The Shape of Green: Aesthetic Imperatives

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s hydrogen-powered Hummer and the November 2009 issue of Scientific American. [Hummer photo by Chris Humphrey]

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread.
— John Muir, The Yosemite, 1912

In November 2009, the cover story of Scientific American beckoned to me from a newsstand: “A Plan for a Sustainable Future.” Upon closer inspection, alas, I found the subtitle in smaller print: “How to get all energy from wind, water, and solar power by 2030.” Does a “sustainable future” mean merely ridding the world of greenhouse gases?

Instinctively, we feel that sustainability must encompass more than that. Here I want to argue that embedded in the very concepts of ecology and sustainability is an aesthetic mandate — an imperative toward beauty, pleasure, joy. Yet, popular views of the environmental crisis define both the questions and the answers narrowly — the problem is global warming, the cause is emissions from outmoded energy mechanisms, and the solution is smarter mechanisms. Technology has hijacked sustainability. A clear statement of this view came from George W. Bush in his 2006 State of the Union address: “America is addicted to oil. The best way to break this addiction is through technology.” Yet our addiction is not to oil but rather to consumption; so to focus on technology is to confuse food with appetite. And, to shift the metaphor, believing that new tools will break this addiction is like trying to kick a heroin habit with better needles.

“Is it progress if a cannibal uses a fork?” quipped the poet Stanis?aw Jerzy Lec. Do smarter tools merely make us better at making things worse? As governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger commissioned a custom-made, hydrogen-powered Hummer and promptly became a poster boy for alternative fuel. Its emissions weren’t carbon but steam — hasta la vista, CO2. But a Hummer measures ten by sixteen feet, so it can’t easily squeeze into standard road lanes or parking spaces, and technically it’s illegal on many streets. (General Motors discontinued the line in 2010.) Thus thoroughly accommodating the big car would mean fattening up every freeway, parking lot, and garage — a complete overhaul of infrastructure with a huge influx of concrete and asphalt. If everyone drove a Hummer — even a gas-free one — the world would burst at the seams. Arnie’s engine might have been a green dream, but the rest of the car was an environmental nightmare.

Ratchet the Hummer, from Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. [Image by Hasbro]

Technology and Design

Although the hydrogen Hummer was a one-of-a-kind showpiece, most consumer eco-cars also tend to rely on their inner workings, not their outer appearance. The 2010 Honda Civic Hybrid — versions of which took two of the top three slots in the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) ranking of the “greenest cars” on the market — is indistinguishable from the conventional Honda Civic. What makes it green is hidden under the hood. And when the Toyota Prius — “the best-loved and most efficient hybrid in America,” boast the advertisements — entered the American market in 2001, it looked a lot like Toyota’s other brands and any number of boxy sedans then on the road. Take away the motor, and it’s just another car. (Compared to the Toyota Corolla, declared the Auto Channel, the styling of the 2001 Prius was “most remarkable for being unremarkable.”)

But in fact it is the 2004 Prius that’s become the iconic model. Although it grew by six inches and 150 pounds, its new Kamm-tail teardrop body cut wind resistance enough to improve the fuel economy by five miles per gallon, and its drag coefficient (0.25) is among the lowest of any mass-produced car. Design — specifically the shape of the chassis — made up for the additional size and weight. And even though its unconventional appearance led critics to call it “a brick on wheels” and “a clumsy looking toad of a car,” the real distinction of the redesigned Prius was that it didn’t look like other cars — its newly identifiable shape allowed it to become a green status symbol, with an image that relates as much as to marketability as to aerodynamics.

In the emphasis on design, the Prius is not alone, of course. I drive a first-generation Smart Car, which is significantly more fuel-efficient than the larger, heavier American model, introduced in 2008. With a conventional, three-cylinder gas engine, the Smart Car can get better mileage than many hybrids, simply because it’s small, round and light. By far the most diminutive car on the American road, even the domestic model ranks number four, the highest non-hybrid, on the ACEEE list. At half the cost of a Prius, it outperforms many technology-driven vehicles —purely due to its shape and size. In India, the four-door Tata Nano gets 61 miles per gallon and costs the equivalent of $2,000, the price of a decent laptop computer. Tata’s shapelier 2011 concept car, the Pixel, advertised as “the most package efficient four-seater in the world,” boasts 69 miles per gallon and only 60 percent of standard emissions. With all of these examples, the intelligence resides in the form, not the engine — in the visible design, not the invisible techniques. The lesson is that designers can get a lot smarter with low-tech solutions before jumping to high-tech systems. Design can trump technology.

