Blog Post #23

December 20, 2023

Brigitte Stepanov

SLS 2023 in Review

Part of the SLS cohort with Maboula Soumahoro

(Photo credit: Sophie Lair)

It's hard to believe that Serve-Learn-Sustain 2023 has come to an end!

The SLS 2023 Blog began with the first installment of "Ecocritical Threes," a brief three-point summary of the week's theory (in-class discussions) and practice (community engagement and experimental learning). The "Ecocritical Threes" series shared questions posed, reflections had, and anecdotes told throughout the semester, providing a glimpse into the interdisciplinary and intersectional thinking with which we are approaching climate change and climate justice during the program.

Below are some of the semester's highlights (via a selection of "Ecocritical Threes") including  in-class discussions, experiential learning through site visits, trips to neighboring districts and cities, volunteering, the Climate Fresk and facilitation training sessions, master classes with invited guests, and the visual art created for the "An Ecology of Objects" exhibit.

On the first day of class, students discussed their interest in studying sustainability from an interdisciplinary standpoint, the volunteering and community engagement experiences they brought with them to the program, and their hopes for their time in France - and beyond. But we're pushing this thinking beyond "eco-friendliness," to instead ask questions like: what is a ecological philosophy? How does this relate to climate justice, energy equity, and grassroots community building?

By the end of the semester, SLS students were actively engaging with various communities in Metz, traveling across the city via public transit, volunteering with community organizations, and reflecting on their respective on eco-codes, that is, the principles that one can adopt in order to minimize their environmental impact (from opting for sustainable transportation options to conserving energy use to reducing, reusing, recycling, and upcycling materials in our everyday lives).

Students volunteered throughout the semester and reflected on their experiences with great insight. The foci of these reflection pieces included the differences regarding "sustainability" between and across a number of European cities; activism and environmentalism; using art as a political medium; circular economies; translating design; frugal architecture; and energy imaginaries. Learn more on ETL's Blog.

Students also created art in order to "translate" their learning into visual media. Learn more about visual storytelling here.

The two works above are by Aidan Zeissner and were featured in the "An Ecology of Objects" exhibit

One of our very first site visits was to FJO (Foyer des jeunes ouvriers) and l'Association Carrefour, which both work to help house members of the messin community. 

1.  We started off by asking three interrelated questions: 1. What is community? 2. What is relationship between an individual and the collective of which they are a part? 3. Is a collective a community? 

2.  We learned about the ins and outs of FJO's foodbank, l'Association Carrefour's art space, and the sports programming offered by both organizations. We also discussed the role of local, regional, and national politics on organizations such as these.

3.  We discussed identity, belonging, and legacies of colonialism, while reflecting on existence in multilingual and translingual settings.

Visiting FJO and l'Association Carrefour

Worldmaking through transportation choices: throughout the semester, we thought about how cities are encountered (differently) depending on the mode of transportation used. One of our visits in Metz was to La Maison du vélo, an organization that works to repair/reuse/recycle/upcycle bicycles and make cycling accessible and safe within the messin (Metz's demonym!) community. 

On the heels of in-class analyses focused on Hiroshima mon amour and Oppenheimer and discussions centered on nuclear energy, nuclear weapons, non-proliferation, and peacebuilding , the SLS program examined atomic aesthetics with an origami masterclass followed by a film screening about nuclear waste. We reflected on peace cranes and the poetics of movement through folds.

While visiting Metz's many green spaces, we reflected on (over)consumption, waste, mobility, and accessibility: who has access to these green spaces? How do they contribute to well being? What politics are involved in "greening" cities? 

At one point (during rush hour), we had trouble hearing each other due to the car traffic near us. This got us thinking about infrastructure, how to incentivize folks to take public transportation, and how designing cities to be pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly is key to building sustainable communities.

We also reflected on what it means to live in the time of the Anthropocene and whether the term "Anthropocene" is appropriate for describing our current era. Other possible denotations of our epoch include Capitalocene, Thermocene, Thanatocene, Plantocene, and Chthulucene.

In addition to considering Metz's public gardens, we also considered "differently curated" green spaces or "punk parks" by taking a look at the historical and present-day power structures of green spaces and diversifying - by rendering more inclusive - our understanding of "green space." Inspired by Fatima Ouassak's Pour une écologie pirate, Beronda L. Montgomery's Lessons from Plants, Camille T. Dungy's Soil: The Story of a Black Mother's Garden, and Eric Lenoir's Petit traité du jardin punk: Apprendre à désapprendre, we've been calling the notion of "garden" into question and expanding it to include "punk gardens." We were sure to question the notion of "punk garden," too, and the examples below showcase a broad definition of this concept - from personal vegetable gardens to "street" gardens to blossoming "building" gardens.

