Re-Design | Damian White, Dean of Liberal Arts

I began to seriously study environmental questions in 1991. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the insights William Morris and André Gorz offered for thinking through what was then known as “the new politics of ecology.” I had some further vague notion that the spaces between political theory, sociology, design and environmental studies could provide an exciting place to think about unfolding dilemmas. The literature of the time tended to narrate climate change as urgent – to be sure – but essentially dealing with problems of slow times and slow effects distributed across space in complex and contested ways: We need to change course because “future generations” will suffer.

This weekend I picked up David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth. The book essentially argues that the best science we have now is focused on the speed of climate change. From the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet to the uptick in extreme weather events, our climates are now changing radically within human life spans.  It is this speed of change that is staggering and poorly understood. To take one salient point made by Wallace-Wells, more than half of the carbon put into the atmosphere across human history was emitted in the last three decades. Let’s put this in more direct terms, in the time it took me to get from 21 to 51, as many greenhouse gas emissions were emitted into the atmosphere as in all the previous centuries of human inhabitation.

Of course, there is nothing new to much of this story. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been telling us for three decades that greenhouse gas emissions must be cut urgently. Its most recent 2018 report is unequivocal here. To limit warming to 1.5°C global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. Deep decarbonization as a mitigation strategy will define the future. But increasingly, IPCC reports stress that in the best possible circumstances, human life in the post-Holocene will also have to radically adapt to a dynamic, restless and warmer planet.

What could RISD possibly contribute to this discussion?

In public discourse, our climate challenges are still largely presented as a technocratic project or a policy battle. Technology and policy questions are of course vital. However, philosophers working at the intersection of design, climate and aesthetics – such as Yuriko Saito and Tony Fry – have increasingly argued that climate change has also revealed that we have now been irreducibly thrown into an aesthetic, ethical, material and political project of world making.

Let us consider some of the tasks that lie ahead of us and recast these in such makerly terms.

We will have to imagine, design and implement a variety of post-carbon energy infrastructures that are not only multi-functional but attractive, speak to user interests, address energy poverty and land use concerns, and maintain public support. We will have to develop new modes of resource extraction and recovery; develop new processing techniques that are sustainable and just; and recover deep seated knowledge about sustainable materials and lifeways that have been too quickly abandoned. Coastal regions, river valleys and human settlements in low lying areas will have to be made more resilient and robust; repositioned; perhaps moved or abandoned. New climate-resistant and multipurpose architectures, infrastructures, landscapes and urban forms will have to be built and/or retrofitted such that they are flexible and adaptable to changing weather patterns and also meet urgent social needs. Patterns of consumption premised on a cradle-to-grave model will have to be transcended. We will have to imagine a new material culture that takes us from more to better, from ownership to access, from built-in obsolescence to high-quality emotionally durable goods with a long life cycle that can be easily disassembled, reused and biodegraded. Strategies to build an equitable and participatory urbanism will have to be devised to build aesthetically desirable and sustainable housing. We will need exquisite public parks and gardens that can cool our cities, landscapes and agro-food systems that can feed up to 9 billion souls, protect as much biodiversity as we possibly can and facilitate migration of species and people from climate stressed areas. We will need to invent new modes of sustainable mobility, high-quality shared green public goods and many more low carbon pleasures. Less pollution – more poetry. Less crap, more craft.

Design and re-design is vitally important for building survivable futures. But design can’t do it alone. Our climate crisis renders our (mal) designed world visible. It also invites urgent creative thought about how we can combine the insights of the liberal arts, the fine arts and design to unleash the possibilities of different kinds of making and different kinds of collaborative knowledge production that could allow different kinds of post-carbon futures to emerge.

An educational model that combines making and thinking, open-ended experimentation and deep intellectual engagement has much to recommend itself here. This is what we aspire to every day at RISD. In climate stressed times, it could have more relevance than ever.