Have a piece of news you want us to discuss? Submit it here via this email form and we’ll weigh in on an upcoming episode.
One of my favourite things to do in London is to visit the British Museum. Our colonial history of plundering the sacred objects of distant civilizations has made for a treasure trove of man-made gems which trumpet the universal human skill of creation.Just a few stops from the generic window-shop displays of Oxford Circus, the stuffed clothing rails of chain stores and that nauseating whiff of mass-produced fake leather, I can escape into worlds of wealth; defined not by costly, fast-manufactured commodities valued for their profit margins, but by objects venerated for their makers’ ability to mould natural materials into beautiful, unique objects.
I prefer to by-pass the crowds in the entrance hall looking up in awe at Norman Foster’s millennium glass-roof superstructure, and seek out some lesser occupied corner, undisturbed by the herds of back-pack clad schoolchildren and tour groups.
On my last visit I found sanctuary in the Money gallery, complacent in my discovery of a little-looked-at marvel: a third century bronze Chinese banliang coin, dating from the Quin state of Ying Zheng (r.221-210 BC), the legendary First Emperor of China.
Round, with a square hole in the centre, the shape symbolises the square earth (Qin) which was believed to represent all under the circular heavens, the ‘divine’ emperor linking the two.
Alone in the dimly-lit corner of Room 68, I was transported back to a land where the secular and the religious were indistinct. The Quin empire, like that of the ancient Romans, had no word for “religion”. The makers of the coin existed in a time before the major world theologies had distinguished the idea of the material from that of the spiritual. Before the idea of ‘beauty’ became synonymous with that of ‘superfluity’. This was an age where all things were created carefully in order to maintain a perfect world balance; the people in harmonious existence with nature and the cosmos.
Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics, discusses the economics of things, in opposition to the economics of money:
“Looking at the artifacts of bygone times, I am impressed by their vibrancy, the intense quality of life within them. Today, almost everything we use, even if it is expensive, is cheap, reeking of phoniness, indifference, and salesmanship.”
His argument is not the well-worn refrain of the Arts & Crafts movement, where proponents such as William Morris defended the precarious position of the craftsman in the awakening Machine Age of the Industrial Revolution. Neither is Eisenstein arguing against technology, instead he proposes a new materialism: where things are made with great care and consideration.
“…an economy that is alive, that is sacred, that is an extension of ecology, must have the same properties. And each object of that economy, each object that human beings create and circulate, must embody connection to all that environs it.”
In an age where members of our species have reached a pinnacle of materialism, never before have we been so distant from the objects surrounding us. Few people are aware that cotton is hand-picked, cleaned and woven, before being sewn into designs and thrown on our backs. The “Made by” label conceals complex and often unethical environmental and labour practices behind a product’s manufacture. Eisenstein suggests that only through an awareness of “people and nature” can we produce that which is “beautiful, alive, or whole”.
The careful listener may have caught on to a growing thought-trend amongst the alternative economists, business insiders and prescient writers we have been interviewing on the show: as our current monetary system collapses, we need an alternative system to replace it.
In an interview for Episode #25 of the Extraenvironmentalist, Eisenstein offered a crafty solution: “What will be valuable no matter what? If you have a skill which you can give, you will have a secure future.”
Taken literally, we might be able to ‘make’ our way out of the global economic crisis by creating a new system of exchange that values skills over money. Which may lead you to question, what can I actually do which might be useful to other people?
The accumulation of practical skills has not been the preoccupation of recent and prospective graduates. Over the last fifty years there has been a gradual shift in higher education, in favour of ‘academic’ subjects over ‘vocational’ courses. The spheres of art, technology and science have become increasingly distinct.
The modern graduate often emerges from the classroom well-equipped to inquire, investigate and think critically, but is neither learned in practical skills, nor practised in creativity. Her hands have been trained to speed-type, click, and drag, as a computer relieves her of the physical ‘creating’ of the assignment.
This historical shift is backed by government policy-makers more concerned with short-term economic growth than the development of a prosperous, skills-based society in the long term. Destined for the office environment, the modern graduate is trained to function as a valuable component of the corporate structure, which will hire specialists to perform manual tasks. She is a master of words and adept at technology, but inept at the manipulation of physical, non-digital things.
Yet, as society has ‘de-skilled’, we are still heavily reliant on practical knowledge. We hire the plumber to fix the pipes, the mechanic to repair the car, the electrician to install the lights. The ability to create, to build, to make, is something that transcends any money market economy. The secure individual needs a skill to exchange.
Outside office hours, a dramatic re-valuing of craft is taking place. Rather than something associated with 1950s housewives, ‘craft’ is developing a new and expanded community.
In an age where citizens around the globe are rising up in protest of their political systems, craft can be subversive. The recent exhibition, Power of Making, at the Victoria & Albert museum, London, showcased a cross-stitch sampler embroidered by a British officer held captive during the Second World War. Hand-stitched into the decorative border in morse code are the words: “God save the King. F*** Hitler.”
Sixty years later, protesters today are harnessing their creative skills to amplify their voices. Street graffiti by artists such as the elusive Banksy, the poster art of Occupy Wall Street and the pot-hole installations of guerrilla artists in the UK and US, all work because their creative language generates a striking change from the bombardment of cookie-cutter commercial advertising and billboards to which we have become accustomed.
Technology is democratising design. The laud, “creative type”, must no longer be reserved for those artists we venerate in our museum temples. Anyone with an Internet connection can learn a new skill from a how-to site such as Instructables, eHow or Linux. Passionate crafters can connect with like-minds via a multitude of online communities. Knitters unite at Revelry, techies at Darkbot. Those hoping to make a profit from their craft can pitch up at Etsy, the virtual market-place for hand-made goods.
Psychotherapist Rozsika Parker asserts in The Subversive Stitch, that the only way to understand the greatness of making, the satisfaction of physically working your way through a problem, is to try it:
“The process of creativity – the finding of form and thought – have a transformative impact on the sense of self. The embroiderer holds in her hands a coherent object which exists both outside in the world and inside her head.”
Making is thinking. It is the synthesis of mind and body into action. It’s what you’re doing when you’re ‘in the zone’. Learn to make something, because you can. Marvel at your own ability to create, to make something that enriches who you are. Revel in your craftsmanship, as you say to another, “I made this, with love and care.”
Hi there Awesome,
Did you know that you are the reason The Extraenvironmentalist exists? Seriously, you are! We make XE because people like you listen, care about, and share these ideas. We are working hard, trying to produce some of the best long format interviews possible. Do you think you could help us out? Here are some of the many different ways you can contribute and keep new episodes of XE coming.