Design for Care? Narratives of Climate Care in Design

this article is published in Press & Fold Magazine



Design for Care? Narratives of Climate Care in Design

by Patricia de Vries

May you live in interesting times, is an expression you may have heard over the past year.

Some use it as a blessing — something you may wish for others. Others claim it is an ancient Chinese curse heaped upon an enemy. These days, it is often used in a quasi-ironic sense. Either way, I don’t think our present time qualifies as ‘interesting’ in the normative sense of the word. We are facing a cluster of interrelated crises tumbling over each other and encroaching upon us: a climate crisis, a health crisis, a political crisis, an economic crisis, and a care crisis.

Of this string of crises, the climate crisis is considered one of the most challenging societal and ecological issues of our time. Environmentalists warn that we are edging towards the end of our biosphere. If we do not radically change course, we will walk down a path that will lead us to planetary ecological collapse. And yet, there is no Climate Crisis Management Team, there are no weekly meetings with scientists and other experts in varying compositions that inform the government’s climate crisis policies, and we have yet to see the first climate crisis press conference, all the while the biggest polluters continue to pollute — day in and day out; breath in and breath out.

There is a glaring discrepancy between the scientific knowledge ecologists, engineers, environmentalists, biologists and journalists provide us with, paired with the hi-tech tools that are monitoring our biosphere’s collapse and the ongoing and decades-long political and corporate indifference and inertia in relation to climate change.

In response, some people gravitate to pessimism and others to optimism. There are several variations of these two dominant responses. Broadly speaking, pessimists believe the struggle is doomed and beyond repair, and optimists think we are going to grow out of this mess. Pessimists believe we will die from the consequences of climate change, whereas optimists believe we are very likely to die with climate change. The problem with optimism and pessimism is that they reduce a complex tangle of crises to a two-dimensional story of how we have lost all or how we will overcome all.

Why do these two narratives persist – what makes them hard to resist? Oppositional as they may seem, both narratives present the future as known. Stories of either salvation or the final countdown tell you the end of the story while the plot is still unfolding. This is what is going to happen. We are here now. And for better or worse, this is how things will end. Stories of redemption or despair provide certainty in highly uncertain times, they provide the illusion of a foothold on untrodden terrain. What’s appealing, too, is that both frame climate change as something outside of our reach. Optimists think it end well without our involvement. Pessimists believe it is all lost whether we get involved or not. Both absolve themselves of the need to heed to action. After all, if all is doomed, it doesn’t matter what we do or don’t do. And if, some Technology or force of Nature will come and save the day, there is little the average person can do.

Climate Anxiety

But what happens when we resist these two stories? To resist these two dominant forces would undoubtedly create some ugly feelings, as it opens the way to emotions that lie between hope and hopelessness. To resist both optimism and pessimism could trigger the uncomfortable feeling of climate anxiety. Although we feel it in the body and experience it in the here and now, anxiety is a future-oriented emotion. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard explains that anxiety is formed by the unknown. He explains that anxiety is a term for a response to events and phenomena that are not fully knowable, not fully graspable, that are ambiguous or vague. We are anxious about possible future events that we cannot fully anticipate, know, or predict. Anxiety, in other words, stems from our relationship and response to the possibility of change. It is a response to the unknowability of the ‘when’ and ‘how’ and ‘what’ of that change. And change is about the possible loss of something, and the beginning of something else.

To experience climate anxiety is the experience of the loss of certainty that comes with supposedly knowing how things will end, and it is a call to action, without any promises or guarantees that our actions will matter or make a difference, in the end. Climate anxiety presents us with the task to engage with climate change. It is about relating to climate change, neither as an abstract monolith outside of our reach, nor as a projection-screen for future visions. Kierkegaard argues that to relate to change, to open up to it, one needs to become deeply acquainted with one’s anxieties. To do so we need to unravel our personal relationship to change and how that is linked to the reluctance to respond to it.

Working through the anxieties climate change triggers, may help us to see climate change as part of the complex ecological, socio-technical, and economic nexus in which we live. This nexus includes large units such as geographical location, capital and labour, politics and law, and smaller units, such as you and me. And more importantly, all are inextricably linked.

