Image-makers have the unique ability to make hidden ecological processes visible by revealing relationships, patterns and dynamics in complex socio-ecological systems. This paper describes how communication design can support relational perceptual practices and even nurture ecological perception. It presents specific methods to harness the latent potential of graphic design to communicate the context, causality and complexity of ecological processes and systems. Visual metaphors function to establish meaning. Furthermore, aesthetics experiences can provoke deep perceptual insights supporting new ways of perceiving our relationship to the environment. In these ways, graphic design has the potential to nurture the ability to ‘see systems’ – supporting both ecological perception and ecological literacy.
Paper to be presented at Design Research Society’s conference DRS 2014.
Design can be understood as a practice that evolves as new cognitive and perceptual capacities enable a greater understanding of complexity, context and system dynamics. These emergent capacities create greater potential for social and technological innovation. This paper will argue that despite emergent skills, designers are not able to effectively address contemporary problems in a sustainable manner due to the systemic priorities of the design industry. This paper theorises ‘design’ as the professional practice of creating new products, buildings, services and communication as a broader practice than the work that is produced within the ‘design industry’. The design industry operates according to highly reductive feedback generated by capitalism that systemically ignores signals from the ecological and social systems. The exclusive focus on profit results in distortions of knowledge and reason undermining prospects for the design of long-term prosperity within the context of the current political/economic regime.
Download the paper here.
The concept of natural capital was first used by E.F. Schumacher in his book Small Is Beautiful (1973). In the same book Schumacher wrote:
To press non-economic values into the framework of the economic Calculus… it is a procedure by which the higher is reduced to the level of the lower and the priceless is given a price. It can therefore never serve to clarify the situation and lead to an enlightened decision. All it can do is lead to self-deception or the deception of others; for to undertake to measure the immeasurable is absurd and constitutes but an elaborate method of moving from preconceived notions to foregone conclusions…The logical absurdity, however, is not the greatest fault of the undertaking: what is worse, and destructive of civilisation, is the pretence that everything has a price or, in other words, that money is the highest of all values. (p. 27)
Dr. Sian Sullivan describes the current meaning of the concept of natural capital as having its origins in the formation of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) at the first Rio United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) Earth Summit in 1992. The concept of natural capital gained popularity in business circles as a way of thinking about environmental governance and has encouraged by environmentalists such as Jonathan Porritt. Now, four decades since the concept was first coined, the idea has metamorphosed. The notion of nature as natural capital, and as equivalent to capital in the bank, is being adopted by the UK government. In 2011, then UK Environment Minister Caroline Spelman launched the report The natural choice: Securing the value of nature with the statement;
“…if we withdraw something from Mother Nature’s Bank, we’ve got to put something back to ensure that the environment has a healthy balance and a secure future” (2011).
By 2012, the UK established a Natural Capital Committee and economists began preparing to include a value for ‘natural capital’ in Britain’s GDP calculations by 2020. Meanwhile, at an international level, the Bank of Natural Capital website was launched in 2011 by The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) project, a programme supported by the United Nations and European Union. Within the Bank of Natural Capital, Sullivan explains that “nature’s stocks and flows are depicted such that they accord with the format of a standard online current bank account”. Herein nature’s processes are reduced to numbers that can be traded like other financial instruments.
The World Forum on Natural Capital meet today and tomorrow in Edinburgh. Here NGOs, governments, business and the financial industry will consider ways of valuing nature using the concept of natural capital. This project emerges out of programmes launched at Rio+20 such as the UNEP’s Green Economy Report and financial institutions’ Natural Capital Declaration. The forum will undoubtedly raise awareness on environmental threats, but the strategy of using “natural capital” to respond threatens to take environmental decision-making out of the political sphere and into the marketplace. Not only does this move erode democratic decision-making on the environment – but it will give more control over nature to the very financial institutions and corporations responsible for unsustainable development. The real threat is that the natural commons, the ecological space we all share, will be subject to a new wave of privatization under the pretense that corporations and financial institutions will suddenly become responsible environmental guardians – once natural capital is part of their balance books.
