John Thackara | Essays

Between Sorrel And Supertanker

aa XSKL FP herbs presentation

In what ways can design help people interact with living systems in ways that help both of them thrive? And, what small practical steps might one take to test the effect of small actions on the system as a whole?

These two questions informed our Doors of Perception xskool last week; a partnership with Konstfack, it was part of the FuturePerfect Festival on the island of Grinda — one of 30,000 islands in the Stockholm Archipelago.

Grinda is not exactly typical of the urban contexts most of us live in. It only has five permanent inhabitants, and their work is somewhat specialised: steward the landscape, and provide hospitality to the thousands of visitors who come for short periods during the summer months.

But the boundedness of an island makes it easier to get close to problematic issues — such as food flows, water usage, or waste - that tend to be obscured amid the perceptual clamour of a city.

Our waste team, for example, soon stumbled on a toxic-looking micro-dump (below):

aa XSKL FP  toxic WSTE

We were also impressed by the large volume of cardboard waste (below) generated on an island that imports 100 percent of its vittals. Apparently it’s cheaper to burn this material than ship it out — so they do.

aa XSKL FP  card WASTE

A positive benefit of the island-as-laboratory: Island life must deal with issues at multiple scales that city dwellers, if they even know about them, can too easily ignore.

Grinda’s social-ecological systems are shaped by developments in the Stockholm archipelago, at one scale up, and in the Baltic Sea on a larger social-ecological scale.

aa Grinda Opportunities (whiteboard)

A good way to understand these multiple scales is through food.


We were told, on arrival, that pretty much 100 percent of the food eaten on the island is imported — and this struck as curious.We were surrounded by an abundance of diverse, edible and bright green vegetation all over the island:


And, in the sparkling sea waters at sunset, large numbers of fish could be seen jumping – it seemed, happily — a few metres off shore.

Photo by Brion Vibber

The bad news about the fish is that all Baltic Sea ecosystems have been “disturbed by hazardous substances”. Many species of fish, which were once the archipelago’s staple diet, are now deemed to be a health hazard .

Although some of the worst industrial pollution responsible for dioxin poisoning has been curtailed, airborne pollution from more distant sources continues to poison the Baltic. We were shocked to discover that most of the of the cadmium, lead and mercury deposited into the sea from the air originates outside the Baltic Sea catchment area — mainly the UK, France, Belgium and Czech Republic. The boom in energy from biomass looks set to make things worse; dioxins are the most insidious pollutants released from biomass incineration — a technology which plays a major role in UK plans for ‘clean’ energy.

aa Baltic algae

These and other forms of pollution have disrupted the entire food-energy balance. The food sources that most fish species in the northern Baltic Sea rely on, for example — phytoplankton and zooplankton (above) — have been in continuous decline since the late 1970s. The overfishing of the large predatory fish, such as cod, has further destablised the ecosystem.

In the tent next to us at Future Perfect, Lennart Gladh, from the World Wildlife Fund’s Baltic Ecoregion Programme introduced a new report that warns of the dangers of future growth to an an already over-stressed ecosystem.

At any given moment, we learned, more than 2,000 ships are afloat in the Baltic Sea and that number is projected to double by 2030.


Oil transportation alone is set to rise by 60 per cent as fleets of so-called Aframaxes (above) haul 650,000 barrels of Urals crude each to global markets. This projection is alarming experts because transportation is the main way the oil industry contaminates the world’s oceans (spills at oil rigs, or other places where oil is being extracted, is only about two percent) — and environmental disasters caused by oil transportation accidents have increased continuously in recent years. Russia is by no means the only culprit here. The EU’s Blue Growth plan also calls for the rapid expansion of shipping, coastal tourism, and the extraction use of ‘marine resources’ by the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. The health of the Baltic Sea itself is not even mentioned in the EU documentation.

Land-based pollution of the sea from agricultural production is also set to intensify if current policy prevails; its focus is on the use of a higher ‘surplus of nutrients’ on each farm to boost outputs. The known consequence will be the discharge of phosphorus, nitrogen and other pollutants that contribute to the eutrophication that has decimated the nutrient energy balance for all living systems in the Baltic as a whole.


Taken at face value, our briefings on the Baltic confronted us with a situation without hope. But behind the gloomy headlines, a significant change in tone in the region’s business and politics is evident. There are signs, even in official circles, of a growing awareness that our futures, and the future of the Baltic Sea as a living system, are inextricably linked. What’s missing is the social-cultural impetus for the collaboration among diverse stakeholders that is needed if truly transformational change is to take hold.

This is where our sorrel salad — foraged from the island — comes in: as a life-affirming and embodied experience with the potential to trigger a willingness to change that is latent, but nonetheless real.


aa XSKL FP herbs on plates

aa XSKL herbs 3 women

aa XSKL Herbs boy +beard

For the French philosopher Edgar Morin, “all the great transformations or creations have been unthinkable until they actually came to pass”. In his Manifesto For Homeland Earth , Morin compares today’s social critics, green campaigners — and sorrel-foraging designers – to “moles that dig underground and transform the substratum before anything is changed on the surface”. This work, for Morin, is preparing the ground for “a new kind of politics — a politics of reconnection with nature”.

There’s a cheering consequence of Morin’s account: our passionate but tiny efforts need never be in vain: In an age of networks, even the smallest actions can contribute to transformation of the system as a whole — when it is ready to tip. It’s like the picture in a jigsaw puzzle that slowly emerges as we add each piece.

With thanks to our hosts FuturePerfect (John Manoochehri, Gabriella Silfwerbrand, and Michael Toivio); our partner Konstfack (Professor Bo Westerlund and Martin Avila); Karina Vissanova and her team from KADK; and Jan Pfister at Grinda Wärdshus and Skärgårdsstiftelsen as additional hosts of the Xskool experience.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, Ecology, Social Good

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