Julia Watson on the Power of Indigenous Technologies to Transform Our Planet
Julia Watson is really into TEK. Not necessarily the Silicon Valley variety of tech, but rather traditional ecological knowledge. An anthropologist, environmentalist, activist, and landscape designer, Watson has become a leading researcher of indigenous communities, closely studying the vast implications of their centuries-old (in certain cases, millennia-old) innovations. In the face of today’s climate crisis, Watson’s new book, Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism (Taschen), a culmination of years of research in 18 countries around the globe, is poised to become something of a bible for a growing design movement that’s focused on harnessing nature-based technologies and better understanding how we can all live in closer harmony with the earth.
Born in Australia, Watson studied landscape architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where she focused on eco-technologies and preservation of sacred spaces. Currently, she teaches urban design at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Planning and Preservation, as well as at Harvard, and runs her own design studio that’s oriented toward the practice of “rewilding.”
On this episode of Time Sensitive, Watson speaks with Andrew about her deep research into various indigenous communities, the symbiotic relationship between culture and nature, her perspective on the recent Australian bushfires, and more.
Watson describes the seven-year process of research and writing that lead to her publishing of her insightful new book, Lo-TEK.
Zuckerman brings up two communities and technologies that stood out to him in Watson’s book: the Khasis and the living footbridges in India and the Uros’s totora-reed floating islands on Lake Titicaca, in Peru.
Watson and Zuckerman go back and forth on subjects including deep time, the Anthropocene, greenwashing, the airspace aesthetic, and fire-stick farming.
Watson recalls her upbringing in Brisbane; her journey to New York City, where she lives and works today; and her thoughts on the idea of utopia.
ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: Today in the studio we have designer, environmentalist, academic, and author Julia Watson. Welcome Julia. Thanks so much for joining us today.
JULIA WATSON: Thank you so much for having me today.
AZ: I wanted to begin today’s conversation with your new book, Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism, which explores the different ways that our species has harmonized with nature. Congratulations. It’s really an exquisite project. Can you share with us a bit about its genesis? [Why did] you start working on it?
JW: I started working on this book because I would go and give lectures about these incredible nature-based technologies at random conferences, like the Society for Ecosystems and Humanity, and people would say, “Where can I read this? Where can I find this literature?” And architects and designers weren’t really writing about this. So really, it was a tool kit and a manual for people who kept on asking me, “Where can I find these types of ideas, and how can I integrate them into my work?”
AZ: Just the title alone, Radical Indigenism, how did you come to that title?
JW: So that is not my own word. That was a concept by a Cherokee professor, Eva Marie Garroutte. And she talks about radical indigenism, as the word radical comes from the Latin derivative of radix, which means the “root.” And so it’s the root of knowledge. So going back to indigenous philosophies and knowledge and understanding about the world, and reframing our current point of view and our understandings about our relationship to the world—which is our relationship to nature. And so, it’s not like coming up with new processes. It’s actually just reengaging all this intelligence and all these understandings that are in mythologies and stories and ceremonies, and then bringing it forth into a new knowledge base.
Which is what the book is trying to do, is expose it. There’s all this knowledge, there’s thousands of different climate-resilient infrastructures that we actually need. And why not use these to combat this crisis that we know is on the horizon?
AZ: Well, the difference between information and knowledge, which is something you really look at, I want to hear a bit more from you about. You present an incredible argument in this book about our lack of wisdom.
JW: Yeah. The byline of: We’re drowning in information, but we’re starving for wisdom is… We’re so interested in gathering information to understand our world, and it’s this fixation of the now and the future. We really discredit the past or the old knowledge, or the ways of the past, and we disassociate ourselves from that. The book is really questioning: Why have we done that? What decisions were made, at what point in time, that actually led us in that direction? Because it’s not just now.
It’s really been happening for a couple hundred years. And there was a rejection of indigenous knowledge and understanding of place, and looking towards a very industrialized, futurist mode of thinking that disassociated us from nature and reframed the whole way we looked at technology. We took this tiny amount of technology that was available to us at that point in time, and we were like, “Okay, that’s technology, everything else is primitive. It’s nothing to do with how we’re going to progress as a society, a globalized society.” And that’s what got us to here. We have this moment in time where, yes, we are globalized and industrialized, and yes, we understand there’s these huge issues that we have to deal with, with climate change and migration and food scarcity and lack of water infrastructure. But we also have this ten-thousand-foot view at this moment.
So we have the ability—with all the knowledge base—to reframe how we look at our place in relationship to nature, but also, like, what did we even think of as technology? And why we limited our view of technology based upon a decision that was made three hundred, four hundred years ago from people in a very small community in Europe at that time? So let’s reframe that and lay a new ground. I think designers are really in a place to catalyze that laying of that new ground at a large scale, in urban form.
AZ: And also, our current view of technology, which is defined by computers.
JW: Yeah. Digitization and information.
AZ: Yeah. And when you think about how that community started with Stewart Brand, Whole Earth [Catalog], that moment in time—that generation was really inspired. They were actually inspired by a return to nature. So we had a moment like this, in a way.
JW: We’ve had a lot of moments like this. I had a really interesting discussion recently about indigenous knowledge and the relationship to contemporary society. And we were talking about, well, what happened in the sixties? There was this moment where everyone was really interested in a return to nature and—
AZ: Whole Earth Catalog.
