ClimateKeys – Moving Climate Conversations Centre Stage

— approx reading time: 11 minutes

Composer Lola Perrin returns to ClimateCultures with this round up of her own and many others' experiences of ClimateKeys - the major, global initiative she set up to bring together musicians, experts and audiences to engage in climate change conversations.

The latest ClimateKeys concert took place at the end of November in a candlelit art gallery under the arches in Waterloo as part of PowPowPower, a month-long series of arts events linked to climate change. Violin and cello duo, Fran & Flora, performed their virtuosic style of sonorous Eastern European folk music, at times bursting into truly beautiful acapella singing. Their set was followed with a talk by Nolan MacGregor whose premise was that the increasingly absurd system of commodity production is one of the chief factors in driving climate change. MacGregor then facilitated a conversation, with audience members sharing comments and ideas. Afterwards we were treated to a final piece of music before viewing the climate change art in the gallery and retiring to the bar where conversation about climate change, and the music, continued. 

Performers Fran & Flora with ClimateKeys guest speaker, Social Theorist Nolan MacGregor at PowPowPower

ClimateKeys is an initiative I founded that pairs concert musicians with climate change experts across the world to provide new opportunities for conversations. At the October gala launch in London ten pianists performed to a full house, with the music being interspersed with talks by Sir Jonathon Porritt, the Truth about Zane campaign and Hannah van den Brul. During October and November thirty-three concerts took place in nine countries. The speakers were scientists, policy experts, physicians, economists, radio journalists, legal experts, ecologists, psychologists and other specialists, all giving talks within the setting of a concert performance. Comments, photos, videos have been coming in to give a snapshot view of the concerts, for example;

“The audience members really wanted to talk and learn, and the discussion lasted longer than I thought it would … for me personally, this was incredibly rewarding.” (Political Science Professor Matt Hoffmann, who collaborated with pianist Erika Crino in Toronto.)

“Helping spark discussion and lay the foundation for civic engagement among my peers tonight made me feel like I was making a tangible difference in the world.” (Caroline, performer and audience member at a Syracuse University London ClimateKeys concert.)

“It’s important to think, talk and do something for future generations. The unusual blend of music and ecology is a good environment to make the audience think about climate change, everyday local problems (plastic bags, biodiesel, heating …). Thanks to ClimateKeys we have this wonderful collaboration of our Music and Technical Schools.” (Speaker Jovanka Vicentic, Ecology teacher, who collaborated with young pianists in Serbia.)

“One audience question was on how prepared we should be to compromise. If we choose to be vegan, does that mean we can continue to fly around the world?” (Extract from description of the conversation at Cynefin’s concert in London with guest speaker Julia Marques, climate change dramatist.)

“The general manager from the venue was very happy too and was also interested in more projects with us.” (Pianist Neslihan Schmidt, who performed with Dr Andrzej Ancygier in Berlin.)

Pianist composer Marija Ligeti Balint’s ClimateKeys concert in Pancevo, Serbia made the pages of local newspaper Pancevac, 17th November 2017 www.pancevac-online.rs

Excitingly, musicians responded in ways I hadn’t anticipated; creating inspired programmes around what climate change means to them and choosing works reflecting nature, the chaos of climate change and the constancy of the Holocene. Composer Alexander Schwarzkopf was inspired to complete and perform his work Liquid Piano, which “investigates evaporation, drought, flood, frost, birdsong and imaginary radio waves from outer space. Repetition is an important element of these compositions as it is integral to the processes of the natural and manmade world.”  Liquid Piano caught the imagination of local news media and triggered further climate change discussions.

New work is also emerging from the concerts. Florida ClimateKeys speaker, physician Dr John Strasswimmer, who collaborated with Duo Gastesi-Bezerra and artist Justin Guariglia, produced an imaginative video in response to both ClimateKeys and his research using spectroscopy.

Opportunities to imagine, to begin talking

The ClimateKeys concept grew out of my ninth suite, Significantus, for piano, a guest speaker (who gives a talk on positive response to climate change) and a conversation with the audience. Climate Outreach founder George Marshall kindly brainstormed with me and told me that “two thirds of people who are asked when they last had a conversation about climate change say they’ve never had a conversation about climate change.” This made me think that moving the conversation into the centre of whatever we do in life is vital, so I moved it into the centre of my concerts. I’ve been performing Significantus since September 2016 and have collaborated so far with nearly twenty speakers, reached around 600 audience members and possibly created over 1,500 conversations due to the ripple effect. Now that other musicians are using that same concert formula in ClimateKeys, many hundreds more climate conversations are taking place than I alone can achieve. 

ClimateKeys talks are given without projections or PowerPoint presentations, leaving the imagination free to roam. The audience may get a surge of images running through their minds, perhaps the lobster with a Pepsi logo tattoo, or the plastic islands in the seas, or the recent fire in California that burned an area larger than the size of New York City, or the millions of homeless Bangladeshis wading through floodwaters, or shrinking, low lying coastlines in the global South, or oil spills in Dakota, or Black Friday over-consumption, or Chinese smog, or children in the Democratic Republic of Congo mining minerals for our smartphones … the list goes on. Such overwhelm can create a catatonia, but the job of the guest speaker is to negotiate around our potential stupor and suggest positive directions in which to engage; for example, revising our rate of meat consumption, or re-designing our economy so that we live within nature and not at its expense, or putting renewable energy into place in developing nations to fight poverty without increasing warming emissions, or the role of digital innovation in environmental justice, or lobbying politicians around carbon pricing … The speaker synopses on the ClimateKeys website give an overview of the talks.    

