Ruskin, futures, and the Ethics of Dust

Andrew Curry writes: I was teaching at the Institute of Social Futures at Lancaster University this week, and had the opportunity to drop in the current exhibition at the University’s Ruskin Museum. It is the 200th anniversary of John Ruskin’s birth this year. He was one of the great British intellectuals of the 19th century. The University–which already holds the biggest collection of Ruskin’s papers–has marked this anniversary by acquiring a further collection, The Ruskin Whitehouse Collection.

The current exhibition, Ruskin: Museum of the Near Future invites us to revisit the relevance of Ruskin’s thinking today. From the perspective of futures practice there are certainly lessons to take away. Ruskin’s three ‘laws for life’– from The Ethics of the Dust–go as follows:

  • Think with enduring values, not of enduring things. As the exhibition guide puts it, “The same energy and material wealth creates a Venice or a Manchester. Different values create different results.”
  • Let nature be your teacher. Again from the guide: “The clearer we see the world, the greater our empathy and the clearer we see that life itself and human happiness arise when processes of disintegration give way to periods of composition.”
  • Take heart. “What lies in our hearts is everything. We give value to life.”

I’d been talking about what might be thought of as the current wave of futures methods and models–from integral futures, to causal layered analysis, to experiential futures, to anticipatory futures. Although they offer different perspectives and different types of practice, they all emphasise the importance of values and of agency.

Peacock feather

The second set of lessons in the exhibition–the Lessons of the Peacock Feather–also seem relevant to futures. Ruskin was, by all accounts, a compelling public speaker, and he used his sketches of the peacock feather to illustrate the importance of perception. Again, there seem to be resonances with futures practice.

  • The first lesson: see clearly.
  • The second lesson: understand the nature of things.
  • The third lesson: know the part things play.

Several contemporary artists have also contributed “words and works” to the exhibition. I wish I’d had more time to spend there. It runs at Lancaster University to November 25th.

The image at the top of the post is Ruskin’s drawing of a peacock feather, from the Lancaster University collection. The portrait of Ruskin by Millais is in the Ashmolean, Oxford.