JW: Yeah. And what happened? And my friend whose parents were from Santa Cruz, they were hippies, and she was like, “You know, they took it too far, they took it in the wrong direction, and there was a distortion of what was the basis and what was the real knowledge that we could have taken from that moment and grown as a whole society, and it sped off in another direction.” I feel like there has been that movement that’s been catalyzing for the last ten years, with spirituality and health and wellness, coupled with sustainability, and now the climate is shifting the dial again, and it’s all coalescing into something different.
Again, now, I think, is a new moment to reframe that and maybe take it forward in a really significant way that can benefit a lot of people and a lot of communities and ecosystems at the same time. And we really understand that we can’t do this alone. It’s not just human-centric anymore, because we need to understand that there’s so much more dynamics at play, and we just focus on the dynamics of human society. Everything else suffers and eventually we suffer, as well. It’s a feedback loop.
AZ: Absolutely. And just going back to the title of the book really quick: “TEK,” which we’re talking about. What is that an acronym for?
JW: Traditional ecological knowledge. So that is, when you’re talking about indigenous knowledge in a scientific paper, you’ll come across this term “TEK,” or traditional ecological knowledge. And it’s the way that, in Western science, we discuss the knowledge that has accumulated over thousands of years based upon stories and knowledge that’s been passed down for generations about how to live sustainably and how to deal with the weather extremes or the climatic events that we’re actually dealing with now. So dealing with really extreme circumstances.
It’s really different from “low-tech,” t-e-c-h, because low-tech is primitive. It’s still part of that idea of industrialization, manufacturing, but in a more rudimentary way for simpler tasks, like the hippo roller that allowed really easy transfer of water—that’s a low-tech, t-e-c-h system. “Lo-TEK,” T-E-K is actually catalyzing really complex ecosystems dynamics. So how do you get a fish and algae and bacteria to work together to become the energy system, to change sewage water into fresh water?
So it’s like sustainability on steroids. Because we think, Okay, sustainability, let’s look at wind power and solar power, which is still in that realm of the high-tech and, no doubt about it, going to be incredibly important for us moving forward. It’s in the same vein, but in a more advanced way, bringing in not just understandings of capture of light energy. It’s actually, how do you use photosynthesis? And how do you use that idea in symbiosis with how plants and algae and fish and bacteria work, to create an ecosystem that then humans can develop and manipulate, but then also make that ecosystem really dynamic and even more biodiverse?
AZ: It has to do with the relationship of power that we have to nature—
JW: Oh yeah. Well, superiority.
AZ: —which has been asymmetrical for a long time.
AZ: One of the things that I think is so beautiful about this book, and why I’ve been enjoying it so much, is that it’s about looking. It might be about indigenous technologies, it might be about the environment, climate—a lot of things—how we live, but in essence it’s about observing our relationship to nature. I’m curious about your process of that observation because you spent, what, seven years of observation essentially.
JW: Yeah. Seven years from the conception of, Okay, I’m writing a book, but I started traveling to look at indigenous communities and their ecosystems—where they live and how they live—in those ecosystems when I was a 21-year-old backpacker on my way from Australia to London to live for a year like we all do. And I went to Borneo, to find these people called the Penan, who are forest dwellers who are being displaced from their lands by the government.
I’d been reading about this tribe—[anthropologist] Wade Davis had written about them, who wrote the foreword for my book. He wrote about them back in the day. And they’re this amazing community of forest-dwelling people who have these incredible relationships to the forest and the species in the forest. And that was this moment when I was like, Okay, this is really incredible, this is a completely other way of living. Like, the way I’d been brought up is one way. There are other ways. And I think that’s actually also what the book is about, is that we’ve chosen one way of living, but this is just one way and it is not the only way. There are an incredible diversity of ways of living with nature that are still available for us to look at and to understand and observe, and perhaps to learn from and then even to replicate and adapt for—
AZ: For reorienting ourselves, yeah.
JW: —for different types of contexts, yeah. For different types of urban, peri-urban environments. And it was funny, because the process—really, when you say it’s about observation, it’s like spot-on, because a lot of the work was about looking at photographs and then scientific papers that had never been translated into an architectural drawing. And you’d be like, How big is this island? Okay, I see a person. How big is that person? How can I scale the person to the scale of a block? Can I scale the block to the scale of a shelter? And then, does that translate to the canoe? And then, what are those materials that they’re building with? What is the module of that particular technology?
It was really like an architect would think. When I build a building, I have a modular, it’s a brick. And then I have a connective system, I have a structural system and then that’s the way I understand, and I replicate and I replicate and then I have a building. And so that was the idea of how to understand these technologies, which I think no one had ever really observed or documented before. And it makes it really easy for other designers to now replicate those systems.
AZ: Yeah. It’s happening, in a funny way, on the other side of it, this sort of biomimicry, where they’ll look at the inside of a bird’s bone and come up with a structure from that.
AZ: So that’s still an industrial approach to it, which is, I think, in a way what’s scary. And what you do really wonderfully in this book is not get into that conversation, of, Let’s replicate this, but literally, let’s look at this—and this actually works.
JW: Yeah. I’m so glad you brought that up. And I’m so glad you understood that, because a lot of people talk about this as biomimicry, and I’m like—
AZ: It’s actually anti- that.
JW: Yeah. It’s very different to biomimicry. I think of biomimicry as understanding the flow dynamics of how a species might create an environment or relate to its environment, and then understanding those flow dynamics and then integrating that into how we think of architecture. This is the opposite. And then there’s a disassociation, and then yes, there’s an industrialization or manufacturing and an artificiality to that process. There’s no artificiality to this process. It’s like embedding building in ecosystems, and using the ecosystem relationships or biodiversity as the building block.
