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Earth Day Voices: Mike Lin
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A Designer's Call to Arms
We've screwed up. Sustainability is dead. It's time to redesign our future.
by Mike Lin, Vestal Design Atelier LLC

The Present: People, we have a problem.
We have polluted our air, soil, and water and we have exploited every natural resource imaginable, including human labor. We are even changing our global climate. The jury is in. We are royally screwed.

This is not a political statement; it is not about left or right, liberal or conservative. Rather, this is an ethical and a moral obligation to do what is right. We face a challenge to reshape industry, business and culture to ensure for ourselves a healthy and livable future.

Social and environmental activism are not enough. This is a call to action for a new design movement. In short, we have made some serious mistakes. It is time to redesign our future.

The Past: Eco-friendly didn't cut it.
We've been settling for second best for too long—too often "ecological," "green," or "sustainable" products fall short in both function and design.

Despite good intentions, such token products as ineffective natural cleaners, dim compact-fluorescent light bulbs and coarse hemp garments reinforce stereotypes of inferior quality and inconvenience. Mediocre products such as these cause more harm than good; their disappointing functionality and lackluster design alienate the general public and fail to resonate with the broader audience required to effect real, mainstream change. How could these dysfunctional solutions and underwhelming experiences ever inspire a cultural shift? They're a liability to our future.

The Future: A new design movement.
Design grapples with the most important questions of the day. To move forward, we need to forge a new design directive. We need a new philosophy and a new culture.

On the macro-level, we need to inspire a cultural shift in a society so that it not only values economic efficiency, functional simplicity and refinement in form—but also deeper, more substantive values. Imagine a society whose aesthetic sensibility that goes beyond the sleek lines and glossy finishes to encompass social justice and environmental elegance; to shudder in disgust at grotesque design but also grotesque inequity and inefficiency. Imagine transparent, uncorrupted governments with foresight and businesses that aren't just simply driven to maximize shareholder value, but to also maximize value for every living organism. Imagine if success were not only measured in dollars and cents, but also in breaths of fresh air, stretches of clean rivers or clusters of thriving, healthy cities.

On the micro-level, imagine individuals not simply as "consumers" with dollar signs floating over their heads, but as informed and engaged participants in the economy. Imagine individuals who have a connection with their products beyond the on-button. They know where their products came from, how they were made, and where they will go. They might even know how to hack, modify, or (heaven forbid) even fix their products.

Imagine individuals who delight in the knowledge that a product is ethically produced and decomposes as easily as it was created without sacrificing functionality for those traits. Imagine a landscape free of the ills of industry but still benefit from all of humanity's greatest advancements.

This is our future—but it's slipping away. Design is a method of action: We need to learn from our mistakes and create solutions. We need to futureproof our products, our processes, and our built environment to ensure a healthy and livable future.

We are entering into a Prius-equipped, local, organic, Inconvenient Truth era. Consumers are calling for a secure, healthy, and livable future. A hunger for new solutions is growing.

Designers take note, you need to go beyond "sustainable." Sustainability as we know it is dead. Sustainability has become tired, uninspiring, and played out.

Make for yourselves a new name that will replace "sustainability" by going beyond simply using token green materials. Be courageous and challenge yourselves not to use traditional green rhetoric or easy-choice planet imagery to communicate your message. Rather, put your ideas into motion and create new graphics, textiles, media, food, buildings, packaging and products that will forge a new design movement. Consider whole systems and leverage design to inspire the adoption of greater values beyond the status quo. Kindle new ideas that will foster a cultural shift towards transparency, knowledge and engagement. Create daring, provocative works that will speak louder and brighter than "sustainability" ever could.

You are this movement. Answer this call.


On the surface, the goal was to develop a simple low-power LED night light for bathrooms. However, I view design as a vehicle for dialogue. We need to go beyond using green materials and use design to inspire and facilitate deeper conversations about whole systems. This simple piece seeks to go beyond by leading people who use this light to think about the relationships between plants, light, air, water and how we are all tied into systems, big and small. If this subtle message is lost on the user, then at the very least, my hope is that this light brings a little beauty into world.

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Mike Lin's philosophy is an inspiration! We need to create a healthy community, world, and environment, without sacrificing design, beauty, and comfort.

Posted by: Amanda West on 19 Apr 07

Truly inspirational and spot on the issue, I'm a designer and I work for an agency that specialise in ethical issues and we ourselves are feed up of seeing the abandonment of new sustainable initiatives incorporating images of nature in their branding. We believe that sustainability is what we should be doing anyway and its not just a marketing ploy to attract big business into the trend. I do believe however that sustainability as a communication is confused many agencies don't understand know its tone of voice. Time to show them how its done I say!

