Jenna Witzleben

MFA Thesis Blog

This blog contains experiments, project and reading reflections, unanswered questions, and more relating to my year-long thesis as part of my Master's design program. From Sept. 2016 to May 2017, I explored rewilding human beings and the environments we inhabit at multiple scales including investigation around individual fears of nature, regional food production systems, and global overpopulation. The final works of this thesis can be found in my portfolio.

How to Thrive in the Next Economy

My interest in this area of inquiry - dirt, barriers from environment, nature phobias, etc. - spawned from reading the first chapter of John Thackara's latest book "How to Thrive in the Next Economy" where he discusses the metabolic rift. So I decided to revisit this book with the specific lens of my thesis to pull out key insights. 

Balinese Rice Terraces

Balinese Rice Terraces

A key theme that stood out to me in my reading is the failure of using mechanistic and overly scientific approaches when working with the land. A great example was cited about rice growers in Bali. In the 1970's the traditional subak water management systems, in place since at least the 11th century, were replaced by modern fertilizers, pesticides, and "miracle" rice varieties by the ADB in attempts to increase productivity. Within one decade, the subak system was nearly destroyed with infestation of pests and chaotic water scheduling. They have since successively returned to the subak system, now accredited by UNESCO. This insight ties back to those discussed in the TED talks of my previous post. There are complexities and subtleties that our technology and machinery do not and can not account for. It again begs the question, how can we better treat nature like nature? How can we balance the technological view with one of empathy and biology? How can we grow more comfortable with qualitative and less tangible improvements? To feel in addition to think?

There are two points that are made in this book that overlap with another book I've been reading recently: Operation Manual for Spaceship Earth by Buckminster Fuller. These are: the redefinition of "wealth", and the inability to predict behavior of a system by that of its parts. Both authors recommend soil quality and abundance of natural resources as marker of wealth. The role of economic systems in sustainable practices will be very interesting to explore further, in part due to my father's employment as an economist for more than 30 years. While it is somewhat affirming to find these interconnections between the literature I am referencing, in this particular case it is quite sad. 40 years after Operation Manual for Spaceship Earth was written we still are struggling to broadcast the same messages.

Smog Meringue from

Smog Meringue from

Another section of this book that I find particularly fascinating is the discussion on the Xschool in Sweden that led to the creation of a soil tasting ceremony. In this project the students gathered soil and berry samples from around the island, and presented paired berry infusions and soil in glasses to smell and taste. Fascinating - and this is not the first example I've seen around tasting or eating dirt. Last year there was a project around soil and air pollution by the Center for Genomic Gastronomy and Edible Geography at Ideas City. The project involved the creation and distribution of "Smog Meringue" to make more tangible our susceptibility to intaking toxins/solutions through our skin and our respiratory system. Adventurous visitors could taste meringue created to simulate the various "flavors" of air in different cities. ( 

Similarly a project by WeDesign NYC and artist Julia Mandle involved asking participants to bring dirt from their neighborhood to mix into a cookie. Discussion centered around the edibility of these cookies. ( I unfortunately did not have the pleasure of trying any of these experiences myself - but I'll keep an eye out. With any luck something similar will pop up in the course of the next several months.

I also appreciated the section of the book on depaving. He gives multiple reasons for depaving. In addition to the most frequently cited of increasing green space, depaving is also beneficial for mitigating runoff of chemicals into our water sources, and for decreasing maintainance cost. John Thacakara cites a great story of a couple in Turin, Italy who gave as a gift to their children a plot of depaved land.

Photo from Mary's Heirloom Seeds

Photo from Mary's Heirloom Seeds

In addition to these interesting insights and sections from this great book, I have a whole list of topics, literature, and people to further research:

"Green" is not always good

AGRA - kicks farmers off farms to make way for industrial agriculture

end up living in slums

"Seeds of Dystopia" - WEF

Global Trends 2030 - US National Intelligence Council

Curriculum for the Bioregion -

Soil and Soul - Alastair McIntosh

Mycorrhizal Fungi

Systems thinking + Systems feeling

Gamelan music

Chicago's Eco-boulevards

Bordeaux 55000

Wild City (in Rotterdam)


Urban Foraging and Biodiversity

Pascal Baudar

City of Seeds - Daniel Mason

Manifesto of Urban Cannibalism

Learning farms

Thomas Berry

Nicola Twilley

Therapeutic Horticulture+

Sustainable Fashion and Textiles - Kate Fletcher

Grasslands - Emma Lynas

Sasha Duerr

Flax Project - Cristien Meindertsma

Fibershed and FiberLab

Appearing and Disappearing Landscapes: The Dynamics of Small Cultures

Should Trees Have Standing?

Timothy Morton

Fritjof Capra

Animate Earth - Stephan Harding


Image from Cleveland Botanical Garden

Image from Cleveland Botanical Garden

I've also collected my favorite quotes from the book - both pulled quotes from other sources and quotes from Thackara himself.

"The mycologist Paul Stamets, who describes these networks as 'nature's internet', speculates that fungi may participate in some form of planetary interspecies communication in which we, too, may one day learn to take part."

"We yearn for connection with one another and with the soul but we forget that like an earthworm, we too are an organism of the soil. We too need grounding." - Alastair McIntosh

"The closer you look, the more blurred becomes the border between organic and inorganic life."

"The only way to manage any landscape sustainably is by living in it long enough, and intimately enough, to learn how to manage it well."

"Nature is complex, and it is constantly evolving, fi one does not live in close conversation with nature, mistakes will be made that are harmful both to one's self and one's place." -Fred Kirschenmann

"Being clean, and wearing white to prove it, has weakened my immune system."

"One of the Norwegian team's researches, Alex Walls, calls this approach 'dirty' sustainability - giving priority to low-cost, hands-on solutions rather than high-tech ones."

"Mainly because these  costs are being paid by other people, somewhere else. The toxic rivers of slurry produced during mining the rare metals that are used in all our cellphones? They don't touch us directly, so we don't think about them. Another deadly feature of the desert of the real is that we think too much, and sense too little."

"'Doomer porn', as some call it, stubbornly resists empathy. It produces guilt and denial rather than transformational change."

"Our wasteful patterns of consumption would soon change, she reckons, if we saw heard, smelled, tasted, and felt all this litter, rubber, and trash as 'lively' - not just inert stuff."

"A forest-dwelling honey gatherer, for example, needs to be very still and attentive to pick up the faint and distant hum of bees; a desk-bound writer, preoccupied by ideas and deadlines, would miss these signals."

"Scientific and indigenous knowledge should complement each other; we need to learn how to navigate freely among a diverse ecology and information actors and resources. Luckily we probably still have the aptitude. Having spent 99% of our social history in hunting and gathering environments, our sensitivity to landscape is genetically hardwired: when to move, where to settle, which activities to follow in various locations. Flowers, sunsets, clouds, thunder, snakes, and predators: all these are environmental signals that trigger programmed-in response systems."


I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone interested in any facet of sustainability - it is thorough, well-researched, optimistic, and enlightening.

Jenna Witzleben