AZ: It’s very much like a one-eighty flip from the hubristic approach to nature that architecture has been taking for twenty years now. And [its] looking at nature as if it can be replicated and as if we have an asymmetrical power with it, where we can do better than it.
JW: Yeah. The superiority complex.
JW: Or the savior complex.
AZ: Yeah. All of that has been a huge part of how we got here. And we believe it, in a way. It’s funny, we believe, when Silicon Valley tells us that a technology is going to change everything, we follow—or have. And we’re at this moment now where we’re waking up to this idea that we’re actually so far from being in tune or harmonized with nature, simply because we’ve been conditioned to not look, in a way.
And what we need more of, I think—and one of the reasons again that I think this book is so important—is not to have a solution or an outcome, or to quantify, but simply to look. Kind of like Josef Albers with color—to just look at it. And that’s what you’re providing an opportunity for here, which is what’s so great.
So I did want to expand on that a little bit. When you were thinking about, How do I do this—and how do I do it in a way that it doesn’t get bogged down with architect-y talk, which there’s so much of—how did you want to bring these ideas into a contemporary view? How did you think you could do that, in specific terms? Because I think you’ve achieved it.
JW: I do think that when I first wrote it, I probably had a lot more architect-y terms, but we’ve been through, I don’t know, maybe forty-five, fifty drafts of the book at this point in time to really try and develop it—
AZ: Plain-speak it.
JW: —into a language that people can understand, and not to marginalize the normal person who might pick this up and actually want to understand something about climate change or indigenous communities or landscape. We also have the lexicon or the glossary on every single page, which was this reciprocal process of allowing us to use some words that you might not be familiar with, but also saying, Well, maybe this is a word that you can start to use, so here’s an explanation of what that word actually means. And my mum was my proofreader for that, and she’s a pharmacist, so she would go through and just underline every single word. She was like, “You know, I don’t know what dendritic means.” And I was like, “You’re not supposed to, so that’s okay.”
The designer of the book—from the very start, it was like, how do we remove that romanticism of the indigenous and the idea of the “other”? And, in studying hundreds of indigenous tribes and communities and their relationships, there’s no way that you can describe one type of relationship. There’s hundreds. Each community has their own understanding of the world and their own language and their own set of stories and their own technologies. And to just sort of say, Oh, there’s this romantic idea of the indigenous person, from my knowledge, there is nothing like that because some indigenous communities are really living in a very contemporary way, but [are] also able to live with their stories and ceremonies. And some people are living in a very remote way that doesn’t have a very close relationship to city life or…
So it was trying to remove that understanding. And part of that was also the design. So one of my best friends was the designer for the book. She’s a Swiss graphic designer. She was there from the very beginning, when I was writing the book, when I went to Taschen. She was the one who pushed me to go to Taschen. She’s like, “Who do you want to publish this?” And I was like, “Taschen.” She was like, “Let’s do it.” And so she was really an amazing support system.
And then when we finally got the green light, she was like, “This is going to be the best book I’ve ever done.” And she just poured everything into it. And the idea was: How do we embody the idea of Lo-TEK? How do we show the construction of the book? How, in every way, do we conceptualize the whole idea in the form of a publication and make it a really tactile experience? So there’s no printing on… It’s bare card for the book board, and then there’s a really subtle screen printing and foil for all the lettering to contemporize it.
AZ: It’s filled with incredibly beautiful photography. And one of the things that I think is so wonderful is how you’ve taken text, illustration, and photography, and created a solid language for it with your designer, and yeah, it makes sense. A) You had an intimate relationship with a designer, which is so important to make a great book.
JW: I’ve heard horror stories.
AZ: It’s not an afterthought. The designer needs to be a part of the process.
AZ: And also that it’s clearly Swiss perspective.
JW: Minimalism is incredible.
AZ: It’s on a good grid.
JW: Exactly. [Laughs]
AZ: So in the book itself, content-wise, you look at mountains, forest, deserts, wetlands. And there were a few stories in the book that I wanted to hear you talk about, and to share with their audience. The first one was the living root bridges, in India.
JW: Yeah. So they were probably one of the first communities that I explored. I’ve been to India many times for work and for teaching, and also to visit this community. Funnily enough, the designer, one of her very close friends, who was living in New York, who’s a musician, he was Khasi, so he was a link to the community. His father was interviewed in the book; [he] is an architect and a developer and an expert on cultural heritage. So these wonderful coincidences… But the Khasi are a community who live in one of the remotest parts of India, in the north, over the plains of Bangladesh. And they are in this monsoon rain shadow, which means it’s the wettest place on earth. So they received the most rainfall. They live in this really hilly, mountainous terrain. And when the monsoon rain comes, these forests become all these islands with all the rain that’s passing through.
And they figured out a way to grow a single tree into sometimes a double- and a triple-decker bridge, which they train to go across these monsoonal rivers. And the roots are then planted into the other side of the river. And then the tree grows into one single structural system that are the only bridges that could actually bear the force of these monsoonal rains as they travel through this landscape, during the monsoon.
AZ: And ladder systems.
JW: And they have a ladder system. They have all their citrus groves at a different elevation. So they have these ladders, which is the same type of tree, which they grow. So they can scale these incredible escarpments to get to their citrus groves, to collect their fruit and then come back down to their villages.
AZ: And how are these planned?
JW: They plan them out. I think they’ve found about three hundred of these bridges. I visited about maybe five. And they’ve been growing them for, they think about fifteen hundred years. They last about three hundred years. They take fifty years to grow before you can actually walk across them. Mid-life, they’re about a hundred fifty years. I literally have hugged one of the trust systems on one of these bridges and just got my arms around it and knocked on it, and it’s alive. It’s hollow and it’s living, and to just see a bridge that’s living, you’re like, This is from another world.
And they plan them. So they’ll plant the Ficus elastica tree at certain positions along these rivers and then go back and train them. So there’s this constant relationship of scaffolding these bridges to bring them over, using the bark of another tree, which is called the betel nut tree. Interestingly, these bridges used to form a really long pedestrian highway system that would allow the trade of the betel nut from village to village.
AZ: Which is a drug, essentially.
JW: It’s like a stimulant. If you ever go to India and you see men with very red teeth and like spitting on the ground, they’re chewing betel nut. It’s really interesting that they would scaffold using the trunk of the tree that then they would be trading. So there’s really beautiful relationships between the construction of the system and the actual outcome of that system.
AZ: And the people that are working on it won’t benefit from that project in their lifetime.
JW: No, no. And they pass it down to their children, how to build that, because it’s fifty years out. So they’re designing it for a very long vision, which is that idea of the seventh generation, which is a hundred fifty to two hundred, two hundred fifty years out.
AZ: It makes the couple hundred years it takes to build a church seem meaningless.
AZ: The next one that I was really struck by was the totora-reed floating islands [in Peru], which are also incredibly luxurious-looking, somehow. Which is something that I was also struck by with your project, which is the sheer beauty and new definition of luxury that comes through in that work. You look at that and you think, that’s the most luxurious thing I’ve ever seen. And so, in a way, as our definition of luxury is changing, this very much becomes—
JW: Towards sustainability, as well, which is an interesting notion.
AZ: Yeah. What have you noticed about this shift in luxury, before we get into the totora reed [islands]?
JW: I think, definitively, I have meetings in my practice with developers, and this idea of—especially for millennials—linking luxury with sustainability, and a different type of lifestyle that’s very conscious and very considerate of even ecological footprint, maybe not framed in that way, but that’s actually what it’s about. It is becoming this new idea of what’s luxurious, and it’s coupled with convenience. So this idea of growing your own food and having a plant store on the corner of your building or in your building, being able to dispose of your waste in your building in a different way. That’s what we would’ve thought closed-loop systems are, somewhat like a permaculture type of understanding, which was super hippie, back when it began. It’s now becoming luxurious and it’s convenient, and it has an interesting relationship with the idea of convenience in an urban context. So you’re really just in your hood, and you get everything you need from your hood, and that’s what luxury is. And convenience. And it’s coupled with this idea of small ecological footprint and impact.
AZ: So tell me about that.
JW: The Uros? It’s funny that you say it’s luxurious because when you’re actually on those islands it feels like you’re walking on a waterbed.
JW: It’s super spongy, and you’re off-balance, and you’re out there—you’re very exposed in the environment. I actually went there with the designer of the book, to visit the Uros. They’re on Lake Titicaca, which is the highest navigable lake in the world, at 3,850 meters above sea level.
AZ: In Peru.
JW: Yes. In Peru, on the border of Peru and Bolivia. It’s really, really cold—the water is absolutely freezing—and they say that they’re people of the black blood and they can’t drown. So they’re immune to drowning. They’re a really interesting community. They actually bring up birds to fish for them. The women keep the seagulls hidden, and they rear the eggs in their breasts and then they have this really amazing relationship with the birds. They watch the birds in the summertime to see where they nest. If they nest on the water edge, they know there’s not going to be a flood. And if they nest above the water line, they know that the waters are going to raise, and then they have to accommodate that in how they’re building their islands.
AZ: This is about extreme symbiosis.
JW: Yeah, they’re just really in touch with and understand, well, a relationship to a very particular species, though, and that’s what you call a “cultural keystone species”—a species that the community has a very strong, probably mythological relationship and connectivity with. They use that as a barometer to read their environments and understand how to relate to their environments. And the totora reed is their other cultural keystone species because they use this reed, which has naturally grown in the wetlands around them to do everything. Literally, their DNA is totora reed. They build their islands out of it. They build their houses, they build their watch towers, they build their boats, they eat it. It actually would make us really sick if we ate it because it’s pretty caustic. But they chew on it, almost like you would chew on sugarcane.
So it’s in every part of their life, and they create these islands by going into the root system of these wetlands and cutting out these incredibly huge blocks of—it’s mud and peat and the rhizomatic root system of this totora reed. They lash them together; they anchor them to the base of the lake bed using these stick anchors. And, on top of that, they lay layer after layer after layer of dry totora reed, until they build up a layer of one to two meters, and then, through multiple processes of decomposition that island floats.
JW: Even using that process of decomposition as an active agent and an energetic system to float a civilization is beyond what we’re thinking right now.
AZ: Or we’re trying to think about how we can replicate that in an industrial way.
JW: Well, yeah, we’re doing things like using bio-rock and then electrifying that to make it float without understanding the consequences of—there are a lot of apex predator marine species that use electromagnetic fields to navigate the ocean when they can’t see, and that impacts them. So with these advancements that we’re considering of: How do we float cities? Are we just going to keep on replicating the same mistakes that we’ve made before, or are we going to look for alternatives that don’t have that type of impact? That’s how the Uros or the Medan or the Abenaki or the Cayuga or the Yap or any of these communities that are—I’ve got a list I think could now have sixty-five to seventy floating island communities that we haven’t even looked at yet.
AZ: Right. And before we should be doing anything, we should be doing deep observation of that.
