What is ‘enough’ in the context of climate catastrophe?
It’s a question that haunts us with every piece of packaging in the recycling bin, every light switched off and every car journey avoided. Am I doing enough to prevent further environmental breakdown?
As prevalent as the question is, this is also a problematic framing. The individualisation of the climate crisis – whereby our consumption decisions and personal ‘carbon footprint’ dictate our moral position in relation to planetary shifts – is usually an exclusionary distraction. If we can’t afford a new Tesla, Stella McCartney’s eco-luxury, or to buy our organic groceries from a farmers market, does that make us part of the problem? Or are a majority of citizens fundamentally disempowered by a lack of good options, a lack of income or just a lack of understanding?
Adapting Together, last week’s symposium organised by Future Observatory and ImaginationLancaster, set out to challenge this notion. The event aimed to consider how designers can create and support participation in climate action, and what action really looks like beyond purchasing decisions.
Seated beneath the cross-laminated timber ceiling of Lancaster University's LICA building, the gathered audience of design researchers were introduced to the framing of the day by Professor Jennie Popay from the university's Health Research department. “Social, environmental and climate justice are woven together in a toxic dynamic of causality” she explained. Popay succinctly demonstrated the vast disparities in life expectancy across the UK and their correlations with other factors, such as lethal air pollution, and ascribed these inequalities not simply to ‘deprivation’ but to a more direct ‘oppression’. This was a semantic shift that would reverberate in panels and presentations throughout the symposium. “We cannot adapt equally together if we're not in the same boat”, Popay concluded.
The first of four themed panels was centred around Repair and saw presentations by Irtiza Nasar, a researcher with UAL’s creative computing institute and lead on a Future Observatory DEP project, and Michael Stead, lecturer in Sustainable Design Futures at Lancaster. Both are working on repair programmes with the dual purpose of extending the lifespan of consumer electronics such as laptops to reduce e-waste, the fastest growing waste stream, and democratising access to tools and skills.
Working with London-based NGO Power to Connect, Nasar’s research has facilitated the supply of thousands of laptops from businesses who no longer need them to school children marginalised by digital exclusion. Given the reason most computers are not recycled is because of data concerns, Nasar has developed new software which safely and simply wipes the memory of those laptops, making them suitable for re-use. ‘Electronic chips are not easy to recycle’, explained Nasar. ‘We have to start working with the things we already have by extending their lifespan.’
Stead, meanwhile, runs Repair Shop 2049 at the Making Rooms in Blackburn. The programme provides access and training for Blackburnians to develop an economy of repair in the town, providing immediate skills training as well as speculative design work to propose a wider infrastructure of repair in the future. During the subsequent panel discussion, led by Danielle Purkiss of UCL's Institute of Making, the conversation turned to the role of legislation and its power to 'create friction and inflict change', as Nasar put it, as well as a valuable question from the audience about the potential stigma of re-used goods. In a culture that continues to value novelty over maintenance, why should poorer or marginalised communities be expected to live and work with second hand tech? It’s a question that designers and researchers would do well to take forward as part of ongoing cultural shifts in the context of climate catastrophe.
An audience question also propelled the discussion of the day’s second panel, and signalled something of a gear shift for the rest of the symposium. “Both sessions were about scale and acupuncture, which is a very appealing image and it seems right. But set against the timescale we have for the climate emergency, is it enough?” That question of ‘enough’ once again, asked by former director of the Design Museum and Distinguished Professor at Lancaster University, Deyan Sudjic. Sudjic was responding to presentations by Akil Scafe-Smith of RESOLVE Collective, a London-based practice working between art, architecture, engineering and technology on hyperlocal projects, and Melissa Mean of We Can Make, a community land trust building homes in Knowle West, Bristol.
In his presentation, Scafe-Smith foregrounded the idea of the “site as a resource” in RESOLVE’s practice; a way of valuing tacit, local, even “ordinary” knowledge of the areas where they work, alongside more traditional design approaches. We Can Make echoed this approach: Mean noted that the homogenous design of early-20th century housing schemes in Knowle West created “one size that does not fit all” in the contemporary context. We Can Make’s response does not advocate for demolition and rebuilding (“a social and climate disaster”) but identifies a new supply of land for housing in the neighbourhood's micro-sites, such as gardens and the gaps between houses.
