In her second Members’ Post, Julia Marques reflects on her research for an MA in Climate Change: Culture, History, Society, and the role that theatre can play in opening up space for us to take in climate change’s meanings.
“The sources of our disagreement about climate change lie deep within us, in our values and in our sense of identity and purpose.” – Mike Hulme, Why We Disagree About Climate Change (2009)
Throughout the past year, when I tell people that I’ve been studying climate change, there have been some responses that have prevailed over others.
“What’s the conclusion – is climate change real?”
“What’s the solution?”
“Are you going to save the world?”
And, inevitably, certain world leaders also crop up fairly regularly. (On this point, I would like to quote Mike Hulme, who rightly states that “One man does not control the world’s climate”).
I want to discuss why these responses are difficult to give a simple and straightforward answer to, and also how they reflect why climate change is a complex concept that is more than just extreme weather.
Truth and values
First of all, the fact that people are still asking this (Question #1) – in spite of the fact that the majority of scientists agree that it is – indicates that there is more going on here than merely deciding on which side to support. People form beliefs according to their cultural values, and if an idea threatens those values, then people are, understandably, wary of it. Therefore, even if you trot out the mountains of evidence for climate change, this does not automatically result in a change in view on the matter. This is frustrating, of course, but, as Dan Kahan points out, more focus needs to be placed on how we communicate the science that will appeal to people from diverse cultures. Once this has been cracked, then we can better understand why people feel and react differently to climate change instead of simply rejecting those who do not agree with us.
“The prevailing approach is still simply to flood the public with as much sound data as possible on the assumption that the truth is bound, eventually, to drown out its competitors. If, however, the truth carries implications that threaten people’s cultural values, then holding their heads underwater is likely to harden their resistance and increase their willingness to support alternative arguments, no matter how lacking in evidence” – Dan Kahan, Fixing the Communications Failure (2010)
Secondly, is climate change really a “problem” that needs “solving” (Question #2)? Framed in this way, it is easy to talk of solutions to climate change, and to declare war on it as if it were a sentient being which had chosen to attack human beings in particular. This discourse of war appears to pervade into every sphere of life; the war on terror, the war on drugs, the war on poverty – to name but a few. For some reason, humans love declaring war on things. Especially large-scale hard-to-comprehend things.
Mike Hulme proposes climate change to be an idea, and, in this light, it certainly does not require any “solutions”. This somewhat relieves the pressure that climate change exerts whenever we see extreme weather events and melting ice as only more evidence of the destruction we are wreaking on the world. This is not to say that we can sit back and do nothing but, for me, constantly searching for a quick-fix solution is not helpful when it comes to climate change.
What we need is space to consider our options and what climate change means for us individually. Yes, we know about the stronger storms, the higher sea levels, the increasingly severe droughts, the mass migration, etc. But what does this mean to me, to you, to the person sitting next to you on the train, to the couple with the baby you passed in the park, to the old lady you saw at the bus stop? What meaning do all of these people give to climate change?
This ties in with my evolved focus of my research. In it, I ask myself if theatre can be an alternative site of meaning-making around climate change that allows people to have space to think about the idea of it that is being re-presented in the performance space. I want to get away from a didactic version of theatre, which is oh-so-easy to fall into when considering concepts as huge as climate change. I want to give people the option to decide, to make up their own mind about it, rather than offer solutions to it. We need to give ourselves space to think. I argue that both the plays I am using as empirical examples in my research create this space in different ways – whether through staging, lighting, sound, dialogue or action. This is the beauty of theatre – it offers the flexibility of its various techniques to be used in a multiplicity of ways to create manifold effects.
The two plays that I studied for empirical examples of this space were Greenland (2011) by Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne and Earthquakes in London (2010) by Mike Bartlett. Both plays did create space, but with differing techniques. As can be seen from the Greenland photos, the stage was a vacuous darkened space most of the time, thus creating physical space. Earthquakes, by contrast, is a chaotic play with little physical space, but pause in dialogue was the source of space for thought on climate change instead.
In a city like London, space is at a premium, and I’m sure most people would appreciate having a little more of it. We are constantly bombarded with information, advertising, people and sound. How can theatre be a place of respite from this, to focus our thoughts on one particular aspect of our intricate lives and allow us then to mull it over without the pressure to make an immediate decision on it?
To conclude, “saving the world” is a rather grand and complex task (Question #3). My MA course was not, as I had hoped, a series of classes on how to stop environmental degradation and limit our carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, it presented me with far more questions than answers. Climate change tends to be a rather gloomy subject, I have found, but it also highlights the potential of what can be done.
As George Monbiot says, “What appear to be hopeless situations actually are not hopeless at all. All you need to do is to imagine a better future and then put that imagination into practice”. My aim is not quite to save the world, but to give it a chance to stop, take a breath and ponder what can be done. And then go out and do it.
“I know two days is just a blip but . . . that’s what it is, a pause, a breath, where we can look at it. Bear witness, my boss says – where we can really think, is this the future that we want?” (Lisa – student/activist – Greenland)
Dan Kahan‘s paper, Fixing the Communications Failure (2010, Nature 463, 296-297) is also available at Climate Access.
You can see George Monbiot talking about how “What appear to be hopeless situations actually are not hopeless at all” in his video on YouTube, which is well worth watching despite its unimaginative title, This is Why Donald Trump Can’t be Human.
Questioning immediacy? Space for creative thinking..."How do you find or create space to help you or others to resist the 'pressure to make an immediate decision' on difficult questions? How would bring a predicament like 'climate change' into this space?" Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form or write a response on your own blog and send a link!
Between 2015 and 2016, writer Nick Hunt spent six months walking the invisible pathways of four of Europe’s named winds to discover how they affect the landscapes, people and cultures through which they blow. His new book, ‘Where the Wild Winds Are’, tells the story of these wind-walks through the continent. In the second of five excerpts for ClimateCultures, Nick describes his walk across England’s Northern Pennines on the trail of the Helm, which blows from desolate Cross Fell to wreak havoc in the Eden Valley.
The view resembled a different country to the one I’d seen the morning before. There was no sodden cloud, no murk; the land was bright and loud again, the weather vane of the topmost pines twitching to the west. I made coffee in a pan, cowboy style – a mouthful of grits and a mule-kick to the heart – and as I was thinking of going out, the door banged open.
It was a cheerful pink woman who had hiked up from Kirkland. ‘You can hear the Helm up there,’ she announced breathlessly. ‘It’s horrible, howling and moaning and groaning. I was too scared to go up.’ I was already pulling on my boots, fumbling with the laces. ‘You know why it’s called Cross Fell?’ she continued, taking out her sandwiches. ‘It used to be called Fiends Fell. People thought that demons lived there, so they sent a holy man to bless it. He exorcised the evil spirits, built a cross to drive them away. But I don’t think it worked. It still sounds like it’s cursed.’ I was halfway through the door. I didn’t want to miss them.
It certainly looked like the home of fiends, despite the bright sunshine. Dramatic events were occurring above, in the fathomless workings of the clouds; it seemed that opposing weather systems were engaged in epic warfare. To the north and west a ragged mass scoured the lower slopes of the fell – Grey Scar, Black Doors, Man at Edge, said the place-names on my map – hazing the air with a smudge of rain, leaving shreds of itself behind. Autonomous mists of water vapour travelled in long vertical trails high above the Eden Valley, and grandiose crepuscular rays poured down on the mountains of the Northern Lakes, where Ullswater distantly shone as bright as a mirror. The Helm Bar was not in place, but developments were moving so rapidly it seemed that anything might happen. Scattering Swaledale ewes I hurried on the Pennine Way, up the long, deceptive rise that led towards the summit.
Who was this mysterious holy man? I wondered as I climbed. Unsurprisingly, research suggests that no one really knows; some say a bishop, some say a saint, some say a wandering monk. A local clergyman, the Reverend Robinson of Ousby, wrote in 1709 of the
evil Spirits which are said in former Times to have haunted the Top of this Mountain; and continued their Haunts and Nocturnal Vagaries upon it, until St. Austin, as is said, erected a Cross and built an Altar upon it, whereon he offered the Holy Eucharist, by which he countercharm’d those Hellish Fiends, and broke their Haunts. Since that time it has had the Name of Cross-Fell, and to this day there is a heap of stones which goes by the name of the Altar upon Cross-Fell.
What had the woman from Kirkland meant, talking about howling and moaning? Alone in that empty place I soon found out. Something must have shifted in the air, for the aural landscape suddenly changed: above the buffeting blows of gusts that banged recurrently on my ears, flatlining like microphone distortion, rose an unearthly whispering like dozens of tiny voices. It was a mischievous chattering accompanied by a hissing that suggested branches and spirals, complex patterns being woven in the air, and under it all a low moan, like an animal in distress.
Next week, Nick shares his experience of the Bora, walking the Adriatic coast from north-east Italy through Slovenia and Croatia.
Find out more
Where the Wild Winds Are is published by Nicholas Brealey. It’s available from the publisher, from Amazon , or – much more preferably – from all good bookshops.
In our latest Members’ Post, film-maker James Murray-White captures the energy and inspiration of a busy summer, with his passion forlearning, engaging others, and sharing their stories.
“I pondered all these things, and how people fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other people have to fight for what they meant under another name…..” — William Morris, A Dream of John Ball, 1888
I’m writing after a stimulating Masterclass on Climate Visuals, run at the Thomson Reuters HQ in London by the Oxford-based climate NGO, Climate Outreach.
Visual language & regenerative activism
The event was titled ‘Catalysing a new visual language of climate change’, which is no small task, and by the day’s end the 30 or so participants had run the gamut of emotions examining a wide range of images, discussing them in small group exercises, and hearing from climate photographers and editors about finding and choosing stories and images.
