The Design of Things

human endeavor + the natural world

here and there, everywhere and elsewhere

fox--500x339A few months ago I read an op-ed in the New York Times that described two types of thinking – big context thinkers and immediate picture thinkers. Those weren’t the exact terms, but that was the idea. Keeping the environment in mind is context thinking. What leaves my house goes down the drain, into the sewer, into the pond, the river, the ocean… or into the garbage and out to the dump and eventually to the ocean. My yard is a landing place (or not) for birds and bees and butterflies. My heating and cooling bills are a reflection of my use of fossil fuels. When I pick up a head of lettuce at the grocery store, it reflects a chain of water, pesticides, and fuel for transport.

People who think in immediate terms think about all the details of keeping their families and lives afloat and the needs, desires, and threats to all of that. I need to get the kids to practice, drive to work, coordinate a car pool, grocery shop, cook, help with homework, take care of the yard, clean the house. When I pay someone to clean or do yard work they might use chemicals on the lawn or fossil fuels with the leaf blower, and I know I am driving too much and buying a lot of things from China, but I just cannot add that to my list of worries.

Both are defensive positions when manifested in this way – each is carrying a huge burden of responsibility in guarding against disaster, whether familial or planetary. We can instead make a subtle shift, taking something from each approach to make our lives more relaxed and meaningful in the here and now while expanding our ability to incorporate the big picture. Putting this together can be nurturing to ourselves, our families, our surroundings, and our souls.

The underlying driver is that we are constantly being told to hurry up. Hurry up and save the planet, or hurry up and do the million tasks of everyday life, or hurry up and become somebody important or do something amazing and famous. And the most radical change – radical because it really is difficult – is to slow down in the middle of that and simply live.

Not so simple any more. One of my friends has three children and she is constantly on her phone to text, arranging car pools and dinner for her twins while she is taking the eldest on a college tour, setting up appointments for her therapy clients, checking that no one needs her. Slowing down for her seemed impossible until her husband had a crisis – and suddenly it seemed ridiculous for the kids to play soccer on Sundays, despite the intramural league pressure to do so. They pulled out and now have a Sunday – the kids play with friends outside, my friend and her husband go for a run or a bike ride, they read the paper. It’s one day of the week, but it’s a day not spent in the car, not shopping, not consuming, not polluting. Yet that’s not even the point – it’s not a day of “not hurting the environment;” it’s a day of having a happy life.

The most radical way to help the environment and ourselves is to live rather than run around. Stay home and enjoy the garden. Go for a walk after dinner through the neighborhood. Work a jigsaw puzzle. Play cards. Play music. Put music on in a way that everyone can listen – not just through earphones. Sit on the patio or the deck with the paper, listen to the birds, notice the movement of animals in the evening. Plant a tree, or two. Make go-carts. Mow the lawn with a hand mower or pick up a broom or a rake to take pleasure in your own property, get a little exercise and breathe in the summer air.

When our lives become to-do lists and texts, and/ or a list of “shoulds” and “don’ts” to avoid environmental destruction, we create nothing memorable. No funny conversations, no inventive games, no kids playing by themselves, no magic and mystery of the natural world showing up: A butterfly in the garden, a bird nesting above a doorway, a fox in the backyard.

Baa warm up


This picture is from a farm I passed today about twenty miles out of the city. We still have snow on the ground. Today it only just made thirty degrees under a howling wind that blew the car sideways on the highway. Notice they are advertising “wool” blankets – not cotton, nylon, or Thinsulate. Hm. Why? Because wool is warm, because they’re not growing cotton in Massachusetts (at least not yet – we’ll see what happens with global warming), and because it’s a farm with sheep, not a chemical factory.

I’m writing this post mainly to those of us in the north, but it also applies to those of you in warmer climes if you’re planning to visit us, if you’re heading to the mountains, or if you’re going to have a stretch of cool and rainy days in the middle of your winter. It’s about something basic: Wool is warm. Wool is safe. Wool is organic. And wool will last in a way that no cotton layer you have ever will.

One evening last winter a friend remarked that she realized wearing one thin layer of wool made the difference between whining and hating winter and actually enjoying it, or at least not feeling miserable. I don’t want to get all Jimmy Carter on you, but it does matter what you’re wearing if you want to either save the planet or at least your heating bill and be comfortable at the same time. I’m amazed at how many people I see wearing cotton all winter, layering up sweatshirts and “hoodies” under their (sometimes cotton!) coats and then complaining that they’re cold.

