John Thackara is one of the brilliant irregulars exploring how humankind can make the transition to a climate-friendly, relocalized, post-capitalist world. A Brit with extensive academic and journalistic background in design, Thackara is an independent writer, activist and thinker who is probing the idea of "designing for life." For him, this means elevating the many brave local projects that are pioneering new eco-friendly, socially constructive ways of living while critiquing corporate greenwashing ploys like "net-zero" and "sustainability reporting," and the financialization of nature. PDF transcript: https://www.bollier.org/files/misc-file-upload/files/John_Thackara_Episode_34_transcript.pdf. More on commons: https://www.Bollier.org
John Thackara is one of the brilliant irregulars exploring how humankind can make the transition to a climate-friendly, relocalized, post-capitalist world. A Brit with extensive academic and journalistic background in design, Thackara is an independent writer, activist and thinker who is probing the idea of "designing for life." For him, this means elevating the many brave local projects that are pioneering new eco-friendly, socially constructive ways of living while critiquing corporate greenwashing ploys like "net-zero" and "sustainability reporting," and the financialization of nature.
Transcript of Frontiers of Commoning, Podcast #34
Interview with John Thackara
January 1, 2023
John Thackara: [00:00] Well, I have a theory, David, that there are two magic ingredients for this kind of work. One is, it should involve bread, and the other is, it should involve beer. Because the two groups of people who seem to be always filled with the joy of life and more or less, everything they do makes people happier, are brewers and bakers. I think the crucial thing is that the positive things created by growing and making food are not just calories going into our bodies, but the social value, the cultural value, the ecological value. It's fantastic.
Announcer: This is Frontiers of Commoning with David Bollier.
David Bollier: My guest today is John Thackara, a singular writer, designer, festival organizer, and cosmopolitan thinker. He's a great interest to me because he's exploring from many different angles what the next economy might look like with an accent on design, bio-regionalism, and bottom-up commoning.
Thackara is a Brit who lives in the south of France who has [01:00] taught at major universities in Japan, China, and Italy, and who has held prominent posts at the Netherlands Design Institute and the Royal College of Art in the U.K. So he brings a rich international perspective to the struggles to build a climate friendly, re-localized, post-capitalist world.
Thackara doesn't traffic in abstractions, however, he dives into the gritty stories of real people and projects. He once described his subjects as the “soil restorers and riverkeepers, seed savers and de-pavers, care farmers and food system curators, fiber-shed stewards, and money designers.” His 2018 book How to Thrive in The Next Economy is a joyful survey of such people building real world alternatives that work.
Thackara calls his work ‘designing for life,’ by which he means exploring design that takes into account embodied human beings as well as the more than human world, the unique places where we live, and future generations. I wanted to check in with John because he's [02:00] got the discerning eye of a designer, the street sense of a good journalist, and the political chops of a great activist. Welcome, John.
Thackara: Thank you, David. It is a great joy to be here.
Bollier: I wanted to start by asking you how did somebody who has been in the design world for so long, sometimes in a very traditionalist way, move into the world of big picture thinking and social change activism?
Thackara: I did not actually start out as a designer and not many designers would consider me to be a professional designer now, David.
I began life…I studied philosophy and then became a journalist and went to a rather brutal journalism school where they beat into me on day one that I should avoid abstractions and circular sentences and go straight to where the action is. So I was trained in an early age to look for any subject area to find the people doing the interesting things.
My first job was the editor of a publishing company signing up books about [03:00] design, and I then went from there to editing a magazine about design. And because I hadn't actually trained as a design maker, but as a journalist, basically, I was always more inclined to look for the why questions and the what questions, and this was quite a good formula for somebody editing a magazine.
So I ended up being the guy who said, “But what happens next?” and “Why did you do it that way rather than another way?” So for basically twenty years or so I was always looking for people doing things that were on the edge of the traditional design world, that is to say, people who were the pioneers or the troublemakers or the…just the way with thinkers.
And I was just naturally drawn to them and it made good journalism. And eventually I became more and more preoccupied by something called sustainability or the environmental question and a different context, and I would say, “Well, who is actually in the design world or in architecture or in urbanism looking at this subject in a fresh and [04:00] insightful way?” And that basically for the second half of my career has been my task, is to look for people doing things that are examples in one way or another of a different way of meeting our needs and a different way of being in the world. But that's how I ended up drifting from the mainstream to the edges of design.
