Definitions from Wikipedia.
Punk-related ideologies are mostly concerned with individual freedom and anti-establishment views. Common punk viewpoints include anti-authoritarianism, a DIY ethic, non-conformity, direct action and not selling out. Other notable trends in punk politics include nihilism, rebellion, anarchism, individualism, socialism, anti-militarism, anti-capitalism, anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-nationalism, anti-homophobia, environmentalism, vegetarianism,veganism and animal rights.
EngineerAn engineer is a professional practitioner of engineering, concerned with applying scientific knowledge, mathematics, and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical problems. Engineers design materials, structures, and systems while considering the limitations imposed by practicality, regulation, safety, and cost. The word engineer is derived from the Latin rootsingeniare (“to contrive, devise”) and ingenium (“cleverness”).
Engineers are grounded in applied sciences, and their work in research and development is distinct from the basic research focus of scientists. The work of engineers forms the link between scientific discoveries and their subsequent applications to human needs and quality of life.
A professional or self-taught practitioner of engineering, concerned with applying scientific knowledge, mathematics, and ingenuity to develop solutions for social problems (all problems are social). Punk engineers design materials, structures, and particularly systems within an intellectual framework of anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, social justice, climate justice, anti-patriarchy, post-industrialism, human rights, animal rights, and individual self-expression.
Profit-driven design is anathema to the punk engineer; a badge of honor in punk engineering culture is to get fired off of a project for refusal to compromise and design to status quo.
The work of punk engineers forms the link between scientific discoveries, social theory, social and economic inequality, class warfare, and their subsequent manifestations as systems of material relations. Punk engineers strive through their work to directly confront and oppose consumerism, gentrification, resource mismanagement, the Myth of Progress, the police state, the oil and gas industry, capitalism, the centralization of economic and military power, and the exploitation of the natural world.
I’ve been doing virtual design modeling for building mechanical systems since 2009. That was about the time when Revit MEP, the main software tool I use, had advanced to the point where people generally considered them to be, finally, useful. There was and is a lot of talk about what virtual design software can do – what they can do for firms, for projects, for engineers/architects/contractors, and for the industry at large.
After being engaged in the software for over three years, I think that those promises of what the software can do for us are only part of a misunderstood reality. There are deeper truths to how these tools shape and interact with the people who use them.
It turns out that one of the most powerful effects of these tools lie not in the pure, objective capabilities of the particular program. Instead, we’re finding that the engagement with the software – the activity of a human designer grappling and engaging with the modeling tools in order to produce a virtual yet constructable model – does something to the mind of the designer.
The cognitive and spatial design skills of the modeler are impacted by the process of designing in a virtual model. Not just what people think, but how people think about design is heavily influenced by the particulars of their interaction with the modeling tools. Working in these programs is training in advanced spatial/analytical design thinking skills.
Notice that I used the words impacted and influenced, not enhanced or improved. The effect of the software can be a double-edged sword (I’ll get into that more below). That is one reason why this is so crucial a concept to understand.
Going even deeper into this engagement between designer and design tool, we start to dig into implications about What Design Is. We start to comprehend that a design is not something that pops fully formed into the mind of the designer, and is then transferred to the virtual space of the model (and then to the 2D space of the drawing sets and then to the physical space of the completed building). We start to see that daily engagement with the design tools is where a fundamental unit of design takes place, and that to be insulated from that engagement is to be distanced from the core activity of design itself.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s step back a moment and
Consider the Sculpture Artist.
A sculptor does not have an idea pop into her mind ex nihilo and then come to the rock with chisel in hand and precisely reproduce that idea. She is in fact inextricably embedded in a social, political, physical, geographic, and emotional environment that enormously impacts what is going to pop into her head. Her entire life’s experience of seeing sculpture art, reading art criticism, playing with Playdough as a kid, the film she saw last Tuesday, the fact that she lives in Seattle and it rains a lot, and the graffiti she saw earlier in the day by the metro, will shape the initial mental model of her design – the fuzzy whirling notion of what she wants to accomplish and communicate with her work.
