Design, Hybridity and Just Transitions

Damian White

How do you define radical hope? I am a little wary of purely transcendental theories of hope since political hope is to a large degree context specific. Our sense of hope is heavily dependent on historical context, shifting events and empirical information, the prevailing ideologies of the time and the broader balance of forces in play. Hope is historical. It ebbs and it flows. Nevertheless, I do think it is vitally important for critical theory to militantly demand that other worlds are possible beyond a mode of fossil fueled neo-liberalism now hurtling towards climate chaos and authoritarian populisms. We presently face a very dangerous moment, where the forces of climate denialism and climate fatalism are both ascendant – particularly in the United States. And elsewhere, the only project that seems to be on the table is a form of green capitalism that sees the decarbonization of the status quo as the only game in town. Even amongst the many radical currents who seek to resist all these currents, there is a politics of low expectations that pervades virtually all climate discussions. We must of course decarbonize the status quo and urgently. But we must also retain our commitment to the emancipatory project and resist this politics of low expectations.

I think that one of the more useful ways to think about hope is in terms of political possiblism. Possibilism can be seen as an approach to critique that seeks to locate hope in the tension between what is and what could be. This is an approach to history that is very central to the thinking of social theorists like Henri Lefebvre, Andre Gorz, Murray Bookchin, Hannah Arendt and Donna Haraway. I would favor here a materialist account of history that is still alert to cracks, contingencies and turning points, openings and possibilities. A good deal of scholarship in feminist science studies, historical ecology as well as science and technology studies has continually emphasized that the current socio-technical world we inhabit was not given. There were all kinds of other routes that could have been taken. There is a lot to learn from this material because it suggests other routes may well still be open to us.

Possibilism argues for an account of agency which recognizes that the histories of subordinated groups in particular – workers, women, indigenous, racialized and colonized peoples – is often a tale of “getting things done under extraordinary circumstances”. It is an approach that suggests hope can emerge from being attentive to all kinds of cracks, crises and contradictions in our current system. Marx allows us to see the ways in which capitalism continually opens up all manner of opportunities for capital accumulation, exploitation, alienation and colonialization.  But Marx always emphasized that capitalism was not simply a force for regression, it could also open up post-capitalist possibilities for other kinds of futures. Such an observation raises the question in what ways might new productive forces produced by green and digital capitalism thrown up new possibilities for a broader emancipatory project that might be delimited or tethered by existing social relations.

It is an approach that argues the future is not simply a story that is determined by fate, sinfulness or climate but that building futures is a political project that we enact, even if we enact futures not under social and ecological conditions of our own choosing. We need to be able to think about futures and we need to be continually alert to counter-trends and surprises.

 Hope is vitally important because authoritarian populism and climate change are causing many thoughtful people to entirely loose hope. For some progressives and radical folk in the affluent world, a view of the future as the apocalyptic Anthropocene is increasingly sliding towards “it’s-too-late-o-cene.” This is a view of the world though that is entirely North centric, stunningly privileged and remarkably narcissistic. There is a big difference between acknowledging our current socio-environmental politics may have catastrophic outcomes if all things remain equal and a politics of catastrophism that presents all things remaining equal as the most likely outcome. We need to be alert to the ways in which Left-green fatalism and Left-green melancholy emerging out of the rich world could be as dangerous to political organization and mobilization as corporate-funded climate denialism.

A viable climate possibilism today must acknowledge the gravity and dangers of our current situation. We really are in deep trouble and we have to acknowledge that our future will take place on a radically altered, hybrid and restless planet. But climate possibilists today must also assert that our political lives and our socio-ecological futures are not determined. There are many ways, still, where we, as active citizens and socio-ecological subjects might build dynamic social ecologies that can mitigate our impact and adapt to the times ahead.

How do you see radical hope emerging or playing out in your case study?A great deal of traditional environmental discourse has present human agency as a problem. I find a great deal of hope in the conversations occurring between design and socio-natural hybridity studies that are trying to think about how diverse kinds of labor can play a creative role in the web of life. These currents are important because they are historicizing our understandings of socio-ecological relations beyond the dualist and homeostatic accounts of 1970s ecology. They are discussions which reject the old deep ecological view of “humans as inherent environmental degraders” but they also resist the Promethean view that sees humanity as only capable of having instrumental and domineering relations with the natural world. In contrast, critical currents of design see to cultivate approaches to building post carbon futures which accent possibilities of co-creating and careful making of new kinds of social ecologies. This is a field that increasingly argues we should not and cannot settle for the proposition that the only options on the table are to embrace catastrophe or accept the need for a technocratic vision of “the good Anthropocene”. Rather, we need a new vision of our possible socio-ecological future that is far better than anything available in the Holocene, for communities, for workers, for all.

Critical design scholars such as Tony Fry, Ezio Manzini, Anne Marie Willis, İdil Gaziulusoy, Ramia Mazé, Gideon Kossoff, Cameron Tonkinwise and Terry Irvin have all argued in various places over the last decade that a re-conceptualized and expanded understanding of design as a socio-material, socio-ecological and socio-technical form of redirective practice for post carbon transitions operating from the spaces of everyday life to planetary ontologies – must become a central progressive imaginary for reconfiguring socio-environmental politics writ large.

In ways that are quite complementary to Haraway figurations –like the cyborg, and has overlap with Marx’s writing in the 1844 Manuscripts, Tony Fry and Anne Marie Willis posit the notion that the anthros cannot be understood through the old Eurocentric humanist lens. But we can usefully understand the anthros as a self-designing species. We prefigure our courses of action and making. We are in turn “designed by our designing and by that which we have designed (i.e., through our interactions with the structural and material specificities of our environments).” This results in a “double movement”, notably we are continually involved in the attempt to design our world but this world, is of course full of its own recalcitrance and agencies, it folds back on us and designs us.