I principally work with moving images these days, though my first creative medium was photography, and this masterclass again brought it home to me the importance of analysing images for human/non-human content, and how a story is told through the visual image.
Telling the story of climate change, with its impact upon the world and its tragic impact upon humans, often the world’s poorest and most vulnerable of society, needs to be done sensitively and with compassion; and the day kept coming back to both the ethics of featuring people caught up in the effects of climate change, and to the importance of understanding how the image and possible caption and accompanying article can find an audience. As journalists and creatives working to create change, we can ofttimes never know how an article, an image, a film or a play will land in the audience’s imagination, or what it may trigger.
Climate Outreach’s Research Director, Adam Corner, opened the day by setting the scene and mapping the landscape, through a diagram of the ecosystem of imagery: its generators and users. The NGO has excelled in its research in this area, outlined in a set of seven principles for climate change communication, from showing ‘real people’, through to ‘understanding your audience’. An ongoing debate, which continued with a colleague on the train home, was the use of polar bears in early and current images to represent the alienating effect through habitat destruction of climate change.
In any day-long course, or masterclass, there is always so much knowledge to share and stories to hear, and this was no exception. Climate Outreach and its dynamic team have been engaging deeply with this medium of knowledge transfer and change and, crucially, are creating the network to shape the future through careful and deliberate image choice and placement to sway opinions and support crucial debate and journalism.
At the other end of a spectrum of group dynamics, I was fortunate to attend a week-long retreat on Dartmoor in July titled ‘Regenerative Activism’, run by a team from the Buddhist Ecodharma centre in Spain.
This was a powerful group-learning experience – we were taken on a deep ride through our experiences as activists of all kinds and given powerful tools to support ourselves, understanding power in our groups and those we may stand against: burnout, privilege, inner criticism and everything that may stand in our way.
The week was at times challenging, but a crucial, urgent, regeneration. I was privileged to be in a group that included climate activists who have risked their lives and gone the extra mile for action and laws on climate change worldwide. Tried and tested exercises gave us all the chance to see and reflect upon our work and the passion that drives activism, testing this from many sides to see and feel both the flaws and the glorious altruism that drive our need for change, whether from hurt, weakness, or something else within. I’d highly recommend the work of the Ecodharma team – they are deeply engaged individuals who use the buddhadharma to enhance and enrich lives where they can.
The retreat was managed and hosted by a wonderful group of skilled meditators who offer retreats ‘freely’ to enable anyone to grow.
Back to my work, motivations and the place I work within, and the City of Cambridge remains a sphere of education, growth, and a catalyst of climate and social justice knowledge.
Pivotal – life in a flat land
It is a place of tradition and growth, but we live on flat land: an entire region of this tiny island that is highly susceptible to floods. The image below is a projected map of East Anglia, with coastal erosion taking away a huge swathe of Fenland from the Wash; cutting through Kings Lynn, Downham Market, Peterborough, the area where poet John Clare explored the treasures of nature, Chatteris, and the prime agricultural lands right up to the gates of the newly-titled ‘Silicon Glen’ that is Cambridgeshire. Only from the Ivory towers of academia will we be able to look out upon this once fertile landscape.
In the city, Pivotal is one initiative trying to bring together town and gown to find solutions and share experiences on climate and social justice, mainly using the prism of the arts. We’ve had lots of successful events and a mini Festival to find ways of engagement.
Pivotal is teaming up with many of the NGOs across the county who also look at issues of environment, community and sustainability, such as Transition Cambridge, Cambridge Carbon Footprint, Fulbourn Forum and other village parish councils and groups, to run a season of films, events and speakers in February 2018: ‘Films for our Future’. Watch this space for a full timetable. We’re finding that teaming up with all the expertise and crossover here, while learning from similar festivals in Totnes and Reading, brings a world of resource and energy into one concentrated space – to make change happen.
On darkness and doing
Over in Reading, I got to see Festival of the Darkness director Jennifer Leach’s performance piece Crow recently: “Whoah”, is all! This is a creation myth that hits you in the stomach; with searing sadness, and an eternity of tension between the figure of Crow and Hollow Man, I felt a personal sense of despair in looking at our humble humanness not felt since seeing a Samuel Beckett play. There are moments of beauty, and real insight: clowning; a chorus that observes, entices and engages. Crow’s mother, who sways through, brought up some grief for the loss of my mother this year, as well as a sadness at the sly dexterity that is at play amongst humans: we can love and laugh, cry and die, and can try to resolve and understand issues, though still we maurade and pillage natural resources as if we own them, and howl at the terrible consequences.
Thinking this thought further, I’m delighted to share that following our highly successful provocation at the life-changing TippingPoint Doing Nothing is Not an Option conference in Warwick last year, where so many of these connections were made and interlink across culture and activism, stage designer Andrea Carr and I have been talking about reprising our Doing Nothing is Sometimes an Option event – giving participants an opportunity to dump all their baggage at the door and enter a space of rest, mindful exploration and tuning in to sensory being. Participants at DNNO might well remember the glorious prism that showed up for us. Watch this space for more!
During a filming project recently, I visited the Norfolk village of Happisburgh, which has suffered the most extreme coastal erosion of our entire island, and successive governments ‘giving up’ on their efforts to protect the land from the violent surges. After an hour of filming in the iconic lighthouse, as the volunteer warden locked the door and I packed up cameras, I asked him “So what’s your take on the erosion here?” He pointed to the field we stood beside, and angrily responded “This was entirely flooded just three years ago. The next time the sea will wash into the Broads and contaminate that. These houses won’t be here. This lighthouse will be beaming its light as an island in the sea.”
This close-up and personal engagement with the reality of change, in the midst of doing other things, reinforces for me the need to keep making connections, writing and filming these issues, finding images and creating footage to highlight all the stories of our time. I went from this conversation to the church, and met a church warden who had moved into the village some seven years ago, in full knowledge and sight of the potent destruction of the sea defences, some of the cliffs and some of the property in the community. For her, faith and church involvement sustains.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” – Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light, 1988
In the theme of spiritual inquiry and the buddhist practice of cultivating bodhicitta, I dedicate this writing to all those affected by climate change over the past few months, in the USA, India, and worldwide. May all beings find peace.
Find out more
Climate Outreach provide a ‘Climate Visuals’ portal, and you can read another blog about their Climate Visual masterclass.
Questioning what sustains? Space for creative thinking..."James' post ends with an image of a stranded lighthouse and a note on faith. For you, what sustains your engagement with 'the reality of change, in the midst of doing other things'?"Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form or write a response on your own blog and send a link!
Nick Hunt has walked and written across much of Europe. His first book, ‘Walking the Woods and the Water’ (2014) was a finalist for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year. Between 2015 and 2016, Nick spent six months walking the invisible pathways of four of Europe’s named winds – the Helm, the Bora, the Foehn and the Mistral – to discover how they affect the landscapes, people and cultures through which they blow. To coincide with the launch of his book telling the story of these wind-walks through the continent, ‘Where the Wild Winds Are’, I’m delighted to begin a special set of weekly posts: five extracts he has hand-picked for ClimateCultures. This first piece is from the book’s introduction.
The wind almost blew me away for the first time in 1987, when the Great Storm hit the British Isles. I was six years old. It was on the mountainside of Ynys Enlli, the holy island off the coast of North Wales, where my mother took me every year to volunteer for the local trust and hear the seals sing at night. Now the storm had stranded us there, for the weekly boat was cancelled. There was no shop on the island, and food supplies were running low; one of my most vivid memories is my mother, by the glow of a paraffin lamp, inexpertly skinning a rabbit the farmer had shot for stew. I remember hugging the cottage wall on trips to the outhouse in the yard, and my fear of slates zipping off the roof to brain me if I ventured far. But what I remember above all else is standing on the mountainside and the wind filling the coat I was wearing – many sizes too large for me – and my feet actually leaving the ground before my mother grabbed my legs and dragged me back to earth. We laughed about it afterwards. It became one of those stories. Could it have actually blown me away, across the foam-flecked Irish Sea? I’m not sure, but for years part of me secretly wished it had, and I imagined being borne through the sky to Ireland, France, America, Iceland, the Arctic Circle or any of the other wonderful places waiting in the world. I’d only travelled a foot off the ground. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling slightly blessed.
Despite being moved by the wind in this way I did not grow up to be a glider pilot, a windsurfer, a paraglider or a wind turbine engineer. My attempts with kites mostly ended in dismal tangles of string. I did not become a meteorologist, one who understands weather as a science, as I’m sure this book will make only too clear. What I did become, however, was someone with an urge to travel, and especially to travel by walking, which allows you to follow paths not dictated by road or rail, paths not marked on any map, or to follow no path at all; to wander and to wonder as freely as your feet can take you. But every journey has a logic, even if it’s an invisible one. All travelling, I came to understand, is an act of following something, whether a coastline, an ancient migration, a trade route, a border or someone else’s footsteps. Scanning the travel section of a bookshop, it appeared that everything had been followed that it was possible to follow. There seemed to be no trails left that hadn’t been traversed.
And then one day I saw a map with paths I hadn’t seen before. It was a map of Europe transfigured by coloured lines, marauding arrows like troop advances that ploughed across borders, over land and sea, connecting regions and cultures that seemed quite separate in my mind: Latin with Slavic, continental with coastal, North African with southern European. These mysterious corridors had names every bit as tantalising as the Silk Road or the Camino de Santiago: the Mistral, the Tramontana, the Foehn, the Sirocco, the Bora. There was even one in the north of England, more brusquely named the Helm. The map showed the routes of local winds, which blow with tremendous force at specific times of year – normally at the transitions between seasons, such as when winter turns to spring – and, I was intrigued to discover, they were said to influence everything from architecture to psychology. The fact these invisible powers had names, rather than simply compass directions that described where they were from, gave them a sense of majesty, even of personality. They sounded like characters I could meet. Those swooping, plunging arrows suggested routes I might follow, trails that had not been walked before. As soon as I saw that map I knew: I would follow the winds.