1.  How should we define "garden"? What does the history of such spaces tell us about the inequity of access to green space in cities?

2.  How can rethinking the definition of "garden" or "green space" help us rethink our relationship (as human animals) to non-human animal and plant life? Is "punk" gardening a kind of revolutionary act? 

3.  What does the presence of green spaces do to the built environment and ecosystem of a city? How do these spaces contribute to climate change mitigation? In what ways do green spaces encourage social interaction and community building? 

We also traveled! Our trip to Strasbourg, for instance, was organized along three axes:  

1.  What is catastrophe, both "natural" and "man-made"? 

While learning more about seismology and earth sciences at the Seismology Museum with Dr. Valérie Ansel, we came to understand how the division between these two categories can become fraught - and how these distinctions will become growingly less clear in the face of an increasingly changing climate.

2.  What does participatory living look like? Who does it include/exclude? How can architecture create community? 

Our tour of the Ecoquartier Danube, a neighborhood planned with ecological well-being as its guiding principle, shed light on these questions while raising further concerns about equity and inclusion. 

3.  How is "environment" (and different conceptualizations of the word) represented in visual culture? 

During our time at the Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, we engaged with visual representations of landscape, still life, nature, and industry (along with its harmful environmental effects).

At the Seismology Museum in Strasbourg

At the Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art

And we played with soil this semester! We spent time at 1 Terre et un jardin pour 2 mains (1 Earth and one garden for two hands/tomorrow) and discussed the principles of permaculture - not only within the context of gardening, but also as a personal philosophy. We thought about how to make composting more accessible in Metz and how organizations can work together to build more sustainable communities (FJO's food bank and Oppidum's composting facilities, for instance, are integral to one another!)

While discussing composting, we reflected on waste management more generally. Our site visites to PC Solidaire, an association that works to reduce computer-related waste and build digital equity and Graoucoop, a food cooperative built on the principles of energy sobriety, equity, and autonomy, built on these reflections. Both of these organizations strive to build community while reducing the ecological impact of industry - whether technological or agricultural. While engaging with the tenets of these two community organizations, we reflected on the extractivist energy and mineral economies at the base of the tech and food that we encounter day-to-day. How can we reduce our carbon footprint by changing where we buy our tech and our food? In what ways does the history of technology help us understand our current ecological crises and, in turn, make social equity and environmental justice center stage moving forward?

Last, but not least, we organized a Climate Fresk/Fresque du Climat!

The Climate Fresk is a collaborative workshop that teaches participants the fundamental science behind climate change and empowers them to take action against its consequences. The SLS program participated in two Climate Fresk activities: 1. the Fresk itself, followed by an in-depth debrief discussion, and 2. a Fresk training session. Both activities were facilitated by Léa Ovet, an AgroParisTech engineer specializing in climate and environmental management. After a year traveling around the Mediterranean basin and meeting various actors involved in adapting to climate change, Léa became aware of the urgency of the current ecological crisis. Deciding to devote her professional life to the fight against climate change, she now facilitates workshops focused on environmental issues, such as the Climate and Biodiversity Fresks.

1.  SLS students first participated in a Climate Fresk, focusing on identifying the causal links between anthropogenic climate change and global crises, including the crossing of Planetary Boundaries. See Governing Our Planetary Emergency: Charting a Safe Path for a Workable Future and updates from the Stockholm Resilience Center for more on Planetary Boundaries. 

2.  Following this experience, they undertook the Climate Fresk Facilitator Session, which trains individuals to become Climate Fresk facilitators. Having completed this training, the SLS group is now a part of the Fresk facilitator community. This means that we can lead Climate Fresks, facilitate environmental workshops, and organize Climate Fresk-related events. 

3.  During the debrief discussions following both the Climate Fresk and the Fresk training workshop, students spoke about the ways in which they envision planetary futures and the need for interdisciplinary thinking when it comes to addressing ecological crises. We also examined how the Climate Fresk's problematics appeared in other disciplinary thought this semester - from philosophy to literature, from political science to sociology, from environmental science to visual culture.