Ecological Literacy in Design Education: A Foundation for Sustainable Design

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The paper ‘Ecological Literacy in Design Education: A Foundation for Sustainable Design’ has been accepted for the Design Research Society  // CUMULUS 2013 2nd International Conference for Design Education Researchers in May 2013. This paper is available for here for free but it will only be published and presented at the conference proceedings if I am able to find sponsors. THANK YOU to everyone who helped raise the money for this presentation! The crowdfunding campaign worked and I will present this paper in Oslo next month.

Ecological Literacy in Design Education: A Foundation for Sustainable Design

Abstract: Responsible design in an era of scarcity and risk associated with environmental problems must be ecologically informed. Ecological literacy is necessary in order to both understand the nature of environmental problems and to respond effectively by designing sustainable ways of living. Embedding ecological literacy into design education is happening at the most progressive institutions – and yet for many others, sustainability education is still virtually absent from the curriculum. Progress is slow despite the fact that natural scientists warn that risks will escalate if we do not take dramatic action. Ecological literacy is a severe challenge as it disrupts educational cultures and challenges basic assumptions about what constitutes good design. While sustainability can seem profoundly difficult, ecological learning is the basis for sustainable design and thus it is a basic imperative in design education. Design education needs to expand its scope of inquiry to include a range of disciplines in order to address complex environmental problems. This paper will present an introduction to ecological literacy for design education, describe six ecological principles including associated concepts in systems design, and explain why critical thinking is necessary to make the work of transforming structurally unsustainable systems possible.

Keywords: sustainability, philosophy, design education, knowledge, ecological literacy, epistemology, philosophy of design education, multidisciplinary design education

The paper can now be downloaded from the EcoLabs website here.

The slideshow of the presentation can be accessed here.Nature-Patterns2012M

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BIG THANKS to everyone who made it happen by supporting the crowdfunding compaign. On Twitter you are: @Ian_Willey @blindspotting @hugh_knowles @karinjaschke @sDesignLabs @paul_chandlerUK @sorafferty and @jenboehnert. Some of you are not on Twitter (as far as I can tell) and you are Richard Owen Frost, Prof. Gregory Stock, Jonathan Crinion, Joel Davis, Ali Hodgson, Chris Kitchen and a few Anonymous contributors.

Denial in Environmental Communication

People tend to deny information that they find uncomfortable. In the seminal book States of Denial sociologist Stanley Cohen states that a proclivity to deny disturbing facts is the normal state of affairs for people in an information-saturated society. Cohen’s book is based on wide-reaching cross-cultural studies including Nazi Germany, South Africa, Israel/Palestine, Rwanda and others zones of human rights abuse, genocide and state sanctioned or institutional violence. Cohen describes strategies of denial on a personal level as psychological and cognitive, and on societal level as communicative and political. Denial can function psychologically below levels of awareness; denial is a ‘high speed cognitive mechanism for processing information, like the computer command to delete rather than save’ (Cohen 2001:5). On a cultural level, communication breakdown works to support denial. Relativism reinforces denial strategies in popular culture and in political debate. In its most extreme form, relativism makes all value systems equal, even those responsible for human suffering and the destruction of the natural world. In this way, relativism is corrosive to moral action.

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Although Cohen’s analysis of how disturbing information is avoided is based on violence against people, this work on denial is relevant for environmental communications as first suggested by climate communicator George Marshall (2007, 2009) and further developed in this thesis. Understanding the psychological and communicative processes at work inform strategies to break denial in order to facilitate acknowledgement of environmental crisis – the essential first step towards transformation. This chapter will examine how environmental communication can break the numbing effects of denial of ecological self through a greater understanding of associated psychological and social processes.

Denial is complex and multi-faceted and a primary communicative obstacle in environmental communication. Cohen describes the psychological and cognitive processes supporting denial in individuals. The ability to block out, remain passive, apathetic, indifferent and unresponsive is, an unconscious defence mechanism for coping with guilt, anxiety or other disturbing emotions aroused by guilt. The psyche blocks off information that is literally unthinkable or unbearable. The unconscious sets up a barrier that prevents the thought from reaching conscious knowledge (Ibid:5).

According to Cohen, denial manifests in three different ways (although each of these has endless characteristics):

1) Literal (nothing happened)
2) Interpretative (what happened is really something else)
3) Implicatory (what happened was justified) (Cohen 2001:99)

Each of these strategies for denial must be circumvented with care. These types of denial are further complicated by levels at which they become evident within individuals:

1) Cognition (not acknowledging the facts)
2) Emotion (not feeling, not being disturbed)
3) Morality (not recognizing wrongness or responsibility)
4) Action (not taking steps in response to knowledge) (Ibid:9)

Each of these states of denial is also a stage towards acknowledgement as part of a strategy to break denial. The processes that occur in individuals are multiplied across cultural groups where denial becomes institutionalized and systemic (Ibid:94).

