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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Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’

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 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.

The Green Economy (NOT!): The Final Frontier

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.

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EcoLabs is moving!


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.

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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.

Transition in an Age of Austerity


What is the potential for the Transition Towns movement in the current political climate? Is ‘Lambeth the Co-operative Council’ a legitimate solution for south Londoners? Just how dangerous is it to mix up constructed scarcities with geophysical scarcities when talking about how to build resilience into local communities?

These were the quesitons in my mind when I listened to John Thackara, Director of Doors of Perception, at the launch of the RSA Student Design Awards last week. Thackara gave an overview of environmental challenges in design education and as usual he did a good job talking about sustainable design. His is a voice of reason in an industry that often neglects to addresses the consequences of its own activities. Nevertheless, Thackara’s support for Transition Towns and Lambeth as the UK’s first co-operative council deserves some attention.

As someone with first hand experience of Transition organizing in Lambeth, I need to stress that the movement is far from a panacea for this community’s problems. When I tried to highlight this issue from the floor as a question, I was cut off and the moderator reframed my question into an issue about labour rights. This might be a good question (but it was one that Thackara misunderstood and not the question I had in mind). This blog will examine how transition movements relate to the political realities in an age of austerity – and the serious dangers associated with using the notion of scarcities to justify austerity.


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


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?


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.


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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Capitalism in Context – The Occupied Times #8


While corporations are busy marketing themselves as environmentally responsible global citizens, scientists warn that global ecological systems are severely destabilised. The confusion created by the gap between frightening scientific reports and reassuring messages from advertising and corporate media provides an excuse to continue shopping, watching TV and generally ignoring escalating social, political and economic crises (as long as you happen to be privileged enough to avoid the immediate impacts).

Business as usual continues because capitalism denies its own ecological (and social) context. Communication processes directed by the market obscure the environmental consequences of industrial processes. The failure to recognize ecological context creates a basic schism between the environment and the market economy.

When markets determine what information is available in the public sphere, ‘knowledge’ comes to reflect what is profitable for those with economic power. This representation of the truth rarely takes the Earth’s needs into account. Though efforts are made by hopeful environmentalists to create a basic understanding of environmental context, their efforts are vastly overshadowed by the onslaught of corporate advertising and spin.

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Capitalism in Context (Version No.1)


While corporations are busy marketing themselves as environmentally responsible global citizens, scientists warn that global ecological systems are severely destabilized and three planetary boundaries are presently being crossed (biodiversity, climate change and the nitrogen cycle). The confusion created by the gap between frightening scientific reports and reassuring messaging from advertising and corporate media is a good enough excuse to continue shopping, TV watching and generally ignoring escalating social/ political/ economic crises (as long as you happen to be privileged enough to avoid the immediate impacts). Business as usual continues as both knowledge and reason are distorted by market forces. When markets determine what information is available in the public sphere ‘knowledge’ comes to reflect what is profitable for those with economic power. This distorted knowledge rarely takes the earth’s needs into account. While efforts are made by hopeful environmentalists and NGOs to create ecologically and socially beneficial projects and tweak the market to recognize the value of the natural processes, the overall dynamic of capitalism leads to greater ecological devastation.

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American Holiday

Last week I presented an paper on structural obstacles that perpetuate ecological problems. More bluntly, this paper was a critique of capitalism in terms of the manner in which its processes destroy designers’ capacity to create sustainable ways of living. The paper was called ‘Design vs. the Design Industry’ (presently being re-written) and the conference was on spontaneous orders, otherwise known as emergent orders. My trip and the event was sponsored by The Atlas Foundation, a group associated with classical liberals, libertarians or free-market thinkers supporting the philosophies of the likes of Friederick Hayek and Ayn Rand. In contrast, my paper explained why the design industries are unable to make sustainability possible when directed by the systemic goals of the capitalism. Despite the fact that designers have emergent capacities to address larger social and ecological problems, capitalism will continue to direct energies of individual designers towards systemic priorities which are increasingly anti-social and anti-ecological. Continue reading

Socially Responsive Communication at Memefest


 Having just spent a week working at Memefest Festival of Radical Communications on mapping socially responsive communications, I had the opportunity to reflect on what it means to make communications that address societal problems. Oliver Vodeb described seven characteristics of socially responsive communications as a starting point from which the group assembled to build on the theory by creating new maps. While intrigued by Vodeb’s work and appreciating its relevance I believe that something is missing.

