Current 03/2008

Carbon Footprint

If one would put the 160,000 year history of mankind into an animated movie of 5 minutes, one would experience our current times as a global atomic detonation; a humanity nuke detonating, likely just as environmentally devastating as our previous A and H-bomb inventions. I'm from a generation that is likely to see the world population grow from 2 to 9 billion. It took 10.000 generations to reach the 2 billion figure. Regrettably, this perplexing figure is only a part of the problem. Humanity is not only experiencing an explosion in the number of individuals, it is combined with an explosion in individual wealth. True, the distribution of that wealth is increasingly skewed, but on a global scale the economic growth has been phenomenal during my lifetime. And economic growth is always combined in some way or other with an increase of energy consumption whose production leads to the release of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And the last is our most pressing problem is at the moment. Mankind has already released an amount of C02 in the environment to the effect that the globe's climate has changed. This change cannot be reset, nevertheless, the daily release of C02 is accelerating at a faster pace than never before. A breathtaking explosion of individuals in combinations with an exponential growth of individual (energy) consumption results in a devastating plague of humanoids who are rapidly transforming the earth's natural habitat. The future looks bleak.

 

 

The energy problem has now entered the political arena so it must be translated into a simple, easy chewable format. That's where the carbon footprint comes in. The size number of the footprint is related to the amount of C02 release it represents. From now onwards, everything will have its carbon footprint measured. Products will have a carbon footprint size, but also organisations, countries and even individuals. (By the way, the carbon footprint of AGI doesn't look too promising, maybe we should start planting some trees somewhere) Obviously, there will be a moral problem related to the public release of the carbon footprint size. Everybody would want to have the same size; size 0, thus being environmentally neutral, because it will be difficult to explain why you are not allowed to smoke in public but are free to walk around with a carbon footprint the size of a dinosaur, smashing every form of life wherever your foot lands. That doesn't make sense. The effects of your carbon footprint is far more devastating than your smoking habits. So, 'sustainable' products or activities are now popping up everywhere. Soon, you can buy a carbon neutral SUV. Most of this is advertising hoax. Nevertheless, producing and living with a footprint size of zero will be the only morally - and maybe soon also legally - the only acceptable way forward. Finally, a one-size-fits-all that makes sense.

Economists always come to the rescue when the materialistic progress of humankind is the issue, also for our current footprint problems. It was the economist Adam Smith who taught us that economic prosperity is best served by putting as little as possible in the way of the natural human tendency to selfishly improve their own individual materialistic circumstances. A magical 'invisible hand' would see that following this method is the most effective way to reach prosperity for all and each of us. He has proven to be frightfully right in his predictions, the liberal economic model has become the portrait of human civilisation. Wealth creation has now reached supersonic speed levels for a part caused by the advent of a global and digital economy. The only problem is that its fuel depends heavily on the cooperation of a party that has been remarkably undemanding so far: mother earth. That has now changed, she has finally become exhausted and increasingly toxic to most existing life. Never mind, say the economists, just put a price tag on things that were for free so far and the invisible hand will resume its benign function. And that is what's happening right now. Rain forests will be paid for from now onwards, not to bring them down and sell their wood, but to keep them where they are, untouched, just staying the global lungs that can suck up carbon dioxide from the air and gives us oxygen back. This trick may work for a while since tropical forests are globally cut on a speed large enough to neutralise the greenhouse gasses released by all global transportation. But saving our forests - which has not taken place yet - is not enough. We have to plant new trees (or other vegetation) on a massive scale, since it's about the only ultimate remedy we can think of so far to neutralise the poisonous effects of our lifestyle. (Of course, there are numerous ways to reduce our current absurd level of energy consumption.) Most airlines now offer the purchase of trees supplementary to your ticket to offset the environmental effects of your trip. Eventually, we will all become tree huggers by law. To make things easier to handle, official global trading exchanges of C02 are now established. The current price is about 25 Euros for a metric tonne of carbon dioxide. So you can buy yourself a clean conscience (and advertise a zero size footprint, never mind how disgracefully dirty you really are). Expect this option to become rather pricey in future.

Business people (and most economists) are a positive lot for reasons of survival. Their argument is that humanity will find ways to get out of this current mess. Their argument goes something like this: we started off as hunter-gatherers, and needed a gigantic territory to survive. It was a healthy life in those days though, we humans were a strong and tall species. Well, we'd better be, because we were in a constant war with our fellow humans to protect our territory. This situation limited the human expansion, so we invented agriculture, becoming less healthy at the start so we shrunk a bit, but we could put more of ourselves on a square kilometer. Then we improved our personal hygiene resulting in longer life spans, so the soil wasn't delivering enough to feed our growing numbers. World famine was predicted that would limit further human expansion, so we invented nitrate fertilisers that lead to agricultural overproduction everywhere. A population bomb followed. And now we are confronted with this a bit irritable problem of those nasty carbon dioxides, causing a global eradication of countless species, probably including our own in the end. But, we will think of something, we always did. Why not this time around ? Well, maybe.