This radical new policy approach to environmental decision making is being pushed by the UNEP, the UK government and a variety of environmental organisations eager to help business understand the environmental consequences of their activities. While well intentioned, the project lacks a critical view on corporate power and the ways in which neoliberal institutions work to appropriate the rhetoric of social and environmental movements to serve their own agenda. In this case, the project establishes conditions for resource and land grabs while also creating fantastic greenwashing opportunities for corporations. On the first day of the conference it has already been made apparent how the concept of natural capital accounting provides an effective means for corporations like sponsor Royal Bank of Scotland and presenter Rio Tinto to greenwash their disastrous environmental activities (RBC in Canadian Tar Sands and Rio Tinto in Indonesia and around the world).
Using Financial Logic to “Value” Nature
While we desperately need to develop more effective means to value nature, using financial calculations is an ill-conceived and dangerous approach for reasons that I describe at length in my recent paper ‘Re-imaging the commons as “the green economy”’. Take the example of Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond’s claim that nature is worth between £21.5 to £23 billion per year to the Scottish economy. As always when we attempt to fix a financial figure to something that is priceless, the figure itself reveals gross errors in logic. If ‘nature’ in Scotland were to become radically de-stabilized and regional ecosystems were to collapse (say to due to run away climate change – or become heavily polluted due to severe radioactive contamination or groundwater contamination from fracking) than human habitation would become extraordinarily difficult, exposing residents to extreme hazards. Thus the idea that nature is only worth 10% of annual Scottish GDP is absurd – Scotland’s economy is 100% dependent on the relative stability and provisioning services provided by the natural world. This undervaluation of natural capital is only one of many flaws I describe at length in my paper.
Social Movements Respond
A counter-conference is taking place in Edinburgh called ‘Nature is Not for Sale: Forum on the Natural Commons’. This event exposes the political drivers and the interests being served by the World Forum on Natural Capital and highlights alternative means of managing the ecological commons. As World Development Movement director Nick Dearden tweeted today, there are many alternative approaches: ‘It’s happening: food sovereignty, community energy, remunicipalise water. Less finance, more regulation’. Organized by World Development Movement, Counter Balance, Re:Common and Carbon Trade Watch the ‘Nature for Sale’ conference asserts that the United Nations, governments and global financial institutions are planning ‘how to put a price on nature so it can be bought and sold as a commodity’. The ‘No to Biodiversity Offsetting’ declaration will be launched tonight. Natural capital accounting is radical the way that neo-liberalism is radical – radical in giving new powers to corporations and financial institutions while weakening democracy and government’s capacity to regulate corporate pollutors.
*Update* The EarthFirst! logo has now been removed from The Guardian article.
Last Friday The Guardian published an article where the author unfairly accused the radical environmental social movement EarthFirst! of terrorist activity committed in Switzerland and Mexico by two other groups. Not only was there no evidence that EarthFirst! was involved with the attacks on nanotechnology labs, but two other groups had already claimed responsibility. Clearly the author, physicist Michele Catanzaro, was keen to use these attacks to discredit radical ecological social movements.
Can the experience of a natural disaster such as the recent Colorado flood help individuals to confront the risks associated with climate change? Can dramatic experiences initiate a major learning experience or even a life transition? Based on the literature of sustainable education, levels of learning and transformative learning, a powerful disorienting experience can be (and often is necessary as) a catalyst for deep, transformative learning. For these reasons, natural disasters are an excellent opportunity to reflect on the risks we are taking as a civilization – and consider what we can do about about these risks.
On Sunday night University of Colorado’s Inside the Greenhouse group hosted an ‘Climate Wise Women’ event. Constance Okollet and Ngozi Onuzo (from Uganda and Nigeria) talked about the impact of climate change in their lives. Constance Okollet described a flood that washed most of her village away, a drought that followed and the ongoing difficulties with Continue reading
As some of the readers of this blog will know I recently moved from London to Nederland, Colorado (a small town outside of Boulder – where I work). I arrived just in time for the Colorado flood last week. My tiny home up at 8500ft elevation was undamaged, but the water ran down the canyon ripping up both roads and houses down stream in Boulder and beyond.
Water from the mountains flowed down Boulder Creek at up to 25 times its normal intensity. The canyon road from Nederland into Boulder was badly damaged not only by mud and rockslides but by the erosion of its foundations as the earth dissolved into the river. Early this week I attended the town of Nederland post-flood recovery meeting where I witnessed the community coming to terms with the fact that the road we all depend on to get to Boulder has been partially washed away. Still we reminded ourselves that Nederland was lucky relative to many of our neighbours.