And then, and this is the interesting part to me, with all that going on in her head, as she comes to the chunk of virgin rock with chisel in hand, the rock itself affects the idea in her head. It has a fissure in a place she wasn’t expecting and has to adjust her design for. The texture of the cut stone is smoother than she thought it’d be and she decides to roll with it in a direction she hadn’t initially planned on. The way her specific tools shape the material (slowly, giving her mind plenty of time to meander as she works) shapes her idea of what she’s doing and find expression back in the outcome of the model.
The stone, itself taking shape under influences from the sculptor’s environment, evolves, changes, and “speaks” back. The act of creating the sculpture is a relationship between the sculptor and the sculpted, a mutual connection. This process flies in the face of the popular notion of the Creative Genius, alone in a studio, who has a flash of brilliance and then sets about to transferring the pure idea to physical form in a linear fashion. It is this reaction against the idea that almighty (human) subjects act upon passive objects that is the foundation of materiality studies.
In the same way that we can talk about how the sharpness of a particular chisel or the heft of a rock hammer impacts the final shape of a stone sculpture, we can also talk about how the graphical user interface for drawing curtain walls with Revit or the series of keystrokes required to lay out a section of pipe in CAD-Mech impacts the (virtual) reality of a design model.
Let’s Talk About Ducts Now
I spend a lot of time modeling duct systems in buildings. These ducts are just big sheet metal tubes that fresh cooled (or heated) air moves through to get to (or away from) a specific space within a building. In the physical world, you can do a lot of different things with ducts. As I understand it, it should be relatively simple to come up with a shape, model it in special fabrication computer software (software that I don’t have access to or experience with), stick it into a big machine, and a few minutes later the machine will spit out the bit of duct you drew.
In Revit, which is the software I use to model a building’s mechanical systems, the default duct fittings are pretty basic and it’s actually difficult to get creative. If I try to model anything sophisticated I soon wind up with a ‘spaghetti model’. That’s a term I use to describe a model where all the pieces are sort of hacked together and if I need to nudge a piece over by a couple of inches, all the connections break and everything jams up and becomes a bear to work with.
The result of this situation is that I rarely get sophisticated with my duct modeling. I just use the basic parts, create simple connections that I know won’t break when I need to adjust them later, and call it a day.
It’s not that I can’t make a sophisticated duct system, it’s just that it’s a pain in the ass to model one in Revit and it will haunt every move I make in the model until I delete the whole mess out of frustration and do it over. After being in Revit long enough, I just don’t even think about doing duct modeling in a particularly sophisticated or geometrically innovative way.
The software has literally taught me not just what to model (duct systems) but how to model (basic, unsophisticated duct systems).
Design is a Relationship
Any thing we engage with (a chisel, a computer mouse, Autodesk Revit MEP, a bit of playdough) both enables us to do certain things and constrains us from certain other things.
This relationship between the designer and the software means that not just what we envision but how we envision our designs is emergent not in the designer alone, nor solely in the capabilities of the software, but in the engagement between the two. We start to see, as materiality studies suggest, that the irreducible unit of design is engagement, activity. The “solitary genius” idea that design happens in the mind of the lone engineer before being transferred without change to paper or a computer screen is deeply flawed.
Going back to the duct system example above, I know that Revit doesn’t do a great job of enabling sophisticated ductwork modeling. If I need to come up with a novel duct solution, I know not to bother with Revit and I’ll turn to Sketchup or Blender to effectively work with the tricky geometry since those programs really allow me to be infinitely creative with that type of thing. Once I’ve figured it out there I’ll hop back into Revit and adapt the design.
If I wasn’t conscientious of Revit’s “novel ductwork” constraint, I wouldn’t think to switch platforms for specific design tasks and my final model would reflect the unnecessary constraints of the design tool I was using.
I have learned a lot of things in my almost four years doing both traditional project engineering work and virtual design model production on some of the most innovative deep green and energy efficient buildings in the world, but the following two points are the biggies to me.
