Plastic is everywhere, and it’s here to stay: 2000 years from now if a geologist were to provide proof of the Anthropocene, and of the remains of our civilization, it would be made of plastic: a “technofossil,” the defining trait of this epoch. I realized how much plastic was around in 2008 when I first rowed solo across the Pacific Ocean: to drink, I had to collect and desalinate the ocean water and I noticed that I continuously collected plastic as well. At that time, I was not much interested in climate change; I was trying to answer questions about myself, who I was, and what was my direction in life. Then, I understood that to answer the question I would have to ask myself where the society I live in is going, too. And we can’t answer this question without considering our relationship with nature: because all the issues we are facing are related to that very compromised relationship.
My family comes from a small village of the Valtellina Valley, in the north of Italy. I grew up surrounded by nature, and since the early days of my life, I developed a strong passion for the mountains. As a young adult, practicing sports such as ski mountaineering kept me close to nature. But life went on, and at the age of twenty, I began studying Banking. This is what I like to call “the beginning of the end”: although I had all the tools I needed to build a satisfactory future, I felt something was missing. And that something grew into a tension I could not stomach anymore: two years later after enrolling in university, I participated in a long-distance running race in Morocco, and finally found myself where I wanted to be: in the middle of nature, with people like me, adventurers. And I wondered: how can I replicate this? This is how I became an explorer: out of fear of becoming a stockbroker. Since then, I haven’t done anything else, and my adventures became so challenging that I had to dedicate all my strength to them.
My journey is a spontaneous reaction: the more you are exposed to nature, the more you acknowledge its features, extreme conditions, hostility, and vulnerability, the more you realize its regenerative power. The global warming crisis is the result of an unbalanced relationship between humans and nature: as a natural outcome, therefore, those who live it the most are becoming its ambassadors and spokespersons: explorers and travelers are exposed to nature for work, and in doing so they understand it, and thus know how to take care of it. If you are not exposed to nature, you cannot understand it. If you don’t understand it, you cannot take care of it. It might seem like an obvious statement, but it’s at the core of our broken relationship with nature.
The exploration I’m currently in, the 10 Rivers 1 Ocean project, is a way for me to be in nature, have the chance of experiencing and knowing it even more, but also to raise awareness, by narrowing the gap between science and people as I mentioned before – in order to shift the perspective about the sense of responsibility. Everybody talks about the plastic in our oceans and that eventually ends up in the fish we eat, but nobody is looking for a solution, and this is because the open ocean doesn’t belong to anyone. Incidentally, 80% of the ocean plastic comes from 10 rivers: my goal is to show that we can find the culprit, we can find a solution to this, we can raise the sense of responsibility.
I’m not claiming that exploring these rivers will set us free from plastic, I explore to discover, know, comprehend the reasons why we haven’t found a solution to plastic pollution yet, or to climate change, in the hope that we can peacefully cohabit with what we can’t undo. I don’t really believe in a top-down solution, in waiting for something, whether it’s global policy or a disruptive technology, to save us. We have to save ourselves, and in order to do so we have to make everyone care. How can this be done? The most powerful tool is storytelling: sharing our personal stories with nature, sharing our knowledge of nature, sharing our legacy with nature and restoring our broken relationship with it. Perhaps “broken” is not the best term to use, the truth is that it is probably more accurate to say that it is “nonexistent”: something we lost out of our love for technology. We’re so good at creating and building and doing, that we have replaced nature with technology, thinking that it would be enough. When we realized that, in fact, it is not, we turned back to nature, but since we are homo fabers we try to create artificial natures. We have the competence and abilities to artificially recreate some sort of nature, while in real life we are so far from it.
At the end of the day, we’re a very plain and simple species: the actions we plan are designed for short-term satisfaction, a maximization of the hic et nunc. Being so distant from the future, we can’t imagine which practices to put in place, also ecologically speaking, to meet both our survival and the wellbeing of the human species — something everyone can experience in their real life. Anthropocene may be a recently-coined word, but the concept is nothing new. Its cultural inception dates back to the Bible: the Genesis reads “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground”. This, human’s self-entitled right to dominate nature is the emblem of mankind’s unwillingness to understand nature, and is what slowly led to climate change.
It dates back to 2000 years ago, not only culturally, but also technically and technologically: the inception of Anthropocene lies in the invention of agriculture. Part of the reason why climate change is not being tackled lies in the very nature of climate change: on one side, it’s something we have a very limited experience of, as its logic and features go well beyond the lifespan of our species, but also because there is no identifiable culprit: and this makes people uninterested when it comes to thinking about how to solve the issue. Something which is not the case when it comes to plastics: plastics became the symbol of climate change, not only because it’s an emblem of the technological acceleration, but also because it does have a very identifiable culprit: us.
Carbon Dioxide Removal is no news, but it never reached a commercial scale. Swiss-based start-up Climeworks is to be the first company to do so worldwide, leveraging the technology to supply to customers the removed CO2 and unlock a negative emissions future. We discussed it with Louise Charles.
In February 1979, at the World Climate Conference in Geneva, scientists from 50 nations unanimously agreed that it was urgently necessary to cut emissions. It’s now 2019: what happened — or hasn’t happened — since then?
What hasn’t happened is that the world has not achieved the emissions reduction it had planned on, almost using up the very limited carbon budget that was left. Climeworks is one of a handful of companies worldwide working on direct air capture (DAC), that captures CO2 directly from the air. It was founded in 2009 by two mechanical engineers who worked under the premise of DAC being needed by the world to be able to meet climate targets. In recent months, several climate reports (like the IPCC Special Report, and a National Academies of Science report) have clearly stated that to stand any chance of meeting climate targets, we as a planet need to do everything we can to reduce emissions. But reduction alone won’t be enough: on top of emissions reduction, we also have to actively remove the CO2 that is already in the air. That is what Climeworks is working on.
