Deep Dive | How to burn less stuff

POC21_BURN_LESS-21Sven Stegemann

How to burn less stuff

One evening last week, an awkward silence fell over our crowded lounge. A hundred people, speechless. Bruce Sterling’s knee was shaking in order to get rid of the tension which had been caused by the words he had just thrown into the room.

We had listened to the famous futurist’s story, how he had gotten into sustainable design and the Fab Lab movement. This man has seen stuff and made experiences. His take on the core topics of POC21 was sharp and void of romanticism. As a result, his conclusions and advices were not easy to digest. To many attendees, his talk even felt like it lacked some of the positivity you need in the business of changing the world.

So what did he say? In short, he started by warning us against being excessively naive about the positive effects of innovations in general, which often end up being corrupted by people with less idealistic mindsets. He then told us to remain mindful of our own psychological dark side, which makes us do morally disputable things against our better knowledge. But above all, Bruce gave a puzzling answer to our most urgent question regarding how to tackle the challenges we face at POC21: “Burn less stuff.”

Let’s go back a week earlier, when we all gathered in the Lounge at night for a so-called “mindfuck session.” Daniel Kruse suggested we take a step back and consider the big picture. Most of the discussion turned out to be about the merger of the “open source” and “sustainability” movements. We simplified the matter by equating the two approaches with the active verbs of “doing/making” (open source) vs. “thinking/researching” (sustainability science). The unanimous view was that both movements had been walking next to each other for quite some time, even flirting with each other here and there and were now shyly making contact. The fruit to be born of this union – I may simplify a little bit –  would be a beautiful child who would eventually lead us out of the darkness. So one has to ask:  how does this optimistic view relates to Bruce’s mere pessimistic conclusion?

Let’s have a quick fact check. Indeed, open source is everywhere. Remote Hippie communes are building on it as well as Tesla’s Elon Musk. Many platforms have connexions with the open source philosophy, such as Wikipedia or many in the related field of collaborative economy. Some of the projects are regarded by a majority to serve the “good” side of the force, such as Linux, others are criticized for the monopolization of the created commons, such as Facebook, which is harnessing all the data of its users.

Seeing this whole spectrum in front of me, I agree with Bruce Sterling that open source and the collaborative economy are merely another mode of production, which in itself does not contain any moral value per se. You can open source tools for basic human needs or increased shared knowledge, but you can also draw designs for guns or pave the way for decentralized terror practices. Open source is all about networks and distributed tasks, and can thus be exploited.

So here is the cognitive challenge: does the moral neutrality of open source change by adding the cognitive merits of the sustainability movement? Let’s have a look at a similar field in which we could already gather some experience: social entrepreneurship. Indeed, it is no less than the combination of capitalism and sustainability science at work. If I had to put it in one sentence, I would claim that the results are at best mixed, and sadly often disappointing. We have seen too many positive approaches eventually causing collateral damage: micro-credit is a good example of that. Other initiatives are simply just not scalable, and too often capitalism hits in the form of mission drifts, when the financial bottom line turns out to be more solid than its social and ecological “equivalents”.

In their analysis, critics often state that “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” (Albert Einstein). In the case of social entrepreneurship this is a reference to the main features of capitalism, our current dominant mode of production. And I personally agree: competition, one basic ingredient, is less likely to bring about something positive than cooperation, which in turn is essential to the open source movement.

However, I do not think we have reached the core of the matter yet. While there are very inspiring examples of social business despite the fact that they operate in a competitive environment, not everything is gold in the “green” open source movement. This suggests there are other elements at play. This is why I truly believe that we should take Bruce’s warnings regarding corrupted innovations and our own dark side seriously.

I guess we all have overserved ourselves at some point where emotional needs, be they on the surface of our consciousness or talking to us through intermediaries from the deep, overruled our moral and rational value system. Whatever we are inventing, and whatever innovation we are bringing about: our mindset plays a huge role. And its effects, which we have seen at work both in traditional business as in social entrepreneurship, might easily spill over to any new mode of production.

The psyche is truly a complex matter, and books have been filled with theories about moral decision making or what drives us in general. I would like to simplify here by suggesting that at least one very important driver of how we act is fear. It is a strong, existential emotion, which thus has the power to take an important role at the core of our dark side. Next of being useful in many situations, fear makes us falling back into trained, simple behavior patterns, when actually a calm and wise decision would be needed. Instead of developing a holistic solution to climate change, we grab some chocolate, think of a place to hide or how we can get on top of the system in order to survive. That is how we have been trained: consumerism, individualism, and competition.

It shouldn’t sound surprising that these moral traits have a great impact on our ideas, solutions and prototypes. Indeed, while some3-D-print new pleasurable forms of consumption and distractions appear, an Elon Musk still feels the urge to be on top and in power of everything. As long as we do not face our deep rooted fears and traits, we are under the constant threat of being enslaved by habits. Hence I would like to suggest to add a third, crucial element to thinking and doing, which had been underrepresented during the first two weeks of the camp: not doing.

I am happy to see that we at POC21 are currently developing more and more practices which help us to relax and let go of fears. Aaron of Aker is offering Yoga classes in the morning, several people are meditating or taking the time for a walk, and overall our community is growing stronger and providing every single one of us a feeling of belonging and safety. And thus it also becomes easier to think about and criticize ideas with all of their systemic effects on our world, and come up with truly effective solutions.

So if it’s all about a mind shift, is the open source movement such a big thing at all? Yes it is.

First of all, it offers a unique historic chance: we are at the fringe of a big transition. A new mode of production is likely to crack up all dominating patterns and structures of our economies and cultural settings. We will suddenly find free space in which we can move with new practices.

This secondly empowers every single one of us to regain control of what sustains us, through local production and consumption of food, the design and creation of tools and furniture, housing or even electricity.

At the end of the day, the core principle of cooperation will help us moving beyond the painful inner conflict we had with our capitalism-based approaches. Competition just didn’t go well together with love, caring and compassion.

If we manage to mix all of these elements together, we can be optimistic about our work. Several ideas have already been developed and are present at POC21: the XYZ Cargo bike, a simple and eco-frienly solution for urban environments, urban farming/gardening tools as those of Aker or Biceps Cultivatus, and renewable energy solutions such as SunZilla. I guess we are already on the way to fulfill Bruce’s simple claim. In the end POC21 is all about exactly this: burning less stuff.

written by Sven Stegemann