Are you listening?

Lessons from Leaders

Each month, the MA in Sustainable Design program invites a special guest for our Town Hall series where students, faculty, and alumni get to meet and chat with a leader in the field of sustainability or sustainable design.

This month’s guest was Mike Edwards — climate change and sustainability educator, Professor, didgeridoo player, and CEO at Sound Matters.

Tell us about your background and what led you to doing the very interesting work you’re doing now.

I took a rather unorthodox journey. When I was young, I had a deep love of nature, but my formal education destroyed that. My view of nature became analytical, scientific, and political. I got a Bachelors in Geography, a Masters in Environmental Policy, then a PhD in Climate Change.

I did my PhD in Australia, where I was working on the security side of climate change — the connection between climate change and war. I became very interested in why people didn’t change their behavior even though we had all the knowledge. 

One evening at a bar in Sydney, I heard the didgeridoo. It had a profound impact on me. It reconnected me to what I had forgotten. I became fascinated by the power of art, the power of sound, to change hearts and minds.

All of our current crises are due to not listening — not listening to each other, and not listening to nature. 

We wondered how we could create a revolution in listening. We created “Sound Matters” to connect people to sounds and the process of listening. 

How do you make the sound-listening connection with corporate leaders, who might be resistant to such things?

I have been working in climate change for decades, and I can get despondent — the solutions presented may work, but they are boring and dictatorial! To be successful and engaging, we need to facilitate creative processes of emergence.

Many people have tried images, film, and animation to help corporates understand sustainability. The problem is that these artists are trying to take these corporate leaders to a predetermined destination. Sound Matters takes them on a journey of possibilities. We use sound to create emotional responses. We don’t design the experience with a specific agenda — and no lyrics. We don’t point fingers or wave banners. We intentionally keep things ambiguous. The experience of sounds resonates at a deeper level so the impacts can be profound, and have led these people to reflect. 

Art is cross-cultural and can be interpreted by people in their own way, in ways that work for them. Is that what you’re tapping into?

Yes. Science is important, of course, but it’s not open to interpretation. Art is open to a range of interpretations. This is why there’s a reaction against science, which has led to all of the conspiracy theories. I’m particularly interested in indigenous art and thinking because there are so many different ways of seeing, being, and engaging. Our job is to leverage these different ways. The solutions we need will come from creative people.

Can you talk about your landscape projects?

We’ve been working with a number of organizations who restore degraded landscapes through regeneration. One project, which has been generously funded by Leopold Bachmann Foundation (in collaboration with Inspiration4ActionAsociación AlVelAl ,and Commonland) is called Soundscapes of Resilience. The idea is that most of us experience landscapes visually, so we think about restoration from a visual perspective — we think about what we want it to look like.  Instead, we ask, ‘What do  you want it to sound like?”. We work with people to “sound design” their landscape. People are so engaged! They keep sending in recordings they have made of their local soundscapes. 

You can hear some of our other Sound Matters Project on Soundcloud

The word “profound” keeps emerging. Why do you think that’s the case?

So many people present sustainability as too clean, too protected, too safe, too sterile. It doesn’t have to be pleasant or nice! Art can bring in the muck and the mess, and keep us human. We need to open ourselves up to the mess and think about what we really want. 

We need to reconnect to our humanness. That is profound.

Thank you, Mike!

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Denise DeLuca / Former Director

Denise DeLuca is the Director of MCAD’s Sustainable Design program. She was co-founder of BCI: Biomimicry Creative for Innovation, a network of creative professional change agents driving ecological thinking for radical transformation. Denise is author of the book Re-Aligning with Nature: Ecological Thinking for Radical Transformation, which was illustrated by MASD alum Stephanie Koehler. She also teaches with the Amani Institute.

Denise’s previous roles include Education Director for the International Living Future Institute, Project Manager for Swedish Biomimetics 3000, and Outreach Director for The Biomimicry Institute. Denise is a licensed civil engineer (PE) and holds a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering with a focus on modeling landscape-scale surface and groundwater interactions.  In addition, Denise is a Biomimicry Fellow and a member of the Advisory Council of The Biomimicry InstituteBoard Member of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP), on the editorial board of the Journal of Bionic Engineering, and an Expert with Katerva. Denise is based in Oregon.

contact:  [email protected]