Case Study: Circular Geology
A Speculative Design student project about the human impact on Earth by Pauline Alt.
Are we part of nature? In an imagined future, novel rocks – originating from human activity – will be mined. Three material samples foster speculation about potential future substances: Are they “natural” or “artificial” materials?
The Anthropocene is a term widely used since Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer proposed it for labelling the current geological epoch in which humans are the primary cause of planetary change. Humankind has become expert in transforming the Earth’s resources, adapting them to suit our needs. Raw matter is exploited, shaped, and transformed into new materials. Human beings create potential but are also responsible for destruction. The results are synthetic materials such as plastics. Being shapeable into any form for low costs, they have revolutionized the world of production, the world of objects. In return, however, this means an exponential increase in waste. A huge amount of plastic ends up in landfills in other parts of the world or in the sea. This has reached such dimensions that we can now talk about a plastification of our planet.
But when and why does an object turn into waste? What makes us perceive an object, a material, as useless and ready for the dump? If we challenged the notion of waste could we then achieve a more deliberate and longer use of valuable primary resources?
Exploring the anthropogenic traces of humankind on this planet, I became curious about what materials of our time, e.g. plastics, would look like once humans are long gone. Will they still be perceived as worthless waste products?
In several experiments, I generated rock strata out of the most distinctive artificial materials of our time: plastics, aluminum, and concrete. The resulting artificial rock samples represent the geological formation process of metamorphic, magmatic, and sedimentary rocks. For this purpose, I imitated the powers that form the rock strata, such as heat and high pressure, as they act during the formation process of metamorphic rocks, for example. With simple tools, I mimicked the transformation brought about by centuries of climatic effects and geological processes. Therefore, I layered and fused plastic refuse to imitate the Earth’s strata. The hand axe stands for the first lasting human intervention in nature. It was the first time that humans changed nature for their own purposes.
Sample no.1: hand axe shaped from novel metamorphic rocks (of plastic).
The three samples stimulate thinking about our impact on the environment. How can we affect our surroundings for a life-friendly future? Or does the planet already affect us? The planet can regenerate, we cannot. It fosters debate about what is synthetic and what is already natural. These artificial materials, our legacies, will be witnesses of our time.
Sample no. 2: sedimentary rock strata from concrete, gravel, asphalt, and plastics.
The project was shown in the annual exhibition of the University of Applied Sciences Munich. Most visitors to the exhibition were very surprised to find that waste materials were hiding behind these, sometimes filigree, objects. I was often asked whether it was possible to make a series of jewelry from them. These reactions and the conversations with some of the visitors made us once again come back to the question of when and why objects become obsolete and end up as waste. Do we have to broadly rethink our relationship to things and objects? Could changing these relationships help to achieve a healthier co-existence between humans and all non-human species (living and non-living ones) on our planet?
The project was created within the framework of the University of Applied Sciences in Munich in 2017. Over the course of one semester, 15 students explored the ways in which we interact with nature in our daily lives. The drive of this series of projects was to rethink our relation towards the environment and to face the ecological and social challenges of our time. This requires rethinking the way we design.
Annual exhibition of the University of Applied Sciences Munich.
Tools that helped me to create the scenario:
- Storytelling techniques, such as imagining a scenario from the eyes of a character, to change perspective, ideals, wishes and knowledge.
- Defensive pessimism is an enriching tool to widen the imaginary.
Pauline Alt, a 26-year-old designer, is exploring how to achieve social-ecological transformation with a special interest in material research and development of environmentally friendly materials, future research, and design fiction. Born and raised in Bad Reichenhall, a rather small town near the German Alps, she has always been surrounded by mountains. Fascinated by their permanence and formation history, they inspire her for projects. She received her bachelor’s degree in Industrial Design from the University of Applied Sciences, Munich, in 2018 with distinction and currently she is pursuing the Eco-Social Design Master program at the University of Bolzano, Italy.
Sample no. 3: magmatic rocks evolved by the fusion of different metals and glasses.