Next week, Nick describes his encounter with the Helm, England’s wild wind, in the landscape of the North Pennines.
Find out more
Where the Wild Winds Are is published by Nicholas Brealey. It’s available from the publisher, from Amazon , or – much more preferably – from all good bookshops.
The second in a series on ideas explored in ‘Anticipatory history’, this post looks at four of the entries in the book, and other illustrations of how language reveals and shapes the way we understand and respond to environmental and climate change: ‘The Stories We Live By’.
In my introductory review I described Anticipatory history as a “very partial glossary”, both in the sense of exploring only some of the many words or phrases that might appear in any conversation on environmental and landscape change and in the more important one that the different professionals, academics, artists, politicians or other people engaged in such a discussion would produce a different account of each particular term’s ‘meaning’. The book contains 50 short entries drafted by 19 members of the Anticipatory History Research Network. It could have contained another 50 or more, from many other voices. This acknowledged partiality is part of the value of such a book.
Words – both everyday language and technical vocabulary – have power to reassure or disturb, confirm our beliefs or unsettle them, bringing a reinforcement or a shift in perspective. I recently took part in an environmental humanities Summer School at Bath Spa University, organised by the Association of Commonwealth Universities. It was an excellent programme of talks, group work and site visits, with 45 researchers and students from 11 countries, as well as a team of academics from Bath Spa itself. On our first full day together, and in wonderful summer weather, we gathered on the Newton Park Campus for a guided tour of this historic site, which the university leases from the Duchy of Cornwall: an 18th century listed country house with the remains of a 14th century castle, set in acres landscaped by Capability Brown. It was as beautiful as you would expect from an aristocratic estate now owned by royalty and cared for by a higher education institution rightly proud of their location and heritage. Both beautiful and, as our guide explained in his opening remarks, “a highly polluted post-industrial landscape.”
Without rehearsing the full history of the overgrazed monoculture grassland, agricultural runoff-silted lake and introduced non-native woodland species-rich habitat that we were introduced in this idyllic landscape, it’s fair to say that everyone’s perception of what we were walking through was radically transformed by these remarks. It was at the same time attractive, peaceful and pristine in an archetypical English way, and the product of feudal clearance, colonial adventurism and agri-industrial overexploitation. It set the tone for the week ahead and our trips to Avebury, Avalon Marshes and the Roman Baths in the city.
In Erosion, one of the entries in Anticipatory history, Phil Dyke (the National Trust’s Coast and Marine Advisor) talks about the physical consequences of wave energy on soft coasts. Salt marshes, sand dunes, cliffs and shingle all retreat at different rates depending on geology and the power of waves and currents which sweep away materials, often depositing them on another stretch of coast. This erosion accelerates as wave energy increases, as in the more intense storms and higher seas of a warming climate. But erosion can be cultural too, and not all wearing away is a loss. An unexpected turn of phrase, transporting familiar expressions such as ‘polluted’ or ‘post-industrial’ from their familiar settings (wastelands and urban dereliction) to ones we’ve never associated them with before (elegant parks) can enhance our understanding of both environmental and cultural processes, creating new meaning by the very act of destabilising the old one. “We talk often of values being eroded,” Dyke reminds us, “but as with physical erosion, is it always loss? Or do we really mean change? A change of attitude, a change in our view of the world.”
Physical and cultural change go hand in hand – or foot in footstep – collapsing and expanding different scales of time and space in a dialogue where experience and imagination inform each other:
Erosion and retreating shorelines reveal features from the historic environment. There is a greater emphasis now being placed on recording these features and understanding the stories these glimpses of the past can tell before they are lost to the sea. Archaeologists are increasingly comfortable with this approach. Erosion may cause the loss of significant features in the historic environment but it can also reveal new significance like the Formby footprints … revealed by the eroding sand dunes and enabling us to see human footprints captured in soft sediments some 4,500 years ago before the dunes were deposited on top.
– Phil Dyke, Erosion
Writer and sound recordist Tim Dee also addresses both the physical and mental in relation to how we see and respond to change. In Managed realignment he shifts the foreground, taking his cue from the technology of optical magnification; “If you read Ted Hughes’ bird poems you can tell he used binoculars. His thrushes are terrifying partly because he has been able to watch them close up.” He considers the technology of accommodating changes on our coast, of moving or removing barriers against the sea.
It will alter how things seem as well as how they are, how they live in the mind as well as how they are felt underfoot … The dynamism of silt and the energy of water are great and humbling teachers. The terminology might stink – letting go, the nonce term for sacking, is a near neighbour – but the possibilities of life without barricades is revolutionary.
– Tim Dee, Managed realignment
As an island nation, it’s perhaps unsurprising that our relationship with coastal change is one arena for conflicting views and – appropriately – warlike language of ‘defence’, ‘attack’, ‘retreat’. Geographer Stephen Trudgill charts some of the phrases in local and media discussions of how to respond to the erosion of the shingle bank – and the road it carries – at Slapton in Devon:
In letters to the local press, such terms as ‘damage’ were used, and the sea was described as ‘a powerful enemy’ … The scientific arguments were relatively simple: beaches do move and erode. However, the ‘letting nature take its course’ stance provoked further anger. ‘Environmentalists’ … were represented as ‘Let the sea win’ (Herald Express, 5 February 2001). The South Hams Gazette ran a letters page (16 February 2001) where ‘managed retreat’ was reviled as ‘ludicrous’, ‘straight out of the Polytechnic guidebook’ and ‘political claptrap’ … Initially, there emerged a very clear local view of what might be called ‘mastery over nature’.
– Stephen Trudgill, You can’t resist the sea
Such language reveals the evaluations that people make, which the online ecolinguistics course The Stories We Live By defines “to mean stories in people’s minds about whether a particular area of life is good or bad.” Our personal evaluations can involve weighing up evidence for and against a course of action – whether to ‘defend against’ or ‘work with’ change – as well as personal associations in our memories, for example, of family holidays on a favourite beach now threatened by rapid alteration.
When these stories are widespread across a culture then they are cultural evaluations – stories about what is good or bad that have become conventional … Once cultural evaluations become established there is a danger that the reason why certain things are considered positive and others negative is forgotten. It becomes habitual … [However,] although cultural evaluations are pervasive, they are not universal, and are constantly in a struggle with alternative evaluations.
– Arran Stibbe, The Stories We Live By, Part 5: Evaluations
Language, associations, perspectives and positions – all can shift, eroding and accreting like soft coastlines, carried between people and communities through the processes of discourse. Both Anticipatory history and The Stories We Live By offer insights into how these cultural shifts can operate and are facilitated or resisted over different timescales and in different settings. On one scale – our own – we might tend to see permanence; or if it’s no longer there to be seen, to imagine and desire it. On other scales, the natural world reveals transience and cycles.
The Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen is an online project which also brings voices and vocabularies to bear on the predicaments of global change and local experience. Cultural anthropologist Elizabeth Reddy produced the entry on Stability – the other side of the coin from erosion, at least within certain arbitrary timescales. Rather than coastal change in Britain, she’s drawing on earthquakes in the middle of the United States “far from its most famous active faults”: the tremors caused by fracking for fossil fuels – the Anthropocene localised and globalised.
The Anthropocene and its urgent, frightening changes, like the quakes of increasing size and frequency shaking Oklahoma, become particularly clear when contrasted with stability. Stability can be used to bound and define new upheavals. Stability, in this sense, is a matter of conditions, previously reliable, against which new and dangerous ones might be contrasted. But marking these changes and communicating about them are not neutral acts, particularly when evidence, tools, and expertise needed to do so are subject to public, legal, and academic contests and unstable in their own ways.
– Elizabeth Reddy, Stability
Over longer timescales – industrial as well as geological – Oklahoma’s geology has been far from stable: which is not an argument for introducing and compounding anthropogenic instabilities, but does suggest the value of expanding what we understand by ‘stability’ and ‘erosion’, ‘defence’ and ‘managed realignment.’ As Reddy continues:
Anthropogenic or otherwise, earthquakes are always already part of the earth’s thermodynamic system. In a very immediate way, imagining them as part of a stable ecology, once in balance and now out of whack, both is and is not accurate. As with many complex systems, the sheer scale on which seismicity unfolds can limit our ability to characterize recent changes or describe them clearly, and the ways that we conceptualize them and address their urgency have histories and politics.
Writer George Monbiot recently called for help in finding new words to describe what we mean when we say ‘environment’, which is “an empty word that creates no pictures in the mind.” Reminding me of the managed realignment of my view of Newton Park, he says:
I still see ecologists referring to “improved” pasture, meaning land from which all life has been erased other than a couple of plant species favoured for grazing or silage. We need a new vocabulary … Wild animals and plants are described as “resources” or “stocks”, as if they belong to us and their role is to serve us: a notion disastrously extended by the term ‘ecosystem services’ … By framing the living world in this way, we bury the issues that money cannot measure. In England and Wales, according to a parliamentary report, the loss of soil “costs around £1bn per year”. When we read such statements, we absorb the implicit suggestion that this loss could be redeemed by money. But the aggregate of £1bn lost this year, £1bn lost next year and so on is not a certain number of billions. It is the end of civilisation.
– George Monbiot, Forget ‘the environment’: we need new words to convey life’s wonders
Ecolinguistics, as explored in The Stories We Live By, helps us to detect and acknowledge what geographer Gareth Hoskins, another Anticipatory history contributor, refers to as “narrative swirls”. Hoskins names this essential equipment Story-radar:
“a device to detect those narrative swirls. Its cultural antennae recognise the hints, gestures, and tropes of unspoken, overarching story-lines, and make visible their hidden morals and logics … Stories contain within them a plotted sequence in which a tension is ultimately resolved. They are satisfying and attractive and compelling precisely because they make sense.”