- If you are not “in the model”, you are not really participating in the space where an enormously critical and un-entangleable part of design takes place. What you are missing out on is not the transference of “the design” to “the model”, you are missing out on the core design activity itself.
- If you are in the model but not critically aware of the particular enablments and constraints of the tools you are using, you are going to be unaware of how the tools you are using are impacting the design itself, both positively and negatively.
These to me are the core fundamental concepts of the practice of virtual design modeling, ideas that are important for the people on the ground doing the work of shaping the future of our built environment.
The Concrete Lathe Project has a new online home: oslathe.com
The site is still rough but some exciting stuff is coming up that we’ll be posting about there.
My role on that project has been 3D design modeling, drawing prep, and a few other things. Pat is the brains of the operation. I’d say more but you should really just head over to oslathe.com to check it out.
I recently wrote about the importance of failure for learning and that as we ramp up to figuring out how to save the world, failure will be a critical part of our path and needs to be embraced. I stated that our culture is too failure-averse for what we need to do and that we need to foster a culture that accepts failure as a natural part of the learning cycle.
I still think that’s true but it’s dawning on me that it’s only the first step towards an appropriate way of thinking about failure.
Our failures must be intentional. Failure is only good when we actually learn from the experience and are able to apply the lessons to the future. I wrote
Think > Do > Reflect > (repeat)
and don’t get stuck in any part of that cycle.
I just finished reading The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, which is my first real foray into the world of lean thinking. Pretty much everything I read in the book struck me as extremely relevant to people and organizations doing worldchanging work.
Failure is a critical component of the Lean Startup model, but embedded in the process of failure is a rigorous process for extracting information from the failures, i.e. learning. A core concept to the Lean Startup model is called the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop.
Build (a product) > Measure (data) > Learn (ideas) > Next iteration
The key to success lies not in any particular component of this loop, but in minimizing the total time it takes to get through the loop. One of the first steps of a startup is to enter the Build phase as quickly as possible with a minimum viable product, or MVP.
The idea is that one-shot success is virtually impossible (reality is hard to model!) and iteration is expected. The more effort you put into building and polishing a product before testing it against reality, the more effort you have put in that will likely get scrapped. You want to put in just enough features to be able to see how they respond to the variables of reality, so that you minimize the amount of work you do that is irrelevant and maximize the amount of work that gets directly tested and has conclusions drawn from.
Don’t spend time building features you think are valuable into a package and then release the whole thing in one massive launch; test each feature against reality rigorously and be brutally honest about what works and what doesn’t. It’s okay to fake features and services to get feedback about whether or not they’ll actually work before building them.
A common problem with startups, or any productive venture, is a misaligned conception of productivity. A classic mistake is to spend all day hammering through tasks, getting things done and pushing out features. At the end of the day you can feel highly productive, but what did you actually accomplish?
Who cares if you built x widgets if they aren’t actually producing value? You can make metrics for all sorts of things that make it look like you are moving forward (the book calls them “vanity metrics”), but that doesn’t mean you are necessarily moving towards your goals and fulfilling your vision. In fact, you may be getting even further away.
An example of a vanity metric that Ries gives is website hits. What does it actually mean to say that your website got 20,000 hits? Did 20,000 people actually read your website? Or was it one guy with a really hyperactive browser?
An example of a vanity metric in the green built environment, to my mind, is number of LEED projects. It’s popular for design firms to boast that they have some number of LEED Gold projects, some number of LEED Platinum projects. That might be fine to say for marketing purposes and to communicate the firm’s dedication to pursuing green projects, but it’s not a good enough metric to define how “green” your designs actually are.
Sure, it’s great that fourteen of your buildings are LEED Certified – but how much carbon are they saving? How many thousands of gallons of water are they consuming? How much cancer was built into the building? Calling a building LEED Certified hints at these numbers but isn’t actually a decent metric to benchmark your success at building an ecotechnic environment. All of your LEED Platinum buildings might, in fact, use an egregious amount of energy – but if all you’re measuring is the fact that they’re awarded LEED points then you won’t even know that you are actually failing in reality.