JW: Yeah. It just makes sense. Maybe we won’t replicate that system to scale up for a community of a thousand on a floating platform, but maybe a community of a thousand isn’t sustainable. Maybe we have to think at a smaller scale. So sometimes there’s thirty to forty families on this Island. Can we do something at that scale? Or maybe scale up by two, and coupled with maybe new material technologies and new construction methods, can we synthesize or hybridize a bit of hi-tech and a bit of lo-TEK and come up with something that is going to be symbiotic and not have a detrimental impact on every other species in that environment? So just thinking beyond the next year or the next two years, thinking on a much larger time cycle.
AZ: Yeah. It has to do, on a society level, [with] how we honor speed and how we honor scale. We’ve been experiencing this incredible valuation of scale for the last twenty years. And I think another thing that you’re really looking at is the value of scale.
JW: Yeah. We have infinite growth on a finite planet, and we just keep on going up higher and out, wider, and then deeper, to extract. And there’s no feedback. There are no checks and balances within that process. And, in a way, I think we don’t take into consideration the loss of relationship to the natural world or to our environment, and the psychological impact of that, when we keep on going up and up and up and denser and denser and denser, and hotter surfaces, and poor air quality, and lack of sanitation, and poor living conditions.
So it’s this obsession with scale and density and urbanism at what cost. And I think embedded within the thinking is always that the relationship to nature is actually the driver of these systems and the driver of the technologies. So once you lose that, the system fails. So, inherent in the construction and conception of these technologies, they’re symbiotic with natural systems. So you can’t keep on going higher and you can’t keep on spreading wider and you can’t—or extracting deeper. Because if you keep on extracting deeper, the aquifer is going to fail and your qanat system will dry out.
There’s a very balanced relationship in what’s available, how much you can grow. An exponential growth, it’s not allowed in some of these systems because the ecological footprint is too much, and then you end up compromising human survival at the end of that cycle. Probably the last thing, because we’re pretty resilient at keeping ourselves on top, at the expense of other systems.
AZ: Because of tools.
AZ: The Paleolithic hand ax. These singular moments happen that weren’t necessarily biological evolution, which is in the way that we’re thinking now. And it’s interesting, because you’re representing—there’s two modalities of thought now, progress, progress, progress all the way to Mars, which is basically the thinking now, is like, well, we’ll just keep going and then when we’re done here, we’ll just…
JW/AZ [together]: We’ll find another planet. [Laughter]
AZ: Exactly. Or this incredibly long, integrated thinking, which is another thing that I—
JW: Deep time.
AZ: Yeah, deep time and something that I think that you’re really elevating through your project and the work—and the talking that you’re doing out in the world—is this idea of integration. This psychological idea. You’re not going to just have a trauma, move on as if it didn’t happen; we need to understand the lineage and the line that goes back to be able to integrate it and move on with it. So I’m also wondering what you think now about how we look at our own histories, the history of our species, even in the short term, the last couple hundred years, colonialism to now.
JW: Anthropocene is the last hundred years.
AZ: Yeah. Or the Anthropocene alone.
JW: And it’s such a buzzword these days. As a word, it has a lot of negative connotations and associations, but it wasn’t actually, I don’t think, initially conceptualized like that. It was actually supposed to be about all of the impacts, but yet the impacts that are negative are really prevalent at this point in time. But, within that, it still contains this idea that we’re superior, and that it’s now up to us to save that, save us from the impact that the Anthropocene has led us to. And it’s like, well, can we actually reconceptualize what the Anthropocene even means and say maybe this is our moment to really recalibrate and to deeply integrate symbiotically with nature? Maybe we’re not saving it. Maybe it’s like leaning into it really, really hard, and saying, Okay, we have this moment to really make a shift. And so many people are calling for the shift. And what I talk about is this mythology that can draw us all through that.
AZ: Well, the Anthropocene is like the pharmakon.
AZ: I think that it’s a social problem. And it’s a problem of perception, not necessarily about truth at all. And it’s going to take storytelling like this to get people to look at things slightly differently, because it basically—like all things related to our species—is about story, and the stories we have and stories that we tell. So what do you think needs to actually change on a social level for any of these solutions to actually be embraced?
JW: I think a lot of the conversation and a lot of the shortstops, at this moment in time, is political, and whether you believe in science or whether you believe in the climate deniers—and that really falls down party lines, in a way. And when I talk about the book, I always say that if someone believes in the message of the book, they’re probably someone who’s on board—they’re the believers. There’s a middle ground of people that might get it, and they’ll be on board and maybe you’ll open something and idea up to them and they’ll have this a-ha moment. They’re like, I never thought of it that way. That’s who the book is written for.
And there’s going to be the staunch denier, and I’m not sure how that’s going to change. I feel like that is the biggest social impediment for us at the moment. And you can see it, if you look at a nation, you can see it internationally and more and more people are just calling for we have to make a huge shift. And I think the last three weeks have been a really incredibly important shift, with Larry Fink from BlackRock coming out and saying climate change is front and center to the future of how we’re understanding the portfolio of BlackRock. And then this cascading effect from huge corporations.
AZ: Trillion Trees.
JW: Yeah, taking all these understandings and pledges and really reconceiving of how they’re going to come into line with this new understanding of what is relevant to business right now and business in the future.
AZ: Which we’ve seen before.
JW: We have seen before.
AZ: This dovetails with this greenwashing idea. And it’s funny, someone was over the other day, and they talked about Trump versus Bloomberg. And people will be hearing this podcast during 2020, and someone who I would never expect to say “maybe Trump.” And I said, why? He goes, well, he really just wants to be loved. And if someone can convince him that saving the planet will make him universally loved throughout history, maybe he’ll get on board with that. And it was a very radical idea, I’d never even thought about that. It was like, how did the Trillion Trees thing happen? Someone planted a meme and said, this’ll make him well-liked.
