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04/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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A few days after I got around to seeing James Cameron's film Avatar, a group of young artists unveiled a project of their own called Trade School - a month-long barter for learning experiment in New York City, which concludes on March 1st.

After seeing Avatar (pretty great in 3D Imax), it occurred to me that the real challenge of the film is that, despite the expectations of old school science fiction, space travel to other worlds is not in the cards; at the least, it's probably farther from us than Viking ships were from landing on the moon. Space travel just happens to be irresistible in stories. The twist is that our cultural habits still come from an expansionist idea that would suit a civilization that actually has mastered space travel, and could radiate its successes, failures and conflicts across the stars (just like in the movies). But in real life we just have this planet.

Which makes me think that economic forms may be the most profound creative opportunity, and that is why Trade School, as modest a beginning as it is, is so interesting. To explain the potential underlying the Trade School concept, which also ties in to the goals of Artist As Citizen, first a few examples of how the rest of society works (or doesn't), and what that means for the kinds of problems people bring up at TED talks.

For a quick overview of the next twenty years and beyond, here's a simple, eloquent speech by Andrew Revkin, the former environmental reporter at the New York Times. As a chaser to Avatar, Revkin's talk is worth eight minutes of your time. As he frames it, the energy/climate/population crisis will force the human race to grow up, though for the moment it's still possible to pull the covers over your head.

In line with Revkin's talk, here is a brief video of a fast-growing hamster (representing 'traditional economics'), by the New Economics Foundation. (The hamster may make you realize why it's such a bummer we don't have space travel, just for emergencies.)

The hamster clip was one of a string of daunting images collected over the winter. Even before seeing Avatar, I was well prepared for apocalyptic narrative - in early December, I attended the TippingPoint conference, held at Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Labs, in the Palisades just across the Hudson River from New York. The goal of the conference was to find new ways to communicate the risks from climate change. The group of attendees, composed of scientists and artists, was as vibrant and engaging as the information at the conference was bleak. One bright spot was a technical idea that might turn out to be crucial decades in the future, if CO2 levels cannot be moderated through regulation - but otherwise the mood was somber, and Copenhagen hadn't even fizzled out yet.

How do democracies make decisions? I came to TippingPoint having read three powerful stories in advance - stories that each show the deeper underlying motors of democratic decision-making from the human side. Two were books, which, taken together, generate a sort of crystal ball about human nature.

Born Fighting (by Senator James Webb) is a personalized history of the Scots-Irish, the volatile settlers of the American South and Appalachia (America's 'red states' by popular description), and follows their role in national politics, and in the modern social chemistry that makes up the country.

The culture Webb describes has been a fiercely independent force in U.S. history, and by Webb's telling, has historically been more ready to fight for its country in a war overseas than submit to what it regards as government interference at home. One recent outcome of this history is perhaps that resisting climate regulations (like cap and trade) has become a cornerstone of the Tea Party movement.

A very different story is told in Spent (Geoffrey Miller), which is an analysis of how, in a consumer culture, people compete through consumption. Miller is agnostic on whether consumption is good or bad - he's an evolutionary psychologist, and he mainly wants to explain the roots of our motives (which he does with intermittent humor). I'm generally skeptical of evolutionary psychology, but Miller has this story - which goes back to Darwin - cold, and he bolsters his case with formidable research and sharp insights. Spent is a very serious book in glib disguise; it traces the natural origins of growth economics.

Born Fighting and Spent together form a whole greater than its parts, and offer a practical explanation to much of the past few decades of U.S. history, along with a continuing explanation of behavior in the present (tea parties, banking scandals and all) and perhaps a guide to the next ten years. News cycles are a distraction; ultimately, even the names of political figures may not matter as much as the forces that produce them. One might say the books also reveal two different ideas of citizenship: one based on honor, and the other on consumption.

The third piece of reading offered direct strategies for negotiating the way to a sustainable economy: this is a remarkable, deeply researched booklet from the British government, titled "I Will If You Will." (Thanks to the climate researcher and blogger Michael Tobis for pointing us to it.) It's like a recipe book for moving toward a sustainable future, and it's optimistic but unromantic about human nature. Here's the key finding in "I Will If You Will":

The focus needs to be on creating a supportive framework for collective progress, rather than exhorting individuals to go against the grain. This is the approach that we heard time and again in our engagement with consumers and business - encapsulated in the notion of 'I will if you will'...Show people they're part of something bigger. People are willing to change, but they need to see others acting around them to feel their efforts are worthwhile.

