Essay for 99 Months project,
an initiative spawned by a
workshop led by thomas.matthews,
at Fabrica, Treviso, Italy,
December 2007

Collecting butterflies

  “How much green-standing can we stand? It’s enough hot air to melt Antarctica. In no time, an inconvenient truth has become an obnoxious one. But from what I can see, there’s as much selling as thinking going on. (-) Even when the issues are green, things are rarely black or white.”
Bob Morris, “Global Yawning”, NY Times May 6, 2007

We, the world, have agreed that climate change poses grave problems and therefore we have pledged to start thinking about what can be thought up to save the planet. Check back on our leaders in 2009, and they’ll let us know what they’ve been pondering so far. Oh, and it should be clear that raising the standard of living of the upcoming middle classes in the new economies of the world is an even more pressing problem, and, now that you mention it, we won’t, of course, jeopardize the old economies. But we’ll plant trees, lots of trees.

This is the gist of the last word on climate change and the environmental crises as of the Bali conference in November 2007. This high-profile political event was declared a success because all countries assembled, including the once contrarian USA, agreed to start mulling things over. For the representative of Tuvalu, a tiny atoll state in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it was too little too late. He gives his country another decade – at the most. Say, ninety-nine months. After that, its population of around 10.000 souls will have become part of another problem-statistic, that of immigration in countries like New Zeeland and Australia. Tuvalu’s atolls, and inhabited islands like them, will become unlivable or simply disappear below the rising oceans, a fact that is one of the few certainties in the debate about global warming, and one that is beyond repair.

For the rest, the debate is open. Two responses to the problem seem to prevail: “too bad” in cases like Tuvalu’s, and “we’ll see” in all other cases. The notion of actually doing something about it seems to baffle all but the sturdiest optimists. One of the reasons for this bewilderment is no doubt the extreme complexity of the matter. If – as the story goes – a butterfly flapping its wings in one of the last untouched corners of the Amazon forest can unwittingly cause a hurricane over the rising seas around Japan, then what can we do to purposefully influence this rhizomatous process? Should we contain the butterflies?

Trying to fight or even compensate for the causes of climate change seems to be just that – trying to contain butterflies. We can’t, of course, control the zillion of them flapping about the earth. We regard them as, well, a force of nature. Which is one of the strongest metaphors for the few things that exceed our own might. Even at a time when we control, or pretend to, many aspects of nature itself, we still hold a deep awe for its powers, once unleashed. This rare display of modesty compels us to acceptance in the face of natural disasters. When a volcano erupts, all we can do is evacuate. When a tsunami hits the coast, all there remains for us is bury the dead. There is no way of preventing such catastrophes and very little room even to warn for them.

If we thus characterize both the complexity and the overwhelming scale of the climate problem, what on earth can we do about it? In the face of an exponentially growing mount of evidence for the human factor in the causes of climate change, we feel like the sorcerer’s apprentice; we have set free forces and processes we cannot control. Between the standard reactions that a panic-struck human may have when faced with events that seem to overpower him – denial and resignation – is there an alternative? There is and it’s called: resilience. The French enlightenment thinker Pascal compared man to a reed, structurally rather weak but flexible enough to survive the fiercest storms. In French, his metaphor suggests a link between this flexibility and man’s ability to think: l’home est un roseau, mais un roseau pensant.

Flexibility of thinking, mental resilience, is needed to face the challenges of the climate crisis. We need to be thinking ‘what if’, not only in terms of worst-case scenarios, but more importantly in terms of practical actions. I am avoiding the word ‘solutions’ here, because no one solution will be sufficient to turn the tide. There are no quick fixes for complex problems. If, on the other hand, we accept that small events can seriously influence large processes – a notion that is symbolized by the popular story of the butterfly sparking a hurricane – we should take a ‘small measures approach’ seriously as contributing to the bigger picture of fighting the causes of climate change. For it is not just about reducing your personal ‘ecological footprint’ with 0.008 kgC by turning down your washing machine’s temperature. Small measures like this amount to much more: a change of mentality, a break of habit. Which in turn will help foster the kind of awareness that is politically effective. Obviously, it is there, on the level of politics, government and global economics, that the real answers to the problem lie. But without a constituency that pushes politicians and businesses into action, nothing will move. And in this case, the constituency will have to be global.

The success of Al Gore’s documentary ‘An inconvenient truth’ is not merely the merit of the facts he presented, but also a sign that he struck a chord with an audience that needed this summary as a catalyst for their own more or less repressed worries. An audience moreover, as it turned out, that was big and global enough to move politicians to at least admit they shared these concerns. Gore’s movie was consciously designed as center-piece of a campaign that aimed at a much more lasting effect than the proverbial 15 minutes, and incorporating all media necessary: book, movie, website, TV-exposure, canvassing and intense networking. And although the movie paints a grim picture of what can happen to our planet – and to us – when we don’t act quickly, the follow-up of Gore’s message in the media that he and his supporters employ stresses the notion that we can indeed do something about it, from small personal measures to large-scale political decisions. Gore addresses his audience as part of the solution.

All of this is underpinning the importance of awareness, not just of the problems, but of the measures that each of us can take to help solve them. Catching one butterfly at a time, so to speak, without loosing sight of the bigger picture. People who know they’re doing what they can or at least make an effort, will be more inclined to hold their representatives up to the same standards. And voters who translate their own awareness of and commitment to environmental issues into guidelines for their political choices will, by force of their number, influence political programs and agendas. Here also small measures matter: every vote counts, as any politician will confirm. Similarly, any businessperson will acknowledge that at the basis of every turnover statistics are individual purchases.

Thus, raising awareness can be counted among the more effective activities to stop the rest of the inhabited world from undergoing the fate of Tuvalu. Since the coral reefs that make up the atolls barely rise above the current sea level, even with radical measures against global warming this tropical paradise will have disappeared from the face of the earth roughly 99 months from now. According to scientists like climate expert James Hansen, a global tipping point beyond which we will not be able to prevent the oceans from rising even further, will be reached around the same time if levels of greenhouse gases such as methane and CO2 are not reduced. Global warming at this point will become irreversible, and we, in Venice, Amsterdam, New York, San Francisco, London or Tokyo, will have to do what the Tuvaluans are facing now: move to higher ground.

It doesn’t have to come to that. Instead of becoming bored with the umpteenth disaster documentary on Discovery Channel that sketches out our doom in great detail before concluding that a super-human effort is needed to avert the danger, we need to rise up like the vulnerable but flexible and thinking reeds that we are. For designers this resilience means first of all to rethink their role in terms of functionality: environmental issues like the amount of energy needed to realize the design and the amount of waste it produces after its functional life span, and social issues such as embedding environmental awareness into everyday routines of product usage need to be ‘designed into the product’. Not as an extra feature but as a basic function. For communication designers, there is the challenge not only to raise awareness, but to do so in a way that empowers people to make a difference within their own environment and without disturbing their ordinary habits to the point that they turn away either in shameful resignation or in contrarian denial. There is no point in spelling out doom when it leaves the audience paralyzed before the vision that after them there will be the deluge. Raising awareness also means fighting what New York Times columnist Bob Morris described as ‘global yawning’. The best way to do that is connect reliable information with feasible options for action and feedback on the results of those actions.



“Man is a reed, but a thinking reed.” Pascal’s dictum is a word play – pensant (thinking, pensive) and penchant (flexible, bendable) sound very alike in French.

max bruinsma