Jonathan Highfield: I’m Jonathan Highfield, graduate program director for the Masters in Nature–Culture–Sustainability Studies here at RISD. Welcome to Climate Futures: Design Politics, Design Natures, Aesthetics and the Green New Deal.
We should begin by invoking the ancestors and current peoples whose land this school stands upon. Those people include Narragansett, Nipmuc, Niantics, Wampanoag, and the [?] and others whose names have been erased in our books by the violences of colonialism. Thank you for letting us hold this conference on the future of all our planet on your lands.
There are several people who need to be thanked tonight. Thanks to Tina Egnoski, Gail Hughes, and Karen Montecalvo in the Division of Liberal Arts for all their help in putting this symposium together.
We would like to thank Andrew Grant for tech support.
This symposium has been made possible by the generous support of RISD’s Division of Liberal Arts; Matthew Shenoda in RISD’s Office of Social Equity + Inclusion; Joanne Stryker in RISD’s Experimental and Foundation Studies; Timmons Roberts in the Climate and Development Lab at Brown; Mark Blyth and the William R. Rhodes Center for International Economics and Finance; Dawn King and the Institute for Environment and Society at Brown; Timmons Roberts and Damien White’s RISD and Brown students in their Climate Futures, Design, and the Green New Deal seminar; and our NCSS and GAC graduate students. Thank you all.
So I’ve been thinking about what to say to open the symposium, and I got stumped. And so I did what most academics do when they get stumped, I turned on Netflix. And there was this new Mike Birbiglia special, and I like his work a lot. And spoiler for those of you who don’t know him, he’s not a naturalist. He’s not a documentary filmmaker. He’s not a philosopher. He’s a stand-up comic. And I’m chuckling, and the symposium has completely left my head and he says,
I don’t think there should be children anymore. Nothing drastic. I think the current children can see through their term. I just maybe think we cut it off there. Look, we were given the Earth and we failed. At a certain point we have to call it, right?
So, I think one of the joys of being in this space with all of you is that we are not ready to call it. Let’s spin as many crazily-creative scenarios as we can today and for all the unforeseeable futures.
Please help me welcome the Dean of Liberal Arts at Rhode Island School of Design, Damian White.
Damian White: Okay, thank you so much. Welcome to Climate Futures II. So, last November, November the 18th, we held our first Climate Futures event, Climate Futures, Design and Just Transition. Now the motivations for holding this event here were numerous; like all academic jamborees they were produced by the usual mixed motives. I have to acknowledge there was a venial self-interest as part of that mix: we had monsters degrees to promote, and we still do.
But at the same time I think it’s fair to say that it was also produced by a desire for comradeship in dark times, and a sense that in our moment of climate crisis, all institutions that have resources and reach should be doing whatever they can to build diverse communities of engagement, renewal, and resistance.
Climate Futures I was premised on the sense that to move forward the Just Transition was an incredibly important frame, and that this was a frame that had done a lot to draw together labor and the environmental movement in a dialogue. The Just Transition comes, as most of you know, from the labor movement. But we needed richer dialogue still to move forward. Dialogues between labor organizers and environmentalists, but also between scholars, teachers, activists, artists, environmental humanists, designers, political ecologists, scientists, engineers, architects, climate campaigners, and many other diverse publics to have any chance of enacting post-carbon futures.
So the event was many things. It was perfect and it was imperfect. Translations across disciplines, languages, and fields, as McKenzie Wark in Molecular Red most recently has brilliantly argued is absolutely central for sustainable futures. At the same time these points of communication are often hard to do. They’re often hard to do—we speak different languages, we’re positioned in different kinds of struggles. Sometimes we stumbled.
Nevertheless, many of our colleagues afterwards, and our friends and our comrades reported to us that they found Climate Futures I curiously uplifting, okay. So, joy in the face of a world that could be balanced on the edge of catastrophe. So how do we account for that? How might we explain this?
