Cultivating a Post-Carbon Vision

“We need a vision for what the post-carbon economy looks like… that is inspiring enough and delivers enough in terms of jobs, in terms of opportunities, in terms of health. It has to be exciting!”
— Naomi Klein

I have always loved this quote by Naomi Klein, from the 2014 documentary film Disruption by Kelly Nyks and Jared Scott. Over the years, I have adopted it as a guiding mantra for my photography, something I think about every time I visit a renewable energy construction site. Surrounded by heavy machinery, noise and dust, I seek moments of grace and beauty, like this sea of wind turbine blades in Québec:

wind, renewable, energy, blade, white, Joan Sullivan, photographer, Canada
Wind turbine blades. Port of Cacouna, Québec, Canada. Photo © 2014 Joan Sullivan.

I can’t think of anything more important than trying to inspire others to visualize – to imagine – what a post-carbon world will look like. As Project Drawdown‘s Katherine Wilkinson said recently in an interview with The Regeneration Magazine:

“We also need a clear and credible vision worth fighting for, beyond averting catastrophe.”
— Katherine Wilkinson

So how do we cultivate this post-carbon vision?

By focusing on the positive, on solutions, on the way forward. By changing the mood music, according to Jonathon Porritt. By not talking about climate at all, according to Paul Hawken – “Two degrees Celsius in 2050 is conceptually vacuous to almost everyone.” – and instead, focusing on something much more tangible: dignified, family-wage jobs for the millions of people who will build our post-carbon economy. This is my favorite Drawdown recommendation. It is also the subject of my current pan-Canadian photo project that focuses on job creation and the human side of the energy transition.

We can also cultivate a post-carbon vision by deliberately, consciously choosing to look beyond the doom-and-gloom climate narratives and instead, imagine ourselves in a world we would love to live in – clean air, clean water, living buildings, regenerative agriculture, access to health, housing, education and energy for all.

In the past, it was imagination that propelled homo sapiens forward. In the future, it is imagination that will ensure our existence in a rapidly changing world.

Imagination and inspiration are the heart and soul of the re-conceptualized Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center (formerly Visitor Center) in Seattle, Washington. This wonderful space all but guarantees that visitors will “leave inspired” from their hands-on experience with a variety of interactive exhibits, each of which explores innovative solutions to some of the most pressing global challenges being addressed by the foundation.

Gates, Foundation, Discovery Center, Seattle
Gates Foundation Visitor Center, now Discovery Center. Photo by Frank Catalano/GeekWire photo.

While stopping climate change does not fit neatly within any of the foundation’s five main program areas, many of the projects funded by the Gates Foundation – family planning, educating girls, clean cookstoves and women smallholders – are listed among Project Drawdown‘s top 100 solutions to reverse global warming. Furthermore, Bill Gates has recently written about his own investments in renewable energy storage and a five-point climate change plan on his blog. As a result, visitors to the Gates Foundation Discovery Center who are interested in creating positive climate narratives will gain valuable insights from the foundation’s best practices for inspiring people all over the world to take action on a host of global problems.

According to Aleen Adams, Curator of Exhibits at the Discovery Center, sanitation is one of the broader multi-pronged funding strategies of the Gates Foundation. “The foundation sees investing in sanitation solutions as a fundamental building block in the efforts to reduce the spread of disease, save lives and improve energy use.” Earlier this month, Mr. Gates traveled to China for the Reinvented Toilet Expo where several sewer-less toilet prototypes were on display, including the Cranfield Nanomembrane Toilet which is a popular interactive exhibit at the Discovery Center (see photo below). “There are few things I love talking about more,” Mr. Gates admitted on his blog. “Sanitation is one of the most important issues we work on.”

The Cranfield Nanomembrane Toilet, which turns waste into water and electricity, is one of the many interactive permanent exhibits at the Gates Foundation Discovery Center. By opening and closing the toilet’s lid, visitors initiate the turning of a screw that separates liquids from solids. A gasifier converts the solids into ash and heat that is used to operate the toilet. Photo reprinted with permission.

To get people involved, the Discovery Center has created a “Get Involved” gallery, where visitors can take a quiz to discover how their unique skills and talents could be used to help solve a variety of global problems. Visitors are then encouraged to take the next step by designing their own media campaign for a cause of their choice – clean cookstoves, eradicating polio, and off-grid toilets that generate their own water and power, to name just a few.

