Design Observer Twenty Years 2003-2023

John Thackara | Essays

Whole, Whole on the Range [June 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.

The James Lovelock of grasslands — From green revolution, to brown — Feet in the field — Telling porkies: the big fat lie about food production — Food Loop — Peoples Supermarket — De-Growth — Economically viable local food — Local money — Net Change Week — What should design critics write about? — Green ships for billionaires — Museums of social hoo-hah — Making good in the gift economy

A quarter of the land area of Earth is turning into desert. Three quarters of the planet’s savannas and grasslands are degrading. And because the main activity on rangelands is grazing livestock, on which 70% of the world’s poorest people depend, grassland deterioration therefore causes widespread poverty. Enormous research efforts have been made to understand and reverse desertification but, until recently, and with one remarkable exception, to no avail. That exception, Operation Hope, has transformed 6500 acres of of parched and degraded grasslands in Zimbabwe into lush pastures replete with ponds and flowing streams — even during periods of drought. Allan Savory, who's behind the programme, is a kind of James Lovelock of rangelands management: ridiculed by the scientific mainstream for decades, he is now achieving recognition. Savory is the winner in the year's Buckminster Fuller Challenge, for which your correspondent was a jury member. Read more at:


Savory's work has far wider implications than desertification alone. His approach contains the elements of a new approach to agriculture. The Green Revolution was based on high input, industrial agriculture. It involved massive inputs of petro-chemicals and herbicides, monoculture cropping, excessive use of water and confinement animal feeding operations. Yes, it increased global food production tremendously; but, charges Savory, “the Green Revolution has not been characterized by ecological or social integrity — quite the contrary. Horrific soil erosion, dead zones at the mouths of rivers, severely depleted levels of biodiversity, impoverished rural communities, soil fertility loss and oxidation of soil organic matter, have been exacerbated by the Green Revolution”. Savory promotes the necessity of a new ‘Brown Revolution’, based on the regeneration of covered, organically rich, biologically thriving soil, and brought to fruition via millions of human beings returning to the land and the production of food.

Staying with green vs brown revolutions: Grameen Foundation has been developing a distributed network of intermediaries, or Community Knowledge Workers (CKWs) in Uganda. The initiative uses mobile devices to "extend the reach of centralized expertise" to “feet in the field”. The project begs a heap of important questions about the nature of that centralised knowledge. It's funded, for a start, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which has been heavily criticised for its focus on high-tech and monocultural solutions to the food issue. Writing in Grist, Tom Philpott says that although the Gates Foundation "has been very careful not to associate itself too closely with patent-protected biotechnology as a panacea for African farmers," Gates himself has "chided the critics of GMOs" and declared that “some of our grants [in Africa] do include transgenic approaches, because ...they have the potential to address farmers’ challenges more efficiently than conventional techniques.” Grameen insists that its CKWs are "crucial for contextualizing knowledge" and that they provide "a channel to represent the voice of the farmer". But Kenyan biodiversity leader Josphat Ngonyo, thinks the Seattle philanthropist is pursuing a strategy that will largely help corporate agricultural interests and hurt smallholder farmers:

Statistics about the need to increase global food production by fifty percent by 2030 and for it to double by 2050, have been widely used by scientists, politicians, agriculture and GM industry lobbyists. These apparently scientific statistics dominate policy and media discourse about food and farming. However, when the Soil Association looked into the reported sources for these figures, none actually stated that global food production needs to increase by these amounts. Read the report — Telling porkies: The big fat lie about food production — here:

FoodLoop a design-led social enterprise for the localized composting of biodegradable waste on housing estates in London.The service, which is designed to be staffed by disadvantaged people, provides a door-to-door service among inner-city flats. FoodLoop workers learn gardening and landscaping skills, and use the compost to cultivate fruit and vegetable plants on communal areas of the estate. A specially designed community composting machine, the Rocket Composter, is installed on each estate and managed by local residents. The first FoodLoop project is up and running on housing estate in London where the service is currently being run by the East London Community Recycling Partnership.

David Barrie writes to tell me that anyone can join The People's Supermarket, which has just opened in London — but as a member you must work in the shop for a few hours every month. Because the workforce is nearly all volunteers, staff costs are kept low — which means shopping can be cheaper; any profits go back into making the food even cheaper.

The the new UK Business Secretary, Vince Cable, describes his department as the 'Ministry of Growth'. And an increasingly deranged NESTA, the innovation think-tank, calls economic growth "the universal solvent of politics". Universal dissolvent of life on earth, more likely. The True Cost Campaign describes GDP as a 'doomsday machine' because it rewards economic activity that destroys the biosphere. But new tools to measure economic progress are now emerging. In Barcelona last month, 500 scientists, civil society members and practioners discussed 'degrowth' and ways to change the relationship between paid and unpaid work. Among the terrific posters that may be downloaded are, "Less consumption more wellbeing: evidence from the policies of Italian Virtuous Municipalities’ Association", and "Does consumption of market goods relates to well-being? An empirical test in the Bolivian Amazon". On 19 June in Leeds, UK, a similar (one would imagine) crowd will discuss the idea of a 'steady state economy'.

