This book might change your life

Babette Porcelijn on ‘The Hidden Impact’

VBAT Refreshing
Inside VBAT


Written by Connie Fluhme

“We should understand the hidden influence we have on the climate. And nature ánd the environment. It’s not just the climate we should worry about. It’s like playing a game of chess, if you just focus on the horse you won’t win the game.”

This is what designer Babette Porcelijn suggests. When purchasing a product, you can make more damage to the climate than you think, without being aware of it. Babette therefore launched a crowdfunding campaign (Think Big, Act Now) to give some attention to the ‘hidden impact’. This year, she published her book, “De Verborgen Impact” (the hidden impact), in which she expresses her clear message. Babette worked with the influential institute CE Delft to identify the ‘Impact Top 10" of consumers in Western Europe and to show how to minimize this impact. Babette shows black on white which (negative) effects Western lifestyle has on planet Earth.

Babette, which of the hidden impacts that you have identified surprised you the most?
Water is the most extreme example of hidden impact I came across. Tap water is what I call ‘visible impact’, and that is but 1% of your actual water use! 99% of our water use is hidden, mainly in food (86%) and the rest in products (13%). All that water is used for the irrigation of (feed) crops.

What are the Top 3 impacts of our Western lifestyle on the planet?
The impact top 3 of an average Dutch person is
1: products / stuff you put in a box when you move
2: eating meat
3: your house.
But please note that flying and driving a car are both very scalable. If you drive and fly a lot, those habits will probably be in your personal top 3.

One of the interesting conclusions in your book is that the advantages of electric cars are overrated. Can you tell us more about that?
That is an interesting one indeed. The impact of an electric car is a bit lower than that of a fossil fuel car: about 30%, but it’s not 100% clean as we like to think. I guess we love electric cars so much because the visible impact is removed from sight; smog in the cities is reduced. The impact moves to power plants and to the other side of the world, where raw materials for the battery are mined. That is a very polluting business.

In your book, you also show us how to minimize the hidden impact. How does that work?
First of all, you could find out what your biggest impacts are by benchmarking yourself to the average Dutch person. Then you can brainstorm on how to reduce these impacts, using the key words Better — Different — Less.

For bringing the book to life you worked with the institute CE Delft. What can you tell us about this cooperation?
It was great fun to work with them. They were very cooperative and of course it’s interesting to learn from these people who know so much about the topic. At first when I asked them to calculate the impact top 10, they told me it couldn’t be done, because there is no method that incorporates all kinds of impact. Can you believe that? How is that even possible? How can we solve the biggest problem of our time if we can’t even get a complete picture of the causes? So we went ahead anyway and I guess they were kind of amused by my curiosity and my persistence. In the end I added the one impact that wasn’t in the method, water, in a way that was acceptable to them. The funny thing is that they were rather surprised by the result of the top 10 themselves.

How did the research process work?
My research started with a lot of questions I wanted answered. And along the way the list of questions grew of course. At first I was rather baffled that I couldn’t find any answers, because either the information I found was too detailed, packed in a 600 page report, or it was oversimplified in a single graphic. But I did find a lot of answers by interviewing many experts, by reading and I did my own calculations based on data I could find.

I wanted my book to be correct and trustworthy, so I asked many experts to check it and they did.

There were some calculations I couldn’t do myself. So I did this crowdfunding campaign to be able to hire CE Delft and Ecofys to do the calculations for me.

How did you use design to bring the hidden impact to life?
Designing to me means solving a problem. In this case the problem is our unsustainable society. And to solve a problem is to understand the problem first, the whole problem and not just a part. That is why my research is so broad.

I wanted to get the big picture. That is actually not done in science, so I met quite some resistance on that. Experts told me to focus, my research was too broad for them, but I said that was just the point (and they could eventually see that).

To solve the problem I needed to reach people. I tried to do that by not just telling facts but also to touch peoples’ harts AND to give them concrete ways to act. As a designer I think in pictures rather than in text and that helped too.

There are over one hundred infographics in the book (of 200 pages), making it perhaps a picture book with text rather than a text book with pictures.

And I tried to explain difficult subjects with easy to understand texts. That helped too. Last but not least, I added my own quest, telling people when I fell of my chair with surprise or when I was baffled by data I found.

How much hidden impact does the production of your book have for the planet? Or, why did you print this book and not only sell it as an eBook?
Paper is rather energy intensive and polluting. So I chose recycled paper, which is better. There are several reasons for making it a hard copy book anyway. First of all, if readers make but one change in their lifestyle because of this book, the balance becomes positive. Secondly, the book is so elaborately illustrated, it is not suitable as an eBook. I did make a PDF though, which is also for sale. And many people choose that option. Thirdly, data centers are also very energy intensive and they use lots of water for cooling. I didn’t calculate the impact of both the hardcopy and the PDF, but as said, if people make one change for the better, the book is ‘eco-positive’.

What’s your personal conclusion from your book, and how did your book affect your very own lifestyle?
We don’t fly anymore, we got rid of our car, we have green energy, I eat vegetarian and less dairy, we choose local and seasonal veggies, I don’t buy stuff unless I have to and I take short showers. To name a few. And they make my life better!

I’m healthier, we save money, we have the most adventurous holidays (we cycled to Rome and to Prague with our kids for instance) and I’m more content with my current possessions. But the best part is that it makes me so happy to devote my work to the most important cause I can think of!

Which would be the most simple thing each and everyone of us could adapt in order to make a change?
In my book I give hundreds of examples on how to reduce your impact. In short:

  • Don’t waste food, energy or water
  • Only buy what you really need, preferably you share, rent, lease or buy second hand
  • Develop a sustainable food pattern: vegetarian, local ánd seasonal
  • Stop flying and driving a car (or at least reduce your milage)
  • Be prepared to pay the true price of whatever products you buy
  • And a bit less easy: choose a smaller house, isolate it and install renewable energy sources

How does the future look for the next generation in terms of climate change?
Today we globally live as if we have one and a half earths to support us.

If we continue like this, in 2050 we will need four earths to support us. We only have one!

Nobody knows what the future will bring, but I truly hope we’re not going to let this happen. It would be a nightmare if we did, and completely irrational too, because we are undermining the very thing we want to protect more than anything: our own wellbeing. So I hope the future will be at least as good as today is, but it will take a tremendous joint effort to make the necessary changes.

Knowing more about the hidden impact, what will be your next project?
First of all I’m working on the English translation of the book. I’m looking for a publisher — abroad I can’t do the publishing myself like I did with the Dutch version. Then I want to make a fun impact-app to give you real time insight in your impact. I’m also doing a lot of lectures and workshops at the moment. They absorb almost all of my time right now, but I can reach a lot of people so that’s great. And I’m working on education about hidden impact, for different levels and ages. Then there’s my design studio, and I’m selecting assignments carefully, based on the leverage it gives me to contribute to a sustainable society. So, that should keep me busy for a while :-)

Babette Porcelijn presenting at ADE Green

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written by Connie Fluhme



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