The “Get Involved” gallery also includes a hands-on workshop where visitors can roll up their sleeves and help assemble kits for Pacific Northwest-based organizations with local and/or international reach. In the past, visitors have helped make menstrual pads for girls and winter kits for homeless youth. The current action project involves making pet blankets for the Seattle Humane Society’s project that helps homeless people and their pets.

A new temporary exhibit at the Discovery Center called Design with the 90% is running from September 13, 2018 through May 11, 2019. Curated by Cynthia E. Smith, Curator of Socially Responsible Design for Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, this important exhibit demonstrates how design can be a dynamic force for social change.

Gates, Gates Foundation, Discovery Center, design, 90%, renewable, energy

Eight out of the 26 projects (31/%) in this exhibit address clean energy and/or energy efficiency. Each of these eight projects contributes, in one way or another, to the energy transition, to our post-carbon future, in which communities will become distributed energy producers and consumers, simultaneously. This will help achieve universal access to electricity and clean cooking, as defined by the Sustainable Development Goal SDG 7: “Ensure access to affordable, reliable and modern energy for all by 2030.”

Many of the designers of these energy-related projects come from the country in which the project is implemented. For example, Bernard Kiwis, a Tanzanian electrician and bicycle mechanic, designed the Bicycle Phone Charger, an off-grid mobile phone charger made from scrap bike and radio parts. After several years of developing charger prototypes, Mr. Kiwis finalized his design to be able to charge all mobile phones, which are used by 75% of Tanzanians yet the majority of them do not have access to the electrical grid. Mr. Kiwis’ Bicycle Phone Charger fills an important niche.

In Bangladesh, the architect Mohammed Rezwan has collaborated with local wooden boat builders to convert discarded flat-bottom riverboats into floating schools, libraries, health clinics and training centers for parents. Collectively, these Floating Community Lifeboats  serve 115,000 people per year. The boats’ roofs are outfitted with solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, which charge computers, lights, mobile phones, medical equipment and solar lanterns.

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One of the Floating Community Lifeboats, with a solar panel installed on the roof. Photo reprinted with permission.
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In Nigeria, the low-tech Pot-In-Pot helps small farmers to keep their market vegetables fresher for longer without electricity. Photo reprinted with permission.

The Nigerian teacher Mohammed Bah Abba has designed, in collaboration with local potters, the Pot-In-Pot Cooler, a simple low-cost solution that helps rural farmers keep their local produce fresh for weeks (instead of days). Based upon a simple passive cooling technique common dating back to ancient Egypt, the Pot-In-Pot system consists of one small earthenware pot nestled within a larger pot, with the space between them filled with sand and water. When that water evaporates, it pulls heat from the interior of the smaller pot in which vegetables and fruits remain cool without electricity. This simple yet ingenious solution helps rural farmers, especially women smallholders, generate more income for their families.

Founded in Guatemala, the successful Maya Pedal project designs, manufactures and distributes over 20 different models of bicimaquinas (bike machines) made from recycled bicycles throughout Latin America. Originally designed as human-powered agricultural machines, the Maya Pedal project expanded to include a broad range of applications, including a bomba (water pump) and a bicilicuadora (blender) used to make shampoos. The fully Guatemalan workshop supports micro-entreprises, energy independence and sustainable development to improve the environment, health, productivity and the economy of local families.

Kudos to the Gates Foundation for creating opportunities like these that push us beyond “seeking knowledge about a problem” to asking – and acting upon – a more important question: “How can I contribute to solving this problem?” The simple act of asking ourselves this question ignites a spark that is difficult to extinguish by those who would otherwise prefer to make us feel helpless in the face of global challenges. Instead of passive bystanders, we become active parts of the solution. And the beautiful thing we learn in the process is that many of the solutions to some of our greatest challenges – such as the Archimedes screw used in the nanomembrane toilet or ancient passive cooling techniques applied in the Pot-In-Pot – already exist. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but we do need all hands on deck.

Go ahead, take the plunge: Get Involved. That’s the critical first step to cultivating a post-carbon vision.

(Top image: Drone photography by Joan Sullivan.)


Joan Sullivan is a Canadian renewable energy photographer. Since 2009, Joan has found her artistic voice on the construction sites of utility-scale wind and solar projects. Her goal is to help others visualize – to imagine – what a post-carbon world will look like. Joan is currently working on a photo book about Canada’s energy transition. She also collaborates with filmmakers on documentary films that explore the human side of the energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. You can find Joan on Ello, Twitter and Instagram. 


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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