Are the reports you mentioned valuable for businesses and solutions like your own, or are you really having to prove yourselves rather than be suggested by reports?
The reports were instrumental: for the first time, we had external validation of what we were doing. Earlier, there were lots of skeptics; lots of people thought our idea was neither technically feasible nor economically viable. A decade later, reports clearly state that we not only need it, but that it is technologically possible, too.
What is a NET, and how long has this technology been around for?
NET stands for Negative Emissions Technology, a technology that can produce negative emissions. There are different ways to do that, and DAC is one of them: it captures CO2 directly from ambient air, using engineered chemical reactions. CO2 capture per se has been around for a long time, but on a very small scale — like in submarines or in space shuttles — places where humans needed to breathe for long periods. What’s different with NETs now is their scale: they can capture much more CO2 than before and can be used on a commercial and industrial scale.
Where’s the best location for a DAC technology plant?
DAC can be built wherever either renewable energy or energy-from-waste is available.
For our Direct Air Capture & Storage (DACS) plants, alongside an energy source, we also require a storage site, where the CO2 can be injected and mineralized.
What do you mean by “mineralize the CO2” ?
In Iceland we have a pilot plant where we capture the CO2 and mix it with water. We then pump the fizzy water underground, and a chemical reaction between this fizzy water and the basalt rock formations turns the CO2 into stone — meaning that the CO2 is permanently and safely removed from the atmosphere.
What about other NETs? Why is DAC technology better?
We don’t see DAC as the only solution to this climate problem. Rather, we see ourselves as part of a portfolio of different solutions, and we need all of those solutions working together to stand any chance of making these climate targets.
That said, there are benefits of DAC over other ways to remove CO2. Take afforestation, planting trees: trees do precisely the same thing as DAC machines do, they absorb CO2, but with trees there is a matter of land and water use. To be able to plant as many trees as we need at climate-relevant scales, we would require a vast surface area – almost the size of Europe – and we would require a huge amount of water, too.
Is there an optimal amount of CO2 we want in the atmosphere, or is it something which is always going to be changing as we increase our emissions?
It’s likely that it’s always going to be changing. CO2 concentration in the air is currently almost 410 parts per million, which is the highest level ever in human history. And with CO2 being a heat-trapping gas, it’s one of the main drivers of global warming. The more CO2 in the air, the quicker temperatures are going to rise, so the greater the need to limit the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Are we looking for pre-industrial era levels? What is the end goal?
Within the Paris Agreement, the goal is to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5-2° increase since pre-industrial levels. From our perspective, by removing significant amounts of CO2, we hope to be able to help achieve those climate targets.
How do you market carbon? Is it natural for people to buy carbon?
Currently, we are active in three markets. The first is the food, beverage and agriculture market: they are huge users of conventional CO2 and are now interested in using DAC’s more sustainable CO2. CO2 can be sold to greenhouses – which use it as a fertilizer for their plants – or to the beverage industry for carbonation. Then, there’s the still-developing market of renewable fuels and materials; creating renewable synthetic fuels using air-captured CO2. A third market is carbon dioxide removal. An example of this is our aforementioned plant in Iceland: its business model is that of being a service meant for anyone, both corporations and individuals, wanting to reverse their emissions.
Will Climeworks carbon get cheaper as time goes on or is it already cheap? What motivations would industries have for buying it, apart from ethical reasons?
The companies who’ve chosen to use Climeworks CO2 have done so because it is a more sustainable source of CO2, and they are interested in supporting the further development of this technology. In terms of pricing, yes: the price will come down in the coming years. Our target is to be able to capture one ton of CO2 from the air for 100 US dollars or less.
Can climate change be reversed with such technologies?
In theory, yes. That’s the ultimate long-term goal.
And in practice?
In practice, time will tell how quickly we are able to scale up to become truly climate-relevant.
Along with our data, these platforms have created high-security prisons, which entrap and enslave us. Our privacy and individual freedom is violated. Companies have created detailed profiles on each and every one of us, not only to predict our next actions, but to shape those actions. Our thinking and behavior is digitally-engineered and manipulated. Our societies are divided and our democracies are at risk. How do we get out of this mess? How do we regain our freedom? How can we change the status quo and fix a system that is fundamentally broken?
We can agree that our world is better when human rights are protected, but passing laws to protect citizens’ rights first requires acknowledging a violation of rights. Unfortunately, people have become accustomed to a world where they don’t have control over their identities and data. But once you are directly impacted by identity theft, this problem shifts from abstract to reality. Like being one of 147 million US residents who were impacted by the Equifax hack.
The era of ‘surveillance capitalism’ began in 1968, when, despite public protests, credit agencies like Equifax began linking consumer data with government-issued Social Security Numbers (SSN). Unless one opts out of the financial system, there is no way to get away from this situation. The 2017 Equifax hack compromised the personal data of half of the US population — and for those unlucky citizens, the impacts of this compromised data situation might be experienced for decades. What’s surprising is that Equifax says that only “customer” data was compromised, however, I was never a customer, nor have I ever knowingly done business with the company.
What is Self-Sovereign Data?
Imagine a new world where data is owned and controlled by the people who create and embody it. That is self-sovereign data where humans have ownership and control over their identities and data and this is seen as an irrevocable human right.
If we rely on a few companies to control all of our data and use that to algorithmically feed us only the information deemed most relevant for us, we are staring down a barrel, while a few monopolists have their finger on the trigger. In a free society, we need to give humans a choice about how they will participate in the digital world.
Does your digital footprint make you nervous? That is probably because you don’t know what data about you is out there and how it is being used, or exploited. But imagine a world where you own and control your data, where you are no longer nervous about your digital footprint, and see it as a valuable asset.