JW: Yeah. But I think that’s a nice edge to play because the person who can be the most easily swayed is the person who’s most quickly [dissuaded]. And so he might commit to that. And we’ve seen this before. If you go back to a lot of his rhetoric when he was trying to get in power and going for the candidacy for the president, there were so many promises that he did a one-eighty. And so, I think, for myself, I have been an environmentalist since my early twenties; this has never been any other way of thinking. It’s an ideology that’s ingrained in my DNA. And I think that’s the way that you have to go. So yes, there might be a commitment to a trillion trees, but what’s going to happen next?
AZ: What does that even mean?
AZ: What I’m getting at is that I think it’s beyond governmental political systems. Standing Rock happened when Obama was president. And we should never forget that. We seem to forget that the power structures in place in nations right now inherently are not taking care of the planet, will never, and can’t. Architecture can. Architecture is a political act. It’s not about making buildings. It’s about organizing people and their relationship to space. And so, I guess what I’m getting at is, is it the architect and designer’s role right now in society—
JW: To be an activist?
AZ: —not the government’s role, to be beyond activists? Because I think we think of activism as a kind of, I don’t know, like a—
JW: A rhetoric more than actualization?
AZ: Yeah, a movement. But an actualization. Is it incumbent upon designers and architects now to actually push us forward? Because governments and power structures in nations are probably not going to be the ones leading that charge.
JW: Yeah. I do I think that architects for, I think, it’s been for maybe for the last ten, fifteen years, there has really been this striving to be able to speak almost on an interdisciplinary platform to different governments to be able to catalyze change. And I do think it can happen at the scale of the city, at the scale of the nation. At the federal scale, that remains to be seen. I think that there’s a huge ambition, and I think the foresight and the vision and the way that architects can work in terms of thinking of alternative futures and multi-scale alternative futures—and it’s often not just spatial, it’s systems. And to think of an actualization and then all the systems and networks through which that actualization touches a much, much broader scale. Whether it’s economic, political, social, environmental, governmental, we have the ability to actually turn the cogs in so many different ways.
And in the work that I do with teaching, and also with the Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes at Columbia [University], our mission is to actually get on the ground, speak with the government agencies in developing countries to assist them. To really imagine an alternative future from what they’re thinking now and from what the normative consultants in the realm of climate resilience are sharing with them and giving to them at this point in time.
AZ: Right. Which is somewhat misguided in certain ways.
JW: It’s within the paradigm of what’s been done before. And I think that the book is really saying, Let’s expand that paradigm and let’s explore so much more. Going back to something that you were talking about before, I think part of the way that this book is trying to understand the agency of what we can learn from these systems is, yes, we can observe and we can learn and replicate or migrate a similar type of system and put that in an urban context. But also, there are incredibly resilient technologies in the countries that I’ve been visiting that are in this place of development and a little bit more economically and perhaps ecologically, governmentally fragile. They have incredibly resilient technologies that just haven’t been looked at yet.
So there’ll be a lot of consultants from very wealthy nations coming with their technologies, lending money through foreign direct investment to build these big infrastructural projects that, even they know in fifteen years that sea wall is probably going to fail. But they’re not looking—
AZ: It’s about deal flow.
JW: Yeah, exactly. And manifestation of an idea and an infrastructure and great photographs and “We can do this!” And “We’re really good at this type of infrastructural climate resilience.”
AZ: It’s the “We got this!” attitude.
JW: It’s also this—I call it like this “neocolonial climate resilience movement” that’s happening, and in a way it’s erasing some of these amazing, resilient systems in these countries. Indonesia is a really amazing example. They’re looking at, how do we stop substance, how do we stop flooding, and how do we protect from storm surge and sea-level rise in Jakarta? And on the same island, really nearby, they have a system called the Sawah Tambak that’s a productive agricultural system that only functions at one to two meters above sea level that takes in floodwaters, works in a brackish water environment, and is a polder dike system like the Dutch use. But no one’s looking at that system. And, in fact, it’s just thought of as an agricultural system. So it’s limited, except it’s not because it’s carbon-sequestering, flood-mitigating, food-producing—
AZ: It’s circular.
JW: It has all these co-beneficial relationships. It provides hundreds of thousands of jobs for people. It’s food, it’s all these things, but it is also a for-sure resilient system for flooding. So why aren’t we going to these countries and saying, Look at what you have. Let’s work with you, with your knowledge base, with your materials, with the types of environments have been developed by your climatic systems, using your soils, using all the materials in your environment, and let’s think of how we can evolve that as a resilient technology.
AZ: As humanities departments and history departments are becoming less and less relevant to people because we’re being told, “Go learn engineering and you’ll get a job in San Francisco”—
JW: Yeah, everywhere in the world.
AZ: Everywhere in the world. This is this idea that we no longer have a Heideggerian perspective on anything, that we don’t observe, we don’t look at the underlying foundational ideas that we’re making all of our decisions from—we’re not challenging those assumptions. And I think that what you’re proposing is, wait a minute, why aren’t we slowing down? It has to do with speed. And why aren’t we looking at what’s underneath everything? And thinking about the decisions we’re making that are possibly based on the wrong assumptions.
It’s a way of thinking and it’s a way of educating, and it starts, at least in the Western world, at a level of: Why would you study philosophy? That became like an idea.
JW: Or geography.
