Friday, 3 October 2008

Sustainable Sculpture

Last week I spoke at the UK’s Sustainable Development Research Network’s annual conference (see below). It was an interesting day, but the most interesting remark came very close to the end and left little time for further discussion.

In closing the conference, the conference chair permitted himself an anecdote, explaining that he had become convinced that ‘sustainable consumption’ probably meant buying smaller numbers of higher quality things. He meant, and explained, that rather than buy twenty shirts for £5 a time, one should buy a single shirt for £100. The single shirt would last much longer than any of the cheaper shirts, implied far lower total resource use and was an altogether more pleasurable experience to wear. The chair was, in fact, wearing a bespoke suit (“My first!”) as prima facie evidence of his commitment to this new insight.

But he went further, and this is where it gets weird. He told the audience – a couple of hundred of researchers and academics and policy wonks from the world of sustainable development – that he had bought an expensive piece of sculpture (for his garden) as a deliberate act of sustainable consumption. As his wife had put it (he told us) – “How much?! We could have gone to Australia and back half a dozen times for that!”

“Exactly” he said.

How do you feel about this? On the one hand, there is a horrible sense that this is right, yet wrong. It’s right, because if you’re going to do something with the money that you have, then spending it in a manner that produces the least possible carbon is surely a good thing. Yet it’s wrong, too, because buying an extravagant piece of sculpture is simply not an option for most people, indeed it would be somewhere between insulting and inflammatory to suggest to the good people of the world that they should begin spending their money on low carbon fripperies in order to save the planet.

On the other hand, it’s wrong but it’s right. It’s wrong because ‘art’ is invariably self-indulgent twaddle, huge quantities of which are produced by over-privileged mediocrities with nothing better to do, and great swathes of which are purchased by over-privileged non-entities with more money than sense.

(I have to endure this juxtaposition rather regularly: I live in what has become a rather prosperous part of west London, and my morning coffee is routinely spoiled by clusters of private-school mummies wondering what to do with their day, their conversations burbling with talk of painting classes and sculpture treats; while my local high street has just seen the arrival of a new ‘gallery’ that sells shockingly bad large-canvas art, the majority of which is straight from the more embarrassing end of the Athena spectrum, with retail prices starting in the low thousands of pounds and rising as steeply as your goldcard will allow.)

But it’s good, too, because humans have an innate creativity, and an economy of enough, in which we’re not running around like blue-arsed flies trying to buy the next pointless consumer good should be a future in which we have more time for conversation and philosophy and creativity and – and art.

Art? Or should that be ‘craft’? The fabulous Richard Sennett’s latest book “The Craftsman” draws attention to the immense value we all do or can derive from doing something well. It almost doesn’t matter what it is, but attention to quality rather than quantity, attention to craftsmanship and detail, the satisfaction of sustained effort over time, of the reward from knowing that something has been done as well as it could have been, these are factors that apply to any area of human activity and deliver enormous reward to individuals.

So if was a truly deep sculpture – a sculpture made by hands and a mind that had invested the 10,000 hours that folklore suggests are needed for true skill to develop – that depth would be evident, and it would be good, and it would be like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and it would be part of sustainability. But if it was superficial, consumerist, a commodity, a pastiche, an effete indulgence, then it is phony, it is part of the problem not the solution, it is not part of enoughness.

But how do we tell the difference? If there is no objective measure, which seems likely, then the distinction is unavoidably subjective. And if it is entirely subjective, who am I to suggest that your art is an ersatz piece of climate hostile self indulgence?

The answer, I suspect, lies in the perspective you choose to take on human nature. Looking around, it certainly seems that human beings en masse produce and consume an awful lot of utter tat; and this applies just as much to the appalling nonsense of the high street as it does to those twee stalls in Cornwall and Covent Garden and Provence where local ‘artists’ peddle their vernacular ceramic tourist fodder. And it would be easy to presume that since so much of this stuff is being produced and consumed under conditions approximating to freedom that this is indeed what people actually want to do, and like.

But the evolutionary perspective taken by the economics of enough would infer a different interpretation. The kinds of choices culminating in the pattern just described have evolved and developed within a very particular socio-economic structure (the fitness landscape). The most particular feature of that landscape is the notion of exchange: and the most acute manifestation of that feature is the notion of monetised trade.

Imagine making a birthday card for your mum; and compare it to the card you last bought. How does that feel?

Or: imagine the most handmade card you can imagine in the shops – and ask yourself whether this is the card that the person who actually made it would give to their own mother.

In what is called ‘the gift economy’ the rules are different, but we are still talking about exchange. If the rules can be like this in one place, there seems to me to be no reason in principle why the rules in any other place should not be like that.

Imagine if we made art we loved; and simply gave it away.

Would that be enough?

Places, Being and Rest

This is the script for a presentation I gave a couple of weeks ago at the UK's Sustainable Development Research Network's annual conference:

The title of this presentation draws inspiration from Douglas Hofstadter’s “Gödel, Esher & Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid”. Hofstadter’s work draws particular attention to the idea of ‘emergent properties’ and I hope to echo his thinking to consider how the component elements of new communities add up to more than the sum of their parts. It is – or ought to be – the totality of new communities in which we should be interested.

I especially want to suggest that the economics of new communities have not yet been thought through, and that the opportunity exists to move away from outmoded and counter-productive policies in such a way as to embed new and sustainable practices appropriate to an advanced, low-carbon society in the twenty first century. Attention to this element, I want to suggest, has the potential to have transformative impacts in both ecological and psychological terms.

I shall make this argument in three strands:

Place – I shall argue that the prevailing orthodoxy on ‘place’ has lost touch with the uncontrollable and chaotic element of human nature. Against a broad background sketched by the recent efforts of the TCPA, I shall draw on the work of Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd and Colin Ward to suggest that the characteristics of place that emerge from the free interaction of human beings are the most valued and valuable. Ensuring sufficient space for ‘creative chaos’ will be a vital part of developing new communities.

Being – behavioural economics has made huge strides in recent years in achieving a more appropriate understanding of human behaviour than ‘rational economic man’, yet these insights are filtering only slowly, if at all, into mainstream economic policy. I shall draw on the work of figures such as Kahneman, Schelling and Offer to suggest some of the characteristics of lives and livelihoods by which citizens of new communities might be genuinely fulfilled over the coming decades, and the implications of this for both economic policy and economic development

Rest – emerging, in part, from the discussion of ‘being’, but drawing too on work from Kasser, Hodgkinson and Fred Pearce, I shall suggest that an endemic culture of excess – the consequences, manifestations and symptoms of which range from anthropogenic climate change to systemic inequality to depression and obesity – would, if it were the characteristic of a poorly patient presenting at a GP’s surgery, prompt an immediate prescription of prolonged rest and relaxation.

The policy implications of pulling these threads together can, I suggest, be expressed through the phrase ‘the economics of enough’. To enable communities to live in ways that do not imply excessive use of the planet’s finite resources, do not imply systematic inequality and do not imply chronic ‘ill ease’ we need economies to function in new ways, ways that do not depend endlessly on ‘more’ but are able to respect the simply entreaty: I’ve had enough. I shall conclude with some remarks about what such an economy might look like, and how important it is to embed these characteristics in the communities we develop in the UK over the next couple of decades.