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Fostering Environmental Literacy

05/20/2014

Associate Professor Damian White talks about RISD’s unique approach to nature, culture and sustainability issues.

This fall RISD will launch a new concentration in Nature-Culture-Sustainability Studies (NCSS). The 21-credit, interdisciplinary minor is designed to encourage undergraduates from a wide range of disciplines to shape their own courses of environmental study. The idea has been brewing under the guidance of Associate Professor Damian White, head of History, Philosophy + the Social Sciences, who began a pilot program in 2012 to refine the concept.

“The pilot emerged out of an informal faculty group called the RISD Initiative on Sustainability and the Environment (RISE), which formed about five years ago,” says White. “We started to meet and found that we are teaching courses that overlap and complement one another – courses on sustainability, environmental justice, science art, aesthetics of future worlds. Some of us began wondering whether we could do better work if we were more deeply connected and what it would mean to allow students to explore these issues outside of their core disciplines.”

In determining which courses to include in the concentration, the group considered what other art and design schools are doing in the field and how RISD’s program could be unique. “What RISD brings to the discussion is a very strong liberal arts focus,” White explains. “We’ve got a growing hub of courses in environmental humanities that reach beyond the classic environmentalist work to explore ideas about hybridity, cyborgs and emerging techno-natures.”

As White explains, for the past 50 years the role of designers has largely been one of obscuring the quickly shifting “material through-put” at the heart of modern industrial societies. “These materials are dug out of the earth, shipped to their destination and then quickly disposed of, with huge social and environmental impacts,” he says. “And design has played an important role in disguising those impacts. Think of the very pretty Whole Foods meat counter designed to take the suffering and the sludge and the workers paid nothing and clean it out of the picture. The system is entirely dependent on endless cheap labor, resources and energy and on vastly complicated infrastructures.”

White’s vision for the NCSS concentration is to help students develop a stronger materials and ecological literacy as a means of shifting the narrative from “The planet is ruined and we’re screwed” to: “How can we adapt to our changing environment and totally rethink the way we do things?” Pointing out that RISD “prides itself on imagination and creativity,” White says, “We should have the broader social imagination and creativity to look upon these issues and say ‘we can ecologize our cities, work less and walk more, cook better, rethink our transportation systems.’”

With 76 students already officially enrolled in the new program, White says it’s clear how eager they are to sculpt their own individualized courses of study in this area. During the 2014–15 academic year, they’ll have more than 55 related classes to choose from – everything from Social Change in a Warming World to Architecture of Utopia to Biology of Animal-Human Interactions.

About two-thirds of the students who have signed on are design majors, with the majority in Industrial Design. But environmental studies and sustainability are playing an increasingly more central role in the work of fine artists as well (think of multimedia artists Natalie Jerimijenko, who served as a visiting artist at RISD this year, Sophia Sobers MFA 13 DM, and Tavares Strachan 03 GL, among  many others).

White is also careful not to proselytize about environmentalism. “There’s a big difference between preaching and teaching,” he notes, “and most environmental problems are pretty complicated. Our goal as educators is to present students with a range of ways to understand a problem and come up with a solution. My hope is that this program can provide a forum in which to have those discussions.”

Simone Solondz

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tags: faculty, innovation, interdisciplinary, History, Philosophy + the Social Sciences, Liberal Arts, social responsibility, sustainability, Literary Arts + Studies

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RISD has a long history of offering Saturday and after-school classes for children and teens, as this photo from c. 1910 confirms.