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Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 10:00 am
Case Study Homes

Watching Voyage Big City Life Tokyo, a French documentary looking at six Tokyo interiors, I couldn't help remembering Robert Venturi's maxim "less is a bore". With the honourable exception of Audrey Fondecave's Nakameguro house, the Tokyo living spaces shown are cold, anal, expensive and depressingly 80s-minimalist, devoid of colour, decoration, flashes of imagination, even signs of habitation. For the most part, they look like pricey, uninspired furniture outlets; upmarket, uptight and bourgeois. "Everything in a line, and simple, I think that's the style of our time," says furniture designer Fumio Takashima.



He's wrong. "Everything in a line, and simple" -- with excessive fear of clutter, decoration, and irregularity -- is not the style of our time. It's Modernism, and it began roughly a hundred years ago and ended about fifty years ago. Venturi, in fact, was one of the first to end the style, hailing the haphazard clutter and irrational cheerfulness of Californian strip signage. His motto about less being a bore became one of the key statements of Postmodernism. If we're now in a new era that dares to re-invent Modernism, we're attracted to its provincial quirks (see yesterday's entry on Vladimir Ossipoff) and a certain peely-queasy historical patina it's acquired.



So what would I champion as "the style of our time", if this French documentary got it so wrong? Well, I think the style of our time -- certainly the thing that catches my eye and inspires me -- is a different form of clutter. Not Venturi's postwar American commercial clutter of donut stalls and cheap motels, but the developing world clutter of shanty towns and street food. These are the new global grassroots of style, and advanced designers like Mike Meiré are right to be taking cues from them, and to be utterly bored with the kind of anal minimalism on display in the french documentary on Tokyo.



A case study? Well, how about Peter Bialobrzeski's series Case Study Homes? Bialobrzeski took the pictures illustrating this entry early last year in the Philippines, at the Baseco compound, a shanty camp located at a shipyard on the Pasig River, near Manila's port. The pictures, taken with a 4x5 format camera and currently on show in an exhibition at L.A. Galerie Lothar Albrecht in Frankfurt, have a double function. They show the conditions of life for approximately 45% of the population of Manila, who live in substandard squat conditions. But they also inspire aesthetically, displaying amazing inventiveness and endless formal variation.



Now, from a certain perspective, to declare a shanty town beautiful, inspiring or "the style of our time" seems amoral, even immoral -- an endorsement of poverty. It's a bit like defending child cotton picking in Uzbekistan or wondering why we can't all live in an "optimal breeding tunnel" designed for cattle. Surely, runs this argument, we ought to be lifting everyone out of poverty, not taking tips from it? At the weekend one disgruntled Anon commented: "Why does Momus refuse to make and spend money? ...I've never quite worked out how cheap = "more noble" or even "left wing". And it sure isn't "trendy". There are as many cliches in the flea market bars as there are in wine bars."



My answer is that "Ferraris for all" just doesn't work in a world where we're already consuming too many resources. At some point we need to take a leaf from the book of the poor. That doesn't mean live in shanty towns, but it does mean live more modestly, and be more resourcefully resource-sparing. Shanty towns are exemplary recyclers, and have extremely modest environmental footprints. Then there are the aesthetic arguments. To me, this stuff looks very interesting, and I'd like to see it become (as Mike Meiré and others are helping it become) the style of our times. I'd also like it to be improved so that it, you know, keeps the rain out. Perhaps some ingenious Japanese architects (Shigeru Ban has been on the case for decades, so have Lacaton and Vassal) have some ideas about how to make better dwellings out of paper, card, beercrates and bamboo? Perhaps -- should this style really be embraced globally -- some of those ideas will trickle down to Manila, and help shanty town dwellers there keep the rain out?

What won't help them, for sure, is the argument that they should all aim to drive Ferraris. If the style of the global poor (which, Bialobrzeski's photos show, is not an impoverished style, aesthetically speaking) becomes the style of our times, a wider embrace of improved versions of these forms and techniques will, I think, end up helping the poor -- and the world -- a lot more than telling them the style of the rich can somehow become their style. I'm as sick of that particular lie as I'm bored with minimalism.

67CommentReplyShare

dogsolitude_v2
dogsolitude_v2
dogsolitude_v2
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 08:11 am (UTC)

As I think I mentioned on a previous post of yours, I would love to build my own home, to my own specifications and with my own unique 'look'.