Bollier: You've described your work as 'design for living.' Tell me what you mean by that and how you interpret that.
Thackara: Well, I spent many, many years struggling with this word of 'sustainable design' or 'transition design,' and I couldn't get my head around it, let alone 'climate design.'
And these abstract words just always troubled me, but more to the point, I couldn't find so many people doing things that seemed to… you know, really resonate in the broader population. There was a whole world of people living in a world of anxiety about climate crisis or sustainability crisis, but that was a kind of separate group from the designers who were designing things.
It took me a [05:00] very long time to realize that there was a kind of a cognitive gap or perceptual gap not just in me, but in the design world of people who didn't really regard nature as their thing intellectually or in their training, but more to the point they didn't experience it in their daily lives.
And so if you're an architect working on a high-end computer, drawing some fabulous building on a screen, there's no particular reason for you to think about the consequences of that building for its site or for the soil or for the ecosystems around it. And so it was only in the last fifteen years really that I realized that what the missing key for all of us, not just architects and designers, is to connect in a very embodied and visceral way with living systems around us so that we would feel whether they were healthy or not, rather than just think about it.
And so I've ended up basically calling my work 'design for life,' design for living, because I think once you get it into your [06:00] head and into your body, that actually it's all our responsibilities for the world to be a healthier place. It just removes so much of this distraction of all these abstract words.
Bollier: Do you have certain peers within the design world who you regard highly or from whom you learn a lot?
Thackara: I think I've learned most from people on the edges of the design world, if I'm honest about it. I mean, the person who really started me off was a man in the Club of Rome, a scientist who, I don't think I'll give his name, but he gave me a little briefing twenty-two years ago about how the industrial society is living ten or twenty times beyond its means.
This was an early version of the kind of multiple planet metaphor. And he said, we have to get by on 5% of the resources and the energy and the throughputs that we're using now per person. And he said, this is completely implausible that nobody running a large company or any [07:00] politician will listen to me.
But that was…yeah, the first time I heard the degree or the kind of how dramatic the change needed to be. But once I got that into my head, I then started to look around and discovered that, you know, basically 80% of the people in the world who meet their needs using 5% of the resources that we do, it's just that we call them poor or undeveloped or backwards because they do that. But that's what I mean about the edge of the design world. And more and more “normal designers” are beginning to realize the same thing: You don't have to stop making things, but you do have to start meeting our needs with radically less energy and resources than we've been accustomed to.
Bollier: So in some ways, bringing the design world into closer contact with ecosystems and biophysical realities, you might say.
Thackara: Very much that. The general subject of being in contact with the world in which you are designing sounds obvious, but it's surprising and alarming actually how rare it is to find it with its [08:00] power and reach and success, it's become more and more at home in the world of abstraction and systems thinking, design thinking, strategy, all these words, which are basically separate from the actual stuff of the world that we live in, and therefore, it's been quite a big ask to say, by the way, you're really missing a major dimension of your work if you're not in contact with the living world on a day-to-day basis, as well as all your digital and computing power.
Bollier: More recently, you've been exploring the financialization of nature and the implications of that. Could you tell me a little bit about your work in that regard?
Thackara: I have been looking for ways to answer the question put to me by many designers, they say, “Well, it's very nice to design for life, but my client demands metrics and measures of how much better life will be after I've done this design action,” and I started to look for ways of measuring [09:00] improvements to life. And through this slightly indirect means, I came across the world of climate finance or what's increasingly called nature finance, which I must say is a rather alarming and huge wave of money and expectation that is coming towards us, or has already arrived in many respects, in which people with nothing to do at all with the design world are coming up with a growing array of games to play so that they can persuade their clients, such as big companies or big organizations, that they are acting in a sustainable or life supporting way, even when they're actually not. And they have all these words. I've been keeping a list, which I keep beside my desk. I mean, “nature finance,” I just mentioned, “nature-based solutions,” “offsetting,” “sustainability reporting,” “Green New Deal.”
I mean, all these words, and I've just discovered that there's a vast industry of people whose job it is [10:00] to help big organizations, and not just the bad guys, like you know, the energy companies or airlines, but even normal, you know, car making companies to measure their activities and pretend to themselves and to the world that they're no longer having a negative effect on the climate.
