MIND OVER MATTER
Author: Marijn Emanuel, Madaster Foundation
ON MATTER (DOES IT?)
Can new media save the world? This was the central question at the third Doors of Perception conference held in Amsterdam in 1994. Around 200 specialists from new media and computer networks aimed to work together with ecologically interested parties to find a solution for a sustainable world (Dirk Limburg, NRC, 1994). As a recently graduated architect, starting at Rau & partners, I immersed myself in this cutting-edge conference with the wonderful title ‘On matter’. The employees all wore a t-shirt with the question ‘Does it?’ printed on the back. More than 20 years later, Sabine Oberhuber and Thomas Rau wrote the book ‘Material Matters’ – providing an affirmative answer to the 1994 question, in line with the current appreciation of circular economic principles. So many years later, this subject is still ‘hot & happening’, which in itself is already rather remarkable. The importance is addressed once again in a beautiful series of articles by Maikel Kuijpers for The Correspondent, in which he describes our relationship with a number of important materials: ‘The materials with which we have built our civilisation also destroy our civilisation’. The transition towards a sustainable society is essentially about our handling of materials, he wrote. Maikel Kuijpers for The Correspondent (1 September 2020).
Personally, I think the core is particularly characterised by our handling of products; the functional form of materials that satisfies a certain need. This is where the time factor plays a distinct role — the technical lifespan, the functional lifespan, either of which may be extremely long or short, or anything in between. Longer than we can consciously imagine, let alone control. It is therefore not surprising that ‘Material Matters’ starts with ‘The product as an organised problem’. Consumers mainly deal with the products, rather than with materials and hardly ever with the raw, natural resources. Our economy revolves around and runs on products — consumer products, products to make products. To get those products and the production processes to form a circle, the doughnut economy as Kate Raworth describes it, requires more than the ‘100% circular’ predicate or certificate.
‘However, if we are to change our economy, we must first realise that it is a reflection of our consciousness and underlying worldview’, according to Oberhuber and Rau. This is echoed in Sybren Bosch’s striking observation in his Dutch article Anno 2020 zijn we allemaal ontwikkelingslanden.(‘In the year 2020, we are all developing countries’). Thomas Rau translates this into the need for a ‘Mexit’ (i.e. a mental exit), whereas Bosch argues that we need a new mindset in order to ‘develop ourselves [as a country, but also, I suspect, as a human being] to be able to function within planetary boundaries without having to do so at the expense of well-being.’
NO PAIN – NO GAIN
It seems to me that, in the current mindset of the transition towards a circular economy, we continue to want to have our cake and eat it — a holy economic grail that is simply impossible from a material-technical perspective. We desire more prosperity, increased well-being and a better, circular society, but without the inconvenience that comes with every transition, including that towards a circular construction economy and let alone a circular revolution. ‘I know of no revolution without victims,’ said Thomas Friedman, columnist at The New York Times (The World is Flat (2007)) about the Green Revolution, a decade ago. ‘A revolution without victims is not a revolution, it’s a party’, he continued. And this is precisely how we always try to sell any transition. Sustainability in 2005–2010: there are no extra costs and yet everything suddenly becomes sustainable. In essence, nothing has changed since the ‘green wave’ of 2005 — the year of Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. Inconvenient, as no one was really looking for change, of course. Circularity in 2020 seems to be moving in the same direction: everything suddenly becomes circular and, naturally, at no additional expense. In the end, it is just another name for simply optimising the old, linear system. Old wine in new, circular bottles.
The 2020 pandemic shows us that, if we are to remain safe and resilient as a community, we have to make personal sacrifices. Sacrifices with respect to freedom of movement, our behaviour and in our everyday lives. The challenges regarding climate and circularity are no different; if we are unwilling to make personal sacrifices, there is no point in hoping for a societal solution. After all, we are the society, the sum of its parts. The solution will not flow from the new media, as posed by the Doors of Perception conference, nor will it arise from technological advancement. What it will require is this new mindset, in all of us. The COVID-19 pandemic is showing us how difficult behavioural change can be — even when the impact is experienced literally on a personal level. How impossible does it then seem to steer a widely supported change of consciousness when it comes to forming a ‘doughnut economy’ or transitioning towards a truly circular society?
What, then, would be possible, in taking those next steps? As Thomas Friedman said almost a decade ago: ‘We need to change the standards, the regulations, the incentives and the taxes! Don’t change your lightbulbs, change your leaders, who change the rules that trigger innovation.’ (MIT Open Courseware via iTunes). What is needed is a re-evaluation of the public good. Call it the Yin and Yang of society. Over recent decades, in times when the danger of climate change became clear, an imbalance emerged in the interest and appreciation of the private side, both in business economics and the personal sphere. What is needed, among other things, is a re-evaluation of public services, including politics, at all levels, and a willingness to make sacrifices, to say goodbye to certain achievements. That is why I believe that the younger generation should take the lead in this — or, as we say at RAU, we should be ‘Guided by the future’.
What is needed above all else is solidarity, rather that mere collaboration. Over the past three years, a phrase I kept hearing was ‘What’s in it for me?’, whenever we proposed the Madaster concept of material passports as a way of preserving current materials for the future. There are not many questions that irritate me as much as this one. It is not always just about me or you, it is about all of us. In the long run, I can only do well if everyone does well. All of us, in the broadest sense of the meaning, including the whole closed system of our Earth. And ‘what’s in it for us’ is a society that finds its equilibrium in an economic, social and mental sense, to find its balance with that which determines our existence, also known as nature, our earth. Once again, the transition to a sustainable, circular economy is about how we handle materials. A transition to a sustainable society is about how we deal with each other and the planet we live on. One cannot exist without the other.