Tag Archives: design

Severed Limbs & Mangled Faces: Culpability & Compassion

Torso in Metal from 'The Rock Drill' 1913-14 by Sir Jacob Epstein 1880-1959What does Epstein’s Rock Drill – a sculpture from the First World War – tell us about today’s problems?

Could compassion be the answer?

It may sound airy fairy – preachy – perhaps even simplistic to suggest that global issues could be solved by more understanding and kindness.

But it’s an honest question. And one that I don’t think comes with an easy answer.

The 21st century’s problems are wide-ranging. Yet, whilst varied – from uncaring NHS staff, to environmental injustices (see EJOLT for list), to gay intolerance to the global poverty that kills 18 million people every year – they seem characterised by  a  lack of compassion.

On visiting “The Great War in Portraits” exhibition at the National Portrait gallery at the weekend- visitors were exposed to visual representation of the depths of barbarism humanity can plunge to in order to kill one another. Such depths were described as a signal in a change of human nature; a loss of compassion.

Perhaps the two most striking exhibits for me were:

1) The Rock Drill, a bronze  sculpture by Sir Jacob Epstein, originally created in 1913, to echo man’s increasing interest in machines and power. But in 1916, it was remodelled. Limbs were severed and the sculpture altered, thought to reflect Epstein‘s altered perception about the future of humanity – mutilated by loss and destruction. 

2) The second, of which I can’t find a picture, was the before-and-after drawings of patients undergoing re-constructive facial surgery, following extensive war injuries.

So did the “Great War” and wars since kill more than just bodies? Do we need to go looking for compassion once again?

To emphasise – I certainly don’t want to be moralistic about all this.

After all, I know that I’m more culpable in this loss of compassion compared to the vast majority of the world’s population.

To quote from Thomas Pogge (ref below):

Many more people – some 360 million – have died from hunger and remediable diseases in peacetime in the 20 years since the end of the Cold War, than perished from wars, civil wars and government repression over the entire twentieth century. And poverty continues unabated, as the official statistics confirm…[and so on]”

I know this. And as one of the richest people on earth if I gave away more of my income, I could help this. Yet I only give so much. An embarrassingly small fraction considering my culpability in not solving the problem.

So from this I take, that compassion may well be the solution.

But compassion doesn’t seem too easy.

1. Thomas Pogge – “Politics as Usual – What lies behind the pro-poor rhetoric

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The Small Suitcase

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I often think of luggage – and wonder how far it’s been?

This inaninmate object is something I’ve been passed on by my in-laws. Apart from my husband – it’s one of the most useful items I’ve ever possessed; and certainly one I’ve spent the most time with.

Carrying my identify from Heathrow to Who Knows Where, I feel reassured every time I clap eyes on it at baggage reclaim.

Inanimate but calling me, I frequently push past small children to grab this from the moving belt.
Quickly before it goes, taking my toothbrush and make up, vest and necklace with it.

It carries my stuff, to make me whole and at home in another world.

Yet, it’s travelled journeys I will never know!

It lived a life before I wrote my name on “return to this address” label.
It’s been in planes and luggage carts, transfer trains and luggage holds that I will never see.
And it will live past me.

Even after its last plane ride, trusty, grubby synthetic fibres will outlast me in the darkness, buried in a landfill.

Funny, that.

Treasuring trash and keeping it local

food waste (c) myzerowaste.com

Dinner? (c) myzerowaste.com

From rags to riches, trash to cash and rubbish to resource – the dream of closed loop recycling is both worthy and lucrative. Just this week, statistics revealed that the average British shopper bins almost 10% of their weekly food shop; not chucking fridge leftovers alone would save Brits £12bn a year.

But while recycling is a no-brainer, we need to be careful that loops of material reuse are small and local, returning both the advantages (and disadvantages) close to the source of the resource.

To do this, we need to be crafty; both like a fox and the Women’s Institute. I recently visited “Materials for Living”, an exhibition organised by two parliamentary groups, focusing on design and sustainable resources. The exhibition included a showcase of how by-products of today’s food system can be used to produce beautiful, durable, USEFUL materials.

A'Peel (c) Associate Parliamentary Design & Innovation Group

A'Peel (c) Associate Parliamentary Design & Innovation Group

For example, orange peel is the rubbish of choice for Alkesh Parmar, who has utilised this by-product of juice extraction. The result of his ingenuity and hard work is a strong flexible material (A’Peel) which has the feel of bakelite, but which is completely biodegradable AND makes use of the millions of tonnes of Brazilian orange peel which would otherwise go to landfill.

Materials from fish scales (c) Erik de Laurens

It doesn't even smell. (c) Erik de Laurens

Erik de Laurens has produced a material made entirely from treated fish scales, again, an otherwise unwanted (and massively produced) by-product of the fishing industry. And pineapple leaves from the Philippines have been used by Carmen Hijosato make an alternative to leather.

Importantly, with all these projects – they return the benefits of reuse to the community from which the original resource came. On speaking to Carmen Hijosa, she was eager to emphasise that it is the pineapple growing farmers who have clubbed together to form a cooperative for processing and sell “Ananas Anam”, and it is they who profit from doing so.

Carmen Hijosa (c) Associate Parliamentary Design & Innovation Group .php

Carmen Hijosa and her pineapple. (c) APDIG

But while positive project such as those above are offering solutions – there are many other examples where material loops, in our globalised world, are extended and sloppy. The result is that the impacts (both good and bad) of those who produce waste are divorced from those who recycle it.

The export of e-waste to developing countries

The export of e-waste to developing countries

Stephen Metcalfe MP recently wrote about the horrors of electronic waste being dumped in developing countries for processing and reuse. Some argue that developing countries are keen to accept this source of materials, both as another source of income, as well as a way of joining the digital age at a cheaper price. But images of emaciated children picking their way through town-sized garbage tips reveal these countries’ lack of infrastructure to deal with the reality. For example, Nigeria, which despite having a population of 155 million people does not have one licensed landfill. The untold effects of heavy metal toxins on these people’s health and environment is reason enough to stop this digital dumping from the rich, onto the poor far, far away.

Animal by-products (c) CAFO, Foundation for Deep Ecology

Next meal for the chickens? (c) CAFO, Foundation for Deep Ecology

Moreover, there was a recent House of Lords debate about the reintroduction of feeding animal by-products to livestock. Following the British BSE crisis in the late 90s, there have been very strict regulations on feeding animal by-products to other animals. But the EC is now looking to review these laws, and as such, so is the UK parliament. While it looks unlikely that cattle (as non-ruminants) will be fed offal anytime soon, pigs and chickens can certainly look forward to it on the menu. In theory, this is a good, environmentally-efficient practice (waste not want not what?). But the reality is that with today’s modern industrial farming methods and a globalised food system, feeding one dead animal (provenance unknown) to another is a super-efficient way to spread disease. After all, MRSA has been found in intensively reared pig farms, and let’s not forget why this practice was banned after the first BSE crisis. The recipients of the recycled goods (you and me picking up a pack of chicken breasts in Sainsbury’s) will be a very distant notion for the producers of the animal by-products from god-knows-where.

So the moral of the story? Reduce – yes, good. Reuse – go on then. Recycle – oh lordy, yes purhleease. But can we do it in our own back yard?

We need to be careful that the boons of recycling are not hijacked by economies of scale, as our food and banking systems have been. We need to connect benefits and costs. We need to keep things local. We need to tighten the noose on our resources.