In the same way, it’s not good enough to have an idea, build it and push it out, see it fail, and say “ah, well, that failed, it doesn’t work; next idea?”. Why didn’t it work? What caused it to fail? What assumption or set of assumptions didn’t hold up? This kind of knowledge can only come with rigorous measurement and analysis.
In fact, obvious failure without data can be harmful. Often an idea is mostly good but fails due to one missed detail. If the effort isn’t measured and analyzed, people will just see the failure and think that the entire idea doesn’t work and might abandon an entire approach that actually has potential. We can’t afford to throw out good ideas and we can’t afford to have wrong ideas about what works and what doesn’t.
Reis makes the point that at the heart of any new startup lie a number of leap-of-faith assumptions. There have to be; startups are by definition trying new untested things. Entrepreneurs base as much as possible of their business plans on knowledge and observed facts about reality, but down at the core of every startup are some statements that stand alone and are not strictly justified. They boil down to “We think people will pay for X because of Y.”
The task of the startup is to test these assumptions against reality. If the result of the metrics, the validated learning, indicates that the assumptions are false, then it is time to pivot.
“At it’s heart, a startup is a catalyst that transforms ideas into products. As customers interact with those products, they generate feedback and data. The feedback is both qualitative (such as what they like and don’t like) and quantitative (such as how many people use it and find it valuable). As we saw in part one, the products a startup builds are really experiments; the learning about how to build a sustainable business is the outcome of those experiments. For startups, that information is much more important than dollars, awards, or mentions in the press, because it can influence and reshape the next set of ideas.”
I think it’d be really illuminating to take a long hard look at what some of the leap-of-faith assumptions built into a lot of deep green organizations are. I’ll save that for another post.
Succeed at Failure
The entire time I was reading the book I was seeing the parallels between the work of traditional startups and those people and organizations trying to change the world in one form or another (deep green design firms, activist organizations, environmental advocacy organizations, etc).
Startups are trying new things that no one has ever done before. They’re kicked off with a vision of a possible future that has never been tested against reality. They push against the inertia of status quo and try to get massive numbers of people to change their behavior in some way. Startups introduce disruptive technologies and services that change how the world works.
In the same way, no one has built an ecotechnic future before. We don’t really know how it’ll work, what ideas will flesh out and which will turn out to be terrible. I thinkt the tools of lean startups have direct relevance and importance for worldchanging efforts.
What we’re fighting as worldchangers is the massive inertia of the world system, a leviathon, on a one-track trajectory for planetary destruction. The worst possible thing we can do is build our own giant green leviathon, built entirely out of untested assumptions about the world and shoved in one direction based on unvalidated knowledge (myths?).
In summary, my little foray into lean thinking has impressed upon me that we can’t just go out and start failing left and right and expect it to pay off. We must fail well, fail intentionally, fail in a very conscious and reflective sort of way. We need to rigorously measure our failures in a transparent way and develop a specific practice of failure.
Radical Design Activism. I’ve had these three words bouncing around inside my head for months now. I’m trying to figure out what they mean, what they don’t mean, what the act of radical design activism looks and feels like. How do we conceptualize design work as activism? How do we cast ourselves as radical design activists and virtuously fulfill that role?
I still feel very fuzzy on the concept, but I recently ran into some content that made me point my finger at my screen and shout “that’s it!!” or, at least, that’s part of it.
Bret Victor: Inventing on Principle
This talk went big in the comp-sci/software community, I’m told. The whole video is worth watching, especially the second half, but if you only have a few minutes, jump to 36:50. Thanks to Timothy Snyder and Tim Disney for sharing this with me.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have had people throughout history who recognize social wrongs, and saw it as their responsibility to address them. And so there’s this activist lifestyle where a person dedicates themselves to fighting for a cause that they believe in.
