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Compostmodern 09: Saul Griffith Demands Heirloom Design

Saul Griffith knows how to deliver grim planetary outlooks with irreverent humor. His Compostmodern talk began with a slide of a contrarian T-shirt graphic that reads "Design won't save the world. Go volunteer in a soup kitchen, you pretentious f**k."

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The designers in the audience were certainly piqued at this point, and listened carefully to a gloomy survey of our worldwide energy and emissions situation, before Griffith threw out some suggested solutions for the professional attendees and design students to gnaw on.

Griffith has conducted an incredibly meticulous audit of his own consumption patterns, calculating the carbon output and environmental impact of everything from his nightly glass of wine to the miles he travels annually by plane. Not to be mistaken for a hypocrite as he calls for massive change, he readily admits that his own individual power usage tops the average North American's 11,000 Watt lifestyle (the average Bangladishi uses about 500). He jokingly calls himself of a climate hater, but his work demonstrates otherwise.

Griffith, who often gives heavily scientific talks to energy-focused audiences, had a handful of primary points for the day's design audience.

1. Get used to numbers. It's not possible to calculate the impact of a product or building you design without knowing some math.

2. The client is no longer the client, the planet is the client. Always. Designers must work with clients to understand that priorities revolve around doing what's needed in order to reduce energy consumption and prevent further warming.

3. We need an heirloom culture, meaning that designers should be creating products that last so long they can be handed down from generation to generation (see the new howies line). He said he plans to give a Rolex watch and a Mont Blanc pen to his newborn son this year with the intention that they be his only timepiece and writing implement for the next 100 years.

4. We need to tranform into a share economy, in which objects that we only use on occasion are co-owned or borrowed from a central source, reducing the number that need to be produced while benefiting from the service the object provides. This model is being played out in car-sharing services and tool-lending libraries but could extend much more broadly.

While Griffith's view of the future could be construed as bleak, he expressed confidence that he and other engineers will take care of "their job"—to be sure that renewable energy spreads across the globe at the rate it must (which is alarmingly fast)—and encouraged designers to do their part to be sure that waste and impact plummet in the next few years. He called 2009 the "year of peak waste" and pointed out the possible silver lining of our recession, which is that the natural reduction in consumption due to economic stress will lighten our footprints.

He concluded with a point that should be obvious but often seems forgotten: "Sustainable needs to work for a long time." ;Indeed, the word is used so much these days we can overlook the fact that sustain is at its root. One of the challenges, as an audience member pointed out during the Q&A, is to figure out how to sustain the number of design jobs out there even as we work towards a culture that demands fewer products, and how to make long-lasting objects affordable for more people. There are no easy answers, but the pursuit of solutions is perhaps one of the most important goals a designer can work towards in the near future.

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