2°C – Parsons & Charlesworth


22 September 2015

Could design play a constructive role in the climate change debate?

This was the question that Disegno posed for 2°C, a new project that spreads across our latest magazine Disegno No.9 and into a corresponding exhibition at The Aram Gallery in London.

For 2°C, Disegno set 10 leading designers and architects a challenge: could they redesign the public communication of climate change? The intention was not to provide finished public campaigns or definite answers, but rather to provocate and probe. How might a change in the way we conceive of and talk about climate change affect the climate change movement itself?

In a series of printed proposals in the magazine and objects displayed in the exhibition, the contributing designers – Marjan van Aubel, Sam Baron, Maria Blaisse, Ilona Gaynor, Ross Lovegrove, Neri & Hu, Parsons & Charlesworth, PearsonLloyd, Universal Design Studio and Dominic Wilcox – responded in hugely diverse ways.

Below, we are delighted to highlight Chicago-based design studio Parsons & Charlesworth’s contribution to 2°C. Founded by designers Tim Parsons and Jessica Charlesworth, the studio developed a narrative about the Charists, an imagined community that has woven carbon sequestration (a series of processes for capturing and storing CO2 from both atmospheric and anthropic sources) into its everyday life and cultural rituals.

The story weaves scientific facts around climate change technology with literary techniques. At the heart of the proposal is the idea that if new and compelling stories could be told around and about climate change, accompanying shifts in behaviour might be triggered. The full text of the story of the Charists is available at the bottom of this page.

How did you interpret the brief?

Tim Parsons It’s a huge subject matter and initially we were rather daunted by the project. To be quite honest, even if we both thought of ourselves as people who knew a bit about climate change, once we started digging we discovered that there was so much more to learn. There was a point in the project when we felt overwhelmed by the weight of facts and all the things people seemed to need educating about. So how do you cram all of that into some sort of campaign?

Jessica Charlesworth I think we got bogged down by the important issues and the facts, the opinions and doom. For me it’s always good to get all of that in your head and then find a way to let it out. Because we’re very visual people we like to make things and visualise things, but that took a long time with this, way longer than normal.

TP We ended up spending a lot of time talking about what we didn’t want to do as a response. It seemed like one of those projects where there are an awful lot of rather cliched responses. As designers we were very keen to avoid moralising and patronising the audience. It felt like it was very easy to imagine doing a project that just tells an audience what it should do. But all the general advice for individuals seems to be advice that everyone had heard before: turn down your thermostats; do more recycling. It just felt that we couldn’t do another campaign that tells people to do less. It helped contribute to the direction we eventually chose, which was based around storytelling.

What led to that?

TP We heard a talk given by the writer Neil Gaiman, which was about how stories can catch on and live for a long period of time. He was talking particularly about folkloric stories that are known to have been told 5,000 years ago and which are still being passed down through families. Anyway, in his talk he mentions how there came a point in the 1970s when scientists realised that because nuclear waste has an incredibly long half-life, there would be a really difficult communication problem in the future with storage facilities for nuclear waste. You can put a sign up telling people it’s dangerous and not to enter, but what happens in 1,000 years? Language changes and symbols change. How can we be sure future generations will be in a position to understand the warning. The conclusion Gaiman discussed was that we’d have to create a story about this situation; you create some kind of folklore about storage facilities as bad places. Even if there were fictional elements to that story it wouldn't matter, because as long as it had the particular elements that a story needs to be effective, it would be compelling. That proved instrumental in the way we thought about this project. Let’s create a series of stories that have some compelling elements and have the possibility of making people feel differently about climate change.

You’re talking about fictional elements, but there’s something quite personal about thinking about the effects our behaviour might have in the future.

JC We read a lots of Margaret Atwood's work and she creates a lot of cautionary, speculative future writing. She wrote an article about climate change that created quite a lot of response. She introduced different outcomes of climate change and a few different scenarios: a dystopian world, a utopian world, and then a middle option. Then she went on to dissect all of the different ways we’ve been thinking about climate change from a belief standpoint. She also talked a bit about carbon sequesteration in her article, which chimed with some of the research we’ve been doing about different technologies around climate change; quite absurd and dramatic technological responses. I think that inspires and disturbs at the same time, because you don’t know the implications of those in the future.

Did you have a set of stories that came from your research and you then pursued one?

