- Words by Isabel Allen
It all seemed so straightforward. When we started to plan this issue of Citizen, we made some clear editorial decisions.We would narrow our focus to a single theme – Climate Change – but tackle our field of enquiry through a range of different lenses. Design proposals are our stock-in-trade; the meat of the magazine. But, ultimately, we are interested in change; in stepping outside the self-referential world of architectural critique.We organised a forum for designers and entrepreneurs to present progressive design proposals to investors with the means to get ideas off the ground. We spoke to investors and funders who believe in the power of capital not only to generate wealth, but to kickstart positive change and transform citizens’ lives. We looked for case studies and research that help us to understand the scale and the complexities of the challenges we face.
We wanted to get real. But we also wanted to venture into the realm of imagination.To celebrate the power of poetry and fiction to envisage alternative realities or evoke an emotional response. But most of all to engage and entertain. We took the view that tough concepts and big ideas are at their most digestible when leavened by a healthy dose of levity and light relief. It didn’t occur to us that it might be tricky to distinguish fact from fiction.The academic Jem Bendell and the curator Lev Bratishenko both anticipate a future ravaged by climate change. One is factual, the other fiction. One is deadly serious; the other darkly humorous.The serious piece is so unsettling that it’s difficult to process. The fantasy is all too easy to believe.
It seemed bold – perhaps a little histrionic – to dedicate space in a serious journal to premonitions of apocalypse; societal breakdown; the near-term extinction of the human race. But the coronavirus COVID-19 has made such ruminations commonplace. Commentators routinely grapple with fundamental issues of survival, ethics, citizenship. Governments curtail privileges that – until a matter of weeks ago – were taken for granted as fundamental tenets of civilised society: freedom of movement, theright to congregate and socialise. Collaboration. Civic life.
Stranger still, society – by and large – is grateful.We are hungry – desperate – for rules and regulations, directives and decrees. Our infatuation with freedom and frivolity feels like adolescent folly. Our perception of the state has shifted from inconvenient killjoy to indispensable provider.We look to the public sector not just to slow the spread of infection but – in many instances – to keep us fed, housed, employed, paid.The state has demonstrated an ability to be both radical and nimble; visionary and bold; to capitalise on its newfound energy and mandate to make transformative decisions. As citizens we have discovered that we can forgo luxuries, curb behaviour, change our habits, learn new skills.We have grasped the fact that personal sacrifices are essential to serve the common good.We have discovered, too, a new respect for experts and expertise, for clear communication, factual information and spokespeople we can trust.
Circumstances have issued a timely call to arms; forced us to acquire the tools – and the will – to regroup and reorganise; to focus our collective energies and expertise on a battle for survival. To acquire the tools that are essential to protect not just the population but the planet: however deadly it proves to be, the long-term impact of COVID-19 will pale in comparison with the havoc wreaked by climate change.
Doomsday is an imminent reality. Someday soon. Any day now. Yet we fail to grasp – or to acknowledge – the scientific evidence.We decline to capitalise on the technology we have to hand.We struggle to visualise, or to believe, both the crisis that we face and the opportunities it represents.We shy away from a reality that seems stranger and more terrifying than any work of fiction. Paralysed by collective inertia, or despondency or disbelief. But we have run out of excuses. The COVID-19 pandemic is a warning shot. A reminder that our very existence is threatened by forces that can’t be brushed aside or wished away. Now, more than ever, we need to apply our intellect and imagination. To embrace our gift for telling different stories; visualising the unknown. Most of all, we need to understand that we have the tools to transform vision into reality.To draw on humanity’s extraordinary ability to prioritise and organise and galvanise and – ultimately – to change the course of destiny.To design a different future. To reject Armageddon in favour of Rebirth.