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Hope in the Face of Crisis

In November RISD hosted a two-day symposium exploring equitable paths to environmental justice.

Hope in the Face of Crisis

A two-day Climate Futures symposium at RISD explored connections between environmental activism and social justice movements.

In opening Climate Futures, Design and the Just Transition, a symposium held at RISD on November 9 and 10, Dean of Liberal Arts Damian White issued a passionate call for new—even hopeful—ways of addressing climate change. Despite increasingly grim forecasts and daunting political obstacles, he urged scholars, makers and activists to avoid giving in to apocalyptic thinking.

“We have to grapple with the crisis of the crisis,” White urged, “and with the crisis of the imagination” that can hinder collective action.

Scholar Sean Sweeney addressing connections between labor activism and energy democracy.

Building on previous gatherings at Brown and Northeastern University, the two-day event brought together experts from a range of fields to present research and spark dialogue about how activists involved in environmental and social justice movements can work together towards a more sustainable and democratic future. Speakers also expressed optimism for the change that design, communication and collective organizing can bring about.

“We have to grapple with the crisis of the crisis—and with the crisis of the imagination.”
damian white, dean of liberal arts

Referring in name to both a plural and pluralistic vision of change, Climate Futures stemmed from a seminar that White is currently teaching with Timmons Roberts, a professor of sociology at Brown who also helped co-organize the symposium with White and Thea Riofrancos, a faculty member in Providence College’s Political Science department. And in emphasizing the importance of “remaking material cultures,” the gathering also highlighted the interdisciplinary focuses of Nature–Culture–Sustainability Studies, one of two new liberal arts master’s programs offered at RISD.

Panelists shared insights into cooperatives and public ownership of green energy.

Throughout the symposium speakers such as author/scholar Juliet Schor, Kate Aronoff of The Intercept and several RISD faculty members addressed topics ranging from the limits of the sharing economy for driving change to public ownership of clean energy and the future of “green social democracy.” In Q+As following each panel, participants highlighted the magnitude of all these issues and, as Professor Lili Hermann put it, emphasized the need to implement solutions and shift social practices “on a massive scale.”

“I imagine a society that can see the impact of its own existence.”
Myles lennon, doctoral candidate at yale university

So, what does a just transition look like? And how do we reverse-engineer a path toward sustainable, equitable climate futures? The symposium ended with participants discussing the possibilities in a lively roundtable discussion led by Riofrancos, with responses ranging from tactical recommendations—new platforms for sharing resources, greater investment in public schools—to wide-angle visions of a more environmentally conscious public. “I imagine a society that can see the impact of its own existence,” said Yale doctoral candidate Myles Lennon, who lamented how modern-day energy systems obscure the consequences of human activity.

And in a call for unrestrained, optimistic activism that captured the spirit of Climate Futures, Boston University faculty member Julie Klinger urged the audience “to allow ourselves to think about utopia—to imagine beautiful things and be idealistic [in] expressing the world that we want to see.”

Robert Albanese

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