Every piece of data about you — like websites that you visit, your searches, heart rates from your smartwatch, and how you drive your car — is a valuable asset that should be stored in your personal data vault. This vault would automatically collect information from the devices and services that you use through APIs, and put it in a securely distributed file-storage system to create an ever more valuable data set that belongs to you — and only you would hold the keys to it.
How can we create value from personal data?
If data was considered a new asset class it could be grouped across different personas, like financial data, health data, mobility data, and so forth. You could also aggregate select data into individual data pods, or secure data containers that could be described with metadata. These data pods would hold specific data, which is relevant for certain use cases.
This would get us away from a model where we have to accept one-sided terms and conditions where we “consent” to giving away the rights to our data. Sharing a photo wouldn’t mean granting a company access to all of the photos on your phone. With data pods, you could create secure data containers and only grant business partners access to specific data, for specific cases, and during specific time periods.
For example, imagine if you were looking for cheaper car insurance? You could give a data pod access to “vehicle” which would hold your vehicle identification number, model, year, and mileage. Another data pod could hold data such as how many miles you drive per year, and if that is mainly in urban areas, highways, or country roads. If you believe in usage-based insurance, there could be a specific data pod with your driving behavior. You could invite select insurance providers to make you a competitive offer based on this data, that — as defined in a smart contract — you make accessible to them only for the purpose of a proposal. You could invite four different carriers to give you a quote, and as soon as you select an insurance provider, the data access for the other three would be revoked automatically.
You could think of such data pods as tangible assets that you could own, trade, and program.
How would you monetize a data pod?
Today, data is a product we can’t sell, and a currency that we can’t spend. The predominant business model in the World Wide Web today is an advertising-based, “free” service. We give away our data in exchange for free services and that is a problem.
Facebook, Google, and others essentially eliminate the market mechanism to put a price on data. They hijack our data, mine it, and sell our attention in the form of targeted 1:1 business advertising. So, not only don’t we have control over our data. It has also become a currency we can’t spend.
We need to think about data as a fungible asset with a market price, just like a barrel of oil. And for that, we need to standardize how we describe, and create a market mechanism for how we price and trade data. Consumers should be able to offer their data. Brands should be able to discover that data using metadata, and make offers to access individual data pods in exchange for tokens.
Data pods could not only help you regain control over your data as a valuable asset. They could create a new unit of measure and use tokens to turn our data into a fungible currency.
The monetization of data is an important tool to create a data economy that benefits all. But making money from our data is only one aspect. We can use our data to train our personal AI. Its only purpose would be to improve the state of the world in the interest of greater good. Now we all benefit from our personal data. Now we can all win in the future data economy.
What is more, most companies will also win in this model. By embracing self-sovereign data, corporations can create friction for platform monopolies whose business model is based on collecting user data. At the same time, trusted companies and brands can suddenly get access to personal data that is beyond their reach to become more relevant for consumers and drive engagement. In addition to that, regulations such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) require companies to obtain consent from users to process their data. With data pods and smart contracts, brands get verifiable proof that a consumer provided that consent.
It sounds counterintuitive at first, but if you think about it, by giving consumers control over data, everybody wins — with the exception of platform monopolies that hijack and hoard our data. A few years ago, Google said that privacy was dead. A few weeks ago, Mark Zuckerberg said that “The Future is Private.” The problem, however, is that a future where consumers own and control their data is completely at odds with these companies’ business models, and when you review privacy settings, you see how complicated they are.
This ongoing debate is shifting the way we as a society think about data and privacy. In a few years, we will look back at surveillance capitalism in the same way that we see smoking inside offices and restaurants. If we get these three pieces of the puzzle right — regulation, social ethics around the use of data, and new technologies — we will see a movement develop that will change the world for the better. And in fact, most corporations should also become passionate advocates of such a model. Self-sovereign data should be a human right.
The myth of the noble savage seems to have reversed course in the last centuries: noble used to be the man who was nurtured in nature, away from society. Now, noble is the man who, having foreseen the abyss of modern life approaching, deliberately retreats from society. Returning to nature is more popular than ever: is the cabin the best place to have a privileged look at this era? In conversation with Leonardo Caffo.
Great acceleration, climate change, anthropocentrism, end of the world. What’s your definition of Anthropocene? Does it make sense to talk about it or is it just a philosophical blunder that is taking us on a wrong road?
It’s a complex issue. The posthumanist philosopher Rosi Braidotti argues that we should talk about “anthropomeme” rather than Anthropocene – a neologism which includes a wide range of definitions: Capitalocene, Chthulucene, Anthrobscene, Plasticene. All these descriptors have the absurd claim of superimposing the destiny of the Planet with our own, as if geological epochs and our era coincided. The Anthropocene is, at most, a metaphorical framework to work in, something with no clear geological foundation. What’s widely accepted is the concept of Anthropocene to describe, philosophically, and conceptually, how humans have transformed and accelerated the destiny of this planet and made it happen more quickly than it was supposed to. With the paradox that, if humankind is part of nature and our intrinsic nature is that of consuming resources rather than preserving them, all this was probably somehow part of the natural order of things already. Undoubtedly what the Anthropocene describes is its unexpected impact on anthropocentrism, meaning on our habits and practices. My perspective, however, is different: I find it more interesting to understand the operation of the totally ineffective strategies developed by those radical thinkers who acknowledged the end of humankind’s centrality in the world. For them, the issue can’t be tackled by “staying human,” but rather by thinking out of the traditional forms of associative life. With the idea that today’s minority views are the only solution for the future.
