Why The Environmental Issue is Cool Again

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by: Scott Goodson

A few years ago, while I was starting up StrawberryFrog in Amsterdam, I met Carl Rohde, a thinking-man’s lecturer in cultural sociology at the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands. He is also the director of Signs Of The Time, a virtual worldwide network of market and trend researchers. Carl recently offered me a new perspective on the great global enviornmental debate. Since at least half a year he and his cool hunters have increasingly been mentioning a new (well relatively new) concept as quite cool and inspiring: the environmental footprint we all leave on this planet.

Carl wrote the following:

“The environmental footprint is the amount of the earth’s surface that is needed to supply a person’s energy requirements. In Europe this amounts to an average of eight soccer-pitches per person. In Brazil it is far less, but all in all it is far too much to make the world a sustainable place. Incidentally, the people of Dubai leave the widest footprint, because anything they eat or drink has to be flown in, consuming masses of energy. Recently television makers interviewed millionaire ladies on the Great Millionaire Fair that is travelling the world right now. The ladies did not care too much for their large foot imprints – with their airplane trips and their gas-guzzling cars – confirming their status as irresponsible rich bitches. After all, the environment is a real issue, and if we, the less fortunate, are required to take care, than surely, so should they? A serious issue, presented in an entertaining way. Right now, all over the world Blood Diamonds is a big hit. This not so much because Leonardo DiCaprio has turned into a really, really good actor. Blood Diamond is an impressive movie about the highly reputed and established worldwide diamond industry that secretly financed a very nasty citizens’ War in Sierra Leone, Africa. (A true story). Of course, Blood Diamonds is also an action movie but most of all it is a visual complaint about totally UNresponsible corporate practices. That it the lesson the movies teaches. And when the audiences only want to learn in an entertaining manner, you get movies like Blood Diamonds. Once again: a serious issue, presented in an entertaining way. One more example, the last Oscar circus was a very green circus. “The Oscar goes green”, according the American press, with more celebrities making their statements by driving environmental friendly cars. And one last example, the theme of the last Sao Paulo Fashion week was all about Sustentabilidade. Motorola, Volkswagen and Tetrapak all participated and made their statement.

Socially responsible enterprise is fashionable. Remarkably, the environment seems to be the best-seller. Political leaders in Europe all want to make their countries the most innovative ones when it comes to environment technology. Leading CEOs of the world have told us in a joint publication just how badly it’s needed. New York has started a daring green welfare initiative to ensure it remains as cool in the future as it is now. The number of (ex-president) Clinton cities is growing: world cities that mean to set the trend for innovative environmental policies. And nobody could have missed Al Gore touring the world. Meanwhile, the consumer seems to agree. We have known it for some time from our own surveys, but all of a sudden it is everywhere: the environment is Cool.

That trend is set to continue, as it is a solid trend of mentality, consisting of several layers that are all pointing the same direction. Here they are:

(1) Remember how we were post-modern in the 90s? History was about to end (Fukuyama). The great ideologies were no more (Lyotard). Consumerism, freedom and individualism were the unbridled trinity of existence. Together they were sometimes referred to as tolerance: Who am I to judge the way you live your life? Who are you to judge the way I live mine? Well, that post-modern mentality of live and let live is no longer cool. After 9/11, the world got involved in a new ideological struggle – so what happened to the supposed End of History? Shortly after, it turned out that tolerance was a more problematic and less meaningful term than we used to believe. All over the world people give voice to a growing concern regarding too much hyper-individualism, too much post-modern detachment. Life became both more menacing and more exiting. Urgent Lives our Cool Hunt trend ¬reports termed it.

(2) This realisation of Urgent Lives can be found in all generations, but especially the twenty and thirty-somethings would put it to creative use. One of our cool hunters in Milan demonstrated this clearly. He is hip, clever and he is an architect. Quite unexpectedly he fulminated against the meaninglessness of post-modern architecture. This self-willed combination of various historical styles – Greek pillars in plastic, colourfully painted marble, the spectacle and theatrics of Las Vegas – would have to end. Society and the future need something different, but what? An architec¬ture that adds, innovatively applies ideas of involvement, quality of life, of durability. We are not doing ourselves any favours with post-modern cuteness. The same sounds come to us from Shang Hi and from Sao Paulo. This turn towards the environment in new architecture is far from boring. On the contrary, the quest for sustainable materials and techniques is exiting and inspiring. Design in many fields will follow. Even fashion, the pre-eminent domain of the mentality of who cares, so long as your clothes impress people, is getting involved; from Kuyichi to American Apparel. Guts & Positivity, we called it in our Cool Hunt trend ¬reports. More commitment. Less superfi¬cia¬lity.

(3) There is also a third, political factor. With a Middle East that seems more than ever ready to explode, with Putin occasionally threatening to stop the flow of oil to the West and with the insatiable hunger of the Chinese for energy, Europe and the United States are more concerned than ever before about their energy dependency. Hence the increased interest in sustainable technologies. Just flick through a few international business journals and you’ll find an increase in the number of advertisements from big companies that make the most of their environmentally friendly results and ambitions. The consumer seems to approve. The fact that the economical Toyota Prius is now considered cool in America is partly inspired by the celebrities promoting it, but also by a desire to be less dependent upon foreign oil. Environmentally friendly actions and enlightened self-interest, both in politics and in business, are no longer opposites. They are in line with each other.

(4) Finally, there is the cultural factor of generation. The message of the Club of Rome has been around for more than thirty years, and it has had quite a few results. Yet the joylessness and the Puritanism of it (and of the way it was presented) seem to have been rather harmful to the environment’s case. It ensured that the environment would remain the domain of the open-sandals-and-woolly-socks-type, neither attractive, nor inspiring. Totally uncool. But now the tide has turned. The old sourpusses, with all due respect, are up for retirement. The truth of their message is being recycled by and for younger generations. They have chosen a more entertaining and optimistic approach.

So we’ve seen four factors. Post-modern live-and-let-live has become too shallow after 9/11. Life has become more urgent(1). A new generation of architects and designers is touched by this and allows itself to be inspired by innovative forms of sustainability that always have to look good as well. After all, the spoiled consumer knows what he likes. He knows it too well, actually(2). Thirdly, the West has geopolitical reasons for investing heavily in environmentally friendly energy consumption(3). Knowledge in this field could also later be exported to budding BRICK-nations. Finally, it has been shown that sourpuss Puritanism does not have to be the only or final answer to the worldwide environmental crisis. It has turned out to be a generation thing. That generation is now slowly leaving the political arena, and the environment can be cool again(4). This is the groundwork upon which Al Gore’s message and that of the cities of Clinton resonate. This is the hype. The reasons for the environment becoming cool so quickly, lie much deeper, and they are much more substantial.

Original Post: http://scottgoodson.typepad.com/my_weblog/2007/04/why_the_environ.html