A lot of it's got to do with offsetting and this notion of net zero and a lot of designers are asking me, “So how do I kind of frame my next project so that it contributes to my client's journey to net zero?” So that's how I got into that, David. And then I've had a couple of epiphanies in the last year, I guess, which [at] first I thought I was going completely crazy and then I decided, no, the world is going crazy.
The first was about a year ago when the, the head, the CEO of Air France, which is one of the biggest airlines, went on television and told the media with great pride announced that Air France would be carbon neutral by 2030 in its European flights. And this is a [11:00] company which has 450 European flights a day, and each one is, I don’t know 1.2 million pounds of airplane and passenger, unimaginable amount of energy used to drive these planes around Europe.
But because they had this extraordinarily large offsetting program, this C.E.O. said, “No, no, we're going to be carbon neutral in 2030.” Which just struck me then and frankly still does as so implausible that it was just, it didn't make any sense to me at any level. But this is a large and respectable company saying that they are going to be net zero through offsetting in two or three years’ time. It's just crazy.
Bollier: It seems that it's kind of an organized self-deception to try to preserve the basic structures of capitalist enterprise. Do you find certain recurring premises in all these green washing approaches?
Thackara: It's not that I'm sympathetic, but I kind of understand [it]. If you're running a big company, the only real way to get to [12:00] proper zero rather than net zero is to cease operations.
I mean, that's why people talk about the stranded assets of the oil and gas industries. For them to become genuinely zero impact, they'd have to stop doing what they do. And frankly, that applies to not just them, as I said earlier, it applies to, you know, if you're Mercedes or a big construction company. Incredibly energy intense, incredibly carbon intense. In fact, the essence of their success in the global economy is the complexity and the intensity of their material innards. So to ask them to stop doing what they do is not…they're just not going to do it. They can't do it. Many of the bosses of these companies are kind of required by law to provide value to their shareholders.
And the shareholders have all their money wrapped up in the company growing to infinity. So there's all these constraints on them actually doing what the planet needs. And therefore it's not that I'm surprised that they play games with [13:00] accountants and consultants, it's just the scale of it has been quite alarming, I have to say.
I mean, just to give you one example, there's something called sustainability reporting, which is when companies say, “Here are a proper, you know, open description of all our activities.” But this reporting exercise is now a thirty-two billion dollar consulting sector in its own right, thirty-two billion just for helping companies construct and write reports about their activities. This doesn't mean that they actually impact the planet any less, it's just that they report in a certain way so that investors and risk managers and policy makers can keep an eye on it all, and that by itself is so…is vast anyway, but that's, it's kind of shocking.
Bollier: What might be done? I mean this kind of, such a juggernaut of self-deception and cynicism, you might say. Do you have any ideas for how we might begin to make some progress against investment funds that invoke Gaia, [14:00] for example, or animism, who think that they're actually in the service of helping nature?
Thackara: Yes, I think there are two things I kind of discovered that if you just tell people not to do things, they ignore you pretty quickly. Particularly finance people who are not laden down with moral scruples for the main part. They say, “Okay, what else should we do?” So in terms of how investors could use their money differently, I think one of the examples is removing land from the market for exploitation and extraction for agriculture or extractive mining and putting that land into public commons trusts so that the people on that land, all the life forms on that land could thrive together.
It's actually a very needed action. But it does mean that the owners of the capital would not get the same returns as if they gave that same land to an oil company or an airport. If you're really serious about investing in a way that helps the planet, then you can actually take land out of the market. [15:00]
And then the second thing that investors can, and in a tiny way do do, is to look at the forms of economic and social organization and activity by which people meet their needs using 5% of the resources used by industrial economic activity. For example, food. So if you wanted to reduce the impact of the food system by twenty times, which is what we have to do, you then need to radically enhance the security and the capability of small farmers who already make up 70% of the global food supply.
Invest in ways to help them do better, and that's something that actually could be done rather easily. Everybody knows what's needed, but again, the returns on the capital, if it's seen purely as a capital investment exercise, would be modest.
But that's why David, I follow your work because you've got this framework of commoning, but also relational finance that, yeah, it seems to me that's the…we have [16:00] to have something to point to that is the alternative to kidding ourselves. And I think relational finance, maybe you can explain that. I mean, it is an alternative to playing games with net zero.
Bollier: I'm sort of in the midst of thinking through relationalized finance, but for me it's about building on existing examples of non-capitalist finance, which are not extractive or predatory in a transactional way, but are rather community embedded.
