How do You See Sustainability and Regeneration?

In September 2020, the Nature Lab hosted its first virtual panel series, The Common Thread, as a basis for the recently concluded year-long Regeneration series. Throughout this virtual programming, we hosted a diverse group of designers, artists, farmers, educators, and scholars across a variety of disciplines to discuss how we, as makers and consumers, can think about sustainability and regeneration differently.

A collaboration between the Nature Lab and Southeastern New England Fibershed, the Common Thread was a four-part panel series that explored systems of land, waste, material, and color, and how they can intersect with various modes of thought to drive positive change. Our first speakers, Tomaquag Museum Executive Director + Narragansett Nation Member, Lorén M. Spears, and Botanist + RISD Faculty member, Hope Leeson, explored the idea of "regeneration as continuation." While discussing how to regenerate in collaboration with nature, Lorén and Hope emphasized the importance of first understanding the land we walk on— including the history, plants, food, clothing, and resources we gain from it— before we can sustainably care for it. This multifaceted understanding includes the waste we generate, as discussed during the second Common Thread conversation with recent RISD graduate Fengjiao Ge 20 MLA, New England Alpaca Fiber Pool Founder + Executive Director, Chris Riley, and Textile Artist + Jr. Project Manager + Sustainability Coordinator at Demar Leather, Annie Keating 17 TX. All three showed how understanding the multiple uses of textile waste and its various life cycles can inspire local and international sustainability innovations for a healthier planet and way of life.

The third panel expanded on materials and land regeneration with Fibershed Executive Director Rebecca Burgess and Designer Tareq Alzawawi 19 MID. Using their own work as case studies and research ideas, they showcased the regenerative possibilities of soil health and how every individual has the opportunity to positively impact local and global ecosystems. Aligned with the importance of understanding ecosystems as creators, the final event in the Common Thread series looked specifically at our ecological relationship to color with Natural Dyer + Textile Artist Brece Honeycutt, and RISD Museum Costume & Textiles Associate Curator + RISD Apparel Faculty Member, Laurie Brewer. These speakers discussed how the relationship between natural color resources and regional ecology has impacted the production of textiles, dyestuffs, and apparel throughout history. They emphasized and encouraged us to investigate local histories in order to generate sustainable material choices and embed them into our making practices.

After the Common Thread series set a groundwork of understanding the relationships between humans, resources, and ecological systems, the Nature Lab delved into an even deeper exploration of regeneration within art, design, and nature during the eight-part Regeneration series. This virtual series explored multiple perspectives on how making can integrate with natural, cultural, and social systems to influence creative practices for the benefit of communities and the planet. One of the main goals was to focus on the voices that drive many of the equitable and environmental movements, but that still tend to be excluded from the advertised discussions and innovations around sustainable making, climate change, community development, and ways of being.

At the kickoff Regeneration event, Astrobiofuturist and biomimicry expert Billy Almon shared how biomimicry can create restorative futures for Black and Brown communities traumatized by police violence. He framed regeneration as a facet of “restorative futures,” which he defined as “rehumanizing people, places, and systems through empathetic designs informed by biology and nature.”

Esme Murdock, a philosopher focused on African American, Afrodiasporic, and Indigenous environmental ethics, and Teju Adisa-Farrar, a geographer, writer, and poet focused on Black geographies, noted that in order to build a better future for all, we must first understand our past and how the world we know came to be. By striving to understand global histories and non-dominant ways of thinking, we can grasp the realities of our present and the possibilities of an equitable, regenerative future. Karen Washington, a farmer, community activist, and food advocate, believes that a regenerative future also includes equitable food accessibility, and fights to dismantle the current unjust U.S. food systems. As individuals and communities, we have the ability to work towards a more just and egalitarian tomorrow through everyday actions such as reading books from non-dominant perspectives, connecting with our neighbors, and supporting one another through times of need and times of plenty.

We can also work towards restorative futures through our practices as designers, makers, and collaborators. Shey Rivera Ríos, an interdisciplinary artist, cultural strategist, and arts administrator, Maida Branch, founder + director of MAIDA Goods, and Daniel Glenn, a nationally recognized Native American designer and principal architect, shared how they rewrite histories, challenge the singular narrative, and regenerate Indigenous cultures through their art and design practices. These speakers placed an emphasis on the social responsibility creators and thinkers have. Shey encouraged makers to use their creative abilities to “reimagine what monuments look like, rewrite histories that no longer serve us, [and challenge] the singular narrative… We [can] expand our own brains and challenge our society to think outside the box.”

At our final conversation in the series, Melita Morales, an artist, educator, and researcher, presented an inspiring example of transdisciplinary thinking in and of itself. She connected ideas from the previous Regeneration sessions in addition to other scholars, scientists, artists, and researchers from a diverse range of identities and fields of study in order to showcase the possibilities of a pluriversal world. She encouraged us to carry the themes of the Regeneration series into our own lives and creative practices through transdisciplinary thinking and collaboration across disciplines. Concluding with a series of questions to inspire continued exploration, Melita asked: “What worlds, what ways of being, are written through our work that can exceed the bounds of what is valued in a western knowledge system? What sort of relationships to each other and the more than human world does this art/science/innovation set into play? How can we restore the false binary of art-science through the projects we undertake?”

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