Socially responsive communications must also address ecological problems because we are all ultimately completely dependent on the wellbeing of the ecological system for social wellbeing. The consequences of ecological degradation are more keenly felt by the poor and the least politically powerful so the environment is also about social justice. Powerful forces have a vested interest in representations of the nature as ‘resources’ available for industrial exploitation and actively work to suppress communications that challenge this orthodoxy. As the impact of ecological problems increasingly drives social problems, representations of the environment is a primary site of struggle. Continue reading

Mapping Environmental Discourses

Having just finished writing a sub-chapter of my PhD I decided that a new model was needed to address certain problems. I am not going to publish the whole discussion yet. This new diagram attempts to reflect power dynamics and ideological positions of dominant environmental discourses.

The model is premised on the idea that discourses that suit business interests are legitimized at the expense of discourses that more profoundly problematise current industrial practices. To a large extent, the market determines what information is publicly available because communications either take the form of marketing and/or are produced by industries that are dependent on advertising. Discursive discipline marginalizes critical positions. Furthermore, discourses are not always made explicit; vested interests will mask their intentions to influence policy that works in their favour. The green capitalism discourse is hegemonic but as crises continue to accelerate, a more coersive type of ‘disaster capitalism’ emerges (Klein, 2008).

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New Public Thinkers 2010


Blogosphere debates on ‘New UK Public Thinkers‘ inspired some deliberation over the holidays about both the nature of public thinking and those who have contributed in 2010. While considering my options I developed my own criteria. Significant public thinkers must be: 1) doing as well as thinking, 2) developing significant new ideas, and 3) participating in public debate. The criteria are perhaps as interesting as the nominations: what kind of thinking really matters? 

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The Environment is a Feminist Issue



Response to Channel 4


Last night’s ‘What the Green Movement Got Wrong’ documentary launched a Twitter storm of protests to the one-sided misinformation calculated to discredit traditional green values and political projects. The debate on Twitter was entertaining yet unfortunately most viewers will not have been sitting at their computers and will have been subjected less critically to the one-sided polemic that hit the airwaves. Towards the end of the two-part programme the dismal lack of female voices on the Channel Four documentary became apparent and a new sub-theme emerged on Twitter regarding the exclusion of women from the debate.

Channel Four editors claim they could not find any women and that those that they asked refused. I can certainly understand why a woman would refuse to allow herself to have her position misrepresented, ruthlessly discredited through biased, severely selective, and ill-informed journalism. If women environmentalists were enabled to make a document about ‘What the Green Movement Got Right’ we would have a fair platform. Unfortunately, what Channel Four wanted was a few environmentalists to argue their positions in a mosh-pit debate in a little post-documentary forum. By fabricating an illusion of fairness they attempt to escape properly presenting the green arguments. Although some debaters did an excellent job at debunking Channel Four’s corporate green spin – the show still managed to disseminate some deeply anti-green ideas as described by George Monbiot this morning in this blog post ‘Deep Peace in Techno-Utopia.’


The women vs. men issue is not about tick boxing. It is about presenting powerful and dominant political positions as the only perspective in town. It’s about recognizing that power inequalities exist due to historical exclusion of women’s voices from public debate. Ultimately, the environment is a feminist issue.

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War Against Nature in an Age of Austerity

My October started with the ‘Science and Environment Communication’ section at ECREA (European Communications Research and Education Association) conference in Hamburg. Four days of research presentations mostly focused on our abysm failure to protect the ecological health of this planet and to communicate to the public the scope of the problem left me completely deflated. One possible good outcome could be the formation of an International Association of Environmental Communicators, which could function as a body to expose the avalanche of misinformation and deception practiced by corporate entities who have an interest in a certain mis-representation of nature.

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