Top left: Smart Car exhibition at 340 Madison Avenue, New York, 2006. [Photo by Tracy Lee Carroll] Top right: Tata Pixel concept car at Geneva Motor Show, 2011. [Photo by Alan Gore] Bottom: 1959 BMW Isetta and Smart Car, Newport Beach, Florida. [Photo by Paul Salzman]

Technological and Ecological

The examples of the Smart Car and the Tata have broader implications for the shape of many of the things we make and consume. Smaller size means fewer raw materials, reduced volume, less space to heat and cool. A standard American parking space can accommodate two Smart Cars end to end and almost four side by side. If everyone drove one, the widths of roads and areas of parking lots could shrink; so could the space in a garage and therefore the size of a house and the acreage of a lot. If everyone drove one, the geographic and environmental footprint of the built environment could shrink dramatically.

You might object that smaller cars aren’t safe. Actually, the Smart Car fares well in safety tests, partly because of its rounded shape and compact frame, which the company compares to the structural integrity of a walnut. Fine, but tiny cars just aren’t practical, you rebut. Tell that to the legions of European and Asian micro-car drivers. Yes, but Americans are different, you say. That’s true: the United Nations estimates that in the United States there are nearly eight vehicles per capita, the highest number in the world, and that the average American family owns at least two cars, the most common pairing being a full-sized pickup and a midsized sedan. A 2008 marketing study found that while the national average is 2.28 vehicles per household, the single largest group (35 percent) owns three or more. We do like our cars.

But while the number of cars has gone up, the average number of occupants has gone down. Statistics for 2006 from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggest an estimated 1.37 people per car per trip, and in many places the number is lower. Much of the time that we drive we’re alone, which means that hauling around the extra weight and volume of larger cars is yet more unnecessary, expensive, and wasteful. Not every car needs four seats, and not every car needs to be big — or even midsized. For many of us, micro-vehicles are a more sensible choice. Logically speaking, smaller can be smarter, both environmentally and economically. So what’s the hesitation?

The problem isn’t logical, it’s emotional — a matter for the heart, not the brain. We Americans prefer our cars bigger, like our houses and hamburgers. It’s a cultural preference, and herein lies sustainability’s most significant challenge — and its most fruitful opportunity. The supply of physical resources is one thing, but the pull of our emotional predilections, born from lifetimes and generations of custom and habit, are another. So the key question is this: How do we align what we crave with what we have — or can or should have? The answer isn’t to sacrifice our needs or urges; it’s to satisfy them more gracefully by building health and wealth in more effective, fulfilling and meaningful ways.

Environmental educator David Orr
 distinguishes between two kinds of sustainability. Technological sustainability is quantitative and relies on doing the same things more efficiently; ecological sustainability is qualitative and requires a fundamentally new way of doing things. To explain the difference and demonstrate how both views are necessary, Orr uses a medical analogy. If a man suffers a heart attack, doctors must first return his vital signs to normal, just to keep him alive. But after his recovery comes the longer, slower process of dealing with deeper causes, such as diet, exercise, stress, relationships and so forth. In this sense the green movement is still in the first stage; the earth is having an environmental heart attack, and we’re fumbling around for newfangled defibrillators. But we have yet to face the underlying social and cultural circumstances that caused the crisis.

Tata Nano in Bangalore, India. [Photo by Nicolas Mirguet]

So we might understand the distinction — to continue the analogy — as one between life support and lifestyle. Imagine a time when we’ve perfectly solved the challenges of energy, resources and emissions, and everything we do and make is clean, harmless and infinitely renewable. Will that be enough? Let’s make it more personal: If you could take care of all your daily nutritional needs by ingesting one tasteless capsule, would you be satisfied? Would you miss the sweet scent of basil simmering in olive oil, or the way the nectar from a perfect peach cradles your tongue? You can merely deposit calories in your body, or you can savor their flavor. There’s a world of difference between a vitamin C tablet and a glass of fresh-squeezed juice from a tree-ripened orange, and somewhere in that gap lies the line between food and fuel, sustenance and subsistence, thriving and just surviving. Does sustaining life mean just maintaining a pulse, or does it also mean embracing all that makes life worth living? If life is about more than just “resources,” then sustainable design must mean more than just the efficient use of those resources.

