As Robert Jasper Grootveld showed in the 1960s, by becoming the anti-smoke magician he took on the fight against smoking and the upcoming addiction to consumption led by advertisement. Not by telling people not to smoke, but actually by admitting that he too was addicted, ridiculing these addictions, contradicting himself and declaring that he was just smoking all surplus cigarettes so others wouldn’t have to. Through acts such as this, he inspired people that society didn’t have to be that way and that they were actually able to make a change. This led to the formation of Provo, an anarchistic collective actively protesting, campaigning, and inspiring people to demand change around Europe.
The most interesting project that the Provo’s managed to put out was the White Bicycle Plan (Het Wittefietsenplan). In order to protest against the upcoming asphalt-terror of the motorized bourgeoisie in Amsterdam at that time, they came up with the white bicycle, a plan to provide the whole city of Amsterdam with white bicycles that were available to anyone. It was supposed to be the collective property of all of those living in the city, freeing them from the terror of the car.
It symbolized the simplicity and hygiene of the bicycle in contrast to the automobile. This is where I think the quality of this project is; everybody could participate and ‘‘protest’’ by using this simple bicycle. The concepts used were familiar for those involved and could easily be shared with others in an understandable way. Too bad the first on was immediately impounded by the police after being released to the public, as it had no owner and was thus ‘‘trash’’. Today, the concept lives on in different pay-to-use services across cities worldwide.
‘In observing a little child, we find it is interested in everything and spontaneously apprehends, comprehends and co-ordinates an ever-expanding inventory of experiences’.* When I was a child, a branch wasn’t just a branch, it was a sword, a gun, and a magical staff all in one. As an adult, we are taught to lose this imaginatio. A branch is just a branch, how dare you imagine it is something else. But this is exactly the imagination we need, to contradict that what we think is true. Once we step outside of our current framework, realize that it is not about the image but the content, we can start speculating about different possibilities that we could have never imagined within our current framework.
Take for instance the bio-car, part of Dunne & Raby’s United Micro Kingdoms. ‘Bioliberals regard the use of huge amounts of energy to overcome gravity and wind resistance to be counterproductive and primitive. Faster is no longer better. People travel in extremely light organically grown vehicles, each customised to its owner’s dimensions and needs. The bioliberal car combines two technologies: anaerobic digesters that produce gas, and fuel cells that use the gas to produce electricity’.**
It is not necessarily a desirable future but through the object, we can imagine how such a society would function. What are the desires, morals, and frameworks these bioliberals adhere to? It is not meant as a solution but should raise a discussion about the topics proposed.
This project has inspired me to look into alternatives outside of our current framework, making me speculate a bit more about life and our future. But it has also started a different kind of conversation about the topics proposed, one that was a bit different than I think Dunne & Raby intended. By doing research for my own project, I realized that many of these speculative futures are already happening. Many dystopias that we are imagining are already a reality in certain parts of the world and we take inspiration from those realities. Parts of India are already living on these proposed ‘‘technologies’’ as they have no access to the infrastructure that we do. They do not have the privilege to speculate, they have to act directly within their environments. Theorizing is good and necessary, but when something stays within its theory or is not able to be tested against its context it doesn’t invite people to actually make a change. As stated before: once we lose our imagination there needs to be some catalyst that will bring this back. I believe that speculative design can help with that, as this project was also an inspiring force for me. But if it stays within its own theory, practice and galleries, it stays within an echo-chamber of people speculating about issues that are already happening worldwide. It doesn’t bring change, it just preaches to the choir. ‘Creating fiction about a new technology does not provide any agency to anyone. It merely presents a possibility, it doesn’t propose how to intervene it, or how to learn how to intervene in it.’*** However, once we are aware of our position within society, stop pretending that our consumption habits will change the world and acknowledge our privilege that makes it possible to speculate on problems without immediate action required, we can actually put our theories into action and we will be able to make a real change.
*Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth
The general idea today seems to be that you change the world with your wallet, rather than your vote. ‘It is by buying things that they become real, moving from the virtual space of research and development by way of advertising into our lives’. * We get the reality we pay for. And in some ways this is true. As consumers, we are at the end of the chain. But if we keep up the myth that we can change the world through consumption, we stay within this vicious circle. We believe we can’t change the world anymore thus we consume more which results in the industry producing more which, in turn, makes us feel less in charge of the world around us and makes us consume more et cetera. We are the last agency to decide about the ethical responsibility of the products we buy, but this doesn’t mean that we are also the only responsible force within these structures. ‘The most threatening act of protest for a capitalist system would be for its citizens to refuse to consume’.** Were it not that we are all dependent on it. Even the most well-wishing individual can not escape the fact that all of our lives are dependent on fossil fuels for survival. ‘We are all part of the problem, but the least we can do is by realizing that no, my choices will not stop deforestation, inequality, or the emissions of CO2’.***
Once we accept the fact that our lives are inherently related to these issues, stop pretending that certain types of lifestyles are not related to these bigger structures, admit that we are in fact part of the problem but that we can not help it, we can finally start holding those with the power to change accountable for these problems. And don’t get me wrong, I fully believe that we should do all we can in terms of consuming; eat less meat, avoid driving cars as much as we do, take public transport more often, but I don’t believe in the idea that by buying biological, sustainable or green products I will have a clean consciousness about the ecological crisis we are facing. ‘Design is all about desire, but strangely this desire seems almost subject-less today, or at least lack-less; that is, design seems to advance a new kind of narcissism, one that is all image and no interiority’.**** We carefully construct an image around ourselves that embodies our desires, morals and ethics, but does it actually reflect or do we just pretend we are something we want to be? These are products to make yourself more interesting, sell yourself as something you are not. And as soon as we stop believing this and stop justifying our desires through these pretentious marketing concepts of sustainability, ecology and identity and accept the fact that we are part of it, we can finally address the true problem behind our lack of action. We should become more aware of our imagination and that the world outside of our own house and person is actually malleable, otherwise history would’ve been a given. And exactly this is where I believe that art and design can provide us with some needed running-room. It can show us that we are not stuck in history and that change is possible.
The first ‘’desirable’’ electric car available on the market. It has the performance of a supercar, the looks of an executive Mercedes, decent range, and no combustion engine. A sustainable car if we listen to the promise it makes: lay rubber where your carbon footprint used to be. All the comfort, no catch. But as we all, deep down, already know, nothing could be less true. In the words of Buckminster Fuller: ‘Because yesterday’s negatives are moved out of sight from their familiar locations many persons are willing to pretend to themselves that the problems have been solved’.*
This car is a complete denial of the political, economical, and cultural implications of our technologies. No single product’s implications stay local, they will always ripple out and affect people you may never see or know in your whole lifetime. ‘It’s always easy to believe in technology to save you when you belong to a class and society that will directly get to reap its benefits in the end’.** A ‘’sustainable’’ car that is loaded with technology, touch screens, game consoles and electrical gizmos will never be sustainable within the grand scheme of things.
The batteries driving the Tesla are composed of many different metals and chemicals, one of these metals being lithium. Lithium needs to be mined and extracted from the ground, which in itself is already a very damaging process that goes hand in hand with deforestation and slavery. Looking at the amount of lithium needed to build enough Tesla’s to replace all of our 1.3 billion combustion vehicles, we need about 89 billion tonnes, while our total estimated supply is about 62 billion tonnes.*** This doesn’t even count in batteries needed for our laptops, phones, or the massive amounts needed to build our sustainable energy grid storage facilities in the future. And what about the implications of recycling the batteries, which is at the moment of writing still no possibility. The lifespan of one of these batteries is around seven years, a bit less than half of a combustion car’s average lifespan before it ends up at the scrapyard. Then the process of extraction and production starts again. Of course, one could state that it is at least better than its counterpart, and I do not disagree with that. However, I do think we should all realize that what this product is doing is just postponing our current problems to a later date. Following Tesla’s goals, if they somehow would be able to keep their schedules and build 500.000 batteries a year, we will run out of lithium within 16 years, looking at the lifespan of the batteries. The fact that there is no oil involved in driving this car, doesn’t mean that we can pretend that issues of over-extraction and consumption are gone.
* Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth
A few years ago, I bought a motorcycle. This machine brought me much enjoyment but at the same time, it also made me a bit paranoid. Not paranoid about wheter it would work, but rather paranoid about how it worked. What the relations between all of its parts were and how my actions influenced the working of the machine.
