Written by Louise St. Pierre, Emily Carr University DESIS Lab
This short paper responds to the DESIS 2020 call to respond to planetary urgency. In particular, I affirm Ezio’s statement that design should be “giving voice to entities that, in themselves, are “voiceless”: a river, an endangered species, an ecosystem.” As a designer who has been engaged in concerns for the environment since 1995, I know that biodiversity is critical.
We are learning that a world without biodiversity does not function; that no people can escape the devastation that will be wrought on a world without ecological diversity. “Biodiversity is just as important for the future of earth as climate change,” said Sir Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental study by the United Nations (Vidal 2019).
In a recent lecture, David Abram estimated that in a world without biodiversity the human species would only survive for two generations (2017). This is despite all of our technologies for renewable power, manufacturing artificial proteins, cleaning air, desalinating water, and (yet-to-be-proven) carbon capture technologies. These technologies, it seems, would be inadequate to sustain life. Only ecosystems filled with diverse plants and animals can do that. Biodiversity gives us clean rivers, healthy food, and clean oxygenated air. In addition, there is something more complex, deep and spiritual at hand: Abram was also saying that human species would suffer from profound existential loneliness without the multitude of unseen lives sharing the earth with us, and that there is an implicit caring relationship between humans and other species, whether we are overtly aware of these relationships or not. Can we begin to prioritize these multiple relationships? Val Plumwood called these multiple centerings (2009); a worldview that acknowledges other species alongside humans. I wonder, what kind of social innovation might multiple centerings offer?
Robin Wall Kimmerer lives in close relationship with other species in her ecosystem. Kimmerer, a scientist and member of the Potawatomi Nation, writes of taking her flashlight out in the early spring’s rainy evenings to safeguard the migration of thousands of salamanders across roads in New England (2015). When she hears a car approaching, she rushes to carry salamanders from the roadway to safety. I don’t know much about salamanders, other than that they are soft-skinned amphibians that look like small lizards, but someone like Kimmerer knows them well. She lives with a deep, planet-centered awareness of the rights of other living creatures. What might the world look like if we all shared these views? How might this worldview inspire social innovation?
Social Innovation for Biodiversity would first and foremost invite the social friction that comes from accepting the needs of other beings, rather than (as enlightened Modernity would have it) brushing the salamanders under the road by building them a culvert, obscuring their needs from view and allowing the people to drive on, oblivious. Perhaps a series of evening ‘tent parties’, where neighbours halt traffic to watch the salamanders parade by? Maybe a salamander watch, where participants come out to count salamanders and a local café sponsors the picnic dinner? A flag crew that halts cars and salamanders alternately? These sorts of responses draw on the DESIS principles of relationality; designing to suit the specific context and to create relationships among communities. When community is known to be inclusive of all beings, whether salamanders, eagles, wombat or platypus, we can expand and grow our DESIS expertise. “With a turn to participation of and partnership with multiple species, the challenges and gifts of participation should be multiplied. (Fletcher et al 2019:201)”. This form of social innovation builds
awareness of the complexities of local ecosystems, the power of biodiversity. It invites us to sit on the ground and be with the earth, learning about other forms of life. It invites widespread social change, and a change of heart.
At Emily Carr University DESIS Lab, we have discovered that prioritizing the needs of the planet is challenging. Funding for research with creatures who don’t have obvious usefulness to humans is scarce. Even when designers set our planet-focused intentions clearly from the outset, it is hard to remain true to those intentions. There is the distraction of technology; the wish to turn things into apps, to digitize information. There is the distraction of the design process itself, a process we all love, with its rich brainstorming, sketches, models, exciting conversations. Sometimes the idea becomes the focus and the design process carries us away. Ideas can become so captivating that we find ways to rationalize them, and before we know it, we have are pursuing projects that diverge from the values we began with.
We urgently need to develop a culture of design that is critically informed about the needs and rights of the planet, inclusive of salamanders and other beings. The Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion (concernedresearchers.org), suggests that we build an ‘activist knowledge ecology’ to help designers clarify priorities. At the Emily Carr DESIS lab, we find that reminders of nature during the design process help. Taking everyone outside (and outside again) is basic. Most of us have been conditioned to a world almost completely divorced from nature. It is helpful to reassert and remind ourselves of the deep spiritual connection to the Earth. Journals, drawings, and other embodied methods for tracking nature are integral to a design process that focuses on the planet. It is also helpful to work with a steward, elder, or mentor. There are ‘Kimmerers’ in every part of the world who are deeply connected to land and place, committed enough to collaborate with a handful of students and designers.
This work is just beginning. It is, as Ezio says, “newer and in need of more discussion.” But anything that
brings designers and people in closer touch with the needs of the planet is profoundly important. And urgent.
(This article is part of a DESIS Conversations 2020, a initiative launched by DESIS Network to raise discussion about the climate and environmental sustainability related to academic and research practices.)
More on DESIS Conversations 2020:
- Social Innovation for the Planet (Ezio Manzini)
- Social Innovation and the Environmental emergency: How Design can contribute in this scenario? (Teresa Franqueira)