Visions of the future

24th June 2005 at 01:00
RETHINK REFUSE REDUCE... Education for sustainability in a changing world. By Ken Webster. Field Studies Council pound;15. www.field-studies-council.org

THE ECO-DESIGN HANDBOOK. By Alastair Fuad-Luke. Thames and Hudson pound;16.95. www.thamesandhudson.com

Simon Smith explores resources that offer radical new approaches to consumerism and conservation

We all know that schoolchildren are thoroughly spoilt. They have far too much spent on them, they eat too much of the wrong things and when they've been given everything they need, they ask for more. The time for some rethinking on spending and consuming is surely urgent.

However, teachers must also adjust their thinking and take a critical look at their lifestyles and the way they run their schools.

These books outline the vision for a well-managed environment and point to a new direction in the teaching of sustainable development. Rethink Refuse Reduce is addressed at teachers, but its frequent use of charts and quotations makes it an effective sixth-form textbook. The Eco-Design Handbook would find a natural home in design technology departments, but the many examples would lead to useful discussions in other areas, such as science and PHSE.

Ken Webster's book takes a serious look at the problems of teaching students to design for sustainable development. His starting point is to question the usefulness of current environmental teaching and to try to redefine the objectives more clearly. He scorns the idea of putting so much emphasis on recycling and waste management, when we ought to be designing waste right out of the system.

The book broadens the context for sustainable design and gives us a world view. Rather than constantly comparing our environmental efforts with those of similar nations, we need to look at them as a proportion of world need.

Just to realise that Britain is near the top of the world's league table of wealthy nations, puts into perspective all the green lifestyles and recycling projects that make us feel so good about ourselves.

If we are to think about caring for the world's resources as a whole, we also need to think about sharing the resources equitably with the four-fifths of the world who don't live in the industrialised west.

Teachers can take comfort from the fact that we don't need to wallow in guilt and pessimism to become aware of the scale of the problem. Our appetite for consumerism comes from the deep-seated notion that "more equals better" - the opposite of "less is more".

Education for sustainable development has to challenge aspects of our culture for which we all have to take some responsibility. Implicit in the book is the need for us to change the way in which we think about products and materials. Unless we adopt a holistic approach to sustainability, our efforts will be haphazard and pointless.

To take recycling as an issue on its own is as absurd as putting butterfly wings on a caterpillar and expecting it to fly. We need to think of the complete life cycle of the products we design. Indeed, we need to consider whether we need the products at all. Ken Webster suggests that, instead of saying "I need a washing machine", we should be saying "I need to clean my clothes". Perhaps we should be redesigning services rather than amassing hardware.

The Eco-Design Handbook is a celebration of environmental design, expressed through hundreds of today's products. Each double-page spread describes up to six products through photographs and text. Alongside each, there is a box that gives standard information about the product. The most interesting detail draws attention to the products' environmental credentials. Things that are not always apparent from the photographs are included, such as the method of manufacture or the source of the material.

The book is introduced by a bold essay on the background and justification for eco-design. Alastair Fuad-Luke starts with a brief history lesson in green design and finishes with a manifesto for environmentally-friendly design thinking. In the middle section he covers issues such as occasional-use products and branding, and gives pointers towards alternative forms of development and management.

Both these books deserve to have wide circulation in schools. They have a radical message, which has the power to make a big difference to the consumer-led culture of the western world.

Simon Smith is head of design technology, Colfe's School, London

* Get it Sust: Enhancing QCA Units is a seminar on sustainable designing in schools, being held on July 8 at the DATA conference. See page 29 for further details

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