And the purpose of this talk is to tell you that this activist lifestyle isn’t just for social activism. As a technologist, you can recognize a wrong in the world, you can have a vision for what a better world can be, and you can dedicate yourself to fighting for principle. Social activists typically fight by organizing, you can fight by inventing.”
Jason McLennan: How hard is it to say “No more cancer in buildings”?
The video is from Jason McLennan‘s Living Future 2010 keynote address.
Again, the entire speech is pure gold, but for the quote start at 22:30.
So the question is, do you have the guts? You have the influence, but do you have the guts?
We need to grow up about the fact that we have an uncontrolled amount of toxic chemicals in the building industry, we have no idea what the hell’s in our products, I don’t care how expert you are in green materials, you have no frikin clue what’s in our materials… and this is a real problem, and we have a right in order to protect human health and safety in the environment. As designers we have an obligation to change how we make things and what’s in our products, do we not?
We know that the materials we are specifying are filled with carcinogens, mutagens, endocrine disruptors, teratogens, you can go down the list of big names, and they’re a problem, and we have this lag time, because we are not an effective quire, but people wanting things to stay exactly the same are an effective choir…
It’s no longer acceptable to have cancer underfoot.
Tell your clients why you won’t specify PVC backed carpet ever again.
(True story: a few months ago I saw Jason McLennan wandering around our office, and I only barely restrained myself from bolting out of my seat and asking for his autograph. I am not even close to kidding.)
Activism “consists of intentional efforts to promote, impede or direct social, political, economic, or environmental change.”
The design activist is not designing for money, fame, just because she can, or for the mere technical challenge of the problem. That word up there is huge and I’ve been thinking about it, too, a lot: intentional.
A design activist will do what Bret Victor said:
- Recognize a wrong (note that he used the word wrong, not problem. There is a difference.)
- Have a vision
- Fight for it
The path of the radical design activist requires the virtues of courage, boldness, and vision. We’re not restricted to the prescriptive path that has been set before us. In fact, doing the same thing as those who have gone before is a pretty good indicator that you’re not doing what you should be, I think. If you’re not all out in uncharted territory, scared and doubtful, being told that you’re doomed to failure, then you’re probably doing it wrong. Everything must change. Everything.
It doesn’t matter if what you’re doing doesn’t wind up being part of the solution, just so long as it’s not the same damn thing we’ve been doing all along. We’ll observe your failure and know not to follow you and that is vitally important. If no one tries new things, how will we know what works and what doesn’t?
So. How do you think about your design work as activism?
Something I talk about a lot is the virtuous relationship between design modeling and the process of design itself. I use the term “design modeling” to indicate the broad practice of creating virtual models that approach a true representation of the designed object or system. My contention is that the act of design modeling improves the design itself; creating visual and informational representations of a design as a part of the design process (and not merely a communication of the final design) is a feedback mechanism that improves the quality of design.
This is not a new idea, certainly. Lots of people get it, know it. Stating it makes it seem trivially obvious.
However, I think that there are large chunks of people who do design that don’t get it. If you were to state the above they’d nod their heads and say “sure, of course”, but on a day to day basis they don’t practice it. Design modeling is something that is intentional and contemplative.
So with that in mind, I’m going to talk about design modeling for a little bit.
Design Modeling in the Built Environment
In the AEC (architectural, engineering, and construction) industry, the term for design modeling is BIM (Building Information Modeling). The idea with BIM is that instead of 2D drawings of pieces of a building that have no informational dimension to them, you create 3D parametric objects that can be assigned informational properties. A 3D window object, for example, can be assigned properties like visible light transmittance, insulation value, cost, etc. A pump can be assigned values for flow, energy consumption, cost, suction head required, etc.
The true value of BIM comes when the properties of all of the elements talk to each other. The chilled beam element is assigned a flowrate. The piping system reads the flowrate from the chilled beam, and all the other elements in that piping system; the total flowrate is passed on to the pump, which can be read off and compared to the equipment selection.
