The core of sustainable living

This post contains extracta from my book Anti-trend. They are taken from the beginning of Chapter 2: Anti-trendy Intuition as well as from the subsection in the same chapter with the subtitle The Core of Sustainable Living.

I have recently on several occasions been reminded of exactly how important it is to be able to make use of my intuitive compass; Intuition can be grounding—and rather than being subjective it can be a gateway to understanding intersubjective elements and basic assumptions. Intuition links us to universal themes that are relevant and common to all human beings, cross culturally.

Anti-trendy intuition

Being intuitive and using one’s intuition to navigate and draw conclusions is generally an unwelcome methodology when performing theoretical research. Intuition is viewed as superficial, unserious, and overly subjective. But perhaps closing ourselves off to intuition denies us straightforward insights.

In this chapter, seemingly intangible concepts and methods like the intuitive compass, intersubjectivity, eidetic reduction, and sublimity will be investigated with the overall purpose of moving toward an understanding of what it means to adhere to anti-trendy tendencies, in the creation of design-objects, and in life in general.

The present usage of the term intuition is closely interrelated with phenomenological research. To intuitively grasp something, for example societal and cultural tendencies, involves moving from observations and hunches to an innate understanding of contexts, conditions, and connections. And, to gain intuitive insight into objects or environments can be described as a way of “checking in” to our fundamental human attachment to our physical surroundings—which appears to be lost when we feel detached from nature, from materials and textures, from sensations and atmospheres, and start doubting our sensory, bodily wisdom.

My hypothesis is that this kind of detachment causes unsustainable behavior, which materializes in a use-and-throw-away mentality, because, simply put, if we don’t feel connected to our physical surroundings, we are less inclined to take care of and maintain them. Hence, exercising one’s intuition is a vital part of both the sustainable design practice and sustainable living.

When consumers become increasingly intuitively and sensuously aware, they demand products that can nourish that awareness within them, and when designers are able to tune into their intuitive compass their ability to create resilient, anti-trendy design-objects that meet deeply felt consumer needs (rather than fleeting trend-based ones) increases. And hence, we are back at the inherent supply-demand logic of the book: namely that in order for the supply of sustainable, resilient design solutions that encourage sustainable living to raise the demand for such must increase, and vice versa.

In the following sections we will move from clarifying the connection between intuition and phenomenological research, investigating ways of disrupting the familiar with the purpose of seeing through “taken for granted truths” and thus potentially altering unfortunate behavioral patterns, and, finally, exploring ways to learn how to navigate intuitively in life and the creative process.

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Drawing conclusions based on intuition is not the equivalent of basing every part of a decision-making process on subtle feelings or emotions. In secularized, and highly rational parts of the word, intuition is often associated with irrational feelings, superstition, and/or worthless gut-feelings, and hence linked to non-valid resolutions.

In my approach to working with the intuitive compass, however, intuition is not necessarily anti-rational nor is it fruitless or void due to its subjective character. Intuition can be grounding—and rather than being subjective it can be a gateway to understanding intersubjective elements and basic assumptions. Intuition links us to universal themes that are relevant and common to all human beings, cross culturally. Intuition is, or should be, the last or perhaps the first drop when making decisions regarding the creation of long-lasting objects, or when concluding upon societal, cultural behavioral patterns. In other words, when gathering insight into tendencies or predominant lifestyles of a time (in order to support or challenge these by creating anti-trendy, sustainable design-objects), making use of one’s intuitive compass can be the highly beneficial. In the following subsections, I will demonstrate how this can be done based on an investigation and definition of the concepts of phenomenological intuition, eidetic reduction, and intersubjectivity.

It might sound slightly “new age” when I use the term intersubjectivity. Nevertheless, intersubjectivity is a phenomenon considered and acknowledged in philosophy, psychology, sociology, and anthropology as a psychological relation between human beings—a kind of cognitive universalism. Within philosophy, intersubjectivity has been thoroughly treated by German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), the founder of phenomenology, as well as by French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961). The concept of intersubjectivity in Husserl’s philosophy indicates that although my subjective, individual perception of the world belongs to me, and another human being’s individual perception belongs to him or her, the world is immediately, directly, or on a “given” level experienced as one and the same. The intersubjective element of perception unites us. I will return to the concept of intersubjectivity and the important link between this term and intuition and the intuitive compass, but first, let’s take a look at why intuition often tends to be viewed as an invalid way of reaching insight and academic knowledge, as initiated at the beginning of this chapter.

The Core of Sustainable Living

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Can eidetic reduction also be used to understand and conceptually define an abstract idea like “sustainable living”?

The title of this book contains three main elements: anti-trend, resilient design, and sustainable living. What if we took a closer look at one of these elements while wearing our “eidetic reduction glasses”? As the concept of anti-trend has already been discussed and is furthermore the underlying theme of the entire book, and since a thorough detection and deconstruction of resilient design is presented in chapters Five and Six (in which a systematic analysis of what the anti-trendy design-object is resilient to is conducted), let’s take a look at the present idea of sustainable living.

Is it possible to reduce or deconstruct sustainable living in order to gain insight into its core essentials, and hence to apprehend what it essentially means to live sustainably? Or is what it means to live sustainably simultaneously too abstract and too individualistic and distinctive for it to be generalized?

Maybe it is, but let’s try. Since living sustainably can seemingly mean many different things and have different and very diverse expressions or “looks,” the concept actually almost calls out for a core-definition. And since eidetic reduction is an imaginative variation-technique that can reveal patterns of meaning and be used for concept definition, using it to conceptually define sustainable living should be possible. The method of eidetic reduction constitutes a way of penetrating appearances as well as assumptions and connotations (which could be related to objects in our surroundings as well as to cultural habits, conventions, or societal phenomena) and leaving nothing but the core-elements behind. The purpose of an eidetic reduction is to capture the essence or nature of a phenomenon, whether a concrete one, like a vase or a chair, or an abstract one, like the idea of the sustainable life.

So, keeping these points in mind: What does living sustainably mean? How can we reduce sustainable living to its core essentials, and thus conceptually define this book’s interpretation on the art of sustainable living?

Sustainable is a multifaceted term that is synonymous to words like durable, justifiable, worthwhile, as well as ecological or “green.” Sustainable living is also linked with “the good life.” However, both durability—green and good living— and viability are ideas that can have a multitude of expressions and manifest in lots of different ways. In order to perform an eidetic reduction of a concept as abstract and multifaceted as sustainable living investigating the different manifestations hereof seems like the natural first step. Once an array of what a sustainable life can look like is outlined, one can embark on seeking the commons, the correlations, the drivers, or the eidos behind the complex surface.

And so, let’s initiate this thought-experiment by investigating various manifestations of sustainable living.

Living green and sustainably tends to connote reducing one’s usage of natural resources by altering one’s ways of transportation, flying less, eating less meat (or maybe none), shopping less (or maybe mainly buying second-hand items), making use of sustainable energy sources like solar power, etc. It is also associated with recycling waste, with reusing product-packaging and cast-off things, and with consuming ecological goods. However, sustainable living can also more abstractly mean living a life that is worthwhile and justifiable. And consequently, an existentialist as well as an ethical dimension is added to the idea of living sustainably: considerations about living a life that one can sustain and endure, a life that doesn’t “wear thin,” a life that one can justify living. In other words, sustainable living can go beyond concrete sustainable efforts and involve reflections on the meaningful and authentic life.

Unless you are motivated to live sustainably, like really motivated because doing so is aligned with your beliefs and values, and because you truly believe that changing your individual shopping habits or that travelling less by airplane will make a difference, you will likely not be persistent with your sustainable efforts, and hence they will be momentary and fleeting rather than enduring. As written in the introduction to the book: even though altering our habitual consumer ways and reducing consumption might sound fairly easy and straightforward, it appears to be unbelievably hard. Despite us being bombarded with horrific pictures of terrestrial and aquatic pollution and wildlife suffering due to the waste that overconsumption produces we still shop, we still discard the majority of our belongings way before they no longer work or are worn-out, and we continue to overload landfills and oceans with trash. Not because we are evil. Of course not. The reason is likely interlinked with the fact that habits are very hard to change, especially if we don’t believe that doing so will make an actual difference, and furthermore part of the reason might be that we are generally becoming increasingly detached from nature and simultaneously detached from the consequences of our actions.
Therefore, understanding the core behind sustainable efforts and sustainable living is crucial in order to see the full picture and in order to grasp the core of what living sustainably means.

Let’s take a look at the outlined concrete sustainable actions from the previous paragraph, which are connected to the three sustainable R’s: Reduce, Recycle, and Reuse.
Reducing is essential to sustainable living. As written in the introduction to the book, I view reduction of consumption as one the most important ways of pursuing a sustainable lifestyle, which I will elaborate vastly on in the upcoming chapters. However, reducing consumption on a permanent, consistent basis requires, as suggested, that doing so feels meaningful and that it is plausible. Taking the motivation for reducing consumption to pieces in order to reach its eidos will lead us to the core-motivation for doing so, just like the simplified eidetic reduction of the vase revealed the essential elements that are necessary in order to call an object a vase.

According to Aristotle a good, fulfilling life worth living and worth sustaining involves seeking a golden mean between extremes—between too much and too little. Only by finding that balance will we be fulfilled and happy. Living sustainably by reducing consumption concurrently doesn’t mean turning away from the world entirely and refusing everything: travels, pleasures, and aesthetic delight. Such a nihilistic withdrawal from society is not a sustainable way of life. Sustainable reduction involves finding a golden mean between mindless overconsumption and extremist detachment from society in the shape of a vivifying acquirement of useful and visually and textually nourishing objects that can establish enduring, aesthetically wholesome repetitions in everyday life.

Sustainable reduction is fulfilling and meaningful; it is life-affirming rather than life-denying, and therefore motivating and enduring.

Correspondingly, we could take a look at the concepts of recycling and reusing and the individual actions that are related hereto, such as sorting trash, using jam jars to store grains and flour, purchasing second-hand garments, buying recycled paper and biodegradable plastic bags, etc. Unless such actions are experienced as meaningful, impactful, or as something that makes a real difference, they are not continuously conducted.

Henceforward, an eidetic reduction of sustainable living must involve seeking the core motivations behind enduring sustainable efforts, not the ones that are performed because they are timely, trendy, or because sustainable consumption has become a way of fitting in and reaping admiring glances from peers, but the ones that reflect a deeply felt desire to live a meaningful life—a life that is incessantly fulfilling and that is ethically justifiable in relation to nature, animals, and fellow human beings. Such sustainable efforts are purposeful and revolve around the free, deeply felt desire to make a difference. Insight into such core motivations is of great value to the sustainable designer as accommodating these in the design experience is a way of creating meaningful, durable design-solutions that can alter unsustainable user-habits and promote the freedom to take action.

Living sustainably seems to revolve around two main elements: purpose and freedom. A sustainable life means living a life that one can sustain; a life that one can endure or withstand. This requires meaningful activities and nourishing repetitions, as well as purpose and direction.

Freedom is another important term, when defining sustainable living. In accordance with existentialist philosopher Sartre, we are condemned to be free, and in relation to living sustainably that means that whatever we do—if we choose to continuously over-consume, or if we choose to reduce our consumption in order to minimize our carbon footprint—we are responsible for these actions, since we are free to sustain or alter them. So, despite habits being hard to change, and that we might feel detached from nature and hence unable to experience the impact that unsustainable behavior has on flora and fauna, we are living in bad faith if we tell ourselves that we are unable to change and to take responsibility.
To live sustainably means living a life that we can endure and justify, and it involves taking full responsibility for our choices and actions.

Freedom is crucial when it comes to authentic living according to existentialist philosophers. But freedom involves responsibility. Freedom without responsibility is indifferent (and potentially unethical). True, authentic freedom is freedom to do what you want and follow your dreams while contributing to something, creating meaningful content for yourself and others, or making a difference for someone. Unauthentic characters in existentialist philosophy, such as Søren Kierkegaard’s Aesthete or Simone de Beauvoir’s Adventurer, whom I will elaborate on in the forthcoming chapter, are free, but they are not happy, and they do not live a life worth sustaining. Their existence is characterized by a range of incoherent, pleasurable moments that temporarily fill them up with joy and pleasure, but in the long run become empty and insignificant. Furthermore, they consciously choose to place themselves outside community and to not engage in any long-term relations with other people (in order to avoid responsibility).

Indulging in hedonism is, in other words, not the key to a fulfilling life that one can sustain and withstand, and selfish pleasure-seeking will (according to Kierkegaard and de Beauvoir) with time become nauseating. One will essentially only by freely engaging in the world and pursuing to somehow make a difference feel truly free and fulfilled. Without purpose and direction freedom becomes recklessness.

I will return to the discussion on the authentic, sustainable life in the upcoming chapters. But first, let us continue with the current investigation of intuitive insights.

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