Posted by: Corinne Hitching on 20 Apr 07

"How could these dysfunctional solutions and underwhelming experiences ever inspire a cultural shift? They're a liability to our future."

This is so right on. Design like you give a damn!

Posted by: Chris Blow on 20 Apr 07

Very interesting insight in design. What is surprising is that design matters reveals to be a cross cutting issue : design politics, products, future, in one word the world or more precisely, the way we act on reality as a whole. It's about the difference between body parts and a person.
The process is then as important as the content. A lot has been made on them : see for example the one designed by Otto Scharmer in MIT. On culture, very attractive works have been made on cultural genes(memes in French), the way they create, propagate and die.
Today, much of the theoritical work has been done. It's now up to us to build from those parts a beautiful and confortable world for all.

Posted by: Swimmer21 on 20 Apr 07

Okay. I'm in.

Posted by: Stuart on 20 Apr 07

Yes, yes, yes!! This is what Permaculture Design is all about! Regenerative Design. Check out David Holmgren and Bill Mollisons writings.

Thank you for your passion and insight.

Posted by: kat steele on 20 Apr 07

Thank you all so much for your insightful comments! If you happen to be in the San Francisco Bay Area, you might also want to check out the upcoming SF International Film Festival event:

It’s a New (Green) World
Sunday, May 6, 5:00 pm, House 2, Sundance Cinemas Kabuki Theater Map
Free and Open to the Public

Recognizing that the future of the planet is one of our most pressing concerns, committed film and digital mediamakers are employing diverse and innovative strategies to address burning environmental issues and inspire audiences to action. A panel of noteworthy filmmakers, technologists and activists will take up the discussion.

There's also a film that I'd like to hear your comments on called Everything's Cool which is showing at the SF Film Festival. Too hippy, too abrasive, or not enough??

Everything's Cool Website

Posted by: Mike Lin on 21 Apr 07

Yeah, these ideas are great, but this isn't revolutionary stuff. Sustainability is not dead by the way and neither are the "eco-solutions." They just need to begin to make more impact and that is exactly what Mike is talking about here. Sustainability is going the step further. Sustainability is about broad, wide-reaching, systematic integration in all facets of life. And it is happening now. We are just moving at slow incremental steps when we need to move in large leaps. So yes, this article speaks with validity, but it also speaks contextually off-base.

Posted by: Paul Pope on 21 Apr 07

Most of the opinions expressed in the article have been expressed before. I have been listening to this crap for over 40 years, and unless human nature changes, nothing else will. I was there for the first Earth Day, with hope for the future, and hope that if we can educate future generations about our mistakes, we can build a newer brighter future, blah blah blah. Well, a generation or so later, and not only has nothing changed, it's gotten a lot worse.

I didn't drive or own a car for decades because I believed in leading by example. I walked or rode my bicycle to work every day, I moved closer to work so I wouldn't have to commute for an hour on the highway every day. I've given up luxuries that others take for granted as necesities, and for what? NOBODY CARES!
Blame the auto industry for not making fuel efficient cars? Hell, no! They build what we buy, if nobody buys them, they won't make them! How many gas-guzzling behemoths are on the road today? The same people who complained about the giant Cadillacs and Lincolns guzzling gas and polluting the air are now driving SUV's. Public transport is for people who can't afford a car! Gasoline is back up to $3 a gallon! Are people saying "Hell no, we won't pay?"
They whine and complain, but they pay anyway.
In 2005 the CEO of Occidental Petroleum made ONE MILLION DOLLARS A DAY as a performance bonus. Does anhybody care? Apparently not.
The big response I get from people of my generation and my parents generation is this: "By the time 'X' happens, I'll be dead!"
Americans are fat, slow and stupid. If you doubt this, just look who we put in the White House, twice!
No amount of editorializing is going to change anything, until people are willing to give up convenience and luxury, nothing will change.

At least that's my opinion, I could be wrong.

Posted by: Dave LeBlanc on 22 Apr 07

Mike you are dead on. I will join your movement full force. Now will you join mine. I would like to see militant phrasing disappear from our vocabulary. Instead of a call to arms (militant) how about A call to Rally or A Call to Action? I have several scars that itch when I hear a call to arms.

Posted by: John Abbott on 25 Apr 07



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