You criticize the idea of nature as being something “other” than society-related. In this perspective, not only nature wouldn’t be natural, but there wouldn’t be a nature’s “point of view” either. Which, by the way, would make any form of ecologism, environmentalism, or civil disobedience vain. From this view, comes the idea of wild nature as the place to return to. It’s a paradigm — the only one possible — which you faced through the interpretative model of the cabin.
There’s a vast, underground literature devoted to cabins, made of blogs, Instagram accounts, and specialized publications. “Cabin porn” is an archetype that describes the current tendency to isolate oneself to more closely re-connect with nature. I’m talking about people who have left their cities and social life to retire in the woods or a desert and have built a shelter with their own hands there. What matters to me, is the pivotal importance of some attempts in human history, which radically opposed the traditional line of progress. The first example of this is Henry David Thoreau’s cabin. The year was 1850; the Industrial Revolution was at its early days, the Fordist system had yet to come, electricity was available only in a few houses. The future was not there yet: it was being foreshadowed. Thoreau sensed that the light that had come on was the beginning of the end. He realized that that huge collective effort to make our lives better was doomed to make it worse, and understood that most things his contemporaries were striving for were not actually necessary. So, he left the scene: at the age of 28, he left the city, built himself a cabin in the woods around Boston, and started looking for another model, a more radical one, to carry out his existence. His legacy is Walden, a book-manifesto where he recounted his experience in the woods, seeking for a more intimate relationship with nature, far from a society that did not represent the true values one should follow.
The second cabin is that of Theodore Kaczynski, known as Unabomber. He’s always been characterized as a terrorist, but very little has been said of his philosophical thought.
This is where things get interesting. The whole story took place in the ’60s and ’70s: the digital age was gaining ground the US society, the first computer stores were popping up everywhere and what had been prophesied by Thoreau (technological slavery) was coming true. That was still an early age, and computers were not “personal” yet. Kaczynski found inspiration in Thoreau’s work and realized that the enemy was not only the industrial system but also the distribution system. It is no coincidence that his first attack targeted a computer store a few steps away from his house. Theodore Kaczynski was a remarkable character: at the age of 26 he was an associate professor at Berkeley University, had a very high IQ, and had managed to solve a 200-year old unsolved geometric function theory problem. Two years later, he quit it all and built himself a cabin in Montana. In this case, radical thinking became an opposition to something that was happening within society. Again, the underlying idea was that all you need is within the cabin.
Like Thoreau, Kaczynski also isolated himself from society and wrote a manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future.
A manifesto which was half published half in the New York Times, half in the Washington Post. The thesis unfolded there is that industrial society may survive or collapse, but it’ll be a catastrophe in both cases. In other words, Kaczynski put us at a crossroad we don’t think of much often: however it goes it’s going to end up in tragedy, because industrial society doesn’t have a real goal, it’s programmed to forge ahead, without aiming a specific direction. Kaczynski stated: if industrial society survives, we will no longer have private spaces, we’ll just work on and on, we’ll be subject to the digitalization of our personal memories, we’ll lose any sort of connection with nature, and we’ll destroy the planet. Then, he strongly criticized liberals, feminists and ecologists, three advanced forms of reformism which in his opinion were doing nothing but sugaring the pill. For Kaczynski humankind can’t “win” rights, but rather owns them by nature. He questioned the fact that mankind, already enslaved by technology, has become unable to do anything: people no longer know how to build a house, grow vegetables, or hunt. It’s a rupturing, powerful and dangerous thought. It’s no coincidence that what Kaczynski wrote in jail was classified until 2100.
The third cabin is that of Le Corbusier.
And that was a crucial moment for our own history, because Le Corbusier built his cabin at the age of 90. We’re talking about a man who had a deep knowledge of life, was an authority of Modernism and one of the founding fathers of modern city planning. He theorized the “house” as a “machine to live in,” and his projects contributed to the creation of an anthropocentric industrial space. But in the last years of his life, he suffered the opposite fascination and retired to a cabin on the French Riviera. Paradoxically, he represents the failure of his own project: as if what really mattered was not integration, but detachment from society. Again, also with Le Corbusier, the space dedicated to radical thought is a sort of cave.
The cave model is an extreme attempt to deal with topics such as Anthropocene, anthropocentrism, transhuman, transhumanism under a different perspective: it’s a quest for a way out.
Interestingly, we resigned to the idea of a forthcoming climate disaster, and are giving up the battle against ourselves. We constantly tell each other we only have 12 years to stop the apocalypse, but at the same time we say it’s impossible. Cabins are a cry for action and force us to reset our ethics system. Kaczynski stated that often throughout his manifesto: are we sure that ethics itself is not a product of industrial society and technology? A cabin is not a shelter for individualists to retire and fight their personal battle, but the place to go back to and live, without questioning the meaning of things, in the certainty that at most you can change your world, but not a complex geopolitical system.
Since the early days, design has wondered what its role was, in the impossible quest for an unambiguous and permanent definition.
One of the most well-known tentative definitions is by Tomás Maldonado: for him, industrial design is “a creative activity whose aim is to determine the formal qualities of objects produced by industry.” In this view, the value of form and the relation to industry are the two pillars that should guide a designer. Unlike craftsmanship, there is no design without industry as a provider of large-scale reproducibility.
The Great Acceleration — the most recent phase of the Anthropocene, that began in in 1945, when humankind’s impact on the global ecosystem became increasingly strong, has raised new questions, placing production sustainability at the center of the debate. Our intrusion on nature occurs in two distinct, but complementary ways. On one side, we produce goods and services that require enormous amounts of resources and energy; on the other, we profoundly impact nature to get better performance. Therefore, the need to find a balance between these components becomes crucial.
In this scenario, the approach of critical design, which leverages design fiction and speculative design to challenge our theories and preconceptions on the role of objects in everyday life, becomes interesting. Popularized by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, critical design thinks outside the logic of production, sales or strict utility, in a perspective that raises ethical, social, and environmental concerns. The basic idea is to reflect on human activity, trying to anticipate, and in some cases, test, the direction the world could take. According to Dunne and Raby, there are three different ways to deal with these issues.