Behind the statistics are thousands of stories and personal tragedies: 8 people killed, 11,750 people evacuated, 18,000 homes damaged, 1,600 homes destroyed, at least 30 bridges lost and an unknown quantity of roads and railway tracks severely damaged. Even more serious environmental disasters are in process as oil, gas and toxic fracking chemicals (including known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors) spills have become apparent at the site of at least 10 of the hundreds of fracking sites in the flood zone.
This is a blog about strong emotions and how these impact our actions. I was inspired to write it by my encounter with ecopsychologist, Buddhist scholar and activist Joanna Macy – a woman who has pioneered working with despair since the 1970s. Despair in this blog will refer to a combination of feelings including grief, anger, powerlessness and fear. Continue reading
The paper Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’ was presented at the International Environmental Communication Association’s 2013 conference Environmental Communication: Participation Revisited: openings and closures for deliberations on the commons in June. This paper can be downloaded on www.academic.edu and on the EcoLabs website.
ABSTRACT: The United Nations’ green economy programme radically re-imagines the commons as a space where ecosystems services will be quantified, marketised and traded. This paper will examine issues with this version of the green economy for environmental communicators. It will review the etymology of the concept, examine contested ideas on what a green economy would entail and situate these proposals in relation to different economic approaches to the environment. It will suggest strategies for communicating the contested nature of the proposals and exposing obfuscations. This paper will argue that in stark opposition to green economics with its focus on participation and democratic processes, the UN’s GEP will close deliberations on the commons by privatizing ‘ecosystem services’ – thereby taking environmental decision-making out of a political sphere and into the marketplace.
Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’
The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) (2011) flagship document titled “Towards a green economy: Pathways to sustainable development and poverty eradication” and accompanying UNEP reports at the Rio+20 in June 2012 launched the green economy project. The reports use strong environmental language as a means of presenting their version of green economy as a far-reaching programme of reform to address environmental problems on a global scale. While the rhetoric suggests that the UN is serious about addressing the biodiversity crisis, green economists and a wide variety of social movements are less convinced by the proposed policy mechanisms. Civil society responded at Rio+20 with a plethora of critical responses: condemning what they claimed amounted to the corporate capture of the United Nations (Joint Civil Society Statement, 2012); condemning the UN’s “Natural Capital Declaration” (Banktrack, 2012); condemning 20 years of Greenwash (Bruno, 2012); and indeed, condemning the entire green economy project (Nadal, 2012; Brand, 2012a; Patel & Crook, 2012). The Indigenous People’s Global Conference on Rio+20 and Mother Earth (2012) issued a strongly worded “Kari-Oca 2 Declaration” (2012) describing the UNEP’s green economy as “a continuation of colonialism” (p. 1) firmly rejecting market-based solutions, REDD, and intellectual property rights over genetic resources and traditional knowledge. In the wake of the polarized positions at Rio+20, the conference ended with both civil society and the United Nations unimpressed with the outcomes. The New York Times claimed Rio+20 “ended here as it began, under a shroud of withering criticism” (Romero & Broder, 2012); The Guardian’s headline read: “Rio+20 outcome a focal point for frustration among campaigners” (Ford, 2012); and London’s Financial Times announced “Rio+20 lacks ambition, says UN chief” (Clark, 2012). The conference failed to achieve binding targets, but more significantly the conference launched the UNEP’s green economy programme, which aims to redesign the processes through which the global commons will be managed. Clearly the green economy is a fiercely contested idea and the UNEP’s version is strongly opposed by a wide variety social movements concerned with both ecological conservation and environmental justice.
In naming its programme the green economy, the UNEP implies a reframing of the entire economy along green lines. The language even suggests a connection to a particular school of economic thought concerned with the environment, that of green economics. However, the programme itself is largely concerned with attempting to protect the environment by establishing policies that will quantify and trade “ecosystem services”. This will be done in ways that reflect specific policy prescriptions of different schools of economic thinking on the environment, namely environmental economics and ecological economics. Since green economics is a field with radically different policy prescriptions to what is proposed, the naming of the new project creates severe confusion with contested definitions of the “green economy”. In this paper, the UNEP’s green economy programme will be referred to as “UN’s GEP” to avoid confusion with what green economists have been describing as “green economics” for over a decade.