– Gareth Hoskins, Story-radar
Perhaps if we could adjust our sense of time at will, we’d detect the swirls in the energies shaping and reshaping the world, the flux of stability and change. Such a ‘reality-radar’ might help us combat our own tendencies to press for the preservation of our ‘now’, to present the world as if coated in a “thin glaze of aspic [as] was sometimes used to present food for display.” Geographer Caitlin DeSilvey reminds us in Aspic that foodstuffs set in this jelly, derived from gelatine from animal bones, “still decay, just more slowly”:
The words ‘conservation’ and ‘preservation’, on the face of it so neutral and straightforward … are projected over unpredictable and often unruly objects and environments, in an attempt to ‘manage’ a way to meaning. In this way, ‘conservation’ and ‘preservation’ perform a function not dissimilar to that of the aspic we began with, setting a mould (albeit a quivering, translucent one) around mutable and ephemeral material worlds.
– Caitlin Desilvey, Aspic
The Bureau of Linguistical Reality is another online glossary – mostly offering new words sent in by participants. Possibly not the sort of language that George Monbiot is looking for, its ideas do nevertheless speak to real experiences and emotions, and also to story-radar-like abilities. Borrowing from Kurt Vonnegut’s classic anti-war, memoir-based science fiction classic Slaughterhouse Five, the entry from artist Jenny Odell suggests Tralfamidorification as the perception of the world simultaneously on all past, present and future timescales – as experienced by Vonnegut’s aliens from Tralfamadore.
Tralfamidorification is a disorientating experience where a discrete object becomes a node on a network. Those who experience tralfamidorification may walk through the world seeing a “beach towel” one moment and then experience briefly the “beach towel” opening up into a black hole of information regarding the production line for the materials, the factory they were assembled on, the human suffering in creating these objects, the resources extracted, the shipping containers they were carried to and fro in, etcetera – moments later the experiencer of tralfamidorification may feel the “black hole” close and they return to the present moment and the object or “beach towel” before them.”
– Jenny Odell, Tralfamidorification
And if not “beach towel”‘ why not “beach”? Tralfamidorification maybe approaches the reality-radar I’m imagining. As well as awakening us to the histories and futures of our own material interventions within the world, a ‘Tralfamidoriscope’ could also bring an awareness of the slow and quick flows and loops of matter and energy that make the world.
Until then, we will have to rely on language and imagination, creative glossaries and rooted experience. “So it goes,” as Vonnegut’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, constantly reminds us.
Find out more
Aspic (Caitlin DeSilvey), Erosion (Phil Dyke), Managed realignment (Tim Dee) and Story-radar (Gareth Hoskins) appear in Anticipatory history (2011), edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor and Colin Sackett, published by Uniform Books.
Tralfamidorification by Jenny Odell appears at the Bureau of Linguistical Reality, “a public participatory artwork by Heidi Quante and Alicia Escott focused on creating new language as an innovative way to better understand our rapidly changing world due to manmade climate change and other Anthropocenic events.”
Stephen Trudgill’s paper ‘You can’t resist the sea’: evolving attitudes and responses to coastal erosion at Slapton, South Devon, was published in Geography, the Journal of the Geographical Association (Spring 2009) and is available from his Researchgate page.
You can read about the prehistoric Formby Footprints at the site created by the late Gordon Roberts.
Questioning old senses? Space for creative thinking...
"Don't fancy donning your tralfamidoriscope headset with enhanced story-radar earbuds? What technology or ability would you invent - or do you already possess - to reveal the whirls and flows that will help us navigate the Anthropocene?"
Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.
Our latest Members’ post comes from artist Oliver Raymond-Barker, who I met at art.earth’s In Other Tongues conference in June. Here, he shares the talk he gave there, which I was keen to feature on ClimateCultures.
Stones that whisper, stones that dance, that play on pipe or fiddle, that tremble at cock-crow, that eat and drink, stones that march as an army – these unhewn slabs of granite hold the secret of the country’s inner life.
– Ithell Colquhoun, The Living Stones.
As a climber I have the visceral knowledge that stone is alive. Minutes, hours, days and years spent on rock have given me an opportunity to listen to its song. It crashes and rumbles, creaks and groans, whistles and hums. However, it lives and speaks to us on another level – a subtle yet altogether more powerful pitch – a language beyond tongues.
This animist language is what I am here to explore with you today – through looking at a range of literary references but also through an account of my own personal experience, as ultimately this is the only knowledge I feel I can truly trust.
Language and Technology
Curiously, for a symposium and a talk that is centred around communication in other tongues, I would like to start by talking about language! However, I feel it necessary to do this in order to trace a path to our current position and to give context.
I begin with some words by Narendra, an Indian writer who has spent many years living with and writing about the Adivasi people of Bastar in India. The quote is taken from a piece of writing entitled ‘The Language of Issues’. In it Narendra attempts to describe to his friend Nureti (an Adivasi local) the modern language of climate change; i.e. in terms of carbon emissions, carbon footprints, changing crop patterns etc. This is the response he receives from Nureti:
“Do not spread falsehood, it shortens the life of the earth. When our gods and goddesses were living they had vitality to shape the world and do good things for us. Now they are stones. The patient stone, however, speaks if we heed it speak. What you say are your words. Your word has taken away the vitality and the promise; but like our gods it is not living either. Now vitality and promise have left your living word too.”
Nureti’s words highlight the gaping chasm that has developed between older, so called ‘primitive’ understandings of the world and our own separatist world view. Nureti recognises the power of words and how their repetition can perpetuate a way of being that has no future.
Listening to a recent talk by the artist Sean Lynch, I realised how far we have travelled down this path towards a language of ‘malady and impairment’ (quoting Narendra again). Lynch has been researching mining in Cornwall as part of an upcoming commission. Of particular interest to him was the language employed by the mining industry; what he called a kind of ‘corporate mono-lingualism’. This modern day lexicon is used to legitimise the flagrant taking of profit from the earth whilst at the same time distancing us from the land that is being worked. One such term the industry uses is ‘overburden’, which generally refers to the surplus material that lies above an area of ground suitable for economic exploitation. For the industry this is a purely technical term to describe waste material and it makes no reference to any cultural or environmental loss that may be incurred.
The antithesis to this inanimate mode of perception can be found in Alan Garner’s book Strandloper. Based on the true story of William Buckley, an 18th century man from rural England, the novel charts his journey from England to Australia, whence he is banished for being involved in Shick-Shack day – an ancient fertility ritual. After wandering in Australia for more than a year he is adopted by a group of Aborigines who believe him to be Murrangurk, a great hero of their people. In the course of the book he is sent by his adopted people to talk with another tribe because of their need for stone. Billi-billeri, the chief of the tribe responds to his request thus:
“If at once all the world comes for axes,” said Billi-billeri, “they will eat until Bomjinna is no more, and the Wurunjerri-baluk, the Kurnaje-berring, the Boi-berrit are no more, and the land will die in its Dreaming. What will it matter then if the sky should fall? Answer my dream.”
Murrangurk cannot answer this dream (statement) by the chief. He knows the truth that when the mountain (Bomjinna) dies, the people will also die. The two are so inextricably linked through ritual, story and experience that it prohibits the aggressive exploitation of the stone. For the tribe there is no dichotomy between inner and outer worlds, all is unity and this is explained through their stories and dreams.
Returning to our contemporary use of language I would like to take a closer look at a word used earlier in this talk: environment. A frequently used term, I feel it be problematic and indicative of our move away from a unified whole. According to the Collins dictionary it can be defined as: the air, water, minerals, organisms, and all other external factors surrounding and affecting a given organism at any time. The issue here is once again the reinforcing of a separatist paradigm, I return to Narendra’s essay to further illustrate this point:
‘….it was probably in the 1970’s that language began taking its strident turns. Like capital, language too began to be modulated by the few. As an instance, when the word environment arrived sometime in the 80’s, it was difficult to explain to my father. He was an educated man….. Issues have replaced languages; they have guile and deception.’
Moving on from language I would also like to mention technology and its role in our anthropocentric understanding of the world. In her book The Re-enchantment of Art, Suzi Gablik makes the case that, “Since the enlightenment…our view of what is real has been organised around the hegemony of a technological and materialist world view.”
Instead of our actions being guided by daily, physical perceptions and experiences we are allowing ourselves to be driven by technology and progress, a rationale that is quantifiable and therefore seen to be more valid. Gone is the belief in story and myth as a way of being. However I am no Luddite! It would be rash to reject the opportunities that modern technology provides. The question therefore is – How do we reconcile these two worlds that seem so at odds? I guess that is one of the key reasons we are all here today.
Speaking from personal experience I also know that technology can be a useful tool in enabling haptic understanding. Climber Greg Child talks about this potential in his article Coast to Coast on The Granite Slasher:
‘A surfer planing down a wave or a biker leaning into a fast corner isn’t thinking of board dimensions or mechanics.They’re in there for the ride. Our intellect has given us technology, which has given us a specific variety of devices suited to escapism, which in turn stimulate our emotions. A full circle where man has used his intellect to stimulate that intellect. Technology is the conveyance to put one in these distant situations. On arrival the metaphysical becomes as apparent as the physical, and ideas, feelings, surroundings and events merge into a total experience that leaves one slashing for words.’
Over the years I have been drawn to the kind of extreme situations that Child describes. Technology, in the form of a climbing rope or surfboard for example, has often been the key to some of my most vital moments. Continued exposure to mountains and rockfaces, prolonged immersion in lakes, rivers and oceans; these elements have eroded some of the harsh corners of my intellect, allowing me the time and space to exist and interact in a different way.