Sustainability and Sensuality

For such a familiar term, sustainability remains a surprisingly elusive and inconsistent concept. One simple description of its aim is the harmony of nature and culture. Yet we often frame nature and culture as binary conditions rather than as a spectrum of subtle gradations linking human and nonhuman life. Some argue that culture doesn’t exist separately from nature, that everything human is as natural as everything else, while others contend that nature no longer exists, having been subsumed by human activity. In The Wooing of Earth, microbiologist René Dubos tries to reconcile the polarity: “humankind is in Nature but no longer quite of Nature,” he wrote. In this view humanity and the rest of life are overlapping spheres, and it is the degree of overlap that inspires debate. But the key question is not necessarily the degree of overlap — it’s the character of the connection. This, in essence, is ecology.

The textbook definition of ecology is “the study of the relationships and interactions between living organisms and their natural or developed environment.” Three important aspects thus become clear: (1) ecology pertains to relationships, not things; (2) those relationships are between the organisms themselves and between the organisms and their environment; and (3) the environment includes both the “natural” and “developed” worlds. Ecology encompasses the total environment and all its associations. Ecological design, then, should work not just to preserve the natural environment of wildlife and watersheds; it should embrace the entire cultural environment as well.

17th-century farmhouse with seaweed roof, Læsø, Denmark. [Photo by seier+seier]

But if sustainability relates to both nature and culture, then how important are aesthetics within each sphere? Clearly, creative activity and artistic expression are the most evident marks of culture. Decoration, ornament and art have appeared in every culture since the dawn of civilization — even before. Until recently it was generally thought that the earliest art occurred in Europe some 35,000 years ago; then in 2001, excavations in the Blombos Cave at the southernmost tip of South Africa unearthed pieces of ochre rock ornamented with carved geometric patterns. Seventy thousand years old, these objects are not just the first abstract art — they’re the oldest known examples of symbolic expression. Today some anthropologists argue that the universality of artistic behavior, its spontaneous appearance throughout time across the globe, and the fact that it can be recognized across cultures, all suggest that art stems from innate needs and desires. Aesthetic expression and appreciation are inherent to our species.

What of nature? Traditional ecologists trace the flow of energy through an ecosystem, but the emerging field of sensory ecology insists that the flow of information is essential. Sensory ecology studies how living things acquire and use information through sight, sound, scent and the other senses in order to adapt and survive. Animals need information to maintain and navigate their environments and to communicate with one other. Recognizing and reacting to a potential mate or a possible threat, friend or foe, can mean life and death. Sensory experience and information are not just relevant to ecology — they are vital to it.

Look at birds. The brilliant plumage of the peacock and any number of tropical species attracts mates like a beacon. The male bowerbird builds elaborate nests and decorates them with colorfully arranged fruits, nuts, and bobbles to get the attention of the female. (“Amorous architecture,” it’s been called.)  Perhaps the most arresting example of sensory ecology is birdsong. Different species use pitch, melody and rhythm to distinguish themselves in the concert hall of the forest. Birds can spread across large areas, and sound is the perfect medium to communicate over distances. The kakapo of New Zealand tramples a bowl into the earth to amplify its cry, which can be heard from four miles away. The nightingale has 300 love songs in its repertoire, and the cowbird uses 40 different notes, some too high for the human ear. But this symphony isn’t just for the birds. Chirping actually can stimulate trees to open their stomata, the tiny pores on the underside of leaves that let out oxygen and take in carbon dioxide, moisture, and minerals. Birdsong helps clean the air and cultivate life.