AZ: Yeah. “That’s irrelevant. Where are you going to get a job? This is ridiculous.” And no one’s thinking about that is driven by a late-stage capitalistic system that’s just driving us into more tribalism and driving us into hyper-normalized ideas. But it’s really just about the fact that it doesn’t make sense to come in there and build a—
JW: It’s like a homogenization, this lens of homogeneity and progress and development that just almost eats up…
AZ: It’s like the airspace aesthetic we look at now.
JW: It’s the diversity of ideas and technologies and cultures and environments—we need that, and that makes us more resilient. Resilience is actually based upon this idea of bouncing back and diversity within an ecosystem. The monoculture, the homogeneity, is actually crippling because it makes systems vulnerable.
AZ: Yeah, there’s no solution.
JW: Yeah. There’s no— If this takes a hit, something else can bounce back. And so you have a really diverse ecosystem. All these things have these niches. And so if one niche is removed, something else takes its place. Building that back into how we design environments, how we design urban environments, how we think about our place in the world… I don’t really know what the next form of the city—and that’s a question that I get asked a lot is, what do you see as, what’s the next, how do you see cities? And I was like, well, there are designers far more intelligent and talented than myself…
AZ: I don’t know about that, but your focus is on observation.
JW: Yeah. Well, and also the focus is to give those people, as many people as possible, a tool kit, that puts something in their hands, that’s on paper, that has all the groundwork there so that they can take these ideas, and it can just spread like wildfire. And that’s the way I see the biggest impact. High-tech is never going to come up with a solution that is going to be able to change a global oscillation like El Niño.
JW: But thousands of different small-scale, nature-based technologies that are taking the place of industrial technologies dissipated and replicated globally, that’s going to make a shift. That’s going to make a shift both climatically, physically, ideologically for humanity. That’s a different type of thinking that we’re not doing right now.
AZ: Absolutely. Yeah, I mean, if you just look at fire-stick farming and what happened recently in your home country [Australia], which is just incredibly tragic.
AZ: First of all, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on that.
JW: I have many thoughts on that. [Laughs]
AZ: I’m sure. But when you look at how the indigenous populations that have been practicing fire-stick farming for a long time were affected versus the modern, industrial areas of Australia, what did we see happen?
JW: Yeah, the fires went around the areas that had used cultural burning or fire-stick farming.
AZ: Which is what, just for people who may not know?
JW: It’s pyro-technology, and you find indigenous cultures all over the world using pyro-technologies. It’s simultaneous innovation that has happened throughout history in many cultures that never had any communication. So it’s a really effective form of managing ecosystems, and some ecosystems need fire to actually regenerate. And there [are] amazing biological results that happen after using these slow, cool, controlled fires, and it’s basically to burn off fuel loads that might spark much larger fires, but also to manage a certain type of state of an ecosystem.
So you can use fire to retain a grassland. Because a grassland would generally try and grow into a forest. There’s this concept called succession, which ecosystems are kind of never in a state of balance; they’re always sort of shifting into different states based upon different climatic factors, different types of species that inhabit that ecosystem. But fire is a means by which you can remove dense tree cover and keep grasslands regenerating. And the government and even the fire services in Australia really have never taken that much notice of this use of cultural burning, which Aboriginal communities have been using for time immemorial.
And they use different types of techniques. And sometimes the Western techniques are a little bit the same as Aboriginal techniques, but the Aboriginal techniques really understand the local environments. They understand soil profiles, flowering times of plants, breeding cycles of animals, all the different species in that environment. They understand the wind direction, they understand precipitation cycles. They take that all into account, and then they light really cool, low, slow burning, very controlled fires, which they constantly manage.
What came out of the devastating fires that happened in Australia, where twenty-five million acres of bushland was lost and a billion animals, thirty-three people, is that the areas that had used cultural burning to really maintain those ecosystems, the fires were going around them. So they weren’t impacted. And it was this moment where I was like, why aren’t you listening? And why aren’t you taking heed and learning from indigenous communities? I’ve got to say that colonialism and racism and this idea of primitivism of these technologies is part of the problem. And you can’t deny that that’s why people are not willing to learn and not taking heed of these different alternative technologies.
Now people are, and now there’s been this huge resurgence of fire-stick farming and people teaching each other. And actually, there is a huge regenerative network that’s global, where Aboriginal indigenous fire-stick farmers are now getting ready to visit all different places around the world to teach them how to do this type of fire-stick farming.
AZ: Fantastic. And you grew up in Australia?
JW: I grew up in Brisbane, Australia.
AZ: What was your upbringing like?
JW: I actually grew up in a really amazing neighborhood in a very conservative town—now city. Back then it was probably a town, Brisbane. And this neighborhood was where all the migrants would go when they first came to this city. So super eclectic: Vietnamese, Chinese, Greeks, Italians. It used to be a really big gathering ground for the Aboriginal people, because it’s near the river, and it was really beautiful rainforest. So there is a really important park called Musgrave Park, which they think was a ceremonial ground for the indigenous people in the area. And that was really part of the upbringing. There was the Aboriginal radio station, Kurilpa, which is the indigenous name for the area. So, coming from that area, but living in a city that was very conservative, with a very conservative education and a very formal training in architecture, I did one subject at my university in second-year architecture where it was literally like someone had lifted a veil. I had this Aboriginal-environments unit that was run by Dr. Paul Memmott, and he was just teaching everybody about Aboriginal engineering and architecture and infrastructure.
