Experiences of a Natural Disaster as a Catalyst for Climate Awareness


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.

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Ways of Knowing about Climate Change: Reflections on the Climate Wise Women Event

color-climatwisewomenOn 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

The Colorado Flood: On Risk + Climate – What we can learn from natural disasters.

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.

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Ecological Literacy in Design Education: A Foundation for Sustainable Design


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.


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.

denial in EC no.1 - outlines copy

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.

Hopenhagen: Design Activism as an Oxymoron

Hopenhagen was an initiative by the International Advertising Association in support of the United Nations at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP-15) in Copenhagen December 2009. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon UN asked for help from the international advertising industry at Davos in January 2009. Hopenhagen took the form of an international public relations campaign culminating with an installation in the public square in central Copenhagen during the COP-15 summit. Hopenhagen created a feel good façade where corporate sponsors were helping governments save the world.

Meanwhile, many of the thousands of climate activists congregated in Copenhagen for the summit found Hopenhagen so offensive that they made the campaign and installation itself an object of their protests. Hopenhagen is a classic example of corporate appropriation of people’s movements and the subsequent neutralization of the messages demanding structural change and social justice. As such, Hopenhagen embodies the conflict within the concept of design activism itself. While design functions predominately as a driver of consumption, consumerism, globalization and unsustainable behavior; activism is concerned with social injustice and environmental devastation. Activists struggle to combat the forces of globalization by forming social movements and resisting corporatisation of the commons and everyday life; designers are normally servant of corporate entities. These two forces are integrally at odds.

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‘London Futures’ and a History of Social Change in London

London Futures by Robert Graves and Didier  Madoc-Jones.  London Futures

I visited the Museum of London today to visit London Futures, an exhibition about climate change by Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones. The highly sanitized version of London landscapes altered by dramatic climate change were picturesque and entertaining but also had an unfortunate tendency to make apocalyptic futures look glamorous.

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Climate or Cuts? The Same Problem!

Today in the House of Commons MPs vote for education cuts in the form of new £9000 a year tuition fees. Today in a courtroom in Nottingham the case against the climate activists who conspired to shut down Ratcliffe Power Station sums up and the jury retires to deliberate. What have they got in common?

These two events are part of the same problem. This is why: our economic system is structurally reliant on growth – and when growth hits geo-physical barriers, or social barriers, or cultural barriers it does whatever it has to do to abolish these barriers. Growth occurs through a process of turning our ecological, social and cultural space into economic space i.e. into commodities to be traded.  The economy needs to do this to grow, and it needs to grow to survive – so yes, as Thatcher might say, within the current set of conditions, ‘There Is No Alternative’ (TINA).  But there absolutely are alternatives to this way of organizing society. TINA serves elite interests and keeps us from demanding structural change.

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