“Fremd” (strange)
Exhibited at PowPowPower, London, November 2017
Artist: Frederik Marks © 2017
https://www.instagram.com/sh0tkiller

In every corner of the global effort is a myriad of features, responses, ideas, solutions, proposals, foundations, experts, schemes, charities, activist groups. Each day, if we choose to seek it out, and especially by searching on social media, we see more analysis, more reports, more research papers, more conferences, more expertise, more comment. Navigating around increasing flows of information on climate change, choosing what to focus on, trying not to miss the glaringly important, attempting to marry big solutions with individual choices: it is complicated.  

ClimateKeys concerts are opportunities to practice talking – or in some cases, to begin talking – about climate change. The first wave of concerts was timed to take place during COP23, to raise public engagement with Bonn. To some extent this was successful as several concerts got  local newspaper, TV and  radio features, including front page coverage in Trump’s local paper, Palm Beach Daily News (I understand that he  does read this one!). It was noticeable that there was no coverage by the BBC and UK press, despite numerous efforts. Two ClimateKeys speakers were COP23 delegates; Banja Luka’s Professor Goran Trbic and Berlin’s Dr Andrzej Ancygier.

Local coverage by the Palm Beach Daily News, 4th November 2017 www.palmbeachdailynews.com

Necessary, desirable and achievable

Ancygier is a policy analyst and a contributor to a new report, 2020 The Climate Turning Point, which took centre stage at COP23. I watched the livestream from the session, 2020: The necessary, desirable and achievable turning point to safeguard our climate. Chaired by Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, heavyweight panelists Christiana Figueres (former UNFCCC Executive Secretary), Johan  Rockström (Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre), Hans Joachim Schnellnhuber (founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research), and Kevin Anderson (Chair of Energy and Climate Change at the Tyndall Centre), made presentations on how, if global CO2 emissions continue to rise beyond 2020, or even remain level, the temperature commitments set in Paris and the Sustainable Development Goals the world agreed to in 2015 become unattainable. The speakers agreed on outcomes although there was some disagreement on methodology. Good questions came from the audience and online viewers.

I recommend watching this session in its entirety (see link below). But to briefly summarise the ten-minute presentations: 
  • Figueres spoke of 2020 being a critical turning point in which we reach peak emissions and thereafter drive emissions into a steadily descending curve to avoid a much steeper rate of reductions later on. In this latter scenario, the curve will look more like a cliff edge and in such a speedy transition society would not be able to support citizens; numerous, sudden job losses would make for social upheaval and unrest. Although she actively engages with an increasing number of corporations, not enough businesses currently work from this perspective.  
  • Anderson argued for mitigation (emissions reduction) to become a COP focus through the top 10% of individual emitters in the world (climatologists are in this 10%) reducing their emissions to the level of the average European and thereby lowering global carbon emissions by 33% straight away. He believes COP itself should “lead by example” and reduce its own footprint. Anderson suggested that the requirement of a zero carbon energy system is a lower total energy consumption (or ‘smart 21st Century energy use’ as Zero Carbon Britain describes this), and so fundamental systemic change is needed in which we all must start playing our part now.
  • Rockström detailed clear technological steps to keeping within the 1.5°C limit, and argued for the removal of fossil fuel subsidies as an immediate priority.
  • Schnellnhuber suggested new private-public partnerships to fund the transition away from employment in dirty energy, proposing that money in tax havens be put to better use and liberated into new investments in clean energy. Schnellnhuber is an adviser to Chancellor Angela Merkel and so it’s revealing to think that this type of debate might be happening in the German government.

Repeated themes ran through the session; “it’s all about Time”, “don’t be late”, “we’ve known what it is we must do”, “we’re saying we must start doing this by 2020”, and “the procrastination must stop.” So, what will happen if, despite COP outcomes, the procrastination does not stop?

Taking on procrastination

Shortly after signing the Paris Agreement in 2015, in a gut-wrenching moment, British Prime Minister David Cameron slashed subsidies for solar panels. In the Budget right after this year’s COP and its focus on the year 2020, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond announced tax incentives prolonging North Sea oil and gas investment. A month earlier, Brazil announced it was proposing a bill to give subsidies worth $300 billion to oil companies to drill off its shores. Given that the clear message from Bonn is that emissions need to peak two years from now and then go into a steady decline of 6% per year to stay under the carbon budget and have the chance of meeting the 1.5°C limit by mid-century, we don’t have time to sit around just in case, miraculously, in the next twenty-four months, the required amount of political will somehow shows up.  

When political processes fail, the next step is to turn to the law. Perhaps that next step has already arrived. More and more, we see litigation around the world: the UK government being sued for illegal pollution levels; the US government for stealing a stable climate from American teenagers; 47 countries for not protecting Portuguese schoolchildren from climate change. In a brand new case, Plan B (co-founded by a former government lawyer) is suing the UK government for climate inaction, in a move that has recently drawn support from leading doctors who published a letter in the British Medical Journal on 7th December 2017. Helpfully, Plan B has also made its website into a source of litigation information for the international community. And at the Cambridge Literary Festival in November, ClientEarth founder James Thornton spoke of how the Chinese government is currently training lawyers to sue the Chinese government (yes, you read that correctly!) if it doesn’t meet its own targets.   

