Do the Principles of Artisan Culture Allow Us to Think about more Sustainable Futures?

The Problem

Environmental stress caused by current industrial, manufacturing production techniques is taking its toll on the ecology humans and animals dwell in, and nothing seems to be changing.

The Industrial Revolution led to mass-manufacturing technology coming into heavy use. Productivity and efficiency increased as as did the increased market, which spurred the production of similar, same, affordable objects that saturate the store shelves today. The more produced and sold, the more money there was to be made. The more customers bought, the more artificially and materialistically fulfilled (or unknowingly unfulfilled) they became.

There are 2 main downsides to all this production:1) alienation created in workers and, 2) a lack of concern for the non-economic costs. Workers in industrialized factories are detached from their end products compared to the traditional makers and crafters of the past world. And factories generate nearly as much waste and pollution as they do objects. Many design thinkers and activists recognize that there is a depletion of energy and resources necessary to sustain human life like food and habitat. A grand reform for sustainability seems more and more impossible given that even today, there are still “important” public figures disputing whether climate change is real and a threat.

One of many garbage dumps in the World

One of many garbage dumps in the World

Smog in Beijing

Smog in Beijing

What can be done to make a more sustainable system of production for the future Earth citizens?

Artisan Culture

Following some of Tony Fry and Ezio Manzini’s readings, it seems small and local individual action is the first step, in eventually illiciting whole communities to participate in a change. This method of social engagement seemed present in many artisan communities as artisan principles heavily contrast industrial manufacturing processes. The term artisan, as I am using it, is synonymous with maker culture. There is an emphasis on handcrafted and/or traditionally made goods without the heavy use of mechanical processes – a reliance on the self and not the machine.

Historically some would perhaps envision the self-employed workers of the medieval ages (think blacksmiths, cobblers). Others still might envision the Arts and Crafts movement of Victorian England – a movement grown from apprehensions about industrialization and decidedly moved back towards patient, quality, and human craftsmanship.

Some examples of modern day artisan communities include Portland, Oregon, Brooklyn, and various regions in Japan. Japanese artisan culture is more about continuing tradition and beautiful craftsmanship. Artists typically focus on one craft and can dedicate their whole lives towards mastery of a particular skill. Key principles are focus, patience, practice, and of spiritual and mindful well-being, achieved through the low stress method of working a little everyday towards an end goal.

In America, Portland and Brooklyn’s artist hubs have given the cities reputations as hipster places. Portland in particular has had much media attention focused on its social workings. There’s a lot to be celebrated such as the repurposing of existing infrastructure to create artist studios, the enthusiasm for biking to work, and the support for local businesses.

The dark side to this artisan boom is a classist – and often other –ist – divide. When I visited Williamsburg 3 weeks ago, I overheard some of Brooklyn’s thriving artisans denounce the construction of a Starbucks in their neighbourhood, as though the Brooklyn of today isn’t one built on gentrification. The truth is artisan culture is often sustained by the wealthy. The tension between needing the financial support and the attempts to reject the rich lifestyle is not nearly talked about enough. Artisan craft often finds itself as an indulgence for the wealthy. Just look at craft shows in North America – they are spending sprees for those who can afford entrance, to buy objects from those who can afford showing in a booth.

Furthermore, the image associated with the term “artisan” is often of someone who chose to make works in this manner when he or she didn’t need to. Less imagine perhaps the woven jewelry and baskets of Zulu women from South Africa, or of the bobbles and trinkets of street vendors found throughout Eastern Asia.

Still I believe there are many good points being practiced in artisan culture and I’d like to focus on how these qualities can be used to better food production in particular – a necessity for physically sustaining human life and futures.

Dystopia of Monocultures

Food manufacturing has been industrialized in North America for a while now. Machines have made agriculture faster, better, but not necessarily stronger. One of the main problems with agriculture in North America is monoculture. Where as before, many different crops shared a field and yields were modest, monoculture agriculture dedicates whole fields to a single crop. The short of the problem is that crops grown this way are weaker. Nutrients aren’t recycled and diseases spread easier. The defenseless monoculture depends on synthetic chemical pesticides, insecticides, genetic modification which affects the health of pollinators of the natural environment like honeybees.

Monocultures, pesticides, and insecticides have been linked with Colony Collapse Disorder, (the real cause still being investigated). Honeybees account for roughly a third of all produce so the continued disappearance of bees could lead to a disastrous dystopia.

