The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

“How to live for the future”

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You have probably already seen this video, so of course you totally want to watch it again.

Izhar Gafni, an Israeli inventor, claims to have found a way to make bicycles affordable for the developing world: he’s constructed one almost entirely out of cardboard. Like most people, I gasped in awe the first time I viewed this. Mostly, I tried to dispel any glamorous images of the bike, partly through whimsical thoughts (why not build it out of dried pasta, or hemp?), partly by concluding that cardboard has to be pretty uncomfortable to ride on after a while. Ultimately, I couldn’t shake the awe at this achievement in human ingenuity.

Is a $20 cardboard bike really something to inspire envy? While thinking of this trend towards marrying sustainability and design in a way that benefits everyone, not just the wealthy, I recalled the words of another inventor: Daniel Nocera, a professor of chemistry at MIT.

As featured in a New Yorker profile last year, Nocera is the genius behind a renewable energy technology known as the artificial leaf. The gist of the technology is that the leaf produces hydrogen through a process that mimics photosynthesis, making it a more efficient alternative to solar panels.

Although Nocera inhabits the “legacy world” (his words) that takes fossil-fuel energy for granted, his contraption is intended for the non-legacy world that has gotten by on much less. In other words, don’t count on getting a leaf to power your house in the foreseeable future. Despite the sunny optimism, hydrogen energy has a looooooong way to go. To put the gadget in perspective: “producing enough hydrogen to meet even Nocera’s minimal goal of powering a single hundred-watt light bulb through the night would require an artificial leaf the size of a door.”

But those are not the words I remembered from the article. What I did remember were the words that Nocera reportedly told an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival: “The poor are helping you, because they’re going to teach you how to live for the future.”

Sustainability is misunderstood to be many things, but one of its more helpful ideas is that doing more with less doesn’t need to be a sacrifice. What if the goal of everyone driving Priuses simply isn’t noble enough? The global poor are advancing while consuming even way less than that. Yes, there will always be the upwardly mobile who ditch bikes and aspire to own cars and live in houses with better heating and lighting. That doesn’t mean that everyone will get there, or will even want to, if the consumption trends of industrialized nations (at least those of the U.S.) continue.

It never hurts to take a look once in a while at that future that the other 90% are envisioning, lest we in the legacy world find ourselves shut out of it.

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Written by cwmote

January 9, 2013 at 2:11 pm

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