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Posted - 06/17/2013
The Art and Process of Understanding Climate Change by Creating an Educational iPhone App by Joshua Fouts

Joshua_FoutsWhen Maggie Kaplan (the Founder and Executive Director of Invoking the Pause) and I discussed the possibility that I create an app about Climate Change for my ITP "Seeding Possibilities" second grant, I saw an opportunity for synergy -- synergy between the community I lived with during my Pause and the opportunity to express and explore the impact of Climate Change in a novel way using an iPhone or iPad as a platform.  We were thrilled to be given the opportunity to develop this project. 

When thinking about the issue of climate change, we have as fundamental questions, the concepts of culture and nature. In the initial common sense of the concept: Culture relates to human activity. Nature in the broadest of terms relates to the world prior to human existence.  To begin to understand how human dynamics meet the challenges of nature we need to look to our primordial ancestors.

Learning from the Past: Adapting to Variability


The man who inspired me to go into Anthropology, Italian Cultural Anthropologist Dr. Marco Bicchieri, had a thesis that humans could be defined on a spectrum of tolerance to our environment ranging  from variability on one end of the scale, to predictability on the other.  Each Homo Sapiens, he suggested, fell somewhere in this spectrum. Those who lived at the far end of the predictability scale lived in a world in which they attempted to control their environment. Those with a high tolerance or need for variability favored adapting to their environment. 

This simple and utilitarian tool for attempting to understand the diversity of human culture, while not perfect, has been with me ever since.

Image source wikipedia:

(The second most important thing he taught me was to avoid making universal statements.)


Under the topic of Climate Change, anthropology is useful in helping us to think about human cultural movements, especially with respect to the environment.  An understanding of the early stages and history of human behavior and instinct bring us closer to an understanding of nature. These symbolic stages and languages are distinct human aspects, and produce culture and history.

picture2.jpgA year ago this month, as part of my Invoking the Pause grant, I was sitting on a lush tropical bluff in the heart of Brazil's Amazon forest, overlooking the shallow, ochre-colored river Juruá -- a river that, less than 20 years ago, was deep enough to traverse with barges.  Today, due to a combination of factors confounded by climate change and illegal deforestation, the river can only be traveled via a small canoe. As we looked out over the cut, watching clusters of families travel upstream in small canoes toward the Peruvian border, my hosts, Ashaninka tribal leaders, brothers Moises and Benki Piyãko explained to me how climate change was affecting their lives and the lives of their people -- a community who subsist entirely off what the forest provides them.

Traveling up the river Juruá in the Brazilian Amazon. Image credit: Joshua Fouts

The most dramatic story was the loss of their "Tree Calendar," the system they used to govern their hunting and harvesting schedules by following the blooms of certain trees.  For the past few years the trees have failed to bloom, leaving the community figuratively rudderless.

Nonetheless, they have adapted taking an activist stance -- turning vision to action -- attempting to bring awareness of their cause to the Brazilian government and the world.  Despite these challenges they were adamant in reiterating that they consider their lives truly rich surviving entirely off what the forest provides them.


How Adaptation Applies to a Collaborative Work-in-Progress: The Creation of an Educational iPhone App about Climate Change

As a student of anthropology and technology, the focus of many of my projects has been on finding ways to communicate meaningfully about culture using technology in a novel way.  Often this calls for adapting and expanding one's perspective in unexpected ways.  It is inherent in the creation of an innovative, artistic and educational project that the process have space to expand and transform.  In each project one expects to make concessions and adapt to certain unanticipated changes and/or cultures of your subject or project.  Often the culture you end up adapting to is not necessarily the one you expected.

picture3.jpgLeft to Right: Joshua Fouts, Visiting Professor and Gilson Schwartz, Professor in the graduate school of journalism and cinema at the University of São Paulo. Image credit: Erica Paiva

On a visit last November to São Paulo, I had the opportunity to meet with Professor Gilson Schwartz of University of São Paulo School of Journalism and Cinema. Professor Schwartz invited me to participate in a class that was taking a workshop on the technical steps to produce a game using Unity, a popular game design software.

I gave a short presentation about my 2012 Invoking the Pause experience and described how I was in the process of writing a second grant proposal for a "Seeding Possibilities" project to produce an app about climate change and its impact on diverse populations of the planet.  I described the lessons I learned while living with the Ashaninka in Acre.

By coincidence I met several students in the Unity software class who were involved in the cause of the Ashaninka people and who were doing research based in the same region of the Amazon where I had been.  We discovered we also shared an affinity for anthropology (many of the students were doing graduate research in anthropology). We were able to collaborate on a volunteer basis for three months to brainstorm ideas about the possibility of creating, in practice, a game together.picture4.jpg

Left to Right: Jay Santos, of Unity Technologies; Joshua Fouts, Gilson Schwartz, Professor in the graduate school of journalism and cinema at the University of São Paulo (Image credit:  Erica Paiva)

From there our team turned to address the public and international relations aspect of the process and began the work of researching the rights to the creations and images of the Ashaninka people, if they were to be replicated and/or included in the app.  We discovered that the art of the Ashaninka people had already had a significant impact and reach on the Internet and news of their causes and issues had reached an international audience. 