The closer the virtual model is to reality, the better the feedback is for the designer. There are two critical parts to design feedback: speed and accuracy. Speed is simply the reaction time of the simulation to varying input. If you have to sit around and wait for your computer to crunch away through the night if you vary one input, the connection in your mind to how everything fits together is going to be very tenuous.
Garbage In, Garbage Out
Last week I modeled three different mechanical distribution systems for a building. It was short notice and high priority, so I threw the first two models together quickly. They weren’t very pretty but they for the most part visually communicated what we intended to communicate – this chilled beam goes here, those ducts go there, pipe routes through here, etc. Since I did it quickly, it was only a 3D model; I didn’t take the time to build any useful information into the model elements, even though the software gives me that capability.
Consequently, as our team dug into the model and started vetting it, actually figuring out what was going on in the design model proved difficult. We wanted to figure out how much air the model was actually calling for and if the duct sizes were appropriate, which involved counting up the airflows of all the terminal units and summing them together. Doing so by hand (which we had to do, since I hadn’t built the model to be able to even support going back in and inserting intelligent information) proved time-consuming, complex, and error-prone — especially since we were under a crunch (meaning sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated, and irritable).
Doing it Right(er)
Two days later I built another model of a similar but distinct system type. This time, I took the time to make sure my model elements could have the airflows built into them, and made sure that they talked to the ductwork system accurately. It had been a while since I’d done that so it took me a little bit of extra time to clear the cobwebs, but once I had it figured out I was able to finish the model nearly as fast as the previous models I had built. And since this time the entire air-side system actually knew how much air flow I had designed into it — since the design model was a closer approximation to reality than my previous models — the design vetting and coordination process was much faster, simpler, and less prone to error.
[Color-coded view (VG credit: Cristian Neira) enables immediate visual feedback for duct sizing. ]
I used a view that color-coded the ductwork according to friction loss, sized the ductwork in the software on the fly, and at the end had a visual indication that all of the duct branches and mains were sized within our design guidelines. I was able to create an automated equipment schedule that read off the airflow of each element, summed everything, and provided immediate feedback on the actual amount of air I had designed in versus our targeted values.
My little bit of extra effort to make the model intelligent and informational, rather than just three dimensional, saved us hours and provided a better sense that our design was in line with our actual intent.
If you take the time to do it right, design modeling supports better design, engineering, and understanding of the design itself. There’s a mental feedback the closer your virtual model approaches physical reality, and that cycle is virtuous.
Turning inward is a cop out.
I need to clarify well here. I’m not against introspection, nor am I against enjoying and living in a manner that fulfills oneself in a very individual way. Find something you love, do it, live life exuberantly and fully, revel in the absurd beauty of life and existence.
Introspection and personal revelation are a vital part of our work. Any patriarchy, greed, narrow-mindedness, and ignorance thriving within us will manifest in our work and actions. I do not discount or dismiss the importance of the personal/introspective dimension of our revolution. I am discounting the notion that personal introspection is all that we can do, or all that is required.
What I mean by saying I’m against turning inwards is that I disagree with the path that leads from burnout to “personal revolution” as some true effective means of system change.
There is no win scenario for this planet that only involves groups of people quietly making individual decisions that only impact their own lives. It sounds nice, and again, I’m not against people making good personal decisions about their lives; I’m against people doing so and thinking that that is all that is required to change the world.
People need to engage, with force, with the systems that are destroying us. This takes organization, leadership, massive movements of people. It takes epic, enormous contests of will and discipline and power and passion. It requires risk, and uncertainty, and a not insignificant amount of insanity.
Very little about it will be “fun” as our entitled 21st century generation popularly conceives the word, although I do think we have a choice between approaching our work with dread or with clear-minded exuberance.
Some of us will batter ourselves against our work and ultimately destroy ourselves. There are consequences for what we must do, but we can hopefully find solace in the knowledge that the price of inaction is far greater.
We don’t all have to be Patton but we do all have to fight.
