Victor Papanek The green imperative


Victor Papanek

Neil Maycroft Goldsmiths’ College, University of London.

Neil Maycroft currently teaches Contextual Studies at Goldsmiths’ College on both the Design Studies BA and the Design Futures MA. Previous lecturing in philosophy and sociology has focused his research interests onto the intersection of design studies with social theory, particularly in terms of material culture, autonomy and everyday life.

The Green Imperative by Victor Papanek, 1995 is published by Thames and Hudson, London. Paperback. ISBN 0 500 27846 6. Price £14.95.

Since the publication of Design for the Real World in 1969, Victor Papanek has been justly regarded as a pioneering advocate of design for human need and as a thorn in the side of the cosy world of mainstream commercial design.1 The book was championed by those who sought more human-centred and human-scale design. It was vilified and ridiculed by many of those who aimed to protect design from ethical and political scrutiny. Papanek’s new book The Green Imperative, while it builds consistently upon the issues of enduring interest to Papanek, is not likely to have such a divisive impact for reasons that should become clear below.

The book will certainly be devoured by students, writers and practitioners of design, who seek to further the cause of ecologically and ethically centred design. In this respect, The Green Imperative resonates with many contemporary themes of concern to designers. Apart from the explicitly ecological material, these include a renewed interest in vernacular architecture, in the concept of dwelling, in de-centralised production and in ethical consuming. Interestingly, such ideas also formed a part of the Zeitgeist at the end of the 1960s when Design for the Real World appeared.

The ecological content in The Green Imperative is wide-ranging and informative and, along with a focus on dwelling, forms one of the two main themes of the book. Papanek describes the damaging results of modern industrial practices on the ecosystem with passion. He includes some surprising details that add a human element to what could otherwise be regarded as dry statistics. For example, on average, three villages or towns have to be evacuated everyday somewhere in the world due to spillage of toxic chemicals and, there has been a major oil spillage into the oceans every second day for the last eighteen years (p.21).

After delineating such general ecological degradation, Papanek goes on to criticise the role that commercial design has played in this despoliation. He is particularly scathing about the complicity of designers in the production of unnecessary and wasteful consumer paraphernalia and their enslavement to the whims of the advertising and marketing professions. The result has been a design profession that ‘conforms, performs, deforms and misinforms’ rather than one that ‘informs, reforms and gives form’ (p 53). Papanek considers the environmental effects of various materials, techniques and processes in common use and goes on to suggest practical alternatives that designers may wish to consider. He is particularly critical of large-scale, highly centralised production, and argues for the expansion of a small-scale, de-centralised alternative. As usual, Papanek aims to lead from the front and he includes numerous examples taken from his own design work to illustrate his key points. In these respects, the book is both informative and useful.

The Green Imperative also has important and timely things to say to the consumers, or end-users as Papanek prefers, of design. The book features a checklist of questions that should be asked before a decision is made to acquire any designed good or product. These questions aim to interrogate the claims made by the promotional industries concerning the assumed convenience of consumer goods. For example, end-users should question the assumptions that smaller, more powerful, more complex, supposedly improved and overly packaged products are essentially better than the ones they currently use. The questions are posed in order to reveal the balance of malevolent or benign ecological effects of new products and, also to assess whether their use results in people becoming more dependent on further wasteful consumption or more autonomous in relation to the products that the market provides.

The ecological necessity of reducing our reliance on over-designed consumer goods, and especially their provision via the market ,underlies a further checklist of questions to be asked before buying products. Papanek urges us to firstly ask ourselves if we really need the item we are considering. If the answer is yes then a number of alternatives to buying should be considered. These include buying second-hand, borrowing, renting, leasing, sharing, co-ownership and buying in kit form. The book charts the recent expansion of such alternatives and particularly champions the sharing of infrequently used products. Sharing spreads cost and maintenance, whilst maximising use and encouraging co-operation and a sense of community.

When a product reaches the end of its usefulness, Papanek encourages us to consider alternatives to disposal. These include recycling, repairing and reusing. He particularly endorses the benefits of in-built Design for Disassembly, a design principle that could enlarge the effect of these alternatives.