TP We decided that we would undertake this as a larger project. This idea of future climate histories is an umbrella project that we will now try to create, either as a book or as some kind of larger entity. We had a few starting points for different stories. One I was thinking about was whether you could physically capture the exhaust fumes of vehicles if you were an activist. A bicycle with some sort of device on it and then you cycle up behind cars. It gets quite ridiculous, but I was keen that whatever we pursued had a basis in science. That one, the bicycle idea, when I started looking into it, wasn’t for instance based in science: it would have ended up being like a piece of performance art. But carbon sequestering is actually proven science.

You said you wanted your response to be visual. Is that why you created an artefact – the carbon Char-Dolly?

TP We didn’t ever think about it not being visual. All of our recent project have combined a physical artefact with some sort of text, and often that text is a story. It’s a mode we’ve been working in for a while. As designers with a background in three-dimensional design, we love making things and want to be able to communicate using that language, but the written language is a way of helping people get into our heads and understand more fully what the artefact is trying to communicate.

JC We were developing a society of people that we wanted to be as real as possible. We started planning outfits to wear, tattoos they would have on their arms, the furniture they would have in their home, the life they would lead. How obsessive they’d become as carbon sequestering, as if they were masons. We wanted them to feel as real as possible.

Does climate change impact upon your wider work?

TP As designers and design teachers, sustainability is always present. The kind of work we do is such that we’re not generally engaging with mass production on a very large scale. We tend to be working on a smaller scale. From that point of view it’s not something we’ve necessarily enacted in terms of specific material choices in our own work. But we definitely try to ensure there’s nothing bad in what we do in terms of material choices and the effects of the objects. In my own personal design work, I’ve always tried to approach sustainability from the kind of point of view of making things as durable and cherish-able as possible. This idea that if you imbue the object with as much thought as possible and you can communicate its values to the end user, it gives that object a chance of longterm survival, rather than it being something ephemeral and easily thrown away.

Open Society for Carbon Sequestration

Looking back through the annals of time we occasionally catch a glimpse of what might have been. The great planetary roasting we are in the midst of was once considered abatable, not least by a lesser-known group of early twenty-first century activists known as The Charists. Rather than be numbed by the demoralizing helplessness of our predicament the Charists embraced impending doom with graceful equanimity, nevertheless, they vowed in no way to contribute to it personally. It followed, they argued, that if everyone did likewise the problem might in fact disappear. And while that was highly unlikely, there was considerable solace to be had in the belief that “the end of the world as we knew it” was not their fault.

The Charists were a grassroots movement driven by the fact that our most pernicious of greenhouse gasses, carbon dioxide (CO2), can be removed from the atmosphere by growing and harvesting biomass and sequestering it through the clean production of charcoal known as bio-char. While lobbyists pushed the populace to reduce its carbon footprint, Charists went one step further, devoting their lives to the obsessive sequestering of atmospheric CO2 in pursuit of their ultimate goal: to have a net-negative carbon impact as individuals.

What would develop into the Open Society for Carbon Sequestration had its origin in agriculture (bio-char is a highly effective soil conditioner). The movement spread to urban farms and eventually to urban-dwelling non-farmers around the United Kingdom who were struck by the physical potential of affecting CO2 levels, however negligibly. Charist activity encompassed everything from growing and harvesting one’s own biomass to scavenging and even stealing wood or other char-able plant matter in order to stop the CO2 within from being released via burning or decomposition.

Traditional charcoal making releases CO2 and considerable amounts of methane but with the development of advanced pyrolysis systems using sealed metal tanks, harmful gasses were retained and reactors could even produce by-products such as bio-oil. Home charring took off following the open-source distribution of plans for the Two Barrel Retort, a simple D.I.Y. bio-char oven that can be made from paint cans or oil drums with minimal tools. With each running retort producing several hours’ worth of heat suitable for cooking, Charist gatherings soon grew into social events centered on communal cooking and celebration of the “charvest”.

Sporting their signature black smocks and chapter insignia, Charists would meet monthly on the eve of the full moon. Festivities began once the crop of biomass contributed by all-comers had been weighed, loaded into the retorts and lit. After some calculations, the Char-Master would announce the yield (the amount of CO2 that had been sequestered from the atmosphere) and this figure, along with the date, would be engraved on a Char-Dolly – a specially crafted effigy embodying the spirit of biomass – presented to the Charist who had contributed the most by weight. The Char-Dolly would be proudly kept by the recipient until the next gathering when it would be used to light the retorts, although as the dolls became more elaborate many Charists chose to keep theirs, fashioning a roughly made substitute.