(Dis)Locating Design Globalisms

Essay by Ritvik Khushu. Discussed in Den Bosch, Oct 7, 2023.

De Nederlandse vertaling lees je hier.

FIG 1: The Blue Marble1972, Earth as seen by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft: Nabil Ahmed’s research project ‘Earth Poison’, departs from the Blue Marble. His work unravels the complex entanglements of the ecological and political violences that unfolded at the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation. Bangladesh’s struggle for political independence ran parallel with an environmental catastrophe that left the land in ruin, claiming the lives of over 400,000 and impacting the lives of millions more – The Cyclone Bhola, which incidentally can be seen to the far north-east in this iconic image.

FIG 2: A Pocket Terrestrial Globe with Celestial Global case1716, Charles Price, Science Museum London: Who would create such an object? Where does the desire to hold Earth in its entirety within the palm of one’s hand come from? It is no coincidence that such an object was created in Britain and had achieved peak popularity in the late 18th century, as the British Empire had reached its own. The fantasy that the entire in its wholeness can be possessed, known gives imperial actors the self-determined right to study, and organize the world.

FIG 3: Monsoon and Trade winds chart of the Indian OceanU.S Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography, 1859. Geography and Map Division: Mapping, and measuring the trade winds are some ways in which science contributed to empire building. For in knowing the trade winds European imperialists gained monopoly and global dominance of the spice trade and other commodities from Asia and Africa.

On December 7th, 1972, from a distance of approximately 45,000 kms from the planet’s surface, the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft captured the Earth in an iconic photograph called ‘The Blue Marble’. The photograph has since been one of the most widely distributed images in existence. It has found itself in many hands and has had many meanings ascribed to it. The image of Earth appearing as a blue marble suspended in the vast expanse of space, fragile and vulnerable, became the poster child for environmental movements in the west in the 1970’s. Whether it be the famous American astronomer Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot”, the English environmentalist James Lovelock’s infamous Gaia Theory, the celebration of Earth Day, or the plethora of science fiction films that came after – the photograph has unarguably and irreversibly shifted consciousness of the globe (and the global) around the modern world. The image paraded the great feats of American technology, carrying with it an alluring dream of futurity, space travel and the promise of modernity. Enmeshed somewhere in the radio waves set Earth-bound, broadcasted from the spaceship, was a message for mankind – That we are all One Peoples, inhabiting One World.[1] 

The image itself, however, is a host to many stories and many worlds. Incidentally, the photograph also captures the cyclone Bhola forming to the far north-east, in the Indian ocean around the Bengal Delta – a natural calamity that devastated countless lives in the region[2]

The very winds that formed the cyclone, were also the ones that brought early Portuguese sailors to the coasts of India and not long after, European colonialism. The winds that once allowed autonomous trade to flourish amongst Persia, India, Arabia, and East Africa, had also enabled European dominance over the spice trade, and other commodities from Asia and Africa. Mapping, and harvesting the wind gave European imperialists the advantage of conquering new (and old) trade routes, ushering in the advent of modern globalism. And like the photograph, the desire to capture the globe in its entirety, and to see the world in its wholeness is not a recent one. However, the fantasy that one understands or knows the Earth in its wholeness is at the basis of the imperial project[3]

The stage is set. A poverty-stricken India became the grandest theatre of operations for the Green Revolution in the 1960’s – an agricultural movement that promised to maximize efficiency, yield and in time, be the solution to world hunger. Launched by the Rockefeller Foundation in 1943, amidst the heights of the Cold War, the Green Revolution’s beginnings are found in the Mexican Agricultural Program (MAP). While the program was initially set up to curb the growing hunger in Mexico, its vision extended beyond the Mexican horizon. They sought to establish technologies and methods for intensifying agriculture at a global scale. At its core, the program pioneered the research, development, and production of High-Yield Variety (HYV) seeds, coupled with the infrastructures required to grow these seeds: groundwater irrigation systems, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and farming equipment[4]

By 1966, the Rockefeller foundation’s Nobel prize winning agronomist, Norman Borlaug had been invited to the IARI (Indian Agricultural Research Institute) to test their research on the once imperial British farmlands of Punjab now owned by local peasants. Along with the arrival of Borlaug in India, was a shipment of around 18,000 tons of HYV seeds to be grown in the Indian plains. These seeds, while promising higher yields, required a precise chemical environment to thrive and five times the usual amount of water, thus demanding elaborate modern irrigation infrastructure. Precision, measurement, and scale were the three axes of the new farming model. The agricultural movement launched by Borlaug and the IARI converted vast lands into mono-crop industrial farms of GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) seed, doused in synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. All of which were imported into India by transnational corporations including the Rockefeller Foundation itself. The seed, and its chemical environment were monitored, manipulated, and monopolized by powerful imperial actors, and the farmers made dependent on the promises and claims of the Green Revolution. 

The 1980’s saw a dramatic erosion of socialities in Punjab – the birthplace of the Green Revolution in India. Communal riots between the Hindu and Sikh communities broke out, and even escalated to the assassination of the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. In her book, ‘The Violence of the Green Revolution,’ the environmental activist and scholar Vandana Shiva, addresses this breakdown of social cohesion. She argues that the ecological impoverishment caused by the Green Revolution was synonymous with the social, cultural, and economic impoverishment of the people of Punjab. The practice of monocultures at industrial scales not only led to the severe erosion of biodiversity and soil quality, but also the erosion of pre-existing infrastructures of knowledge, sociality, and trade[5]. The adoption of high input and output farming favoured large landowners and agribusinesses, at the cost of dismembering small-scale farmers and the local peasant from their land. This unsustainable economic model caused the drastic concentration of land ownership and wealth to the few elite.

The new farming model perpetuated a cycle of dependency on its imperial benefactors. Local peasants were made reliant on the foreign technologies and seeds, while transnational corporations like the Rockefeller Foundation reaped the profits. Shiva writes “The improvement of the seed is not a neutral economic process. It is, more importantly a political process that shifts control over biological diversity from local peasants to transnational corporations and changes biological systems from complete systems reproducing themselves into raw material.” The colonization of the seed, meant the erosion of biodiversity. 

The Rockefeller seed, however, was also emblematic of the radical simplification, the radical substitution and radical displacement of entire lifeworlds. The full extent of violence extends into the domains of experience, as in, how life is experienced, how land, self, community, seed, grain are experienced. Local ways of relating to land, seed and “world” have been radically substituted with modern infrastructures of knowing, relating, materiality and sociality by giant imperial actors in their claim to be humanitarian agents. It is in this rupturing of the ways of life that we find the lasting and ongoing violence of the Green Revolution. 

FIG 4: Hybrid corn seeds ready for distributionCorn Program, Agrarian University, La Molina, Peru, 1965, Rockefeller Archives.

FIG 5: Soil Analysis Equipment, 1965 – 71, Rockefeller Archives: Soil researched enabled the development of “targeted inputs” – fertilizers, irrigation systems, pesticides, and herbicides – which intensive, high-yield agriculture depended upon.

FIG 6: Hand dusters in India1968 – 75, Rockefeller Archives: What worlds are materialized (and immaterialized) through design? The stark image shows farmers using hand dusters for when the soil was too wet to support heavy equipment in the monsoons. The implementation of modern equipment, meant the displacement of local ways of relating to land, and the installation of modern knowledge and material systems in its place.

It is 1977, a group of Industrial design engineers in the Hague publish a technical report on the evolution of hand pump designs for the UNDP (United Nations Development Program). A state-of-the-art report and a comprehensive study on several topics including – the rationale for the use of hand pumps, its various models and history, and several user studies. The report not only details the material flows, production methods, manufacturing plants, and designs but also contains chapters dedicated to methodologies of studying the “users.” But who gazes into the worlds being designed for? In mapping the experiences of the so-called user, what is seen and how is the seeing being done? Whose vocabularies are used to tell the history, stories, and ways of life of a people? And from what voices are their lived experiences narrated[6]

FIG 7: Hand Pump user study images, Eugene McJunkin, Hand Pumps: For Use in Drinking Water Supplies in Developing Countries, vol. Technical Report No. 10 (Havenstraat 6, Voorburg, The Netherlands: United Nations Environment Program, World Health Organization, 1977). 

FIG 8: Hand Pump user study images, Eugene McJunkin, Hand Pumps: For Use in Drinking Water Supplies in Developing Countries, vol. Technical Report No. 10 (Havenstraat 6, Voorburg, The Netherlands: United Nations Environment Program, World Health Organization, 1977).

