activism, sustainability
Comments 18

Will the 3D revolution be sustainable?


Are you excited about 3D printing? I sure am. As I continue to peel back the layers of what is cultural integration and what is actually natural laws of being alive, I find so many absurdities among our current mindset. Why is it that a handful of people “own” the world’s oil supply that we all depend on to survive? They weren’t around 200 million years ago when all that stuff got made and, as far as I can tell, their maximum life span is 100 years, same as the rest of us. They are no more or less special than anyone else, except they have the arrogance to assume they can own a large chunk of a life sustaining planet on which they are only visitors. And now they are trying to buy the planet’s fresh water supply, too, with the absurd commodity called “money”, which may be the most useless object in the world, when you really think about it. Old, bacteria-ridden crumbled pieces of dirty cotton. Good luck trying to drink that!


But as long as this group of people remain powerful in our minds, they will remain powerful in the physical world, too. I certainly don’t see a way to overthrow this diseased system in my lifetime. Maybe in a couple of hundred years, when our minds are more evolved. If we live that long, of course, although I’m sure no matter what happens with climate change, some of our species will survive.

Welcome to the world of an environmentalist. It may look like a pretty bleak place to reside, but I actually find it the opposite. With the impending collapse (financial, societal, or environmental, or most likely, a combo) all but certain, it really frees your mind to think  in radical new ways. Or old ways, as they were. Indigenous tribes all over the world have historically always considered themselves visitors in this world and the idea that man could own nature was absurd to them.


To own something is supposed to equal security. To firmly know, in the eyes of gods and men, that this piece belongs to me is really just another way to ward off the inevitable – death. To know that you have a safe place to farm, sleep and live must have been so reassuring to those living thousands of years ago. It increased the chance to live and procreate, and to see your children grow up. And the world was endless, with plenty of space for everyone to grow and multiply. The world is not like that anymore. The world is full and we designed systems of haves and have nots. This system is not a natural law, but we pretend it is because how else could we, the haves, sleep at night. When I was little and I asked my mom, “Why do people starve in Africa?” she told me what most parents tell their kids, “I don’t know. That’s just the way it is.” Well, I’m grown up now and I call bullshit.


So how does 3D printing figure into all of this? For the first 300 years of the industrial era, the means of production laid with the wealthy, the landowners. Now, for the first time in history, we might be able to separate the two. It’s not going to be easy by any means, because the people who benefit from a system will defend that system with all their might, but history has also shown that unjust systems tend to fall eventually. Just like Amazon (the retailer) was unthinkable 50 years ago, today you can choose between millions of products and have them delivered to you the next day; 3D printing will open a new world of possibilities for us. Soon, you won’t need to place an order with Amazon for your household goods and knickknacks, you can just print them in your own living room when the need arise.


You can 3D print a coffee cup. Or a unique dress.

Iris van Herpen - 3D fashion 3dprint_fashion

Or a  brand new, sustainable house!

eco-built-sustainable-house 3dprinting_house 3D-printer-build-a-house

As an artist, this excites me so much. Because I have made the conscious choice to love every item I bring into my house – it should just not be for purpose, it should also enhance my life somehow, with its beauty as well as functionality. But I’m still limited to what other designers design and produce. It’s only over the past few years that I have noticed what this does to my curiosity and desire to invent and beautify – I have replaced all that with blind acceptance as a consumer, like most of us do, consciously or not. Now that I have awoken the desire to create and invent, I am bursting over with energy to transform and make my space more beautiful. For the moment, it is sadly unmet due to lack of earthly funds, but luckily writing is free and my virtual space (this blog) is blooming. So that’s something. I don’t own very much in the earthly sphere but I live a life in which I feel free and creative. I don’t fear death because my life has been so full, and that, to me, is absolute freedom.

Which is why, I feel, in my case 3D printing would be wonderful because I would only create what I need to make my life even more sustainable. It would require less resources than the current system which employs a multitude of people to design, produce, ship and sell the items I buy, with only half the satisfaction of the end product. If we would be capable to do all of the above ourselves with full satisfaction, it would be a healthier alternative for us and the planet. Unfortunately, we live in a society that mentally equates hoarding material possessions and living happy, fulfilling lives, and until we resolve this handicap I fear 3D printing will just be another way for people to mindlessly consume our last, precious resources.