The day after the M2020 presentation in Bonn, climatologist and founder of the innovative televised Global Weirding series Katharine Hayhoe was in conversation with George Marshall at University Church of St Mary in Oxford. Hayhoe was there to talk about her work communicating climate change to ‘dismissers’ (her preferred term for deniers) in the heartland of Republican Texas. I attended and was glad to bump into fellow ClimateCultures member, author Deborah Tomkins, as well as Cardiff ClimateKeys speaker, environmental psychologist Dr Stuart Capstick. Deborah and I had a conversation a few days later. We discovered we’d both been inspired by Hayhoe’s account of having been invited to present a one-hour talk to an oil company in Texas; after two and a half hours they still didn’t want to let her go, asking what they should do to become part of the solution rather than remain part of the problem.

This Texan tale, along with the need to stop the political procrastination and immediately remove fossil fuel subsidies described by the panel at COP23, and the role of litigation are four guides to lead my development of ClimateKeys into 2018.

Moving out of the concert hall

After such a strong start, courtesy of the many musicians and speakers who gave concerts in October and November, ClimateKeys is set to carry on initiating more such collaborations in 2018. However it was always the plan, once ClimateKeys was established, to add new types of concerts. Inviting musicians with portable instruments means that concerts can be performed anywhere, not just in music spaces. This has started to happen quite naturally, for example with musicians such as Fran & Flora performing ClimateKeys in an art gallery. So, why not follow Hayhoe’s lead and aim for a concert in the Shell Building in collaboration with their Chief Climate Change Advisor, perhaps with a performance by a string quartet? Or in Tesco’s head office with their packaging planners? Or at the British Museum in partnership with board members to discuss fossil fuel subsidies, their own link with the industry, and climate change? Perhaps such cultural events are opportunities for new leaders to emerge within companies, and this will inspire new collaborations with ClimateKeys.

ClimateKeys at Syracuse University London, 14th November 2017

It’s widely recognised how the activities of the high carbon world cause climate change and how the impacts are greater on the low carbon world. Tragically, recent statistics suggest that around four environmental defenders in indigenous regions are killed each week. When Pope Francis states in his Encyclical that we “have to save Creation”, he is surely including those courageous activists standing up to the causes of climate change and being killed in the process. All who are standing up, from the indigenous defenders, to the Pope, to treehouse dwellers in Germany preventing an expansion of lignite mining, to Mary Robinson and the M2020 panelists, to school children taking governments to court, to authors of climate change novels, to climatologists speaking to communities, all are in the same wide mass movement I increasingly see as a form of international service (that I, for one, wish was compulsory). ClimateKeys hopes to play a part in bringing more corporations to this service. They are urgently needed.

Find out more

You can catch up with the speaker synopses and other news from the performances so far, and with new developments, at the ClimateKeys site.

There is a video from the ClimateKeys concert in Istanbul on 14th November, where guest speaker Ömer Madra, former lecturer of humanitarian law and co-founder of Açık Radyo” (Open Radio), said “As an academic, a writer, a broadcaster and a grandfather, I humbly feel that it is my utmost duty to ‘take arms against a sea of troubles’ and fight with this ‘ultimate absurdity’ to the end. This is the demand which originates from the responsibility of the intellectual.” Pianist Birsen Ulucan said “The people who surround me in Istanbul, where I will perform ClimateKeys, are not actually aware of the consequences of climate change.” 

Check out PowPowPower for more on their recent climate change arts events.

You can read about the Truth about Zane campaign, which is calling for an Independent Panel Inquiry into the death of 7 year old Zane during the February 2014 floods in Surrey, UK, and to protect the public.

You can watch the video of the COP23 seminar, 2020: the necessary, desirable and achievable turning point to safeguard our climate, on the Uppsala Centre for Sustainable Development website – and read about and download the 2020: The Climate Turning Point report at the M2020 site.

You can read about Plan B and their actions to sue the UK government, as well as other legal actions and resources, at the Plan B site. There is an article, Leading doctors back legal action to force UK government to cut carbon emission, at the website of the British Medical Journal.

Katharine Hayhoe’s TV series is available on the Global Weirding YouTube channel, and you can watch a film of Katharine talking with George Marshall at the ClimateOutreach site – where, of course, there is loads more about COP23 and communicating climate change.

Visit the Palm Beach Daily News site for their coverage of ClimateKeys – as possibly read by Donald Trump. The article states that “the concert ties in with Earth Works: Mapping the Anthropocene, an exhibition featuring works that evolved from artist Justin Brice Guariglia’s flights over Greenland with NASA scientists studying the effect of melting glaciers on sea level rise” and that local ClimateKeys presenter Dr John Strasswimmer “is a dermatologist who is researching a tool that could be used to detect skin cancer using spectroscopy, a technology employed by NASA to measure the contents of the Earth’s atmosphere.”

The Guardian reports on Environmental defenders being killed in record numbers globally and you can watch a film, “Keep It in the Ground”: As COP23 Ends, Activists Protest at Europe’s Largest Open-Pit Coal Mine, at the Democracy Now website.

The full text of Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Laudato ‘Si, is available at the Vatican site.

Questioning Venue? Space for creative thinking...  

Where would you take ClimateKeys to engage a new audience? Be specific -- choose your venue. Would it be at a company, a council, a call centre, a cultural hub, or a countryside location? And who would be your local expert, and your preferred musician?

Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link!

By Understanding COP23, We Can Help COP24 Succeed

— approx reading time: 3 minutes

One of the great benefits of working with TippingPoint on its final set of events over the past couple of years was meeting such a number and diversity of great people, all working in their different ways on the creative challenges of environmental and climate change. This is a theme which James Murray-White picks up in this joint Members' Post by him, Lola Perrin and Paul Allen. 

