I’ve just returned from an amazing four days as the guest of howies for the inaugural DO Lectures.
howies is a clothing company who try to be a little bit different, a little bit thoughtful and to do the right thing whenever they can. They ‘tax’ themselves 1% of their annual turnover in order to do good stuff. And this year, they decided their ‘Earth Tax’ would best be spent hosting a series of lectures where inspirational people got to talk to an invited audience of folks in need of inspiration. Places were limited and applications were by handwritten letter only.
And so it was that a hastily scrawled note gave me a great way to end my planned cycling holiday in South West Wales. The DO Lectures 08 were held near Cardigan at fforest, a kind of luxury campsite with comfy tents, a beautiful setting and great organic food.
The DO speakers varied from philosophers to beekeepers, climbers and surfers to activists and architects. There was tremendous diversity in the range of subjects, but a common thread of inspiration that was clear in everyone we heard and spoke to.
The DO Lectures website has information on all the speakers, along with books and websites personally recommended by each of them. Videos of each lecture will soon be avaiable on the site.
There is also a DO Lectures Flickr group and a DO Lectures Facebook group.
Here’s a quick summary of the folks we heard on days 1 and 2 of the four-day event, together with some of my thoughts.
I’ll add notes from the third and fourth days soon.
Ken Yeang – Architect
“We can’t have 100% comfortable eco-architecture. We need to change our expectations of comfort.”
Ken is an architect specialising in buildings that attempt to re-connect the built environment with the natural environment upon which it sits. He showed us highlights from his career, with a specialism in tall office buildings and complex urban schemes.
Ken’s approach was characterised by the use of vegetation to connect buildings with their landscape. This extended not only planting on roofs and landbridges, but by placing greenery on the vertical areas and in interior ‘skycourts’ to visibly blur the boundaries of what he called the grey infrastructure, the green infrastructure and ‘the red infrastructure’ (humans).
We also heard about Ken’s thoughts on the subjects more conventionally associated with the term ‘green architecture’: issues of ventilation, lighting and efficiency. He made it clear that these mechanisms should always be employed intelligently, but that their capabilities would never match those of fully mechanical systems. If we are to achieve a less energy-intensive environment, we need to make some sacrifices with our expectations of comfort.
Listening to Ken’s lecture took me back to university days, as architecture grapples with engineering, creativity and sociology all in one go. The complexity of Ken’s work was clear to us all. I found myself thinking about the additional resources needed to maintain the growth of vegetation planted on the walls of a skyscraper, and queried whether this was a responsible use of energy, fertiliser and human time. Ken acknowleged the concern but reminded me that there is a trade-off between the resources needed in order to build this way and the beneficial effects of integrating more fully with our landscape. He cited studies which have shown that recovery times in hospitals can be improved when patients’ windows are fringed with trees and plants. Benefits such as this, he pointed out, make it all worthwhile.
Michael Braungart – Chemist
“Forget eco-efficiency. Go for eco-effectiveness.”
Micheal Braungart applies his rational, scientific thinking to our way of living and points out the contradictions we accept. He suggests possible solutions to the crises we face, as well as some we didn’t even notice.
He began by observing, through measured examples, the amount of toxic chemicals we allow into our lives. Clothing, luggage, furnishings, toys and foods were all pointed out to be havens for substances harmful to our health and that of our planet.
He then looked at some of the assumptions we make when we consider these issues, and proposed that our thinking is drastically flawed.
For example, Michael raised the issue of overpopulation. Are there too many of us on the planet, or are we just looking after each other badly? Apparently, the world’s population of ants occupies four times more mass on Earth than do humans, yet we don’t consider them to overpopulated. “Are we too many, or too stupid?” asked Michael.
Our approach to energy consumption was next in Michael’s thinking. He challenged the consensus that decides we consume too much energy and that we must reduce our consumption. It is not the energy we need to re-allocate, he argued, but the materials we consume in our pursuit of energy. We consume coal, oil and uranium, and it becomes carbon dioxide, radioactive waste and other substances. The energy is not the real issue.
Michael extended this thinking to the manufacturing process, and our consumption of materials. He challenged the conventions of recycling, pointing out that we are rarely truely recovering the full benefit of the material when it progresses to its next use.
Interestingly, Michaul Braungart spoke in terms of ‘technical nutrients’, encouraging us to think of polythene, steel and carbon fibre as substances which can nourish our lives before they assume a different role and serve a different purpose. Incineration or landfill are ways of consigning these nutrients to the dustbin, rather than finding ways to ‘Upcycle’ them into their next use.
He did not blame us, as consumers, for the waste in our society. All we want, he noted, is to have clean clothes, comfortable feet, or effective communication. Yet when we buy washine machines, shoes or telephones, we are also buying bundles of materials and chemicals that are of no interest to us. We should buy the service, not the product, he proposed. Let’s buy televisions by the hour, or computers by the year. Establishing realistic lifespans for products would help us to manage their disassembly and upcycling.