However the main thing that appeals to me is the idea of a simpler life. Lately life's been remarkably stress free: aside from finding a job, I've not had that horrid white-noise voice of consumerism whispering in my ear that everyone will think I'm crap if I don't have a quad-band Nokirola MK-Ultra. Most folk seem to have calmed down about the Latest Must Have Gadgets and Handbags of late.

So a simple life where I own my own home and therefore have the security of not being subject to possible eviction every six months would definitely be the way forward!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 08:16 am (UTC)

I think it's definitely a recessionary idea that the poor, rather than the rich, are the taste-makers. And that's the idea that this entry endorses. It's difficult to persuade people you're not horribly immoral making this point, though, because the ideology of opportunity, aspiration, and endless economic growth is so deeply embedded in our mentality and our rhetoric, and has been during the whole post-war period. It's almost treason to talk about controlled slowdown. But, like you, I'm finding a great deal of comfort in the current conditions, the de-aspiration (which is different from desperation). I wish people had embraced the new direction by choice, but they're embracing it by necessity, and -- being people -- they'll find the silver lining.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 08:21 am (UTC)

The mindset that births this view - that the poor would be better of adopting the western model of suburbian rich, that, surely, they must strive to live like us - is what I despise. It's a certain kind of ignorant arrogance (that's two words that often come as a pair). Sure, the poorer people of Manila do have a good amount of possibilities to improve their lives. Shacks that keep the rain outside are one important example. But to think there's a crucial disadvantage in life for them if they can't reach the Ferrari-driving lifestyle is of such mindless decadence.

The more interesting remark the anon made about your lifestyle was how ""socialist" is it to contribute as little as humanly possible in terms of tax, charity, keeping the wheels turning, keeping other people in jobs". Now there's nothing wrong cherrypicking parts of troll-ish comments, but I'd have liked to see you reply to this remark. I'm sure it would have involved explaining how you repay the city in a "cultural currency".

Oh, and let me thank you for blogging and making music. My life would be a bit poorer (the cultural kind of poor) if you didn't.


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krskrft
krskrft
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 08:41 am (UTC)

Oh, come on, Momus. I would agree with your argument if you were actually treating the strawman fairly (which is to say, if it weren't a strawman in the first place). Assisting those in poverty does not = promoting the idea that everybody should be driving a Ferrari. There is a pretty enormous middle ground that you just completely ignore.

Personally, I'm inclined to agree with your premise that we can find interesting and useful things in the designs of shanty towns. After all, we can find useful and interesting things most anywhere. But I still can't help but get a sinking feeling when, in response to decades of stuffy, bourgeois modern design, we suddenly do a 180 and praise the "interesting," "inventive" design-by-necessity of the impoverished. There's something terribly patronizing and vulgar about it.

There is a sort of imperialism to stepping in and saying "Oh, what color? What materials? This is fantastic!" when those matters are likely tertiary--secondary, at best--to the people making these structures. It's vulgar because you're avoiding the 800lb gorilla in the room, which is the fact that these people are living hand to mouth.

So sure, find inspiration everywhere. I'm all for that. But I think there's room for sensitivity, and I think it's also important not to exoticize or romanticize abject poverty in the process. There is, after all, a pretty huge gap between abject poverty and rolling around in a Ferrari. Not in the slightest does refusing to do the former mean promoting the latter.


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krskrft
krskrft
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 08:52 am (UTC)

And also, I think there is this misguided notion we have that those in poverty somehow exist in this free realm outside of capitalism, when in fact, capitalism exists, in part, because these people exist to receive less than their fair portion of the equally-divvied-up proceeds. It's foolish to position them outside the world of aspiration--of Ferrari daydreams--especially since this has, historically speaking, been the condition that keeps them content with their lot in life (content enough not to organize and force an alternative, anyway).


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 08:54 am (UTC)
The Solar Eye

your opinions have merit and while i agree that "ferraris for all" is a repulsive idea, i would think that minimalism can gesture toward a less consumptive lifestyle, like the begging bowl of the monk. But what i really want to object to is your defaming of the Solar Eye by repeatedly using the 'anal' in a negative context! Why must this most humble of orifices suffer such slander?


