thomas.matthews - Sophie Thomas
99 months

Workshop November 12-16 2007
Public lecture November 12 2007

Sophie Thomas, co-founder and creative director of thomas.matthews London, together with Fabrica’s researchers and a selection of external participants focussed the 5-day workshop on carbon emission reduction through design. The title of the brief, “99 months” refers to the time remaining to reverse climate change before the ultimate tipping point.

The workshop results inspired a critical essay by former Eye Magazine director Max Bruinsma entitled “Collecting butterflies”.

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Sophie Thomas - thomas.matthews

After completing an honorary degree in graphic design at Central Saint Martins in 1995 Sophie went on to study a two-year Masters degree in communication design at the Royal College of Art. It was here that she met Kristine Matthews and began to collaborate on communication design projects, the first being an installation of a week’s worth of waste from the canteen and initiating a college wide recycling programme.

Following graduation Sophie went to work at The Body Shop design studio until 1998 when thomas.matthews was officially set up by the two partners. Since then the company has grown to be an award winning practice of ten people with a shared passion for bringing outstanding design and communication to important issues.

Over the past nine years, as a director and joint owner of thomas.matthews Sophie has led and delivered a vast array of projects across the world. These range from the highly acclaimed “No Shop” campaign for Friends of the Earth in 1997 to the £15 million interactive Space galleries for the Royal Observatory Greenwich which opened this Spring. thomas.matthews have completed in excess of 400 jobs over nine years for a very wide range of clients. The most enjoyable work has involved interesting collaborations with artists, architects and engineers.

Throughout the ten years of experience in the communication design industry Sophie has strived to practice a number of core principles and to make sure that they are instilled in those that work with thomas.matthews. These include working to a set of highly ethical and sustainable principles and bringing elements of humour and innovation into all the work.
The company has been featured in numerous books and publications and was listed as one of the 40 top international design practices headed by principals under 30 years old in 2000. The work has been featured recently in this April’s sustainable issue of Creative Review that highlighted our new mini- publication “ten ways design can combat climate change”.
In 2005 the company was selected by Japanese Esquire magazine as one of a handful of global companies producing original and thought-provoking work. Esquire dedicated the magazine to the subject of graphics as a weapon in the battle to promote ethical issues and thomas.matthews was given the front cover.

Workshop brief

99 months
Read the information. Research the facts.
Realise the state of emergency. Refocus your life.

As citizens we have a massive responsibility to rise up and start pushing for a mind shift. As designers and practitioners we can be the social agents that can clarify the issues, cook up the energy and begin the movement.

The issue - global yawning.
A "huge gap" has been identified between what is understood (by scientists) about global warming and what is known by the public. In short the climate crisis is a far more dire and present danger than most of us like to think. "We are closer to a level of dangerous, human-made interference with the climate than we realise. We are rapidly approaching a series of climate tipping points that will set in place a accelerated rush into huge global change.

In the face of this catastrophe are we panicked or hysterical? On the contrary - we seem to be in a strange limbo where people are becoming immune to the science, bored of the pledging and deaf to the advice to change their light bulbs.

“We tell them the truth – that an ecological collapse is on its way, and that avoiding it demands widespread transformation – and then we suggest that they take some small steps whose meaninglessness in the face of massive crisis is self-evident. We ask them to care about everything, and do almost nothing” Alex Steffen says.

Climate change is exploding into the mainstream — social, political, economic, industrial, commercial. But there is still a strange disconnection between the grim reality as set out by people who have studied the subject and the other reality, the everyday one: working and living patterns, people’s aspirations.

The middle classes rebrand their lives, congratulate themselves on going green, but they still carry on buying and flying as much as ever before.
It is easy to picture a situation in which the whole world religiously buys green products, and its carbon emissions continue to soar.
Even the well intentioned, informed citizens feels helpless in the face of looming global calamities and they respond by circling the wagons and focusing on family-size problems. The end result is that most of us practice denial, which appears in the culture at large as indifference.

The brief – social agents.
Climate change is an entirely new challenge. Its nature and scale reveals that existing commercial structures & social mechanisms just aren’t up to it. Everything we do must be scrutinised and potentially re-designed.

Over the five days workshop we will create a one day launch event that showcases a new global campaign highlighting the now scientifically agreed 99 months left to the tipping point and the call for heroic actions to combat climate change. We have five days to think and create something that tackles communication on a global scale.
Whatever is produced must live and grow beyond the workshop.