With this new insight and given the proposal to create an educational app, and the concurrent challenge of incorporating interactivity into it about Climate Change, we held an initial brainstorming phase and invited the input, ideas and suggestions from collaborators who involved in or had expertise in issues related to the preservation and protection the culture and traditions of people in various locations on the planet whose livelihood was affected by climate change.

Our initial source of inspiration was the concept of time used by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon.  The people of the Amazon view time and history as having a series of five distinct stages, like five broad brushstrokes on a canvas.  Our hope was to integrate this into an app environment that would both honor and tell their story while concurrently illuminating the impact of climate change.  (For more on this see my earlier Invoking the Pause blogpost.)


The graduate school of journalism and cinema at the University of São Paulo (Image credit:  Erica Paiva)

"Cosmology: Earth Time" Expanding the temporal and regional components of the Climate Change theme


Pamela Kraft, Tuwe Huni Kuin,  Joshua Fouts and Erica Paiva.,United for a Culture of a Peace United Nations

February 2013

At the United for a Culture of Peace summit at the United Nations to which we were invited by Pamela Kraft the head of Tribal Link an international NGO that provides support for and connects indigenous communities around the world, we had the opportunity to see and hear Tuwe Huni Kuin represent the the indigenous peoples of Brazil (including the Kaxinawá people of which he is a member, a communuity related to the Ashaninka people -- Tuwe comes from a community a few kilometers away from the Ashaninka village).

Tuwe opened the ceremonies by delivering a powerful prayer for peace in his native language of Kaxinawá alongside spiritual representatives from a dozen other indigenous and spiritual cultures and communities.

Following this compelling and moving ceremony, we had a chance to meet with Tuwe and Pamela Kraft over coffee to discuss our "Seeding Possibilities" project and to get their input on how to create a social and educational game that enlightens and informs people about the real impact of climate change.  After discussing the concept of focusing specifically on the Ashaninka, Pamela, who has 20 years experience working with and advocating for the rights of indigenous peoples, suggested that we expand our vision to include not just a specific community in the Amazon but all indigenous peoples on the planet who are also being dramatically affected by climate change -- especially as it pertains to preserving ancestral customs and cultures.

Through this process we began to conclude that the challenge in creating an app on the theme of Climate Change is to create a work that is coherent not just with the history and past of humanity, but the past of the planet.  The goal is thus to build a game where it is possible to stimulate practical reasoning, while honoring and cultivating an inherent simplicity of design and  love of science.  All of this must be interwoven with the ethics and principles of a world that is governed by scientific reality, with respect for the life of creatures of the planet and an underlying need for innovation in transfer of knowledge and learning.


Tuwe Huni Kuin, Representative of the Kaxinawa people of Brazil's Amazon region alongside other spiritual representatives at the United for a Culture of Peace summit at the United Nations; Tuwe was in New York as part of a documentary film fellowship at Tribal Link. Tribal Link Foundation, Inc. is a communications network linking indigenous peoples to information, media, resources and relevant networks, with a special focus on the United Nations system.  Tribal Link provides outreach to the public regarding indigenous peoples and their issues, emphasizing the significance of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

In researching the latest writings and reports about the global impact of Climate Change, I came across a new book that caught my attention by science journalist Annalee Newitz called "Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans will Survive a Mass Extinction."  Newitz, an author and popular blogger is a symbol of a generation of digital activists.  She confesses the book is at least in part a product of her own obsessive preoccupation with the trend of stories on current and future disasters.  This motivated her to write a book about the history and culture of successful human adaptation to radical environmental change.  The very title of Newitz's books calls upon humans to not only adapt, but to remember what happened before and what devices we employed to survive.

As the group continued research on our app, we increasingly discovered that the data that we were gathering transcended communities and applied more consistently to humanity as a species.  The data about climate change expanded to and has been impacting the entire planet over several distinct periods of time.  This impelled us to expand our own perspective to include a deeper understanding of the planet that we inhabit.

We realized we had to make a leap not just of thousands of years in the oral history of a single people to tell this story, but instead needed to make a leap of billions of years, which lead us to the history of the planet inhabited by all species -- Planet Earth.


Earth History - The geological clock: a projection of Earth's 4,5 Ga history on a clock ("MA" = a million years (Megayear) ago; "GA" = a billion years (Gigayear) ago).   by Woudloper/Woodwalker is a young geologist from Berne, Switzerland.

