Cool Planet

Climate change is on trend. Greta Thunberg has become the public face of a youth-driven climate activism movement — and she is also a meme, a T-shirt, and dare I say an influencer. Movements are percolating up to curtail one’s carbon footprint, whether through forsaking air travel, shunning plastics, or shopping less. A thirtysomething German acquaintance recently told me that in Berlin, serving meat at dinner parties is now seen as gauche, new evidence that veganism is moving from personal choice to social contract. The same holds true for a variety of new ways in which we can signal our commitment to reducing our carbon footprint, which include not just traditional political activism–public awareness campaigns, petitions, protests, and the like–but visible displays of asceticism, consciousness, and virtue.

None of these things are new per se–environmentalism, sustainability, green, and what-have-you have ebbed and flowed in public consciousness over the decades, their specific shape conforming to the times. Likewise, there have always been both earnest and cynical modes of environmental awareness, and sometimes our actions are both at the same time. What feels different now is how business is responding, figuring out ways not just to adapt (or less charitably, co-opt) the language of environmentalism, but to disrupt through it — to use environmentalism as justification to do things different. It’s both inspiring and shaming consumers into behaving differently, though still squarely addressing us as consumers.

This is what I was thinking about on the last day of LaFutura in Lisbon, as I listened to Kwame Ferreira of Impossible talk about planet-centric design. For me, Ferreira’s talk was one of the most inspiring of the conference. He spoke forcefully, intelligently, and humbly about the need to infiltrate the culture of Silicon Valley with new ways of thinking about design. Instead of thinking about human-centric design, we need to privilege humanity — what’s best for all of us and the planet on which we live. For Impossible, this means smartphones that make evident their supply chains and that are modular, so as to last longer. Or wearables that “bond” you to your loved ones, allowing you to send digital signals of connection that don’t require looking at screens. Their concepts are tantalizing — both sleekly fashionable and necessarily virtuous.

And yet it seemed even Ferreira knew that these responses were not enough. To paraphrase him, we’re running after a problem that has started long before us and we may never catch up. What has caught up, though, is our desire to seem as though we are part of the solution. And for now, we do that the only way we know how — through conspicuous consumption.

Is there such a thing as a movement that abandons its consumerist arm? Can public awareness be built without T-shirts and buttons, without more stuff? Can we see an old phone built with child labor and toxic metals as somehow more responsible than a new one that’s ethically sourced? I don’t have the answers to these questions, and I am out of my depth even broaching them. What I would like to think through, though, is whether and how trends must necessarily embrace newness and acquisition.

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