In the meantime, the technical and moral issues relating to the carbon footprint are interesting. Carrying a large size footprint simply means carrying a matching (moral) responsibility for all the effects of adopting such a large size, one of which that sticks out most is the responsibility for the distinction of some of our fellow species. The easiest way for humanity to have stayed out of our current trouble is just to see that there would have been considerably less of us. Out of a plausible free choice, living up to our self imposed standard by calling ourselves homo sapiens. Technically speaking, it's a piece of cake, but that doesn't seems to be the way it works, we are sapiens in things that matter less. But how do we live with the certainty that every addition to our numbers means effectively the irreparable eradication of whole species. How do you decide to set up a family having such knowledge, especially if you have successful genes ? (Successful genes are likely to have offspring living with a bigger size footprint than others) And how do religious people explain this to their Lords, or the other way around ? Humanity - or at least a part of it - have always been pondering who or what created our universe. This at times bloody dispute still lingers on, but there can be no uncertainty whatsoever about who is responsible for its demise on our local scale.

My uninformed calculation would be that in order to make the Low Lands a carbon neutral country we need to have our old colony Indonesia back, ship its population to Dubai and plant the country full with trees. The current trade in carbon dioxide is nice and probably efficient, but it means effectively that our economies need a bigger territory to become environmentally neutral again.

Norway recently announced to become a carbon neutral country in 2030, down from an earlier estimate of 2050. Norway is 8 times as big as the Netherlands and contains only 25% of its population. Its forested area is more than 2 times the size of the Netherlands. Yet, even Norway only manages to become the first proud owner of a zero sized country carbon footprint, because of a lot of fancy bookkeeping. Norway is the third global exporter of petrol and also the rest of its economy relies heavily on its basic industry with all polluting production inevitably linked to basic industries, but all the polluting production will be done overseas, so that part is comfortingly left out of the equation. Norway has become so immensely rich (because of its oil) that it can afford to flaunt around in a pristine white zero carbon dress. But effectively its economic wealth is directly related to immense releases of C02 elsewhere. Norway's economic engine is mostly running on an extremely polluting fuel but the exhaust pipe is brought outside of its territory.

Unless there will be a technological breakthrough in the near future, the global quest for natural resources is likely to become rather unpleasant at some stage. All living beings are settling their territorial disputes by deadly combat. They always did and they always will.

Maybe we should all turn on our business mind and stay hopeful and positive. Maybe a more effective use of our friend - and steady companion for the coming billion of years - the sun, will bail us out of all our current troubles.

Designer in Paris

Polishing this image has also been quite successful when put into an economic perspective, France has been the most wanted holiday destination for many decades and the country is the biggest exporter of luxury goods in the world. France is pretty unique in the way big (French) business and government work together to their mutual advantage. This country of sixty million can be seen as a successful family business. And the French prefer to keep it that way.

It is hardly surprising that one of the Arab emirates, Abu Dhabi, was inspired by the French image as selling point for their own gigantic investments in real estate. Adopting a cultural image will attract wealthy, highly educated customers. The Americans have taught the world that one can franchise (or trade) almost anything, also a cultural image and the French are attentive students when it comes to protecting their own interest. The sheikh of Abu Dhabi offered France one billion Euros to lease some of the important carriers of French culture. Franchising an internationally renown image comes at a steep price. The first part of this deal has been made effective recently. Abu Dhabi paid 400 million Euros for a 30 year lease of the name Louvre and lending parts of its art collection. A huge new (Louvre Abu Dhabi) museum will be built by the French architect Jean Nouvel at the costs of the Arabs. There was some discussion in the French media about the ethical aspects of this deal but that was not really serious, the French love to argue for the sake of having a 'discour', nothing more.