The were so many other nuggets of fresh thinking in Michael Braungart’s DO lecture that I instantly decided I would be buying his book. Its title, Cradle to Cradle, is the term he has coined to represent his way of thinking. It was really challenging to have so much established wisdom (overpopulation, recycling, energy, even breastfeeding) examined and queried. Michael Braungart’s ideas were not always easy to listen to, but were certainly worth the time spent reconsidering conventional wisdom.
Yun Hider – Wild food forager
“Calling them weeds does huge disrespect to them. They are very tasty plants.”
Yun Hider makes his living by foraging – by finding and picking edible plants, leaves and flowers. He gave us an entertaining whistle-stop tour of the species we may want to find next time we’re feeling peckish. There were even samples to try, and an optional workshop that ventured out into the woods. His enthusiasm and knowledge of his subject was evident, and I feel inspired to look at forest vegetation in a new light, though I may still steer clear of that wild roquette I’ve seen growing by the side of the south circular…
Trevor Baylis – Inventor
“The most important thing is to find the thing you love doing and to keep doing it.”
Trevor Baylis is most famed for his invention of the wind-up radio, and was arguably the most popularly known of all the DOers. He gave us a highly entertaining summary of his career, from competitive schoolboy swimmer, to his national service, his time as a stuntman, escape artist and then engineer.
Though his wind-up inventions are the most successful part of his history, he showed us some of the other items in his CV. An easily-constructed swimming pool for schools and a modular system of aids for physically disabled people gave a clue that Trevor’s motivation has always been to solve problems – not to invent things for their own sake, but to make things easy or more affordable. His feted wind-up radio came about through a realisation of the need for rural Africans to have access to health information without a reliance on scarce expensive batteries.
Trevor Baylis’s Do Lecture was highly entertaining and full of amusing anectodes. However, every so often, Trevor would show his anger and frustration as to how difficult it has been for him, and for other inventors, to get their ideas taken seriously. He showed us countless letters of rejection from funding bodies, investors and government agencies. Particulair disdain was reserved for the Design Council. “Bastards.”
The messages were clear:
As a society, we need to take inventors seriously. We need to encourage and welcome inventions from everyone, including the young and the female – two groups Trevor believes have been historically overlooked in this field.
And as individuals we need to display determination in getting our ideas taken seriously. If we believe in something, Trevor insisted we must persevere, even when we’re told our ideas unfeasible or impractical.
John Grant – Marketer
“If you sell your product as green, people will try to find fault. If you have a good product, sell it as one.”
John Grant didn’t deliver a DO Lecture. In his place, two glove puppets, a sheep named Love and a wolf named Greed, played out a series of conversations illustrating real-life examples of the difficulties that arise within social enterprises. We witnessed, though the voices of Greed and Love, the challenges that arise when entrepreneurship comes together with the desire to operate an ethical business or enterprise.
Love (the sheep) found herself partnering with Greed (the wolf) in order to bring business skills to her social enterprise. We heard them ponder various quandaries as they found themselves motivated by different aspects of working together.
It seemed that for several people in the audience, the puppet show struck a chord. People already involved in social enterprise seemed to relate very strongly to the ideas John was illustrating with his furry friends.
Guy Watson – Farmer
“Pandering to customers and offering choice can be a barrier to doing things responsibly.”
Guy Watson told us the story of his organic vegetable delivery company, Riverford Organic. He explained how, having grown up on a farm, and gone on to be a high-flying businessman in the 1980s, he returned to the UK to his farming roots, going on to establish a highly successful co-operative between Devon farmers, producing fruit and vegetables which are distributed nationally via franchisees.
It was clear that Guy is an ambitious businessman who balances his commercial progress with a desire to operate in an evironmentally sound way. He acknowledged that there have been many challenges and difficult decisions, and spoke of studies he’s conducted to calculate which part of the growing and delivery process is most responsible for CO2 emissions.
His tip for the audience? “If you’re getting into any business venture with anyone, ask them where they want to be in 10 years.”
More about Guy Watson
Andrew Whitley – Baker
“There is something in the making and sharing of bread that counters the negative trends in our society”
Andrew Whitley’s lecture concerned the state of bread as purchased in the high streets of the UK. He is a professional baker, having set up his own bakery several years ago in a small Cumbria village. Andrew explained to us how, in the interests of economy and industrialisation, much of the goodness of wheat has been removed, and many additional ingredients added.
After a technical analysis of bread’s various ingredients, he then spoke about how bread has historically played an important role in our society, providing nourishment and requiring time and patience.
Andrew proposed that if we stop demanding fast, cheap bread, and return to an emphasis on quality, the benefits will be great for not only our health, but for society in general.
Andrew Whitley is a great advocate of baking one’s own bread, and he held a breadmaking workshop the following day, the rsults of which were shared at mealtimes and were very tasty.
Further notes from the third and fourth days of the DO Lectures will follow soon…