The Design of Things

human endeavor + the natural world

Month: June, 2015

Please explain

dead-spruce_133_600x450 In our internet-driven world, we are bombarded with petitions and memes, but can’t always easily find accurate information about the issues of the day. Like that factoid about our brains, web design seems to use only about ten percent of its potential to inform and engage.

Many major environmental problems – like global warming, acid rain, or the hole in the ozone layer – could be explained with simple and friendly interactive media. Yet most environmental groups’ websites present the facts in pages of text and a forceful, “the science is settled” tone. You’d have to be pretty committed to wade through it, and likely already convinced.

This allows skepticism to fester. In the case of global warming, the impression has grown that scientists have reached a foregone conclusion about human activity and so have missed other causes. The rest of us aren’t given a clear sense of how to answer those claims, which makes us hesitant to engage with someone who isn’t convinced.

Scientists have approached the question of global warming for decades, and through that process asked themselves all the questions people ask today: Is it natural? Is from it sunspots? Is it from water vapor? They’re not stupid questions: They’ve been asked and answered by some of the smartest people in the world. You wouldn’t know that now from the discourse, and yet presenting that process would help bring some people along.

I was once part of a team invited in to a prominent Republican U.S. Senate office, from a state that is being pretty drastically affected by climate change already, to present the science on global warming. We counseled the lead scientist to start with these questions in his presentation, to acknowledge that they are the right ones to ask and to convey that conclusions about global warming were reached only after extensive investigation. He did not. He instead gave a forty-five minute rambling presentation about global warming from the perspective of settled science. The first question from a Senate staffer was, “What about sun spots?” By then, the scientist had lost his audience, turned the conversation unnecessarily antagonistic, and hadn’t brought anyone together to look at what was really happening to our world and what we might be able to do about it.

A journalist friend of mine, Eric Roston, who is the sustainability editor at Bloomberg, tackled these questions in this beautifully and simply designed interactive graphic, which you can find here. The design is one of clarity, humility and unity in addressing the questions we all have. And you can share it, online, with your friends – believers and skeptics alike.

photo credit: Dead spruce from acid rain.

here and there, everywhere and elsewhere

fox--500x339A few months ago I read an op-ed in the New York Times that described two types of thinking – big context thinkers and immediate picture thinkers. Those weren’t the exact terms, but that was the idea. Keeping the environment in mind is context thinking. What leaves my house goes down the drain, into the sewer, into the pond, the river, the ocean… or into the garbage and out to the dump and eventually to the ocean. My yard is a landing place (or not) for birds and bees and butterflies. My heating and cooling bills are a reflection of my use of fossil fuels. When I pick up a head of lettuce at the grocery store, it reflects a chain of water, pesticides, and fuel for transport.

People who think in immediate terms think about all the details of keeping their families and lives afloat and the needs, desires, and threats to all of that. I need to get the kids to practice, drive to work, coordinate a car pool, grocery shop, cook, help with homework, take care of the yard, clean the house. When I pay someone to clean or do yard work they might use chemicals on the lawn or fossil fuels with the leaf blower, and I know I am driving too much and buying a lot of things from China, but I just cannot add that to my list of worries.

Both are defensive positions when manifested in this way – each is carrying a huge burden of responsibility in guarding against disaster, whether familial or planetary. We can instead make a subtle shift, taking something from each approach to make our lives more relaxed and meaningful in the here and now while expanding our ability to incorporate the big picture. Putting this together can be nurturing to ourselves, our families, our surroundings, and our souls.

The underlying driver is that we are constantly being told to hurry up. Hurry up and save the planet, or hurry up and do the million tasks of everyday life, or hurry up and become somebody important or do something amazing and famous. And the most radical change – radical because it really is difficult – is to slow down in the middle of that and simply live.

Not so simple any more. One of my friends has three children and she is constantly on her phone to text, arranging car pools and dinner for her twins while she is taking the eldest on a college tour, setting up appointments for her therapy clients, checking that no one needs her. Slowing down for her seemed impossible until her husband had a crisis – and suddenly it seemed ridiculous for the kids to play soccer on Sundays, despite the intramural league pressure to do so. They pulled out and now have a Sunday – the kids play with friends outside, my friend and her husband go for a run or a bike ride, they read the paper. It’s one day of the week, but it’s a day not spent in the car, not shopping, not consuming, not polluting. Yet that’s not even the point – it’s not a day of “not hurting the environment;” it’s a day of having a happy life.

The most radical way to help the environment and ourselves is to live rather than run around. Stay home and enjoy the garden. Go for a walk after dinner through the neighborhood. Work a jigsaw puzzle. Play cards. Play music. Put music on in a way that everyone can listen – not just through earphones. Sit on the patio or the deck with the paper, listen to the birds, notice the movement of animals in the evening. Plant a tree, or two. Make go-carts. Mow the lawn with a hand mower or pick up a broom or a rake to take pleasure in your own property, get a little exercise and breathe in the summer air.

When our lives become to-do lists and texts, and/ or a list of “shoulds” and “don’ts” to avoid environmental destruction, we create nothing memorable. No funny conversations, no inventive games, no kids playing by themselves, no magic and mystery of the natural world showing up: A butterfly in the garden, a bird nesting above a doorway, a fox in the backyard.

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