Do Something About It
We have to do things. We don’t have any more time for endless equivocation, analysis, or critique. It’s mind-bogglingly important to do things that matter and that don’t just perpetuate the system, but we need to realize that we’re not going to do everything right every time. We’re going to mess up, but we need to understand that failure is inevitable and good in a sense because A) It means we’re at least doing something and B) Failure is how we learn. We need to be failing a lot, quickly, smartly.
This to me implies a different attitude to failure than the dominant one.
Success is an Iterative Process
I sometimes hear people say “We know what we need to do, it’s just hard getting everyone on board.” This is wrong.
We don’t know what we need to do.
We do know that we need to do something, and we have some ideas for things we need to try. But all we’ve got is the first steps of an idea of a civilization that won’t destroy itself. We might be totally wrong — what ends up actually working might end up looking totally different from anything anyone is currently imagining. But we won’t know for sure until we actually start doing those things and observing those failures.
This article (thanks Neil!) doesn’t depress me. Why? Because you can’t fail at something unless you are DOING something. Germany is clearly doing something. They are discovering all the ways in which their well-intentioned projects are sucking, failing at their original intent, and otherwise not working.
We can’t look at this and say “Oh my god, we’re failing, we’re wrong, our task is impossible and we’re totally doomed.” Failure is learning. Failure is adaptation and iteration. It’s part of the process of tuning complex systems towards smooth operation.
Successful failure requires open mindedness and the humility to recognize that we aren’t as smart as we think we are, that reality is vastly more complex than we’ll ever be able to model, and that unexpected things will happen.
Attitudes that are intolerant and harshly critical of failure contribute to burnout and hopelessness. A lot of us have this idea that we need to be perfect. We need to work on perfectly green or socially just projects, that all our innovative ideas need to pan out.
Things don’t work that way though. We need to embrace the complexity of reality, be honest about how things are working, and move on.
The caveat to is that we can’t be okay with compromise. We need to aim for purely ecological, regenerative, non-destructive, socially just infrastructures, systems, and relationships, and not be okay with working on bullshit greenwash projects. What we do need to be okay with is honest failure and then have the courage to be open about our failures, discuss them, critique them, learn from them, teach from them, and then implement the lessons we learn in the next project.
Think. Do. Reflect. Repeat. Don’t get stuck in any one part of that.
I’ve been mulling over a follow-up post to my last post here, but it has been difficult to try to pull everything into one concise package. So I’m thinking what I’ll do is break out into a mini-series, sketch out some notes and what I’ve been contemplating recently and having conversations with people about.
Also, I don’t want people to think I’m being excessively angsty or come off as a doomer, because I’m not (really, I swear), and we need to move past this. Pic related.
Cynicism is Obedience
Giving in to burnout is to lose. The forces in this world don’t want things to change. This isn’t a conspiracy theory, and I’m not pointing fingers at greedy, rich corporate toolbags (but, hey, since we’re on the topic: fuck those guys). Those guys are useful targets for the daily Two Minutes Hate sessions but what we’re really up against is a vicious system that empowers and fuels people like that. Corporate asshats are a symptom of that disease, not the cause of it. They’re the phlegm you hock up when you have a chest cold, not the chest cold itself.
What I’m casting as adversary in this narrative is the collective intelligence and emergent intention of the entire world system. The gargantuan momentum of society that keeps everything going the way it is. This is why we need to question everything and fight everything, but this is also why we cannot give in to despair and angst and allow our energy and passion to be diffused. This leviathan wants us to be cynical. It wants us to feel defeated. It doesn’t mind our hate and disgust, as long as we’re too overwhelmed and too over everything to actually do something about it.
In a weird way, then, maintaining emotional balance and even cheerfulness becomes a revolutionary practice. Radical faith.
You work in a “green field”. All those politicians talking about green collar jobs? That’s you.
You feel good about going to work. You feel like you’re making a difference, helping save the world in some way or another.
You worked your ass off in college, and you were involved in a lot of clubs and organized a lot of events: green job fairs, Earth Day, sustainability clubs, etc. You volunteered a ton.