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me.jdcasten.info
me.jdcasten.info
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 09:09 am (UTC)
Bataille

Does this bring up the issues of casual vs. formal and clutter vs. austerity?— I wonder if these tensions are related to poverty vs. power (think, “formal occasions” and military uniforms and church ceremonies, etc. vs. say, the later poetry of William Blake or the art of Hieronymus Bosch or the sketches of Hokusai). This is what seems so predictable about so many gallery and museum spaces (even on the internet)—trying to be an empty space for the art. Ditto for the office atmosphere of many (wealthy) homeowners.

Shanty towns, beyond utilizing recycling and lower ecological footprints, demonstrate a lot character—similar as many of these dwellings are, they don’t all look the same—like so many US suburbs that look like an old Flintstones episode where a car drives past the same house again and again. Maybe a compromise might be something like the Winchester House? (Just kidding):

http://bit.ly/80yxg


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 08:59 am (UTC)

But you seemed to be a big fan of "anal minimalism" when writing about the Photographer's Gallery not long ago: "A white-walled, evenly-lit space with a simple form factor puts me at ease;" etc.

Although it fits better with the standard Classicism-Romanticism-Modernism-Postmodernism narrative that minimalism died 50 years ago, it's patently untrue. In fact in the heyday of postmodernism in the 80s, sleek matt-black and white minimalism was clearly the aspirational style for the budding loft-dweller, before bleeding through to the design-conscious middle classes via Heals and Habitat, and then finally in the nineties infecting everyone via IKEA. And I'm guessing IKEA and its acolytes might even get a second wind in these recessionary times.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 09:15 am (UTC)
Will Momus catch the flu?

Swell post - thanks. You got the flu yet? I think you'll avoid it. I hear minimal living helps prevent the virus.....


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me.jdcasten.info
me.jdcasten.info
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 09:17 am (UTC)
Re: Will Momus catch the flu?

Or a spring break in Cancun?


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 09:18 am (UTC)

That doesn't mean live in shanty towns, but it does mean live more modestly, and be more resourcefully resource-sparing.

Says the man who just flew to Frankfurt and back! Does this mean you will be cutting back on the air miles, Momus? Or are your homilies only for others?


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 09:38 am (UTC)

I think minimalism is a great thing for creative people who are surrounded by their creative clutter to aspire to ( i am guilty as charged) because anyone who engages with the world as fully as possible is always going to be surrounded by clutter - they will simply never achieve minimalism, and they know it, so its easy to aspire to it. You would literally have to prioritise minamilism ahead of being open & experiencing the world & i suspect thats something only (imho) some germans & japanese can achieve... but at what cost?
'look at my nice empty space, it has nothing in it, just like me'

i aspire to also be an empty person, but i fail every day

x.binomial


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
grzeg
grzeg
grzeg
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 10:02 am (UTC)

Just to point out the irony of the name: Case Study Houses, the experimental homes designed to reinvent the typical middle-class American dwelling to be inexpensive and efficient, today on the Hollywood Hills fetch a market price of over 3 million dollars, the pinnacle of 'bling' culture.

You address the problem of aestheticizing poverty, and that we can Learn from Lagos, Manila, Rio, etc.; architecture can’t save the world, but it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t try: Ban, Mockbee, and Lacaton & Vassal should be applauded.

To echo [info]krskrft, what’s not addressed is why the poor are poor. Slums weren’t always there. These are sites of instant shantytowns built at the fringes of major cities for an economic demand, factory towns built around industry to provide on-site, non-unionized, cheap labor. What you’re championing as the new cultural capital is a product forced and driven by capitalist industry.

Designing like you give a damn is only part of the solution. You don’t have to look at slums to create an awareness that we all have to be more sustainable and modest, just because the poorest of the poor are, because they have no other recourse; why you should look at them is to see that they are that way because of our culture of excess, consumerism, exclusion, exploitation, and imperialism.


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me.jdcasten.info
me.jdcasten.info
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 10:18 am (UTC)
Architecture, Authority and Exploitation

“These are sites of instant shantytowns built at the fringes of major cities for an economic demand, factory towns built around industry to provide on-site, non-unionized, cheap labor. What you’re championing as the new cultural capital is a product forced and driven by capitalist industry.”