And so it's more the community or the public in a sense self-financing itself without demanding enormous interest or dividends. And this would have the effect of making it less imperative to have hyper-growth and hierarchical organizations and the kind of extractive mentality of super profitability that you see in market enterprises.
There are a lot of examples of this from community supported agriculture to community land trusts, a lot of online communities that self-finance [17:00] themselves from the free software communities to Enspiral, the New Zealand based collective. And then there's alternative currencies and place-based finance, which put a premium on building up the place as opposed to maximum return on investment.
The point is, for me, we need to develop a different class of finance that can be recognized as non-capitalist and therefore more benign in opening up new possibilities. Moreover, this is not going to come through the state, which is largely captured by capital in any case. But, this is a work in progress, but I think that we need to go in that direction if we're going to think more clearly and with less self-delusion about how the future might unfold in a better way.
But this brings to my mind, you sort of touched on it: the whole eco-modernist perspective of technology driven mass-production approach versus the decentralized de-growth perspective. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that and [18:00] and how it's being played out, particularly with regard to the debate of George Monbiot and his vision for rewilding and developing different types of food production
Thackara: The whole subject of whatever does or doesn't involve rewilding the food system is very pertinent because you see two things happening there. One, an inability of certain well-intended people to connect with the rather large amount of activity that is an example, if on a small scale, of a better way of doing things, 70% of the food in the world or more grown by small farmers. But it's not 70% by value because they're not growing massive quantities of commodity crops or large herds of cattle. But the eco-modernist community is so wrapped up in data and scientific analysis, and basically a bubble of abstraction, that I think they basically can't take seriously the possibility that we're actually within reach of having a [19:00] sustainable food system if we just remove the industrial, energy-intense, and capital-intensive kind that is so visible to us all.
So this whole thing with the reboot food movement is basically an inability to think beyond very kind of simplistic notions of calories or protein production, it's all very abstract. And they say “It's inconceivable that we could feed the world with all these small, local farmers.” And therefore the only alternative is to go to the other extreme, remove small farming completely from the picture, close them down, and then have a very highly intense, large concentration of so-called precision fermentation to produce basically synthetic food for the population of the world.
It's actually scary, but it's also very sad that people who [have a] very strong track record in the in the Green movement have felt so isolated and so helpless to go the long road with a massive, massive, millions, hundreds of millions of small farms. They've [20:00] given up on that, and they're going to the other extreme, which is going with capital, going with the big food companies to turn the world into a food factory.
Bollier: And maybe it's a lack of nerve or courage to think that we could have a decentralized agricultural system of small holders with localized production versus maybe the “easier pivot” to more benign forms of mass production while retaining the current corporate and supply circumstances.
Thackara: I think that that's a big part of it. It's not so much nerve because I don't think we should confront [unintelligible] and we've got to be really brave as if we're about to go and risk our lives to get lunch. I do genuinely think that a very large part of the picture is already in place with what people call 'agroecology,' people who grow food in a region based on understanding the place and the soil and the climate through generations. Very, very close to the production that they do because they live there and therefore they're able to be very adaptive and [21:00] flexible.
They're usually very poor, so they can't afford massively complicated or expensive inputs like fertilizer or mechanization. It's just like the people who are behind this movement are white people in Europe who just are, for example, in Sweden and the UK, they import a huge quantity of their food now, and it's just, I think, just seems unimaginable that they would then start becoming self-sufficient or food sovereign again. I think that they've…it's sort of a lack of nerve, but it's a lack of direct experience as well.
Bollier: Well, that's for sure. The horizontal connections among isolated farmers to develop a new tradition that has been largely marginalized or wiped out…that's a big challenge to resurrect that.
Thackara: It is, but this is where I then start to become very adamant, that it’s not as difficult as it sounds. To give you the example I'm most excited about these days, all my life everybody has commented about so farmers are very isolated, the wrong end of a long supply chain, at the other end, you know, they have to pass through [22:00] supermarkets and industrial food and packaging and processing before the food reaches somebody's body.
But thanks to the technologies of networks, things like live-streaming. It is now happening that farmers are, for the first time in two or three generations, are able to communicate directly with the people who eat their food.
