Independent Study at The Rhode Island School Of Design: Eco-Futures

Stemming from both secular theorists and religions, many cultural narratives have existed for so long that they become unknowingly woven into people’s assumptions, values, biases, and beliefs. It’s 2020 — the wealth gap widens, and we are almost at our planetary limits, but simultaneously, positive cultural revolutions are occurring, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. COVID-19 has made us all aware of how much society relies on social and industrial systems to function. These systems were all designed in ways that greatly benefit some and but leave others at a disadvantage. We rely on access to products, on our global supply and demand networks. Not siloed, almost every market has suffered a massive shock from the pandemic and are now rebuilding. This rebuilding offers an unparalleled opportunity to regenerate markets and norms in equitable ways. Society is partially run by global economies, and many of our world’s ills are due to capitalism, so as a design student, the effects of COVID-19 allow for the opportunity to explore new world-building strategies through the use of diegetic prototypes. Diegetic prototypes, or tangible and intangible objects which make visible and thinkable the speculative futures they hope to create, are a sort of fictional narrative of a possible future in the present. As a way to address the narrative and aesthetic urgency of the opportunity such a crisis presents, this Literary Arts & Studies independent study project will allow me to explore manifestations of speculative futures within fictional texts through the lens of the environmental humanities and Anthropocene theory. My explorations will be divided into three chapters: How did we get here? Where are we now? What future will we create?

The How Did We Get Here chapter will trace the problematic narratives from the Anthropocene, reading the works of such thinkers as Jason W. Moore and Timothy Morton. With roots in the decentering of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color’s perspectives, the Age of Enlightenment and Industrialization can be read as having separated humanity from nature, leading to extractivism. Looking at such works as Moore’s Utopia and Carson’s Silent Spring, by bringing these issues into the Literary Arts, emotionally fragile stories become experiences for the reader, allowing for greater empathy when thinking about futures. The Where are We Now chapter will deconstruct the negative socio-economic and environmental effects made newly visible by the pandemic and identify in speculative literature and cinema of our contemporary moment, and the decades directly preceding it, signals and seeds for alternative futures, reading the work of such authors as Kim Stanley Robinson and Bruce Sterling. This chapter asks how the field of future aesthetics may help us build a new future, moving beyond traditional science fiction tropes and structures by thinking through the work of critics and theorists such as Mark Dery and Michel Foucault.

The What Futures Will We Create chapter will attempt to define possible, plausible, probable, and preferable futures: “One that,” as economist Kate Raworth says, “moves away from endless growth to a paradigm that is founded upon thriving, resilience, and well-being in communities by political values, interests and mindsets”. Pairing fictional novels such as Butler’s Patternmaster with the theoretical imaginings of Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway who together ask us to imagine a post-capitalist world united by alternative networks of kinship, will allow me to use speculative thinking as a vehicle for imagining social and ecological design futures. This ISP asks of the fictional worlds created by speculative fictions such questions as: how should we use the Global Commons? How can humans live in harmony with earth, as nature? Might there be a seed of the future in these speculative narratives of our present?

This inquiry will produce one 4–6 page paper for each of the three sections and two 1–2 page literary analysis response papers. Together, these writings will offer a full temporal spectrum: analyzing literary past, present, and future iterations of the social, environmental, economic, and political futures made possible in the Anthropocene. I will publish versions of some of the essays produced for this class on Medium, in the spirit of the democratization of knowledge, sharing them with the community.

Design Futures Strategist, Environmentalist, Systems-Thinker