This is a good point… but poor sanitation, lack of water, and above all, exploitation, are issues that I don’t think one must “champion” to see that each of these shanty homes is a HOME to someone—that a certain amount of idiosyncratic care was put into their construction and planning. Could the austerity and retentive formalism of sparse “power-architecture” be a way of re-enforcing authority? Just a thought.


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grzeg
grzeg
grzeg
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 10:16 am (UTC)

(And this is not directed at you:) but to do this because one is utterly bored is the type of reaction one would expect from the gauche caviar.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 12:46 pm (UTC)

I'd love to see you swish through a shanty town in say South Africa and let you soak up the emotional impact of these places. I'm sure you would go down a storm or a flight of stairs if the had any.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 01:19 pm (UTC)

Yes, let us never talk of shanty towns again, Anon. We will be better, and braver, men for the silence.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand

lana_sv
lana_sv
lana_sv
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 01:28 pm (UTC)
! exactly

ghetto-ised


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 01:46 pm (UTC)

One nice example in Berlin of this "shanty urbanism" is Geçekondu, a self-built house and vegetable garden situated on no-man's land formerly occupied by the Berlin Wall, and now allocated the address 0 Bethaniendamm.

In fact, the word geçekondu means informal settlement in Turkish. This -- along with other shanty and favela models -- has inspired the urbanist Wes Janz, amongst others.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 01:54 pm (UTC)

At the end of that piece, Brian Finoki puts the "favela-as-model" argument a lot more unapologetically than I have here:

"At the rate it's going now, eventually all major cities will be shaped more dramatically by a squatter urbanism and the spatial politics therein. And so, perhaps, some of the greatest future architects will be born out of the favelas themselves, or soon be teaching brilliant studios to a fortunate group of students in the slums. Indeed, some already do. However, maybe, the next generation of master engineers is the one housing close to 2 billion people in impromptu squatter cities today, cultivating evolutionary housing models on their own, and improvising greener, more nimble infrastructures out of trash. They are the ones writing the construction manuals of the future. Could it be their ecology that will not only serve as a resourceful model for various disaster contexts, but help to envision a more conscientious post-urban metropolis of recycled cities brimming through out the next century? Who knows, if their ingenuity is any indication, one day, a squatter urbanism may even lead to a truly bottom-up re-structuring of a more balanced and responsible world economy."


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Geçekondu - (Anonymous) Expand
bennycornelius
bennycornelius
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 02:09 pm (UTC)

Have you ever seen "Severn Heaven", one of Jonathan Meades's pieces for the BBC? Might be on youtube... Are you a fan of Meades's progs on architecture...?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 02:20 pm (UTC)

I quite like Meades, but Severn Heaven doesn't seem to be online.


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uberdionysus
uberdionysus
Troy Swain: Black Box Miasma
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 02:53 pm (UTC)

I'll ignore the political/economic arguments and just concentrate on the aesthetic shift, and on that, you are totally right, and I didn't even realize it.

The international art world and the related worlds of music and "hipster" culture have been swinging around that third-world bricolage aesthetic for many years now, and it is now the dominant "cool" aesthetic. Like many people, I love that stuff, but keep forgetting that the whole DIY aesthetic is deeply tied to third world bricolage., and suggests larger political arguments.


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shadowshark
shadowshark
ShadowShark
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 04:05 pm (UTC)

Great ideas--lots to think about here.

Sorry if someone else has already brought this to your attention, but: on a related note, did you read about the big meeting of traditional peoples to discuss climate change? Pretty interesting.
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090419133835.htm


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 05:55 pm (UTC)
hello from WC1

totally off-topic but am just giving you a heads-up that there will be homemade KEEMA PEAS on ye stove top so save room and don't eat any shitty terminus/airport food unless your stomach's threatening to wormhole. Also MOSKOVSKAYA <-----reminder. x


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 06:36 pm (UTC)
Re: hello from WC1

Gotcha, Suze. It's going to be very late, though, so I will gnaw on bread on the way.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 06:23 pm (UTC)
"Cut off your feet to fit your bed" - zzz

I'm kind of deaf to it now. I hear it from every TV channel. Every newspaper. The Left. The Right. Royalty. The religious. The President of the USA. The radical activist.

Every cocking body. The same eco-maths. Cut back. Cut down. Be dull. Put other people out of a job. Pay them as little as possible. Close down the welfare state and social services and go back to the stone age.