It's not so advanced in Europe and North America, but in China there's like 30 million farmers are doing live streaming on a regular and very normal basis with city people who eat their food, you know, whether it's mangoes or tea or eggs, and that very visibly and measurably transforms the relationship because as well as having a kind of relationship of trust with the person who's eating it, the cost relationship, the ratio of how much the farmer gets and how much the consumer in this city pays becomes much more equitable.
That is an example of an infrastructure which has been enabled by modern technology and modern means but can then modify in a very positive way, relationships in agriculture and food systems that were [23:00] impossible before.
Bollier: It would seem to also address a rather serious problem in contemporary modern countries of the rural urban divide. You've studied that a bit. Maybe you could talk a little bit about how these integrated food systems facilitated by technology might knit together the rural and urban spaces and people better and perhaps deal with some of the inequalities and resentments that exist in rural areas.
Thackara: Well, it's a very fascinating topic. Like most people, I assumed that the countryside contained poor people who were starving and waiting to be helped out by city people, and that many city people had a romantic but frustrated wish to be more connected to nature, but could never get it together. But then four years ago I was rather lucky to get an invitation to work with Tongji University in China and Professor Lowe, who's a pioneer there of helping design connect with rural development and the rural revitalization. And I spent three years basically collecting [24:00] examples of rural, economic and social and ecological work that had two features. One, it tended to make things better, and secondly, it involved rural people and urban people working together.
So, in other words, you had things that involved city people having a relationship with rural situations, but on a part-time or a sort of temporary basis, because that’s what the reality that people started from. It wasn't realistic for people with jobs in cities or children or obligations to suddenly up sticks and go and live in the middle of a damp field. They weren't going to do that.
But when it came to things like agroecological tourism or taking parts in ecosystem restoration camps, or taking their children to learn about forests or to go and work with crafts people in various places during breaks. That has become a fantastic success story. And it's not about aid or, you know, rich city people helping poor country people. It [25:00] is an exchange of value, sometimes with money, but sometimes with other things, that has in many, many different respects…it is the engine of a new urban, rural economy.
Bollier: In your book How to Thrive in the Next Economy, you explored a number of fledgling examples that were trying to pioneer a different kind of value chain for agriculture and food retailing and restaurants and so forth.
Could you talk about some of those? I think, for example, of the Fresno Food Commons Project that you mentioned…perhaps there's others.
Thackara: Well, Fresno, that one must be one of the more terrifying experiences of my life. With some of the richest land in the world, but also has some of the poorest people working in gruesome conditions on things like almond plantations where it takes a gallon of water to grow one almond. And then the almonds are often exported to somewhere like India or China where they grow lots of almonds on their own. It's a kind of mad situation. It's like the culmination of lots of very [26:00] crazy trends all in one place, one region. And that's where they were saying, “Well, if we want to re localize food as a starting point, we can't necessarily tackle a global almond business straight off, but just for the people who live and work there, how do we just reconnect with the capacity to grow food of the people who are here?”
So the Food Commons Project was one of many around the world where they draw breaths and say, “Well, what have we got here by way of people skills, buildings, land, and other…” just the bits needed to grow food and to create a local food economy, shops, restaurants, cooks, colleges, and the food commons. And I haven't been in touch with them very recently, but they were utterly inspiring under very trying circumstances, connecting all the dots together so they didn't have to kind of invent something from scratch.
They just said, “We have patches of land. We have people with skills. We have the potential for local distribution. We have chefs and cooks and people who [27:00] know about food ready to help.” But what was missing was some sort of glue to glue these bits together and the food commons idea, which is occurring around the world in hubs and labs and community kitchens of different kinds with different names. Yeah, that's happening in lots of places and it's completely doable because the elements are already there. It's not necessary…you don't need trillions of dollars to buy things because you just need to organize existing social and technical resources in a new way.
Bollier: How might we begin to foster this kind of bottom-up experimentation, but get it connected to top-down policy that could support it? That seems to be a missing link or the key challenge.
Thackara: Very much a missing link, connecting dots. Well, you say, “Well, that's a good idea,” but it actually, it's quite a time-consuming process. And if the dots are, for example, people with widely divergent views of how things should be, like, I don’t know, a big landowner or a small farmer or an activist or a doctor or whatever, it takes quite a lot of [28:00] skill to get the dots to talk to each other and to work together.
