A paper published in Nature this week confirms that humans have reached the dubious milestone of producing more stuff (from concrete to plastic) than the total mass of living matter on the planet.
The study estimates that the amount of plastic alone is greater than all land animals and marine creatures. Maybe it is finally time for us to see the benefits of doing – and producing – less.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Product designers should be in favour of anything that is manufactured because we make a living from developing it. Well, we used to be able to get away with that, but not anymore. There are far too many pointless products, piles of electronic waste and polluted oceans – and we need to start looking at why we make things, not just how.
Let’s have a look at a few things we could really do without...
1. Human beings could manage just fine without many of the things you’ll find on Amazon, but the leaf blower is in a class of its own. These products are almost a paradigm of what is wrong with modern consumer capitalism (thought I’d go for the jugular on this one). They use significant amounts of engineering skill, energy, plastic, electronics and Co2 to…blow leaves and bits of grass about - most of which end up back where they started. Add in the noise and exhaust gasses and you have a perfect example of a useless, wasteful, irritating method of relieving people of their cash.
Because that is the point of leaf blowers – to make money from people who can’t be bothered to use a broom or a rake. If you think that is a bit harsh, take a look at this blog post that goes into forensic detail about how genuinely awful these products are.
2. We also need to take a fresh look at vehicles. Whilst I’m aware that a significant proportion of the population is getting larger, do we really need our cars and particularly our pick-ups to become so enormous? Have we really started moving much larger things, requiring the Toyota Hi Lux to almost double in size, or could it be more to do with ‘look at me, I’ve got a big truck’? It also seems strange that at the same time as there is so much talk about vehicles and efficiency, the auto industry seems obsessed with developing extreme sports cars and electric versions of massive limousines and SUVs. Even a cursory glance at data on the carbon implications of large battery production and the availability of the materials needed to make them suggest that far more radical solutions are needed – like the Riversimple Rasa and the Aptera.
3. Continuing the theme of increased scale, I’m going to veer slightly off the topic of product design and suggest that we could really do without… Trident missiles. As our current nuclear deterrent is coming up for renewal, and the bill for the next generation soars to a possible £170 billion, isn’t it time to reconsider our approach? Germany, Spain, Australia and Canada seem to manage without nuclear weapons, and we could develop a significant renewable energy industry – and create huge numbers of good jobs - with a budget like that.
Scrapping nuclear weapons would be an act of folly for most people, and I can see why, but we need to think radically if we are to deal with the real threats that confront us. Doing less will need to become our mantra in a society that has always been focussed on doing more. Less travel, less waste, less red meat, less pointless junk. In contrast, we need more products that can help us live sustainably, not just because it is sensible, but also because there is consumer demand for it. Now would be a good time for manufacturers to start putting more engineering development effort into products that can help people reduce their carbon output, like the new air-source heat pumps from Vaillant. If our economies began to genuinely value such products, and our governments and industries prioritised them - instead of blowing leaves about - we could develop some interesting solutions to pressing problems.