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Using visuals to solve ecological illiteracy

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In the first of a two-part interview, Joanna Boehnert, founder of design research studio EcoLabs, speaks to B&GT about the visual communication of complex environmental problems. She begins by outlining the problem she believes her venture is uniquely solving.

EcoLabs uses design and educational methods to support learning about environmental issues.

We develop resources and projects to support ecological literacy (also known as ecoliteracy). Ecoliteracy enables a holistic approach to environmental problems and nurtures critical thinking about the political, economic and cultural processes that perpetuate environmentally harmful activities.

What’s your background?

I grew up in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. I started university studying politics but transferred to fine arts after deciding that the environmental crisis could only be effectively addressed once new attitudes and ways of thinking about our relationship with the natural world were normalised.

I saw art and visual communication as having a role in the development of new ways of perceiving our relationship with nature. I have worked towards this goal ever since.

When I graduated from university, I worked as an artist in Toronto. My first show sold out and I made enough money to go travelling for a year in Europe and India.

When I came back to Canada, I wanted to do more political engaged artwork. I worked on issues of sexual violence against girls and women. Needless to say I was no longer able to make a living from my artwork.

For the next few years, I worked at small enterprises in the creative industries and then as a designer. I moved to London. My commitment to environmental activism grew and I supported many grassroots campaigns and social movements.

I co-founded Transition Towns Brixton in 2006 – transforming a tiny Lambeth Climate Action Group into the first urban transition town in a metropolis.

After a decade exploring creative strategies to address environmental problems, I founded EcoLabs (also in 2006). Over the past seven years, EcoLabs has helped dozens of organisations communicate environmental information. We have also developed self-initiated projects to support ecological learning.

As it became increasingly obvious to me that there were still serious gaps in knowledge in the fields of environmental communication, I started Arts and Humanities Research Council funded PhD in the department of Architecture and Design at the University of Brighton in 2008.

This research, titled The Visual Communication of Ecological Literacy: Designing, Learning and Emergent Ecological Perception is now finished and available on the EcoLabs website.

I am now working on a variety of environmental communication design projects, academic papers and two books. I have been working with the Transition Research Network on developing research to support the transition movement.

In August 2013, I will be moving to Colorado for one year to take a position as visiting research fellow at CIRES, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado. At CIRES I will be working on making large-scale visualisations of issues of the green economy and climate communication.

How would you define ‘ecological literacy’?

Ecological literacy explores the root causes of environmental problems, not just the symptoms.

The aim of ecological literacy is to create the frame of mind that recognises relations and interdependency with the natural world and supports the development of new capacities to create sustainable way of living. Ecological literacy is an approach to sustainability that acknowledges geophysical relationships in such a manner that transforms learning and cultural priorities.

As ecological literacy takes a holistic view of sustainability imperatives, it holds that ecological knowledge must be diffuse and embedded in all disciplines and sectors.

Ecological literacy is especially important in design education since designers are responsible for the creation of sustainable new ways of living. As this goal will only become possible when ecological literacy in embedded in design practice, design education has been a focus for EcoLabs.

Is the UK ecologically literate?

Ecological literacy emphasises the contextual and relational characteristics of ecological wellbeing and sees learning as central to addressing environmental problems. Ultimately, sustainability is not a feature of a particular product but the condition of a culture relative to its impact on ecological systems.

Since the cumulative impact of consumer lifestyles, or the ecological footprint of consumption in the UK is 4.8 global hectares (gha), nothing in our culture is sustainable.

While the behaviour of certain individuals is below the threshold (i.e. they personally use fewer resources and create less population) the gross impact of the collective system is the indicator that matters.

The UK continues this trajectory of unsustainable development largely because those with political power are largely failing to respond to ecologically informed analysis of current industrial practices.

Because ecological literacy is marginal, our capacity to respond effectively to environmental problems is low. Ecological knowledge is a basis informed decisions.

How easy is it to visually communicate ecological problems?

The point is to be effective not to do something that is easy. Images can be effective in the communication of environmental problems because images display context and relationships.