It is one of these experiences that I would now like to relate to you.
I had never climbed on slate before. In fact this was one of my first climbs since arriving in North Wales. I had never climbed with Kenny before either – a hard, compact and quiet man, yet with a humour that glinted at you from under the surface. He gunned the small car down the pass, taking the sharp corners in a competent yet terrifying fashion. I craned my head up at the mythical faces – Dinas Mot, Dinas Cromlech, Clogwyn y Grochan – the fast beating heart of Welsh rock climbing. My palms began to sweat. Llanberis was past us in a beat – we wound our way up through the grey faced villages of Deiniolen and Dinorwig, rolling to a stop at the Bus Stop quarry, the gateway to the slate. Packs on, ropes slung across our shoulders like sleeping serpents we began the walk into the quarries, the old workings to our left and right greened over with pioneer species such as silver birch, the slate walls enveloped in moss and lichen, the atmosphere intimate and inviting. We emerged by the derelict cutting sheds and the true scale of the quarries imposed itself. Half of the mountain has been gouged away; a giant bite from a mythical creature. Yet on closer inspection I began to see the intricate madness of this hole in the hill – inclines, engine houses, levels…..my eye slowly panning across the years of toil and ingenuity that built this monument.
We were heading for the heart of the quarry – dubbed California by climbers. Access to this inner sanctum of the slate is gained by skirting the side of Dali’s Hole, so named because of the surreal dead trees that appear from the blue lagoon in periods of dry weather. On the other side of Dali’s Hole lies a black tunnel entrance through which we must walk to reach California. The floor was littered with fragments of slate that chattered and chimed under our feet – a noise synonymous with climbing on the slate. Emerging from the darkness of the tunnel into the light of the quarry amplified the moment of wonder and awe: a heavy silence; tremendous grey blue walls heaving out of the shale all around us. Yet after a moment spent absorbing this eerie grandeur, I realised there was after all a soundtrack to this space: the dripping of water, the chink of sliding slate and beneath it all a deep hum; the hydroelectric plant that lives in the mountain; the sonic combination is unlike any other I have experienced.
The route we had come to climb goes by the name of Central Sadness. A striking line that dominates the main wall – ascending over 200ft to the scree above. Kenny was to lead both pitches, of which I was glad – this climb was way beyond my capabilities. Without any fuss or pleasantries Kenny raced up the first pitch, dispensing it with an aplomb verging on disdain such was his efficiency. Soon I was forcing my way up the steep blank wall towards his belay – thankful of the rope above – wondering how he’d managed the protection-less wall and strenuous, bold climbing. On reaching Kenny, there was a quick exchange of gear, a mad grin from him; and he was away again, surging up the beautiful, silver wall above.
It is here that I reach the crux of my story. Kenny reached the top and I stepped out onto the head wall of the climb. Illuminated by the evening sun and with the tough first pitch out of the way, my body relaxed into its familiar rhythms and I began to pay attention to the rock…
I am climbing a perfect finger crack that cleaves the clean face of Slate like a bolt of lightning, the effort involved is intense yet somehow effortless, the rock seeming to envelop my hands. I feel a confluence of complex emotions: a fluidity and fire courses from the rock into my body, I feel as if bones and rock may fuse and become one. There is no space in my mind for thought only this stone alongside me; and movement, upwards, outwards, inwards. I am in direct contact with 500 million years of alchemy and I know in that moment, that this rock is not a dull, lifeless inanimate material. It has a life, buried far beyond our logical everyday comprehension but well within the ken of our veiled, intuitive selves.
The way forward
For me the fact that there is a world beyond our normal modes of communication is a given – it is non negotiable. I know this because I have felt it. Not through thought or intellect but with my whole being. How therefore do we use this knowledge of unity to engender a better world for ourselves, those around us and dare I say it the ‘environment’?
I can only really answer this with any level of accuracy and conviction from a personal standpoint. I need to spend more time outside, not just while ‘doing’ extreme sports, but in all aspects of my life. Working, cooking, eating, sleeping and waking – it is only through being immersed in the outside world in my daily activity that I will gain more knowledge and vision. It is that simple for me. That is not to say I won’t read books or watch films; have long conversations and arguments; use my smartphone or digital camera. I have a family and am too embroiled in the intricacies of modern life to become an ascetic – yet we all have a choice on how to spend our time and energy. We can do both – it takes control, willpower and commitment but I believe it is possible to reconcile the old world and the new – indeed perhaps we can take a step forward, creating untold stories and new possibilities for ourselves.
On a national and global scale this seems a massively complex question. As I write this we are fast approaching a vote that will influence the future of this country. As I read this I imagine we will know the answer to who has won that vote!* We all have our political hopes and nightmares – without meaning to be cynical, will the outcome make any difference? Governments come and go, policies change, agreements are ratified then cancelled….I’m not proposing that we should not vote and that we should not fight – we must. Yet we should also focus on that which feeds us as individuals and remember the timescales implicit in this world in which we live. By engaging with deep time and the well spring of energy that exists therein I hope we will find ways to make this world of ours work.
I feel I know what I must do. But having the courage and conviction to fulfil these actions is tough when living in a society that – on the surface at least – seems opposed to alternative ways of being, particularly when working from a logical, rational viewpoint. But therein lies the key for me. I will not be logical. I will not be rational. I will not be bound by the self-imposed tenets of our language and technology. I will find my own truth. Within and without. That knowledge will be accrued over long periods of time: spent listening, feeling and then acting. I will live as the animal that I am; stripping away layers of culture and convention that occlude any real sense of self.
I know what I must do.
He felt the world was telling him to stop looking, for then he would see beyond; to stop thinking, for then he would comprehend; to stop trying to make sense of things, for then he would find the truest grace. – Ben Okri, Astonishing the Gods.
* Oliver was speaking the day after the UK’s 2017 General Election.
Find out more
Greg Child‘s essay, Coast to Coast on The Granite Slasher (1983), appears in Mirrors in the Cliffs (edited by Jim Perrin) published by Diadem (out of print). It is also available in Mixed Emotions: Mountaineering Writings of Greg Child (1993), published by Mountaineers Books.
The passage by Ithell Colquhoun is from his book (1957), The Living Stones, published by Peter Owen.
Alan Garner‘s book (1996), Strandloper, originally published by Harvill Press, is available from Penguin.
Suzi Gablik‘s book (1991), The Reenchantment of Art, was published by Thames & Hudson (out of print).
Narendra‘s essay (2013), Dispatches from Basta, is published in Dark Mountain Issue 4.
The passage by Ben Okri is from his book (1996), Astonishing the Gods, as originally published by Phoenix, and is available from Head of Zeus.
Questioning technology? Space for creative thinking..."Picking up on Suzi Gablik's observation, how do you feel your own experience of technology disrupts your view of what is real? How, instead, can technology act as your 'conveyance to ... distant situations' and direct experience, as Greg Child suggests?"Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.
Our latest Members’ Post comes from writer Justina Hart, one of five winners of commissions from Weatherfronts 2016. All the commissions from that and the 2014 event have now been brought together in a combined anthology, available as a free download from Cambria Books. In the first of two posts, Justina introduces how she collaborated with palaeo-scientists at Durham University – one of the Weatherfronts partners – and how the research she conducted with their help fed into the creative process.
A long time ago (approximately 9,000 to 9,500 years), a vast, low-lying and once-Edenic landmass off the east coast of England, known as Doggerland, connected Britain to mainland Europe. My Weatherfronts project was a long poem called Doggerland Rising, about a tribe forced to leave their homeland as the North Sea rose to swallow the last remaining island, Dogger Island.
Doggerland first came to the world’s attention when, in 1931, a commercial fishing vessel hauled in its nets off the East Anglian coast and discovered a Mesolithic antler harpoon inside. It wasn’t until the 1990s though that archaeologists began viewing marine environments and submerged forests as once inhabited landscapes. Scientific research into these landscapes has intensified since, concentrated at universities including Exeter and Birmingham.
This post is about how I collaborated with palaeo-scientists at one of Weatherfronts’ commissioning partners, Durham University, and how the research I conducted with their help fed into my creative process. It’s a case study with poetic leeway, which I hope might help or inspire others.
Weatherfronts and early ideas – Dogger what?
I’d never heard of Doggerland until I sat next to palaeo-scientist Dr Louise Callard at dinner at the Weatherfronts conference at Free Word in London in May 2016. The conference, the second in the Weatherfronts series, brought climate change writers/artists and scientists together. Louise was super enthusiastic about her summers spent aboard a big ship drilling boreholes into the seabeds off Britain and Ireland – she and her colleagues are working on the BRITICE-CHRONO project to map the last glacial maximum. A young woman’s working life so far removed from my own: I was intrigued to learn more.
As the wine flowed, Louise moved on to ancient people who might have inhabited these seas, and touched on lost lands. She mentioned Doggerland. The word ‘Dogger’ rang a faint bell from the shipping forecast, which holds a special place in the imagination for many of us.
I left dinner, my head filled with images of our ancient ancestors who might have drowned off England’s east coast, or survived submergence by trudging over shallow seas at low tide. In my mind’s eye I saw women, children and bearded men dressed in furs footslogging across a desolate, sea-whipped landscape. This vision resembled a cross between Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev and the film of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I swapped the next session I’d booked and hotfooted it to Louise and Alison Cook’s workshop, Understanding the Ice.
Writing the proposal – what have I taken on?
My aim was to write a sequence of four to six poems ‘told in the voices of the ancient people of Doggerland as they witness and respond to rapid climate change’. My idea coalesced on the train on the way home. I would set it at the last possible point people could have realistically inhabited Dogger Island – without needing to grow wings or fins or build better boats. This would relate to the current global situation where people are experiencing climate change inter-generationally and even in individual lifetimes.