Female satin bowerbird examines a male’s nest. [Photo by Oystercatcher]

Aesthetics are fundamental to both culture and nature, and if sustainability refers to the graceful interaction between them, then it must have a sensory dimension. But how does this claim hold up against other definitions of sustainability? Undoubtedly, the most frequently cited definition comes from the 1987 United Nation study, Our Common Future, also known as the “Brundtland Report.” Over the past quarter century, the paraphrase of a single line has become a mantra for environmentalists and designers alike: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Many take this to mean we must not squander current resources and leave nothing for our heirs. In his oft-cited 1992 address to the United Nations, Native American leader Oren Lyons urged societies “to make every decision on behalf of the seventh generation to come; to have compassion and love for those generations yet unborn.”

These are broad ambitions, much broader than the conservation of resources. Indeed, the Brundtland definition is almost invariably taken out of context and rarely, if ever, discussed in terms of its social and cultural implications (despite the fact that the report itself focused on global community and human fulfillment in relation to the earth’s capacity, as another passage makes clear: “Sustainable development requires meeting the basic needs of all and extending to all the opportunity to fulfill their aspirations for a better life”). But no matter how broadly we read Brundtland, what exactly might it entail, to focus on “meeting needs”? In 1943, the psychologist Abraham Maslow famously described human motivation as a hierarchy of needs, ranging from physiological necessities to safety, belonging, esteem, and happiness. Usually presented as a pyramid with physical survival at the base, this hierarchy suggests that we pursue pleasure and emotional fulfillment only after ensuring our survival and security. If basic human necessities are stacked in such ascending echelons, how far up the ladder should we climb before we can claim that “the needs of the present” have been met? Are food and water enough, or should we include safety and security? What about friendship and family?

Life isn’t this straightforward. In nature, needs do not conform to a neat list of priorities; sensory urges compel most creatures to satisfy their hunger, thirst, and sexual longings. People are the same, for many of our most visceral experiences begin with the drive to survive. The mouth waters with the smell of food, the blood stirs with the sight of a sexual partner, adrenaline jumps at sudden noises. Maslow’s pyramid dissolves in the swirl of need and desire. Without sensory attraction, not only would life be less fulfilling; it would cease to exist.

GROW, by Samuel Cabot Cochran, a prototype photovoltaic array that delivers both wind and solar energy, exhibited in Design and the Elastic Mind, MoMA, 2008. [Photo by Kenny Louie]

In her 1995 The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, the cultural critic Virginia Postrel challenges Maslow’s influential theory. “Human beings do not wait for aesthetics until they have full stomachs and a roof that doesn’t leak,” she writes. “They do not pursue aesthetic needs ‘only when basic needs have been satisfied.'” In a subsistence economy, she argues, better health or housing might be unaffordable or unattainable, whereas ornamentation not only doesn’t require much expense but actually makes the absence of other amenities bearable; art and design can feed the soul even when the body goes hungry. “Given a modicum of stability and sustenance, people enrich the look and feel of their lives through ritual, personal adornment, and decorated objects. Poor people create the body decoration that illustrates National Geographic. Poor people built the cathedrals of Europe and developed the sand paintings of Tibet. Poor people turned baskets and pottery into decorative art. Poor people invented paints and dyes, jewelry and cosmetics…. These artifacts do not reflect societies focused only on ‘lower-order’ needs. Aesthetics is not a luxury, but a universal human desire.”

The most commonly cited definition of sustainability concerns the enduring effort to meet our basic needs, and nature inspires the meeting of those needs through the attainment of sensory pleasure. Desire is the engine of evolution. Sensual experience is embedded in the very idea of sustainability.

Style and Substance

Another popular understanding of sustainability was proposed by the business guru John Elkington, who in 1994 expanded the traditional notion of value to include not just economic but also social and environmental measures, and who coined the term the “triple bottom line.” In this view environmentalism is not a synonym for but rather a subset of sustainability. There seems little doubt that aesthetics can support all three pillars of the triple bottom line — profit, people, and planet. As Postrel writes, the lingering distrust of appearances is puritanical prejudice; again, from The Substance of Style: “The preachers — secular and religious, contemporary and historical — tell us that surfaces are meaningless, misleading distractions of no genuine value. But our experience and intuition suggest otherwise. Viscerally, if not intellectually, we’re convinced that style does matter, that look and feel add something important to our lives. … We judge people, places, and things at least in part by how they look. We care about surfaces.”

