In January this year, Sophie Sleeman, a 17-year-old A-level student from Devon, England, responded to a post on the YouthStrike4Climate Facebook page seeking people to join an online video conference mobilising students to strike across the UK. By 15 February, that one action had triggered a chain of events that led to hundreds of students missing class to protest in Exeter, where Sleeman attends college. The protest was one of dozens of mass-strikes that took place around the country, at which up to 15,000 young people were said to have participated, following similar gatherings in Europe and Australia. While she baulks at the suggestion that she organised ‘the whole thing’ in Exeter, Sleeman is a good example of how the decision by a few to act has quickly led to an outpouring of shared anger at the way the adults in the room are handling our collective response to climate change and environmental destruction.

Initiated by the determined actions of Greta Thunberg – who was only 15 when she started striking from school in Sweden, in August 2018 – the international ‘strike for climate’ movement has provided an amazing rebuttal to the resigned response of ‘what can one person do?’ Mainly organised by teenagers under the age of 18, but with university students and younger children also involved, students around the world have been motivated to launch their own strikes. In the UK, the YouthStrike4Climate protests were set in motion after 17-year-old Anna Taylor, and a handful of like-minded young activists, were inspired by scenes of thousands of students striking in Australia, in late-November, to see if something similar could happen in their own country. One of dozens to quickly respond to the resulting call to arms, Sleeman says that a decentralised approach, with protests far from limited to capital cities, has been key to rallying ‘against existing power structures.’ Also clear is that a sense of common purpose has been found across borders, with Taylor explaining that weekly conference calls have been taking place between up to 40 international coordinators as they build towards a day of collective protest on 15 March.

The student’s placards and banners have brought an emotive force to the aesthetics of protest, with hand-drawn slogans questioning the point of studying – or tidying your bedroom – when the planet needs saving. A statement of fact followed by a simple question on a placard in Glasgow – ‘The climate is changing. Why aren’t we?’ – perhaps best sums up the point of it all. But the more blunt demand, ‘Stop fucking with our future!’ fronted by a picture of the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, with added cigarette and devil horns, better conveys the passion and anger of those participating.

While awareness of a warming world existed long before many of the protesters were even born, the strikes have come at a moment when the media is becoming increasingly filled with stark warnings on the sheer level of environmental and ecological change in the so-called Anthropocene age. Recent examples have included a 2018 World Wildlife Fund report showing that animal populations have declined by more than 50% since the 1970s, followed this year by a report indicating 40% of insect species are also in decline. The Armageddon scenario such reports present is not one of dramatic natural disasters, but rather a slow-burn genocide enacted on the species we share the Earth with.

Power Plant by Marjan van Aubel. The project is one of the winners of the Climate Action Challenge
News of change on a climatic scale is, of course, equally dire. A much cited report last year by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned government policymakers that net carbon emissions must fall by around 45% (from 2010 levels) by 2030, and reach ‘net zero’ by 2050, if we are to limit global warming to a 1.5% rise in temperature above pre-industrial levels. Jim Skea, a professor of sustainable energy at Imperial College London and co-chair of one of the IPCC’s working groups, said on the report’s release that, ‘Limiting warming to 1.5°C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes.’

The student protesters are well aware of how overwhelming the challenge can appear, but in showing how the actions of a few can quickly multiply they have added an extra edge to the voices calling for drastic change. Viewed within the prism of those optimistic that a greener future can still be fought for, design and designers – alongside policymakers, scientists and engineers – lie at the heart of a solutions-based approach to enacting this change. With action needed across all scales of human society and behaviour, the relevance of environmentally-focused design can range from huge geo-engineering and renewable energy projects, through urban planning and architecture, to domestic appliances, fixtures and fittings and lifestyle products.

The Urge to Sit Dry, 2018, Bruno Maas
Well Proven Chair, 2013, Marjan van Aubel with James Shaw, the American Hard Wood Export Council and Benchmark Furniture
One area where design comes to the forefront is in communicating the complexity and severity of the climate crisis in more creative ways. The Urge To Sit Dry, by the young Dutch designer Boris Maas, is a utilitarian smoked-oak chair raised on interchangeable light oak blocks that can lift the height of the seat relative to changing sea levels. Placed individually, one on top of the other, the lighter blocks sit in a haphazard alignment, the offset lines mimicking the fluidity of water. It is an economical, minimal piece that can quickly make the viewer feel immersed below the rising tide, effectively bringing home both our individual and shared vulnerability.

Maas presents the chair as a response to a question that chimes with the rallying cries of the student protesters: ‘Why can't we do something about the endless stupidity of the unawareness for the upcoming disaster that is climate change?’ The 23-year-old, who says he has been stunned and impressed by the strike action, hopes that, through his work, he too can help ‘motivate change.’

Like Maas, London-based Katie-May Boyd is another designer who cleverly communicates environmental topics in a visual form. Her 2018 project, Foreign Garbage, required her to develop her own process for turning waste polystyrene in to a reusable material from which she could produce versions of the iconic maneki-neko cat. In an earlier, conceptual project, The Red Rains of Change, Boyd conceived a drone that would produce biblically-inspired red rain as a highly visible warning of dangerous pollution levels. As a designer today, she says, ‘When you look to the future, you can’t not consider the environment.’ However, while expressing optimism that a generation of new designers brought up on the importance of sustainability will have a positive role to play in creating a ‘more green society,’ she is also alert to the contradictions involved. She admits, for instance, to a ‘feeling of guilt as a designer’ about the role design has played in propagating ‘extreme consumerism.’

Foreign Garbage by Katie-May Boyd. A beckoning Japanese Maneki-neko made from deflated polystyrene.


The award-winning solar designer Marjan van Aubel, whose work involves using a dye-based technology to incorporate solar electricity generation into furniture and windows, echoes the mixture of optimism and scepticism expressed by Boyd. As van Aubel explains, ‘It can sometimes be quite hard to say how sustainable a product really is. For example: is it made from biodegradable, recycled plastic? What happens to this biodegradable plastic afterwards?’ Establishing genuine sustainability, she says, requires taking the ‘full circularity cycle’ of a product into account, ‘which is a complicated process.’ On a positive note, van Aubel adds, ‘Regulations would help, and are helping on a bigger scale. And things are changing already. The idea that, for example, IKEA is leasing its kitchens now, is a step forward in the right direction. As then parts can be re-used and you don’t need to buy everything new the whole time.’

The argument of the students is that, to be truly effective, sustainable initiatives must now be upscaled exponentially, on a systematic scale. Steadfast in their message, they fear that the dithering older generation will simply not act in time. As Sleeman says, ‘It is clear that politicians need to change now, and while I do have hope in my own generation, we simply can't wait.’ Given the tiny turnout by UK MPs on 28 February to their first debate on climate change in two years (a week which recorded the country’s warmest winter days on record), it’s clear to Sleeman and her fellow protesters that politicians are still failing to give the issues the urgency and priority they demand. Should the clock stop, and the worst-case climate scenarios unfold, the relevance of design in all of this will shrink back to how to make tools from sticks and stones and the ability to build a basic shelter.

facebook.com/Strike4Youth/

katiemayboyd.com

borismaas.com

marjanvanaubel.com

This article appeared in DAM72. Order your personal copy.