Designers tend to act in the realm of “probability,” the area of the future that will happen unless there are changes big enough to disrupt the normal flow of things. The outcome of this may even be radical, but it always moves in the direction of what is viable with the existing technology and business models. A second realm is that of “plausibility.” Here, the designer’s action is based on a vision of the world that’s been disrupted by unexpected events. These changes may be economic, environmental, or social, what matters is that they force us to confront a reality that’s been deeply disrupted, and that must be addressed by extreme solutions. Lastly, there’s the realm of “possibility”: in this case, the designer looks to a prospective world, reached through a traceable and credible path from the scientific and technological point of view. This transition from present to future is the realm where critical design operates.
This radical branch of design offers many elements of interest. The first resides in the will to open up one’s research field to other forms of investigation. Designers work in close contact with scientists, philosophers, chemists, and biologists, to expand the range of possibilities, freeing themselves from the mindset of a single industry. In this scenario, the complexity of the era we live in can’t be managed by a single player with vertical skills.
The second element is the lack of judgment: critical design is not meant to criticize, but to trigger a debate on relevant topics. For a designer, a product becomes real and reaches its maximum expression when it gets distributed and purchased. In critical design, instead, there are no products but probs, which become real when they convey a vision of reality and trigger a reflection in the observer. Critical design, by generating alternatives, can help people construct compasses rather than maps for navigating new sets of values. The most interesting element, however, is its approach to exploration. This attitude manifests itself in the desire, typical of design fiction, to look at the future free from production pressures or from the need to provide industrial or commercial solutions. On top of this, there’s a strong attachment to reality and the extreme attempt to interpret it.
But what will the objects of the future look like? Dunne and Raby suggest starting from the realm of “probability,” a world where design is more inclusive. In this scenario, humans wouldn’t be the exclusive users anymore: nature and robots would, too. At that point, the main challenge would not be merely productive, but interpretative: we would have to decipher the complexity of relationships that the goods intertwine.
This new paradigm doesn’t focus on mass production but on quality production. Design is not a “self-conclusive” practice anymore: products become the core of a relationship that the business world will try to weave into an increasingly lasting relationship with people. If we were to enter the realm of “possibility,” the survival of business and society models as we know them today could threaten the very existence of design.
From a scientific perspective, the Anthropocene is part of the geological record that marks the aggregate impact of more than seven billion human beings on the Earth system. In other words, our species is leaving a geological mark, on Earth itself, and in the future, it will be evident that humans were here. In this context, we could say that science is focusing on the -cene, that is, on measuring this impact and its consequences for the planet. The humanities, meanwhile, are focusing on the anthropos- by trying to answer the following questions: who is the “man” outlined by this new era? What are “his” defining features? And, how do these features also define, in part or in whole, Humans? Certainly, critical scholars have been enthusiastic about pointing out that the term Anthropocene threatens to collapse differences among various human groups by categorizing them all under the same epoch, and thereby, implicitly or explicitly, making them all equally responsible for the consequences humans leave behind as a species. But, is this really what the term Anthropocene does? Or, more precisely, perhaps, does humanity really need the discourse of the Anthropocene to promote or sustain inequalities?
We approach the issue from another perspective: if we look at the anthropos– in the term anthropogenic, and the anthropos– in the Anthropocene, the referent is the same. Why? Because these two anthropos- coincide in space and time; these two conceptions of the human are fundamentally the same. It is interesting that when the term anthropogenic made its way into the climate change debate in the ‘70s and ‘80s, no critics were concerned about this leveling of the anthropos-. No one suggested that climate change was actually capitalogenic or plantationogenic. Why? Because the anthropos- of the Anthropocene is a definition of the human as such. What does it mean to be human in relation to nature? Scholars in the Higher Education Industry want to answer this question, and define the Anthropocene, because, at the end of the day, this allows them to make claims on what it means to be human; in contrast, the anthropogenic is merely an ongoing process — but doesn’t define the species, nor does it help advance any scholar’s edgy academic brand, nor offer new fodder for any of the dying disciplinary skirmishes that constitute what we still call, amusingly, “academic debate.”
So, while a change in the definition of who or what humans are as a species is potentially consequential in terms of philosophical concepts and political convictions, the discussion has so far, for the most part, resulted in imbecilic and moral debates about whether we are a good or bad species, and whether the mark we leave on the planet can be turned into a universally positive form of agency, or not. Instead, we think one useful conceptual step would be to shift some of this discussion toward the concept of anthropo-supremacy. This move away from petty quips about –centrism, which is not really a problem from a conceptual point of view, to -supremacy, requires a change in perspective about the human species: we have always indulged in the idea of us being at the top of the evolutionary phylum because of our intelligence, but we have underestimated the dangers which accompany this presumed intelligence, such as self-destruction. In fact, as far as we know, nearly every species (more than 99% at least) that has lived on Earth has eventually become extinct; humans are just doing it much more quickly, to themselves, and to more or less every other form of life, because they are so very clever. But this cleverness, which is the result of numerous contingencies of evolution, also suggests, perhaps, that there is a chance to slow down the process of our own extinction. At least, in principle, this seems possible if we can understand the myth of our absurd species supremacism.