Denial in social groups is exacerbated by communication failure and by powerful interests that benefit from keeping denial working in their favour. On a cultural level, multiple individual cases of denial leads to normalization, then ignoring which develops into collusion: ‘People trying to look innocent by not noticing’ (Ibid:xii). Here cultures of ‘splitting’ develop characterized by dissociation and psychic numbing (Ibid:93). Cohen describes how cultures plagued by high levels of denial escape into a state that he calls ‘innerism’, defined as an ‘escape from the public sphere into private life and consumer interests’ (Ibid:156). The spectacles of consumer capitalism clearly provide sufficient distractions.

Cohen’s work on denial has useful insights for the communication of ecological literacy. Collective acknowledgement must become an explicit goal. Cohen explains that ‘acknowledgement is what happens to knowledge when it becomes officially sanctioned and enters public discourse’ (Ibid:225). Collective acknowledgement is transformational as it ‘makes previously normalized conditions into social problems… [and]…social institutions, policy strategies, and, even a new language are in place to undermine denial and encourage and channel individual acknowledgement’ (Ibid:250). This dramatic change comes about through the work of social movements and public discourses that aim to chip away and eventually shatter denial. Strategies for breaking denial involve creating the individual and social capacity for acceptance of circumstances. Social movements use processes of consciousness-raising or politicization to effect this change (Ibid:11). Tactics for breaking denial aim beyond merely presenting the facts and invoking moral arguments to directly addressing the social and psychological mechanisms that support denial.

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Learning to accept denial as a natural phenomenon and not demonize those who perpetuate denial (despite the destructive consequences that are a result of the lack of political will and motivation for change) must be a foundational concept for effective environmental communication. Understanding the psychological processes of denial can help communicators assist individuals through the difficult process of acknowledging and reacting to disturbing environmental information. Getting to the point where denial is acknowledged and actively addressed is key. Cohen explains:

Instead of agonizing about why denial occurs, we should take this state for granted. The theoretical question is not ‘why do we shut out?’ but ‘what do we ever not shut out?’ The empirical problem is not uncover yet ever more evidence of denial, but to discover the conditions under which information is acknowledged and acted upon. The political problem is how to create these conditions. This reframes the classic studies of obedience: instead of asking why most people obey authority so unthinkingly, let us look again and again at the consistent minority – nearly on-third, after all – who refuse to obey (Ibid:249).

Communication strategies can be designed to turn denial into a category of social deviance. For example, drawing analogies from the feminist struggle, compare the social acceptability of misogyny in 1950 versus 2011. Environmental communicators must work to make denial of ecological conscience as socially unacceptable as misogyny.1 Pressure groups and social movements work on shattering denial to end the normalization of ignoring and help create collective acknowledgement. Cohen’s work is based on denial of human rights abuses rather the harm humanity perpetuates on the natural world but the lessons learned from these struggles can inform an understanding of denial of ecological relations. History has witnessed radical social change in the past where new moral codes were created and we have consciously changed power dynamics, laws and institutions accordingly (obvious examples are the civil rights, feminist and anti-colonization movements). Similar strategies are now needed to encounter denial of ecological relations in order to move to acknowledgement and action.

This text is re-published (slightly edited) from my 2012 PhD ‘The Visual Communication of Ecological Literacy: Designing, Learning and Emergent Ecological Perception‘, which is available here.

Sustainability Literacy in Higher Education

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Basic sustainability literacy is an essential element of education. Without sustainability education, students are not supported to develop the knowledge that they will need to understand contemporary problems – or the skills they will need to address these problems. Considering global ecological conditions, it would be wise for higher education to create capacities across disciplines to respond to current problems. Unfortunately this is simply not happening on a significant scale (outside the disciplines that deal directly with the environment, i.e. conservation biology, the earth sciences and geography). Educational establishments create blind spots by failing to embed sustainability literacy in education. By not acknowledging environmental problems as an educational priority, higher education reproduces the problems of the past.  Educators remain oblivious to the ways in which their own practices further perpetuate environmental problems.

In the natural sciences, scientists are deeply concerned (an understatement in many cases) about the dangers of de-stabilised ecological systems. It is the responsibility of universities to develop capacities to respond, but most of those developing curriculum in design education would rather ignore inconvenient environmental imperatives. While I appreciate the difficulty that higher education is under right now, these problems pale in significance in comparison to the dangers presented by environmental problems. In fact, it will be impossible to achieve economic prosperity in the future without greater concern for environmental issues.

Many educators think sustainability is already part of what they do. Yet environmental problems are a result of an entire way of approaching knowledge that is ecologically ill-informed. Ecological and systems literacies are not divinely anointed, they are learned – like any discipline. They require their own curriculum, classes, research and expertise in design education. It cannot be delivered in a ‘Green Week’ fashion. This is simply greenwash. Education that refuses to engage critically with environmental problems is part of the problem.

Sustainability literacy should be a required element of any university degree at this point, but especially design education (for reasons I describe in my PhD). Any university that is not doing this is derelict in their responsibility to equip students with the knowledge they will need to deal with the world they will inherit. I have set up two Linkedin groups to discuss these problems in higher education  and a group for ecological literacy in design education.