Images can establish hierarchy of information. Images are tools to show details while also showing how these details relate to the ‘bigger picture’. Thus images are excellent tools to reveal the complexity ecological issues.

The Eco-Literacy Map that EcoLabs has created is very interesting. How did you come up with this and what does the map show?

The ‘Eco Literacy Map’ is an A1 poster that provides an overview of the literature review for my PhD in the style of a London tube map. On this poster, individual theorists are stations and the various disciplines that form the basis of my research are the tube lines.

The poster provided an introduction to ecological literacy and addresses the problematic fragmentation in research cultures. It has been downloaded nearly 5,000 times from my website but I am keen to develop this work as a silk-screen print.

I need to find a little funding to make this happen, so if you like this poster and you would buy a silk-screen print of this work, please get in touch.

Further reading:

From austerity to scarcity: the coming global crisis

Melting ice caps, deforestation and dead oceans

The inevitability of easing pressure on humanity’s ecological credit card

Economy

How Going Green Can Save A Company Money

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going green can save company money
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By GOLFX

What is going green?

Going green means to live life in a way that is environmentally friendly for an entire population. It is the conservation of energy, water, and air. Going green means using products and resources that will not contaminate or pollute the air. It means being educated and well informed about the surroundings, and how to best protect them. It means recycling products that may not be biodegradable. Companies, as well as people, that adhere to going green can help to ensure a safer life for humanity.

The first step in going green

There are actually no step by step instructions for going green. The only requirement needed is making the decision to become environmentally conscious. It takes a caring attitude, and a willingness to make the change. It has been found that companies have improved their profit margins by going green. They have saved money on many of the frivolous things they they thought were a necessity. Besides saving money, companies are operating more efficiently than before going green. Companies have become aware of their ecological responsibility by pursuing the knowledge needed to make decisions that would change lifestyles and help sustain the earth’s natural resources for present and future generations.

Making needed changes within the company

After making the decision to go green, there are several things that can be changed in the workplace. A good place to start would be conserving energy used by electrical appliances. First, turning off the computer will save over the long run. Just letting it sleep still uses energy overnight. Turn off all other appliances like coffee maker, or anything that plugs in. Pull the socket from the outlet to stop unnecessary energy loss. Appliances continue to use electricity although they are switched off, and not unplugged. Get in the habit of turning off the lights whenever you leave a room. Change to fluorescent light bulbs, and lighting throughout the building. Have any leaks sealed on the premises to avoid the escape of heat or air.

Reducing the common paper waste

paper waste

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Yury Zap

Modern technologies and state of the art equipment, and tools have almost eliminated the use of paper in the office. Instead of sending out newsletters, brochures, written memos and reminders, you can now do all of these and more by technology while saving on the use of paper. Send out digital documents and emails to communicate with staff and other employees. By using this virtual bookkeeping technique, you will save a bundle on paper. When it is necessary to use paper for printing purposes or other services, choose the already recycled paper. It is smartly labeled and easy to find in any office supply store. It is called the Post Consumer Waste paper, or PCW paper. This will show that your company is dedicated to the preservation of natural resources. By using PCW paper, everyone helps to save the trees which provides and emits many important nutrients into the atmosphere.

Make money by spreading the word

Companies realize that consumers like to buy, or invest in whatever the latest trend may be. They also cater to companies that are doing great things for the quality of life of all people. People want to know that the companies that they cater to are doing their part for the environment and ecology. By going green, you can tell consumers of your experiences with helping them and communities be eco-friendly. This is a sound public relations technique to bring revenue to your brand. Boost the impact that your company makes on the environment. Go green, save and make money while essentially preserving what is normally taken for granted. The benefits of having a green company are enormous for consumers as well as the companies that engage in the process.

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Energy

5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable

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sustainable homes
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By Diyana Dimitrova

Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.

1. Weather stripping

If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.

Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.

Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.

2. Programmable thermostats

Programmable thermostats

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Olivier Le Moal

Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.

Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!

3. Low-flow water hardware

With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.

Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.

Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.

4. Energy efficient light bulbs

An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.

New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.

5. Installing solar panels

Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.

Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.

From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!

These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.

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