Before Patagonia, when we went hiking, skiing, or camping we knew to wear wool. We learned that cotton won’t keep you warm and can kill you if it gets wet because it will not dry. Wool does the opposite – wicks wet away (say that ten times fast) and keeps your body heat with you.

We seem to have forgotten how to take care of ourselves in this basic way. Cotton is so cheap that clothing has joined the category of “disposable” things, so we think that just piling on a summertime fabric will get us through January. And February. And March. Walking, shoveling, commuting, and being home without turning the thermostat to eighty degrees. Maybe we feel invincible because we have cell phones. (We can call someone from a mountaintop? Or a car accident during extreme cold temperatures?) Maybe it’s because we can invent new fabrics from chemicals and plastic bottles and pay luxury prices for them. But maybe it would make sense to go back to basics sometimes.

I bought two of these this winter and I live in them. I’m old enough that I want to make sure all teenagers and twenty-somethings in my vicinity are warm enough, so I bought one for my 25 year old stepdaughter. Though born and raised in Boston, she is now “from” New Orleans, where she lived for one and a half years, and consequently doesn’t know how to dress for winter. She wears the sweater every day, too – under a set of layers of cotton sweatshirts, hoodie on the outside. But she does wear the wool as the bottom layer, closest to her skin. So that’s something.

Nesting with Google


Last year, Google decided to expand from being Encyclopedia Britannica and Rand McNally (with advertising) to becoming a little more Jeeves in acquiring Nest, a company that makes “smart” thermostats and smoke alarms. Whether Jeeves is a spy – will he tell Google when you’re not home? – remains to be seen. What caught people’s attention was the fact that Nest has made all its money on two lowly products because of the clever things they’ve done with them.

Nest made these utilitarian members of the household more beautiful and far more useful. As we in the North have been hitting one of our two most energy-intensive times of the year, I’ve become interested in the thermostat, designed to reduce energy use by addressing human flaws and appealing to human sensibilities.

Modern thermostats are already programmable but, according to Nest, only a small percentage of households program them or remember to adjust them, wasting 20% of home energy. We don’t have any immediate incentives to save energy and little awareness of our actual energy use. The person who pays the bills gets this information retroactively and in the aggregate – no tracking of our usage according to our household habits. (When the bills are high he or she might be the one following kids and spouse around the house turning off lights, turning down the thermostat during heating season, or asking said children to put on some socks, for crying out loud.)

So I like the idea of Nest – the thermostat will even program itself after a week or so of adjustments from the family. Its attractive simplicity engages us, including the fact that the whole thing is a dial you spin to change the temperature. (I like dials.) It can connect to the wireless network to adjust according to weather and barometric reports, or to be directed remotely from our smart phones, but doesn’t have to be on wireless to work. It has an “away” mode that reduces energy use when we’re gone.

But it’s expensive – still $250. I entered my zip code for rebate information and found I can get $25 back from my electric company, not enough to make a real dent in the price. So how could a family make it worth it?

Using a competitive aspect of the design could help. Nest tells you when you’re saving energy with a leaf icon, but you don’t get the leaf at a predetermined temperature. You get it according to your household’s particular energy use. And Nest adjusts the terms of getting the leaf over time, encouraging you to do better. This feature lends the opportunity for real engagement and participation from the family, from kids especially. If Nest is purchased as a family project, and its use by everyone is encouraged, it can engage kids’ curiosity and capacity for absorbing information and learning how to analyze it – particularly if there are family rewards for saved energy.

