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(9) On sustainability - free thoughts


A couple of days before I inadvertently poisoned us, we decided, impromptu, post-lunch to drive to the countryside. Partially impelled by a desire to avoid work, we aimed for Toho, which was only accessible via a post-apocalyptic ghost-town, consisting of a few remaining houses amid toppled over trees and riverbanks covered with sandbags. As we later found out (he is good at looking these kinds of things up) the village was hit by torrential rain some months ago. Indirectly linked to rising temperatures in some northern areas of the East China Sea, more water vapour than normally accumulated in the atmosphere, forming a cluster of cumulonimbus clouds, which caused record rainfall (up to 792 millimeters in a 12-hour time span) as well as mud- and landslides. A few days of this left many houses destroyed and some villagers, sadly, dead.

We arrived in the mountainous pottery village of Toho, which - because of its higher altitude - had been largely unaffected by the events described above. It was off-season, freezing cold and deserted, and after wandering around quite aimlessly among empty ceramics shops, we were approached by what in my limited understanding of Japanese style-types, came closest to a geisha. She had been driving up and down the streets of the village in her tiny, grey Suzuki Hustler X Turbo, dressed in full kimono, and had noticed our slightly displaced souls on the way up. She invited us round to have some matcha.

Little did we know that her father was a 14th generation Takatori potter, whose ancestors brought the trade to Japan from Korea 400 years ago. Takatori is baked in a Chatogama, a pottery kiln used for tea bowls, and tea bowls were the predominant thing they sold. The father explained, in his for the occasion sufficient English, what was most important to him in making the bowls - the simple fact that they were good for making matcha - while we sat around a gas heater in their mindblowingly quintessential Japanese store. Geisha stood behind the counter, looking stunning, and only occasionally interfered. They were the calm and kind type. The relationship between the two was loving. When she did, she spoke about how she was also learning to become a potter. She had 'only' three years of experience to her name. He thirty. 

Driving back through the by now dark ghost-town, with two Takatori tea bowls carefully wrapped in the back of the car, we both wondered why these occupations seem to have been preserved here, not elsewhere. 'Maybe because industrialisation hasn't been so popular around here' I guessed. We observed how buying bowls from these people, even though quite exorbitantly priced for bowls, felt good. Something about the love that went into making them, the longheld tradition, the master's touch. It's easy to file these considerations under romantic notions related to the less-familiar though I'd obviously like to think we were on to something here.

Later that night, some hours before we reawoke to watch the LOT stream, we went down a small rabbit hole of pottery in Japan. Differences in style are predominantly informed by the different types of clay available in different regions. Traditions in terms of treating the clay, working the wheel or techniques applied to decorate, are often also influenced by items available in the surroundings and mostly go back a few hundred years. Sustaining ways of doing things (and thus a way of living) often seems more important here than progress, at least in the sense of technological advancement or (economic) growth. Spiritual, emotional or intellectual progress is obviously harder to measure from where I stand, but obviously of no less importance. In one of the villages our rabbit hole generously provided, there was a restriction of two wheels per potter's house, only to ensure there would be enough clay for future generations. Sustainability zenith.

Thinking about production in this way, seems wild to most post-industrial minds, if not backwards. Our idea of producing anything is intrinsically linked with moving ahead. Objects should not stay the same, but improve. Always. This comes at the cost of creating surplus, as new items exceed the old before they even left the shelves, or having goods that have been barely touched but are nonetheless outdated. Industries of fast fashion and household products being market leaders in this niche. With no cap on production quantities and no sufficient way to deal with the to be disposed of matter, we end up with overflowing landfills, overproducing factories, overheating oceans, clusters of cumulonimbus clouds, landslides. We know all of this.

Going (back) to live in a mountainous village, is for most of us one, if not two steps too far. It's socially, culturally and economically undesirable, even despite possibilities to be connected and online. However, for the sake of both our enjoyment, survival and decent death (and by our I mean of course all of us) it is essential to rethink how we deal with goods, and therefore what we consider progress. Because, where exactly is it we want our projects to head? What aspects of our collective self will we develop by producing what we produce, and why is that desirable? Where does purchasing a new pair of shoes each season get us? How will we, at the end of the day, be left with enough clay?