So, with this distinction in mind, we also introduced into our work the use of proximal demonstratives when discussing the Anthropocene in order to help shore up a certain conceptual specificity. We can only have this Anthropocene, in the same way, we could say that there’s a Mexican Anthropocene, a Malaysian Anthropocene, or a European Anthropocene. The geographical specificity is a way of saying that the Anthropocene is always instantiated somewhere that makes the meaning, texture, and substance of the human signature different, localized, and specific. We want to recognize the plurality of forms and means that constitute human impact, as well as the asymmetrical conditions between the north and the south, the rich and the poor, men and women; of course, between and among any number of culturally, ethnically o racially categorized bodies. From that perspective, the definition of the term is not as relevant to us as the mode of navigation we use to locate ourselves and our work within this Earth system.
Museums of natural history are temples of anthropo-supremacism: they project an image of Man as standing above nature through a series of different tropes, plots, and platitudes that are put in place both to hierarchize and securitize the presumed “natural” orders: man over nature, man over woman, adult over child, white over black, state over non-state, etc. But let’s be precise: that museums create an image of nature to sustain these hierarchies is not a problem because it is “anthropocentric.” Again, the problem is that the museum promotes an anthropo-supremacist image of nature: it is a form of supremacism that takes the idea of evolution and, rather than considering the human as a species that fell out of the bottom of the blind and contingent sifting process of evolution and accidentally gathered up the qualities that are necessary to develop a fairly complex, socialized brain, insists that humans grew out of the top as some ascendant apex species entitled to planetary predation and domination.
To better situate this dispute, we can briefly turn to an argument first posited by Freud. In his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, he explained the implications of psychoanalysis by situating psychoanalytic practice in a series of three humiliations, or, “narcissistic illnesses,” of Man: first, the Galileo humiliation, wherein the reality of a heliocentric system dislocated Man from the center of the universe; second, the Darwin-Wallace humiliation, where Man no longer has a God-given dominion over the world, but is (merely) the outcome of a random process of evolution; and, third, the Freudian-Psychoanalytic humiliation, according to which Man is not even transparent to himself. We can ask if this series is now extended even further: is the Anthropocene the fourth humiliation of Man? In the Anthropocene, not only are humans decidedly not psychically self-transparent, not divinely anointed to rule the plan, and not the center of the universe – but, even worse, perhaps – even when humans witness the aggregate destruction of their own activity, they appear to be fundamentally incapable of responding to the threat they pose to their own species: humans simply cannot stop themselves in the face of their own acceleration toward extinction.
Among this series, the Darwin-Wallace humiliation is particularly important with respect to our practice because it has shaped the image of nature through museum culture: this is key technology that compensates for the “humiliation of evolution” through a necroaesthetic substitution. The natural history museum becomes the site where Man presents nature to himself (i.e., necroaesthetically) better than nature presents itself, and thereby asserts His domination by other means. Every time one walks through a natural history museum, they repeat the biblical myth of Adam naming the animals through a series of secularized gesture, scenes, and configurations. This is a very powerful psychological technique that works to instill a conviction of anthropo-supremacy; it is a model that uses the trope of appreciation to engender a relationship of domination.
What would a natural history museum designed from non-anthropo-supremacist principles look like? How could it be organized? If we think about this clearly, the answer is almost ridiculously obvious: it would look like a forest, a living forest, with living beings living together, where plants would be growing free, and people would use them, share their knowledge about them, and build generational memory through practice and care. It would look like this because it would be this: a living forest. A living planet, even. It may sound strange, but we believe this aspect of our research is especially important: many, many people are extremely attached to the image of nature that natural history museums produce and promote. That is because, in the absence of any tradition of natural heritage, or any intergenerational and thereby transferable (inheritable) experience of natural processes, there is instead a conservative and frequently reactionary effort to maintain the image of nature conveyed in natural museums. How can we evade the vicious circle that perpetuates a necroaesthetic, conservative experience of the natural world that seeks, in turn and above all else, to preserve a distorted and dangerous image of nature?
In the context of our practice, these have become some very pressing questions in numerous projects that we are now working on. For example, how could the emergence of certain novel ecologies, particularly in coastal areas such as in Florida, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, change the trajectory of climate change for coastal settlements? How could the production of new forms stewardship, such as climate integrity land trusts – conceived as operative, living, natural history museums – help to redefine the human-nature relationship? Could we depart from the ways of viewing that are perpetuated by natural history museums and instead shift the human point of view to consider different kinds of natural environments or novel ecologies as more dynamic and consequential? In Florida, for example, as millions of residents have to move from the coasts, we are investigating if they would be willing to donate, sell, or otherwise transfer their properties in order to create aggregated plots of contiguous land that can be replanted as coastal forests and thereby build a natural legacy that isn’t dead and posturing, but instead is growing and increasing in value in dynamic ways.
These are cultural and political and scientific hypotheses: they require testing through the design, development, and deployment of new tools, platforms, and interventions. They cannot be tested as mere thought experiments, nor will thought experiments produce the necessary failures we need to design better and more compelling tools. To speak to one recent example that is close to us because of our commitments in Indonesia: when the government in Jakarta announced that, due the increasingly problematic floods in the capital, they will build a new capital city by deforesting even more of the island of Borneo and effectively abandoning the residents of the former capital to climate change and perpetual inundation, we can see one paradigm for the human legacy and impact in the Anthropocene: run away. The other, of course, is to double down and continue to build against nature’s own tendencies. But there would need to be something between complete militarization/securitization and total abandonment: we would need to meet the ecology halfway, which is actually something we have done as a species for millennia.
Let’s take another example to clarify this proposition: Venice, a city which is the result of numerous but difficult-to-detect processes: it was conceived and built over hundreds of years as a unique way of integrating the human into this lagoon ecology. Of course, since the beginning, it flooded, but it also afforded all kinds of securities: it was settled because it was a defensible area that couldn’t be attacked on either side by cavalry or large ships. It was too muddy for horses and too shallow for larger boats of troops to enter. Today, of course, people now think that building in the lagoon was an aesthetic feature, but this is absolutely not the case. Venice looks like it does because it is functional in the context of fifth-century self-defense. People today only see the aesthetic remnants of an existential choice but mistake them for decorative decisions. Like Venice, Jakarta is experiencing many challenges: Venice was not designed to host 25 million tourists a year, nor were Jakarta’s canals designed to process the sewage of 35 million residents. The typical design and engineering solutions used to respond to these problems are too frequently focused on path dependencies, when it is far more challenging to think about path inheritance: we have inherited the modality of the canal system in Jakarta or Venice, but how can we build into that, or work with what we inherit in a way that augments the situation?
