Humanity may eventually have no choice but to design the planet for our survival.
... But we need to find a fit with nature and not fit nature through the totalizing narrative of “ecological security.”
SHOULD THE PLANET BE A DESIGN PROJECT? The question appeared in big and bold type at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s recent exhibition The Future Starts Here, which called attention to transformative ideas and technologies that exist today but are not yet widely distributed.1 The prompt to consider large-scale landscape change came near the end of the show, as if to remind visitors that the hundred or so objects on display might be used literally to shape the world, not only imaginations of it. The words were emblazoned on a long, open-top box containing fine-grained sand, which visitors could touch or sculpt. As they engaged with the exhibit, an overhead LiDAR sensor captured elevation data, and the simulated effects of topographic manipulation were projected onto the sand as colored light. Piling the sand high produced snowy peaks; excavating it resulted in rivers and lakes; in between were verdant slopes. The only constraint was the angle of repose.
The installation dramatized the extraordinary role humans play in environmental change. Improving lives and livelihoods by intensively transforming land into landscape — through agriculture, industry, and urbanism — we have brought about the Anthropocene, a geologic appellation which recognizes humanity as a force of nature2 Climate change is only the most visible effect; we might also consider the ways plant and animal species are evolving to live in our cities.3 From this perspective, the planet has long been the product of design, if not its object. If we are now willing to accept our agency as planetary designers, there are new questions to consider, such as how we balance means and ends, or hopes and fears.
- 1. Rory Hyde and Mariana Pestana, exhibit curators, The Future Starts Here, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2018.
- 2. Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, “The ‘Anthropocene,’” Global Change Newsletter 41 (2000), 17–18 [PDF]; Simon Dalby, Environmental Security (University of Minnesota Press, 2002); Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (Columbia University Press, 2016); Will Steffen, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen and John McNeill, “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 369:1938 (2011), 842–67, https://doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2010.0327.
- 3. Camille Parmesan and Gary Yohe, “A Globally Coherent Fingerprint of Climate Change Impacts Across Natural Systems,” Nature 421(2003), 37–42, https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01286; Menno Schilthuizen, Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution (Picador, 2018).