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  1. 1. Published in FLAUNT Magazine November 2009 THE  HUMAN  SUSTAIN     written  by  Kathryn  Simon  photographed  by  Joel  Greenberg     sus·∙tain  (  P  )  Pronunciation  Key  (s-­‐stn)     tr.v.  sus·∙tained,  sus·∙tain·∙ing,  sus·∙tains     To  supply  with  necessities  or  nourishment;     To  support  from  below;  keep  from  falling  or  sinking;     To  support  the  spirits,  vitality,  or  resolution  of;     To  prove  or  corroborate.     To  keep  in  existence;  maintain.     The  American  Heritage®  Dictionary  of  the  English  Language,  Fourth  Edition       The  word  is  sustainability.  The  concept  is  huge  and  incorporates  everything  from  design   to  ethics  to  environmental  issues  that  look  at  the  half-­‐life  of  an  idea  even  before  it  has   arrived  in  form.  Consider  the  impact  of  a  thought  now  and  in  its  wake.   Some  of  the  issues  that  sustainable  concepts  raise  may  be  more  commonly  heard  in   discussions  about  Buddhism  than  the  world  of  business  or  design.  There  is  an  ever-­‐ present  sense  of  collaboration  and  interdependence  at  the  very  heart  of  sustainable   ideas.  That  is  where  the  beauty  lies.  It’s  an  invitation  to  a  multi-­‐vocal  and  multi-­‐ perspective  conversation.  While  you  may  think  there’s  nothing  new  about  sustainability,   know  this:  it  shifts  everything  into  a  dynamic  relationship,  a  deep  coalescence.   The  people  involved  with  sustainability  investigate  textures,  patterns,  and  layers  in  an   open,  unbiased  way  to  access  information  used  to  create  prototypes  and  solutions.  They   are  the  real  agents  of  change.  These  activists  work  as  designers,  teachers,  architects,   futurists,  and  economists.  They  live  wholly  in  the  present  now  and,  from  here,  they   create  rigorous,  effective  solutions.  Their  approaches  allow  for  dynamic  responses  that   effectively  shift  the  entire  structure  into  immediately  effective  solutions.  This  kind  of   approach  simultaneously  nurtures  the  future.     It  is  telling  that  the  word  is  turning  up  all  over  the  place  in  connection  with  how  we  do   business  and  live  in  a  market-­‐based  system  of  exchange.  And  so  it  seems  that  we’ve   already  entered  into  new  territory.     Here  are  excerpts  from  conversations  with  three  people  who  are  deeply  engaged  with   the  idea  of  sustainability  in  a  diversity  of  disciplines:  Hernando  de  Soto,  economist  and   founder  of  the  Institute  for  Liberty  and  Democracy,  based  in  Lima,  Peru;  Jean  Gardner,   senior  faculty  in  the  Architecture,  Interior  Design  and  Lighting  Department  at  Parsons  
  2. 2. School  of  Design  in  Manhattan;  and  Sven  Travis,  faculty  member  in  the  graduate  and   undergraduate  program  of  Design  and  Technology  also  at  Parsons  School  of  Design.     Sustainable  Economics     Developing  nations  entering  the  global  market  are  refusing  to  accept  easy  solutions  as  a   modus  operandi  when,  for  years,  they’ve  seen  their  resources  stolen  and  squandered  by   larger  nations  and  their  own  leaders,  leading  to  poverty  and  profound  pollution.  Bad   business  practices  often  motivated  by  greed  have  only  exacerbated  problems  that  are   often  tied  to  increased  profit  lines  without  consideration  for  the  consequences.     Architects  for  a  new  kind  of  solution,  however,  are  thinking  out  and  implementing  some   truly  revolutionary  ideas.  At  the  forefront  is  Peruvian  economist  Hernando  de  Soto.  As   president  of  the  Institute  for  Liberty  and  Democracy  (ILD)  based  in  Lima,  Peru,  De  Soto   and  his  colleagues  have  made  it  their  mission  to  offer  the  world’s  poorest  populations   entry  into  the  market  economy  through  legal  reform,  namely  property  law  and  land   rights.     According  to  the  ILD,  4  billion  people  in  developing  and  post-­‐Soviet  nations—two  thirds   of  the  world’s  population—have  been  locked  out  of  the  global  economy  and  are  forced   to  operate  outside  the  rule  of  law  because  they  have  no  legal  identity,  no  access  to   credit  or  capital,  no  legal  paper  trail.  Unable  to  leverage  their  assets  by,  say,  mortgaging   homes  or  applying  for  loans,  they  will  never  be  able  to  grow  economically.   