Well, being alert to melting, listening, and breathing comes to mind. This is my little academic bit here. There is of course a great, deep well of historically-informed critical theory that has long maintained it’s at moments of systemic crisis when the contradictions of a particular historico-social formation are most intense. Because as we know as good sociologists, all social formations have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Hmm. Shocking, eh? That possibilities can start to emerge, and then conventional wisdom can unravel. And to use the words of an old 19th century German, you know, all that is solid suddenly can start to melt into air.
A different metaphoric language, though, has been used in the 21st century by someone like Arundhati Roy, who has similarly said that there are historical moments in time where we need to listen carefully. And she has this beautiful, perhaps overoptimistic line, but it’s a beautiful line nevertheless, that
Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing. So listening…melting. I don’t think I need to belabor the relevance of the melting metaphor.
But last year, in retrospect perhaps a certain giddiness to the event was produced by our inability to see history but exist within history. And most notably, five days before our event, on November the 13th, over 250 young protesters alongside a newly-elected congresswoman who hadn’t even taken her seat in the House occupied Speaker Pelosi’s office.
The event, as we all know, was quickly dismissed. There was a set of hot takes by the Very Serious People, to quote Paul Krugman, who were keen to pour cold water on the event. Some people called it a “green dream or whatever.” Okay, fair enough, you know.
The proposition that the public might expect energy transition to be linked to their hopes and aspirations for better jobs or decent healthcare, that a project to decarbonize all might need to be tied somehow to a desire for meaningful work, affordable well-built sustainable housing and childcare, that a sustainable future might require us to build not only high-quality public infrastructure, the design of climate-resilient cities, high-quality green public goods, regenerative rural worlds, was widely seen as loading up the climate agenda. “You’re loading it up. Susan Collins isn’t gonna vote for that. It’s all about the Senate. Focus on the Senate!” Fair enough.
We also knew that Nancy Pelosi, Speaker Pelosi, was gonna bury this new Puerto Rican upstart from Queens in a New York or San Francisco minute. And we knew that these dopey kids with their ridiculous demands, well…another flash in the pan, thanks very much. The end. Okay, so let’s all go home. Okay.
But a year on, the Green New Deal has endured. The obstacles to its realization obviously have not disappeared. Its critics and its detractors are still there. And many of the arguments that have been made are not to be dismissed lightly. But nevertheless the Green New Deal has been propelled forward. And it’s been propelled forward in the most interesting ways. It’s been propelled forward not only by the ongoing and invisible work of the environmental justice community, mostly led by women and people of color who anticipated for more or less two decades now much of the agenda of the Green New Deal. And that needs to be honored and acknowledged.
But also a remarkable regalvanized indigenous rights movement led by indigenous activists and indigenous scholars that has offered us an efflorescence of new writings, new thinkings, new Red Deals, etc. By Generation Greta, and hundreds of thousands of school strikers. And also by the noticeable shift in generational thinking of a younger generation of academics, policymakers, and activists. These people are found in many spaces and places, often precariously employed. But they’re found in spaces not New Compass, Data for Progress, The Democracy Collective, 350.org, the People’s Policy Project, The Design Justice Network, the Indigenous Environmental Network, feminists for a Green New Deal, and Sunrise: still there.
So, all these people have suggested to the Very Serious People that your conventional wisdom about the future is not our conventional wisdom of how things are going to go down. Indeed if your conventional wisdom prevails, we will have no future. So this is the urgency of the battle. This is the tension in the debate. And it’s not going to be easily resolved. But in a fashion that was unthinkable in 2016, most of the candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination have been forced to offer concrete plans to decarbonize the economy. How far that goes is another matter. But nevertheless opinion polls seem to suggest that taken individually, the Green New Deal remains surprisingly popular in many of its policies.
Generational splits are everywhere. Data for Progress recently released a report that suggested a majority of young Republicans believe the federal government is not doing enough to address climate change. As a focal point for discussion, organizing, mobilizing, and rallying, often against, often in the face of vested interests, colleagues here today have again put on some wondrous and quite joyous events at Penn, Columbia, John Hopkins, ASU, Rutgers. That upstart congresswoman who helped amplify this movement has raised more money for a House reelection campaign than any other current House member. And then, broadly speaking the proposition that economy and ecology, decarbonization and massive public investment should be tied together no longer looks so crazy. In fact it’s changed the conventional wisdom.
