I have had Burnham’s song That Funny Feeling – about the cognitive dissonance between the daily reality of a comfortable, carefree Western lifestyle and the realisation that that carefreeness is an illusion and that the comfort cannot last much longer – in my head for weeks: ‘The whole world at your fingertips / The ocean at your door.’ On unusually warm days I hum the last verse: ‘That unapparent summer air in early fall / The quiet comprehending of the ending of it all.’
I read Malm’s book in relation to my column about climate vandalism. I don’t really know what I expected of it. But it definitely was not the right place to look for a hopeful message.
Malm convincingly shows that just about every movement fighting for fundamental societal progress – from the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage to the fight against apartheid – was dependent for its success on a violent branch that caused widespread destruction of property and infrastructure. The unavoidable conclusion from this history is that the absence of such a branch of the climate movement is a sign that we are nowhere near a serious change in the status quo.
And that status quo is terrifying, Malm reminds us. Most of the new investments by Shell and friends still go to expanding fossil fuel infrastructure. In other words, apart from building a few wind turbines and solar parks, they are putting the bulk of their resources into pumping up and burning even more oil.
What to do as a teacher of courses that are not about the climate in a time in which everything should be about the climate?
I am a design teacher. To learn the trick that I teach, it helps to practice on manageable problems with clear boundaries. Over the years my pedagogy has centred around avoiding as much distraction and confusing complexity as I could in the design assignments that I gave students. First learn the basics. Nobody learns to swim in the deep end.
But soon we might be living in the deep end.
Project based education as usual – good old engineering fun – also foster the habit of solving every problem with a new product, thereby using more energy and raw materials. After all, that is what I am asking students to do: design a device. A new device. Something useful, usually. But hardly ever a real necessity.
What is necessary is less. Fewer devices. Wanting less.
Every design for a new or updated product should lead to less emissions and less waste. This doesn’t sound revolutionary. But if I really want to act in accordance with this, I will have to redesign my courses from the ground up. Much of the work that I am proud of should really go in the bin.
‘There it is again / That funny feeling.’
Bob van Vliet is a lecturer at the 3mE Faculty and is specialised in design education. Reactions are welcome via B.vanVliet@tudelft.nl.