To fill in the knowledge gaps in my proposal, I did some Googling. The links focused on populist myths and fears – apocalyptic scenarios that would be ripe for Hollywood treatment: ‘Doggerlanders decimated by tsunami’ (a reference to the Storegga slide tsunami which hit Doggerland around 8,000 years ago); ‘Was Doggerland the real Atlantis?’. To write the poem, I was going to require proper help with research.
To win a commission, writers had to include details of support or further information they might require, such as ‘contact with one or more of the speakers at the event’. Spending a weekend surrounded by scientists was a first for me and I was excited. I also wanted to write a poem that would not, perhaps could not, exist without Weatherfronts or the input that scientists might provide. So I said that I wanted to work with the Durham University Geography Department scientists, some of whom I’d met at Weatherfronts.
But would the scientists, who spend their working lives weighing up data, look askance at the idea of collaborating with a poet who, on some level, would be making things up? Instead of assessing the amount of foraminifera in ancient mud, say, or counting grains of ancient pollen, would they baulk at using their hard-won research to make imaginative jumps?
Making the links – the muddle of ancient time
I heard that I’d won one of the commissions on the day the Brexit referendum news broke. It struck me as spooky since this project was about the moment that Britain broke physically from mainland Europe in around 8,500 BP (‘before the present’).
Over the summer I emailed the Durham scientists I’d met at Weatherfronts and did a Skype interview with Professor Harriet Bulkeley. Not much happened while most of them were doing 10-hour shifts onboard ship in the middle of the sea. “I’m heading offshore again,” Louise emailed, “to spend 52 days in front of some glaciers in NE Greenland. We will be ~80º N and therefore will have very limited communication with the world.” Right. I was spending the summer on my narrowboat in a marina in Lichfield, Staffs.
Before she went, Louise emailed some photographs of a small stretch of exposed ancient forest in Druridge Bay, Northumberland, as visual inspiration. “When sea levels began to rise this forest was drowned and buried by sand,” she wrote. “It occurred around 6,000 to 8,000 thousand years ago, before which land was possibly connected to Doggerbank when the sea level was lower. Some fortuitous rough weather has removed the overlying sand to reveal this forest. Apparently you can see footprints in it, but I’m not sure.” The visuals set the poetic cogs whirring, although I couldn’t make out the ancient footprints either.
Durham University also sent me a first paper to provide context: Mark White’s Things to do in Doggerland when you’re dead, which focused on Neanderthals in Britain. The paper was so brilliant that I became fixated for a week or two, not realising that it was set in the Palaeolithic, many tens of thousands years earlier. I got carried away for a brief moment with the idea of writing dramatic monologues in the voice of Neanderthals.
I had fun Googling background information for poems that I wasn’t destined to write: ‘Did Neanderthals have names?’, ‘Did Neanderthals speak and use language?’ It was silly season and my mind threw up numerous Neanderthal-inspired poems and jokes. How many Neanderthals does it take to change a lightbulb? Why did the Neanderthal cross the road? The mistake shows that linking up with scientists and asking those basic contextual questions can be vital. Also, if you’re dabbling in prehistory, check your dates first.
Here’s a fragment in which I imagined Neanderthals experiencing rising sea levels:
We have our own sounds for water, run,higher ground, drowning –but the same sounds as you for fear …
A first poem – bedding down with Mesolithic tribes
Things improved once I knew that I’d be writing about people because this would give the sequence more scope and variety. My poem would be set firmly in the Middle Stone Age period, the Mesolithic.
Our Mesolithic ancestors were surprisingly advanced. Settled in encampments, they had a wide range of skills and led a full, rich life with, in Doggerland’s heyday, a balanced diet of meat, fish, fruit, nuts and seeds. The temperature would also have been slightly warmer than in today’s Britain.
Before I’d conducted any formal interviews with the scientists, I wrote a first complete poem. It arrived, excitingly enough, almost fully formed.
This poem is a lament in the voice of a young woman. The sea having claimed her land and drowned her people, she is grieving for the fact that she won’t be able to have children. At the end, she walks into the sea, embracing the water as having life. She claims as her own the animated, dancing sea, as if all nature springs from her feminine life force. Doggerland – and climate change writing – had started to become a canvas for exploring personal material which I had resisted writing about in other, perhaps more obvious, ways. Here is a fragment from the last verse of an early draft of the poem:
The waves feel cold but they’re soft toolike fur. This new world moves, is alive– each tear, each sea drop is alive.Look, see all my babies dance!
This poem did not ultimately fit into the final sequence. But after finishing the Weatherfronts commission, I turned it into a song with lyrics and a melody, and then recorded it in a professional studio. It became my first recorded song.
Face-to-face with scientists – clarity at last
I was lucky to be invited along with one of the other commissioned writers, Sarah Thomas, to form part of a panel event at the Durham Book Festival in October 2016. This was exciting in its own right and, with an early December deadline looming, great for focusing the mind. The extra night’s accommodation granted for research purposes proved invaluable for the making of my poem.
The panel event happened on a Sunday. On the Monday, I spent the whole day on campus doing interviews and getting to know Durham, which I’d not visited before. I talked to Louise and to Dr Dave Roberts, followed by Dr Jim Innes, Dr Mark Brigland and Dr Mark White. I’m indebted to them all.
Since disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 loom large in our own consciousness, we’re inclined to project our current climate woes onto our ancient ancestors. Right away the Durham scientists steered me from such apocalyptic and other populist scenarios: when the Doggerland tsunami hit there was no chance of there being any people left on Dogger Island. Rising sea levels meant that they would have been migrating away for centuries.
They also gave me an insight into essential topics, such as:
rates and levels of inundation
changes to the landscape and vegetation
Mesolithic people’s skills and tools
Their lifestyle and spiritual views
Their ability to cope with rapid climate change.
At the start of the day I had a vague picture of Doggerland 9,000 years ago. But as we progressed, I began to pick up the very first inklings of the inter-tidal, estuarine backdrop and the resourceful people who would populate my poem.
Meeting face-to-face also enabled us to build ongoing relationships. And I think crucially, actual contact with scientists on the ground and hearing their passion for their subject fuelled mine. They were not at all fazed by the idea of helping a poet. Mark Brigland told me he read the Saturday poem in the Guardian every week. That was very humbling. I was off the starting blocks and away.
In her next post, Justina will complete the story of her research and the drafting of Doggerland Rising – revealing how her characters emerged and what she has learned from the process.
You can discover more about the BRITICE-CHRONO research into the ice sheet that once covered most of the British Isles, which Louise Callard and colleagues have been working on, at the project homepage.
Justina read excerpts from her finished poem, Doggerland Rising, at the 2017 Hay Festival and you can listen here:
And her full poem 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.
There is more about Justina’s writing – poems, short stories, non-fiction, novels – at her website.
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 in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.
In the first of a series on “anticipatory history”, I review the book of that name. A copy went to Jennifer Leach for her recent contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Produced by an interdisciplinary research network, the book explores some of the thinking and possibilities involved in ‘looking back’ at histories of environmental change in order to help us ‘look forward’ to what futures might be in store, and which we might shape.
This 2011 book grew from the experiences of the Anticipatory History Research Network, a one year project within AHRC’s Landscape and Environment Programme. Led by Caitlin DeSilvey and Simon Naylor at Exeter University, the network brought together fellow scholars in humanities, social, natural and physical sciences, writers and artists, and environmental practitioners in wildlife, coastal, landscape and heritage management. I had the good fortune to be doing my MA Climate Change at Exeter at the time. So, although my involvement was at the latter stages of their research, I was able to contribute some work locally with the National Trust – on ‘storying adaptation’ – to the network’s final symposium. I’ll write more about my own involvement with ‘anticipatory history’ approaches in a later post.
For now, I want to introduce the book – as a process, a product and a provocation. It’s a slim volume but written in many voices, offering rewarding encounters on different levels.
Publication often seems the natural endpoint of research activity, but the group assembled around this network’s central question – what roles do “history and story-telling play in helping us to apprehend and respond to changing landscapes, and to changes to the wildlife and plant populations they support?” – found themselves creating this book almost as a byproduct of their discussions. Something that I’ve encountered when researching how large, multi-partner climate change projects successfully incorporate very different academic fields and societal stakeholders is that the new interdisciplinary teams very often spend 18 months – typically up to half the project lifetime – coming to terms with each other’s vocabulary and ways of seeing the world. They have to find ways to achieve that in parallel with ‘doing the job’. Often an ad hoc and iterative process, this frequently catalyses creative approaches to ‘getting to know each other’. One large network developed their own glossary for terms that engineers, sociologists, modellers and planners might have ‘in common’ but which had different meanings and usages for each ‘tribe’.
It seems that Anticipatory history developed in a similar way:
“Over the course of four meetings a number of people participated in an extended discussion about the meaning and efficacy of anticipatory history as a concept and a mode of engagement with the past. As we followed debates we noted down key terms on index cards – words or phrases that have a bearing on aspects of environmental change over time and in place, and our responses to these changes. We then went through a process of culling entries and drafting collective definitions. Lastly, participants were asked to adopt particular key terms and to produce entries. This book is then a work of many hands and can in no way claim to be the product of a single vision. It was never our intention to provide a definitive statement on the means and ends of anticipatory history, even if that was possible to do.”
At what point that exercise crystallised into a book for a wider readership, I don’t know, but it has been offered as a glossary or work of reference for those wanting to know more about … Well, what is “anticipatory history”?
The introductory essay that includes the passage above starts by noting that while reports of climate and environmental change are “the daily fare of a twenty-first century media diet” our ability to take in and respond personally to the implications or lived experiences of change’s impacts often disconnects from scientific data.
