Love vs Power In Iceland

For some Icelanders, in a country whose inhabitants have survived 1,100 winters without central heating, the environmental costs of aluminium smelting are worth paying if the alternative is a return to a life in grass-roofed huts.

To many, that choice does not feel far-fetched. Andri Snær Magnason’s grandfather, for example, worked continuously on the land and sea in order to survive. As the author of Dreamland recalls, “my family caught fish, burned driftwood, milked cows, and herded sheep. Food was life for twenty to thirty people in a house of 1,400 square feet. Everything edible was cut and dried: One sheep represented a month and a bit of human survival next winter. That was their reality”.

The vitality of that living memory is one reason debate about Iceland’s economic future  seems to have been limited to a stark choice: sell the country, body and soul, to global energy and extractive interests – or go back to those huts.

The search for a third way was one underlying theme at last week’s Poptech in Reykjavik on the theme “Toward Resilience”.  My invitation (from Andrew Zolli) to take part afforded a welcome opportunity to re-connect with a country confronted by an agonising choice: “eaten-alive-or-growing-to-live?”. Read More »

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The Hidden Costs of Tiger Water

This jequitiba tree in Brazil moves hundreds of gallons of water up into its canopy every day. It does so without pumps, without electricity, and without recourse to the concrete reservoirs and sewage treatment plants on which most modern cities depend.

The jequitiba is a joyous marvel to behold, of course – but it would also be an practical inspiration to the world’s designers and city builders, faced with imminent energy descent, if only we were minded to notice.

But we’re not. As with energy, although threats to the security of water supply command a lot of attention, we’ve lost touch with the realities of where it comes from, and how we use it. By the year 2050, as a consequence of this hydro-myopia, as many as two-thirds of the world population will be living in areas subject to water stress.

Here is a thought experiment to demonstrate how alienated we’ve become from water. Imagine emptying 500 litre bottles of water into a huge pot and carrying it 50 miles – every day of the year. Read More »

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Why White Is Wicked

[Photograph by Tim Mitchell]

You probably need to be naked to read this book with a clear conscience. This reader, for one, felt like stripping off as the revelations piled up:
– it took 700 gallons of fresh water to make my cotton t-shirt;
– it’s partly down to me that 85% of the Aral Sea In Uzbekistan has disappeared because its water was used to grow cotton in the desert;
– a quarter of all the insecticides in the world are used on cotton crops;
– buckets of hazardous sludge are generated during the coating process of the metal buttons on my jeans;
– white is energy-intensive because of all the bleaching;
– being clean, and wearing white to prove it, has weakened my immune system;
– I‘ll use six times more energy washing my favourite shirt than was needed to make it;
– nearly all the textiles in my life will end up in landfill – garments, household textiles, carpets, the lot. Read More »

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It’s (Still) Not Just The Bags


[I’m re-publishing this story to celebrate the fact that I just got to Sao Paulo, met Adelia Borges, and discovered that the first print-run of her book has sold out in just a couple of months. Adelia explained that one of the organisations doing great work here in Brazil, in support the development of indigenous craft enterprises, is Sebrae – at whose place in Belo Horizonte I’m giving a talk this coming Wednesday. My topic will be: “Food and Fibre During The Coming Energy Transition” – or something along those lines]. Read More »

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How to game the gift economy

In pre-market-based societies, goods and services were distributed on the basis of gift-giving and reciprocity. The most effective strategy for security, in an age without bank accounts and insurance policies, was to develop a reputation for generosity and sharing. This is a heart-warming story – so shall we put it to the test?

Here follows a case study in how the gift economy works. All of the following content, which has always been available here free, will remain so:

872 blog posts and essays;
23 essays on food systems and design;
20 to-do lists and handouts;
13 writers recommended for their insights on on design and energy;
83 radical alternatives to university and design school;
19 off-the-wall action plans for replacing education with something feral;
34 more meaningful things to do in your city than make it “smart”;
24 provocations on the future of journeying and mobility;
100 books (selected from thousands) in our fabled Reading List;
23 texts that ask, “what’s so great about social innovation?”;
42 stories about art, communication and embodied perception;
9 Doors of Perception conferences (especially transcripts and reports);
11 City Eco Labs and xskools (i.e. the learnings therefrom)

The way the gift economy works is simple: if any of this content proves valuable to you, please consider making a donation. If your monthly donation totals more than the cost of a coffee and muffin in Starbucks – or one per cent of the cost per year of your college education – then go directly to Gift Economy Heaven.


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Who Is the Arne Jacobsen of Urban Food?

Illustration by Helle Schou Pedersen

At a workshop on food in cities at Aarhus School of Architecture  in Denmark last week I learned: that the largest food exporter in Sweden is Ikea (meatballs); that for every meal eaten in a UK restaurant, nearly half a kilo of food is wasted; that about 40 percent of the food produced in the United States isn’t consumed; that every day, Americans waste enough food to fill the Rose Bowl;that US citizens waste 50 per cent more food today than they did in 1974; and that that doggy bags are taboo in Danish restaurants.

These were spicy facts to be confronted with – but what is one to do with this sort of information? Read More »

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Istanbul: City of Seeds

It was generous of the The Building Information Centre (YEM) and 34Solo to host an xskool event in their city last week. Our starting premise, after all, was that Turkey’s 30 year long construction boom is losing momentum. True, the sound of jackhammers was pervasive in Istanbul during our visit – but the cold winds of the global crisis are making themselves felt. An estimated 600,000 dwellings stand unsold in the city and, in January, a first attempt to raise private funding for a third bridge across the Bosphorous failed. Not a single company showed interest.

Back in 1995, Mayor Erdogan of Istanbul declared that a third bridge would be “murder” for forests and reservoirs around the city. Read More »

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Mr Icarus: Meet Mr Gatherer

All credit to the brave persons from Silent UK for sharing with us their spectacular photographs from the top of Europe’s tallest building, the Shard, in London.I’m especially grateful because their images provides me with a terrific opening slide for a workshop in Turkey at a conference called Ekodesign. (See the subsequent story, above). I’d been struggling with a challenge: how to explain, to a bunch of bright architects and city managers, that retrofitting solar panels and green roofs will not be an adequate response to the energy challenges that are upon us.

The Shard caper happened just as I discovered the work of a geologist called Earl Cook who, in 1971, devised a simple scale of social development measured in terms of kilocalories “captured from the environment”.  Read More »

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Beyond Good Intentions – The Movie

Humanitarian crises caused by civil wars or natural disasters, such as in Haiti, often trigger a wave of support from us, the public. But our support raises two difficult questions: first, do our generous donations actually have the desired effect – or any positive effect? and second, what kind of evidence is available to ensure that any debate about aid is well-informed, and that the people most affected are given a prominent voice?

The politics of aid were brought back into sharp focus with the recent publication in The Atlantic of The White Savior Industrial Complex by Teju Cole . In a trenchant piece, Cole wrote: “If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.”

But how? Read More »

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