A/D/O by MINI | Charlotte McCurdy’s carbon-capturing coat

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Product Design

Charlotte McCurdy’s carbon-capturing coat

Designer Charlotte McCurdy has created a raincoat using algae as an example of how products can sequester carbon rather than contribute to emissions.

“I don't think we have time to reinvent capitalism before we work to address climate change,” was the radical statement designer-researcher-strategist Charlotte McCurdy led with during an interview with The Journal.

As scientists, writers, designers and politicians openly condemn systems of overconsumption for their contribution to plastic waste and life-threatening levels of pollution, her position to instead use the current market as a tool is controversial. But her work presents a persuasive logic that could serve as a model for designers and businesses hoping to contend with the mounting crisis; a way to have hope beyond the fear.

McCurdy’s project After Ancient Sunlight investigates our relationship to carbon-based materials, and suggests a new perspective through a book and the creation of an algae-based bioplastic raincoat. On first glance, the raincoat might seem like other material-discovery projects, but it is a layered and illustrative tool to communicate her argument.

Using plastic as an example, After Ancient Sunlight charts the history of petroleum from the photosynthesizing organisms that created organic matter from solar energy and carbon compounds millions of years ago. These molecules eventually settled and combined as sedimentary rock. A combination of pressure, and heat turned these molecules into petroleum, which we now extract for everything from fuel to materials in our medicine and clothing.

Rather than unearthing this carbon, McCurdy proposes utilizing photosynthesizing organisms that are going through that cycle today. Algae – an aquatic plant of growing interest to designers – captures CO2, not only reducing carbon emitted during extraction but potentially helping to contain some of the carbon that is deteriorating our environments.

McCurdy spoke of three main principles for approaching climate change. The first is to make the issue approachable, inclusive and optimistic. “Climate change advocacy has a long history of rhetoric that's based on apocalypse, fear and death,” she said. In contrast to these dystopian visions of the future, McCurdy is interested in creating a “consumer facing tool [that is] intentionally optimistic”.

Using an unassuming object like a raincoat invites a broad audience to engage with the topic and presents a possible solution before delving into the terrifying macro-scale challenges it is addressing. “I'm not comfortable taking responsibility for putting more fear out into the world, because I don't think that that's helping us at the moment,” McCurdy said. Her transparent process deliberately gives agency back to consumers to imagine an alternative future. This agency is invaluable in a conversation dominated by terms of inevitability.

The second concept that surfaced during the discussion was: “We cannot sacrifice the good for the perfect.” In a moment of heightened attention to “sustainability” and to “circular design,” with slogans like “carbon neutral by 2050” or “zero waste”, we are living in an age of absolutism. McCurdy noted that when setting these rigorous goals, we should not overlook improvements that could act as steps in the process.

“How do you sit between trying to conceive of an ideal future from first principles, but also acknowledge that you have to build a path from where we are now?” she asked, admitting the distance between the materials and production methods available today, and our ideal targets, and encouraging incremental change. Without recapitulating the issues of today, this approach allows progress to happen in tandem with research and innovation. 

In the third major concept, McCurdy acknowledged the requisite participation of corporations and those in positions of power who can make large change happen swiftly. “When I look at how quickly we have to fundamentally overhaul the supply chains and systems of our economy to deal with climate change,” she said, “the only things that moves that fast are technology and consumption.” McCurdy regards refusing support from, or demonizing, the systems that currently control production and the flow of capital as denying allyship with huge potential for impact. 

Collaboration with big organizations largely responsible for some of the primary issues we are contending with can seem counterintuitive, and McCurdy acknowledges the complexity of her position. “That makes me complicit in that system, which is flawed,” she said, “but that's a tactical choice I'm comfortable making because that's how I can imagine a path to a livable outcome.”

“I haven't been convinced of the possibility of a palpable outcome that's based on telling people everyone just stop consuming things,” McCurdy continued. Using the example of her raincoat, she encourages imagining what would happen if all the products currently in landfills were made from materials that sequestered carbon. With material changes, the results of our collective consumption could be the mechanism through which we address CO2. 

McCurdy will explore the ideas of defining future and agency in her upcoming Futuring Workshop as part of the On Loop installation at A/D/O. It will be an opportunity to consider how to integrate a considered outlook into the narrative of climate crisis. When imagining a future that will contend with the environmental degradation we are experiencing, McCurdy’s strategy to remain optimistic, resist perfectionism for the sake of progress, and to use pre-existing systems of power provides a scheme for positive change.

Charlotte McCurdy’s Futuring Workshop takes place October 29, 2019 at A/D/O as part of the month-long On Loop by Universal installation, created to coincide with New York City’s Archtober festival.

Text by Lily Saporta Tagiuri.