Stage 1

Following on from an intro session we will split into 10 groups. Each group will be allocated a different area:
potential areas of focus: energy, transport, water, housing/ shelter, waste, consumption/ stuff, governance/politics, cities and communities, work/ business, nature/ planet.
Each group will research and brainstorm concepts that have the potential to be developed into a part of the umbrella campaign. The group reforms for a crit and help is given to develop these ideas.

Stage 2

Once all concepts have been developed and approved the whole group will discuss the vehicle that the campaign will be launched. A smaller group will be put in charge of making this happen. All methods must stand up to sustainable scrutiny and will be documented and added to a growing database of methods that will be made available to other students and professionals at a later stage.

Areas of creation: identity/ voice, rules of action/ rolling structure, campaigns/ actions/ demonstrations/ tools of empowerment, visual/ radio/ viral/ audio/ digital, interaction, knowledge banks.

Stage 3

The launch. In the evening, the event is publicised (beforehand) and the campaign begins.
This brief demands a new visual language to help begin in earnest the massive change.
The solutions could/will involve: invention of new answers, changes to the systems (and the building of better ones), running for prime minister, writing books, shooting films, teaching, protesting, being arrested, mobilising your communities, redesigning your cities, getting up off the sofa, making it happen. It is time for clarity and action.

“Put another way: Don't just be the change, mass-produce it.
We need, through brilliant innovations, bold enterprise and political willpower, to make sustainability an obligatory and universal characteristic of our society, not an ethical choice.
We need to remake the systems in which we live. We need to redesign civilisation.” (adapted from Alex Steffen,

99 months – the science.

According to expert sources we are now rapidly moving towards a tipping point in the state of the world’s climate. This is the point of no return where the climate’s reaction to the man-made creation of greenhouse gases will take over and we will not be able to avert the consequences. A NASA team, led by scientist James Hansen now predicts that we have in the region of 99 months to radically change the way we run our world and live our lives in order to avoid the ultimate global disaster.

“If human beings follow a business-as-usual course, continuing to exploit fossil fuel resources without reducing carbon emissions... the eventual effects on climate and life may be comparable to those at the time of mass extinctions. Life will survive, but it will do so on a transformed planet. For all foreseeable human generations, it will be a far more desolate world than the one in which civilization developed and flourished during the past several thousand years”. (James Hansen)

Scientists reported that we may have less time to combat global warming than we realised. Measurements of carbon dioxide, a main greenhouse gas, taken from the Mauna Loa Observatory, 12,000ft up a mountain in Hawaii in 2004, suggested atmospheric carbon dioxide levels had risen sharply and inexplicably in the two years before, prompting fears of runaway global warming. Though it is too early to confirm that it is a definite upward trend, the results came as an unwelcome surprise to climatologists.

The increase in the temperature of our atmosphere is now undisputed in the scientific world but there is still a lot of discussion as to how much this increase will be. The last time that the earth was five degrees warmer was three million years ago, when sea level was about eighty feet higher.

Eighty feet! In that case, the United States would lose most East Coast cities: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Miami; indeed, practically the entire state of Florida would be under water. Fifty million people in the US live below that sea level. Other places would fare worse. China would have 250 million displaced persons. Bangladesh would produce 120 million refugees, practically the entire nation. India would lose the land of 150 million people.

Hansen is particularly concerned about the timeframe within which we must act. There is increasing evidence that we are rapidly approaching a series of climate tipping points, where feedback loops in the environment (the march of forests pole-wards and melting glaciers and sea ice, meaning the earth's darkening surface retains more of the sun's heat; melting tundra releasing increasing amounts of methane as it thaws; etc.) began to contribute to a galloping greenhouse effect brought on by our actions. (For a particularly elegant discussion of the concept of climate tipping points, I highly recommend the Real Climate post on the subject.) If we wish to avoid crossing these thresholds, we need, Hansen (and others) say, to try to restrain global temperature increases to two degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial norm.

Because we have already committed ourselves to a certain amount of climate change (temperatures have already risen about a degree, Hansen says), and because the emissions we are now putting into the climate will be there for a long while, time is not on our side here: since no matter how great our resolve is, our emissions will not cease immediately, and many decisions being made now (power plant construction, urban planning, forest clearance) will continue to have climate implications in the future, we really have run out of time to delay change. We need, Hansen says, to have to start acting like a climate neutral society within the next ten years.

"We're really at the crisis point," Hansen says.

Today the climatologists at the Snow and Ice Data Centre in Colorado will publish the results of the latest satellite survey of Arctic sea ice. It looks as if this month’s coverage will be the lowest ever recorded. The Arctic, they warn, could already have reached tipping point: the moment beyond which the warming becomes irreversible. As ice disappears, the surface of the sea becomes darker, absorbing more heat. Less ice forms, so the sea becomes darker still, and so it goes on.

