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Friday, 21 October 2011


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The BMW Guggenheim Lab is a mobile laboratory travelling to nine cites over six years. It will spend a few months in each city exploring issues of contemporary urban live through art, architecture, design, science, technology, education and sustainability. It aims to create new ideas and forward thinking solutions for city life.  The lab has just left New York and I am very sad to see it go, it offered a wealth of free activities and talks for the public (and had a pretty good cafĂ©).

One talk in particular that was very interesting was by JULIET SCHOR, she is author of The New Economics of TRUE WEALTH, has a background in economics but a passionate interest in a sustainable and stable future.

She started the talk by setting the scene. In the last few decades we have seen a large productivity growth- but this has been because technology can do so much now and not because more people are working- in fact less people are working and this has resulted in 99% of wealth ending up in the hands of 1% of the population. Sometime in the 1980s the amount of natural resources that we were using overran the amount of natural resources that can be used without exploiting the planet- and this has continued to increase steadily since then. This combination of worldwide material extraction and reliance on technology has found us in a very unsustainable position. We have become a culture of consumerism, our luxuries are now necessities, this negative consumer model has spiralled way beyond its means. Lets take clothing as an example- we all need clothing but households in the US have taken this to the next level. In 1991 an average of 34 units of apparel were bought per person per year, in 2007 it had increased to 67- this is almost double and at the same time the amount of discarded clothing has also dramatically risen. Second hand clothes have become so cheap that in many cases they are cheaper than food- and clothing is an expensive commodity both in terms of natural and human resources. There is now a disjuncture between the real economic and the financial economic. We are seeing the same pattern in other household commodities; furniture, cell phones, laptops, vacuum cleaner, ovens and other electrical goods. In 1998 14.2 million cell phones were purchased, in 2005 177.2 million were purchased, that is an increase of 1200%. But it is not only in new commodities- the amount of vacuum cleaner has also doubled in just seven years.

After the economic crash views and attitudes in the United States have started to change; people are frightened of spending beyond their mean and are starting to think in terms of “we” rather than “me”, many commodities have gone back to being classed as luxury rather than necessity, people are taking a larger interest in savings and most importantly they have started to realise that a more sustainable future might actually be more sustainable.

She then went on to talk about what connected consumerism is, how it is happening and what positive effects it is having. Connected consumerism is consumerism with a conscience, it is about sharing resources, connecting socially and reducing our impact. Technology has allowed us to develop creative commons like file sharing, blogging, Wikipedia and even eBay to a global audience. Sharing is now easier and it is expanding offline too. Connected consumption is not a new idea but one that was probably the norm up until mass production came into play and people could afford to want their own rather than share or reuse and it has begun to reappeare; exchanging, swapping & sharing commodities, initiatives like swapshop, freecycle, tool libraries, car sharing, bike sharing, land sharing have all become very popular.. The shift back to the “we” rather than the “me” is vital and connected consumerism is enabling this; people are connecting with each other more- they are consuming from each other rather than from large companies so not only is it promoting social connection but it is reducing our ecological effect and is more suitable to our current financial situation.

Is this just a trend? No, because it is economically viable. In a booming economy people work more hours and make more money so people buy more ready made food, get their laundry done and inevitably spend more money. In a recession people work less hours and have less money, logic has it that they will cook more and have time to do more themselves and in turn save money- they have time for connected consumption. So the economics of it make sense and that will keep it growing. People now find themselves with more time and a realisation that they can do something with their “excess capacity” (consumer goods, services, time and space). TimeBank originated in the 1970/1980s, you join and you swap your time for tokens so time becomes the currency of a community (Julieta Aranda + Anton Vidokle). The problem with this is social inequality- is a plumbers hour worth as much as a vegan bakers? Not in the commercial market, so why would a plumber swap his time for a cake? Other things are emerging like where people can bid in exchange for a task.

This is still dependent on manufactured goods, what about producing things for yourself?

We need a movement to change the way we live and to confront the economical powers constricting us. Wall street protests?

What about collaborative consumption, like a bunch of neighbours buying a lawnmower between them rather than all getting one. Or transportation shares. However, they don’t always work out, look at zip cars- they started off great- the plan was to get less people owning cars and more people sharing, now they are offering SUVs- that is not really reducing our footprint is it?

We need to share hours and employment. There is a misdistribution of hours as well as wealth.

But what makes someone well off? Lets think about that term, the term has not changed for a long time but the way we live has changed dramatically. Someone who was once well off was comfortable, they had leisure time, they were healthy and happy, they had security but not necessarily abundance. Not now, most often than not if you are well off you have little time to enjoy it. We have to redefine what wealthy is. Personally it is a balance between social connection/time/stability/health.  Plenitude is the natural state of humanity but we have to requestion what makes us plentiful.

What are the barriers to moving to a new model? Institutional barrier? Cultural barriers? Culture moves with economics, culture moves rapidly. However, you can’t just change a system through social movement, unfortunately you need institutional help to maintain permanent change. Europe has done a lot and is doing a lot more to reduce energy and resource use, their business is miles ahead of the US. That is why a German car company is sponsoring the event.

Food for thought to finish with;
An American child uses the same resources as 30 Mexican children or 50 Indian.

This got me thinking...
As a species we have evolved rapidly in the last 100 years - from survivors to individualistic consumers. For the most part we buy what we need and on an individual basis we produce very little, especially in terms of what we need to survive. Is it time to change? I hope so as all the evidence shows that we cannot sustain the way we are currently operating.

Is THE THREAD PROJECT connected consumption? Yes it is sharing ideas, knowledge and experiences in exchange for ideas, knowledge and experiences! Brilliant – its nice to know we are on the right track…

A very inspirational talk and I can’t wait to write you a book review on her book.

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