If we are going to design a sustainable way of living, we need to take “the good life” more seriously. We don’t need raw hedonism – waiter, more champagne!– or monkish asceticism, but instead, something in between. The good life must be broad enough to span from the battered, Depression-born “American Dream” to Aristotle’s thesis that happiness, our most important drive, can be satisfied by living well and doing good. When it comes to achieving a more climate-sensitive way of living, advocates of sustainable urbanism have left out recommending we wear hair shirts, yet urban planners, among others, still find themselves telling people to “eat their oatmeal”— i.e. “accept having fewer, but hopefully greener, lifestyle choices, because it’s good for you.” I’ve always hated oatmeal, I’ve never liked being told what to eat and I’m not alone in these sentiments.
For this issue of ARCADE, we challenged a range of designers, thinkers and activists to respond to this proposal: To get to the sustainable future we want, we have to stop and remember that our goal can’t just be to live green, it also has to be to live well. Some responded with clarifying questions; others offered strong alternative visions for what a good life is. These perspectives include deliberately minimalist living that looks, in part, to 11th century Japan; a future that includes “biophilic” habitation, even in urban neighborhoods, and an existence in which family and community trump “life style.” Most of the examples are concrete: sharing a garden, riding the bus, cleaning up a river, going to the coffee house at the corner or helping a neighborhood to rebuild.
With that said, we roundly challenged this issue’s premise early on: What’s the point of the good life to the millions, and globally, billions, who have such limited choices? Point taken—yet there are still better or worse choices many of us can make, and sustainable alternatives for basic needs will only be made if they offer satisfaction – make cultural sense – in the here and now, as well as for future generations. (For example, see reports on the work developing biochar stoves in Latin America.) And for the US middle class, the next American dream can’t just be that we should be happy with less – eat your oatmeal – but rather, it needs to be about expanding opportunity.
Design is a way of thinking, and it has an extraordinarily powerful ability to shape the way we live, and in particular, the way we choose to live. The Northwest has been on the cutting edge of redesigning daily life for decades. It can come from grassroots organizing, enlightened government policy, and it can come from corporations, whether for love or money; Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon, Costco and Nike are all adept at finding new ways of defining living well. Corporations have a range of motivations, and their actions produce a range of unintended consequences (do we really benefit from fewer bookstores?). Nonetheless, these are fundamentally transformative ways of producing and consuming, and they are at the scale of change we talk about when we discuss a new urbanism that can last through this century and into the next.
As this feature shows, the Northwest continues to be a place for ideas and actions that can change the way we live. Sustainability advocates know that they have to present a future that is desired and chosen, not mandated and enforced. If we are open to it, design can harness the power of aspiration and choice, leading to diverse new ways of thinking, whether from the corporate suite or down the street. We can design a smart, green life, but it needs to have rewards. Whether we’re 7 or 70, rich or poor, to keep building a sustainable system to address health, equity and climate change, our lives need to be good.