Last month, New Scientist reported that something similar is happening in Siberia. For the first time on record, the permafrost of Western Siberia is melting. As it does so, it releases the methane stored in the peat. Methane has 20 times the greenhouse warming effect of carbon dioxide. The more gas the peat releases, the warmer the world becomes, and the more the permafrost melts.

Two weeks ago, scientists at Cranfield University discovered that the soils in the UK have been losing the carbon they contain: as temperatures rise, the decomposition of organic matter accelerates, which causes more warming, which causes more decomposition.
Already the soil in this country has released enough carbon dioxide to counteract the emissions cuts we have made since 1990.

99 months – definitions.
Tipping point – the moment beyond which the warming becomes irreversible.

Albedo flip - Geological records suggests that ice at the poles does not melt in a gradual and linear fashion, but flips suddenly from one state to another.

Positive feedback – self-reinforcing effects which, once started, are hard to stop eg. the melting of the Arctic ice.

IPCC - The intergovernmental panel on climate change James Hansen, lead climate change scientist at NASA -

John Schellnhuber, research director at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Norwich - 12 tipping points where global warming could produce sudden and dramatic environmental damage:
1. Sahara desert
2. Amazon forest
3. Ozone hole
4. Greenland ice sheet
5. Tibetan plateau
6. Salinity valves
7. North Atlantic current
8. El Niño
9. West Antarctic ice sheet
10. Methane clathrates
11. The monsoon
12. The Atlantic circumpolar current

Research some more:

Collecting butterflies
Max Bruinsma
Amsterdam, December 2007

“How much green-standing can we stand? It’s enough hot air to melt Antarctica. In no time, an inconvenient truth has become an obnoxious one. But from what I can see, there’s as much selling as thinking going on. (-) Even when the issues are green, things are rarely black or white.”
Bob Morris, “Global Yawning”, NY Times May 6, 2007

We, the world, have agreed that climate change poses grave problems and therefore we have pledged to start thinking about what can be thought up to save the planet. Check back on our leaders in 2009, and they’ll let us know what they’ve been pondering so far. Oh, and it should be clear that raising the standard of living of the upcoming middle classes in the new economies of the world is an even more pressing problem, and, now that you mention it, we won’t, of course, jeopardize the old economies. But we’ll plant trees, lots of trees.

This is the gist of the last word on climate change and the environmental crises as of the Bali conference in November 2007. This high-profile political event was declared a success because all countries assembled, including the once contrarian USA, agreed to start mulling things over. For the representative of Tuvalu, a tiny atoll state in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it was too little too late. He gives his country another decade – at the most. Say, ninety-nine months. After that, its population of around 10.000 souls will have become part of another problem-statistic, that of immigration in countries like New Zealand and Australia. Tuvalu’s atolls, and inhabited islands like them, will become unlivable or simply disappear below the rising oceans, a fact that is one of the few certainties in the debate about global warming, and one that is beyond repair.

For the rest, the debate is open. Two responses to the problem seem to prevail: “too bad” in cases like Tuvalu’s, and “we’ll see” in all other cases. The notion of actually doing something about it seems to baffle all but the sturdiest optimists. One of the reasons for this bewilderment is no doubt the extreme complexity of the matter. If – as the story goes – a butterfly flapping its wings in one of the last untouched corners of the Amazon forest can unwittingly cause a hurricane over the rising seas around Japan, then what can we do to purposefully influence this rhizomatous process? Should we contain the butterflies?

Trying to fight or even compensate for the causes of climate change seems to be just that – trying to contain butterflies. We can’t, of course, control the zillion of them flapping about the earth. We regard them as, well, a force of nature. Which is one of the strongest metaphors for the few things that exceed our own might. Even at a time when we control, or pretend to, many aspects of nature itself, we still hold a deep awe for its powers, once unleashed. This rare display of modesty compels us to acceptance in the face of natural disasters. When a volcano erupts, all we can do is evacuate. When a tsunami hits the coast, all there remains for us is bury the dead. There is no way of preventing such catastrophes and very little room even to warn for them.

If we thus characterize both the complexity and the overwhelming scale of the climate problem, what on earth can we do about it? In the face of an exponentially growing mount of evidence for the human factor in the causes of climate change, we feel like the sorcerer’s apprentice; we have set free forces and processes we cannot control. Between the standard reactions that a panic-struck human may have when faced with events that seem to overpower him – denial and resignation – is there an alternative? There is and it’s called: resilience. The French enlightenment thinker Pascal compared man to a reed, structurally rather weak but flexible enough to survive the fiercest storms. In French, his metaphor suggests a link between this flexibility and man’s ability to think: l’home est un roseau, mais un roseau pensant.