Climate anxiety resides with the ugly feelings that come with living in times of multiple interrelated crises. It is about recognising that we may lack the tools and language to process and describe the larger decay around us, while realising that this doesn’t absolve us — big and small units – from our responsibility to think and act in response to urgent ecological calamities. So, why don’t we?

The issue isn’t a lack of information. Why don’t our governments and big polluters act in response to the call for urgent change, seemingly without much care or guilt? What moral intuitions are implicit in political, corporate and individual resistance to urgent change? To put it more harshly: what underlies the unwillingness to act collectively, radically and urgently?

Amitav Ghosh suggests that our sluggishness is, in part, a symptom of a crisis of imagination. When the subject of climate change occurs, scientific models, quantifications, graphs, future projections prevail, mixed with apocalyptic images of forest fires, parched earth and hungry polar bears. Ghosh concedes that art and culture could be effective in complementing the dominant messages about climate change by presenting alternatives narratives. Of course, art and culture cannot solve decades of political indifference and personal paralysis in relation to climate change. And no, art and culture cannot do the heavy lifting – we all have to play our part. However, the idea is that if the climate crisis is indeed also a cultural crisis, it could benefit from cultural interventions and imaginaries. Such alternative narratives could help us understand the many ways in which we are intertwined with our environment, the ways that we are made complicit in this crisis, and perhaps nudge us into collective action.

The Trouble of Plastic

Or, to refer to Donna Haraway, how may art and culture help us to stay with the trouble. To stay with the trouble, Haraway argues, is to resist optimism and pessimism, and to reject the cynics and the techno-solutionists. She writes: “The unfinished Chthulucene must collect up the trash of the Anthropocene, the exterminism of the Capitalocene, and chipping and shredding and layering like a mad gardener, make a much hotter compost pile for still possible pasts, presents, and futures.” In this context, staying with the trouble is about the proliferation of situated responses to climate anxiety.

Sounds good, you may think, but how do we respond in a situated manner, and where should we begin? At home, is Elisa van Joolen’s answer. Designer and researcher Elisa Van Joolen made a series of design handbags of used plastic shopping bags that she offers on loan. This project, titled EVJ, could be considered an example of staying with the trouble. And the entry point of her alternative narrative on climate change, one betweenoptimism and pessimism, is in your own home, in your kitchen.

After they have helped us transport our groceries, they disappear into the cupboard under the sink. Sometimes they serve a second or third time as a carrier of random stuff — like the gravel from the cat’s litter box. Sooner or later, however, we throw them out, and they leave our homes inside another plastic bag—a rubbish bag— or alternatively, they make a transfer to the recycling container. Gone. We think.

Although a seemingly ordinary object, the plastic shopping bag mirrors broader social values and systems. Indeed, the plastic shopping bag is a symptom of the trouble we are in. When we throw them out into the black hole of our bin, we may consider them chucked and discarded. However, they merely change form and direction, but they always return.

Shipped out of sight and dumped and burned overseas in other countries, plastic waste is causing a health emergency for people, killing wildlife and polluting oceans.

The plastic shopping bag mirrors our inability to see how inextricably linked we are to our environment. And it mirrors our fuzzy notion of ‘waste’ as something that disappears, like magic. Shipped out of sight, plastic bags become part of the ever-growing amount of a hazardous plastic soup, where they return to us, in the form of micro-plastics, in the air we breathe, in the soil from which we eat, and in our drinking water.

If the plastic bag is here to stay, what happens when we stay with it, too? Elisa van Joolen is well aware thatdesign is not a neutral intermediary. Design co-shapes and transforms people’s actions and perceptions as it mediates the relation between us and the world, both in material and experiential form. With her limited series of bags, Elisa Van Joolen co-shapes and transforms the user’s relation to the plastic shopping bag. She shapes that relation by producing an object that requires a change in action, which may bring about a subtle shift in perception, too.

Plastic on Loan

What happens when an ordinary plastic bag becomes a one-of-a-kind design bag? Not for sale, not to purchase or own, but a bag that can only be borrowed for a limited time and is then passed on again. Like a good mediator or therapist, Elisa van Joolen changes the relationship between the user and the plastic bag, transforming both. By signing a loan agreement, the user agrees not to keep or sell, but to borrow a bag. With their signature, the user becomes, for a finite time designated in the agreement, a caretaker. Van Joolen trusts caretakers to return the bag within the designated time, thereby appealing to their sense of responsibility. The plastic bag undergoes its own transformation: from being merely a piece of trash becomes a borrowed object, a thing on loan, that requires maintenance and concern from its caretaker. The bag is no longer a disposable item but is transformed into an object that creates care relations with the borrower, between borrowers, and between the borrower and the environment.