Do I need Momus' blog to tell me the same story?

No-one is saying "Ferraris for all". Mock bling as an example but POVERTY IS MADNESS. Dull, disease-ridden. No dentists. People turn to Islam, or Christianity! People turn to violence. People turn to bollocks. Mostly people die.

Give me "Live large but problem solve" any day. Give me the resources to invent new resources.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Apr. 29th, 2009 09:19 pm (UTC)
Re: "Cut off your feet to fit your bed" - zzz

Maybe less of the GIMME and more of the 'what can I do?' and maaaaybe I would't feel like I'm reading the witterings of a spoiled brat.

Over the past 20 years an over-reliance on credit has created a certain entitlement (waitresses like my sis thinking have Fendi bag now, pay later) that is completely disconnected from affordable reality. People used to be tons better at delaying their gratification than they are now; what's needed is a rediscovery of the discipline of saving for the necessary big-ticket items they need and not relying quite so much on the wing/prayer model. Even in an economy that's busy shitting on everyone, it's not difficult to see that the people who did not help themselves to items they couldn't afford (on whatever scale, and in this I'm trying not to criticise poor Americans charmed into subprime mortgages the lenders were charlatans to offer) are in a much better position than those who went into a feedback loop of Because I'm Worth It.


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farblust
farblust
Thu, Apr. 30th, 2009 12:10 am (UTC)

These huts cannot stand and would just be flushed away when there is a typhoon sweeping over the Philippines. Maybe architects/engineers should help them to find ways to make better shelters using their techniques, with found materials.


Like how Laurie Baker used old bottles to make windows, instead of buying new squeaky clean fish tank windows.

But then I can't see how the aesthetics of the poor can be applied to the larger side of architecture, namely urban planning/the highrise buildings. And how can you persuade clients(like estate developers) to use it.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 30th, 2009 02:22 am (UTC)

i had a strong envy to pee but i was too lazy to go to the bathroom and not crazy enough to pee in my bed so i was left with a feeling of retardness.


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caws_pobi
caws_pobi
Caws Pobi
Thu, Apr. 30th, 2009 02:35 am (UTC)

I can see Momus living in an eccentric, ramshackle little hut, but not without high speed wifi, a fancy Apple computer, and maybe an iPhone. I suppose some rich-folk comforts are still necessary in poor-folk living. I know I'm still saving for a fancy Apple.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 30th, 2009 06:19 am (UTC)
Earthships

I'm surprised no-one's mentioned "Earthships", although I noticed the recycled bottle window post. There's a recent documentary called "Garbage Warrior" covering these off-the-grid recycled materials dwellings.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, May. 6th, 2009 07:44 am (UTC)
Living more modestly?

You bring up interesting topics as always. But something irks me.

"At some point we need to take a leaf from the book of the poor. That doesn't mean live in shanty towns, but it does mean live more modestly, and be more resourcefully resource-sparing."

Being a bit of the devil's advocate, any argument that we "will have to consume less in the future" seems ideological and slightly ignorant of world history. It seems too early to declare the coming of "post-materialism", if that is what this statement based on.
Throughout world history humanity as a whole has gradually become able to consume more and more from less and less resources. This is enabled by research. The logical conclusion is that you will one day be able to transform garbage into useful items like food or furniture, at the flick of a switch - just like in the movies. Everything indicates that we're moving towards that point, it's just a question of how long it'll take. (And while not a market fundamentalist, I do think the free market stops us from overconsuming unsustainable resources like oil - just look at the evolution of the oil price in recent years).
But maybe such a word is "post-materialist" in the sense that matter will be so malleable that the idea of "materialism" is pointless.

As a side point, I find Tokyo's minimalism refreshing and inspiring, maybe because it lets me focus my attention on details I would otherwise have been distracted from.

Johan


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, May. 6th, 2009 10:56 am (UTC)
Re: Living more modestly?

Throughout world history humanity as a whole has gradually become able to consume more and more from less and less resources.

We have the capability to do that, and we should do that, but is that what we're actually doing? Isn't what we're actually doing consuming more from more resources? Both consumption and production have increased steadily over the last few centuries. What needs to happen, as resources get more scarce and population increases, is an increase in efficiency rather than quantity of production. And I believe the poor really do know something about this.


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