Written by Tatiana Schlossberg

An abstract representation of a digital network. White, glowing dots and lines swirl, forming a helix, into the center of the image, against a dark gray background.

Digital networks connect many aspects of our lives. But the infrastructure supporting these networks—and the older systems from which the networks were developed—is rarely optimized for the most efficient flow of information and power. Photo: Skeyndor, Flickr.

To those of us who don’t design anything, it’s easy never to think about design at all. If the design is good, then we probably don’t even see it because it’s too intuitive or easy to use or we are too distracted by the elegance or beauty to imagine that a person could have made it. If it’s bad, we probably just get frustrated, or if it’s that bad, maybe we never imagine that it was designed at all.

I am not a designer, I am a writer. I write about climate change and the environment, subjects I have now covered for four years. Much of my work has focused on the environmental and climate impacts of the stuff we use, do, eat, and wear every day, and how those impacts connect each one of us both to the problems of climate change and environmental degradation, and to each other.

That is not to say that I think individuals are responsible for climate change. I don’t. We were all born into a world that burns fossil fuels for energy; we depend on systems for food, clothing, and shelter that depend on fossil fuels and create waste. The narrative of personal responsibility for climate change has been destructive: it puts the focus on ourselves and our behavior rather than on the larger structural challenges that make climate change hard to solve. (It also absolves the special interests that have let this problem of physics devolve into a political and planetary crisis.) I don’t think we should feel individually responsible for climate change; I think we should feel collectively responsible for building a better world. Climate change is often framed as an issue of sacrifice and loss. It is also an enormous opportunity to do things differently—to build better and more just systems.

My work has forced me to think about systems—the climate system, sure, but also the food system, transportation networks, electricity generation, and the global supply chains that produce our clothes and technology. A well-designed system is streamlined, not waste-producing; rather, much like a house or building, it should be functional, responsive, and efficient. Understanding that the things we buy, eat, and do every day exist within the context of the systems that produce them can help us to understand why these problems need to be addressed on a collective, rather than individual, scale. 

Even the Internet—something we think of as functional and efficient, and capable of nearly anything—lacks a logical design. We don’t need to know how the Internet works in order to use it, and most of us don’t know. But so much of the Internet exists as a work-around, cobbled together for a very different set of applications than what we use it for. It’s a physical network that traces the railroad, our first transcontinental system, one that was also not logically designed. Railroad lines went where railroad companies wanted them to go, often following the paths of least resistance. This is why the first transcontinental railroad left from Council Bluffs, Iowa—the path from there to the West Coast had the evenest grade across the continent. Telegraphs, telephones, and cable networks followed the paths laid out by the railroad. And so did the Internet, which helps explain why Facebook and Google have data centers in Council Bluffs.

And because the Internet was originally a creation of the Department of Defense—invented so that the president would have a way to talk to members of his cabinet in the event of a nuclear attack—much of the infrastructure of the Internet is in Northern Virginia, and sprawls out from there. If someone were designing the Internet today, it’s unlikely that they would choose for 70 percent of global Internet traffic to pass through Loudoun County, Virginia, but it does.

We seem to be content with a world that works this way—inefficient, but acceptable for most of us—or we are willing to let it slide because a well-designed alternative would be hard to achieve. We can’t exactly pause global manufacturing while we run tests on how to make it work better.

But we are reluctant to change even the things we can—the systems or elements of them that we know are inefficient, expensive, and unhealthy. For instance, it doesn’t make much sense that now, nearly three hundred years after the invention of the coal-powered steam engine, we would still be relying on that same technology and fuel for our electricity—that we burn up dead matter from millions of years ago to turn our lights on. We’re pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to melt prehistoric ice to create an uncertain future—when we know we have better, cleaner, less expensive options.

These systems—the Internet or electricity generation—are bigger than each one of us; our individual behavioral changes, while important, are not enough on their own to meaningfully change the dangerous climate course we are on, or dramatically reduce the amount of waste we produce. Economies of scale have replaced good design as a rationale for existence. 

And yet, the responsibility for “sustainability” has fallen on the individual consumer. Not only can we not shop our way out of this problem, but we don’t have enough information to make the right choice, if such a thing exists. 

But we are not powerless. We may not have designed our government ourselves, but we forget the most essential feature of government when we lose hope—that we are in charge. We decide who gets elected, and who is not reelected. It’s not a perfect system—the design and the documents that lay it out have their flaws—but at least we can exercise our individual rights. If we design the future we want, we have the responsibility to carry it out, and we have the ability to do that if we work together to design a better world.

Tatiana Schlossberg is the author of Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have (2019) and a former New York Times science and climate reporter whose award-winning work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, Bloomberg, and other publications.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of Design Journal, Cooper Hewitt’s biannual magazine.

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