In the past few years, we have gone through an intense period of experiencing various existential crises simultaneously and on a global level. Amid this far-reaching change, it is crucial to be discerning about the values that we want to carry forward. We have come to understand that life at its core is deeply entangled and that everything is interconnected. But how can transform our culture to express this foundational truth, by guiding it away from extraction, competition, and exploitation, and towards regeneration, equality, and cooperation?
Andrea Vetter teaches Transformation Design at the Braunschweig University of Art and is the founder and co-creator of the cultural lab “Haus des Wandels” in Brandenburg and the editor of the magazine Oya. Here she shares her insights about what is needed for a profound systemic transformation, and about the roles that technology and community could play.
Dörte de Jesus: Could you paint a picture of the different levels of transformation that would need to occur, and would they need to happen simultaneously?
Andrea Vetter: I work with the idea that four main structures need to transform. I think they have to transform simultaneously because we cannot split them from each other. The first structure that needs to change is the material structure. This includes transport systems, buildings, the sewage system, basically everything tangible. I think it’s evident that these structures have to change, and there is considerable common ground for discussion all over the world.
But then there is this other structure that is less talked about, and I call it the juridical structure. I’m not very fond of talking about “the economy has to change, or politics have to change”, because I think this is too vague. What does “the economy” mean? It means that there are material structures like factories, and juridical structures like the laws that ensure that you can form a corporation. In addition, there are also cultural structures in an economy. To give you an example, people today assume that they have to go to work every day. It wasn’t always like this. When factory work was invented in the 18th century, one of the biggest problems was that people didn’t show up after they had earned enough money for the month. They just didn’t have the sense of “I have to go there every day”. And this is still the case in world regions where there is this primary accumulation taking place. For example, in the Amazonian forest, there’s a large timber company that hires people who have not been part of the wage work system before. Usually, they don’t show up after some time because it’s just not in their mindset.
The cultural structure is closely interlinked with the fourth structure, the mental structure. It’s not only the cultural pressure of other people, and the fear that if you don’t go to work, you won’t have social recognition. It’s also in your mind itself. You don’t even get the idea that you could do things differently. Your mental structures are stuck within certain cultural concepts. And that’s why I think it’s much more interesting to talk about these four kinds of structures than about black boxes like “the economy”.
When we go back in time, we find that there were many different juridical structures in Europe and everywhere in the world, such as the commons, that contrast with the kind of property laws that we have now. Today’s property laws date back to Roman property laws. They are over 2,000 years old, and they say that it’s possible to possess land, and that if you possess something, you can do whatever you want with it. It is completely insane.
In a lot of different juridical systems and cultures, you are not allowed to do whatever you want with the land. There are many others who you have to think about, such as your ancestors, the spirits, the children you might have, your neighbours. Everybody has a say and you decide more or less together. I think it’s really at the root of why we are in such a mess, these kinds of property laws that allow us to do whatever we want with the things that we own. The very idea that people can extract material from the Earth and then sell it was important 500 years ago, when the extraction of all kinds of resources such as metal, wood and coal was increased and brought to a very different level. I think mining is such a violation of everything. It’s a violation of the Earth and it’s a violation of the people doing the work. It’s such hard work; it damages the bodies of the workers in ways they won’t recover from if they do this work for more than one or two years.
To be able to change juridical structures, we must change cultural and mental structures. Why are these two not the same? The mental structure corresponds to your mind. It’s what you can therefore change more or less on an individual level. For example, you can decide that you want to become vegan. The mental structure is very much talked about in all kinds of sustainability bubbles. People try hard not to eat meat, to avoid flying or using a car. I think it’s an interesting exercise to do but it’s a big problem if you think that this will change the other structures. It’s only one of the structures and they all need to change.
It’s a bit of a slippery slope with the mental structure because, in our current neoliberal economic system, we are very much used to thinking about everything on an individual level. I think a truly important shift in the mental structure would be to accept that we are always part of a community, part of a web of life and a web of relationships. This then connects the mental with the cultural structure.
How can we change the cultural common sense about what is right and wrong to do? For example, is it normal to live in a nuclear family setting and to raise a child as two parents completely overwhelmed and running into burnout because there is nobody else around to help us? Is it normal to work 40 or 50hours away from our home? Could there be another normality?
Dörte: Through which kind of initiatives do you think we could help lessen the fear of much-needed transformations? What role do you think being part of a community could play in this?
Andrea: I am not sure if it is about taking the fear away. I am very afraid. And I think it’s realistic, because we don’t know where we are going. We can feel that we are at a time of enormous transformation and that everything is changing very fast. We’ve come to the end of the capitalist system that we’ve known for about 500 years in different guises, but we just don’t know yet what will come out of this transformation process. I think it’s clear that the current system is not able to thoroughly deal with the climate crisis and different forms of social crisis. But it’s not clear if there will be a new system based on the commons and more equality and freedom than before, or if there will be some kind of post-capitalistic, neo-feudalistic or neo-fascist (eco) dictatorship. It’s also a possible outcome, we just don’t know, and it’s frightening.