This is, again, one of the many reasons I'm encouraged by recent developments. You see all around the world, people in regional contexts, sometimes they call it a bio-region or an eco-region, saying, “Well, look, governments are not going to help us. We've been screaming at each other without any great purpose for too long, let's see if we can agree on some simple practical measures to make our region healthier. And by making our region healthier, we will make ourselves healthier.” And then you'd see also, you know, restoring forests, cleaning up rivers, restoring the soil, training farmers to work in less energy intensive ways.
Looking at rangeland management, where you have big open spaces and there are dozens and dozens of examples around the world of bioregional projects or food-shed projects, watershed projects. And the beauty of them is that as soon as people get [29:00] together and do something practical, like clean up a stream or make a bit of forest healthier by removing invasive plants or whatever is, it generates its own goodwill. If you can get people to focus on the health of the land rather than the ideas in their head, it relieves the pressure and generates positive energy.
Bollier: There seems to be a growing, renewed interest in bioregionalism as the pathway forward. There was recently this Bioregional Regeneration Summit that was held online that had hundreds of participants, and I can think of projects such as Joe Brewer's Earth Regenerators Project in Colombia, the subject of my most immediately past podcast. Could you talk a little bit about your ambitions for bio-regionalism? What you think it'll take for it to kick in more aggressively?
Thackara: I don't have a magic solution to that. I would share your happiness that this…the summit that took place a couple of weeks ago did attract a lot of different people. [30:00] And since then, I mean, I've come across other whole networks. There's a whole network in India, Asian bioregioning group, which is doing its own thing.
It's one of those developments, which I think is just a result of a lot of small effort through time, if not me, a bit of people who've been advocating for bioregioning. It just takes years for the moment to become right. And I think there are now a sufficient number of people who've witnessed or been part of the positive energy that comes up when you think about your region as a shared responsibility that its time has come.
I'm not personally obsessed by the word ‘bioregion’ as much as I once was because a lot of people get just the bioeconomy, and I say not exactly, and anyway the label is optional for me, but it's the notion of working in a region, a watershed is another word instead of bioregion. It's very hard to have a meeting about a river where everybody doesn't agree that they want their river to be healthier, but as long as the, the starting point is “Yes, we want our river to be healthier,” then you [31:00] can then take small steps to see how you can help the people that previously wouldn't have been part of the conversation.
Bollier: You might say we need to get out of our heads and into the soil in the sense that we need to look at specific landscapes that we live in, that we love, that we want to rejuvenate as opposed to having these ideological or sweeping abstractions to try to transform things.
Thackara: Well, I have a theory, David, that there are two magic ingredients for this kind of work. One is, it should involve bread, and the other is, it should involve beer. Because the two groups of people who seem to be always filled with the joy of life and more or less, everything they do makes people happier, are brewers and bakers.
And if you look at the pre-modern age, pretty much every neighborhood in the world had some form of brewing and some form of bread making. It was just normal how people got by very local, small groups of people feeding each other nutritious things. And so yeah, that's an example of doing things with your hand.
I think the [32:00] crucial thing is that the positive things created by growing and making food are not just calories going into our bodies. And I think this is the kind of the sad and very diminished…the approach that the kind of, that the reboot food kind of world takes. The value of a group of people sharing ingredients for bread, getting the grains grown in a field, teaching each other how to make an oven, finding ways to share the finance of a crop of heritage grains…
There are lots and lots of practical tasks that at the end of which is fantastic bread, but the social value, the cultural value, the ecological value is fantastic, as well as the calorific value. Policy makers, and I have to say, to give them credit, are beginning to realize that things like food projects are not just about feeding the population. They're about mental health, physical health, the health system, education system. They're all multi-subject activities, and food is one of the ways you can generate [33:00] positive outcomes very quickly.
Bollier: That gets back to your designing for life, where if you're talking about designing for life, you're talking about shared aliveness and caring for place as key elements as opposed to return on investment or some other monetized measure of value.
Thackara: It is, and there are people who are very expert at this notion of caring for place as a practice. But I think it's also fair to say there isn't really anybody in the world called a “place carer.” There are lots of people who do it by other names, so you could be a city manager or the manager of your municipality, or you can be somebody who, a landowner, you can be an agricultural expert.
Basically places…. Everybody has an interest in places. This is where designers have a rather special role to play in creating frameworks in which people can understand each other, connect to a place, have meetings, share knowledge, make prototypes, develop services, design activities where they're all…basically the place is the client rather than some company[34:00] or some investor.
