We All Feel Responsible For Our Changing Climate— But Our Guilt Does Not Belong At The Core Of Your Product.

I ran across this service the other day, MyDomino.com. It’s a concierge for sustainability minded-folk like myself. They offer, as you can see above, a “100% clean energy lifestyle”. They’re like a recruiter for your personal tithing; an investment banker divvying up the guilt piggy bank you never knew you had. I’m writing this critique because it’s the exact opposite of some of the thinking I came too when working on my thesis at School of Visual Arts Interaction Design department. I’ll tell you why.

In the thesis work I wrote about what I called the lightbulb problem; a guilt trap that makes individuals feel responsible for our climates overwhelming consequences to our emissions and in that responsibility we need to update our lifestyles in order to fix it, and that we should start by going to a big box store and purchasing better lightbulbs. Unfortunately, the solution is not at all that easy. The data tells a different story. Simply put, just fourteen super tankers, supplying 99% of the worlds globalized trade goods, pollute as much as all the vehicles on earth. That means if we all stopped driving tomorrow, we’d reduce the global emissions problem by an amazing fourteen super ships! There are more than that sitting in the San Francisco bay right freaking now! (sorry, I’m obviously pretty passionate about this common misconception)

As if that wasn’t enough. My Domino also has a rather dystopian name. As to suggest your “Domino” is falling, and it’s creating a cascading mess of other dominos which are causing floods, droughts, and extreme weather. Fuck that! I wonder if a service built on making people feel guilty about the most massive problem the human race has ever faced can last?

Let’s talk about the reward. We know that behavior has a intrinsic relationship to reward, so what am I getting by upholding my own “Domino” and living a “100% clean energy lifestyle”? Is it a dashboard of my climate fitness that I can gloat about with quick share scatter-shot social media buttons? — OHHH NEATO BUTTONS! *click* *click* — Or maybe it’s a drip of high fives and congratulatory emails with emoji-laden personalized content? Wait, maybe it’s even more meta: it just leaves you convinced that you’re helping even though some would argue your penance is only making the problem more idiosyncratic. Which I fear will only turn us against one another.

In Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, a super intelligent gorilla tells the protagonist about a scientist in the 1970s, who was a world renowned expert on populations. One day this scientist was asked to speak to a group of his peers at a emergency conference on over population. But his speech only lasted minutes before he was booed off of the podium. He suggested that world aid organizations stop feeding the hungry in places where they couldn’t feed themselves. Suggesting that the aid drip only lead to a less healthy population and made hunger and poverty more or less intrinsic. And still to this day population growth is one of the biggest issues for the human race, and a massive contributor to climate change.

An excerpt from Ishmael:

“The phenomenon as it’s observed is this: ‘Every increase in food production to feed an increased population is answered by another increase in population.’ This says nothing about where these increases occur.”

“I don’t get it.”

“An increase in food production in Nebraska doesn’t necessarily produce a population increase in Nebraska. It may produce a population increase somewhere in India or Africa.”

“I still don’t get it.”

“Every increase in food production is answered by an increase in population somewhere. In other words, someone is consuming Nebraska’s surpluses — and if they weren’t, Nebraska’s farmers would stop producing those surpluses, pronto.”

“True,” I said, and spent a few moments in thought. “Are you suggesting that First World farmers are fueling the Third World population explosion?”

“Ultimately,” he said, “who else is there to fuel it?”

Our guilt and this kind of penance is only going to fuel a disastrous social underswell. We have to stop even considering that a product like My Domino is really the solution to a problem as big as climate change. We have to see this as only our own isolated wishful thinking, an embarrassing symptom of our unwillingness to stand up for one another. We are not going to solve this problem by buying shoes that donate shoes, or water that donates water. We can update our houses and pay less, we can get off the grid, and live off the land. But those tanker ships are still going to be on the sea, corrupting not only our beautiful ocean ecology but our human psyche and ability to empathize with each other. There’s a component of inequality here too, whereas the people who’s nest allows them to afford escaping the guilt will and those that can’t will be left behind, and I worry, eventually be burdened with a ‘either update now or pay with your lives’ future ultimatum. My Domino is the type of solution that beget more of this indifference and furthers the separation by reinforcing a false deflection of responsibility.

I’m suggestion that we instead need to construct solutions at the highest levels through international treaties and policy unification. The world needs leadership to cut a clear record and start talking about the true immediacy and danger we are facing. I think we can do this. I believe we have the leaders, we have the intellect. That we’ve already created many of the solutions. Even My Domino is thinking about a solution. My critique is simply they broke my thesis cardinal rule: don’t make it mine, make it ours. We have to fix this together for all of us and share the rewards of doing so.

interaction designer, wide-eye'd storyteller, happy listener, future time-traveler

interaction designer, wide-eye'd storyteller, happy listener, future time-traveler