So there are a couple of components needed in order to make the machine run, but in turn, these components are made of many different parts and relationships again. ‘It’s all just … analyses and syntheses and figuring things out and it isn’t really here’.* You can not see it and you do not notice which parts are working in relation to other parts. You know something is happening but what it exactly is, remains a mystery. And if you never see them, you never know what they actually are and what the influence of your actions are on the system. Most of us have no idea what happens after we push the starter button in our car.
*Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
To work away this paranoia, I decided that instead of waiting for the machine to self-destruct eventually, I would take it apart. Inspect its inner workings, repair that what needs repairing and eventually rebuild it and drive it again. I couldn’t stand looking at it as just a motorcycle, something to be used but not understood. I wanted to comprehend the machine in total, not just look at it in terms of what it is; a motorcycle, but to become more involved and actually know how it functions.
Eventually, the time came and everything got back together properly and it all functioned perfectly. By now, I know exactly what happens inside the engine when I give it some throttle. I have become aware of what happens within this bike when I drive it. I know what the relations between parts are, their function and what actions will make them wear sooner rather than later. In return, I can use it in a way that I know it will last much longer than ever before and it has made me more aware of the consequences of my driving. I can not drive it without caring anymore, because I feel guilty if I don’t. This motorcycle has taught me how individual actions can actually have big consequences in the bigger picture. We can, however, by comprehending how the things we use work and relate to each other, become able to understand their relations. Become familiar with them and relate to the part we play in these bigger ungraspable structures.
These problems we are dealing with, so-called wicked problems or hyper objects such as climate change, stay kind of vague and in the air. We know it is happening, however, we do not necessarily know how our own lifestyle is contributing to it. Collectively, we are the problem, but our individual life choices are just a thimble in the ocean. The scale of our society has become so big and ungraspable that we can’t even imagine that the most mundane things such as drinking coffee in the morning are directly contributing to the fact that climate change is happening. These processes, acts, lifestyles and consequences have become so intertwined and entangled with each other that we have become unable to digest them anymore and comprehend how they are related to each other and ourselves. It is not the individual act that creates a problem, it is the collective realization of our desires when it becomes problematic. But if so, how do we justify our material desires?
According to Buckminster Fuller; ‘Society operates on the theory that specialization is the key to success, not realizing that specialization precludes comprehensive thinking’. Outside of our specialized subjects, the work we perform daily in order to survive within this system, we are living in some sort of ‘‘groovy’’ dimension. One where we observe the things we do and use daily in a romantic way, only looking at them in terms of appearance and promises rather than their relationships within these bigger systems and the part that they (and thus we) play in it. We judge the new iPhone against the older model, instead of looking at the implications of another product that makes the older version obsolete.
As a result of the scale and entanglement of todays world, there is a collective feeling amongst us that the world outside of our own individual world is unchangeable. Because of this we have turned to ourselves and hope that our individual choices influence the world outside of our individual perception. Of course this has been fully encapsulated by the marketing machine that is omnipresent in our society, in the words of Hal Foster; ‘Desire is not only registered in products today, it is specified there: a self interpellation of ‘’hey, that’s me’’ greets the consumer in catalogues and on-line’.
We buy our own identities. If you want to change the world, all you have to do is buy yourself a sustainable lifestyle; biological meat, soap bars, ecological toilet paper, and of course an electric car. You can buy yourself a clean consciousness. But we are only looking at what the electric car itself is and compare it to the previous product, rather than what the implications of the product could be. ‘Everything we own contains traces of the vast, complex problem that is atmospheric pollution … and may help to problematize the part we all play in it.’* In order to become aware of the part that we all play in this, we should first of all become aware of our intimate relationship with it.
I have often heard the phrase: ‘‘this is the world we live in, deal with it.’’ But if this world we live in is the cause for global breakdown, over-extraction of resources and inequality all over the world, why do we keep holding on to this idea of progress by growth? By now, most of us are aware of the consequences but we also accept it as a given. As if the world around us is set in stone and history is not made by us. In some way, we could even say that some of us are pretending not to be the cause of it or trying our best to buy a different reality through mass consumption.
We are in a time and place where we should focus on imagining how we could change the way our society works, make it more inclusive and divide the wealth we have accumulated equally. But ’there are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut … and best was a matter of dogma’.* Today, in 2021, I truly believe that the best we are striving for has become a dogma. A goal that we are blindly following without thinking about the consequences and counting on technology to save us.
*Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance