Thesis

Research and Methodology

The story of my thesis begins in June of 2013, when I came across an article about the clean up effort of the Fukushima nuclear reactor. Two years after the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, radiation from the reactors was still leaking into the Pacific Ocean. The details around this topic are horrifying and I spent much of my free time that summer reading articles and watching talks online about the global consequences of the disaster. I became familiar of the lectures of the doctor and activist Helen Caldicott, an expert on the health effects of radiation and a staunch opponent of nuclear power and weapons. Looking for a solution, my research led me to a recording of Ian Angus’s lecture, Why We Need an Eco-Socialist Revolution, which spelled out the intersectional nature of climate change on society. The bleakness of the situation caused me to dip into a bout of depression that lasted for months, but when I came out on the other side I realized that I needed to devote my time and effort toward doing something about the unbearable suffering in the world. I decided to leave my work in the theater and find another profession that felt more meaningful.

Design seemed like a natural fit for me to create the impact I wanted, but also a creative outlet. While applying to SVA, I wrote in my statement of purpose,

”I think a more direct and effective path to change is using design as a tool to alter social behavior through disruptive innovation. This idea can be applied to a number of problems in the realm of design. In particular, I am focused on the wastefulness of ephemeral commodities like fast fashion, which creates tons of industrial, commercial, and post-consumer waste every year. Secondly, as an artisan it is frustratingly obvious to me that the byproduct of over-consumption and a demand for lower prices has led to a decline in quality of products. This contributes to more waste, exhaustion of resources and added stress on the middle and lower classes to repurchase items that don't last. Another issue is the value placed on convenience and leisure which nullifies solutions from before the “disposable age”. Consumers have come to expect a high level of comfort and ease, so it is impossible to simply revert to obsolete methods of production, even if they were more socially and environmentally responsible. Politically aware and socially conscious design can offer a solution to these problems that no other method of activism can hope to achieve."

The connection between nuclear fallout and climate change may seem loose to some, but if you look at both on global scale, it becomes obvious that the earth systems we are messing with are incredibly vulnerable, delicate, and intertwined.
 

I started the program at Products of Design against the backdrop of the presidential election primary season and for the first time since I could vote, I allowed myself to raise my expectations for what a politician could be. To me, Bernie Sanders’ campaign was like a wish granted from some benevolent angel. Finally, someone who recognized the urgency and danger of climate change and the insignificance of fossil fuel profits in relation to the survival of life on Earth. Although in the beginning I recognized that his run was a strategic effort to pull Clinton to the left, by the time the voting started I believed Sander’s had a real chance of winning. In his defeat I experienced a deep and personal grief. Between Trump and Clinton we had the choice to vote for the unsustainable stats quo or a potentially fascist nightmare.

Five years after the summer I spent holed up in my apartment reading about nuclear disaster, I began to hone in on a research topic, the fragility of urban infrastructure and the collapse of societies. Feeling utterly pessimistic about what the upcoming election meant for our country and the world by extension, I read Collapse, by Jeremy Diamond. This book covers the environmental and social circumstances that lead to the fall of many civilizations. Afterwards I revisited The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs, from which I’ve learned a lot about what makes urban planning successful. I imagined a thesis centered around designing resilience into infrastructure using biomimicry, in an effort to ease the transition to a planet with rising sea levels and super storms.

On a recommendation, I read the Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, which lays out the rise and evolution of disaster capitalism—an economic policy of sorts that exploits the shock of societies after a disaster (man-made or natural) to reengineer democratic economies into privatized, corporatist oligarchies. Since my other research had confirmed that we have all but passed the last deadline to completely eliminate carbon emissions by 2017 or surpass the 2C limit, I was thinking a lot about how to move forward in designing solutions for those that would be most effected. One way to look at this is as a polar alternative to disaster capitalism, a system to put in place in response to disaster that is intentionally democratic, transparent, and egalitarian.

This turned out to be a logical conclusion, as I continued to read in Naomi Klein’s most recent book. This Changes Everything explains the link between free-trade, Neo-Liberal capitalism and our rapidly changing climate. This work, was more prescriptive than the former, as Klein presents the idea that climate change has the potential to motivate us into creating a new system that would replace the old unsustainable capitalist model. It was at this point that the school year started, and my work was based around the concept of climate change as a catalyst for utopia.

I found the book that was most influential to my work by chance at the library. Despite it’s tedious title, What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming is accessible, clear, and prescriptive. The author, Per Espen Stoknes, is psychologist working around climate change for many years and he breaks down the challenges that lie within convincing the unconvinced that climate change is real and urgent. As a designer trying to change people’s perspectives about climate change, this has been invaluable to me, and as many of classmates know, I quote the book ad nauseam.

 

A few weeks into the fall semester I began conducting interviews primarily with people who had experience as climate activists but also with scientists, psychologists, and councilors. I learned a lot about what’s happening within the Big Green organizations and at the grassroots. I had expected to hear about a lot of frustration, but mostly everyone had a sense of optimistic determination. There were many opinions about the best way to fight climate change, but there were two things everyone agreed on: climate activism was largely exhausting and depressing and that people are turned off by doom and gloom. Doesn’t do much to inspire people to join in.

When I started this process, I had many conversations about making my thesis work optimistic as to avoid turning people off, and now here was a group of activists telling me how difficult and sad the work could be. Sometimes things just come together in such a way that it inspires a new thought or, in my case, an old one. Seemingly out of nowhere, I remembered an article I had read a few years before about a phenomenon in Australia where everyone in the same town were all suffering from depression or other similar mental health issues. Solastalgia–a neologism coined by Philosopher Glenn Albrecht, is a form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change, such as pollution or climate change. Suddenly, my thesis came full circle as I realized, that summer 5 years earlier when I was consumed with reading about nuclear fallout and ambivalent world leaders doing nothing for fear of causing a panic, I had been suffering from Solastalgia.

I knew that my work shouldn’t be an echo of our feckless government’s response to ecological disaster, it needed to recreate the trauma I experienced when faced with the facts about the reality around us. In a recently published article, two psychologists argue that depression is an adaptation that allows us to analyze complex problems. The implications of this on my thesis work is profound; if I could induce ecological distress in my audience, I would be increasing the chances of each individual grappling with the consequences of climate change and possibly creating a catalyst to action. At this point my thesis became centered around the idea of inducing eco-distress as a call to climate action.

The happy or unhappy (depending how you look at it) coincidence of the events of the first few weeks of 2017 has been the realization of the central argument of my thesis. That the exact group of people I have been targeting has gone through a sort of trauma and has reacted by marching in the streets is an incredible validation. 

Karen Vellensky