I know most of my readers have already consciously downsized and strive to live sustainable, full lives. What is your take on 3D printing?


  1. Kind of up in the air at this point given how young the industry is, but I think there is the capacity for 3D Printing to provide material changes in the resource flows of our economy, potentially allowing us to take a step towards materials streams that are actually closed rather than one-way progressions to “waste”.

    I agree with Chris in that I’m not sure that social issues are really going to be solved with 3D printing and it may have absolutely no effect on the materialistic perception of wealth or happiness that a lot of Westerners are caught up in, but that doesn’t mean it can’t help have a meaningful environmental impact as a way to change supply chains and material use.

    Ultimately, it could be possible to create supply chains that are completely circular; closed loop system where old printed products can be broken down into raw material to make new printed products. Printing stations can be local, able to make anything from a key chain to a car seat that is only shipped a few miles rather than from a factory across the country. And if we can eventually print reliably in glass, metal, biopolymers… we could work to remove streams like plastic out of the system and certainly out of landfills.

    I’m less convinced that everyone will end up making their own stuff than how much easier it will be to find and repair more things locally. Rather than people discarding the important for how things are made,-it may be that people begin to attribute that much more values to the ideas and design of things because the production of things to a high quality is less specialized.

    • Thank you for your contribution. There are so many good ideas in your comments. I also think the most important part of 3D printing will be closing the production loop and making it easier to recycle materials. Hopefully that will be the focus as the industry matures and not just ‘making more stuff’ as it seems to be doing right now. I did see some cool videos a while back on the use of 3D printing in the medical community, quickly making personalized and flexible braces for various broken bones. The possibilities are almost endless and the only limitation right now is human behavior, but on good days I have faith in people :)

  2. I think there are some amazing opportunities to use 3D printing for fabrication, whether it be precise items that are needed in limited quantities or large-scale creation of building supplies and tools. Pretty exciting stuff to me.

    Thank you for visiting my blog and for sharing yours with me.

    • I agree – I think it’s pretty exciting stuff :) we’re just going to have to hope that mindless consumerism isn’t the ultimate goal because that would be a disaster. All we can do is educate ourselves and others. Thanks for stopping by Victoria!

  3. I don’t know enough about 3D printing to say nay outright, but as someone who tries to live a plastic-free life, the plastic involved makes me cringe. But like Google Glass, love it or hate it, 3D printing is inevitable. I hope we use it wisely.

  4. Harold Rhenisch says

    Well, I was here when electronic type replaced lead type, and have seen that become a forum for exploitation. I think a world in which all people are able to produce objects will result in people concentrating on the objects that the device can produce. We will be distracted from the real work yet again. Whatever that is called, it means making our own stuff, not having the system (whether it is disembodied or embodied in a device) make it for us. Blessed be.

  5. mjh333 says

    At first I was sceptical but now I think 3D printing can revolutionise us. It will take away the high cost of goods for people, also the mass production as things can be printed as and when required and not produced and just sit around till needed. Mainly though the medical benefits are amazing printing new organs WOW!!

  6. I feel like a Luddite sometimes. I think the 3D printing revolution is interesting and has useful applications. (Like, imagine personalized medical devices being printed there on the spot… need a new heart valve? Here you go, no weird grow it in a pig needed. :P) Our library has a 3D printer that patrons can play with, and I have a friend working on a piece that would be used to repair and strengthen a toy rocket ship that my son has. It’s a cool toy, but with one weak part that broke… and without that it’s not nearly as interesting and I doubt another parent would use it when my kids are done using it. So in that case the printer is (hopefully) helping me keep it out of the landfill.

    But at the same time, I have trouble making the leap from purely utilitarian uses to the art thing… the dresses are interesting, to be sure. But what happens to them when they’re done on the catwalk? Do they get displayed? Does someone actually wear them after? (I doubt it.)

    I’ve become very suspicious and resentful of things that are created that have no function beyond looking cool for a moment or two and then gets trashed… an example of this would be glow sticks. My husband (and older child) love them, they’re awesome and fun and amazing! And they are, but then, the glow goes away… and now there’s another thing in the landfill that will take thousands of years to deteriorate. I hate those kinds of things.

