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.

Further Reference

Climate Futures II event page