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In 2009 I was talking with a friend of ours in Santa Elena de  Uairén, Venezuela just North of the Brazilian border. While we talked he described visiting an American grocery store on a trip to the US to see his daughter off to college, here in Provo, actually. He told me, “American grocery stores are filled with so many kinds of foods. There is food stacked up to the rafters. Every kind of food in the world.” At this point in the conversation, I expected to hear the types of things I had heard before from fairly affluent Latin Americans, expressing degrees of envy for aspects of American lifestyle that they felt their respective countries may be lacking. What I heard was not what I expected. He continued by saying, “But in my whole life I’d never try all of those foods.”

A dish mounted to an otherwise humble home in Santa Elena de Uairén, Venezuela reminding us of the restless creep of consumerism.

            It took me a second or two to tack away from the course set by my preconception in the moment before his qualifying conjunction. And in that second or two, Hans Artal become a role model for me. A hero, darn near. At the very least he became a living case in point of the principle expressed in the first chapter of “Deep Economy” by Bill McKibben: That our while our wealth as a country has continually increased our fulfillment and satisfaction as a people have declined. To sum it up, McKibben asks in Mother Jones Magazine “If we’re so rich, how come we’re so damn miserable?” 

My friend Hans Artal, left.

The upshot of Hans’s comment that struck me so deeply was that he was OK with what he had, he didn’t need more; he had, by lifestyle and circumstance, never needed to trim back his lust for more and better, because such a desire had never developed itself in his being. He was OK being OK.

In our culture, the effect mentioned in the McKibben quote, could quite easily traced back to at least one significant cause: marketing. As an acquaintance of mine, a product designer told me a while back, his job existed to make sure people don’t get too comfortable with what they have. “We have to keep making them want the next one.” This is marketing.

“The Story of Stuff” a brief but thorough documentary about the culture of consumerism.

And if it’s not making us better, and it’s making our Earth less liveable, what to do? Thinkers like Foucault or Deleuze and Guattari would caution us that there is no overthrowing the system, no “Man” on whom to pin our problems, that power operates and change occurs organically and in the constraints of the world we inhabit currently.

But is it possible to convince ourselves culturally that we must cut back or face real and permanent consequences? Possible to operate within the system that’s doing the harm?

Bruce Mau would say yes. And I’ll get to that in a moment. I would say yes. But we can’t say it like that. We can’t blame. We can’t scold. No preaching. If we are ever to use a person like Hans Artal, for a model of how to live, if such a convincing will ever take place on a cultural level, we have to market it.

Consider this advice from  a book by Dylan Tomine called “Closer to the Ground.” 

In the forward, Thomas McGuane says, “Surely sustainable must be among the most abused words in today’s lifestyle vocabulary. [I would personally say in any vocabulary] For many, it imagines only two classes of people: the thoughtful and the stupid; the biodegradable versus the carbon footprint. For others it suggests a mandate to live in a manner that, while not impossible, is uninviting to all but frowning zealots. Most writing on sustainability is aimed at those who enjoy being lectured, but the subject is much too important to be framed so unattractively. People are baffled at having to choose between the gangplows of industrial farming and a two-man goat cheese operation. The real issue is that the condescension and finger pointing of too much environmental writing is not helping our most important cause.” (Tomine i, 2012, Patagonia Books).

Which brings me back to Bruce Mau. This is a person who understand marketing as well as anyone in the world. He understands the problems our culture has created in sustaining itself. He understands the problems of those left aside by mainstream consumer culture. But most importantly, he understands the power of design. In a wonderful essay called “You Can Do Better” (you MUST read it if you haven’t yet)  he lays out for designers the power behind design to solve real problems of real people.

The inimitable Bruce Mau. Photo Nigel Dickson. Click through for source.

Elsewhere, in an interview with Catalyst Stratgic Design Review he defends design as pivotal to solving the problems of sustainability, “designing is leading; design is leadership. You can’t design, except to envision a new world.”

The most difficult challenge facing us as active members of a culture that must by its definition expand and increase, use more and more of the increasingly precious resources our Earth has as its lot. We must cut back. We must reduce our impact if we intend to stick around to enjoy this planet in the future. We must take on a mindset more like my friend Hans. But again is it possible to convince ourselves of such a vision?

In the Catalyst interview Bruce Mau says, “It is not about having a worse time [as McGuane mentioned above] or having less of an experience, but rather about having more of an experience and less of an impact.” In other words, it’s not about a choice between reverting to some imagined “3rd World” status, versus continuing into the glorious future of free market consumerism.

Again consider Bruce Mau’s advice, “Every business today is a design business, or it won’t be a business in the future. It’s about designing new possibilities, and the capacity to visualize those capacities is central to future business. And that puts design and visualization and the image economy right at the heart of new business. ” Having had Coke, and McDonald’s, various airlines, and so many institutions of consumerism, he knows the power design has to change the world it exists in. In fact he thinks we have business right where we want it.

In so many ways, as we see in the two articles, Bruce Mau is influenced and draws energy from the “3rd World” and operates in the world currently run by consumerist engines, to solve problems of sustainability all over the planet. He provides us a call to action, a call to do better, to see more clearly, broadly, and creatively. We can draw inspiration from people like Hans to be OK being OK. To be Zen in a manically-consumerist world. We can draw on Bruce Mau to draw on that manic energy, combine it with Hans’s natural empathy, and change the world economy from inside out.

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This piece is a variation on a presentation I made at a symposium, “A Call to Sustainability: Conservation, Restoration, and Sustainability” hosted at Brigham Young University, November 8-10, 2012.

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2 thoughts on “Marketing “3rd World” Thrift

  1. I agree with your point that the question is not a choice between going back to the undevelopped status and a polished urban image. And I really hope design are not for generating more desires and moved in a track parallel or opposite to the extrme urbanism in the informal cities.

  2. In addition to framing sustainability in positive terms — “having more of an experience and less of an impact” — the flip side (a good scolding does have its time and place) is living within ones means, being realistic.

    Often the same people who resist ecological sanity with teenage concepts of “freedom,” are the same people screaming about the immorality of passing debt to our grandchildren, the need to make tough choices and sacrifices, to cut back if necessary. In short, the need to “grow up” and “get real.”

    We need a massive, permanent campaign to connect the concepts of financial capital and natural capital. No one should be able to lecture about burdening grandchildren if they’re not being equally responsible in both realms. This isn’t dad getting up in our business; it’s learning “how the world works,” common sense, basic math, etc. It’s conservative.

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