In a humble way, from that we can begin to see the value of an initiative like Trade School; it is an engaging and appealing model of ways to think, and ways to live, that will successfully fit into the future. (Which is also one of the ongoing objectives of Artist As Citizen.) Our guess is that if you don't see something in practice, then all the frenzied newspaper editorials, documentaries, or even public activism will amount to little - which, in the U.S., is true so far. Change is unlikely to result until people see other people changing.

Consider the decisions of Ivy League undergrads and their peers at other top schools - America's brightest and most educated cohort. The finance industry is still a favored destination for graduating seniors; and, judging by a recent article, the leading anxiety on campus may not be about climate, but about grades, because, aside from affecting grad school applications, a change in the grading curve might also affect one's odds of getting a prime banking job.

The catch is that the wealth that comes with a successful career in finance is still likely to lead to a larger carbon footprint. Higher SAT scores, which permit an elite education, thus equate to the opportunity to produce more CO2. Spent does a good job of explaining why this is not as strange a goal as it might seem, even if on a societal or global scale it would seem to be against one's own interests.

The reality is that we are in a paradoxical moment everywhere: people are worried enough about the environment that it's a new psychological category; also, the new Land Rover is great. If your friend has one, maybe you'd like one too; but, to be fair, looking ahead we each should have finite allowances for emissions.

If we go back to the hamster video, and view it through the evolutionary perspective of Spent (and adopt Miller's own distinctions for why people seek wealth and why they buy) - then, that's not a material hamster; that's a semiotic hamster. Because the truth that global marketers know -- and that Miller points out -- is that, once beyond basic needs, people consume things in pursuit of feelings - especially, in pursuit of the feeling of belonging.

Douglas Rushkoff (Princeton, '83), in his book Life Inc., summarizes this pattern as a trend since Victorian times and the Industrial Revolution, the result of "a century of public-relations strategies concocted to disconnect people from one another and to require them to interact through things instead...[As a result] dreams of achieving status through social participation were replaced by dreams of purchasing status through private acquisition."

The contrasting wisdom of a simple exchange of ideas like Trade School is reflected in a comment from Princeton psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, speaking at TED 2010: "Research concludes that happiness is mainly being satisfied with being with people that we like."

As predicted by the principles in Spent, many top students in big universities will likely still vote with their feet for the world of finance; the chance for personal economic security is hard to beat. And, as "I Will If You Will" points out, it's hard to change lifestyle expectations, especially when they are shared by one's peers (and, after years of hard work).

Also, it's very hard for any individual actor to see a way to change social structures. For example, how would one person move toward the kind of radical social shift proposed in this McKinsey & Company journal?

By comparison Trade School in present form is a tiny thing; on top of that, the principle of barter has realistic limits. As the economist Jeffrey Sachs pointed out when he spoke at TippingPoint, today we live in huge, complex economies, and we're going to need them to work in order to make the transition to a sustainable world and still be able to feed and provide services to everyone. And Trade School isn't very serious about the barter part: you can get in to some classes by bringing an apple. But if an evening or two there brings real happiness at least as reliably, and maybe more efficiently, than a Land Rover, who are we to argue?

***

Trade School is a project of the OurGoods team, including three 2007 graduates of Cooper Union: Caroline Woolard, Louise Ma, and Rich Watts, together with Jen Abrams and Carl Tashian; Trade School is a collaboration with Grand Opening.

For sparking ideas and research for Artist As Citizen, I'm grateful to both the organizers and attendees of TippingPoint, and to Carina Molnar at CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities, with whom Artist As Citizen looks forward to the chance to collaborate soon.

Thanks also to Pete Hocking, Juana Medina, Sarah Kern, and a dozen very fine and forward-thinking students at the Rhode Island School of Design, who hosted an Artist As Citizen talk in January that became a lively discussion of similar ideas. A reading list from the RISD talk is here.