For example, making it possible for the schools of a town to connect with farmers. That's a service design activity. It involves food, calories, and health, but it also involves social connections between the farmer and the town. It involves educating the children about how things are grown and the economics of agriculture.
Organizing that connection between schools and farmers is…somebody has to do that, and that's where I just think that's where the design opportunity is.
Bollier: For me I keep coming back to the hard question of how to make this transition, given that so many of the cultural and financial investments are in the old system. With trepidation, I say, do we have to have a collapse of the system or dysfunction of it first? I really don't like to go there because I like to think that we can orchestrate a smoother, juster transition. Do you have any thoughts on that idea?
Thackara: Probably 20 years ago, I was a fairly active doomer in the sense that I couldn't see how we could have a [35:00] smooth transition at all. Everything was going to collapse, but either it didn't collapse or they are collapsing and we don't…we're in the middle of it, so we don't realize that they're collapsing.
But, at the same time, my work is to go and look around for examples of people doing things differently, which are positive. The Wobblies in American history said the new economy will be born from the ruins of the old, and I think that that kind of makes sense to me.
So if I was a refugee or somebody being thrown off my farm, these sort of words are absolutely no comfort at all. But if we are all looking for ways to provide mutual support and to care for each other, it's not about feelings, it's about practical actions. So can we take practical actions to help a farmer get through a bad harvest?
Can we take practical actions to help newcomers settle down where we live? You know, can we take practical actions to help children talk to farmers more? I think the more we can get out of our heads and into the community, the better.
Bollier: You know, another theater of action that you've [36:00] been involved in or thought about in terms of design is fashion and garment production and how that might be made more bioregional.
Could you talk a little bit about some of your ideas in this respect? You gave a talk in London not so long ago in which you outlined some of the design principles you see as fashion needing to adopt.
Thackara: I absolutely love the sustainable fashion world, and I have many friends who've been working for, you know, twenty years or more trying to transform and reform the fashion system.
I think that the ones who've been doing it most…we're all converging on a similar space, which is that the big global fashion system cannot be reformed by arguments or data or metrics or appealing to their better natures because they're large global enterprises, which operate according to logics, which are by their nature ecocidal.
They have to procure materials as cheaply as possible, [37:00] and they have to add as much value through branding and products, churn and fast turnovers. That is their business model. That's how they stay alive. If they stop doing that, they die. So I think all the people in that world are realizing that in some way, another local or regionalized clothing and fiber production, in which the production of fiber is only one part…same as food.
You produce, you know, materials such as fiber to make clothes, but you also have social activities, you make the soil healthier, you have livelihoods for people and so on, and that you see the fiber economy or the clothing economy as a multitude of activities. But they will be healthy only insofar as the governance operates at a regional, bioregional scale.
I mean, not exclusively, obviously, but I think the most interesting work is people saying, “Okay, we've spent twenty years trying to persuade these big companies to behave differently. They haven't, and they can’t. Okay, we're going to [38:00] create a new system in parallel of small local fashion economies or fiber economies, and then we figure out a way to defang the big companies as best we can through taxation, through government regulations,” stuff like that.
Bollier: Who do you see as some of the people in the vanguard of this movement within fashion? I'm familiar with the people of Fashion Act Now, a group of, you might say, dissident fashionistas. Who else do you see having the seeds of a different vision that's implementable?
Thackara: Fashion Act Now are very good. They have this concept, I think you told me about this, of called de-fashioning the fashion system. That is to say, changing the logic that we say, well we should keep clothes, we should buy less, fewer quantities of clothes. We should make them last longer, and so on. But that's within, doesn't change the logic of the system as a whole.
I think organizations like Fibershed, which started in Northern California and they're reproducing around the world, which is a very explicit activity called finding all the [39:00] different people involved in creating fiber in a region, whether it be sheep growers or farmers with fiber crops or weavers, or designers and makers, get them all collaborating together so that they help each other. And the fiber economy itself is a design activity rather than the bits because the big global fashion brands, as do the food brands, their whole aim in life is to buy low and sell high. If you are dealing with the fiber economy, you want the soil to be healthier, you want the people working to have livelihoods, you want the people who use the clothes to be happy. You know, buy low, sell high is not the main driver of that.
Fibershed is one example. There are people doing that with leather. There are people doing that with…there are lots of fiber regional economies where the outcome might be something for insulation of buildings, not just clothes, so on.
