Missiles and Model Boxes

Ian Rimington ponders our relationship to the material world.

Stuff. It’s everywhere, isn’t it? We often have deep relationships with our possessions: they can carry emotions, associations, memories (literal and metaphorical). Beyond the world of our immediate possessions, we still have relationships with the physical world; the tactility of sand, moss, concrete; the beauty of polished wood; the smell of coffee. We’re fascinated by the change that can be wrought to material – including the alchemy of growth, cooking and manufacture. Sculptors and visual artists often describe an almost mystical feeling for the materials they work with.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that a wasteful attitude to the physical world can feel, well, wrong. I think this partly explains the response to artist Michael Landy destroying all his belongings in 2001 as an artwork. How we use stuff has economic, aesthetic – and, some would argue, ethical implications. The contrast between cherishing a fragile family heirloom and the careless creation and disposal of toxic chemicals is (to misquote Oscar Wilde) the difference between knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

There are a number of so-called Rare Earth Elements - or Rare Earths – that are essential for the manufacture of all sorts of hi-tech devices from smartphones, and laptops to the on-board computers on cars. The rapidly increasing demand for these has started to strain supply, and there is growing concern that the world may soon face a shortage of Rare Earths. Notwithstanding the delicious irony of the phrase 'a shortage of Rare Earths', this is having some unexpected consequences. At the Greening Government Conference that I attended recently, I struck up a conversation with a woman from the Ministry of Defence. The MOD are very concerned about Rare Earths (!) and the impact on their ability to maintain the defence infrastructure in future times of shortages. It is considerations like these that have made the MOD move environmental sustainability up their operational and strategic priorities. There’s something sobering about the thought that a nation’s approach to defence is being affected by planetary boundaries.

A few days later – and a world away from missile systems and big government departments - I attended the Julie’s Bicycle Sustainable Design for the Arts event. There were some great talks from (mostly theatre) designers from around the world. The passion and enthusiasm for both the craft of design and for sustainable practice was tangible.

There was lots of debate; much was about behaviour and good practice - but most was (quite literally) down-to-earth discussions related to the materials that designers work with – everything from sustainable wood supplies and set recycling to glue and model-boxes.


For details of Julie's Bicycle Sustainable Production Guide click here to download the guide. 

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