And now, people talk about Aboriginal farming—we wouldn’t even talk about Aboriginal communities farming. That was a reason why land could be taken, because it wasn’t being used. So now Bruce Pascoe has this amazing book called Dark Emu that’s come out, where he’s documenting all the different types of agriculture, aquaculture, that they’ve found now. And a lot of people—there’s this amazing story about the fires revealing, there’s this place called Budj Bim, in Lake Condah in Victoria, which is this huge lake, and there’s this incredible agriculture system there that’s six thousand years old. It’s older than the pyramids. It was built and designed by the indigenous people in the area. And it underlays the colonial landscape. And recently, after the fires finished—well, in the fires, it burnt all the bush. So it revealed far more of this system than we knew was there.
And then, after the fires—the fires stopped because there was huge rain, and there’s huge flooding now—this whole agriculture system then flooded and flooded all the town around it. People were like, “We built a town on an agriculture system to catch eels six thousand years ago, and it still works.” So it’s this amazing relationship. This idea that indigenous people in Australia were hunters and gatherers and not adapting their environments and not farming is completely false.
So much of the history of occupation of Australia is built just upon a history that, really, now we can disprove. And we disprove it because now we have flooding, or nature is showing us, nope, that was not the case. And you probably shouldn’t have built here because you built on a huge agriculture system.
AZ: Right. Exactly. And then, like many Australians, you left at 21. And where’d you go?
JW: I went to London for a year. I ended up moving back to Australia for two years, and then applied to go to school here in the States. I think I went to London because it was really hard to come to New York, but I always really wanted to come to New York.
AZ: Why was it hard to come to New York?
JW: Just visas.
AZ: Oh right, of course.
JW: And London, we [Australians] get a bit of an open door for a year or two. That’s why we all go there. And then, to get to America, it was just a different story. So my way was to get into school here. So I applied for school, got into Harvard, and then started studying sacred landscapes.
AZ: Which is?
JW: It’s not a course—it was kind of my own idea. But I went to study the masters of landscape architecture II [MLA II], which is a post-professional program. I was really looking at the relationship of indigenous people to the landscape and how indigenous conservation is often more effective than a Western framework of conservation. And then that led to all this work, because looking at all these conservation landscapes, which I think is a limited understanding of what these landscapes are—and has been part of the problem—that we just conserve them, put them in a little parcel, and we don’t touch them, it’s not real, that there is incredible technology and innovation and ingenuity and adaptation and climate mitigation in these landscapes that we think of as pristine.
That led to this book of trying to reveal what we call the “shadow conservation landscape,” and what’s in the shadows, what’s in the shadows of our society, what’s in the shadows of what we call conservation landscapes? Thousands of different technologies that can help us adapt to climate change and this moment of where we are now.
AZ: Because, if you looked at it all contextually, we’ve only been messing things up for a couple of hundred years, but we’ve been around much longer.
JW: Much, much longer. Just in different varied forms, just in other ways.
AZ: So when you think about this idea of a utopic future and this idea of utopia—not from the failed sense of utopia, but an actual version of the future that works for you and your dreaming—what do you see?
JW: It’s a really interesting question. My work I would like to see is—looking at the transition, there’s going to be a transition phase, obviously. We are going to wake up in the same city tomorrow, so what’s it going to look like tomorrow? What’s it going to look like in a year? What’s it going to look like when it grows? And that growth is what I’m really interested in. So I’m interested in second, third growth-ring corridors and how we design that, and how can the design of those urban environments then feed back to the way we retrofit the original city footprint?
And so, in those growth rings, are we going to build industrial wastewater treatment plants? Or are we going to look at sewage-fed aquaculture systems where all our waste is going into one system that then provides a hundred thousand jobs, plus feeds the city, plus cleans the water, and you don’t have any transportation costs or irrigation costs? How are we thinking like that? And the one example in the book of this system works outside the city of Calcutta, which is a city of fifteen million people. It processes half the sewage water of that city every single day, provides eighty thousand jobs, and saves the city, just in operating costs, $22 million, for a city like Calcutta.
The other flip side of it is, I was just in Mozambique last week, and it was a city that was hit by floods last year, Cyclone Idai, that was two-hundred-kilometer-an-hour winds, eighty percent of the housing was destroyed. They’re a city, a year later, that is still in recovery. And, in a funny way, I felt like I’d stepped into the future, fifteen or twenty years, into cities and how they would be coping. And in that case, I see that, in a rebuilding effort, replicating the same types of single-use infrastructures or trying to build in the flood-prone areas or single-use reservoirs, that’s not the way forward when you have three quarters of your residents living in informal or organic settlements. On the peripheries of these water systems that then flood. So how do we think of those types of cities really using their natural, nature-based technologies? In the book, there’s a system called the Kihamba. It’s the Chaga people on the southern slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. They’ve adapted a natural forest to be really economically productive and food-productive that’s the scale of Los Angeles.
JW: So it’s humongous. It’s called the Kihamba, and just nearby where I was, in Beira, they have something called the Machamba, which is really similar except it has rice in it, but it’s a home garden in a forest environment where they grow all their food. It’s a self-sufficient food system that, multiplied by ten thousand, creates a forest—a huge, productive forest. So, in that other way, that’s that other type of system, using your nature-based technologies that are already in that place, and just bolstering those types of systems to create resilient cities where the fundamental food-scarcity, water-scarcity jobs, that’s taken care of in the rebuilding of more resilient landscapes in cities.
AZ: Will you be focusing on showing us that, what things can look like in the future?
AZ: That’s what we really look forward to, I think, is the other side of what you’ve been doing and where it will go. Because I think we need to see. We need to see the past and we need to see a possible future, and that’s what we’re all going to be looking forward to with you. Thank you so much for having the time for us and for spending today with us.
JW: Thank you, it was fantastic.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on Feb. 27, 2020. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.