This is my first cathartic installment charting my personal and emotional journey as a designer and educator coming to grips with the possible death of many of Earth’s ecological systems.
Where to begin? I have grieved the loss of our ecosystems and potential for a better future for years. It’s been a traumatic journey. The climate news isn’t happy. It’s sad and horrible to think how stupid we’ve all been gorging on what our Mother Earth has given us, all the while releasing an egregious amount of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. I’ve mourned my child’s and my own future for over 10 years. I must find a way out of grieving, so beyond donating to eco non-profits, consuming and traveling less, and advocacy via this website, I need to write down what I am feeling to help me emerge from a pit of despair.
In 2003 I read the book “Cradle to Cradle” by McDonough/Braungart on a plane ride from Vancouver to Dallas. It changed my life.
Before I explain how, I need to start with a bit of a diversion into a story from childhood. As a kid I was really passionate about recycling. I really don’t remember how I learned about it, but when my small Michigan hometown of 30,000 began a curbside recycling program in the 1980s, I was all in. My father is a chemist. He helped develop a number of different plastics — from those used in car dashboards to transparent wraps to keep food fresh. He told me soon after we got our royal blue recycling bins from the city that recycling isn’t a moneymaker. He didn’t really believe in it. He frankly stated that we’ll never turn a profit on it, so why do it at all?
That didn’t make sense to me. I was only ten or eleven (so that could explain my general level of confusion) but I knew that keeping our planet clean was a smarter plan than focusing on only making hoards of cash. As I grew up, I would regularly find myself pulling plastic milk jugs and paperboard cereal boxes from our family trash and recycling them. It was frustrating and I was upset at my parents for not caring about our world as much as I did. It was clear to me then, that I would have to work harder to make sure the world was a better place to live in. Ever since, I have always recycled and thought I was helping.
When I finished the book and reclined back in my economy airline seat, I felt as if I had woken up from a long nap. I had just swallowed the red pill from “The Matrix” and experienced a rabbit hole I didn’t know existed. The book made me think about how my design work all ended up in the landfill. It was beautiful trash. I realized my life was one big dirty carbon footprint. I had failed my city. I needed to do more. I had to.
I view myself as a good person. I help others, am kind and compassionate, and generally lead a general pious life. However after digesting “Cradle to Cradle,” I realized I was simply just less bad (as McDonough/Braungart described). I didn’t want to accept that. I hungered to be great. Recycling, it seemed, was merely an aspirin that took away some of my pain and guilt.
That same year (2003) I left my job as a senior web designer at Texas Instruments so I could satisfy my cravings to use design to improve the Earth. I failed a few times before leaving my job to convince my colleagues about the importance of sustainability, and even picked out recycled papers for our future print work. Despite those efforts everyone I worked with kept on with what they always did including choosing the virgin fiber (non-recycled) paper they usually favored. I didn’t feel that I could make the necessary changes at work that I hoped to. I didn’t have the vocabulary, the knowledge, or the confidence. So I quit, and left for graduate school at the University of Texas (UT) to sort out all of my confusions, guilt, and excitement to make a real difference on this beautiful world.
I really didn’t know what graduate school was when I blindly applied to and accepted the offer from UT Austin. Thankfully it worked out. In retrospect, during that time from 2004–2006, I was pretty ignorant and naive about what I was doing. I am quite lucky to be where I am today as a tenured Graphic Design Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign. But part of that luck was timing.
A few years after I read “Cradle to Cradle,” Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” debuted in theaters. After, I was happy to see more people in classrooms and coffeeshops talking about climate change and sustainability. I was hopeful. I believed we were going to fix this mess we made. It was great timing that I was in graduate school studying these issues. In 2006 www.re-nourish.org was born. I felt great. I emailed it to every designer I knew. Pass it on…
After I received my MFA from UT, I moved to Champaign, IL where I was hired as an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois. My hope for change was only tempered by my exhaustion from graduate school and running the tenure marathon without much prior recuperation. Two years later, in 2008, Barack Obama was elected as President of the United States. I was even more hopeful. I worked tirelessly to do more. I wanted to inspire others and saw that the goal posts were getting closer. I worked feverishly and was confident in my steps toward minimizing a future of uncontrollable warming.
Today, eleven years later, I still have hope, but that confidence is slowly ebbing. I use Twitter to follow climate scientists, eco entrepreneurs, social impact designers, and inspirational people in general to keep me informed and positive. Through them I learn about all varieties of positive climate and design actions I can take. These people and organizations I follow are also hopeful — or should I say “cautiously optimistic” because they realize the worst case climate scenario (over 2 degrees Celsius) is not only possible, but more likely every month.
I also share this cautious optimism, but at the same time feel increasingly more depressed and guilty. I drive a hybrid car. I own a home. I fly sometimes. All of these are powered by fossil fuels, which, in turn, warm our climate more. I know better and feel terribly guilty. The system is definitely stacked against us, and when you push against it, it returns the favor back aggressively. I also realize that even if I chose 100% renewable energy, its impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions is small. In fact buying a Tesla and installing solar panels on my roof would only really make me feel less guilty and depressed. That is where I am emotionally. I am sitting restlessly in a deep pit of climate despair.
I am stuck in this pit. All of the facts, terrible political and social policies, and lack of collective action weigh down on me like heavy boulders. It has frozen my creativity. Re-nourish was my path into positive social and environmental action, but I am unclear on what it has done. Possibly it has helped others have that same awakening that “Cradle to Cradle” did for me, but I really don’t know for sure. It’s clear launching Re-nourish alone isn’t enough for me, the design community, or the planet to fix our climate mess. Climate change is happening now. It’s not ten years away. According to the IPCC we have ten years to cut our greenhouse gases in half globally to avoid the worst case scenario of warming over 2 degrees Celsius.
We must do more collectively. I’m using this diary going forward to catalog my feelings on climate change and ideas about design activism. I hope that the writing connects with your own feelings about climate change. Maybe you also feel lost or unmotivated to act considering the problem is so massive and overwhelming. For me, apathy and despair is something I fight daily. It can be paralyzing. It keeps me lying on the couch at night watching dystopian TV shows on Netflix. I rationalize doing this as mentally preparing for the worst. The worst case scenario for climate change means total social collapse. I see that collapse clearly in “The Walking Dead” (just without the zombies). It seems completely irrational for anyone to think this way, but I have always subscribed to the somewhat cynical concept of hoping for the best, but expecting the worst.
I know that despair will get me nowhere. Recently I read a fantastic book called “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Native American ecologist. I sincerely recommend it to all of you. It’s beautiful. She wrote that “(d)espair is paralysis. It robs us of agency. It blinds us to our own power and the power of the earth… Restoration is a powerful antidote to despair. Restoration offers concrete means by which humans can once again enter into a positive, creative relationship with the more-than-human world, meeting responsibilities that are simultaneously material and spiritual.”
I agree with this quote completely, but currently am still struggling to fight off this powerful demon. I lack a community of “like-minded folks” in this smallish Midwestern community to talk through and scheme for positive action plans. I am reaching out to you to brainstorm further collective action to have a greater impact on and help restore this world. A singular action is meaningful, but together we can do more. What could we do together? I am open. Just let me know in the comments below.