This shifts the positions of both the borrower and the plastic bag from one that centralises the user to one in which that centrality is shared with the plastic bag, the previous and the next caretaker. Elisa van Joolen has created an object that pairs a critique of our behaviour with an alternative proposal to that behaviour. Her approach to design invites the user to reconfigure an ordinary object that is considered waste, and vice versa: the bag steers the actions of user in a different direction. In this case, paired with the loan agreement, these bags stimulate the borrower to take care of it, to maintain it, and return it within the designated time, with the next caretaker in mind.

Design can invite or stimulate specific actions and discourage others – which places in the field of ethics. This implies that designers, whether they like it or not, are doing “ethics” when designing; they co-shape the actions and perceptions of their users in material and experiential form — this is not a plastic bag; this is an object of our care.

The majority of us may agree that care is essential, a virtue, something that we could and should do more of. But caring is not always easy. To care for a beloved may seem easy. To take care of an object that has value, be it cultural, emotional, or economic, may seem reasonably easy as well. But to take care of an object that is widely considered disposable, is a different thing. With her design, Elisa Van Joolen encourages borrowers to care for and take care of what we consider trash. This also raises the question of what other narratives of care, what other actions and perceptions do we need to develop to live through climate anxiety? Van Joolen answers these questions in material and experiential form. Care, she demonstrates, requires the work of dissembling, reframing, reconfiguring, repositioning.

That’s cute, but these bags aren’t really going to help us solve the plastic soup in our oceans, you may think. To which the response is: surely not. We all have to play our different parts. However, to avoid the lure of doom-and-gloom thinking  – it’s useless, it won’t matter, we’re doomed – the task is to stay with the trouble. Staying with the trouble is a way to avoid getting bogged down by pessimism—or carried away by optimism.

After all, who is it that will bear the brunt? The EVJ project conveys a staying-with-the-trouble attitude, it encourages the search for alternative presents and futures. It is a response to the fact that single use plastics (SUP) are still not outlawed, with disastrous consequences for the environment, and the health and well-being of all critters living in it, on land, in the sea and in the air.

Interesting Times Ahead

And perhaps more on target: the task is to refuse the instrumentalist view that the value of design is determined by the extent to which it solves actual and concrete problems.

Elisa Van Joolen’s EVJ bags could be considered a situated response, that has prompted a different way of relating to something as ordinary as a plastic shopping bag. And yet, these seemingly ordinary bags also point to some of the virtues that we need to develop to take better care of our environment on a larger scale: discipline, temperance, altruism, responsibility, trust, connection, collaboration, maintenance and attention. These virtues could play a small part in the compromising process of dealing with the climate crisis.

A better environment starts with yourself’ was the slogan of a shrewd and effective marketing campaign from the 1990s of the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning, and Environment of the Dutch government – as sign of the times is that this ministry no longer exists – with which it cunningly shifted the responsibility of pollution from big companies and the government to the individual. A better environment starts with addressing the inextricably linked matrix of root problems, Sasha Costanza-Chock argues in Design Justice. The book offers an exploration of how community-led design practices, in various fields, working closely with social movements and community-based organizations can advance ideas for collective liberation and ecological survival.

Starting point is that designers could play a role in the conversations about what it takes to resist participation in disastrous systems, as well as what it takes to design alternatives, Costanza-Chock contends. She encourages designers to use a lens broad enough to capture the structural problems at hand and develop ideas for system change. If not  “then designers will almost always end up, at best, providing Band-Aids for deep wounds and, at worst, actively serving existing power structures.” What if designers design only for the changes in perception and action they want to see? What if designers join forces with local communities, social and climate justice movements, and together develop ideas that could help us push against the disastrous system, behaviour and materials of racial capitalism? What if matrixes of counterpower conspire to develop new imaginaries and narratives of care that may give us the courage to develop and practice the virtues needed to face the nexus of crises we are in? Could that not be the beginning of a very interesting time?