A real life example is 1990s Mao County, China where human laborers were hired to hand pollinate crops after the extinction of their bees. Initially this was hailed as an economic success – it created jobs, humans were more efficient at pollinating flowers, and would spend the money back in the local economy. But bees did the same job at no cost and added benefits like honey and beeswax production, and who could put an economic price on nature?handpollinate

In the dystopia of monocultures honeybees have disappeared not just in China, but all over the world. The realistic imaginable consequence is the drop in yields of many crops along with the end of honey and beeswax. Food prices would soar hurting middle and lower income classes as well as restaurant businesses. The need to employ lots of people for physical labor may arise in order to keep crop yields up but the employment of physical laborers would come out of agricultural subsidies and money that could have been spent developing technologies. As a vision of the future, this would be more reminiscent of the past with large populations becoming farmers as their early ancestors may once have been. It would be a temporary step backwards and maybe even a temporary halt in technological timeline.

So what if we started moving away from industrialized food production. There are plenty of critics of industrial agriculture such as Michael Pollan, and plenty of critics for those critics. What they all seem to share is the recognition that more sustainable practices are necessary. Alternative food markets exist and are rapidly gaining popularity: the organic movement, Whole Foods, urban farming, farmer’s markets. But does alternative food offer up a better future than the industrial methods widely used today? Or more specifically do they offer enough of a change for a better future?

Race + Class Separation in Alternative Food Movements

Just calling for alternative food practices to become widespread is not enough. Other negative futures may arise when the inherent issues in the alternative food movement aren’t addressed. The negativities of artisan culture – that it is supported by the wealthy and well-off – also apply to alternative food movement along with racial issues. Gardening is done by many, but only a select number consider themselves part of a movement. Eco movements tend to suffer in the same ways artisan culture suffers – it’s only a movement if the participants have a choice in participation.

A major critic of Pollan is Julie Guthman who primarily tackles the issue of race and privilege in alternative food in her writings. Mainly she looks at the projects put in colored food deserts and discusses why they don’t work to encourage healthier eating practices. Just making healthy food available to the whole population will not necessarily result in the adaptation of farmers markets and community gardens. If the projects are to actually be successful in the neighborhoods, they must put the interests of the inhabitants first. Otherwise there would just be a continued assertion of one population’s will over another.

Efficient Suburbia

Suburbia Still from Edward Scissorhands

Suburbia Still from Edward Scissorhands

Perhaps the solution is to start small and local then like Manzini and Fry wrote. But also in communities with inhabitants more susceptible to change because they already feel like part of a movement. A lot has been said for gardening and sustainable food growth in urban areas. Less has been said about the suburban landscape and the lawn culture of North America. In a New Yorker article entitled “Turf War,” author Elizabeth Kolbert discusses the ecological uselessness of lawns.

Backyard gardening in suburban areas is quite common, but it’s predicated on making agriculture hidden from view. Food growth is not in accordance with maintaining the idyllic image of America’s middleclass. It may do good if slowly, eco-movement members living in suburbs close to the hip cities began transitioning to planting fruits, vegetables, bee-friendly flowers in place of where their lawns used to be. It may begin to eliminate some of the stigma around gardening as a dirty process while also drawing in curiosity without forcing it.

Symbiotic Plant + Human Living

photo 2

A more far future goal would be taking the idea behind alternative food movement further, and implementing it into urban locations will require a mentality shift. In urban spaces there is a hierarchy of green to metal surfaces where green is relegated to rooftops (sometimes inaccessible) or parks. Artificial spaces are still very much separated from natural ones because while nature is pretty and enjoyable outdoors, it is seen as dirty when brought inside the home (excluding houseplants).

The goal of this proposed utopia is a human-plant mutually beneficial relationship through gardening in interior urban spaces. The careful integration of the natural with the artificial could shift the idea that gardening is a laborious, get-your-hands-dirty, long process with minimal rewards. Checking on plants could instead become a part of everyday life for the urban apartment dweller, like checking emails.

Japanese artisan principles of spiritual wellbeing and harmonious creation would be explored. And the of handcrafting would apply to both taking care of the plant, nurturing it into something desired, making objects from the plants. A mutually beneficial relation would need to occur. The human would provide plants with nutrients, care, attention, and the plant would allow itself to be designed and grown into something useful. That something useful could be simple such as clean, breathable air in an apartment in Beijing. It could be fruits and vegetables grown into specific shapes like a drying rack for laundry or a plate.

Susana Soares - BEES blown-glass vessels using bees to detect diseases

Susana Soares – BEES blown-glass vessels using bees to detect diseases

Already there are explorations into bio-design. Works and concepts that use natural organisms without abusing them are starting to be explored. This is the belief that they should continue.

Sources & Readings:

Miguel A. Altieri “Modern Agriculture: Ecological Impacts and The Possibilities for Truly Sustainable Farming”

Robert Krulwich “How Important is a Bee?”

Janani Balasubramanian “Sustainable Food and Priviledge: Why Green is Always White (and Male and Middle-Class)”

Vanessa Martir “Gentrified Brooklyn is Not My Brooklyn”

Elizabeth Kolbert “Turf Wars”

“States of Design 07: Bio-Design”

Alive / En Vie Exhibition of Bio-Design:


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