The Anthropocene is a geological record of humans antagonizing and modifying the planet and recognizing the profound depth of their abilities to do so; but, it will also be the record of the actions that followed from this recognition. That story is only partial, and its conclusion is yet to be written: it will either be the record of a dramatic change in human society, which would probably also be discernible geologically, or it will record business as usual and the mass extinction that accompanies this approach. Relative to the speed of perception of the environmental collapse of other species, it appears the geological story is being written rather quickly. Humans could appreciate that speed of change or continue to ignore it. The question is how to take the scientific analysis into cultural and political forums and to initiate a broader public conversation about what is happening and what to do about it. This is where cultural practices have largely failed: the assumption was too often that the becoming-policy of science was a matter for technocrats and did not require cultural interpretation. Let’s stop doing this. We are working to shift the cultural response to major environmental reports (IPBES, IPCC, etc.) so that they can become foci for public conversations, direct action, and coordinated political struggle. If your house burns down, you’ll, of course, want to know the cause of the fire – but you don’t begin investigating while you’re trying to escape the burning house. So far, it seems the humanities have been arguing over the name of the fire; we think it is time to focus more intently on escaping the burning building.
John Robert McNeill is an American environmental historian, author, and professor at Georgetown University. He is best known for “pioneering the study of environmental history.” In 2000, he published Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World, which argues that human activity during the 20th century led to environmental damage on an unprecedented scale.
What is environmental history, and what has made it so urgent?
While there are many ideas of what environmental history (EH) is, my preferred definition is the history of the relationships between the natural world and societies. I divide it into three main, overlapping parts. First, material EH which means the history of forests, grasslands, wolves, the chemistry of the atmosphere, climate, and so forth; second, cultural and intellectual EH which means what people have written, thought, believed, painted, sculpted (etc.) about the natural world; third, political, policy, regulatory, legal and administrative EH which means how people have sought to regulate their relationships with the natural world. If EH may be considered urgent, it is because of the strength of concern about environmental issues today, climate change especially.
Where do different schools of historiographical thought arise globally?
Schools of historiographical thought arise almost everywhere. The most influential traditions are now in the US, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Spain, India, Australia, and Germany. In some countries, EH arose mainly from within the discipline of history (e.g., the US) and elsewhere it stemmed from natural sciences (e.g., Spain). That affects the kind of EH that is pursued, so in Spain, for example, there is a strong tradition of studying social metabolism, a quantitative approach that is almost entirely absent in North America.
The recent history of environmental change is dramatically unlike anything before in human or Earth history. We should learn how the world got to be the way that it is; that human-devised energy systems are the most critical variable shaping EH and a crucial one shaping history in general; that nature-society relations are enormously complex and often beyond our understanding, measurement, and management capabilities.
World GDP increase correlates with the Anthropocene – is this necessarily a bad thing?
It is not clear if we can enjoy growing GDP without the negative environmental externalities (to use the jargon of economics). But if we can, a key step will be finding an energy system that has a low carbon footprint and does not notably affect the Earth’s basic biogeochemical cycles.
Coal burns thousands of years of photosynthetic energy in an unmeasurably short amount of time by comparison – is this speed at the root of the problem?
Yes, in the sense that it alters the global carbon cycle, parking more carbon in the atmosphere and the oceans, warming the climate and acidifying the oceans. That is a big part of the global environmental challenge.
Will the end of the Anthropocene mark an end of an era or also of our species? Cataclysmic effects? Not that I can foresee. We cannot know when our species will end, but I think this is not likely to happen any time soon. We are a supremely adaptable animal and can survive – not necessarily comfortably, however – in a wide variety of environments, like rats, cockroaches, and several other species. Our extinction will come sooner or later, as for all species, but not likely because of the environmental changes of the Anthropocene.
Picture one of the following scenarios: an asteroid has struck Earth, a nuclear war has turned our cities into radioactive ashes, or avian flu has killed most of the world’s population. The survivors need to start over. But how can we rebuild our world from scratch? It’s not the opening scene of a post-atomic movie, but the experiment igniting Lewis Dartnell’s The Knowledge, a guide for surviving in the late Anthropocene.
Dartnell, an astrobiology researcher who’s been looking for years into the possibility of life beyond Earth, investigates the chances we have to survive outside of Earth, focusing in particular on how, after we have collected our rags from the dirt, we could start all over again. A hypothetical scenario which primarily revolves around a question: would we manage to preserve our social structures after a natural catastrophe of unexpected magnitude?
“What I’m interested in is exploring how the contemporary world, and anything we give for granted, works. Transport, communications, technologies; but also food, electricity, chemistry, and medicine. Where the technology that surrounds us come from, and how did we end up with such innovations. A good way to rediscover their importance is precisely through a thought exercise. Technological society’s paradox is that very few have the basic skills needed to cultivate fields, get food, and exploit what nature has to offer. Which increasingly alienates us from the Earth we live on. We are not even capable of fixing the technological devices most of our lives heavily rely on: smartphones, computers, washing machines. In this respect, we’re doubly disconnected.”
The philosopher Ernst Jünger had already sensed this a century ago: every time we rely on a technology, we give up some of our freedom. “Accepting this tradeoff or not is only up to us – says Dartnell. I’m not saying we should throw away our smartphones and computers, but maybe we shouldn’t be as addicted to Google and Wikipedia as we are. Our destiny, in the event of a catastrophe, would be hanging by a thread. If my smartphone breaks, I can’t even change the battery myself. Up until a few decades ago, instead, it was a whole different situation. How can we restore the communications system, if we don’t even know what a transistor is? If the ice melting accelerated and a global-scale catastrophic disaster became a much more likely scenario, we would first of all need to build ourselves a shelter to keep ourselves warm and dry. We would have to find a way to stay clean and curb disease, use our scientific skills to make sure the water we drink is not contaminated, or at least we would have to know how to purify it. In the long run, it would be essential to restart agriculture, learn how to preserve food with natural methods, produce energy to heat us and come up with new means of transport.”
But what would this civilization look like? According to Dartnell, what matters is: would we be able to recreate a society that’s closer to nature and more environmentally friendly? “We clearly don’t know what form of government this new society could have. We only know it would have to be ‘greener.’ For example, we wouldn’t have access to crude oil anymore: we are already running out of it, and its extraction is becoming increasingly complex and costly. Without the necessary technology, we wouldn’t be able to exploit it anyway. We should, therefore, use sustainable and renewable energy resources, like wind or solar energy.” But rebuilding a society – rediscovering our basic knowledge and enhancing our technological abilities requires collaboration. The contemporary world we live in is there just because people have worked together for a very long time, making discoveries and putting them to work through collaborative projects. Today, the real threat humanity is facing is climate change. A catastrophe that is developing quite slowly, but which, in my opinion, won’t lead to a total collapse of civilization.”
To Dartnell, the challenges we have to get ready to face in the event of a catastrophe cannot always be overcome: “In the event of a planetary nuclear war, I think there would be very little we could do to rebuild society quickly, as the whole biosphere would be poisoned with radiation. In the event of a global pandemic, instead, it would be a whole different situation: the infrastructures and the resources we’d need would still be within our reach, and this would increase our chances of survival and starting over quickly.”
In European countries, 31 kg of packaging waste per person is produced each year. As consumer awareness increases, the packaging industry is seeking sustainable and scalable solutions. We talked about the present challenges and future of this sector with Daphna Nissenbaum, CEO and co-founder of TIPA, an Israeli company that makes viable compostable, flexible packaging solutions.
TIPA: Where did it all begin?
A few years ago, I was having a discussion about plastic bottles and thought: what do we do with our packages? What could be the most natural way to discard them? Then, apples came to my mind: you eat them, throw away the residue, and it just disintegrates and biodegrades by itself, turning back into organic material. This gave me the idea of creating a package that’s an orange peel: a package that the consumer can throw into the organic waste stream, that decomposes and biodegrades and goes back to nature, just like any other organic material.
What’s the difference between biodegradable and compostable?
Everything, traditional plastic included, is biodegradable: what matters is how long it takes for the process to complete. A product is compostable when it takes up to six months to biodegrade.
Would a landfill full of compostable plastics theoretically be a fertile field in the future?
The purpose is not exactly that. The end consumer has to discard the package in the organic waste stream bin. This is then processed in compost centers and turned into soil or fertilizer, a resource that can be used to grow plants and produce the next packaging. It’s a circular economy approach.
Is plastic the most permanent of humankind’s marks on the planet?
Yes, it’s one of the major topics of the Anthropocene. In the last 50 years, the world has manufactured from 8.3 to 8.5 billion tons of plastic — the majority of which has been used only once. A recent World Economic Forum study shows that, worldwide, only 9% of plastic is recycled, while 5% is incinerated and 79% is discarded. The same study states that, if we continue this way, within 30 years we’re going to manufacture two times more plastic than we’ve ever done in the past: a crisis beyond human capacity to handle.
The way plastic has been treated all over the world has been called recycling, but, in fact, it’s not. Until very recently, China used to accept 45% of the plastic waste produced worldwide and handled it one way or the other. But in early 2018 China decided to stop being the world’s plastic trash bin, and in doing so created two major crises: on one side, governments now have to deal with twice the waste, with no solutions on the horizon; on the other the plastic shipped to China was meant to be recycled, which means there’s a whole recycling system to put in place.
Is there a plastic lobby out there who would be against compostable plastics being launched?
Yes, there is a lobby against this method. The plastic and the packaging markets are very fragmented, with small companies all over the world. Both just want to continue selling the plastic packages as they used to, or as they do now. I believe that compostable polymer is the line extension of the current plastic. Markets should look at it as an opportunity, not as a threat. Otherwise, people will just reduce and reduce packaging as much as they can.
Are bio and compostable plastics technically “plastics”?
We produce a polymer, so we can’t say we are not plastic; the difference stands in the raw materials. Until now, we only used polymers that decompose over a very long timeframe. Now we have the opportunity to reinvent the whole industry by using decomposing polymers. Besides, we are facing not only the plastic problem, but the organic waste problem as well: at least a third of our solid waste is organic, and most countries don’t really treat that. Organic waste has to be treated in another way than burying it, because of the methane and the gases it releases. Even the EU announced that by 2020-23 all of the organic waste has to be collected in dedicated systems. Once that system is in place, bioplastics will just integrate with it. The main driver for the changes in the market is not packages but organic waste.
I know part of the world is not like this, but most people don’t really think about their waste. Do you ever think about what’s happening with your banana peel when you throw it away? Did you know that if they bury it under piles of soil, and it won’t get oxygen, it will stay there for years? That’s the point. We need to look around us and take care of our waste. This catastrophe is a big opportunity for us to really restructure the way we handle waste in general, and in particular the worst type of waste, plastic. Packaging is only a portion of it, but it’s a very destructive one.
Image courtesy of the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance