Constellation 4/8 – Evolution of the Environmental deeconomiessbate

There has always been a level of concern about the environmental impact of humanity’s consumption since the industrial revolution. However when times get difficult. For example when economies struggle, environmental impact becomes a secondary concern. However in recent years protections of the environment have become codified in law making them more permanent.


Thorstein Bunde Veblen (1857-1929)

Anti mass consumption. Coined the phrase – ‘Conspicuous consumption’ – in the same sense as ‘conspicuous leisure’. People demonstrating their wealth to others.

Richard Neutra

Wrote ‘ Survival Through Design‘ (1954)

American architect who voiced concern about man’s impact on the environment (biorealism) – relationship between nature and consumption.

Vance Packard 

‘The Hidden Persuader’ voiced concerns about psychological techniques to persuade consumers to see their possessions as obsolete. Critiqued ruthless techniques marketeers were using to make people feel the need for more new things.

Richard Buckminster

Interested in how technology and design could perform social benefit rather than simply making producers wealthy. Trying to create impact reducing cars etc. These creations were conceptual, not workable. Both because environmental concerns weren’t in the forefront of people’s minds and the technology wasn’t there to make them practically mass produced.


Ecological movements in the USA and Europe begin to come to the forefront as a reaction to the technological growth.

Rachel Carson

Silent Spring (1962) – Shed the spotlight on issues regarding the interrelated nature of the ecological system. Insecticides effect insects which are eaten by birds which are part of the food chain and all of thishas a wider effect.

Victor Papanek 

Design for the Real World‘ – Critique of the design profession and the modern technological world. Change from answering needs to promoting wants by consumers. Creation of sustainable processes and simple techniques to complete tasks (sustainable housing etc). Worried people were losing sight of the true need for design. Performing a practical task.  (THIS IS IN THE READING LIST)

Criticism of town planning in the UK. Focus on growth, not social role.

OPEC oil crisis (1970s) – Supply ran low and caused mass panic. Psychology of first world countries changed. People went from assuming resources such as oil were never ending to sudden shock of limitation. However after the crisis ended consumption continued to climb. People are fickle.

Limits to Growth‘ (1972) – Produced by Club of Rome – group of eminent scientists, industrialists and diplomats. (ON THE READING LIST)

Used computer models to explore long-term consequences of growth in population – consumption, pollution, food production. – Eventually we will run out of resources and places to keep our waste. – this book launched the environmental debate into the mainstream.

At around the same time happened –

  • Chernobyl
  • Ozone hole
  • Exxon Valdez oil spill

Environmental Debate of the 1980’s

Slowed down due to economic downturn – growth became more important than the environment.

Green Design – Stimulated by independent, campaign groups and public opinion in 1960’s-70’s. Struggled to be relevant when unemployment and urban regeneration was on the cards. ‘Green’ was a term for creations which reflected a broader social awareness of ecological issues.

Depth of greenness from extreme to marginal. Deep green valuing all life and light green having the environment as human centred. Limited focus on the product life cycle. Sometimes used as ploy to sell more products.

Green Design 

Reduction – light weighting, refill and reuse bottles, biodegradable plastics, natural materials.

Some materials recycle well, some lose their qualities.

Energy Efficiency – Aerodynamics.

Many of these changes to design were created to fool consumers into thinking they were doing good by buying these products.

Life-cycle Thinking

Design which looks to improve and minimise the environmental effects of a product throughout every stage of its life cycle without compromising its use, cost etc.

This approach allows a more strategic way of lessening an environmental impact of a product without compromising it’s quality. For example the most energy consumptive phase of the life-cycle of a kettle its use (when it’s boiling water). So lessening the energy use at this point is the most efficient way of saving energy and reducing impact.

Life-cycle assessment – reduce certain things such as number of materials used, high energy design methods such as use of glues, reducing weight/size making transport cheaper.


In this lecture we continued to discuss the nature of our consumer way of life and its evolution and expansion. We learned that even at the birth of consumerism there were voices raising concerns over the possible negative effects resulting from it. As the industralisation of more of the world brought about further and further consumption and waste, it became increasingly clear that such a culture of consumerism would not be sustainable. As a result, counter cultural movements began to spread awareness and designers and producers began slowly making concessions.

As science began exploring the effects human expansion was having on the environment, (for example Rachel Carson Silent Spring (1962) which shed the spotlight on issues regarding the interrelated nature of the ecological system) initiatives to increase recycling and reduction of waste in manufacturing were introduced. However any reduction was tentative as reduction largely has costs to an economy built on consumption and so at any time an economy suffered and a given population was hit by high unemployment, ecological measures were reduced or revoked.

Companies also used consumer’s good intentions towards the environment to push them to consume more. Misleading labeling and advertising suggesting a product is sustainably sourced or made from recycled materials can lead a person to buy more thinking they are being conscientious with regard to the environment. The true successes of recent years are initiatives that have aided manufacturers and the environment simultaneously. Green design for example would require a manufacturer to use fewer and lower energy processes in building a product, thus reducing production cost and causing less impact.

I knew the environment and our consumer culture were at odds and that environmental issues have been an issue for decades. But each lecture I have on the subject takes me more in depth into the benefits and negatives of the consumer world we have built and the solutions to revert to a sustainable way of living.







Author: David Rothwell

I am a Graphic Communication student at Cardiff Metropolitan School of Art and Design If you like any of my work, have feedback (good or bad) or would like to get in touch, please do

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