So are hyperlocal responses doing “enough”? For these speakers and those that followed the answer was definitively yes. In response to Sudjic, Mean argued for the value of We Can Make’s work in “making the case” for new ways of building, one of a number of the day's “system demonstrators”, while Scafe-Smith argued there is a valid place for all kinds of action within the multifaceted and interlinking crises we face, and that RESOLVE’s work is enough for the communities where they choose to work. “We're in a realm where our work is hyper-effective”, he argued. “The timeframe for the planet is short, but believe me the timeframe for our local environments is much shorter.”
Sudjic’s provocation was also picked up in the third panel of the symposium, which centred around place. The session’s panel respondent, Immy Kaur of Birmingham-based Civic Square, questioned how change would happen without the “small movements” being presented in Lancaster. She cited the historic example of post-war Britain and the community involvement in the decades of transition required to build the NHS and other social infrastructure which transformed the UK in the last 100 years. “Communities were a fundamental ingredient of societal transition”, she argued, and if we are to move away from an extractive economy today and for the future, communities and other community-led system demonstrators are currently the “missing piece” in that process.
This is a belief shared by Amhara Spence, an artist and founder of numerous projects in Birmingham including MAIA, a Black-led arts and social justice organisation, and Abuelos, a hotel for ‘radical’ forms of hospitality that will support the culture sector in the UK's second city. Spence sees her work as building complex system demonstrators. This was another term which echoed across the symposium and describes prototyping projects which fulfil a particular mission, while providing examples of systems that can be scaled and repurposed across multiple sites. Beyond this, Spence spoke of the importance of art and imagination to enable different forms of liberation and to produce different future realities. “All organising is science fiction”, she argued, citing writer Adrienne Maree Brown, reminding us that “the worlds we are cultivating do not exist yet.”
Following Spence was Laurie Peake, director of Super Slow Way, an organisation which describes itself as “a geography and a process, as well as a programme”. The geography in question is the Leeds-Liverpool canal, a 20 mile stretch of canal that was once fundamental to the machinations of the UK's industrial revolution, a moment inseparable from contemporary environmental damage. Today, Super Slow Way and the areas around the canal host a variety of cultural projects including flax growing for regenerative fashion production and a series of community hubs for sports and creative workshops. Peake highlighted the strong sense of the area's industrial and textile history in these projects, and the organisation’s role in “carving out spaces for communities to make an impact where they live.”
Serena Pollastri picked up this thread to begin the final panel of the day, which brought the discussion back round to sites and issues in the Lancashire area, and was hosted by Mark Davies of Lancaster City Council. A lecturer in Urban Futures at Lancaster University, Pollastri described her academic project to engage young people with research on climate change in Morecambe Bay, seven miles up the road from the symposium hall. Partnering with schools and organisations providing data on the coastal area, Pollastri takes groups of students to conduct their own research in order to gain “basic knowledge and language to be part of the conversation” on their changing environments. “If they start now, they will be able to engage at a strategic level as they grow,” Pollastri states.
Concluding the presentations, Jo Bambrough outlined the work of Good Things Collective, a community-led social enterprise also based in Morceambe: “not an easy place to get things moving”. Amongst Good Things’ activities are numerous projects to change the perception of the area. They seek to present a positive view of a low-income area that is often misrepresented through a gallery space and a gift shop. Bambrough also highlighted the barriers to participation for the community Good Things serves, citing the need to engage people in hairdressers and betting shops as much as classrooms to expand participation.
Bambrough also described a certain skepticism towards “theorising” in place of action amongst the community in Morecambe, which brought the room to a consideration of the role of academia, researchers and their networks in climate action. “We've been researched”, she explained derisively, before highlighting the potential for community organisations to act as more equal partners in research going forward. Kaur concurred, arguing that all research should be distributed beyond the university and should engage in building live demonstrations rather than remaining trapped in papers and conferences.
Which, of course, begs the question, do symposia and other gatherings such as ours in Lancaster do ‘enough’? As she concluded the symposium’s final panel Cher Potter, curatorial director of Future Observatory and the host of the day, proposed one answer: “the best possible outcome of the day is to build more partnerships between the speakers and other researchers”. Indeed, moments later amidst the clinks of the buffet lunch were the murmurs of names learnt, contacts swapped and new futures cultivated.