In Colorado, I will be working on visualising issues of the green economy and climate communication discourses. This work would be situated in the Integrating Activities research theme at CIRES will focus on the visual communication of complex ecological problems. This practice-based research would facilitate interdisciplinary collaborations and learning thereby contributing to greater capacities to respond effectively to environmental problems.
Designing Learning for Tomorrow: Design Education from Kindergarten to PhD
DRS//CUMULUS Oslo 2013 – 2nd International Conference for Design Education Researchers
Oslo Opera House and skyline
I travelled to the DRS//CUMULUS Oslo 2013 – 2nd International Conference for Design Education Researchers with some trepidation. While I have high expectations of the content produced by the Design Research Society (DRS) and was already intrigued by some of the papers and keynotes, my concerns emerged from what I am witnessing in design education in the UK. I was travelling to Oslo supported by a crowd funding campaign rather than the institution where I had been working when I wrote my paper. As an advocate of sustainability literacy and an early career researcher witnessing (and feeling) the impact of the austerity agenda in higher education in the UK, I wondered if the conference would rise to the challenge of confronting the most serious issues in design education.
Dr. Boehnert from EcoLabs will be talking how ecological literacy transforms the ways we understand sustainability at a free public talk for the The Biospheric Project at the Manchester International Festival.
Thurs 11 July
Designing the City
Designing the City considers how innovative design and architecture can tackle the need for more sustainable and ecologically efficient cities. Our speakers Jody Boehnert from Eco-Labs and Michael Pawlyn from Exploration Architecture, will discuss their different approaches to embedding ecological principals into education and using nature’s models within architecture through bio-mimicry. Chair: Gavin Elliott Chair of BDP Manchester
Recently I did an interview with Blue & Green Tomorrow and talked about how the notion of free markets misrepresent our political and economic system. Here I am republishing part of this interview here (with their questions in blue text):
Yesterday, we published the first part of an interview with EcoLabs founder Joanna Boehnert. In response to a Blue & Green Tomorrow article about free markets (Free markets need to be free), Boehnert said on Twitter that it “[failed] entirely to deal with the problem that free markets systemically devalue the ecological wellbeing“. We asked her if she thinks the free market is therefore unsalvageable, and this was her response.
I am not against all markets absolutely. What I am absolutely against is misinformation, so it is important to note here that there is actually no such thing as a free market. Every market in the world has ways of working that was designed into the market, i.e. parameters that are predetermined. So-called free markets suit the interests of those who have the political power to design the terms of the market. What we have is a political and economic system that is neoliberal and capitalist. The idea of free markets is an obfuscation. Continue reading
When Mckenzie Wark appeared on Novara, Resonance FM on May 28th 2013 he argued that a critical theory that does not confront environmental problems as one of its central problems was not worth discussing (I am paraphrasing – what he actually said was is more complicated and is transcribed below). Oddly, in this interview Wark managed to simultaneously acknowledge the validity of the environmental crisis as a theoretical problem – while also denying its implications in practice. For me this was a significant moment for Novara since it was certainly the best attempt they have yet made (that I am aware of) to engage with the ecological problem. Unfortunately, while Wark has many good ideas, his convoluted take on ecological theory is a classic example of extravagant lengths intellectuals (and especially the environmentally disengaged radical left) devise to continue to dismiss the most fundamental challenges posed by the ecological crisis and this culture’s legacy of ignoring ecological relations and perspectives. I will quote the most problematic parts of what Mckenzie Wark had to say starting with the following:
I would not call it an ecological crisis because that would presume that there ever was an ecology… and there sort of isn’t. It’s… what we know of the natural world includes its instability…and our species being is one that has acquired the capacity to kind of rupture environments on a kind of global scale. So I would be a little hesitant to use the word ‘ecological’….
Yes, it is true that what we know of ecology includes some instability – but far more important is the fact that there is relative stability within planetary boundary conditions. In a similar way to how our bodies can only function within a relatively narrow range of temperatures (maintained by homeostatic mechanisms), the earth will only be habitable for humans within planetary boundaries (including factors beyond climate change such as the nitrogen cycle and biodiversity loss). Once ecological Continue reading