Save some for the whales

whale-304823_1280“Hey, save some for the whales!” When I was recently getting ready for bed, this is how my partner playfully informed me that I was taking too long at our only bathroom sink.

You probably heard this saying frequently in grade school, most often around the water fountain during recess. Hearing it again made me reflect on how I first began to imagine my actions affecting the environment. I was a very literal child, so I recall a vivid image of a large tank of water slowly draining, with an unhappy whale circling around. (You know, I’m surprised I used drinking fountains at all. Who drinks whale water?)

Of course, this isn’t how it works at all. We have plenty of misconceptions about how our individual actions add up to make a significant impact on the environment. Often, these misunderstandings cause us to expend a great deal of effort without much payoff. Many times, a complicated calculus is involved in estimating the trade-off between, say, bags made of paper, plastic, or cotton grown with heavy pesticides.

Aside from this complex calculus, there is an aesthetic element — a way of imagining or representing impact in an intuitive way. This reflection inspired an idea for a new assignment in my environmental ethics class.

Pratt students excel at exercises involving visualization. They also have access to a great deal of resources regarding material life cycles and other sustainable design strategies, thanks to the rapidly growing interdisciplinary sustainability program (here, here, and here). My environmental ethics class provides them with an overview of several major ethical paradigms, and how they identify and assess value in nature. The plan is to combine all of these elements and ask students to create a visualization of environmental impact in a way that makes the ethical commitments transparent to the audience.

Antony Gormley and Peter Clegg calculated that a kg of CO2 takes up roughly the same space as a coffin, which they have carved into arctic ice. (Image source: Capefarewell.com)

We’ll review a few infographics, charts, and other visualizations. Carbon footprint calculators are a good place to start. Some convert all impacts into land use and offer a “number of Earths” that would be required if everyone lived as you do. Is this a Kantian gesture? Clearly not everyone does live a carbon-intensive lifestyle, which is evident in the disparity between per capita emissions broken down by state.

The documentary, Art from a Changing Arctic from the Cape Farewell Foundation, which we watch in class, shows a number of artists from different mediums and genres struggling with a similar questions. But what’s going on here? The art is spectacular. However each of them only briefly reflect only on the ethical concepts they had in mind when creating the art, if they reflect on them at all.

I’m excited to see how the students will respond. Check back at the end of the semester for results. In the meantime, if you have ideas or links to relevant infographics, articles, images, artworks, etc., please post them in the comments.

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