In their video, James and Lola discuss with Paul his experiences at the COP23 climate change conference in Bonn - which also featured in his recent ClimateCultures post, where he looked ahead to COP24 in 2018. As Lola says here, "it’s vital to know what happened at COP23 so we can make our strategies on how to work towards making COP24 a success;" and this three-way discussion - with others' questions posed via Facebook - is a valuable insight for those of us who couldn't be there in person.

One weekend in November, film maker James Murray-White and composer Lola Perrin travelled to the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales and met with Paul Allen, Project Director for CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain research. With live questions from a Facebook audience, the three discussed the highs and lows of COP23 and what is possible in the transformation to a post-carbon world. This is the short video of their conversation.

Lola Perrin

“I followed COP23 quite closely on Twitter, watching live video events, and reading blogs and Facebook posts from attendees. What could be possibly be missing from this list… Mainstream media? You’re right. Despite the very survival of our civilisation being at risk, mainstream media seemed not to care very much about COP23 during the whole two weeks of the event, with very little coverage of the work going on in Bonn. Yet it’s vital to know what happened at COP23 so we can make our strategies on how to work towards making COP24 a success.

“Holding a Facebook live Q&A with Paul was a good opportunity to find out more about what went on in Bonn and share that conversation with others. Before the interview started, we made the decision to keep it short. Although we could have spoken for an hour or more, by keeping the film to fifteen or twenty minutes, we felt more people would watch the whole of it, and perhaps we would take care not to be repetitive. This was a good decision; on listening back I think the conversation is concise and to the point. People sent in questions in advance or also during the live video feed.

“And as a bonus, we sat in my favourite room at CAT – although it was cold it didn’t matter much; there was an aroma of wood in the air, and gorgeous views of slate on one side and forest on the other – an inspiring environment for sharp, hopefully positive, thinking.”

James Murray-White

“I’m delighted that Doing Nothing is Not an Option – TippingPoint’s 2016 conference at Warwick Arts Centre – gave me the opportunity to meet inspiring creative activists. This recent weekend is just one example of a positive outcome from that gathering: travelling to Wales with Lola to interview Paul at the awesome Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth, and then hosting the video of that here on ClimateCultures – created by Mark, who was such a key part of DNNO’s organisation.

“The issue of climate change is tough and throws up daily challenges – in seeing its effects, trying to communicate ways to respond, and simply by carrying around the knowledge of human impact upon planet Earth. But here is a small example of a few folk coming together to discuss, dissect and communicate, and then using this platform to put our efforts into the world and explore practical, creative and positive opportunities rather than spreading doom and gloom. I’m grateful for it, and for the warm, committed people who I’m proud to call my friends in this shared effort.”

 

Find out more

You can read more about Paul’s recent experiences at COP23 at the Centre for Alternative Technology blog – and about the challenges for next year’s talks in his recent ClimateCultures post, The Beating Heart of COP24

You can download Zero Carbon Britain resources and sign up for the next Zero Carbon Britain training course.

Explore the official UN climate negotiations process at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

COP ClimateCultures Callout 

Were you at COP23 or related events here in your community? Do you have experiences, arts ideas or creative suggestions about what we can take from COP23 - or what was missing - and could help make COP24 what we need it to be? Use the Contact Form to send in comments or contributions for more COP-related posts and content here at ClimateCultures. And check out our 'Questioning the COPs' creative challenge with Paul's recent post, The Beating Heart of COP24

 

The Beating Heart of COP24

— approx reading time: 4 minutes

ClimateCultures welcomes a new voice to the blog, with Paul Allen sharing his reflections after taking part in the COP23 talks in Bonn - and looking ahead to the cultural challenges for COP24 next year. Paul is Project Director of the Centre for Alternative Terchnology's Zero Carbon Britain programme.

We humans live by our values, shaped through, communities, experiences and culture. Our communities and our experiences are increasingly compelled to engage with climate change, but can our culture also grasp it?

At the next year’s UN climate summit, we will have reached a point in the negotiations where all nations must raise their ambition if we are to deliver on the Paris Agreement. As we prepare, it is vital we recognise the influence of culture; in helping us grasp exactly where we are in the world and the scale and speed of the actions we must take. The arts and creative community, in many ways the beating heart of culture, has a powerful role to play in this.

From the bubble of forgetting where we are …

From shifting seasons to wild weather, communities across the UK now experience both the large and small effects of climate change in their own back yards. On top of this, as we watch the global news, we see increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as forest fires, floods, hurricanes and droughts, hitting communities in other parts of the globe. But then, as the news ends, and normal TV  returns, the characters in our films, soaps, dramas and reality TV series simply never discuss this. They never take any of the actions we know we must all take; they never discuss any of the changes we know we are seeing. This creates a bubble in which we have forgotten where we actually are in the world, where we can ignore what we know we need to do, and where we never witness the positive co-benefits that rising to our challenge could offer.

To make matters worse, every time contemporary culture tells a story of human interactions set a decade or two into the future, we paint it against a background of ecological collapse and zombie-ridden dystopia. Turning us into zombies works well to dehumanise society in ‘collapse’ scenarios, so making the mass-extinction narratives more palatable. Be it a novel, theatre, film, a TV or the gaming world, any future setting is dark – and a whole new generation is now growing up within this, transforming the way we think. We have shifted from that exciting 1960s vision of progress and anticipation, to a dark, uncertain and fearful future; which makes us easier to manage. If we only tell future stories set against chaos, collapse and devastation, no one can imagine positive solutions, so nothing happens.