The Simplicity and Challenge of Nature


Animation still of the Fibonacci Sequence by Laura Norén from an article on Animation as Teaching Tools

As we researched the existing data on climate change -- of which there are numerous dense sites that provide up-to-minute worldwide data about the impact of climate change -- and explored ways to present this data within the five phases of Ashaninka time in a way that is both elegant and artistic, we came up against another challenge:  How to accurately integrate the experiences of an indigenous people into what is in reality an unfolding story of transformation and adaptation.

As we thought about the two concepts, we realized that we were complicating a story that could be more elegantly expressed by avoiding the trap of trying to tell too many stories at once.

Nature, we were reminded, always chooses the most direct path between two points.  Put another way: Recall the way that humans have imitated non-humans in performance art.  When we "ape" something, we are mimicking someone doing something highly inefficiently.  We have all seen images of a person in an ape suit walking around bow-legged, reaching out for an object as though they were trying to reach around a giant ball to get to it.  This, in reality and in nature, is not how apes function.  If it were, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans would be extinct long-ago simply because of their inability to efficiently reach out and grab an object directly. Great apes are just as direct -- if not more so -- than humans in interacting with their environment -- be it hunting or traversing a massive tropical forest.

In our education app development we made a decision not to ape nature but, instead, to attempt to honor the simplicity of it.  In a matter of months, a story that was almost of a mash-up of an indigenous people's experience vis-a-vis the devastating impact of climate change, became a study in the art of explaining the impact and potential of adapting to climate change.

The concept of climate change is a daunting and often polemic topic.  While the root causes and origins of climate change are sometimes debated, even skeptics agree that the climate of planet earth has changed dramatically from that to which humans have become accustomed.  Our team has embraced the challenge by attempting to understand and explain this process using the model of time in the simplest form possible.

Examples of new species of the Great American Biotic Interchange, an event caused by the tectonic creation of the Isthmus of Panama in the late Pliocene. South American (neotropic) species whose ancestors migrated to North America are in (olive) green, North American (nearctic) species whose ancestors migrated to South America are in blue. cc Woudloper/Woodwalker is a young geologist from Berne, Switzerland.

Artwork in Progress: The Design Concept for an Educational Climate Change Game

picture10.jpgAs our artist and creative director Erica Paiva began working and adapting and refining and researching the concept, she began to encounter patterns that illuminated two core concepts: The devastating cycle of time in which climate changes over millennia and the hope that humans have repeatedly demonstrated in our unique capacity to adapt to some of the most extreme changes that nature has offered.

To the left and below are some of the art forms she is using to tell the story of time and adaptation to create a better understanding of Climate Change.

We're all incredibly excited about the direction this artistic and technological storytelling research project has taken us.


Draft I - First Sketches to Animation about Earth History and Climate Change by Erica Paiva


Draft Ib - First Sketches to Animation about Earth History and Climate Change by Erica Paiva


Draft III - First Sketch to Concept Logo by Erica Paiva

Our programmer Jesse Tyler has taken the art to Apple's World Developer Conference, June 10-14 in San Francisco to test out new ways that we can take and express the art in this story in a way that is both contemporary, cutting-edge, and elegant.

We've settled on the title "expand" for our project.  We hope that it will both expand your awareness and understanding of the importance of this issue.

We look forward to sharing the prototype with you in coming weeks.


Draft II - Second Sketch of the Concept Logo by Erica Paiva

Special Thanks

This process is brought to you with profound gratitude to Maggie Kaplan for creating the Invoking the Pause: "Seeding Possibilities" opportunity.

 We are grateful to the contributors and advisors to our brainstorms and initial research phases of our non-profit educational game project concept, including Pamela Kraft, of Tribal Link Foundation, a international indigenous peoples NGO connected to the UN; Tuwe Huni Kuin, a representative of the indigenous people of the Amazon on a fellowship visiting New York; a group of graduate students Brazilian involved with the cause of indigenous Amazonian people. We also thank Professor Gilson Schwartz of the University of São Paulo Graduate School of Journalism and Cinema; public relations strategist Elaine Paiva who has advised the project from both São Paulo, Brazil and New York City; as well as several Brazilian attorneys who are specialists in indigenous intellectual and cultural property rights who advised us on the subject of the political rights and issues of the diverse peoples of Brazil; and the technical artistic team who helped us develop the initial concept of this project proposal. 

Finally and most importantly we thank Maggie Kaplan and Arlene Hilliard of Invoking the Pause, an environmental non-profit organization and James Jorasch the creator of Science House Foundation.


Joshua S. Fouts is an anthropologist and international and public relations specialist.  For the past 25 years, his work has focused on the development of innovative international communications projects.  He began his career as a documentary film producer working alongside his father.  In addition to anthropology he studied art and cinema.  Since 2011 he has directed Science House Foundation, an international NGO where his work focuses on developing projects that contribute to the transformation and improvement of teaching and learning of science for primary school children in partnership with teachers, schools and scientists in 28 countries.