In past recessions and depressions, a popular response from communities has been to create their own forms of money. An inspiring yet practical new Transition Book, Local Money, helps you understand what money is and what makes good and bad money; it also reviews how people around the world and in the past have experimented with new forms of money that they create themselves:

From vacant office blocks and unused green spaces to the schools, libraries and other public buildings which are too often locked up at night, more can be done to ‘sweat’ public assets. But the idea of the temporary use of land and assets by civil society has gained currency since the economic downturn. While the private sector has had particular success bringing unoccupied shop fronts or empty commercial office buildings back into use during the recession, unused public sector assets have largely remained as such. A new report from The Young Foundation focuses on three examples:
community access to vacant land — perhaps to create a community garden or play area; empty building — temporary use of empty office spaces, disused shelters or community spaces by community groups or social enterprises; and access to under-used spaces – for peer support groups or community partnerships to easily access schools, libraries or GP surgeries out of hours:

What issues should the next generation of design critics write about? Where and how should they do this writing? And, how will they get paid for doing so? The text of my keynote talk to Crossing The Line at the School for Visual Arts in New York is now online.

The world's marine shipping fleet, which 60,000 vessels strong, moves 90 percent of the world's internationally traded goods. The fuel these ships burn is 3,000 times dirtier than fuel burned in US and European diesel trucks. Can anything be done? 'Green Ship Technology' is being developed below the radar, especially in Denmark — but what about paradigm shifts in ship propulsion? One floating test-bed could be Soliloquy, the world's first carbon-neutral super-yacht. Fixed sails will double as solar panels to produce enough energy to propel the 58-metre-long boat at a cruising speed of eight knots, and the hull will be made of sustainable timber instead of the usual more energy-intensive aluminium. At fifty million euros, the design is pitched at the high end of the weekend boating market, it's true - and there's a bit of a gap between eco super-yachts and vast freight ships. But Callender says the latter "is an area of design that I would like to get involved with, given the chance".

What should design museums do, or be? Your correspondent joined a group of writers and curators to discuss 'Reasons Not to Be Pretty: Symposium on Design, Social Change and the Museum'. We discussed the notion of design for social change, its various forms and manifestations, and how best to exhibit, acquire, and preserve its artifacts in museum and non-museum contexts. Julie Lasky wittily shortened this long menu to 'social hoo-hah'. Our group discussed some intriguing possibilities. First, there's a need for shared public spaces that are integrational of ideas and people separated by modernity and rationalism. Second, platforms are needed for diverse ecologies of ecology of actors to engage with so-called wicked problems; could museums be this platform? Third, we all need time to think and reflect, and the museum could be the right place to do this. And fourth, the Hindi word for museum is "house of magic". On reflection, there's a difference between what we might want a museum to be - and what it is now, or is likely to become. Perhaps we should let museums be musems, and leave them alone to do what they do best: collect, preserve, and present artefacts. The event was produced by Winterhouse, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation (at whose pad, Bellagio, we stayed).


Autarchy, autonomy, self-sufficiency in the digital age, heritage and development, digital artesans and DIY industry, digital democracy, energy & environnement. These and other topics will preoccupy artists, engineers, researchers, teachers, hackers, activists, thinkers and digital craftsman at this Art, Science & Hack summer meeting. The summercamp will be held out in the wild, with no road access; everyone will be invited to participate to its life according to autonomy and environment concern principles. 20 to 26 July 2010, at the edge of the National Park of Mercantour in the Alpes Maritimes, on the Riviera. Péone, Alpes Maritimes, France. The organisers include the fantastic Jean-Noël Montagné.

BarnCamp 2010 is two days of workshops on topics ranging from renewable energy to foraging for food to citizen journalism to using free software for activism, up to three nights of camping, open space sessions, evening entertainment, great food on a beautiful farm co-op high in the Wye Valley.

The Interferenze festival takes place 23 to 25 of July in the rural area of Bisaccia - Irpinia Region, South of Italy. The the festival, whose theme is 'Rurality 2.0', engages with technology, tradition and rural landscapes. It will take place in the area of the Ducal Castle in Bisaccia, a little village of the Alta Irpinia. One of the most striking rural area of the entire South of Italy, it's 'enriched by landscapes full of abstract, wind and infiniteness, steeples, towers, narrow and quiet streets, place of an historical metabolism that is slow and almost solemn in its ancestral rituals'.

Local Action on Food, London Food Link and SOAS Food Studies Centre are organising a national (in the UK) conference to explore what steps can be taken to help community food growing projects generate income and become economically viable. Friday 25 June 2010, 10.30 — 5.30 (doors at 10), Brunei Gallery, School of African and Oriental Studies, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG.

The Transiton Towns conference will explore how to catalyse local Transition initiatives and how to build stronger networks. Workshops span a range of topics: Energy Descent Action Plans; running highly productive meetings; facing up to conflict and turning it around; plugging the leaks in local economies; setting up local food hubs and CSAs (community supported agriculture); oral histories; anatomy of a zero carbon farm; a wild food walk;  community ownership of local assets as a path to an equitable and resilient future; running constellations. June 12-14.

How is technology impacting our education systems? How can the increasing demands on our charitable natures be assisted by solution-based technology development? What about our food systems? A panel of web technologists, futurists, and culturists (among them your coprrespondent, who will join remotely) will discuss the future of the web and the world on Thursday 10 June.

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Jobs | September 22