“Many of these changes … will register as subtle (or not so subtle) alterations in familiar landscapes: a lost section of coastal path, a favourite flower vanished, dwindling populations of waterbirds in a local saltmarsh, the removal of a customary fishing quay. But the range of available responses to these changes is limited – usually cast in terms of loss and guilt – and we often do not have the cultural resources to respond thoughtfully, to imagine our own futures in a tangibly altered world.”
As a clutch of the book’s entries explain, our personal sense of time and the ‘natural’ state of things is shaped by our generational timeframes: what one entry (Shifting baseline syndrome) calls “’generational amnesia’, due to relatively short life spans and memories” and another (Tempocentrism) describes as “the tendency to take for granted the premises, expectations and values of one’s own timeframe.” We struggle to acknowledge unwelcome changes in our environment (either locally or in places with treasured memories) – or, if acknowledged, to accept what is often the naturalness of processes we cannot halt. A third entry (Presentism) raises the risks of extending these mental frames into how we imagine the past, where we inevitably filter, select and assemble our own data on what that famously ‘foreign country’ was really like; “We make our stories about the past; we don’t find them fully formed … Do we have any chance of transcending our present point of view when we approach the making of history, and should we be pretending to?”
Our relationship with past and future, caught as we always are in the interval of uncertainty between the two, can be emotionally and culturally complex and unsettling. Anticipatory history offers ways to interrogate our uncertainties; the example of Orford Ness lighthouse suggests how impermanent features in our landscape can become stabilised in our imagination, and natural processes then threaten both the physical and cultural permanence which seems so natural to our tempocentric selves. The lighthouse, already at risk of erosion of the Orford Ness shingle bank, was also deemed redundant as coastal wayfinder: a combination which undermines the future of this 220 year-old Suffolk landmark. Indeed, the lighthouse has now been decommissioned and the sea continues its advance on the brick building. What was once an aid to navigation in space might slip into a new, symbolic role as navigational aid between past and future; there was a time with no lighthouse on the shingle, and this seems likely again. ‘Anticipatory history’, as conceptual framework, explores how looking back in a place might help us look ahead to its plausible futures. Highlighting the potential for Palliative curation as one approach to this predicament, Anticipatory history, suggests an end-of-life ethic of care and attention, taking our leave of loved but transient features.
With these subjective, limited perceptions and judgements in mind, it can be tempting to see scientific and technical expertise as the prized location for all useable knowledge about historical and future change, the only reliable base for our policies. That, time and again, it still surprises us when this fails to deliver everything we expected is not an argument against expertise or evidence, but for a broadening of what we mean by these, and what counts. Picking up the book’s introduction again,
“History and storytelling … might seem a surprising place to begin an investigation into the potential consequences of environmental change … However, our argument is that the humanities have much to contribute to these debates. [Some forms of history,] guided by a concern for the future, [look] to the past to find intellectual, emotional, and spiritual resources to help us direct this concern towards sustaining specific communities – both human and ecological.”
‘Anticipatory history’ borrows that future orientation from the notion of ‘anticipatory adaptation’ to prospective changes rather than ‘reactive adaptation’ after the fact. Looking back can inform a more experimental gaze forward, exploring our imaginations and stories of environmental change, our different versions of ‘here and ‘now’ as well as ‘there and then’. The authors quote two historians:
“Our ability to project ourselves into the future, imagining alternative lives that lead us to set new goals and work toward new ends, is merely the forward expression of the experience of change we have learned from reflecting on the past.” – William Cronon
“We study the past not in order to find out what really happened there or to provide a genealogy of and thereby a legitimacy for the present, but to find out what it takes to face a future we should like to inherit rather than one that we have been forced to endure.” – Hayden White
The book’s different authors were therefore engaging with the past(s) not out of nostalgia but out of a desire to see how “the stories we tell about ecological and landscape histories shape our perception of what we might call future ‘plausabilities’”, complementing the scientific study of climate change probabilities. As such, anticipatory approaches to history might “intersect with other areas of concern – including the communication of science, the pragmatics of land management and the practice of art.” Relying solely on any one of these approaches – or even a naïve combination of all three – in situations of contention, controversy and conflict over threats to valued wildlife, landscapes, heritage or livelihoods can be a damaging experience. When a partnership of agencies culled the ‘invasive’ rats on Lundy island in order to restore breeding populations of birds, they acted solely on scientific grounds and without public consultation. Recounting the outcry from animal welfare protestors wanting to “save the Lundy rats” , the book exposes the moral judgements that scientific justifications rested upon: “that introduced species should be removed to support indigenous species; that less charismatic animals should make way for more popular ones; and that people’s emotional responses to the killing of the rats were not relevant to the decision-making process.”
“Terms like ‘slaughter’ were used to describe the cull. The risk to other animals from possible ingestion of the poisons was highlighted. Protesters also noted that the rats had been on the island for over 400 years, and in doing so questioned the implication that the rats were recent interlopers – unwanted immigrants that disrupted a settled indigenous nature on the island.”
How different interests, communities and individuals “know the past in place” is as crucial and meaningful as the professional expertise informing our decisions on how we respond to change.
“Anticipatory history may be capable of tapping into these meanings, in that it does not attempt to construct a singular, authoritative historical narrative. As an approach, it leaves room for expressing the ‘small stories’ and ‘lay knowledges’ that are layered in place, and then linking these to a hoped-for future.”
So, back to the glossary. The 50 terms explored in this book range from the technical-sounding – ‘Acclimatisation’, ‘Coastal squeeze’, ‘Entropy’, ‘Equilibrium’, ‘Managed realignment’, ‘Monitoring’ – to the deceptively simple – ‘Birds’, ‘Ebb and flood’, ‘Living landscapes’, ‘Memory, ‘Museum’, ‘Place’ ‘Rhododendron’, ‘Tides, ‘Woods’ – via the playful or provocative – ‘Besanded’, ‘Dream-map’, ‘Liminal zone’, ‘Palliative curation’, ‘Rewilding’, ‘Story-radar’, ‘Unfarming’, ‘Zone of exclusion.’
You can move between these personal explorations guided simply by your curiosity, the convenience of the alphabetical ordering, the threads of different authors’ reappearances, an index map that ties each entry to a place in the British Isles – or by the handy signposting under each entry, pointing you to: (Erosion) “See: Art, Coastal squeeze, Cycle of erosion”, or (Equilibrium) “Do not see: Entropy. See: Shifting baseline syndrome”; (Entropy) “Do not see: Equilibrium. See: Aspic, Discontinuity”, and so on. It’s a book that calls you to explore, revisit and share.
The variety of voices, styles, genres, directions and intents found even within the confines of an academic and professional network makes for a very partial glossary, whose cumulative effect is to hint at alternative ‘meanings’ that could have found their way into these entries via different authors, and at the ghosts of other terminologies and common words which might just as easily have featured in the discussions sparking this work. Being partial but being open about partiality and to inviting in more seems to me to be one value of an anticipatory learning from our subjective histories and imagined futures.
In the next post in this series, I will look at some of the entries in the book and the themes these explore. Further posts will discuss examples of how the ideas explored by the research network have been trialled and developed, including some of the work I’ve been involved in; and investigate the creative potential that might be developed.
Find out more
Anticipatory history (2011), edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor and Colin Sackett, is published by Uniform Books. All the indented passages and unattributed quotations are taken from the book’s Introduction, which you can download as a sample. There is more information on the research network activities that produced the book at the Arts and Humanities Research Network programme pages.
The quotation from William Cronon is taken from his 2000 article Why history matters, (Wisconsin Magazine of History, 84, 2-13) available at his website.
The quotation from Hayden White is taken from E Domanska (2008) A conversation with Hayden White, (Rethinking History, 12, 3-21) and might be found through a web search…
Questioning a word? Space for creative thinking..."One of the entries in Anticipatory history is Enclosure. What does this word mean to you, in the conext of environmental change and how we imagine and discuss pasts, places and futures?" Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.
Our latest Members’ Post sees a return by artist Mary Eighteen, who discusses powerful associations she sees between the 20th century art of Barnet Newman and a 21st century technology in Venice that will protect that city and its Renaissance heritage from some of the impacts of manmade climate change.
In his essay, The Sublime and the Avant Garde, Jean Francois Lyotard refers to the Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman, stating that “In 1959-51, Barnet Newman painted a canvas measuring 2.42 m by 5.42m which he called Vir Heroicus Sublimis. In the early sixties, he entitled his first three sculptures Here 1, Here 11, Here 111. Another painting was called Not Over There, Here, two paintings were called Now, and two others were entitled Be. In December 1948, Newman wrote an essay entitled The Sublime Is Now.
In order to explain a point regarding the physicality of experience in Newman’s painting, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, I want to recall a visual encounter I experienced on a trip to Venice on a cold evening a few years ago.
On this cold and still February night I am with friends, poised on the Canal Grande. There is a feeling of lingering melancholy for which Venice has become legendary. There is a smell of decay generated by the water. The smell is not invasive, more a lingering odour of oldness that infiltrates the senses with eerie persistence. It is an odour that caresses, like a whisper softly spoken, its essence apparent in each wave and ripple that skims the water’s edge. Venice touches my soul like nowhere else on earth, like an inner sanctum of ethereal magic.
Amidst the dark, I see the church of Chiesa San Giorgio Maggiori, rising like an apparition against the darkness of the night. The whiteness of the front façade, designed by Palladio, is almost phosphorescent. It looms against the sky as if to affirm a past still deeply rooted within the here and now. It mingles with the ever-pervading odour of oldness, transcending the story of the past into the world of the present with an intoxicating pungency. Looking at the ghostly apparition of Chiesa San Giorgio Maggiori at night, I am reminded of the vulnerability of Venice to the sea. Venice has a history of flooding but the idea of the city sinking into the sea is more than most people could tolerate, and much money has been spent to avoid this ever happening. But this is no less a conundrum than climate change, our own vulnerability to rising sea levels and their future effect on humanity.
