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Carbon Credits Miss the Point

It may not be a popular thing to say, but all the feel-good talk about carbon emission policies may be obscuring a bigger and more important problem: Our society's long-entrenched habit of rampant over- consumption. When we focus on carbon-emissions, are we postponing a change in consumer behavior that could be more beneficial over a long time?

Without weighing in on the global warming debate about the actual amount of man-made climate change, it is clear today that:

The problem I find with the carbon-curbing message is that while it discourages consumption of one sort, it implicitly endorses more "eco-friendly" forms of consumption. Like the recycling message of the 80s and 90s, the idea is to continue doing what we were doing, just in a different way. Essentially, policy-makers suggest you can hold to your western consumption life-style as long as you do it "right."

carbon credits

Say you are an earth-loving Californian living in the Bay Area with three cars: a Cadillac Escalade, an Audi A8 and a Porsche (trust me: I know some folks with this problem!) The current carbon-saving message implies that you could possibly "do good" by switching to a Hybrid Escalade, trade the Audi for Tesla's new electric sedan and possibly get some carbon-credit for your weekend escapade with the Porsche.

That's a short sighted vision. Here's the problem—there is no serious debate about the "need" for you to have three cars, or the possibility of living a wonderful life in a newly-urbanized city. Imagine a world where we cut 20% of cars, rather than 20% of carbon emissions by cars. We do so by making better designed cars that last longer and consume less gas. And we trade up for style reasons less often.

Same goes for just about any consumer product: architecture, life-style choices and the slew of major economic, social and environmental issues attached to such choices. Forcing "Cap & Trade" upon a culture that still glorifies the need for so much "stuff" will surely enrich the scheme artists, yet is highly questionable as far as long-term sustainability.

I just took the whole studio to watch Objectified, the movie by Gary Hustwit. It is an insightful documentary about objects, design and designers. Besides an unassuming presentation of design stars in their own studios, it touched on consumerism and landfills full of designed objects.

Audience questions followed the movie; one suggested that IKEA was not seriously "dealt with" for their "cheap, throw-away furniture." Davin Stowell of SmartDesign offered an excellent insight when he noted that he still keeps his 15-year old IKEA table although it needs a repair every once in awhile. That's the critical point: Consumer behavior is the key issue, not the origin of the object or its bill-of-material. We need to keep old tables longer and simply consume less… of everything!

That's a challenge designers should love and policymakers must promote, instead of the much-politicized carbon fight. Every act of adding an object or service is an act of consumption with a clear consequence. In a world were consumption becomes more calculated, the value of design is critical. Not only must the function of any new object should be validated, its cultural, economic and social impact must be accounted for, whether it has a heavy or shallow carbon footprint. This is the age of consequences and it's about time we broaden the scope of our thought about consumption way beyond carbon.

Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards. Amit is passionate about creating design that is both socially responsible and generates real world success.

Read more of Gadi Amit's The New Deal blog