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The 2022 Ecotopian Toolkit: Using Science, Art, and Community to Fight Water Justice
Water

The 2022 Ecotopian Toolkit: Using Science, Art, and Community to Fight Water Justice

Using sustainable tools to address current and future ecological challenges.

What do a floating studio, map of bird migration patterns, and botanical field guide have in common? These are just a few of the tools currently in the Penn Program for Environmental Humanities’ (PPEH) Ecotopian Toolkit. 

The 2022 Ecotopian Toolkit brings artists and the public together to develop shared sustainable tools to address current and future ecological challenges. The term “ecotopian” is borrowed from Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel, Ecotopia, which offers a visionary blueprint for the survival of our planet.

Out-of-the-Box Problem Solving

Last year, PPEH collaborated with the Independence Seaport Museum (ISM) and ISM’s River Ambassadors (their watershed education program for local high schoolers) to launch the 2022 Ecotopian Toolkit. Past collaborators included John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in 2018 and Bartram’s Garden in 2017. 

“Ecotopian Tools is a very broad concept. It only takes on meaning when it’s with a specific place and institution,” said Bethany Higgins, PPEH faculty founder, and project founder. “It is a tool to be used by the public as well as a specific community organization so that it is really helpful to them. That is why it is so important to work with partners.”

PHASE ONE: Join the Conversation! (January – April 2022)

During this info-gathering phase, ISM visitors were asked about ways to protect our waterways while exploring the project’s exhibit. Meanwhile, PPEH put out a call for proposals from filmmakers, artists, and creators to build tools for water justice in the Delaware River watershed. Then, a jury of local wavemakers –  nonprofit leaders, Penn faculty and professors, ISM staff and River Ambassadors, and activists – selected five interdisciplinary “toolmakers” for the 2022 cohort. 

“One of the most complex exhibition projects that we both have worked on”

The museum only had three panels and approximately 150 words to introduce the project in a balanced tone. Water justice is “the right to having equal and equitable access to clean and safe water used for necessary survival, sanitation, and recreation by the museum.

“One of the exhibits is just introducing the problems: rising tides, mass extinction, that climate change is here. We are at a point where the adverse effects are becoming irreversible. This project is looking at these challenges and how to deal with these problems as a society,” explained Daniel Kennedy, ISM’s Director of Exhibitions and Design. 

“How do we arm them in a sense with tools to combat and endure these challenges? And, how do we make that information accessible to everyone? So that was a big challenge.” 

Phase Two: Join The Exchange! (May-August 2022)

Each toolmaker is given a $1,000 grant to build their tool, host a prototyping public workshop, and document the process. The 2022 Ecotopian Toolmaker Workshops for Delaware Watershed Justice included: 

  • Basins and Borders with Nancy Agati: Since 1950, Philadelphia saw a 360% increase in precipitation, becoming the US city with the 3rd biggest increase in heavy downpours. Using permeable and impermeable materials, participants created basins to demonstrate the relationship between water absorption, drainage, runoff, and increased flooding due to climate change. 
  • Trans Natures Database: Eli Brown and citizen scientists walked along the Delaware River searching for gender-fluid river residents. These animals, fungi, and plants use their multiple genders as a survival strategy. Eli will compile the day’s field notes, drawings, and findings into the Trans Natures Database.
  • Water Radio: Delaware River with Fereshteh Toosi: Using their phones, boaters listen to audio prompts and meditations, as they paddled the Delaware and fostered a deeper connection to the river. 
  • Walk Around Philadelphia with Jacques-Jean “JJ” Tiziou: During this map printing workshop, residents explored the connection between the city’s ports and river with tributary creeks, industrial sites, and more.
  • Kitbashing – A Nursery for Futures with Juan Hurtado Salazar: Kitbashing combines pieces from commercial kits and other sources to create a new scale model. Participants of all ages constructed a scale boat, which will be a vessel for workshop participants’ ideas, reservations, and aspirations, as we live in and through a world shaped by rising tides.

Phase Three: Tools For A Healthy Watershed (September – December 2022)

The creators will incorporate the public’s feedback as they build and finalize the tools over the next few months. By the time the project finishes in 2024, Higgins hopes to have 25 water, air, and land tools available for public use. It will culminate with a print Catalog for Ecotopian Tools and a living digital archive. 

“It’s meant to be empowering and talk about these big ideas that many people find intimidating. Look what people are thinking and doing around this, and what you can think and do around this,” said Mia D’Avanza, Penn Program in Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator. 

What kind of tool would you create for work toward climate, environmental, and social justice?

Photo courtesy of the Independence Seaport Museum

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Inspired by her college internship with an ocean advocacy non-profit, Leslie started her career planning stream cleanups and writing about watershed issues. Leslie is an accomplished writer and social media expert. When she isn’t chasing a toddler, you can find her writing, planning events, cooking, reading, hiking, and helping brands tell their stories. View all posts by Leslie Hudson

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