To  give  an  idea  of  the  implications  and  numbers  involved,  90  percent  of  the  population   in  such  nations  operates  extra-­‐legally,  or  outside  the  formal  economy.  In  Haiti,  the   number  is  82  percent,  in  Mexico,  80  percent,  and  90  percent  in  Egypt.  Remarkable.     It  is  estimated  that  the  value  of  real  estate  held  by  the  poor  in  such  nations  is  at  least   $9.3  trillion.  De  Soto  says  that  the  worth  of  this  “dead  capital”  is  93  times  as  much  as  all   development  assistance  from  all  advanced  countries  to  the  Third  World  in  the  past   three  decades.  If  the  ILD  has  its  way,  the  legal  system  in  these  nations  must  first  be   restructured  to  enable  proper,  streamlined  titling  of  properties  and  businesses.  From   here,  they  can  be  leveraged  and  traded,  thereby  unlocking  the  value  of  the  working   poor’s  assets.   The  Economist  listed  the  ILD  as  one  of  the  two  most  important  think  tanks  in  the  world.   Time  Magazine  named  De  Soto  as  one  of  the  five  leading  Latin  American  innovators  of   the  20th  century,  and  included  him  on  its  top  100  list  of  the  most  powerful  and   influential  people  in  the  world  for  2004.  His  latest  book,  The  Mystery  of  Capital:  Why   Capitalism  Triumphs  in  the  West  and  Fails  Everywhere  Else,  explores  the  opportunities   and  possibilities  of  creating  self-­‐sustainability  in  developing  and  post-­‐Soviet  nations.    
  3. 3. Racking  up  enough  frequent-­‐flier  miles  every  year  for  a  trip  to  the  moon,  De  Soto   consults  on  problems  of  economic  development  with  heads  of  state  in  well  over  20   developing  nations,  from  Latin  America  to  Egypt.     Kathryn  Simon:  It  sounds  like  a  deep  part  of  this  is  a  social  enterprise,  not  just  a   political  or  economic  enterprise.  There  has  to  be  some  relationship  between  others   and  myself  that  is  different  from  the  one  that  seems  to  be  going  on  in  the  later  days  of   capitalism  in  the  United  States  anyway.   Hernando  de  Soto:  That’s  right.  Everything  in  the  history  of  the  world  has  essentially   been  about—as  we  started  meandering  out  of  Africa  some  70,000  years  ago—how  we   cooperate.  So  we’ve  tried  everything.  We’ve  tried  tribes,  we’ve  tried  kingdoms,  and  so   far,  what  we’ve  found  out  is  that  the  market-­‐economy  system  combined  with   democracy  are  the  best  systems  for  us  to  cooperate  and  for  things  not  to  be  centrally   controlled.  In  managerial  terms,  that  is  to  say,  to  have  rules  of  the  game  that  are   equitable,  and  it  seems  to  be  what’s  working  best  so  far.  Maybe  it  will  change  in  the   future,  but  that’s  what  works  for  the  moment.  Property  rights  is  a  very  important  part   within  the  whole  thing.     The  market  becomes  a  place  where  I  am  no  longer  personally  singular,  but  I  am  now   an  individual  in  relationship  with  you.  Once  I  enter  the  market,  it  brings  me  into  a   community.     That’s  right.  You  have  to  cooperate,  among  other  things,  because  if  you  look  around  the   room  which  you  are  in  now,  it  would  be  very  hard  to  place  your  eye  on  something  that   was  only  made  by  one  person.  I  don’t  know  if  you  know  the  old  story  of  a  man  called  “I,   Pencil.”   No.     Well,  it’s  the  story  of  a  pencil  that  describes  how  it’s  put  together.  It  shows  how  the   wood  comes  from  Oregon,  but  very  few  people  like  pencils  with  white  wood,  and  that’s   why  they’re  all  painted.  And  the  paint  comes  from  Nigeria.  And  then  when  you  start   seeing  where  it  was  cut,  it’s  cut  where  you  have  sawmills.  And  then  you  have  the  lead.   The  lead  comes  from  graphite,  but  the  combination  of  number  2  graphite  is  from   Thailand  and  China,  mainly,  and  it  can  only  be  pressed  together  with  a  special  oil  that   comes  from  Mexico,  and  then  the  pencil’s  got  to  be  lacquered  because  some  people  like   the  feel  of  wood,  but  most  people  don’t.  And  the  lacquer  comes  from  these  other  parts   of  Europe.  And  the  rubber  comes  from  the  oil  industry,  which  comes  from  Saudi  Arabia.   But  what  holds  it  to  the  pencil  is  the  zinc  from  Peru  and  the  copper  from  Chile.  And  the   black  part  that  brings  together  the  eraser  and  the  pencil  is  a  special  nickel  that  also   comes  from  Nigeria.    