So, as we move towards COP24, with its urgent need for ambition, it’s time to re-think the future. Evidence-based art, firmly rooted in the reality of where we are and what we must achieve, can bring to life exciting new stories. In stories of a future where humanity has delivered on Paris, and is enjoying the co-benefits – what would change and what would remain? What would we be doing, wearing or eating? How would we get around? Where and how would we spend our holidays or leisure time? What will drive our happiness in this new chapter of our story?

To visualising a climate safe future

A decade of Zero Carbon Britain research from the Centre for Alternative Technology has clearly demonstrated that we have all the tools and technologies we require. Powerful research is now emerging from across the globe at an accelerating rate, offering the hard data and confidence required to visualise what a climate safe future might actually be like. Rather than an unresolved technical challenge, it is increasingly accepted that what we actually face, is a mix of political and cultural barriers.

In the run-up to this year’s COP23 climate negotiations in Bonn, I was heartened to see Julie’s Bicycle working in collaboration with the UNFCCC to offer a weekly spotlight on arts and cultural responses  to climate. It is now time to build way beyond the scale of arts engagement achieved at COP21 in Paris. As we prepare for COP24, our cultural community needs to engage deeper with this process. This does not necessarily mean being on-site during the negotiations; ongoing engagement connecting local and community actions with the global process is every bit as important.

Giving a Hand to Nature
Artist: Pedro Mazorati © 2017
http://pedromarzorati.com

Since the Paris Agreement, mainstream UK media has barely engaged with the COP process, so few are able to connect with what goes on. Surely progress in providing a safe niche for future generations is every bit as important as the latest X Factor or Bake Off? So, to help explore new approaches, in the run up to COP24 I am seeking collaborations across the creative community to build on our Zero Carbon Britain work, and have pulled together a short film to offer a glimpse into my engagement with COP23 in Bonn in November this year. 

Find out more

You can read more about Paul’s recent experiences at COP23 at the Centre for Alternative Technology blog.

You can download Zero Carbon Britain resources and sign up for the next Zero Carbon Britain training course.

Explore the official UN climate negotiations process at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

You can see more images such as Pedro Mazorati’s from the Art4Climate series at the UNFCC Climate Action pages.

Questioning the COPs? Space for creative thinking... 
 
Bali, Berlin, Bonn, Buenos Aires, Cancun, Copenhagen, Doha, Durban, Geneva, The Hague, Kyoto, Lima, Marrakech, Milan, Montreal, Nairobi, New Delhi, Paris, Poznan, Warsaw... We've had 23 'Conferences of the Parties', with next year's in Katowice, Poland. Where, when and how would you hold the COP where the world celebrates delivering on 'Paris 2015'? Why there? Sketch out a 'creative timeline', mapping out how you think we might get there... 

Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link!

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #5

— approx reading time: 6 minutes

It's a pleasure to welcome back writer Nick Hunt for the latest post in our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Nick's contribution of three objects traces one path from our present into a future which he reminds us will not stay forever on any one course. He returns us to a longer view, of a past which honours the power and beauty of natural forms - the human and more-than-human.

This seventh generation

On a grubby brick wall in Hackney Wick a small brown plaque bears the words: FIRST PLASTIC IN THE WORLD. It is bolted high on the wall, and few people passing by ever raise their eyes to see it.

A hundred and fifty years ago there would have been flat-capped workers on these streets, smoke billowing from chemical factories, the solvent stink of dyeworks. Now there are flat-capped hipsters, smoke drifting from narrowboats on the canal, the solvent stink of graffiti paint. This is the seventh generation of the Plastic Age.

Plaque to Alexander Parkes, Hackney, London
Photograph: Plaques of London
www.plaquesoflondon.co.uk

In 1866 the empire had a problem. The efficiency of industrial slaughter had surpassed natural capital reserves, and resources once abundant were becoming scarce. Whale oil, used for everything from lighting to industrial lubrication, was in sharp decline due to collapsing whale stocks. It was peak whale oil. But new techniques for extracting rock oil boosted the petroleum trade, and drills took the place of harpoons on industrialisation’s frontline. 

Around the same time, ivory – used to make ornaments, cutlery handles, piano keys and billiard balls – was running out as well. It was peak elephant. A substitute was invented by a man called Alexander Parkes: a hard, smooth, synthetic plastic made from nitrocellulose, better known as Parkesine, the first manmade plastic in the world.

(It is one of the stranger ironies of industrialisation: that petroleum saved the whales and plastic saved the elephants. Or at least that was how it seemed, before the icecaps started melting and plastic clogged the seas. Now it appears the world’s largest mammals merely had a stay of execution.)

Parkesine was first produced in the Parkesine Works in Hackney Wick, a zone of London dominated by dyeworks and chemical factories. It was a commercial failure, and the company folded two years later. But other plastics swiftly followed: xylonite in 1869, celluloid in 1870, and in 1907 Bakelite paved the way for mass production, disposable culture and the consumer boom. In its ever mutating variety – polystyrene, polyethylene, polypropylene, polytetrafluoroethylene – plastic would enter every home, replacing not only ivory but metal, glass, stone and wood, never decaying, never corroding, obsoleting organic matter. It would change the composition of the oceans, working its way up the food chain from bottom feeders to apex predators, and enter the geological record to become part of the planet itself. It’s hard to conceive of a more successful example of market penetration.

