Bruce Sterling and the Last Viridian Note


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Ten years ago, Bruce Sterling started the Viridian design movement, an attempt at using design "to end our substance-abuse problem with fossil fuels". it had a built-in expiry date of 2012, based on the Kyoto Accords, a once-famous treaty where people supposedly agreed to do something about climate change. He wrote that how we design things is important:

So why is this an aesthetic issue? Well, because it's a severe breach of taste to bake and sweat half to death in your own trash, that's why. To boil and roast the entire physical world, just so you can pursue your cheap addiction to carbon dioxide.... What a cramp of our style. It's all very foul and aesthetically regrettable.

Now he is checking out early, (things did not quite work out as planned) and leaves a last Viridian Note. And while he sometimes comes off sounding like Polonius in Hamlet, where one cannot decide if he is speaking truisms or cliches, it is definitely worth reading.He makes some interesting points about frugalism, quality, possessions, territoriality, time and space. A few of the zingers:

What is "sustainability?" Sustainable practices navigate successfully through time and space, while others crack up and vanish. So basically, the sustainable is about time — time and space. You need to re-think your relationship to material possessions in terms of things that occupy your time. The things that are physically closest to you. Time and space.

In earlier, less technically advanced eras, this approach would have been far-fetched. Material goods were inherently difficult to produce, find, and ship. They were rare and precious. They were closely associated with social prestige. Without important material signifiers such as wedding china, family silver, portraits, a coach-house, a trousseau and so forth, you were advertising your lack of substance to your neighbors. If you failed to surround yourself with a thick material barrier, you were inviting social abuse and possible police suspicion. So it made pragmatic sense to cling to heirlooms, renew all major purchases promptly, and visibly keep up with the Joneses.

That era is dying. It's not only dying, but the assumptions behind that form of material culture are very dangerous. These objects can no longer protect you from want, from humiliation — in fact they are causes of humiliation, as anyone with a McMansion crammed with Chinese-made goods and an unsellable SUV has now learned at great cost.

Furthermore, many of these objects can damage you personally. The hours you waste stumbling over your piled debris, picking, washing, storing, re-storing, those are hours and spaces that you will never get back in a mortal lifetime. Basically, you have to curate these goods: heat them, cool them, protect them from humidity and vermin. Every moment you devote to them is lost to your children, your friends, your society, yourself.

It's not bad to own fine things that you like. What you need are things that you GENUINELY like. Things that you cherish, that enhance your existence in the world. The rest is dross.



This material culture of today is not sustainable. Most of the things you own are almost certainly made to 20th century standards, which are very bad. If we stick with the malignant possessions we already have, through some hairshirt notion of thrift, then we are going to be baling seawater. This will not do.

You should be planning, expecting, desiring to live among material surroundings created, manufactured, distributed, through radically different methods from today's. It is your moral duty to aid this transformative process. This means you should encourage the best industrial design.

Get excellent tools and appliances. Not a hundred bad, cheap, easy ones. Get the genuinely good ones. Work at it. Pay some attention here, do not neglect the issue by imagining yourself to be serenely "non-materialistic." There is nothing more "materialistic" than doing the same household job five times because your tools suck. Do not allow yourself to be trapped in time-sucking black holes of mechanical dysfunction. That is not civilized.

Read it all in Worldchanging
Bruce Sterling in TreeHugger:
Bruce Sterling's Take on Fab Labs: From Goop to Goods
Bruce Sterling Annotates Kunstler
Bruce Sterling on Downloadable Designs
Johnny AppleLEED: Bruce Sterling's Review of the Voltaic Solar Backpack
Bruce Sterling: "You Don't Have to Predict the Future When You Live In It."