Confronting Despair in an Age of Denial – with Joanna Macy


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

2012: ‘The World is Not Ending. It is the Opposite’

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

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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‘One Planet’ Olympic Games 2012


The Olympic Games 2012 won their bid partially on the concept of ‘One Planet Olympics’, meaning an Olympics that worked towards lowering its ecological footprint to a level where the earth’s bio-capacity is not diminished. The ecological footprint is a metric that allows us to calculate human pressure on the planet. Tolerance levels are determined by how much stress an ecological system is under due to resource extraction, pollution (including carbon emissions) and other human activities. A key awareness is that critical thresholds can provoke dramatic change and even collapse of ecosystems on various scales. The ‘One Planet’ concept is the challenge of living within the ecological carrying capacity of the earth, essential to avoid risks for civilization that result from destabilized ecosystems.

Unfortunately, the London Olympics Games 2012 are not the ‘One Planet Olympics’. Rather they an abuse of the concept of the concept of living within the Earth’s ecological boundaries. The UK government is spending £11billion+ on the Olympic Games but this same government cannot afford to fund a single independent environmental government watchdog. In 2010 the Sustainable Development Commission, the UK government’s only independent environmental body costing only £3million a year, was abolished. Grandiose green claims and pretensions to aspiring to ‘One Planet’ living are not supported by environmental infrastructure or government policy. Meanwhile the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales is having to dramatically cut staff. At the Olympics the WWF and BioRegional are helping the UK Government whitewash its image by using the ‘One Planet’ standard for an entirely unsustainable Olympics.


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Face Shields and Time2Act Exhibition


On exhibition this week at London College of Communication is a series of eight iconic Face Shields and four panels from the Time2Act exhibition from Climate Camp 2007 at Heathrow Airport. Both bodies of work are important artefacts from the recent history of environmental activism in the UK.

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History of EcoSocial Movements

The ‘History of EcoSocial Movements 1840-1995’ by Charlene Spretnak illustrates the relationship between social movements which ‘profoundly resisted modernity’ versus those that ‘resisted certain aspects of modernity but created only new modernities’.  This graphic maps an array of discursive positions demonstrating interrelationships. The political neutralization of historical social movements demanding structural change informs contemporary analysis of threats to the occupy movement.

History of EcoSocial Movements (1840-1995)


Movements that challenged modernity are above the broken line. Source: Charlene Spretnak, The Resurgence of the Real (Routledge paperback edition, 1999). Colourized and republished with permission from Charlene Spretnak.

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