That small brown plaque says nothing of this, and most people don’t notice it’s there. But a carrier bag wafts on the breeze, and discarded plastic bottles litter the road underneath, like devotional offerings at the shrine of their creator.

Sun machines: the future for now

I moved out of Hackney Wick years ago and came to live in Bristol again, but inevitably London pulls me back. It means I spend too much time in the limboland between the two cities, going up and down the M4. The view through the smeared coach window is of transport infrastructure, road-signs, scrappy woodlands, fields. But over the course of the last few years this vision has started changing. 

The green fields are gradually vanishing from the flanks of the motorway, covered by a tide of grey: row upon row of darkly reflective panels angled to the south, ranks of mathematical squares in place of pastureland. Officially they are called solar farms, evoking bucolic rural scenes, but – as people who genuinely love the land have pointed out – more truthfully they are solar factories, electricity machines to fuel mankind’s expansion.

Sometimes flocks of nonplussed sheep are nibbling between the rows, competing with the machines for the energy of sunlight. 

Sometimes the angle of the sun turns the fields into a mirror, a blinding metallic glare that hurts the eyes to look at.

Solar ‘farming’ Photographer: unknown

Of course I know the arguments: they are infinitely less worse than climate-changing power stations, more palatable than nuclear plants, less intrusive than wind turbines. And I know that the fields they’re replacing, monocropped and glyphosated, are hardly natural anyway but products of tens of thousands of years of human meddling and control, reaching back all the way beyond the Neolithic. But the solid fact remains: a shiny plasticated skin has been clamped upon the land. What was green is turning grey. As an environmentalist I am supposed to applaud the sight, but it fills me with despair.

This will not be the future forever, but it is the future for now. The culture that makes these things will pass, but its objects will remain. 

The long past of the Long Man

When traffic is bad, or an accident has closed too many lanes, the coach occasionally detours past the white horse on Cherhill Down, created by cutting turf away to reveal the gleaming chalk below. Only a few centuries old, this monument is by no means ancient – unlike the more stylised white horse at Uffington, which dates back over three thousand years – but the mindset it represents seems to me very, very old: an honouring of the power and beauty inherent in animal forms, an act of devotion, of attention, that reaches back to the horses sketched in charcoal on Paleolithic cave walls. From the window of a Megabus such a vision is absurdly romantic, but these interventions in the landscape were surely intended to have that effect: to lift our eyes from the road, away from our self-involved routines, into other ways of seeing, into other aeons.

Last summer my mother and I walked the South Downs Way, which runs for a hundred miles along the top of the chalk down, on which human feet have beaten tracks for at least eight thousand years. The colours are very simple there – the green of grass, the yellow of wheat, the white of chalk, the blue of sky – and the walking is simple too: you keep the sea to your right and keep going east. On one of our last evenings of walking, aching after eighteen miles, we dragged ourselves on a limping extension to see the Long Man of Wilmington, a chalk outline of a figure holding a staff in each hand, cut into the sloping turf of a Sussex hill. Nobody knows how old he is – he might have been made any time from the Iron Age to the sixteenth century – and nobody knows what the staffs represent. But they look like walking poles.

The Long Man of Wilmington
Photograph: Cupcakekid 2003 Creative Commons (CC)
Source: Wikipedia (‘Long Man of Wilmington’)

We stood in silence at the Long Man’s feet and eventually turned for home. Maybe it was partly exhaustion, but both of us were strangely moved. Even though we had offered him nothing, we felt as if we had left something behind.

Find out more

As well as Wikipedia, of course, you can read more about the history of plastics it this BBC News brief guide and this interesting piece from Scientific American

The Union of Concerned Scientists has this brief overview of the environmental impacts of solar power.

Among the many sites discussing ancient land art such as the Long Man of Wilmington, Britain Explorer has this quick but interesting guide to ‘The Top Ten Geoglyphs in the UK and the World’.

You can find more of Nick’s writing at Nick Hunt – and ClimateCultures is pleased to have Nick’s own selection of passages from his new book, which you can find via the links on his Profile page.


You can read other contributions in the series at our page on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Each post in this series earns its author a copy of a book that’s had an impact on my thinking about our topics here – whether fiction, poetry or non-fiction – and which I’ve recently rediscovered in a charity shop. I’ll be revealing which book is heading Nick’s way when I review it for ClimateCultures next month.

Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking...   

"What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post." 

At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally. 

Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question. 

Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects as a post. 

 

Doggerland Rising #2: Sinking Into the North Sea

— approx reading time: 8 minutes

In part 1 of Doggerland Rising, Justina Hart introduced her poem, which was commissioned following the 2016 Weatherfronts conference. Drawing on advice from experts at Durham University, she investigated the prehistory of Doggerland, the lowland plains inhabited by mesolithic people before sea level rise created the North Sea. In this concluding part, Justina completes the story of her research and reveals how the poem's characters emerged and what she has learned from the process.

Click on the map to read Doggerland Rising #1: Walking Across the North Sea.

Map showing hypothetical extent of Doggerland (c. 10,000 BC), which provided a land bridge between Great Britain and continental Europe
Source: Wikipedia (‘Doggerland’)
Artist: Max Naylor © 2008

Reading academic papers – a new vocabulary

Following the day at Durham University spent meeting with palaeo-scientists to discuss all things Doggerland, they emailed me numerous papers to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. With six weeks to go till the commission deadline, I focused on reading and journaling to help the ideas bubble up.

