Tipping Point 03: The Mad Scientist and the Airport

Posted on 12 November 2010


The second presenter at last night’s opening was Natalie Jeremijenko, who Skyped in from Washingon DC. She had been working at The Edge for the last week but had to be in the USA for something this week.

Officially, she’s an artist and engineer who has studied both biochemistry and neuroscience and who works in climate change and sustainability. Unofficially, she is a mad scientist who has awesome fun ideas and takes the bold step of making them realities.

Talking about how she approaches environmental issues Natalie spoke of a crisis of agency, a crisis of knowing what to do and feeling responsible for doing something as people with every cultural advantage ie that we’re from fully developed countries, in possession of intelligence, education, and a motivation to act.

However, she went on to say, the problem is that none of us really believe that the little changes we can make in our will actually change the world.

So in her professional practice, which encompasses science, engineering, art and inventing, Natalie has been exploring options for travel, particularly air travel as it is one of the most environmentally damaging activities we do.

Not content to bang on about reducing emissions, she advocates changing the entire system of air travel so that they are environmentally regenerative. It was all slightly tongue in cheek and seemed to have the main goal of presenting an out of the square idea to open people’s minds.

She was inspired by the USA’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) creating a light sport aircraft. She saw it as an opportunity to re-imagine our flight systems, saying that rather than being the most damaging thing we do, flight could be something that could radically transform our urban mobility.

She explained that although most research into making flying less environmentally damaging is into the thrust systems and fuel, actually catering services have a larger ecological footprint. However, the single most ecologically damaging thing about air travel is that is that most airports are built on wetlands.

Wetlands are critical ecosystems that sequester more carbon than any other. As well, the frogs and other amphibians that need those habitats are becoming extinct. Hence the controversy around the Brisbane Airport extending further into existing wetlands.

Natalie thinks that the little light aircrafts present a new opportunity for wet landings—they don’t need pavements to land on. If we built all our new airports as ecostructures of biodiversity hotspots that could sequester CO2 effectively and could improve biodiversity and ecological health rather than destroying it.

Spending a lot of time comparing flight systems with flying foxes (one of the things she was doing here at The Edge), she started the Sit Different campaign to pull the idea of how important wetlands are back into the public consciousness. Part of the campaign is designing furniture to use in wetlands, asking why we don’t hang out in the wetlands to work and read and do all the things that we currently do in cafés. As she put it ‘We work the same way we did in the 1950s just with radically different communication tools.’

I think one reason for not hanging out in the wetlands would be that rotting mangrovey smell.

Natalie decided that we need to reclaim the wonder of light that has been the domain of the military and corporate for so long. She created what she calls an imagination prosthetic—a pair of wings small enough to hold in your hand to hang out the side of the car to help recapture that sense of wonder and enable us to imagine personal flying.

Once you’re ready, you can then move onto your next imagination prosthetic: a pair of 16-foot wings that you strap onto your back and what looked like a flying fox type rig to simulate personal flight. She’s wondering if we could all fly around ourselves rather than need airlines.

I don’t think it would solve the whole ‘how do I get home for Christmas from the other side of the world within a week’ problem but how much fun would that be?! I say we do it. What do you reckon?

You can check out more about Natalie and her work on Wikipedia and Salon.com, plus there are some videos on YouTube.

You can see all my Tipping Point posts under the Tipping Point tag.