Design Observer Twenty Years 2003-2023

John Thackara | Essays

From Doomers to Do-ers [July 2010]

This free monthly newsletter starts conversations on issues to do with design for resilience — and thereby reveals opportunities for action. It also brings you news of Doors of Perception events and encounters. Back issues are now archived on Design Observer. To subscribe to future newletters by John Thackara click here.

Donate, and live longer — Modern society ‘at risk’ says Lloyds — Peak Tantalum threat to green tech — Financial crisis double dip — How banksters starve poor people — Food revolution slowed — Enough with reports — Transitioning Tales — Local money online — Schools for change — Dementia advice service — Radical Efficiency Zones — Where does that thing come from? — The power of micro-experiments — Hacklab at sea — Secret Garden Party — Open Source biodiversity — Piksels on Skjerjehamn

A Swedish study has found that ‘survival was 29 percent better in the donor group’. The study concerned kidney donors, it’s true – but we’re confident the principle also applies if you donate money to Doors of Perception and help us develop the site. A 'donate' button is on the lower left of your screen when you go here:


A new report from Lloyds Insurance and Chatham House warns of 'dramatic changes in the
energy sector…failure to prepare will be expensive and potentially catastrophic’. Modern society has been built on the back of access to relatively cheap, combustible, carbon-based energy sources, the report states, but ‘that model is outdated…We are heading towards a global oil supply crunch and price spike (in which) energy infrastructure will become increasingly vulnerable’. The Lloyds analysis is not new; its novelty lies in the fact that two establishment bodies have ‘come out’ on the subject of peak energy and its possible consequences. Yikes.

Many people assume that ‘green tech’ will save our high entropy lifestyles as oil and gas become less abundant.. But rare earth metals essential to the production of green tech — mobile phones, thin layer photovoltaics, lithium-ion batteries, synthetic fuels, among others — are running short. The EU Raw Materials Initiative says that we are approaching Peak Antimony, Peak Cobalt, Peak Gallium, Peak Germanium, Peak Indium, Peak Platinum, peak Palladium, Peak Neodymium and Peak Tantalum. Blimey.

‘Double dip’ sounds more like an ice cream you’d buy at the beach than a financial meltdown. A more somber tone was set at last month’s Transition Towns conference by Stoneleigh, the co-editor of Automatic Earth. In a clinical presentation, she described the convergence of Peak Oil, and the 'collapse of global Ponzi finance', as 'a perfect storm of converging phenomena that threaten to sink our age of prosperity through wealth destruction, social discontent, and global conflict'. The energy crisis and the financial crisis are feeding off each other, said Stoneleigh. Describing the hydrocarbon epoch (the one we're in now) as a 'fleeting interlude in history', she went on to anticipate a 'net energy cliff' and an accompanying deflation. Phew.

The most sickening of this month’s reports is about food and finance. Jayati Ghosh, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, has found that the dramatic rise and fall of world food prices in 2007-08 was largely a result of speculative activity in global commodity markets. At the height of the financial boom, he reports, so-called ‘index investors’ were thought to own 35 per cent of corn futures contracts, 42 per cent of soybean contracts and 64 per cent of wheat contracts. ‘Cultivators and food consumers appear to have lost in this phase of extreme price instability’, he writes; the only gainers from this process were ‘financial intermediaries who were able to profit from rapidly changing prices’. Despite the recent fall in agricultural prices in world trade, food prices remain high and even continue to increase for vulnerable groups. Yuk.

The food situation is not much better in the rich-at-the-moment countries. Heather Rogers writes in American Prospect that ‘the local food revolution doesn’t stand a chance’ because President Obama's Department of Agriculture is doing little to ensure the survival of holistic local farmers. Rogers continues that ‘the government continues to channel public resources disproportionately to conventional growers — benefits that then flow to the corporations from which they buy their seeds and chemicals and on to agribusiness processors in the form of cheap grain’. This text, too, is grim — but Michael Pollan says it’s a must-read. Gulp.


In the past week alone I’ve read four or five stern warnings, from people I respect, that writing reports, proposing policies, and designing plans, is no substitute for taking practical action in our daily lives. Otherwise stated: You can’t eat words. The most succinct, as so often, comes from John Michael Greer: “Our time, as the media never tires of telling us, is the information age, a time when each of us can count on being besieged and bombarded by more information in an average day than most premodern people encountered in their entire lives. Now it’s important to remember that this is true only when the term “information” is assumed to mean the sort of information that comes prepackaged and preprocessed in symbolic form; the average hunter-gatherer moving through a tropical rain forest picks up more information about the world of nature through his or her senses in the course of an average day than the average resident in an industrial city receives through that channel in the course of their lives”. Greer’s post, and comments thereon,introduce a ton of useful information sources.


Three hundred people met in South Devon in England for the fourth gathering of the Transition Network. They were a modest cross section of the many thousands of people now involved in 330 official Transition initiatives (up from 170 this time last year) and many more less formal groups around the world that are 'mulling over' their participation. The transition model 'emboldens communities to look peak oil and climate change squarely in the eye' and addresses the question: 'for all those aspects of life that our community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how are we going to rebuild resilience’. My full report (and lnks to others’) is here:

‘Conventional money is created as debt by private financial institutions for their own profit-making purposes, not as a public service. This is the root cause of the economic, social and environmental problems that beset us’. So argues South Africa’s Community Exchange System. This community-based platform provides the means for its users to exchange their goods and services, both locally and remotely. I’ve long wondered whether local money is necessarily hand-made and ultra-local, so I was intrigued (as I left the TT event) to meet a hitch-hiking software designer, Matthew Slater, who is building customisable digital barter money platforms in Drupal. Community Forge, as the platform is called, is community currency trading software build on a social networking platform. Versions of Community Forge are being piloted in Europe by SELs (a European version of Local Economy Trading Scheme).