I think it’s not helpful to be optimistic in the sense of “oh, yes, we are sure that things will come out for the best”. Because it’s not honest. I think the question is how we can deal with our fears without letting them takeover and paralyse us. How can we find a good way to sit with our fears, to take in how intense the trouble is that we are in? And to grieve, and cry with our children when they realize it too. I think it’s about acknowledging our fear and desperation as a source of getting to a more honest place. This is also where a community comes in, in the form of sitting together with the fear, not pretending that everything will be okay but thinking about “okay, we are in this mess together, how can we hold our traumatized bodies, how can we hold our desperate souls?” How can we find new ways out of this mess in our small households, and also in the larger households of our cities, of the economy, of the world? I think it is crucial right now to search for community. The concept of the commons is important for bringing about positive change as the commons is all about changing juridical and also cultural structures, and about how to govern well in collaboration. I think it provides a promising path to follow.
I also believe that rituals are important as they are at the core of changing cultural structures, finding collective ways of how to engage with the world, and helping address climate change. I am a big fan of Donna Haraway and her thoughts on “making kin”. This is a key concept that works for me – making kinin the way of establishing bonds between people and providing security for each other.
Dörte: Do you have a personal ritual that helps you with creating transformation?
Andrea: I think for me it’s working with circles. They’ve helped me in many different contexts. Whenever I’m allowed to facilitate something, I create a circle. It’s so interesting to see what develops when different people are sitting together and letting something evolve in their middle. This doesn’t have to mean the smallest common level, it can also mean the biggest common level, because despite our differences, we may have a common dream that might come out of our conversation, or we may share the same fears. And it’s not about erasing the differences between us but about making them visible and using them to nourish the bonds that connect us.
Dörte: Where do you see the role of technology? Billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are in a race to build rockets and future worlds on Mars, and many people seem to place their last hopes on technological inventions to save us from oncoming doom. What kind of technological developments do you think could be ecologically and socially worthwhile?
Andrea: Of course, technology is important for changing material structures. Humans have always used technology. It doesn’t make sense to set apart the stone tool from the smartphone, they are both artefacts made by humans. However, I think there’s no sense in technological innovation for its own sake, just for being new. It makes sense for making money, of course. From a capitalist viewpoint, it’s great to innovate new technologies because then you can create new markets and earn more money. But I think we should turn around and politicize this question by asking: “What do we need a new technology for? What should be developed and what not? What do we use our resources for?” Now it’s the market that decides and I think that’s not okay. It should be a kind of “commons” decision about how our shared resources are used.
A lot of cool technologies have already been invented but are not yet used because of juridical problems. In the case of agriculture, for example, there are many small-scale solutions for improving the soil. But they are not applied because of opposing juridical structures imposed by the European Union and the nation-states. Instead, it’s the large industrial farms that receive funding and loans to invest in bigger machines, and so on. I think on all levels of political intervention, we should be much more aware that technology is something that we help create, and not something that comes over us like a tsunami.
In the area of computer technology, it would make sense to have more standardization to be able to repair things better. It’s such a waste of resources that we renew our devices all the time. Imagine if all our smartphones and computers were built in modular ways with the idea of being repairable – they could be used 20 to 30 years longer. It’s highly necessary to develop the area of energy production, such as solar technology, in a way that is less resource-intensive, by making it repairable, reusable and built with renewable materials. And we also need development in the area of urban mining. For example, what do we do with all the objects that are now considered waste? We should make use of them.
Dörte: Your new book Konviviale Technik (Convivial Technology)promises to present an “empirical technology ethics”. Could you explain to me what convivial technology is and give me a glimpse into which topics you will be exploring?
Andrea: It starts with the notion that today, there is so much talk about technological innovation. And it raises the question of whether we need to introduce a conceptual framework for these discussions.
Conviviality is a concept from the philosopher and Roman Catholic priest Ivan Illich, who wrote a book called Tools for Conviviality in 1973 that was influential at the time. He thought about how the industrialized countries could develop into post-industrial societies and find a third way between socialism and capitalism, and he was influenced by liberation theologies in Latin America and the thinking of Indigenous cultures.
Convivial technology goes further than green technology. It’s about sustainability with regard to natural resources but it’s also about the kind of relationships that technology creates between humans, and also between humans and non-humans. I developed a kind of matrix, “the matrix of convivial technology”. With this tool, you can assess any artefact by asking specific questions such as: “What kind of connections does this object bring about?”, “How adaptable is it to different circumstances?” (this addresses questions such as modularity and repairability) or “How accessible is it for different people in different circumstances?” You can also use it to look at the different lifecycle stages, such as resource extraction, production, infrastructure needs. It’s a kind of philosophical discussion but equally an assessment tool that you can easily use in a one-day workshop.
Dörte: Would you have an example of a convivial technology?
Andrea: I’d say that compost toilets are a good example. But nothing is100 per cent convivial. The matrix is just a lens through which to look at things from the perspective of conviviality, and not just from the perspective of “Is it economically successful?”
Compost toilets are great though. They have a highly adaptable infrastructure for many different circumstances and are easily accessible. They are not complicated to use, and they foster a healthy relationship between humans, their faeces and the soil. It’s an empowering technology because you have to make some effort to create a “good meal” for the compost by adding the right proportion of sawdust or by putting in charcoal. Convivial technologies are very much about context-sensitivity, and about getting rid of the idea that there is one solution for everybody and every situation. It’s about thinking about what makes sense where, and in which case.
I think Donna Haraway’s notion of compost is a good metaphor. Transformation is becoming compost as it brings back circularity. I mean, if we die, what is the goal? The goal is to become good compost. We continue living in the things that grow out of it, it’s not the end, it’s just being a humble part of the circle of life. And what if the goal of all the material structures that we use was to become good compost, to be able to compost? I think this is how it should be.