Thanks for the inspiration here @blindspotting

Strategies of Denial of Ecological Self

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This week I am finally publishing Chapter Nine of my PhD: ‘Communication Failures: Strategies and Denial of Ecological Self. I have been stalling to post this chapter with the rest of my PhD as I am aware that many parts of the left that have been somewhat hostile to deep ecology and especially some of the content I cover in this chapter. Deep ecology has sometimes been dismissed due to its association with a lack of criticality, disengagement from political struggles for social justice and its recuperation by capitalism. While I sympathize with this critique, I will argue that deep ecology and ecopsychology associated with ecofeminist analysis have vital contributions in describing both the ways in which social relations are reproduced and the psychological challenges associated with making social change possible. Principally this analysis sheds light on denial, dissociative alienation and pathologies arising from the repression of ecological self.

Ecopsychology characterizes the repression ecological self as resulting in a narrowing of awareness and a psychic numbing. The psychological, social and political implications of denial of the ecological self and the reductive understanding of ego are evidenced by mental illness, cultures of denial and political systems designed with little regard for the well-being of the ecological and social contexts that makes economic prosperity possible. Herein social and ecological injustice are symptoms of errors in perception and understanding of self. Working to heal the psychological problems that result from the denial of ecological self is part of the process of making political change possible. Political theory needs deep ecology and ecofeminism as much as deep ecologists need political theorists to help do the work of making political change possible.

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The Green Economy (NOT!): The Final Frontier

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The UN’s Rio+20 declaration ‘The Future We Choose’ warns; ‘the scientific evidence is unequivocal…the time to act is now!’ With this document the UN calls for ‘a great transformation’ emerging from the recognition that business as usual is no longer sufficient. Humankind is now in the ‘Anthropocene’ wherein we must live within the ‘safe operating space of planetary boundaries’. Does this environmental rhetoric demonstrate that the UN is serious about addressing the biodiversity crisis? Or has the UN simply appropriated green language to sell its new project to the global public?

The so-called ‘Green Economy’ launched at Rio+20 reveals a new approach to sustainable development, based on creating new markets for nature’s processes. The basic provisions of the natural world are now ‘ecosystem services’ (water purification, plant pollination, carbon capture and maintenance of soil fertility, etc.). Presently free and commonly shared, the emerging programme will soon quantify, financialise and marketise them. The commodification of the natural world supposedly aims to protect nature by accounting for ‘externalities’ of environmental damage by industry. According to this logic, once nature’s processes are given a financial value, prices of goods and services will reflect ecological costs and it will no longer make economic sense to produce ecologically harmful products.

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The Politics of Future Visioning – on #FutureScapes

Sony, with the help of Forum for the Future, had launched a project called Futurescapes. The project relies on four scenarios which can be seen on the project website. Typically, these scenarios are not informed by the most menacing dangers to our collective futures. While scenarios can be powerful tools, if scenario builders are not willing critique their own assumptions (especially in terms of ecological realities and social justice) – they are wasting their time (if the goal is exploring sustainable futures). Limiting the analysis in this way, however, IS good for Sony and other corporations interested in inspiring consumer confidence.

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Rio+20 – The Green Economy: Not what it appears!

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The language in the official UN documents promoting ‘The Green Economy’ published during the Rio+20 UN Conference for Sustainable Development last week is strikingly reflective of the language used by advocates of sustainability and even by social movements. In UN’s declaration ‘The Future We Choose’ certain phrases could have come from a Climate Camp press release; ‘the scientific evidence is unequivocal…the time to act is now!’ The document calls for ‘a great transformation’ and a recognition that business as usual is no longer sufficient in the Anthropocene’ wherein we must live within the ‘safe operating space of planetary boundaries’. Are we finally making progress?

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Unfortunately what we are witnessing is not progress but an undermining of decades worth of green politics by using of the language of environmentalism while rejecting any accompanying structural analysis of the origins of ecological problems. The UN Green Economy programme uses phrases and rhetorics devices of green movements. Unfortunately, these are neutered of political potential. The Green Economy is about creating new markets for ‘ecosystems services’, the basic provisions of the natural world, now considered ‘free’ such as water purification, plant pollination, carbon capture and maintenance of soil fertility. Creating new markets around these services sets the stage for the expansion of capitalism into the natural world – the global commons.

Financialization of Nature from ATTAC.TV 

The Green Economy is a programme of fixing prices for natural resources once regarded as free. Well-meaning ecologists, scientists and environmental policy makers are now working towards the construction of infrastructure for the financialisation and commodification of ecosystem services. These processes attempt to protect Nature by accounting for ‘externalities’ of environmental damage through economic processes.

Meanwhile, green theorists and social movements claim that without a macroeconomic analysis of the dynamics of neo-liberalism these policies initiatives will reproduce and even increase current problems. Tragically, by bringing neo-liberal economic mechanisms into the sphere of nature, the global commons will be subject to an intensification of exploitation.

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Alejandro Nadal, author of Rio+20: A Citizen’s Background Document, explains a fundamental error in the UN’s understanding of the management of the commons. The “global commons” is not what classical Romans called res nullius. Nadal explains that res nullius means that a thing has no owner and, therefore, anyone can appropriate it. Instead of having no owner, the global commons are commonly owned – they are res communis. The global commons must not be an object of private appropriation. We are a community – not commodities ripe for exploitation.

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