The Living Roof, California Academy of Sciences, designed by Renzo Piano, San Francisco, California, 2008. [Photo by Allison Nichols]

The industrial designer Karim Rashid makes his own case for the value of beauty. “Every business should be completely concerned with beauty. It is after all a collective human need,” he writes in his Manifesto. In the past decade or so, manufacturers in every industry have learned the economic value of aesthetics. Apple has famously incited design revolutions with the iMac, the iPod, and the iPhone. The candy-colored iMacs, which signaled that computers need not be drab beige, sent Apple’s sales through the roof; its profits doubled after the iPad tablet hit the market in early 2010. In fact, in today’s economy, looks might be the one of the chief commodities.

This idea is further explored in The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information, in which Richard Lanham evaluates information and attention as resources. We live in an “information economy” — and as a resource information is plentiful. With at least several hundred million websites, a couple million television shows on thousands of networks, and half a million new books published every year in English alone, there’s an enormous and endless flow of information, much of it available 24/7. What is in short supply is the ability to make sense of it all. In the information economy, then, the more precious resources is attention — and what regulates attention is style. “Attracting attention is what style is all about,” Lanham writes. “If attention is now at the center of the economy, rather than stuff, then so is style. It moves from the periphery to the center. Style and substance trade places.” In an economy of stuff, science and technology rule, but in an economy of style, arts and humanities, aesthetics and design, take on new significance, new value. These are, as Lanham says, “the disciplines that study how attention is allocated, how cultural capital is created and traded.”

The connections between beauty and ecology, style and sustainability, seem increasingly clear; but unfortunately, the most familiar attempts to bring style to sustainability have become aesthetic clichés. Hemp shirts, rattan furniture, unbleached paper, wood-pulp walls, wheat-board cabinets and the like — all these suggest that “earth friendly” should look earthy. As a Forbes magazine piece summed it up in 2010: “Eco-fashion conjures up images of burlap sacks.” Structures built from scrap metal or shipping containers, chairs made from traffic signs, dresses fashioned out of recycled plastic bags — all wear their discarded-parts ethos on their sleeve (sometimes literally). Solar panels and grass roofs have become a staple of green buildings, but when reduced to a conspicuous appliqué they become what some architects dismiss as “green bling.”

Transparent solar cells made with an organic semiconducting polymer, exhibited at the International Motor Show, Frankfurt, Germany, 2011. [Image by BASF]

If we come to associate sustainability with its trappings rather than its principles, then the designs that result will risk looking quickly passé. (Has the planted roof become the environmentalist equivalent of the Chia Pet?) Sustainability should have style but not become a style. What designers need is not an ecological aesthetic but rather an aesthetics of ecology, a set of principles and mechanics for making design more responsive and responsible, environmentally, socially and economically. The Smart Car, Tata’s Nano and Pixel, and the Kamm-tail Prius show how the very concept of a design — in these cases, the size and shape — can enhance sustainability. With the change in technology came a change in shape—and in the results. What makes these cases environmentally intelligent is precisely what makes them visually distinctive. They demonstrate a direct relationship between form and performance and show that shape itself can aid sustainability.

At the outset of the energy crisis in the 1970s, the economist E. F. Schumacher wrote: “Ever bigger machines, entailing ever bigger concentrations of economic power and exerting ever greater violence against the environment, do not represent progress: they are a denial of wisdom. Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful.” Four decades later, the design industry has begun successfully to orient science and technology toward the organic and the “gentle” by establishing popular standards for a less violent impact on the earth, but it has yet to outline a clear concept and practical approach for the elegant and the beautiful.

Editors' Note

“The Shape of Green: Aesthetic Imperatives” is adapted from Chapter 2 of The Shape of Green by Lance Hosey, which has just been published by Island Press. Copyright © 2012 Lance Hosey. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Lance Hosey, “The Shape of Green: Aesthetic Imperatives,” Places Journal, June 2012. Accessed 03 Oct 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 06.13.2012 at 16:04

    Congratulations for this holistic thinking. There is not planet B. Inspiration and connection to the living world is the cure-all.