    Also, I tend to feel like things manufactured by machine or assembly line are soulless. I’ve seen some beautiful art pieces made by 3D printer, but at some point I think we loose the warmth and the energy that is imbued when created by human hands. I don’t know where that line is… something poured in a mold – is that different than a 3D printing? I don’t know… I find the difference between a hand quilted quilt and a machine quilted quilt to be vastly different. They’re both valuable skills though – and I’ve had to turn to machine quilting to keep up with the baby blankets that I make for family and friends… but just as there’s a difference between a hand quilted quilt, and a quilt made at home that’s machine quilted, there’s a difference between a machined at home quilt and a quilt turned out in an unknown Chinese factory.

    I think that the Chinese quilt is less valued because we don’t know the people and the process behind it, and it’s made with less intent. I worry that items made from a 3D printer would suffer from the same malady… how much are you going to treasure a generic cup printed from a 3D printer versus one hand thrown by a local potter?

    I don’t think everyone would practice your self restraint in only making necessary (and dare I say long-term use) items. I don’t have that much faith in current societal habits changing before the 3D printer becomes available widely. I also have no faith that the resources to produce and ship 3D printers and the materials required for them will outweigh the resources used to produce a lovely thing locally. Something or someone somewhere is going to suffer for it. If the materials are completely biodegradable? Maybe. What I wouldn’t give for that rocket ship to be made out of something that I could compost at home when the kids are done with it instead of hard plastic.

    I’m sorry… I know this is rambling. Maybe my issue is not so much with the 3D printer and the “soulless creation” of items, perhaps it is simply the blind consumption of items and the way in which 3D printing aids and abets that consumption. – which in the end is the same argument you’re making.

  7. I share many of your views on money and consumerism, the creation of a world of have’s and have-not’s….I think the 3D printing process has the potential for great creativity but I am also concerned about the materials being used (isn’t it more oil-based plastics?) and another opportunity for people to amass things they don’t really need (feeding into our consumerist/hoarding mentality even more). I much prefer the old-fashioned, sustainable way of creating with natural materials that can decompose when worn out and return to the earth instead of filling up landfills and cluttering the oceans…

  8. Very interesting post! Consumerism is not going to take a step back anytime… its just hardwired in to us, as a species … some do it a little less, some a little more. Whatever the invention, it will be used for commercial purposes, driving new uses, and eventually consumption. Being empowered does not stop us from being consumers. If anything at all, it spurs further consumption.

  9. William says

    It will allow us to repair broken parts and lengthen the lifespan of our Chinese junk we endlessly consume. Thus saving resources and our landfills. I envision going to the hardware store with the part and having it made there. Manufacturing will come back to North America.

  10. 3d printing has hugely beneficial implications for people and society, and the levelling out of the haves and have nots. The aesthetic concerns are really not high on the priority lists of those whose homes have been destroyed and just need to escape winter in a refugee camp, or those who just need something practical, access to cheaply available water filters or life saving medical devices, or any millions of things 3d printing is already capable of. There’s a way to go before we have full scale press-button access to instant resources, but it will come sooner than we expect as these technologies are exponentially improving. It’s very exciting.

    • That is such an important point about emergency relief. I forgot to even consider that while writing – goes to show how privileged I am! Thank you for pointing that out. I love this comment! <3

    • Like I said, I think it will be another couple of decades before we see any practical use and before then, I hope for all that is holy, that we have curbed our consumer-hoarder mentality.

      • I don’t think all the perceived social and environmental good that everyone expects will come from 3D printing will ever come to fruition. There are good things about the technology but it doesn’t solve the fundamental social issues we face. And we as problem solvers need to understand that trade, commerce and manufacturing are not intrinsically evil.

        You post is a helpful perspective.

        I’m not trying to belabor the point, it’s just a topic that is near to me for various reasons. I’ll write a follow up post on my work blog that is a little more optimistic.

    • I thought the post was thought provoking though, more of a discussion on how someday capitalists would lose some power because the consumer becomes a creator and not simply a user.

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