In their heyday, the existence of Native American Indians revolved around the buffalo. They used every part:
“The buffalo gave us everything we needed. Without it we were nothing. Our tipis were made of his skin. His hide was our bed, our blanket, our winter coat. It was our drum, throbbing through the night, alive, holy. Out of his skin we made our water bags. His flesh strengthened us, became flesh of our flesh. Not the smallest part of it was wasted. His stomach, a red-hot stone dropped into it, became our soup kettle. His horns were our spoons, the bones our knives, our women’s awls and needles. Out of his sinews we made our bowstrings and thread. His ribs were fashioned into sleds for our children, his hoofs became rattles. His mighty skull, with the pipe leaning against it, was our sacred altar. The name of the greatest of all Sioux was Tatanka Iyotake–Sitting Bull. When you killed off the buffalo you also killed the Indian–the real, natural, “wild” Indian” (John Fire Lame Deer)
Designers today have a great deal more to work with than the buffalo hunters. Our raw materials range from organic substances to toxic metals, and of course we need to use these as efficiently and with as little waste as possible. There is more, however, to consider.
Last night, a friend of mine handed over $20 dollars to catch a game of baseball, but that’s not how much the ticket cost him. The true price of those nine innings is everything that he did not do while he was there. Perhaps he could have been selling hot dogs outside, and by choosing not to gave up several hundred dollars. That’s a pretty expensive game!
This concept is absolutely fundamental to economics and goes by the name of opportunity cost: a.k.a. the value of the next best alternative forgone as the result of making a decision.
This is the standard that every new creation should be held to. What else could humanity be doing with the materials you’ve made your new toilet brush from? Or your new solar panel design?
Even more fundamentally, the new object occupies a physical space. Is it making the most of it? What if it did?
More than a road
Take roads for example. If you laid every lane of road in the USA end to end, you would get a highway 13.2 million kilometres long (source). That’s quite a road trip. If you set out on the first day of summer you’d have to drive at nearly 4,000 miles per hour to cover the distance before the leaves turned red. For comparison, the SR-71 Blackbird has been the fastest manned jet since the 6th March 1990, when it flew from Los Angeles to Washington DC in 64 minutes. It was travelling at (only) 2,190 miles per hour.
Could this space be used for more than driving? Yes.
Why not build roads out of solar panels? On the 25 August, Solar Roadways was awarded $100,000 by the department of transportation to help develop its concept of prefabricated modules to replace the top layer of asphalt on our roads. Each 12 foot square would collect energy, store it, and act as display for road markings or other information. It would sense what was on it (imagine that stray deer at night) and heat the road to prevent snow buildup.
Israeli firm Innowattech is taking a different approach. Piezoelectric crystals beneath the road surface would convert the weight of passing cars into electricity at a cost equivalent to that of wind or coal power. More weight, more vehicles, more energy.
The companies estimate that for every mile of road using their solution, 400 to 500 homes could move off the grid.
There are obviously issues with both – they are untested, experimental and the economics not yet clear, but that’s not the point.
“The sunshine that strikes American roads each year contains more energy than all the fossil fuels used by the entire world.”
~Denis Hayes, International Chair of Earth Day
Designers need to consider the effect of their creations on the entire system they are placed in. This doesn’t just apply to large projects like road infrastructure. Mass manufacturing multiplies the impact of every new design, even the smallest.
“This we know – the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites one family. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” Chief Seattle mid-19th century
Designs should not just be judged by their impact on a past status quo, but also on how close they came to the limits of what was possible.
Everyone knows what happened to the buffalo. At the end of the 19th century they were practically wiped out by an American government keen to make space for cattle cultivation. Traditional Native American culture, caught in the crossfire, shrivelled and collapsed into reservations as its traditional resource dwindled.
Our civilisation still has physical reserves to draw on, and no one intentionally seeking to destroy them, so there is room for useful, classy, whimsical designs that make us happier. While we’re on the subject of reuse, this is an awesome concept. But even objects like these should be created with the same respect for what and where they come from that the Indians had for the buffalo.
Lack of foresight will be no excuse if we allow our civilisation’s resources to be depleted by designs which waste their potential.