Only a few years prior to the report, the UNDP had undertaken the colossal project of sinking and installing almost a million tube wells and hand pumps across Bangladesh. This massive undertaking generated thriving microeconomies around labour and manufacturers for this type of construction. It also generated the capacity for Bangladesh to retain and use the material and knowledge networks established.

During the Green Revolution, new technologies for irrigation were being introduced to Bengal. The industrial mono-crop farms and their high yield variety (HYV) crops required staggering amounts of water, thereby creating the necessity to harvest ground water. The breakthrough groundwater irrigation technologies emerging from the west were heavily funded by the World Bank, whose success only paved a clearer pathway into South Asia for other humanitarian and world aid agencies. Today, it is estimated that Bangladesh has over 8.6 million tube wells. 

Inspired by the perceived success of the Green Revolution, the UNDP, UNICEF, and the World Bank were three of the few major humanitarian agencies that rushed into Bangladesh to claim a hand in its reform. A Bangladesh facing ruin from its struggle for political independence (1971) and a devastating cyclone (1970), would be hit by yet another plague – a plague unleashed by design! 

The UNDP’s hasty hand pumps and the sheer scale of the project had exposed millions of people to underground aquafers rich in arsenic, one of the deadliest Earth poisons. This was the worst case of mass-poisoning in history. 

The design educator Victor Papanek, in his seminal work ‘Design for the Real World,’ warns us that “there are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them.” As we see with the Green Revolution or Bangladesh’s handpumps, the historical roots of so-called ‘development’ lie in the World-building practices of European imperialism and western modernity. 

Design as a discipline, directly deals with (and has claimed for itself) the domain of experience. From the largest of structures, to the small mundane objects of the everyday – design is everywhere, framing, shaping, and producing our experiences of the world. It is in the designing of our structures, tools, spaces, media and even narratives, that we are designing ways of being and relating. In short, as Anne-Marie Willis writes, design designs us back[7]. But the practice of modern design has been an integral force of the civilizing project of modernity. It is a discipline that has historically centered values, knowledges, aesthetics, and materialisms that largely originate in Europe and North America. In today’s increasingly fractured socio-political landscape it is important to ask what design is used for? 

Specifically, we must ask what lifeworlds are present within a design practice? From what worlds do we do design and where do we stand? It becomes imperative for the designer today to ask, what worlds are made visible or rendered invisible in their practicing of design[8]? By asking these very foundational questions, we would create space for the emergence of new vocabularies and voices, and diversification of our material and immaterial landscapes. 

[1] Arturo Escobar, Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds (Duke Univ Press, 2018). The Notion of a ‘One World-World’ as Arturo Escobar elaborates, signals a predominant idea in the West, that we all live within a single world made up of one underlying reality – within which all other cultures, all other histories, all other humanities exist. It is this imperialistic notion that has allowed the West to arrogate for itself the right to be “The World” that hosts, represents and organizes all other worlds.

[2] Nabil Ahmed, Earth Poison, World of Matter, 2018: [http://worldofmatter.net/prologue-radical-meteorology#path=prologue-radical-meteorology]

[3] The World like a Jewel in the Hand. Ariella Aisha Azoulay, 2022.
Azoulay’s film opens with a dramatic scene of a marble rolling in the palm of a hand. She narrates, that it is this fantasy of knowing the whole that has entitled imperial actors to sever people from their lands, their communities, their history, their worlds. 

[4] “The Rockefeller Foundation’s Agriculture Program in India.” Rockefeller Foundation Archives. Accessed September 12, 2022. https://resource.rockarch.org/story/the-rockefeller-foundations-agriculture-program-in-india-1950s-1960s/.

[5] Vandana Shiva, Monocultures of the Mind: Understanding the Threats to Biological and Cultural Diversity (Guelph, Ont.: Centre For International Programs, University Of Guelph, 1994).

[6] Rolando Vázquez, Vistas of Modernity Decolonial Aesthesis and the End of the Contemporary (Amsterdam Mondriaan Fund, 2021).

[7] Arturo Escobar, Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds (Duke Univ Press, 2018). Drawing from Arturo Escobar’s work on the ontological turn of design, design is seen as a force shaping the ontological experience. 

[8] Ahmed Ansari, “Decolonizing Design through the Perspectives of Cosmological Others: Arguing for an Ontological Turn in Design Research and Practice,” XRDS: Crossroads, The ACM Magazine for Students 26, no. 2 (2019): 16–19, https://doi.org/10.1145/3368048.