  4. 4.                So  at  the  end,  when  you  look  at  a  pencil,  you’ve  got  something  like  1,600  industries   behind  that,  and  at  least  17  countries  putting  it  together.  So  the  question  is  this:  All  the   things  we  have  around  us  are  the  result  of  cooperation,  so  they  bring  us  all  together.   And  once  countries  split  up  and  get  into  wars,  the  system  ceases  to  work.     Visit  www.flaunt.com  to  read  the  complete  interview.     On  Mediated  Experience       EcoMorph/CyberMorph  is  one  of  the  courses  that  Jean  Gardner  teaches  at  Parsons  The   New  School  for  Design.  It  explores  how  globalization  affects  our  personal  and   professional  lives  on  a  day-­‐to-­‐day  basis.  Gardner  promotes  sustainability  through  her   workshops,  and  co-­‐authored  Urban  Wilderness,  a  book  of  nature  photographs  shot  in   New  York  City’s  five  boroughs.     Jean  Gardner:  The  reason  there  is  an  inability  to  experience  authentically  is  because  we   think  of  our  experience  as  being  framed  like  a  camera,  or  seen  in  perspective,  whereas   with  our  parents  and  grandparents,  there  was  still  a  great  deal  of  their  experience  that   wasn’t  mediated.     Kathryn  Simon:  You  said  you  have  students  who  don’t  believe  it’s  possible  to  have  an   unmediated  experience.       This  fall,  my  graduate  students,  discussing  [Marshall]  McLuhan  and  the  “authenticity”  of   their  experiences  in  general,  agreed  that  everything  is  manipulated,  that  it’s  all  been   mediated,  and  that  they  are  mediated  people.  They  experience  life  in  terms  of  frames,   or  films,  or  TV  programs.   Everything  is  a  reference  to  something  else...     …that  if  I  think  of  you,  I’ll  be  thinking  of  you  in  perspective.       So  even  though  theory’s  dead,  we  are  living  completely  in  code.  No  sense  of   authenticity  of  spirit,  or  anything?       …as  far  as  they  are  concerned,  no.  I  used  to  begin  with  the  premise  that  everyone  I   came  in  contact  with  had  what  they  recognized  as  authentic  experiences,  ones  that  are   unpredictable,  un-­‐manipulated…   …able  to  experience  clear  interventions  of  some  kind,  and  the  difference  between  the   code  and  the  experience.    