Now you work really, really hard. You know the scope and scale of the world’s problems are enormous, but you know that a million people making a little bit of progress each adds up. You don’t mind working late. You often pull all nighters and spend sunny weekends indoors to meet a deadline even though the pay is, y’know, whatever.
The purpose of your work is compelling, and that’s why you’re passed out under your desk at 4AM drooling on industrial carpet, not really sleeping but not really awake either. Hyper-efficient green designs float around your mind’s eye, and tables of emissions numbers, energy projections and life-cycle analyses scroll across the inside of your eyelids like a cruel marquee.
Your reading list over the past decade is a trail of bread-crumbs leading up to this point in your life. Silent Spring, Natural Capitalism, World Made by Hand, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, The Monkey Wrench Gang, Cradle to Cradle, The Worldchanging Handbook, The Ecotechnic Future, Peak Oil, Guns, Germs, and Steel, The Collapse of Complex Societies, The Ecology of Freedom, Europe and the People Without History, The End of the Long Summer, The IPCC Report on Climate Change, 2004, 2007, 2011.
But things are starting to change in you, a little, subtly. You are more scared now. You have hope for the future – what choice do you have? – but sometimes, late at night or when you drink by yourself, you’re scared out of your mind. Sometimes your vision blurs a little bit and you miss when you go to pick something up off the table. Every once in a while, a random beautiful four year old will run giggling by and you’ll be overcome with vertigo and need to sit down, and you’ll look at the ground so people don’t see you crying. And you won’t really know why the tears are flowing, not exactly.
You go through intense periods of burn-out. You question whether or not anything you’re working on will make any damn bit of difference in the end. The responsibility you feel to accomplish things that actually matter is crushing, but the forces that thwart the real change you’re trying to implement seem indomitable. Even if you think what you’re doing is worth doing in the long run (you have doubts about that, too), you’re not sure it’ll even be allowed to exist. You’re not sure it won’t get commodified, subsumed, procured, ignored, torn down.
You go through periods where it’s difficult to focus on anything. These times can last days or weeks. Your stomach is often in a knot and you’re pretty sure your heart beats too fast most of the time. Maybe that’s just the gallons of shitty coffee you drink to make it through the day because you can’t fall asleep at night. You’ve been losing weight for years even though you aren’t trying to.
You have a sneaking suspicion that you are a paranoid delusional, but the things you’re scared about are the same things people like James Hansen are scared about. James Hansen isn’t a paranoid delusional, is he? You want desperately to be wrong. It actually feels better when people scoff at your fears. You hope they’re right.
You had a pleasant conversation over coffee with someone a lot smarter and more educated than you, and she mostly appeared to agree that your fears were legitimate. You hope she was just being polite. You hope you are in an ideological echo chamber, reinforcing extreme viewpoints that deviate over time from reality. You secretly hope that you are the type of person you routinely rail against.
What do you do?
What can you do?
You stop arguing with people who think everything is fine. They seem happy; leave them be. Maybe they know something you don’t instead of the other way around.
You push on. You keep fighting the good fight (you think) because the choices are clearly
- A) Keep fighting or
- B) Blow your mind out on obscenely irresponsible quantities of recreational drugs
You keep refining the purpose and aim of your work with the intent of working on things that can actually help other people. You become less tolerant of obvious bullshit. You call people out on their greenwash to their faces in crowded rooms. You can see in their eyes that to them this is more of the same money game we’ve all been playing and it makes you nauseous. This is not a game to you.
You are the fulcrum of fourteen generations.
Seven generations of your ancestors are screaming at you. This is the world we built. This is what we fought and bled and died for. This world is the culmination of our dreams and aspirations. We sacrificed everything to build this world and you are trying to destroy it. How dare you. How dare you.
Seven generations of your descendents are silently observing you. They do not speak, but their eyes say everything. They say that they want to live on a planet filled with life. They want to live in a rich, diverse world, like you did, with opportunity for peace and fulfillment.
By the time your descendents are alive there will be little choice left; theirs will be lives of adaptation and reflection. They will reflect on what those who had the knowledge and power to act actually did with their time and energy.