There are many arguments for what has led humankind to a place where we are damaging the habitat we need for life. Philosopher Tim Morton dramatically defines something he calls ‘The Severing’. The Severing is a way of emphasising how severely we have separated ourselves from other life and matter. We have done so in such a way that we are able to do things to the world as if it were separate to ourselves.
Morton uses the example of the microbiota in our own bodies to explore how we are not separate from other life but also how we are more than we think we are. Morton aims to develop a language that moves beyond the severing, using terms such as ‘solidarity with non-human people’ and the idea that our world is ending as we need to realise that we have denied the worlds of other beings.
Morton is both deadly serious and playful. He aims to shock us out of our assumptions and delineations. He blurs the distinctions between human affairs and the affairs of non-human people; other species or perhaps a river, a rock formation, or your own microbiome. Morton demands we create solidarity with non-humans. He defines the systematic oppression of farm animals as a form of racism. He believes that confronting racism among humans is a step to the kind of empathy we need for non-humans.
Design at its best aims to blur the boundaries we create in human affairs. We bring the experiences of people into the boardrooms of corporations and governments to help them empathise with those who endure the dehumanising aspects of many services. This in itself can be a struggle as it goes against the grain. But it is powerful and can help develop an understanding of how closer alignment of the interests of people and organisations can lead to mutually better outcomes.
Drawing on Morton I imagine design bringing ‘non-human people’ into the empathic scope of design activity. But how do we create empathic connections with other beings, rivers, and the climate? Especially when there is so much work to be done at a human level. Morton suggests we start by being better at the human stuff – understand those whose needs are not met and build our empathy muscles. Perhaps from individuals we can expand to the collective to consider the overall needs of communities. I think we will find that these needs are intertwined with the needs of the ecosystems that we are all a part of.