 

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The question is a bit rhetorical after reading the above, but does France deserve the image of a 'cultural nation' ? Well, I guess the answer is yes and no. Yes, when it comes to the level of governmental support of the arts. No other big country spends a bigger part of their GDP (about 1 %) on a large array of cultural and recreational activities. The Ministry of Culture employes 11.200 well paid people. There are special tax breaks, protective quotas and even special social security measures for artists. As a result, the country is paved with theatres, opera houses, libraries and museums. Even the smallest towns have at least yearly a big cultural manifestation. Does this all result in French culture being a leading and inspiring force? No. Most of all these efforts are solely consumed by the French themselves. Sometimes they even are not given any other choice. They are more or less stuffed with their own French culture as the French geese with food to produce their famous 'foie gras'. The interest from abroad for the products of contemporary French culture is rather limited, also the French have noticed to their own dismay. It is the sad lesson we have learned from so many initiatives carried out under the sole responsibility of the state: the influence of direct governmental interference is pretty limited. Often it results in a reverse situation of the intended goal.The innovating power of unhindered private enterprises are difficult to beat. Also in cultural matters, the real influential cultural centres today are to be found in the liberal Anglo-Saxon countries. Maybe this is less surprising at a closer look. Governmental involvement works better to preserve or protect things than to foster change in a direct way, by contrast it reinforces the installation of establishment. This effect is impossible to escape. During the period in history when Paris was considered by everyone as the cultural zenit of the world, this reality was brought about by artists fighting (and crushing) the estabishment of that period and certainly not by playing to their rules. Innovation is inevitably done at the costs of established positions. Governmental cultural pampering may well have an unintended but nevertheless devastating effect on the quality of the arts. Generating widespread mediocracy is the most likely outcome when the effects of the support are not monitored carefully. Is this to say that governmental support better be stopped altogether ? No, not at all. The arts have always flourished only when there was a knowledgeable, wealthy and interested patronage. The state has to assume that role which is not an easy one to fulfill properly. Supporting the outcome of an artistic profession in a critical manner, rather than supporting the profession as such, is less morally questionable and has proven to be more effective. Imposing quotas by release limitations of non indigenous products is practically always counter productive. That is where France should change its current behaviour if it wishes to stimulate its own culture, rather than promoting France as a cultural theme park. The Arabs are only interested in the French traditional cultural institutions the same way as they are interested in consuming French wine, fashion and other luxury products.

What does this all have to do with being a (graphic) designer in Paris ? Allow me to explain. During my career in Amsterdam, I have always been puzzled by the huge differences between the way the graphic design profession was carried out in my own city compared to the way it was in Paris, two cities situated only 500 kilometres apart. I was always convinced that it was purely coincidental and the differences would disappear over time, apparently they didn't, it only got worse. The only reasonable explanation I can think of is that French graphic designers are generally seen as visual artists rather than highly skilled professionals in the broad field of visual communication. I think they consider themselves also within this scope. For some reason they never wished to change this perspective. The way they work and are organised is practically the same as visual artists are. The average French graphic designer works solitary (or in very small groups) and there is no professional organisation to speak of. They make use of the same governmental support as visual artists do. Regrettably, they have let themselves being totally marginalised in this position both as visual artists as well as interesting parties for businesses that have understandably limited interest in dealing with individual artists. Moreover, the 'graphistes' are considered to be more like artisans. Also the Ministry of Culture did not think much of graphic design as a culturally important activity. There was only one employee in the Ministry specially dedicated to this field who recently retired without having a successor after spending a lifetime being increasingly frustrated in her job. Interestingly, a famous French graphic designer, AGI member Pierre Bernard, was recently awarded a prestigious Dutch cultural price. (Bizarrely, French graphic design is more appreciated outside the country) The price was given to him during a reception at the Royal Palace where the Dutch dauphin extensively spoke about the important role of graphic design in the Dutch society. There were many events organised around this award and it was covered by all national Dutch newspapers and professional press. In contrast, the award was received in France by a practically complete silence. Nobody in the country seems to be interested in graphic design. This state of affairs has recently resulted in a tender issued by the city of Paris which can be seen as an indicator for the current level of prestige of the profession. It has reached rock bottom. The design of a logo for an important event taking place in 2011 on the borders of the Seine river was given a budget of 2000 Euros. The City issued a complicated tender to spend this micro budget which resulted in asking 5 designers to come up with logo designs priced at 400 euros for each participant. It seems that the official appreciation for the profession in France has reached perverse levels. French civil servants are the best paid in the world (resulting in the peculiar and slightly frightening circumstance that the majority of the French youth wishes a career in government). It has become evident that well-off French state officials see graphic designers as sparrows who deserve nothing more than the crumbs of their well served lunch tables and even taking morbid pleasure in setting up a sparrow contest to watch the critters fighting over the crumbs. One needs a strong stomach being an official of the city of Paris.

So Paris maybe still worth a visit for many reasons - especially if you can afford to spend some Euros - but do not try to establish yourself there as a graphic designer. Unless you are prepared to eat your own trousers - as the French would say.

 

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