Blautopia: when rebirth is blue

11 novembre 2020

The intriguing home-office of Matthias Horx in the countryside near ViennaThe intriguing home-office of Matthias Horx in the countryside near Vienna

Matthias Horx is the founder of the Zukunftsinstitut (Future Institute), since 1998 one of the most important German think tanks of research and consulting on strategic macro-trends for the society and the economy of tomorrow. The main aim of the Institute is to make change understandable, and to see the future as an opportunity. 25 experts, including sociologists, systems thinkers, neuroscientists and psychologists, come together to develop a "humanistic futurism" that reflects and anticipates change, not only in technological and economic terms, but also in relation to human beings. As Horx puts it: “to develop an existential approach to the future.”

The Zukunftsinstitut has created a map of the Megatrend that have shaped our time, from business to politics, technology to culture, making it possible to evaluate changes in the various areas of the society. Though these are values and habits that change slowly, the Covid19 pandemic has accelerated some transformations: “a crisis like that of the Coronavirus is shifting the ‘classic’ megatrends,” Horx explains, “like individualization, globalization, connectivity, urbanization and acceleration, into another direction. It is the moment when the paradoxes of our civilization become visible and mutable. The so-called 'MeTatrends' take off, namely the structures of synthesis of tomorrow. For example, 'GloKALization,' the fusion of Global + Local, or 'RURbanization,' the fusion of urban life and (rural) village. Or the 'REAL-Digital,' the new alliance between digital + analog. In this crisis, we have experienced our dependence on Nature, systems and society. This has changed many minds. It has made our central focus become the question of how we want to live in the future. It has made us more aware, in a good sense. We have to question the meaning of design, on the level of perception and that of objectives; to question to what extent design is capable of connecting us with Nature, with ourselves, the society and the environment; to ask what is the message, what is its narrative.”

Matthias Horx. © Klaus Vyhnalek© Courtesy Matthias Horx. © Klaus Vyhnalek

Blue Ecology

The close relationship between Covid19 and the pollution of the planet means that sustainability becomes even more urgent on the global agenda. “I think sustainability is a boring word,” Horx continues. “It suggests stasis. I would prefer something like 'dynamic adaptation,' as in real Nature, as in a life of high intensity. I believe in a sort of 'blue' ecology, where technology, Nature, needs and human kindness unite to create new dynamic systems. Blue is the color of the planet, the color of tomorrow. Blue ecology is not, like green ecology, a story of abstinence and guilty feelings. It is dynamism, utopia. As Bjärke Engels as said: 'it creates possibilities, not limitations!'”

Horx, in the essay “Die blaue Revolution”, asks us a question. What is epochal change, and when does it happen? When everything changes: economics, culture, politics, the entire value system, thinking and even the perception of the world on the part of people. It happened, for example, in the passage from the Middle Ages to the modern age, or from 1850 to 1900, when the industrial society replaced the agricultural order. It happens when we do not recognize the world, or even ourselves: because the old has not really stopped, and the new has not really begun. And that is exactly where we are today, Horx tells us: in the passage from the industrial era to the age of ecology.
So the question to ask ourselves is this: how is ecology perceived and culturally encoded? As mere conservation of Nature, or a restriction on human actions? Or instead as openness and liberation: as progress in a new code of meaning?

The origins of “Green,” of ecological thinking, can be dated back to Romanticism at the start of the 19th century, as formulated by the Universalist Alexander von Humboldt, who foresaw the impact of industrialization on Nature. The ecology movement reached its height during the western economic boom of the 1960s and 1970s. This ecological thinking is based on three basic ideologies: scarcity of raw materials and resources, limiting human activities; the romanticizing of Nature, seen as an ideal world; and the idea of a debt with respect to the environment. It is a way of thinking that produces a logic of guilt and shortage that make “green” into a matter of self-denial.

The “Blue” vision proposed by Horx does not see ecology as renunciation, but as a pleasant liberation from excess. Blue is the color of the horizon, the atmosphere, the open sea, and also of technology. Not a miraculous technology, but one that is related to intelligent systems that redefine the relationship between environment and technology itself. Systems that help us to “understand Nature in a deeper way, in the difference between efficacy and efficiency: words that sound the same, but actually mean completely different things.”

Efficiency vs Efficacy

“Efficiency,” Horx explains, “is the attempt to optimize a (sub) system. Obtaining more and more from it. This inevitably pushes the system itself and its adjacent systems towards entropy.” Nature, on the other hand, is effective: “the excesses that constantly emerge are met with compensation. A tree is not a master of productivity, photosynthesis is a slower process, like growth, but the tree is connected to its environment through various cycles, syntheses, symbioses and cooperations.” Blue ecology sees its task as redesigning the principle of dynamic efficacy between man, Nature and technology.

In the above-mentioned essay, Horx offers multiple examples of dynamic and symbiotic cooperation. Like decentralized energy production networks, in which millions of houses work together: small power stations that work as in a cellular organism. In less than ten years, almost 2 million producers of solar and wind energy have surfaced in Germany. And the quota of worldwide production has increased a hundred fold in just 20 years. Every day, the sun sends to the surface of the earth 100,000 times more energy than mankind can use. Only 1% of the earth’s surface, receiving rays, would be sufficient to supply all the necessary electricity. For this reason, and due to the rapid drop in the prices of photovoltaic cells, enormous solar energy plants are being built all over the world. In 2025, they will be able to provide energy equivalent to that of 1000 nuclear power plants.

The role of materials

The technology of innovative materials will play a key role in Blue Ecology in the future. One resource is provided by molecular chemistry, capable of creating molecules that do not already exist. Therefore a "problematic material" like Co2 can be transformed into carbon fiber to make high-strength, combustible films, or even digestible proteins (see solar foods). Likewise, carbon, a constituent of all organically reactive substances, can be used to produce inexpensive fuels. Hydrogen, starting with water, can also provide propulsive energy.

Will plastic destroy the planet? “In a 'cradle-to-cradle' world,” Horx says, “we will always be able to create new synthetic materials from plastic, without producing ugly parking barriers! This is called upcycling. Everything we use is composted and then reinserted in the biological cycle or ordered according to molecular structure. This requires more intelligent flows of material. And this will be possible when ecological action for personal advantage is synchronized with advantages for Nature. We will go from being parasites to being useful symbionts. […] Michael Braungart, the exegete of the Cradle-to-Cradle movement, called it 'intelligent waste': through increasingly wide circuits of intelligent production and recycled material, we can create a human presence that does not damage Nature, but utilizes it.”

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