Studying an area where knowledge is expanding rapidly I found to be exciting and addictive. Although the Doggerland concept had emerged in the early twentieth century, it didn’t take off until the late 1990s when Professor Bryony Coles at the University of Exeter examined and wrote about the archaeology of Doggerland; and until researchers at Birmingham University (Vince Gaffney among them) in the 2000s used data from oil and gas drilling maps to chart the submerged landscape of the Southern North Sea.

I started a Doggerland journal in my writing program, Scrivener, jotting down salient points and ideas every day. Early on in reading the academic papers, one thing that struck me was the intriguing sounds of many of the scientific words and terms used to describe investigation into the North Sea. Here are a few:

aggradation, bathymetric, borehole data, eustatic, isopach, progradation

The mysterious half-understood (to me) quality of these words sparked my first draft for part I of my six-part poem. Scientific exploration provides an entry point both into the writing and into the Doggerland landscape:

Wade in with palaeogeographers,
archaeologists, palaeogeologists,
cartographers who swim
into the past for a living, 
who disturb and reconfigure depths.

Later on, I realised that these palaeo-scientist characters were part of the poem’s scaffolding that could be removed. The start of the finished part I of the poem now addresses the reader directly as scientist-investigator and everyman. He dips a hand into the North Sea and comes face-to-face with one of his Mesolithic ancestors:

A man hallooing as if to himself
paddles through shallow waters. 
He looks ahead, squinting;
he can almost see you, you him.

Letting go of research and sinking into the sea

Having immersed myself in the research, the next step was to let go of it – taking whatever I’d absorbed with me – and allow myself to sink into a place from which the poems might flow. That was the idea anyway. It felt risky: the research was a safety raft without which I could end up all at sea.

Giving myself the gift of this time to sink or swim was – as a jobbing writer/editor where paid tasks must take priority – the privilege of having a commission. What joy to be given licence to write and research poetry in prime client time. I unplugged from the internet for consecutive mornings and, in silence, held the idea of the sequence lightly in my mind, listening for what might surface.

I used others’ writing, music, photographs, and my own visits to natural landscapes to tickle the poetic synapses. Early on I found a jazz song that I took as a soundtrack for my project, Mi Negra Ave María, by Roberto Fonseca. Soaring and anthemic, it includes the lyrics:

And Atlantis can once again
Rise from the ocean
And the musical, beautiful sound will resound
And shake in every tree …

I read poetry with watery and icy themes (the polar wilderness gave a useful sense of remoteness and strangeness).

Druridge Bay, Northumberland
Photograph: Dr Louise Callard © 2017
https://www.dur.ac.uk/geography/staff/geogstaffhidden/?id=10523

I wanted to make a research trip to Druridge Bay on the Northumberland coast as recommended by the Durham scientists, but it was too far afield. Instead, with help from my partner as driver, I went on a long madcap jaunt from Staffordshire down the M1 and M25 to one of my old stomping grounds on the Kent estuaries to photograph mudflats. I also took pictures of trees in bogs in Osmaston, Derbyshire. These landscapes became the stage set for the inundated Dogger Island.

Here is a note from my journal:

5 November 2016 – research trip to northern Kent: Visited the Medway, got excited on seeing marshes, then just beyond the sea at Allhallows and took pictures as the sun was going down. Landscape very flat and I was bitter around the ears, although it would have been 2-3 degrees warmer then [i.e. in the Mesolithic].

After a time, interesting things started cropping up in my journal. Here’s a piece of stream-of-consciousness writing:

The voices [in the poem] are strong. They are alive. They are speaking to us but also to themselves as though there’s this thin film of water called time between us … They talk to themselves and the meaning trickles to us across this film. They can kind of see us through this film too, and not.

“Doggerland swamps”
Photograph: Justina Hart © 2017
http://justinahart.com

The first character emerges – let’s call him Shaman

One day as I was writing my journal a character emerged urging ‘Follow me, follow me, follow me’. So I did, trusting his voice more as time went on. At first he acted as a guide, taking me back in time to the Mesolithic; later he made his way into the poem. It felt exciting channelling a Mesolithic character, as if I was bringing someone back from the dead whose bones lay under the North Sea. He seemed to relish the chance to live again.

This man, aged twenty-five or thirty, becomes the character we meet in section I, and who we follow through the poem. If he or someone like him did exist, perhaps he was a Mesolithic shaman because of his time-travelling and piloting abilities. Archaeologists know that such roles existed in tribal groups because they have unearthed objects such as deer skulls used as masks in spiritual ceremonies; they’ve also found standing stones or menhirs beneath the waves.

This is the kind of thing my nameless shamanic character whispered to me. It made its way into the poem in section II: 

‘Look in the water. Look in the pool I’m looking at. The pool that is brackish, filled with     saltwater, the river’s still. Giant oaks are asleep in it. I leave something there for you, a clue about me. I take off my necklace and cast it in, it’s like casting a spell – that one day we will come this way again.’

Drafting the whole sequence was like walking a tightrope over the North Sea. I had never written such a long poem in different voices before and did not know that I could complete each section until I had its first draft down.

So I navigated my imaginative North Sea – and the poem – by degrees: first I was a quarter of the way across, then a half, then three-quarters … Since each section had to come from deep down, as if from my own internal sea, each time it was a case of listening, having faith, holding my breath until at last I was rewarded with each poem’s content, form and language. All the sections had to tie together and tell a story as well, of course.

After writing the first four poems (out of the total six), I attended a small poetry festival in London, Second Light’s The Song of the Earth. I found the workshops by poets such as Jemma Borg and Hannah Lowe very helpful for renewing my inspiration, and the festival provided a much-needed break from my own company. I came back and wrote the last two sections.

