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.
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
I am publishing two new posters associated with the paper Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’ that will be presented at the International Environmental Communication Association’s 2013 conference Environmental Communication: Participation Revisited: openings and closures for deliberations on the commons in Uppsala, Sweden June 6th-9th 2013. The posters can images can be downloaded here (as low resolution jpegs) or higher resolution posters to print on the EcoLabs website.
Above – Overview of problems associated with the UNEP’s ‘green economy’.
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.
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.
Tuesday 26 February 1900h-2030h
Hochhauser Auditorium, Sackler Centre, V&A
Jody Boehnert (EcoLabs)
Jonathan Chapman (University of Brighton)
Noel Douglas (Occupy Design)
Paul Micklethwaite (Kingston University)
Climate change, resource scarcity, economic crisis and struggles for social justice have given rise to new movements in design that seek more than creative and commercial fulfilment. What models of design practice support this? How might design work with other activist practices? What role do universities and museums have? How can design activism work with marginality?
Free, but booking is essential:: http://www.vam.ac.uk/whatson/event/1971/date/20130226/
Jody Boehnert is an environmental communicator, designer, educator and activist who lives in Brixton. She is founding director of EcoLabs (http://eco-labs.org)
– a non-profit studio visualising complex environmental issues and recently completed an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded PhD titled: ‘The Visual Communication of Ecological Literacy: Design, Learning and Emergent Ecological Perception’ at the University of Brighton…
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In the UK social institutions maintain their legitimacy with claims that they are responding the environmental crisis with initiatives capable of transforming our economy into something that could exist in perpetuity. The single most important factor in the continued failure of the vast majority of initiatives is the dismal lack of ecological awareness demonstrated by those who put these projects into practice. A technologically advanced civilization that is not ecologically informed simply has no long-term prospects; it will not even understand the ways in which it is destroying itself. Businesses are keen to project the image that they are working towards a circular economy and dramatically lowering both pollution and quantitaties of natural resources needed in the industrial cycle. Are these flashy claims an honest representation of progress, or simply a new front for business as usual?
Re-thinking Progress: The Circular Economy by made2bemadeagain – The Ellen MacArthur Foundation
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.
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.
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.
Over the holidays I have read the latest Club of Rome report Bankrupting Nature. I did this not because I enjoy reading non-fiction over Christmas but because I am grateful for the time I have to celebrate and I am compelled to consider how others will be able to do the same considering the deterioration of global ecological systems.
Two things became apparent: 1) the extinction crises is accelerating, 2) we have more knowledge and understanding than ever to address ecological and social crises. That second point was the good news. The bad news is that I can say with some confidence, as someone who works in London at the interface of environmental communication, ecological informed design and sustainability education, that we are simply not making the ecological crises a priority. Instead of using the wealth that is still abundant in this country to address environmental problems – we are squandering the opportunities we now have to catalyze transformation.
With severe ecological destabilization, possibilities for future prosperity disappear. Yet in education and economic policy, the basic fact that we depend on the stability and abundance of the Earth is largely ignored. We are simply not building the social institutions that would enable social transformation. Part of the problem rests with the educational establishment; ecologically literacy is still marginal in higher education. For this reason, the capacity to understand, much less respond to current problems is extraordinarily low. This blog will review the state of our capacities for cultural transformation in the UK at the end of 2012 by looking (very briefly) at social institutions and social movements. I will start by proposing that we take note of the words of the Mayan people.
In 2012 we survived the final of all the anticipated ‘end of the worlds’ and the media typically simultaneously mocked and commercialized what became the spectacle of the end of Mayan Long Count calendar, the 5,125-year cycle that ended on 21 December 2012. A film called ‘2012 The Mayan Word’ documented the voices of the Mayan people who had some potent things to say:
“The world is not ending. It is the opposite: we are finishing ourselves off…The prophecies are given for us to check ourselves. What are we doing? It’s clear that if we don’t do anything to recover the equilibrium of Mother Earth, we are digging our own grave” (Maria Amalia Mex Tu’n, 26 mins). Continue reading
In wealthy countries such as the UK we like to think that rich nations help poorer nations with aid and other types of development funding. We have millennium goals to eradicate poverty, surely we are helping our Southern neighbours develop sustainably?
Activists from the Global South tell a very different story. This map illustrates this counter-narrative using data from World Bank depicting the hidden flows of capital into and out of low and middle-income countries. It exposes the disturbing fact that rich nations extract significantly more money from the low and middle-income nations than they give in aid. Continue reading