  5. 5.   And  now  I  realize  that  to  teach  a  sustainable  education,  I  have  to  wake  the  students  up   and  make  them  aware.  Break  them  out  of  that  mediation.   Do  you  create  experiences  for  them?     Yes.  You  could  say  that’s  manipulated,  but  I  give  them  an  assignment  like  the  one  with   their  hands  because  most  students  only  think  in  terms  of  the  media,  not  the  messages.   They  also  don’t  understand  themselves  as  being  other  than  this  disembodied  mind,  as  a   result,  again,  of  modern  separation  between  mind  and  body.  So  the  idea  that  they  are  a   living  part  of  nature  never  crosses  their  minds.  Most  of  the  time,  it’s  the  beach  out   there.   There’s  no  inner  connection.     Most  of  them  have  no  idea  of  what  their  hands  know,  as  opposed  to  their  minds.  The   first  question  is  where  does  your  hand  start  and  where  does  it  end?  This  guy  (points  to   an  architecture  student’s  illustration)  is  seeing  his  hand  embedded  in  all  of  the   information  and  he’s  actually  talking  about  his  [deaf]  older  sister,  to  find  out  that  deaf   people  from  different  cultures,  left  to  their  own  devices,  have  a  hand  language  that  isn’t   based  on  their  language,  or  their  culture.  They  have  their  own  language  and  it  bypasses   sound.  And  he  was  just  flipped  out  because  he  signs  with  his  sister  and  he  had  never   thought  about  the  fact  that  he  can  sign...   …with  anybody,  anywhere  in  the  world.     Then  we  viewed  Andy  Goldsworthy’s  work—he  creates  ephemeral  handmade   sculptures  from  elements  in  nature—in  Rivers  and  Tides,  that  incredible  film.  He’s  really   reconnecting  with  the  most  fundamental  aspect  of  what  can  help  us  deal  with  this   extraordinary  environmental  mess  that  we’ve  created,  and  it’s  through  our  hands  that   we  are  involved,  engaged  in  the  world.                    We  are  getting  in  touch  with  the  energy  that  flows  through  life,  and  he  says  that   over  and  over  again.  He  holds  up  this  stem  from  a  fern  or  a  lichen,  and  he  says,  “Look,   it’s  black  because  that’s  a  color  that  came  from  the  inner  action  from  the  earth.”  And   then  you  look  at  his  hands  and  his  hands  are  that.  They  are  just  a  permeation  into  this   flow  of  life.  It’s  a  cold  morning  in  Nova  Scotia,  the  sun  hasn’t  come  up,  and  he’s  building   an  ice  sculpture  and  his  gloves  don’t  have  fingers.  So  you  see  these  hands  and  you  see   this  ice,  and  then  he  talks  about  what  he  learns  piling  up  the  rock,  touching  what  I   would  call  “the  mind,”  and  realizing  that  the  hand  doesn’t  stop  here.                    The  reason  I  can  touch  you—actually,  one  student  said  it  when  I  asked  where  does   the  hand  begin  and  end.  He  said  it  starts  here  (points  to  her  heart).  The  hand  starts  in   my  heart  and  it  ends  in  yours.     I  worked  with  a  great  man,  David  Dillman.  He  was  my  pattern  maker.  When  he  was   dying  of  AIDS,  he  lost  his  vision  and  he  began  to  sculpt.  And  he  was  modeling,  and  his  
  6. 6. models  were  so  powerful.  I  thought,  “Wow,  he  really  lives  in  his  hands!”  which  always   fascinated  me  about  his  work  in  fashion.  His  hands  were  where  he  knew.   That’s  like  Georgia  O’Keefe.  Remember  she  went  to  pottery  after  painting  because   when  she  was  older,  she  couldn’t  see.       It’s  a  tactile  thing.     The  student  in  our  design-­‐build  studio  insisted  on  building  without  gloves,  then  paying   attention  to  his  hands—listening  to  them—until  he  could  picture  in  his  mind  what  his   hands  knew.  And  then  he  could  draw  it.  Well,  that’s  totally  bypassing  language.   Because  if  your  hands  know  something,  you  cannot  find  a  linguistic  counterpart.  And   most  of  us  don’t  listen,  so  how  do  we  know?  (JEAN  SPEAKING)   Connectivity     Known  as  a  visionary  guy  with  the  ability  to  concretize  his  ideas  about  new  media,  Sven   Travis  initiated  the  Digital  Design  and  Technology  program  at  Parsons  School  of  Design   in  1997,  with  the  intention  of  exploring  digital  media.  