Tool #9: Shaping design practices for the anthropocene

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We are living on an aching planet on which social crises abound and humans have become a geological force that impact in detrimental ways on the Earth’s ecosystems. Thus the precocity that we are dealing with today is not only economical but also ever more social and ecological.

Taking a cue from the writings of J.K. Gibson-Graham (and the Community Economies Network) and the approaches developed by the network of permaculture activists, here are some suggestions to work through in order to start redirecting contemporary design practices so that they can contribute in more consistent ways to the creation of worlds that are liveable in the long-term.

J.K. Gibson-Graham and Ethan Miller point out that when we think of constituting ecological livelihoods, it is crucial to consider who participates in producing the resources that allow us to live well – people, institutions but also more-than-human others and ecological systems. Though we have come to see our livelihoods as constituted mainly through monetary means, considering the wider ecology of exchanges and support we are part of allows us to shift our imaginary around who and what we are actually relying on in our everyday. Widening our imaginary also helps us shift Western parameters of what it means to live well and of how much is “enough” so that others also can continue (or begin!) to live well.

In asking these questions, working through the ethics and principles set out by permaculture can be helpful. These are: earth care, people care, fair shares.

Earth care urges us to ask how what one does affects the environment and ecological systems. It is about considering how one has the least detrimental and most beneficial impact on the earth possible.

How does what you produce and how you practice impact on the environment? Where could you start making adjustments to reduce your negative and increase your positive impact? What changes would these require in your everyday? What changes would it require in how you frame what it means to produce “good work”? What steps can you take to progressively (or radically) implement these changes?

People care urges us to ask how what one does affects other people, both close at hand and at a distance. It is about training one’s awareness in regards to the wellbeing of others.

How does what you produce and how you practice impact on other people? Your kin, friends, and co-workers? People living in your neighbourhood, city, region? People producing the goods you use? People living in the places where the resources you rely on are being extracted? Where in your everyday do you see the potential for changes that foster people care? In case of changes that seem too big to be taken in one step, what series of smaller actions can you take to gradually implement a bigger change?

Fair shares urges us to ask how the surplus and wealth we produce (or already own or have access to) can be shared with human and more-than-human others in order to create a more just world.

What kind of surplus does your practice produce? Where in your life do you have a surplus that could be made available to others? Think, for example, about spaces, relations, ideas, personal energy, knowledge, skills, money, commissions, transport etc. What would it take to circulate or open up some of your surplus? Could you create an experimental human or more-than-human economy of generosity and support around it? What is it that you lack and others perhaps might have a surplus of? How could you get them involved in an experiment of fair shares?

In activating permaculture ethics to redirect a design practice it can be helpful to make use of the permaculture principles below, as they give a hint of what direction of thought and action can be fruitful:

1. Observe and interact – once you have figured out where you want something to change, observe the dynamics around it and start with slow interventions.

2. Catch and store energy – consider energy coming from fossils, the sun and other renewable sources, but also of your own levels of energy and the energy that went into producing a product.

3. Obtain a yield – do things that bring some kind of enjoyable result.

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback – limit your consumption or energy expenditure and think of ways through which you can create self-maintaining systems.

5. Use and value renewable resources and services – where in your practice and life can you start to replace non-renewable resources?

6. Produce no waste – where do you produce waste, how can it be avoided, how could it be turned into something useful?

7. Design from pattern to detail – think of the bigger picture first and work out the details once you know where you want to be going.

8. Integrate rather than segregate – how can the elements of your practice and life be brought together in a virtuous circle, what multiple functions do elements of your practice have, how is each vital part of your livelihood sustained, can it be sustained by multiple elements?

9. Use small and slow solutions – this allows you to avoid big mistakes and in sorting out a big mess at the end of the line.

10. Use and value diversity – how to bring diversity into your practice – social, ecological, spatial, commission-wise, etc.?

11. Use edges and value the marginal – what are the edges of your practice, both in terms of space, relations and action? In nature it is at the edges that the most interesting connections take place.

12. Creatively use and respond to change.

Last edit: 02.12.2015