Ecological Literacy

Part of the Solution

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Climate change is a problem that will require a response from all sectors of society. Once we decide to engage in a meaningful manner with the environmental crisis, design is already primed to change and help inspire systemic transformation. Thanks to the work of researchers in fields studying the interface between ecological systems and human culture we now have the tools to catalyze a transition. Graphic design must embrace its unique ability to facilitate change by engaging with the emergent concept of ecological literacy, communicate key concepts and help initiate a wide-reaching social learning process.1

Ecological literacy is an understanding of ecological systems and an awareness of how society operates within natural imperatives.2 Ecological literacy creates a conceptual basis for integrated thinking about sustainability. Informed by ecological systems, industry is transformed by ideas such as cradle to cradle, waste=food, and the necessity of staying within the current solar income.3



Researchers have developed foot-printing and life cycle analysis tools that can make assessments of the environmental impacts of a system, design, process or product. These tools help communicators develop tangible characterizations of the often mis-used term 'sustainability'. One Planet Living offers a clear vision of living within the planet's carrying capacity. Meanwhile ecological economics offers accounting tools that could be the basis for carbon reduction programmes.5 Communication designers have an important role to pay in making these tools & principles meaningful to diverse audiences and integrating these concepts into the public arena.

We are at the precipice of an unprecedented ecological crisis. The design industry needs to recognize that a societal level challenge to avoid climatic tipping points is different from other issues that compete for industry attention. The speed, scope, and scale of the communication challenge are critical. So far we are losing - evidenced by the significant gap between the proscriptive action recommended by scientists and our collective response. Embedding ecological awareness into the cultural mindset is a formidable task. On a positive note, within this upheaval is the potential for profound renewal.7

Designers will no longer be capable of feigning innocence in an era with a challenge as great as climate change. Design motivates action and our actions have implications; designers are implicit. Design is still part of the problem, but it is capable of becoming part of the solution. It is up to us - now, to make it happen.

Presented at NewViews2 conference in July 2008. Feedback here.
Graphic design by Jody Boehnert. Photography by
Susannah Sayler of The Canary Project.

Footnotes
1 Ezio Manzini, The Scenerio of a Multi-local Society: Creative Communities, Active Networks, and Enabling Solutions. In J. Chapman & N. Gant, eds., Designers, Visionaries & Other Stories. (London: Earthscan. 2007) 78.
2 David Orr, Ecological Literacy. (Albany: State of New York Press, 1992) 92-93.
3 Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest. (London: Penguin, 2007) 182.
4 WWF, LIVING Planet Report 2006. (Switzerland: WWF) 4.
5 Jonathon Poritt. Capitalism as if the World Matters. (London: Earthscan, 2005) 259-262.
6 Thomas Homer Dixon, The Upside of Down (London: Souvenir Press, 2006) 23.


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