Papanek argues that design should also be more ethical. He means this in two senses. Firstly, the design professions themselves should construct codes of ethics that are genuinely regulative, protective, specific and transparent to outside inspection. Such an approach would mean an end to the ‘self-serving’ codes of conduct that characterise the majority of modern professional design ethics. Secondly, both designers and end-users should ask whether a design helps or further marginalises disenfranchised and poor sections of society, if it eases pain, whether it aids environmental sustainability, and so on. This is a theme that has consistently run through Papanek’s writing for the past thirty years.

The hopeful end-result of considering the ethics and environmental impact of design is the development of a new design aesthetic which will imbue designed products with a set of ethical and ecological meanings. What form such an aesthetics will take cannot be delineated beforehand but, Papanek is adamant that this new aesthetic will be more meaningful and satisfying than that which characterises the bulk of commodities designed with the market and conspicuous consumption in mind.

The second major theme of The Green Imperative is that of dwelling. Papanek investigates the notion of dwelling from several angles: the sensory body and its relationship to space, the dehumanising effects of modern urban practice, and the sensual, social and ecological importance of vernacular architecture. He argues that we have gradually had our senses eroded in industrialised societies and that this has led to a loss of the experience of dwelling in favour of merely living in abodes that have little spirituality to their design. The modern house has become a functional receptacle for standardised consumer goods. Consequently, the design of houses has ignored the full importance of our senses. Little attention is paid to the ways in which subtle variations in lighting, sound, texture, smell and location affect our feelings, moods and experiences. Similarly, our modern houses pay scant attention to the relationship of the body to space. Our domestic space has had its symbolic aspects largely removed from it to be replaced by a strictly geometric and rationalised conception. Papanek contrasts this experience with other cultures, especially in Japan and Bali, where the sensory and spatial aspects of dwelling are of paramount significance.

Modern architectural and urban practices have, according to Papanek, resulted in cities that are too big, too polluted, overly car-accommodating and alienating. Some of the basic principles of ‘benign architecture’ have been surrendered to the dictates of speculative finance capital in its search for profitable sites. The sense of location, the aesthetics of site and notions of human scale are all required to reinvigorate the richness that urban living can provide. He invokes various ‘fundamental’ principles from mathematics, anthropology and psychology to underlie his vision of small, convivial and ecologically sustainable urban life. Again, such ideas mark an ongoing development of key themes in Papanek’s writing over the past three decades.

Key to the rediscovery of a sense of dwelling and to the conviviality of urban life is vernacular architecture. Papanek criticises several popular myths about this ‘architecture without architects’. These include the ideas that vernacular architecture is worthy simply because it is either historical, romantic, sacred or popular. He goes on to reject many common explanations of its development and evolves a complex explanatory web which mirrors his approach to explaining design in general (p136). Vernacular architecture displays certain features that Papanek believes should inform architectural design in industrialised societies: it is based on traditional knowledge and techniques, is usually self-built and features a high regard for craftsmanship. Furthermore, vernacular structures are easy to understand, are made of local materials predominantly, are ecologically sensitive, are of human scale and are unselfconscious. In many respects it is the antithesis of modern architectural practice in industrialised societies. Just as an ethically and ecologically informed design produces a more fulfilling and meaningful aesthetic so, vernacular architecture implies a more meaningful and authentic sense of dwelling. Papanek’s marshalling of an eclectic range of intellectual resources and personal reflections, to build his case, is always interesting and provocative.

The above summary of the main points of The Green Imperative should indicate the extent to which the book resonates with many contemporary themes of interest to designers. This makes its publication timely and a welcome addition to a growing resource of ideas that can inform ethically and ecologically committed design practice. However, this timeliness also explains why the book is unlikely to have the contentious and divisive effect that Design for the Real World provoked.

It is unlikely to be as contentious because the last decade has seen a proliferation of texts that use similar material and reach similar conclusions to Papanek. Whilst the green ‘moment’ may have passed in some disciplines or been industrially incorporated into so-called ‘green consumerism’, ecological concern is now a far more readily acceptable facet of design theory and practice than it was a decade ago. There have been a number of books that have explored the concepts of wasteful ‘consumer-led’ design2, the development of a green aesthetic3 and ‘green’ design4 which cover much of the same terrain as The green imperative. Ironically, some of these books have contributed to something of a Papanek renaissance by introducing his ideas to a contemporary audience. The book is less likely to be divisive because these days the heads of most commercial design groups will at least pledge allegiance to ecological and ethical credentials even if they do not actually practice what they preach.

