Design and Existential Risk
11.01.2010, 7:57 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

“As we enter the second decade of the 21st Century, we are challenged by unprecedented planetary scale events: resource wars, climate change, emerging diseases- which increase in frequency and pose unprecedented problems for mapping and design. What can the role be for design when the reality that faces us is more extraordinary than the worlds we have imagined in science fiction?”

These are some of the ideas and questions that coordinator and moderator Ed Keller poses to panelists of the Existential Risk series this fall at Parsons. We’re honored to be a part of this series and will be presenting our work next Friday, November 5th, along with architect and writer David Gersten.

view to the south of Yucca Mountain, image: DOE

For our talk we’ll visually pair what we see as two imminent existential risks facing humans today:  the materiality of nuclear waste and the geologic force of earthquakes.

San Andreas Fault, image USGS

We’ll juxtapose the time and force of the anticipated “big one” in California, a potential 8.1 earthquake that has been overdue for decades, with the time and force of  high-level nuclear waste storage.  When it arrives, the big one will change life for millions within minutes.  Similarly, the risk of even brief exposure to nuclear waste is so great, it requires we humans to design highly specialized storage facilities that can keep the material isolated from ourselves (and plants and animals) AND withstand geologic forces (such as earthquakes, climate change, and volcanic eruptions) for the next 10,000 to 1 million years.

Onkalo, Finland, image Posiva

During our presentation we’ll explore several interrelated questions about design’s creative and pragmatic potential when it comes to existential risk:  By most measures, the general public has been unable or unwilling to access the full force of imminent existential risks such as the big one and the storage of nuclear waste.  What does such inability or unwillingness mean for communication and graphic designers who take up the challenge of communicating existential risk to the public?  Even if people become able to face the bare fact of existential risk full on—what might it mean to “prepare” for it?  Does the idea of “preparing” have any life-making force in the face of such risk?

demolition of the U Canyon deck at Hanford, image DOE (read more about U Canyon)

We’ll animate these questions through references to Onkalo in Finland, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the Hanford Site in Washington state, and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.  They’ll help us illustrate the reality that despite having more than 100 million gallons of high-level nuclear waste within our nation’s borders, we do not have a single receiving facility for the storage of this waste.  You might call the resulting situation a self-inflicted existential risk designed by humans for themselves.

The fact that only 10% of people in San Francisco can be considered “prepared” for the big one helps us illustrate another question relevant to design and existential risk:  does human inability or disinterest in grasping geologic time’s scale and force aggravate our ability to respond to risks that are nuclear and geologic in nature?

Trinity Site obelisk, FOP 2009

We suggest that when looked at through the perspective of geologic time, these two existential risks are already taking place as events right now.  And so, in some sense, what has been most feared has already arrived. Within this reality, potentials for entirely new discourses, actions, designs, and idioms for visualization and meaning-making are released.  What else might we do if fear and so-called preparation are no longer meaningful or useful?

Many artists, designers, scientists and engineers are now responding to these risks as the on-the-ground reality that they are.  Some are attempting to find aesthetic and graphic means to make them real and sense-able to larger populations.  Some are designing and building pragmatic means to alleviate them.  We will offer samples of our work and that of other artists, especially the authors and designers of  The L.A. Earthquake Book, as provocations–not to make imminent existential risks seem manageable or “safe”–but to make them accessible as “real.”

The event begins at 6pm, Friday, November 5 (full info here).  We hope to see you there! There’s a fantastic line up for the entire series.  If you aren’t able to make it in person, presentations are being collected in a streaming archive, including the series’ inaugural conversation between Bruce Sterling and Carla Leitao in New York and Geoff Manaugh and Ed Keller in Los Angeles.

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