This blog on Nest’s website describes the details of earning a Leaf. It reminds me of the quarterly report I now get from our electric company that turns a utility bill into a competition. When I’m only doing “good” and not “great” compared to my neighbors, it actually kind of annoys and motivates me, even though I know that’s what they’re trying to do. (I even got psyched when I opened it to “great” – but that only happened once.) But I don’t have any other real time feedback. Kids and adults can put an app for Nest on their phones, track the usage according to family activity, and track the leaf – especially if there’s a pizza or a night out in the results.


photo credits: and

Nature in the New Year

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A year or two ago, we went to the Boston Ballet to see a program of three contemporary pieces. The second, choreographed by Jorma Elo, was set to solo piano music, selections from The Well-Tempered Clavier by J.S. Bach. Like the music, the dancing was complex, classical and precise, and yet organic – rather than big numbers interspersed with solos and duets, it was presented as an endlessly changing tableau, varied in rhythms and tenor, in a long, continuous thread. Sometimes there were many dancers, sometimes there were only two or three or even just one, the many combinations moving seamlessly in and out from one to the next and next. The audience seemed rapt, silent beneath the music, hardly a cough or rattling of a wrapper among us.

About twenty mesmerizing minutes into it, I realized, “This is nature.” Here comes one thing, and then another. There are interactions and couplings, there are outcomes, and then there is disintegration. Things come together and apart, it is all part of a whole, and it never stops. It was what you might see if you sat still for any length of time beside a pond, in a forest, in a meadow, or in your own backyard. It was so beautiful.

I wrote recently in an article for Rensselaer alumni magazine that while the twentieth century may have been about conquering nature, the 21st century may be about trying to take our place within it. So much of what we did in the 20th century was critical to the human experience, from fighting disease to growing and preserving and transporting food to radically improving communication to finding other ways to lengthen and enhance our lives. But our environmental problems all stem from not noticing nature and eradicating its connections, even to ourselves. Never mind on a grand scale – even in our private lives we stamp out biota, let poison casually run from our pretty grass, raze or bulldoze or pave resting spots for birds and butterflies, and in many other ways reduce the number of species that reside around us, from microbes in our soils to flora and fauna that we can see.

I don’t believe we’re going to continue on this path, necessarily. There are hopeful signs around the world, from preserving rainforests in Brazil and Indonesia to growing awareness here at home of the effect of pesticides on honeybees and habitat loss for Monarch butterflies, for example. I believe enjoying modern life no longer means arming ourselves against the natural world – I think addressing these problems can bring new meaning that we crave, give us deeper satisfaction and peace, and train our children to excel in the sciences. This year I’m going to blog about small but meaningful changes we can make in the design of our lives, our homes, our yards and our communities that can invite nature back in and draw our deeper selves back out. I’ll also let you know about changes in products and commerce that may make a big difference. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope you are, too. Thank you so much for reading The Design of Things, and happy 2015!

photo credit: Boston Globe.



One of the dreary, relatively brief jobs I held in my very early twenties was as a telemarketer for Vermont PIRG – the early precursor to Environment America. The PIRGs worked to advance legislation like bottle bills. But the job was to go to an upstairs office in Burlington five nights a week and make calls asking for money.

You learn something from every experience. I learned that I hate cold calling. But I learned something else when the PIRG lobbyist came “down from Montpelier” to talk to us. This in itself was glamorous – she was older (when I look back, probably about 28), impressively on the weary side with the importance of her job, and worked at the state capitol.

The one thing I remember from her talk was her explaining the new trend of product makers measuring things for us, and that every time they did that, it was bad for the environment. Packets of cocoa is the example I think she gave. For some reason I never forgot this, and even though sometimes packets of cocoa are convenient (nice to take on a camping trip), I notice the trend continuing or even strengthening, and the consequences. The Keurig coffee cups are becoming fruitful and multiplying, already filling up landfills with difficult to recycle waste. Meanwhile SodaStream, an invention meant to reduce plastic by helping us make our own carbonated water and sodas, just came out with plastic “flavor caps.”

New laundry capsule pods made by Tide and others have had consequences even beyond their environmental impact – children are being poisoned by ingesting them, even when mothers have tried to keep them out of reach. So convenience becomes an inconvenience, another worry, a danger – and suddenly that new “design” of a laundry capsule is not good design at all. It solves a problem that didn’t exist, and creates more in the process.

The “recycle” mantra begins with “Reduce.” Reduce, reuse, recycle. Recycle is last, because although recycling is good, it still takes energy and water, just like any other process. So knowing that a package is recyclable is not really enough – better it doesn’t exist at all. Take the time to measure out your own coffee or laundry detergent, appreciating the design of machines that don’t require a capsule to operate. Already have a Keurig? As this family blogger notes, you can turn it into one of those machines by using the reusable capsules that come with it.

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