Papanek’s writing on architecture and dwelling also enters an intellectual milieu that is sympathetically receptive. The ‘greening’ of the urban environment has been explored in the writings of the Gaia theorists and the ‘eco-city’ advocates. The revival of interest in ‘small is beautiful’ economics and de-centralised production, along with developments such as the growth in DIY culture, the allotment movement, and the expansion of Local Exchange Trading Schemes, all reverberate with Papanek’s ideal of vernacular, convivial and human-scale urbanism5,6. In these respects, The green imperative is a timely and informative addition to a growing body of knowledge.

However, the book is problematic in several ways. Firstly, the tone is often somewhat smug and preaching. One gains the impression that only Papanek, or those that have come into direct contact with him, has contributed towards ethical or ecologically sustainable design in industrialised societies. Papanek is certainly an important pioneer in these respects, but is not the lone hero these days that he sometimes presents himself to be.

Secondly, many may object to the eclecticism that characterises The Green Imperative. Papanek is a formidable polymath but, at times, his attempts to justify his ideas results in a very strange brew of references. Nietzsche, Freud, and Jung nestle beside Mumford, Sotsass and Philip Johnson, in a rather uncritical appropriation of any idea that seem to support the case he is making. It is ironic that he berates post modernism for falling into extreme relativism (p.11) whilst relying on such an eclectic jumble of science, pseudo-science, mysticism and incompatible political viewpoints. Similarly, his rejection of nihilism sits uneasily beside his attempt to claim the nihilistic flimflam of Memphis design for the tradition of Dadaism and its radical re-appropriation of the commodity form (p.55).

The main failing of The Green Imperative is its naivetÈ. This manifests itself in many forms but, I shall just mention just three of them. Firstly, there is a good deal of ecological naivetÈ apparent in some of Papanek’s prescriptions. For example, his endorsement of de-centralised production is too vague to be of much use. Papanek does not elaborate which types of production can and cannot be de-centralised in an ecologically benign manner. The ecological consequences of local, neighbourhood production of tyres, plastics or chemicals, for example, would be disastrous. Centralised production of certain materials and products is necessary and justified in order to exercise some kind of meaningful control and co-ordination over the productive process. Just because centralised industrial production as it currently stands is not ecologically benign does mean that it cannot be made so or, that de-centralised production is somehow essentially more ecologically sustaining. It is also clear that, in the foreseeable future, recycling will have to rely on centralised processes in order to maintain its ecological advantages. Similarly, Papanek’s implicit disurbanism could only be brought about with enormous ecological costs. Should we really embark on the dismantling of our cities because some behavioural scientists have calculated the size of ‘ideal’ communities or because tribes of Indian Langur monkeys split when they exceed five hundred (p112)? His ecological naivetÈ’ is also manifested in his call for the widespread replacement of product buying by self-assembly kit buying. One wonders where will the kits be manufactured, by whom and in what kinds of conditions?

The second kind of naivetÈ’ apparent in The Green Imperative is political. Papanek over-estimates the power of design in shaping the social relations of a society and provides little detail of how political power must be sought and incorporated into the societal changes he wishes to see. One gains the impression that by simply pointing out the ecological folly of the way we live, we will automatically reach a philanthropic consensus and so radically change the nature of our productive processes and consumption habits. There is little feeling in Papanek’s writing of the ways in which powerful vested interests have financial, military and political stakes which may well result in them acting in consciously damaging ways where the environment is concerned. For example, we may now in this country have reduced the damaging ecological consequences of coal mining but, this has been because we have chosen to import our coal from countries where it is mined by children in appalling conditions and with little environmental monitoring or intervention. Papanek speaks of the need to establish a link between design and social justice but, he provides little detail of how this may be realistically developed in a global economy with an ever-increasing geographical division of labour.

