken Street searching the globe for ancient chickpeas. I guess someone like you might ask: If Street cares so much about the environment, why does he fly all over the world in his quest? That is your prerogative to ask such questions.

As for whether or not PJ feels that a blog is the only answer for publishing material, I don't know, but for me, it is the perfect medium to voice my hopes and vulnerabilities, and my excitement that I live with an honourable man like PJ who dares to dream big and make bold, challenging statements about a world that is slowly dying.

ToneMasterTone said...

Have you read about the great successes of the Acid Rain auction in the USA?

I'm not sure if that's the official name of what happened, but it was written about in the Undercover Economist.

Basically, acid rain was a problem in the USA, so they wanted to start getting rid of the toxins that companies were releasing into the atmosphere. In order to do this most effectively, the government applied an economic theory to this problem and set up an auction whereby companies bid on how much money they were willing to pay in order to release toxins; the more companies wanted to release toxins, the more they would have to pay to do so, which in turn made it more favourable for companies to improve techniques and get rid of toxin-releasing technology.

That was the theory, anyway. What was significant is that the theory worked and worked beautifully, so much so that acid rain problems were eradicated in quick time and cheaply.

My point: that was the application of economic theory and it ended up having a great ecological use.

So if you limit enquiry only to ecological matters, how do you know you're missing out on the next theory that can be put to ecological use?

ms. delisha said...

"the perfect medium to voice my hopes and vulnerabilities, and my excitement that I live with an honourable man like PJ who dares to dream big and make bold, challenging statements about a world that is slowly dying."
- Well said, LOM.

I see where PJ is coming from, and I hear the desperation in the plea that we should all be aimed and focused on the one thing - you know, that survival thing.

Perhaps these semantics are a symptom of ostrich-ism - planting one's head squarely in the sand while calling someone else a hypocrite for looking bravely at what's headed straight for all of us.

Meg said...

But ToneMasterTone, the application of that economic theory didn't just 'end up' having a great ecological use, it had it ingrained into its initial purpose, didn't it?

ToneMasterTone said...

The economic theory was developed in isolation as part of economics. It was only later that it was figured that the economic theory had a practical use for a particular problem relating to acid rain in the USA.

It's like mathematics. Developments in mathematics are purely theoretical advances until someone finds a use for them.

There's also the related problem of stifling creativity. Being solely concerned on one thing means you're not allowing yourself to daydream, not allowing yourself to view things in new lights just based on thinking in other endeavours.

One of my favourite examples of this concerns Copernicus. Copernicus read some Plato where it was conjectured that the sun was the centre of the universe based on some very dodgy reasoning about light being the highest good and needing to impart itself as widely as possible. This was just philosophical mumbo-jumbo, but it was what inspired Copernicus to work from a heliocentric model of the solar system that, lo and behold, tracked the movements of the stars in a more elegant and satisfactory way.

The Garden of Self Defence said...

i'm definitely one for making and thinking useless things and reading other's (i'm currently enjoying David Graeber's 'Possibilities'); things that are not wholly involved in the fundamentals that support us - food, shelter, air, water, etc... but we're at a point in time where we can see the front line of runaway climate change. so this changes things for me.

my argument is that we have ignored the ecologies that support us and placed far too much emphasis on mediated distractions. this is nothing particularly new. i'm just as guilty as the next, but perhaps the major difference between us TMT is that i hate capitalism and its corollaries, and am working on strategies to live a post-capitalist existence, (which is fuckin' difficult).