A Critique of Sustainable Design

I just came across this passage while reading the Introduction to Agency: Working With Uncertain Architectures:

“Sustainable design is lodged in a problem-solution frame. It is focused on balancing out an equation that is problematic in the first place. It tends to be oriented to ways of maintaining ‘business as usual’ in terms of our current practices, including patterns of economic activity, lifestyle and the over-production and over-consumption of goods, but with reduced impact. In this situation, technologies that are considered unsustainable and obsolete are simply replaced by those that perform better and facilitate the mode of living we have become accustomed to. The simple substitution of renewable energy for fossil fuel, for example, does little to promote a consideration of how we inhabit–and built relations with–the world or how we sustain, affirm, nourish and support our diverse ways of being in the world as an ethical issue. Sustainability strives to target some component parts of unsustainable practices, instead of making space to consider and acknowledge that by continuing in this pattern unchecked, we are supporting the dominant (and unsustainable) cultural, social and economic trajectories. In other words what we are actually doing is sustaining the unsustainable.”

While it certainly isn’t unique or the only useful critique of sustainability, I find this passage to hold significant value. Taken out of context, it may appear to be purely negative, reductive, or barring to action. But the point of the critique, as reading the entire introduction would reveal, is the beginning of an opening up of dialogue about more productive and transformative ways of conceiving of, and enacting, sustainable design practices. In this sense, it is very much in the spirit of Critical Design and our attempts to use critique as a method of exploring alternative futures that challenge the status quo. Sustainable design, as the dominant movement in the design professions today, is certainly open to criticism to preserve and engender its fundamental value as a transformative and progressive call for change.


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