Imagining A Brighter Future with Dr. Mika Tosca

Parker welcomed Dr. Mika Tosca to campus this week as the 16th Annual Robert A. Pritzker Visiting Scientist•Inventor•Engineer in Residence to discuss how we can move from having a hopeless, nihilistic outlook on climate change toward imagining a brighter future.

Dr. Tosca completed her PhD in 2012 at the University of California, Irvine and her postdoctoral work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. In 2017, she took a position as an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where, in addition to her work investigating the link between climate and wildfire, she considers ways that artists and designers can collaborate with climate scientists to better communicate and conduct climate science research. Dr. Tosca’s work with artists on the climate was at the forefront of her lecture on Monday night.

Dr. Tosca began by explaining that climate change can be “broadly defined as a large-scale shift in the global climate, in this case, due to human activity.” She talked about the history of our increasing reliance on fossil fuels and the reasons we made the shift away from earlier sources, like steam power. Now, news on our deteriorating climate is commonplace, and “all this news of apocalypse has led to a great deal of climate anxiety.” This is especially true among the younger generation, who often view the situation as hopeless. Further, even as the climate crisis continues and public skepticism exists, scientists “have become very insular. We’re starting to do science for other scientists. We write scientific papers so other scientists can cite our scientific papers.” Dr. Tosca sees this disconnect between scientist and “nonscientists” as perhaps one reason our society is having such problems grappling with this topic—or, as she put it, “Instead of just constant warning after warning, we need solutions.”

Dr. Tosca continued, “I argue in my work that there’s a role for art (and design) that expands beyond just better communication and aesthetic representations of complex scientific concepts and, instead, actually ventures into this world of ‘maybe art and design can actually help us do better science.’” To highlight this point, Dr. Tosca used the MISR Plume Height Project she worked on at NASA, which was originally designed with a very clunky, almost unusable style. However, after a complete redesign, the website became not only much more aesthetically pleasing, but also much more functional, and “ultimately this helped us ask better questions of the data that we wanted to download.”

Dr. Tosca also discussed works by her students and others, like the artist Diane Burko or AJ Purdy from the Jet Propulsion Lab, who “worked with designers, artists and scientists to redesign the way California thinks about drought and the way it represents drought because who cares about drought? Farmers and water managers.” Finally, she talked about the role of sketching or doodling and the way it helps someone remember information, the process of design and its similarities to the scientific method and a multimedia project she has been creating with her students called Plastic City.

Some people, including Dr. Tosca, view these artistic displays as a new emerging ideology called “solar punk.” Unlike cyberpunk or steampunk, she said, “Solar punk is not dystopian, it’s utopian. This emerging movement and speculative fiction are activism that seeks to imagine and embody what a sustainable civilization looks like and how we build one right.

“So this isn’t the end of the world, but it could be the end of this world, and that's probably a good thing because we now have this radical revolutionary opportunity to make the next world a better, brighter and more equitable one. But if we don’t first imagine the future that we want, the features that we need, then we’re not going to have the future we deserve. And scientists really need to incorporate diverse voices in this fight. This includes artists, thinkers that are outside the mainstream, if we are going to get to the next world, which I am confident will be better than this one.”

Parker is extremely grateful to Dr. Tosca for spending time with the community on this very important topic. As Dr. Tosca said, before we can create a better future, we have to imagine it! This lecture was a great place for the Parker community to begin thinking about this challenging issue. After listening to this lecture, Science teacher Xiao Zhang said, “Climate change is not just for scientists to study. Scientists need to work with people from other disciplines, fields and cultures to solve the problem.”

Click here for photos from this lecture.
Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.