So. Okay. So the aims of this full-up event, Climate Futures, Design Politics, Design Natures, Aesthetics and the Green New Deal is an attempt to work at the edges, keep a space open for emerging dialogues, and try and refathom where we might go to next.
The Green New Deal is an important moment, but it’s an imperfect, evolving discussion. There are many gaps in the Green New Deal. There are many gaps in terms of theory; it is largely absent. There are gaps in terms of its cultural horizons. There are gaps in terms of implementation, in terms of strategy. The forces of inertia, of business as usual, cannot be underestimated. Dare it be suggested, even in the enlightened worlds of art and design the forces of inertia cannot be underestimated. Foot-dragging, etc. And “beyond my pay grade” and, “what are you talking about?” Yeah yeah yeah, I kinda believe in that but, well…when the rubber hits the road…
So. Anyhow, moving on swiftly. I want to keep my job. There’s much intellectual, cultural, and creative work to do. But it’s really important as well that we leave room for debate, discussion, productive critique, etc. So this event is not about the final moment. It’s not going to resolve nicely fluid disciplinary discussions. But it is going to be a kind of jamboree of kind of conflicting, interesting, diverse perspectives on post-carbon futures and so on.
So I’ll just finish up talking about some of the final little theme points of our event which maybe draw its distinctiveness today. Firstly we wanted to talk about designed natures. We wanted to foreground that. And we wanted to do so because I think we wanted to kind of ask the question, does the Green New Deal call time on the long shadow that 1970s environmentalism has cast over both the environmental debate and the climate debate. And have we reached a moment where we need to recognize that for all its enormous gains, there’s an intellectual legacy there that’s not going to serve us in the 21st century. You know, maybe small isn’t beautiful. Maybe it’s the case that John Muir and so on and so forth did not represent all kinds of peoples and histories who now need to be present. Maybe this movement and its predominant arguments was often blind to class and race issues. Maybe its was working with a deeply romantic, Eurocentric worldview. Maybe there is no return to balance now. Maybe there’s no harmony ecosystems, etc. And maybe we need to kind of acknowledge that there was often a close conceptual proximity, even if unintended, between narratives of scarcity, containment, and limits, and the kinds of neoliberal projects of austerity that have been imposed on people across the globe over the last decade. You know, maybe we need to be a little bit more reflective about that. So, maybe there’s no way back now. There’s no way back to any kind of previous nature.
Secondly, design politics is foregrounded in this. Now what do we mean by that? Design politics, are you seriously talking about design as being in charge of politics? Well obviously not, you know. Design politics is no more the request that designers be in charge of politics than public health is a request that surgeons should run healthcare policy. At the same time, it is an intuition that a Green New Deal in certain respects is very much not just going to be driven by policy alone, and it’s not just going to be driven by mobilization alone. The Green New Deal is going to have to be imagined and built, fabricated and realized, coded and created, planned and proposed, okay. Politicized process of advocacy and organizing, yes, but also of making and planning, of prefiguring and creating, are going to have to occur. And not only are they gonna have to occur, but they’re gonna have to occur iteratively and inventively, again and again and again to build survivable futures.
So this is a very different imaginary that we’re asking people to engage with now. It’s a material imaginary, it’s a creative imaginary, it’s a designerly imaginary in many respects.
And then finally, just to foreground one other element of the discussions today which hopefully we can foreground, it’s aesthetics, and it’s the question of the cultural politics of the Green New Deal. So for all the gains of 70s environmentalism, we think about the aspects of that era, lots of kind of dudes with beards and long hair and you know, joyous sex-type of iconography, wandering around pastoral idylls in Vermont or whatever. Well that was an okay aesthetic for that moment, but we need a very different aesthetic that addresses where we are and where we want to go. So what would that cultural material politics look like? What would it feel like? How would it entice us? How would it be alluring and compelling?
Okay, so I’ll pretty much leave my thoughts there. That’s pretty much what we’ve got. We’ve got five panels today. It’s going to be very intense, so concentrate, people. You’ve got a long day ahead of you. Okay, so let the wild rumpus begin.
Climate Futures II event page