Central  to  his  intention  was  to   keep  the  ideas  behind  emerging  concepts  and  the  nature  of  the  media  in  sight.  He  is   now  a  fulltime  faculty  member  teaching  digital  theory,  and  neural  network  and  fuzzy   logic  programming  applied  to  interactive  media.   Sven  Travis:  What  was  happening  to  us  as  humans,  as  technology  became  so  important   to  our  everyday  existence,  how  it  changed  existence,  and  also  elements  that  we  liked   about  what  was  happening  and  I  didn’t  like.  If  you  think  about  it,  this  has  huge   implications  in  the  realm  of  sustainability  because  fundamentally  we  want  to  be  able  to   set  up  a  system  that  allows  us  to  move  forward  in  some  sort  of  sane  or  reasonable  way.   I’m  not  sure  we’re  doing  that.   Kathryn  Simon:  Right,  to  create  a  future.     A  desirable  future  so  you  can  look  at  all  different  theories  of  technology  and  issues  of   human  computer  interface,  or  even  theories  of  artificial  intelligence,  and  say,  “Oh  yes,   well,  there  are  these  theories.”  Sustainability  is  funny  because,  and  you  had  noted  that   you  didn’t  really  want  to  go  by  the  green  definition  of  sustainability…   …no  it’s  fine.     What’s  fascinating  to  me  is  when  you  use  the  word  “sustainability,”  that  notion  of  green   within  this  conversation  about  technology  is  [exactly]  what  comes  to  mind.   How?     Well,  let  me  give  a  good  example  of  this.  For  a  long  time  I  carried  around  a  brief  article   from  The  Economist.  There  was  a  United  Nations  group  that  was  going  to  one  of  the   developing  nations  in  Southeast  Asia.  They  asked  the  villagers,  “Of  all  the  technologies  
  7. 7. in  the  world,  what  would  you  ask  us  to  bring  to  you?  What  would  you  choose  as  a   village?”                    And  one  village  said,  “We  want  the  Internet.”  They  didn’t  have  anything.       No  telephone  line?       I  don’t  think  they  had  any  of  that.  They  may  have  had  running  water,  but  they  didn’t   have  electricity,  which  of  course  means,  how  are  we  going  to  use  the  Internet?  But  of   course  the  UN  people  responded  to  this  and  said,  “This  is  crazy.  Look,  there  are  all  these   basic  resources  the  people  here  need  before  the  Internet.”  So  they  went  back  and  they   said,  “This  isn’t  making  a  lot  of  sense  to  us.  Why  do  you  want  the  Internet?”                  And  the  villagers  responded,  “Because  if  we  have  the  Internet,  we  can  do  all  the   rest  of  this  stuff.  It  will  give  us  all  the  information  we  need  to  do  all  this.”  Part  of  it  is   information,  but  part  of  it  is  things  like  communication,  connectivity,  and  all  this.   Accessibility.       Right.  What  they  did  was  things  like  hook  up  computers  to  car  batteries  and  satellite   connections,  so  they  got  the  Internet  in.  I  used  the  example  to  demonstrate  what  I   mean  by  this  connection  between  sustainability  and  the  implication  of  green  and   technology—the  implication  for  so  many  of  us  in  the  Western  world  with  how  our   technology  has  to  do  with  physical  manifestations  in  our  lives,  these  computers  sitting   on  this  desk  in  front  of  me.  But  I  think  the  implication,  when  you  get  away  from  the   notion  of  gadgets  and  objects,  is  something  very  different,  in  particular  when  you  look   at  it  from  the  perspective  of  people  who  have  never  had  gadgets  or  objects.  They  don’t   identify  with  the  computer  as  something  physical  in  the  same  way.  It’s  about   connectivity  and  information.     People  to  keep  your  eye  on:     Dean  Kamen,  Bruce  Mau,  Stuart  Brand,  Jeffrey  Sachs,  Brian  Eno,  Simone  Di  Bagno,  Jaime   Lerner.     Organizations  that  are  taking  sustainable  and  renewable  approaches:  The  Long  Now   Foundation,  Rosetta  Stone,  Institute  of  Liberty  and  Democracy,  Global  Network,  Bruce   Mau  Design,  Massive  Change,  The  Earth  Institute  at  Columbia  University,  Mode   Museum,  Antwerp,  and  Creative  Time,  New  York.