🍄 Growth Imperatives #1

This week, we explore our place in various systems, and how our vantage point affects our experience of them.
Curated List
Systemic Perspectives
Lukas Abubeker
min read

What new ideas can we use to spur growth toward a new way of designing and living? Below are three perspective-shifting ideas I've found recently, with an excerpt and link to the full article.

This week: Linguistic Biodiversity, Plastic and Apolitical Design, and What a Weird Internet Gives the World

Linguistic Biodiversity

This is a brief but enlightening introduction to the ways language can affect your experience of reality and relationship with nature—and what is being lost with the growth of global languages.

If you grow up in a literate society, you automatically believe that literacy is a superior state of human development, and people who are non-literate are deficient in some way. This gives us a considerable blind spot to the cognitive advantages of an oral society in its ability to transmit vast bodies of information without writing. It’s like weightlifting for the brain. [...]

[T]he preferred way to say “go” in Tuvan refers to the direction of the current in the nearest river and your trajectory relative to the current. They keep track of that information as they’re moving around the landscape. When I once hosted a Tuvan friend in Manhattan, he asked me, “Where’s the river?” So I took him to the west side of Manhattan and showed him one of the rivers. And he took note of it, so he could use the Tuvan topographic verbs properly in New York City. [...]

I was initially not all that interested in the natural world. But if the majority of conversations happening around you are about the environment, you start caring about that. For example, Tuvans have a word, ий, pronounced “ee,” which means the short side of a hill. This is a very important concept, because you want to avoid the steep side of the hill if you’re walking, riding a horse, or herding your flock of goats. Once I learned the name for it, I began to look for it. But until the language provides you with this concept, you’re just oblivious to it. Learning these nature-centric concepts in the language makes you see the environment differently. [...]

To protect biodiversity, first we have to know how much biodiversity exists and where it exists. There are quite a few recent scientific papers debating this question of how you even measure biodiversity. Indigenous people are much closer than we are to knowing the richness of different species in their environments, how to use them for food or medicine and how they interact and behave.

For example, there’s a 2016 paper by David Fleck and Robert Voss that shows that many of the facts the Matses people of Amazonia know about armadillo behavior are unknown to Western scientists. This kind of knowledge can help us learn about biodiversity. We have to overcome our bias that Western science is superior to Indigenous ways of thinking.

Read: Indigenous languages are founts of environmental knowledge

Plastic and Apolitical Design

Arielle Samuelson from HEATED succinctly lays out the damning research done by the plastics industry and their PR campaign (read: cover-up) to make the problem go away.

In reading this, I thought a lot about the role of the design/advertising industry and the harm our negligence has enabled—for example, this statement from Chermayeff & Geismar: 'When we create a great logo for an environmental organization, we do not see ourselves as saving the planet. In the same way, we cannot take responsibility for the "evil" actions of corporations we brand'.

It's important to think about who this apolitical design stance serves.

The plastics industry has known that recycling doesn’t work for decades. A new report from the Center for Climate Integrity details the deception, showing that the plastics industry has privately admitted in internal communication since the 1960s that the process is not effective.Still, despite knowing that recycling can’t solve the plastic crisis, the industry has spent millions on ads trying to convince the public otherwise. Because when your primary objective is profit, you’d rather see world covered in your product than a world that simply uses less. [...]

[T]he industry group the American Chemical Society came to a similar conclusion, noting that the plastics industry would never truly embrace recycling on a massive scale unless it became profitable. [...]

Even the recycling symbols found on the bottom of plastic bottles and containers are a greenwashing tactic by the industry, according to state government officials. At the time of their adoption in 1990, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Conservation pointed out the truth: “The recycling symbol suggests that the plastic containers are made of recycled material or that they are recyclable. This is, in practice, generally not the case.” [...]

[P]etrochemical companies have consistently claimed in ads, op-eds, and political advocacy that the plastic waste crisis can be solved by recycling.The reason they’ve done this is not because they actually believe in the miracle of recycling. It’s because they fear the real solution to the plastic waste crisis: regulation on the production and disposal of plastic. [...]

[I]n the last few years, plastic lobby groups have sold lawmakers on a new solution to plastic waste: “advanced recycling”, also known as chemical recycling. Chemical recycling is meant to tackle the difficulties of recycling different materials by using extreme heat or chemicals to break plastic into chemical elements. But this type of “recycling” rarely produces new plastic; instead, the vast majority produce either an oil byproduct or hazardous waste.

Read: Plastic recycling is a scam

What a Weird Internet Gives the World

Anil Dash perfectly sums up the cultural homogenization I talked about last week—specifically in social media—and, with concrete examples, gives us some hope of potential change being around the corner.

Across today’s internet, the stores that deliver all the apps on our phones are cracking open, the walls between social media platforms are coming down as the old networks fail, the headlong rush towards AI is making our search engines and work apps weirder (and often worse!). But amidst it all, the human web, the one made by regular people, is resurgent. We are about to see the biggest reshuffling of power on the internet in 25 years, in a way that most of the internet’s current users have never seen before. And while some of the drivers of this change have been hyped up, or even over-hyped, a few of the most important changes haven’t gotten any discussion at all. [...]

The first thing to understand about this new era of the internet is that power is, undoubtedly, shifting. For example, regulators are now part of the story — an ironic shift for anyone who was around in the dot com days. In the E.U., tech giants like Apple are being forced to hold their noses and embrace mandated changes like opening up their devices to allow alternate app stores to provide apps to consumers. This could be good news, increasing consumer choice and possibly enabling different business models — how about mobile games that aren’t constantly pestering gamers for in-app purchases? Back in the U.S., a shocking judgment in Epic Games’ (that’s the Fortnite folks’) lawsuit against Google leaves us with the promise that Android phones might open up in a similar way. [...]

A generation ago, we saw early social networks like LiveJournal and Xanga and Black Planet and Friendster and many others come and go, each finding their own specific audience and focus. For those who remember a time in the last century when things were less homogenous, and different geographic regions might have their own distinct music scenes or culinary traditions, it’s easy to understand the appeal of an online equivalent to different, connected neighborhoods that each have their own vibe. While this new, more diffuse set of social networks sometimes requires a little more tinkering to get started, they epitomize the complexity and multiplicity of the weirder and more open web that’s flourishing today. [...]

I’m not a pollyanna about the fact that there are still going to be lots of horrible things on the internet, and that too many of the tycoons who rule the tech industry are trying to make the bad things worse. (After all, look what the last wild era online lead to.) There’s not going to be some new killer app that displaces Google or Facebook or Twitter with a love-powered alternative. But that’s because there shouldn’t be. There should be lots of different, human-scale alternative experiences on the internet that offer up home-cooked, locally-grown, ethically-sourced, code-to-table alternatives to the factory-farmed junk food of the internet. And they should be weird.

Read: The Internet Is About to Get Weird Again