From the perspective of critical design then, the Anthropocene requires us to acknowledge that we live in a hybrid world, a made world, indeed a (mal)designed world and that this is a world where, as Tony Fry says  “Nature alone cannot sustain us: we are too many, we have done too much ecological damage and we have become too dependent on the artificial worlds that we have designed, fabricated and occupied”. But a credible ecopolitical imaginary must render this designed world visible rather than retreat into fatalist romantic environmentalism. But in contrast to Donna Haraway’s anxious view of political agency, Tony Fry argues that a viable climate politics we must center the idea of design as the act of making and remaking. If we understand design, at root as naming “…. our ability to prefigure what we create before the act of creation” this can open up a vision of creative labor and sustainable making and remaking that can move from the intimate sphere, to the household to the garden, the firm and the workplace, the garden and agriculture to architecture, planning, services, production and consumption to the urban future. Life in the Anthropocene then is not about doing less and being less. Rather, it will require that we systematically remake all aspects of our material culture. And this will require in turn that design must be politicized, generalized and transformed.

Design by definition draws into view the question of labour and the central role that the creative laboring subject must play in making and remaking survival futures in common.  The project then that most gives me hope at the moment is the project to build a post carbon transition that connects the struggle of working people for just transitions with radical histories of vernacular making and past traditions of worker centered, participatory and community centered design. The Anthropocene is going to be a world that we make. We need to make this world in common with our fellow citizens and the species and lifeforms that we wish to share the planet with.

Readings:

  • For introductions to the contribution design can contribute to post-carbon transition thinking whilst also increasing our capacities to live well see:
    • Murray Bookchin 1971 “Towards a Liberatory Technology” in Post Scarcity Anarchism. Black Rose Books.
    • Tony Fry. 2009 Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice. New York: Berg.
    • Ezio Manzini 2014 Design When Everyone Designs Oxford, OUP.
    • Anne Marie Willis “Ontological Designing” Design Philosophy Papers. Volume 3, 2005 – Issue 2.
    • Chris Wilbert and Damian White (eds) 2011. Autonomy, Solidarity, Possibility: The Colin Ward Reader. AK Press.
  • For the definitive popular surveys that capture the creative and problematic forces of human agency in historical ecology see:
    • Charles C. Mann (2005) 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Knopf and Charles C. Mann (2011) 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, Knopf.
    • William L. Balée and Clark L. Erickson (2006) Time and Complexity in Historical EcologyStudies in the Neotropical Lowlands.. Columbia University Press.
  • And for still important accounts of socio-natural hybridity see:
    • Donna Haraway, 1991. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Routledge.
    • Donna Haraway (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene Duke University Press.
    • Richard Levins & Richards Lewontin (1985) The Dialectical Biologist Harvard University Press.
    • Lesley Head Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene: Re-conceptualising human–nature relations 2016 – Routledge
  •  For important accounts of creative labor in the web of life see:
    • David Harvey 1996. Justice, Nature and the Politics of Difference. OUP.
    • Jason W. Moore (2015) Capitalism in the Web of Life, Verso.
  • New Knowledges for a New World:
  • MacKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red Verso, 2015 contains many interesting insights for thinking about the epistemological challenges posed by climate change and thinking climate futures through the lens of many knowledges. This interview with Wark is full of interesting and provocative insights:
    • McKenzie Wark & Petar Jandrić (2016) New knowledge for a new planet: critical pedagogy for the Anthropocene, Open Review of Educational Research, 3:1, 148-178,
  • For thinking about counterfactual histories and possible futures, I find the writings of Octavier Butler and Kim Stanley Robinson’s essential.
    • Butler’s Xenogenesis series Dawn (Warner, 1987), Adulthood Rites (Warner, 1988), Imago (Warner, 1989), Xenogenesis (Guild America Books, 1989) provides a stunning anticipation of debates in cyborg and hybrid ecologies. Her books Parable of the Sower (Four Walls, Eight Windows, 1993) and Parable of the Talents (Seven Stories Press 1998) could help us think beyond romantic ecosocialisms and left ecomodernism.
    • Robinson’s Mars trilogy Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993), Blue Mars (1996) provides one of the best literary attempts to think about some of the central issues running through social ecology, deep ecology, eco-anarchism, eco-socialism and beyond. The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) is a stunningly ambitious post-Eurocentric counterfactual history.
  • For accounts of the contributions that trade unions and movements for gender and racial justice can make to the just transition see:
    • Dimitris Stevis and Romain Felli (2015): Global labour unions and just transition to a green economy; in: International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, vol. 15 (1), 29–43
    • Sean Sweeney and John Treat (2018) “Labor as a Driver of the Just Transition towards Energy Democracy”
    • Alyssa Battistoni (2017) “Green-Pink Collar Labour: Revaluing Social Reproduction for Just transitions”
    • Myles Lennon (2017) “Decolonizing energy: Black Lives Matter and technoscientific expertise amid solar transitions” Energy Research & Social Science 30 (2017) 18–27
    • Kyle Powys Whyte (2016) “Our Ancestors’ Dystopia Now: Indigenous Conservation and the Anthropocene” in Heise, Ursula K. et al. (ed) Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities London, Routledge.
  • Finally, for my own attempt to bring the literatures on design and socio-natural hybridity together see: