Decoding the Future

Through her research and development lab Slow Factory Institute (and its accompanying foundation that hosts a series of conferences about the intersection of sustainability, technology, and human rights), Céline Semaan has been defining the term “sustainability politics.” She has since explored this concept through Instagram, and TIME named hers as one of the top 25 profiles to follow in 2019: @celinecelines.

“Global politics are shaping and affecting our region and the Middle East, and North Africa will be amongst the first to be hit by climate change, making parts of the region uninhabitable in a few years from now,” she notes.

We are already facing the early stages of major climate displacement; rising temperatures along with food and water scarcity will only continue to challenge our current political structures. As we navigate how to use our digital tools to inform and unite over these urgent issues, Céline and I discussed how we got here and how we need to rethink our way forward.

ASH OWENS In your contributor’s letter, you mentioned the Information Age. What is that exactly?

CÉLINE SEMAAN It’s the shift from the Industrial Age to a Digital and ultimately Social age in which networks are extremely complex and ever more important. This shift is responsible for the collapse of many industries relying on physicality, towards industries that are now completely virtual. We’re living in the age of the metaphysical.

AO So technology is the outcome of the Information Age, is that correct?

CS Actually, the Information Age is a byproduct of technology, evolving to allow two things: the storage of vast amounts of information on smaller and smaller physical media, and the ability for computers to connect with one another over greater distances. Technology has created this explosion of information. In the early days of the internet in the ‘90s, people complained, "There’s too much information." So with this explosion and expansion of information came new industries and jobs, new ways of coping with this influx of information, and the need to create ways for people to interact with these streams of information. Some of these jobs were basically information architects, interaction designers, and that’s my background. That’s where I come from.

Suit: Brooks Brothers
Skirt: Orseund Iris
Brooch and earrings: stylist’s own

AO Information has always been very political. The real story in history is quite damning for how it was withheld from the masses, how power was created, how people were taken advantage of. How has this affected our sustainability?

CS There is a proverb that says, “History is written by the victor. History is filled with liars. If he lives, and we die, his truth becomes written—and ours is lost,” which comments on this access of information that we have, as a civilization, fought for. I think that these things are all linked. If we trace cotton, chocolate, silk, even human labor as a resource, it all traces back and maps identically with colonial trade routes. This information exposes the fact that colonialism is not a thing of the past; it’s an economic reality. In a lot of ways, a lack of information creates control over the people. This is just historically true.

Historically, of course, the invention of the printing press caused a major shift in the balance of social power: The ruling classes and the people were interacting with one another.

With eight billion people around the world connected through information, it inevitably restored a sort of balance. With the uprisings in so many countries— Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Chile, Hong Kong, Ecuador, and Indonesia—we are witnessing global protests for climate, labor, rights, justice, and against police brutality.

Again and again, people have taken back power through information. In the region where I come from, with the Arab Spring for instance, because there was suddenly a shift of balance with power and with information, people were able to mobilize against the ruling class and really create their revolution.

AO What do you think are some of the systemic issues politically now that are hindering sustainability?

CS Colonialism has affected our freedom of expression and freedom of thinking for ourselves. It has dictated the way we relate to one another, to the planet, as well as to our consumption habits. In rethinking these systems, we must approach them from a postcolonial lens, where white supremacy doesn’t get to dictate, narrate, and oppress the rest of creation as the only form of intelligence.

In fact, we must move forth with systems that are older and closer to the way nature functions in relation to regeneration and notions of circularity—indigenous knowledge as well as certain Eastern philosophies. We must distance ourselves from the linear system we think of as our “reality” that portrays the following: We are born, we live, and we die. We have translated this linear system into everything we built: We buy something, we use it, and we discard it. This linearity is inherently a core part of how colonialism was able to expand both power and control.

Dress: Victor Glemaud
Earrings: stylist’s own

AO You wrote that following profit is a form of censorship. Do you think that all profit, then, is tainted?

CS Following profit alone, one must obey whatever or whoever is generating it in order to gain it. Profit, oftentimes, dictates how we are going to create, make, write, publish, etc. Look at today’s digital publishing platforms and their role in the recent elections: Were they using the platforms in an ethical way? Or were they following profit generated by ads, even if said ads were made of misinformation and propaganda to empower a corrupt agenda?

AO Do you think if we shifted the way that we spend our money and think of our money into conscious consumerism, that we actually can shift the power?

CS The Information Age empowered a drive to eradicate the “middleman” in so many industries. On the personal scale, for example, there are peer-to-peer marketplaces like eBay and Etsy, empowering the “micro economy.” By the eradication of the middleman, we are able to go directly to the artisan.

But that’s an illusion, because it’s direct to the global North artisan. On the global industrial scale, most of our economic production, often in the global South, is still managed mostly by middlemen and suffers tremendously from the control that colonialist structures still hold.

So technology cannot solve all issues in our humanity! That’s why I talk a lot about sustainability as a culture. We need major social movements to unlock technological advances. When I first heard terms like “sustainability politics,” my mind lit up. I was like, "Absolutely, that’s exactly what I’m trying to say." In a lot of ways, you and I connected on that term, because sustainability politics is about access.

AO Let’s dive into what sustainability politics means to you.

CS Sustainability politics is the awareness that whenever we talk about global systems that affect the environment or social structures, we must also talk about power. We live in a time of political reform. It’s a revolution and an evolution of our systems, and the way that we relate to them. Because we depend on money, and we depend globally on finance and capitalism, we are all, as a society and an organization, subject to and dependent on global markets. If the market crashes, everyone will be suffering from it, whether or not they choose to participate in this economic system.

For now, we are watching this evolve and happen in real time—for example, the revolution in Lebanon, where banks have been closed for the last month. How do people survive? People are going back to reinforcing community, reinforcing rituals around communities, and, again, reoccupying these public spaces that were reserved for the ruling class. I think with this political reform era that we’re in, there will be an interim time where we will have to redesign those systems at the same time as we are surviving their crash.

AO This brings up a lot of fear for many, and fear is a big motivator to not change. However, fear is quite irrational. Do you think mindfulness and meditation is related to sustainability?

CS Mm-hmm. We’re already starting to see the rise of mental health awareness and energies. I don’t think we can talk about sustainability without addressing our inner evolution, our inner peace, our inner mental hygiene. When we are looking at changing the world and this movement of activism, we must first be at peace with ourselves in order to affect change.

AO That makes me think about access and privilege in relation to necessity, which is something we’ve talked about in terms of how climate change is already affecting us.

CS There was this quote by William F. Gibson that was made famous when the internet started to become a thing. “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” This sentence was always useful for me when we were talking about the sustainability literacy and access to information.

Certain countries were forbidden the internet. In fact in Lebanon, the internet is ten times slower than it is in Europe—deliberately, because they want to limit access to information. For me, when I look at Gibson’s quote, and remix it to say “Climate change is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed,” it becomes a comment on how climate change is going to hit the global South first. Black, brown, indigenous communities are going to be affected first. And they already are. Look at what’s going on today in the Amazon rainforest. Earthquakes, typhoons, hurricanes—just look at Hurricane Katrina, how nothing was being done, because our systems are racist, extremely racist, and our systems are still operating under a colonial mindset.

AO A lot of people feel powerless these days, especially when it comes to the conversation around sustainability. What’s the best thing an individual can do to impact change?

CS To feel powerless is a complete illusion. It’s also a way to be complacent in your privilege. You cannot feel powerless at this hour. It’s impossible.

AO Why do you feel that?

CS Have you heard that saying about trying to sleep with a mosquito in your bedroom? The smallest mosquito can allow you to spend a whole night awake, because you’re unable to catch it and it’s unable to let you sleep in peace.

Every single one of us has power. We must understand that with power comes responsibility. If we give a man power, and we completely check out of it, we’re entering the space of apathy, which we’ve already seen enough of during the ‘90s. That has done nothing for us.

AO Let’s get back to resources. Can you talk a bit about energy and waste?

CS When we’re talking about zero waste, it’s a way to look at everything as either good or bad. Let’s say waste is bad: I’m never going to consume and never produce and never make waste, but unfortunately it’s impractical, because your very existence creates waste, by just eating, and even breathing.

AO My biggest internal battle is that I design clothes, and I want to create a clothing line hopefully that would launch next year. At the core, it’s something I love but feel conflicted over whether it’s the best use of resources. However, it seems like what you’re saying is that it’s not so black and white.

CS It’s even more than that. We’ve always made things with our hands; in fact, making things is a very grounding action, to be making things. To ask to forbid ourselves to work from the position of austerity and of lack is not necessarily the solution. Keep creating, but be resourceful.

For example, think of replacing fresh, raw materials that are made just for your production with resources that would otherwise be waste. It could be textile waste, it could be learning how to upcycle some existing garments, which is all in a program that we’ve created for Slow Factory, a new field that we are pioneering called Waste-Led Design. It’s the idea of considering all parts of the process, from raw material to post-use.

AO I also wanted to ask you about radical transparency. What does that look like?

CS Radical transparency in sustainability rests upon three different sectors: privacy, security, and power. Radical transparency on its own sounds amazing, however, we all know that once you’re going to be tracked, the government will know your heartbeat, your medical history, your location, and what you’re up to. Even your thoughts could be tracked.

In the context of fashion, we should aim for radical transparency up to a point. As we are doing this, we need to be mindful of the security of the worker that we want transparency for. The livelihood, the wellbeing, the privacy around these concepts of transparency, from the supply chain level to the material level to how things are being harvested. If radical transparency is being generated and advocated via a tighter control over people working the supply chain, then there is danger. Conductive threads, for instance, are not the solution. Imagine a conductive threat that is embedded in your shirt, that tracks your heartbeat, your body temperature, your location, everything about you. Imagine how that infringes on your security, on your privacy as a citizen. On top of that, conductive threads turn your garment into a non-recyclable item, because it has electronic waste. It’s made out of copper, essentially, and it’s really hard to take it apart, depending on how it’s weaved into the material.

All technological solutions that are imposed on us as the one and only solution, as the one only truth, have to be looked at.

To feel powerless is a complete illusion. It’s also a way to be complacent in your privilege. You cannot feel powerless at this hour. It’s impossible.

Suit: Brooks Brothers
Earrings: stylist’s own
Brooch and earrings: stylist’s own
Bracelet: model’s own