The main naivetÈ’ displayed in the book is over the issue of political economy. To a large degree, the first two points made above are really manifestations of this more general weakness. It is not just Papanek who has failed to get to grips with political economy. It is an obvious and persistent lacuna in much green debate. According to Papanek, the search for profit is ‘legitimate’ (p.138), yet he fails to appreciate that in order to secure profit the capitalist economy must continually expand. One of its chief means of doing this in our time is through the production of more and more commodities that must be then consumed in order to realise profit. When the search for profit runs up against concern for the environment, it is usually the environment that is sacrificed to the expediencies of maximising profit. There are also many people, including designers, who regard the search for profit as being far from legitimate, and who would insist on emphasising the economic relationship between generating profit and the worsening of those social conditions, which Papanek claims can be alleviated by considering the ethical implications of choosing to buy a particular product (p.54).

Similarly, Papanek’s preference for the term end-user rather than consumer also reveals his naivetÈ’. He argues that end-users need to regain the joy of owning as few material possessions as possible. It is a laudable sentiment. However, consumers are linked to acquiring high levels of material possessions in ways that Papanek underestimates. He adopts a rather basic view that ideological manipulation by greedy advertisers is all that binds people to mass consumption. This fails to recognise the political economy of consumption. For example, one reason why many people have substituted commodity replacements for many activities that they previously carried out for themselves (microwave ovens and pre-prepared food instead of cooking, televisions, home computers and videos instead of more autonomous or publicly-oriented creative pursuits) is because they have increasingly less free time to maintain, protect and develop skills and autonomous capabilities for themselves. Papanek states at one point that people working on factory assembly lines are probably not going to be inclined to participate readily in many meaningful or autonomous activities at the end of a long day. His proposes that building products from kit form would be more creative and satisfying than just passively buying. I would agree with this but, it overlooks two points: firstly, the massive reduction of meaningless, boring work would be an incredible boost to the development of the type of autonomous activities Papanek endorses. Reduction of working time would allow people to recover more fully from work and give them the time to engage in satisfying individual or local activities. The recovery of the abilities to do things for oneself would also result in lessening people’s dependence on ecologically wasteful commodity substitutes. Secondly, we could ask: would the mass production of self-assembly kits (including cookers, refrigerators, televisions and computers, which Papanek recommends p243) be any more meaningful or less stultifying than the assembly line production of the completed product? The answer is likely to be no, and the implication becomes clear: the main prerequisite for the development of the type of society that Papanek wants to see is a massive reduction in working time, particularly where repetitive meaningless and boring work is concerned. The redistribution of work would re-enfranchise millions of marginalised people, an ethically sound proposal in Papanek’s terms. These issues of political economy, working time and material culture have been explored in a much more convincing manner in commentaries outside of the design field7,8,9.

In conclusion, The Green Imperative is a welcome contribution to debates cast around the relationships between design, ecology and ethics. Its wealth of empirical detail and its optimism make it a valuable resource for those trying to steer an ethically and ecologically informed path through the world of contemporary professional design practice. This review does scant justice to many of the intriguing themes presented, such as the design abilities of the Inuit, the call for the return of the ephemeral to daily life, or the proposals presented for design education. Papanek should be congratulated for his decades long pioneering and exemplary approach to these important issues. However, for those wishing to pursue a deeper understanding of the role of design in advanced industrial societies, the book is disappointingly bereft of insightful analysis or plausible explanation.


1) Papanek, V. (1981) Design for the real world, Thames and Hudson, London.return

2) Whiteley, N. (1993) Design for society, Reaktion Books, London.return

3) Vale, R. & Vale, B. (1991)Green architecture, London, Thames and Hudson.return

4) Mackenzie, D. (1991) Design for the Environment, Lawrence King, London.return

5) Sherlock, H. (1991) Cities are good for us: the case for high densities, friendly streets, local shops and public transport, Paladin, London.return

6) Whyte, W.H. (1988) The city: rediscovering the centre, Doubleday, New York.return

7) Gorz, A. (1980) Ecology as politics, Pluto, London.return

8) Gorz, A. (1985) Paths to paradise: on the liberation from work, , Pluto, London.return

9) Lipietz, A. (1992) Towards a new economic order, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK.return