Mesolithic red deer mask, discovered at Starr Carr, Yorkshire, 1951
Photograph: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sharing the poem – feedback and editing 

Had the poem succeeded? It felt to me that the commission had moved my poetry on, but the proof’s in the pudding. I sent the finished draft to fellow West Midlands poet, Sarah James, who generously read it, suggested tweaks and commented, “It all reads beautifully and feels very crafted and finished”. I was over the moon. The poet Myra Schneider kindly read and fed back in detail before I submitted the final version. “It’s a real achievement – a step forward,” she said. I am indebted to these poets and other readers.

Myra pointed out that the poem needed some linguistic fine-tuning to get it ‘as close to Anglo-Saxon as possible’, as this would be more in keeping with the prehistoric setting. So before filing, I spent a few hours scouring the poem for Renaissance and post-Renaissance words and concepts. I scrapped ‘lurid’ (mid-seventeenth century), replacing it with ‘violent pinks, blues, greens’. ‘Sulking’ (late eighteenth century) became ‘turned sour’, ‘unnavigable’ (early sixteenth century) became ‘where evil spirits hide’, and ‘foraminifera’ (mid-nineteenth century) was changed to ‘tiny sea animals’. A whole passage like:

Here I come: pushed from the delta’s mouth
into blue – blue is my element and green –
the sea’s body slows me, to breathe …

was transformed with simpler, more concrete language into:

Here I come: pushed from the river’s veins
into blue – blue is my dwelling place –
the sea’s body slows me, to breathe …

Myra also spotted an anachronistic use of the country names, ‘Germany, Holland, France’, in a refrain in part IV of the poem, which is voiced by the tribe’s ancestors. This started life as:

Yet once we were kings who strolled through
paradise to Germany, Holland, France.

Few readers might have noticed – and the rhythm worked well – but having put so much work in, it was important to get all the details right. I turned to Dr Jim Innes for help. ‘How might our Mesolithic ancestors have referred to these lands?’ I asked.

‘They would have had names for these areas I suppose, but we can’t know. I would perhaps have said something like ‘the eastern high ground beyond the plain’ and the same for Britain, only ‘western’. That doesn’t tell the reader exactly where though, so maybe … ‘the uplands beyond the eastern plain’ or similar.’

Here’s the final refrain:

Yet once we were kings who strolled through 
plains rich as paradise to the uplands beyond.

 I sent the finished draft to the Durham scientists for fact checking and so they could see what I’d made of the research. All good except Jim spotted I’d used the phrase ‘heading inland’ in section VI, when people would have had to cross water to get to Britain. Jim also checked the date in which I’d set the poem: 

‘The dates look fine. Our main radiocarbon date from Dogger peat at -27 metres depth is 8140 radiocarbon years ago, which comes out when calibrated as 9300-9000 calendar years ago. Other dates suggest that the Dogger island was finally fully submerged by about 8000 calendar years ago, or a little before.

Personal insights – leaving the Mesolithic

The Weatherfronts commission was the first time that I’d ever been paid to write poetry. Symbolically this was deeply important to me as I was being remunerated for writing something I love, and this made a real difference to my craft. Previously, I always fitted my fiction and poetry around the freelance writing and editing I do for commercial clients; now, for the first time, creativity could take centre stage.

Not surprisingly, focusing on my poetic craft during the best, most productive hours of the day meant that my poetry improved. I began to value my work as a poet more and started seeing it as on an equal footing with my client writing. I was able to set and rise to a more difficult poetic challenge than I’d otherwise have attempted. I had not felt such joy in any paid work I’ve done in years, and loved the luxury of the reading and generative time.

Collaborating with the Durham palaeo-scientists was another revelation and joy. The only careers advice I recall receiving at university was ‘Don’t go into academia’, and yet the researchers seemed to thoroughly enjoy their working lives. Thanks to Weatherfronts, I now know that I’d  welcome the chance to do other collaborative projects with researchers and universities in the future.

The collaboration completely changed the nature of my Doggerland poem. If I had attempted to write it without talking in-depth to the scientists, I believe that it would have looked very different. Gradual if dramatic climate change (coastal erosion, low-lying island nations at risk of submergence) and migration are more akin to what our Mesolithic ancestors were experiencing, and more akin to what we’re experiencing in the twenty-first century. The scientists helped me and the poem to take this focus.

By the end of the project, I began to envy our Middle Stone Age ancestors for the simpler rhythm of their lives, their multi-skilled resourcefulness, and even (medical advances aside), their quality of life. Pulling out of ancient time and leaping forward to the present day came as a wrench.

Find out more

You can read the full lyrics to Roberto Fonseca’s Mi Negra Ave MarÍa and play the track.

Explore the poets who gave Justina feedback: Sarah James and Myra Schneider. and Dr Jim Innes‘ research into human palaeoecology, particularly in relation to Mesolithic communities and their impact upon the environment.

And you can find out about Second Light Live workshops and publications.

There is more about Justina’s writing – poems, short stories, non-fiction, novels – at her website. Doggerland Rising and all the poems, short stories and non-fiction that were commissioned from both the 2014 and 2016 Weatherfronts competitions are included in the free ebook available from Cambria Books.

Questioning what lies beneath? Space for creative thinking... 

"When you walk across a field or through woods, or travel on the sea, do you think about what, and who, might have been there before you? When you pause to listen, what do you hear from those who are still there, beneath?" 

Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link!