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The Visual Communication of Ecological Literacy - PhD

The Visual Communication of Ecological Literacy - PhD

The Visual Communication of Ecological Literacy: Designing, Learning and Emergent Ecological Perception
PhD by Joanna (Jody) Boehnert. A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the University of Brighton for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. June 2012.

One of the major premises of this thesis is that fragmentary thinking is an obstacle to sustainability and reductive attitudes towards knowledge cannot address problems associated with complex ecological systems, or social and economic systems for that matter. Responding to this dilemma, this project uses a whole systems approach facilitated by visual communication. Ecological literacy (EL) is a powerful concept developed by sustainability educators that has the potential to create an integrated foundation for understanding environmental problems and potential solutions. Unfortunately, ecological literacy has largely failed to spread across disciplinary boundaries in the two decades since the concept was first conceived. To address this problem this project will create learning processes for ecological literacy facilitated by visual communications with a focus on audiences in the design industry and design education. This research serves to synthesise different traditions while producing new visual displays and transformative learning processes. It aims to help learners develop new cognitive and social capacities including the agency to put new ideas and values into practice.

The main contributions developed by this thesis project are a socially, politically and ecologically responsive approach to communication design; an overview, analysis, synthesis and re-presentation of literature on ecological literacy; the creation of new learning processes and visual resources for EL; and the development of methods fostering ecological perception. The design methodology and the practice-based work itself are also contributions. The project aims to bridge the value/action gap in sustainable education and demonstrate how visual communication can facilitate a transformative learning process for ecological literacy. This project places itself in the middle of a fast moving discourse on sustainability and ultimately aims to inform policy and practice in design. The research will examine how visuals can communicate complex ecological concepts, make new information normative and nurture ecological perception.

Humankind is embedded within the natural world and dependent on ecological systems for life yet our belief systems, and consequently the world we have designed does not reflect this basic relationship. Ecological boundaries are being crossed. The capacity of ecological systems to maintain relative stability is deteriorating. Science is expected to spark innovation but attitudes swing to bitter acrimony or complete dismissal when science warns us that we are undermining the Earth’s tolerance limits. The work of redesigning economic, social and political systems to function in sympathy with the Earth’s patterns and processes is an enormous undertaking requiring the revision of many basic assumptions and premises. This thesis will examine what it means to be ecologically literate. Our culture’s radical discontinuity with nature constitutes an epistemological error that is currently reproduced in education, communication, media, design, policy and law resulting in industrial systems that are quietly destroying the ecological systems on which humankind depends. This thesis outlines a communication design practice to heal this rift.

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