Flexibility of thinking, mental resilience, is needed to face the challenges of the climate crisis. We need to be thinking ‘what if’, not only in terms of worst-case scenarios, but more importantly in terms of practical actions. I am avoiding the word ‘solutions’ here, because no one solution will be sufficient to turn the tide. There are no quick fixes for complex problems. If, on the other hand, we accept that small events can seriously influence large processes – a notion that is symbolized by the popular story of the butterfly sparking a hurricane – we should take a ‘small measures approach’ seriously as contributing to the bigger picture of fighting the causes of climate change. For it is not just about reducing your personal ‘ecological footprint’ with 0.008 kgC by turning down your washing machine’s temperature. Small measures like this amount to much more: a change of mentality, a break of habit. Which in turn will help foster the kind of awareness that is politically effective. Obviously, it is there, on the level of politics, government and global economics, that the real answers to the problem lie. But without a constituency that pushes politicians and businesses into action, nothing will move. And in this case, the constituency will have to be global.

The success of Al Gore’s documentary ‘An inconvenient truth’ is not merely the merit of the facts he presented, but also a sign that he struck a chord with an audience that needed this summary as a catalyst for their own more or less repressed worries. An audience moreover, as it turned out, that was big and global enough to move politicians to at least admit they shared these concerns. Gore’s movie was consciously designed as center-piece of a campaign that aimed at a much more lasting effect than the proverbial 15 minutes, and incorporating all media necessary: book, movie, website, TV-exposure, canvassing and intense networking. And although the movie paints a grim picture of what can happen to our planet – and to us – when we don’t act quickly, the follow-up of Gore’s message in the media that he and his supporters employ stresses the notion that we can indeed do something about it, from small personal measures to large-scale political decisions. Gore addresses his audience as part of the solution.

All of this is underpinning the importance of awareness, not just of the problems, but of the measures that each of us can take to help solve them. Catching one butterfly at a time, so to speak, without loosing sight of the bigger picture. People who know they’re doing what they can or at least make an effort, will be more inclined to hold their representatives up to the same standards. And voters who translate their own awareness of and commitment to environmental issues into guidelines for their political choices will, by force of their number, influence political programs and agendas. Here also small measures matter: every vote counts, as any politician will confirm. Similarly, any businessperson will acknowledge that at the basis of every turnover statistics are individual purchases.

Thus, raising awareness can be counted among the more effective activities to stop the rest of the inhabited world from undergoing the fate of Tuvalu. Since the coral reefs that make up the atolls barely rise above the current sea level, even with radical measures against global warming this tropical paradise will have disappeared from the face of the earth roughly 99 months from now. According to scientists like climate expert James Hansen, a global tipping point beyond which we will not be able to prevent the oceans from rising even further, will be reached around the same time if levels of greenhouse gases such as methane and CO2 are not reduced. Global warming at this point will become irreversible, and we, in Venice, Amsterdam, New York, San Francisco, London or Tokyo, will have to do what the Tuvaluans are facing now: move to higher ground.

It doesn’t have to come to that. Instead of becoming bored with the umpteenth disaster documentary on Discovery Channel that sketches out our doom in great detail before concluding that a super-human effort is needed to avert the danger, we need to rise up like the vulnerable but flexible and thinking reeds that we are. For designers this resilience means first of all to rethink their role in terms of functionality: environmental issues like the amount of energy needed to realize the design and the amount of waste it produces after its functional life span, and social issues such as embedding environmental awareness into everyday routines of product usage need to be ‘designed into the product’. Not as an extra feature but as a basic function. For communication designers, there is the challenge not only to raise awareness, but to do so in a way that empowers people to make a difference within their own environment and without disturbing their ordinary habits to the point that they turn away either in shameful resignation or in contrarian denial. There is no point in spelling out doom when it leaves the audience paralyzed before the vision that after them there will be the deluge. Raising awareness also means fighting what New York Times columnist Bob Morris described as ‘global yawning’. The best way to do that is connect reliable information with feasible options for action and feedback on the results of those actions. This is what the 99 months project envisions. Like Al Gore’s website, it aims at building a resilient community, where information can turn into action. This project, an initiative spawned by a Fabrica workshop led by thomas.matthews, deserves to be realized.

“Man is a reed, but a thinking reed.” Pascal’s dictum is a word play – pensant (thinking, pensive) and penchant (flexible, bendable) sound very alike in French.

Sophie Thomas

Photocredits: Piero Martinello and Mauro Bedoni