There's lots of experiments, but somebody says, “Yep, this is all too small to be serious.” They're right in the short term, but my [40:00] basic optimism is that if you have a large number of small experiments, they have always got the potential through time to become an alternative, especially when they connect together.
Bollier: What do you make of the recent Patagonia announcement where its founder, Yvonne Chouinard announced that he was creating two trusts to capture the profits from the company and he was going to use that as a form…well, it's unclear exactly how he's going to use that except to augment or support environmental activism. Is this a model for the future? Is this a significant shift?
Thackara: I am well aware that quite a large number of people have acted about this as if it were the second coming of the savior, this announcement because people have had a really hard life campaigning to change the fashion system. To have a major brand announce that it was going to restructure itself in this way.
I have to say that I'm not convinced that it's, you know, unalloyed good news because what you just said about the profits of the commercial company will go into a foundation which is dedicated to nature. [41:00] But the profits still have to come from somewhere. So the profit making arm of Patagonia isn't going to wind itself down, so far as I'm aware. And I think that's basically the problem I have, there's a lot of these, yeah, announcements being made in which so-called not-for-profit foundations, good as gold, but the finance that goes into them comes from old fashioned, extractive companies. You just look at a Patagonia shop and they tend to be in high streets paying huge amounts of rent, large amounts of space for small amounts of products. Somebody is paying for that space and that branding. And I have to say it's a combination of me and the planet. So I'm not, yeah, I'm not, it's what it is.
Bollier: It gets back to the sense of either cynical or self-delusions about change that the corporate world keeps pedaling. And this may be another example of it, even if the right arm is getting the profits, the left arm is helping, but certainly not in a structural way.
Thackara: In all cases, [42:00] indeed, the corporation is an entity unto itself. It doesn't have a place. So I'm not aware that Patagonia is taking personal responsibility, supposing the company has become a person, for a place.
It's about doing good things with the Prime Station is we'll do good things for different environmental causes, but then the for-profit bit is not responsible for the damage that its activities and the processing of its materials. I'm not an expert on the whole thing, but I'm, yeah, it's too good to be true and sadly if things sound too good to be too, [they] tend to work out that way.
Bollier: Let me close by asking you to reflect on the whole relationship of the Western, it's often been called the Western Cognitive Empire, our sense of what capitalism and modernity is all about versus traditional communities or indigenous worldviews. What do you think that has to contribute to this discussion and imagining a more benign post-capitalist world?
Thackara: It comes back to this whole question of place being at the [43:00] center of our futures, if we're going to have healthy futures, places will be the focus of our shared energies and creativity and love and care. And there's a fundamental problem with places which they're all unique, each one is different from the other almost by definition. Any form of abstract global method for organizing places that doesn't know its place uniquely well is almost by definition not going to succeed. The only places where people and places have a deep and intimate and embodied relationship is where indigenous peoples, I'm not a hundred percent confident that word is without values, without, you know, without difficulty, but anyway, whatever, where people have been on their land in commune with the different living systems and the different forms of life on that land through a long period of time, they have an understanding that we simply don't because we have been educated to look for abstract ways of thinking. We act in abstract ways and so on.
It's not however [44:00] an either/or choice. Because I think the big danger of people like me, you know, some white expert sitting in Europe is to sort of romanticize indigenous forms of knowledge and being and say, “Do not change that. That's…just go back to that. Let's keep it just like that.” I think there are, and of course, you know, in all the places that I've been in places like South Asia, very fascinating combinations of indigenous knowledge and placed-based knowledge with new technologies.
So the example I'm most thrilled by quite recently is some friends of mine in Southern India are exploring ways to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to make it easier for indigenous languages to be translated and shared. So that this language is not…so their knowledge is not embodied and very obscure and distant, but, people have with other forms of knowledge, such as, I don’t know, agronomists or people who make tools for agriculture can have a conversation and say “Local people, what would be useful to you?”
So they are, with our modern tools, we could [45:00] actually empower them to be equal players in the exchange of knowledge and practice.
Bollier: John, I want to thank you so much for sharing your perspectives and insights and for pushing back the frontiers of action and thinking in this area. So thank you for joining me.
Thackara: Thank you, David. And just thank you for your work and this podcast, which I must say is quite an important inspiration to people like me. And please carry on your good work.
Bollier: Thank you so much.
Thackara: Good day.