We were thrilled during the Dott 07 Festival, in North East England, when dozens of schools took part in our Eco Design Challenge. In Dott’s second iteration, in Cornwall, even more schools are taking part. But when it comes to engaging with a lot of schools fast, Dott cannot match the viral growth of Design For Change (D4C). Launched in 2009, this national campaign in India encourages schoolchildren to participate in a one-week project to change a practical aspect of life in their own communities. Kiran Bir Sethi, its founder, tells me that more than 15,000 schools and around 200,000 students are involved in India. D4C is now expanding globally (20 other countries at last count) and — a pleasing connection, this one — has now teamed up with Eco Design Challenge in the UK, too.

News of another happy outcome from Dott07 (Doors was responsible for programme direction). Ian Drysdale at Thinkpublic in the UK, tells me that a prototype Dementia Adviser service, which Thinkpublic began co-designing with the Alzheimer's Society during Dott07, has been successful during trials and will now be rolled out nationally, running in 16 sites across the UK. As one of the pioneer advisors, Nicola Jacobson, told The Guardian, ‘the full impact has not yet been fully evaluated, but the feeling is that the advisers reduce hospital admissions, care visits — and enable people with dementia to remain in their own homes for longer’.

A new report from Nesta in the UK proposes ‘Radical Efficiency Zones’ as one way to enable improved public services at far less cost. ‘Radical efficiency is about enabling the right people with the right motivation and the right tools to set their imagination free’, states the report; ‘success depends on central government’s ability to let go of the reins of innovation and liberate local innovators’. Nesta’s language here — a curious mixture of liberation theology, and dressage – flatters central government too much. The main problem with public services in the UK is that they address the wrong questions. Take health, for example: in Cuba, total health expenditure costs per person are five per cent of the cost per US citizen — and yet health outcomes (life expectancy, and so on) are pretty much the same. That’s real radical efficiency. UK central government, in contrast, has been cognitively captured by special interest groups (such as doctors) and medical services industries (think Big Pharma) who have most to lose if health policy were to shift its focus from mopping-up, to prevention. The Nesta report contains interesting ideas — but radical, it ain’t.

Every day 1.5 billion cups of coffee are drunk somewhere in the world — but few of us know much about the 25 million families that grow and produce this valuable bean. In a system that can involve as many as eight transactions to bring the coffee to market, coffee farmers receive less than two percent of the price of a cup of coffee sold in a coffee bar. Would a transparent supply web change help reduce these grotesque inequities? Since 2006, the Fair Tracing project at Oxford University has been exploring ways to is to support ethical trade by using Tracking and Tracing technologies in supply chains to provide consumers and producers with enhanced information. A new platform, Sourcemap, also aims to give people access the information needed to make sustainable choices. ‘We believe that people have the right to know where things come from and what they are made of’’ says its founder, Leo Bonini. This free and open-source project is volunteer-driven.

A new blog called Civic Explorer chronicles the flowering of social experiments in response to these new times. It’s written by Sophia Horowitz, a recent graduate of Masters in Strategic Leadership Towards Sustainability (MSLS) in Sweden. This admirable graduate programme was created by Karl-Henrik Robert, founder of the Natural Step. He states that “I don’t believe that the solutions in society will come from the left or the right or the north or the south. They will come from islands within those organizations, islands of people with integrity who want to do something”. Civic Explorer is a promising guide to the more interesting of these islands.


M.A.R.I.N. integrates artistic and scientific research on ecology of the marine and cultural ecosystems. Short proposals are invited for those wishing to join Hacklab at the Sea, an informal workshop on an island in the Finnish archipelago that will combine tinkering and brainstorming of ideas on ways to explore sensory the experience of marine environment and ecologies using DIY electronics, low power computing, circuit bending for floating structures?(radio controlled boats, subs, floating sensor stations, wireless units), DIY microscopy, water kinetic energy, non-conventional locating and mapping. 12-18 July, Naantali, Turku Archipelago, Finland (35 min from Turku + 10 min by boat).

The Secret Garden Party is ‘a temporary community that is as free, irreverent, friendly and engaging…. we provide the Garden and plant the seeds, but you nurture its life and allow it to blossom’. Your correspondent has agreed, with some trepidation, to hang out at the Limina tent. We’ll expore ‘new ways to create transition spaces and events between the rural and urban’. 22-25 July, somewhere in Cambridgeshire, England.

If I were not already going to SGP I’d head for the Art, Science & Hack summercamp. It’s held in the wild in southern France and there’s no road access. Sessions include ‘Microbian biodiversity and Open Source Biology’; ‘Open Source hardware for agriculture and pastoralism’; ‘Reinventing the Inventory’; ‘Psychedelics and geekness’. ‘a mesh network without coordinator’. There is also a mini astronomic observatory with researchers from Nice and Meudon. The lamb méchoui sounds especially divine. 20 to 26 July 2010, at 1800 m alt., just near the National Park of Mercantour on the Riviera (France). You need to register in advance.

This international gathering of artists, developers and creators works with free and open technologies on the idyllic island of Skjerjehamn outside Bergen, Norway. A particular focus is hands-on development of tools and applications for open video editing technologies. 2-8 August, Skjerjehamn [Norway]

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