Newman’s zips and Palladio’s facade
Like my encounter with the melancholy of Chiesa San Giorgio Maggiori at night, so Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis was designed to be a physical experience. Palladio’s fine front façade, in raised vertical splendour, emanates a celebration of hope for the future in a city that transcends both past and present in equal measures.
Newman’s paintings do the same. He referred to the stripes that dominated many of his paintings as ‘zips’. I look at a Newman painting and I see the same encounter with hope as I experienced with Chiesa San Maggiori that cold still night in February in Venice. I have spent a lifetime loving Venice and being fascinated by water, but I did not know then as an artist how involved I would become with ocean toxicity and the future of our seas. Within this scenario, Venice resonates a certain fragility in its relationship to the water.
Mose: Venice’s flood barrier inspiring the future
While Newman’s paintings and Palladio’s façade transcend hope within the dark, there is 21st Century hope within the ground-breaking Venice Flood Barrier, known internationally as the Mose Project. Newman and Palladio inspired a future generation of painters and architects; Mose inspires the future in terms of protecting Venice from rising sea levels.
The flood barrier is positioned along three sections of the lagoon: the Lido Inlet, the Malamocco Inlet and the Chioggia Inlet. The barriers form an integrated system of mobile gates that, as it were, step into action in times of rising sea levels that will cause flooding. While there are controversies regarding the Mose Project, it is there to protect. The yellow structure, spread horizontally over the lagoon like a brilliant yellow Barnet Newman Zip, is indicative of not just hope for the future of Venice, but the hope that is represented vertically in Newman’s messianic Zips and Palladio’s facades.
If I were once again standing in Venice on a cold February night looking over the lagoon, I would ponder the yellow Mose Barrier. For within its stretch there lies a paradox. While the barrier protects Venice from the sea for however long that will be, it is also indicative of mankind’s continual disruption of the environment, which is causing the rising levels of the sea, and our need to protect that environment, and in particular our oceans and seas, from us.
Newman’s Zips and the vertical façade of Palladio’s Chiesa San Giorgio Maggiori gave hope within the optimism of post war American Abstract Expressionism and the humanism of Renaissance architecture. Similarly, the new Venetian flood barrier straddles the lagoon as a symbol of defence that is a reminder of our duty to defend against rising sea levels by vigilance and human responsibility.
Find out more
You can read Jean Francois Lyotard‘s essay The Sublime and the Avant-Garde in The Lyotard Reader, edited by Andrew Benjamin, Blackwell Publishers Ltd 1998
Barnet Newman‘s The Sublime is Now is in Theories of Modern Art, by Herschel B. Chipp, University of California Press.1998
Questioning Symbols? Space for creative thinking...
"How do objects obtain their symbolic power and what role can this play in orientating us toward hopeful futures?"
Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.
I’ve been taking a new online course on ecolinguistics and it’s been fascinating to delve into how we structure and receive our various discourses – texts, dialogues, advertising and news reports – in ways that shape our attitudes and beliefs on environmental, social and economic issues. And maybe some of the learning here is helping me get past a barrier in my thinking about climate change…
The Stories We Live By is a free online course in ecolinguistics, created by Arran Stibbe at the University of Gloucestershire and a team of volunteers from the International Ecolinguistics Association. A programme that you can study at your own pace, with an optional online forum, it looks at how language structures our environmental relationships: stories as “structures in the minds of individuals … or across the minds of multiple individuals in society.”
“Ecolinguistics analyses language to reveal the stories we live by, judges those stories from an ecological perspective, resists damaging stories, and contributes to the search for new stories to live by.” – Arran Stibbe, course notes
There are many ways of viewing the environmental challenges we face – from the bright ‘can do’ optimism of ecomodernism to the darker ecology realms of ‘uncivilisation’ and beyond. But what they have in common is a recognition that the stories we’ve told ourselves to get to this situation – stories we’ve told ourselves into – have created an urgent for us need to find new ones, better aligned with environmental imperatives.
Those old stories include those our Book Club is discussing, in Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics: myths of the unquestioned need for endless economic “growth”, narrow indicators of “healthy” GDP figures, “free markets” steering us clear of the “tragedy of the commons”. But the ideological limitations of stories can also be seen in environmental world views that shape competing planet-saving blueprints – an area also discussed in Mike Hulme’s book Why We Disagree About Climate Change.
I’m about half way through, and enjoying the very clear notes, exercises and further reading on offer with each module: moving easily but with much thought through discussions on ideologies, framings and metaphors, with fascinating examples and questions. The course will also take me through how we use stories to evaluate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the world, the identities we hold as individuals and groups, our convictions about the way the world is, and how language makes some issues invisible.
Ecolinguistics and our stories
This could all be quite heavy, freighted with all sorts of academic terminology (‘ecolinguistics’ itself, for example). Fortunately, the notes and exercises have a light touch, using clear everyday language in between the necessary (and interesting) smattering of technical stuff (a helpful glossary covers all those new words and phrases). The course is not about finding the “correct” way of talking about the natural world and our relationships with it; there is no single, “right’ story. Yes, ecolinguistics invites us to judge the stories we receive from media, government, businesses and campaign groups, use in our professional and personal lives, or tell ourselves. But “judging a story from an ecological perspective involves comparing it with [our] own ecological philosophy, or ecosophy” – and recognising in the process that ours is one of many; our judgements are always relative to that personal perspective.
So what does ecolinguistics involve?
It focuses on discourses that help shape how we act towards human and other beings and ecosystems.
It looks for how linguistic features form our cultural codes: the values and norms that reflect our ‘common sense’ view of the world.
It reveals our own ‘ecosophy’ and how different discourses align with or contradict this.
It raises awareness of the role of language in ecological protection or destruction, through policy, education, news and entertainment.
Early on, ‘the Ecosophy Quiz” asks us to assess our own ecological philosophy, accepting or rejecting a number of statements on a spectrum from cornucopianism, sustainable development, social ecology, ecofeminism, deep ecology, transition movement, dark mountain project, deep green resistance, voluntary human extinction movement and beyond. Interestingly, there were no overtly religious or spiritual statements to dis/agree with, which seems a lack given the central position of faith in cultures, countries and personal lives around the world.
The problem with problems
I’ll focus more on specific aspects of the course in another post, but one early point for me has been to get me to revisit my own position, that climate change is not a problem – in the sense that it’s not something with a ‘solution’. That perspective unsettled rather than shocked me when I first heard Mike Hulme suggest several years ago. It did shock many others in the room – a gathering of people with clear ideas of what the solutions are, and a drive to get them adopted. I came to agree with Hulme’s point pretty quickly, as it spoke to my growing unease with our failure to really get to grips with … the problem. His book gave strong pointers as to why framing climate change as ‘a problem’ is a problem – at least if you want to solve it. But what I’ve struggled with since is finding an approach that really improves on ‘problem’. ‘Wicked Problems’ is a good way to conceive the messy entanglements of cause–effect–side-effect–cause, but wicked problems still seem to trigger a ‘solutions’ mindset. I looked into that with my first post, where I picked up on ‘clumsy solutions’ as a way to address ‘wicked problems’, but I could see that something was missing; proposing the idea of ‘wicked cultures’ offered part of an answer.
Hulme had also looked at ‘clumsy solutions’ in his book, “as a way of escaping from the idea that, when faced with contradictory definitions of problems and solutions, only one definition must be chosen and all others rejected … Clumsiness suggests that we construct our problems in such a way as to make them fit our capabilities for solution-making …” But he accepted that even clumsy solutions won’t ‘solve’ climate change; they will be partial and contradictory in what they deliver, not just in their methods.
“We must recognise the ‘wickedness’ of climate change and we must appreciate that while clumsiness – with all its contrariness and messiness – is perhaps the limit of our human ability to respond, it will not deliver the outcomes we seek.” – Mike Hulme.
As he points out, the idea of climate change is changing how we understand and live in the world as much as the physical phenomena we call ‘climate change’. The idea works for us – doing different work for people with different world views. In identifying some common myths behind our world views, Hulme comes back to stories: myths that embody fundamental truths, “powerful shared narratives which may bind together otherwise quite different perspectives and people.” These myths might be lamenting the loss of our ‘natural’ climate and environment; or presaging the coming apocalypse as we crash through all our tipping points; or saving ourselves through our geoengineering/GM/nuclear/nanotech mastery; or a call for and celebration of justice for the dispossessed, exploited and marginalised. He ties these neatly to Judaeo-Christian Biblical myths of Fall, Armageddon, Babel and Jubilee; others are available, of course, and these are not mutually exclusive.
Landing on “climate change as idea” rather than “climate change as problem”‘ is perhaps in danger of leaving us high and dry with grand narratives similar to those that got us in here (and have so far failed to get us out again). I’ve been looking for something more … down to earth, more pedestrian. Less likely to appeal to our messianic tendencies.
The predicaments we live with
The Stories We Live By is not an examination of the language of climate change; its scope is the full range of ecological issues. But it does explore different framings of climate change – for example, as ‘security threat’, as ‘violence’, as ‘business’, as ‘problem’, or as ‘predicament’:
Climate change framed as a security threat: “Instead of treating the climate crisis as an environmental issue, to be dealt with by environment and energy departments alone, we need to reframe it as the overwhelming threat to national and global security which it is.” (Caroline Lucas, Green Party)
Climate change framed as violence: “Call climate change what it is: violence. Climate change is global-scale violence, against places and species as well as against human beings.” (Rebecca Solnit, writer, historian and activist)
Climate change framed as business: “Let’s reframe sustainability as the biggest and boldest supply chain challenge yet, to give the 9 billion people we expect to see on the planet quality and sustainable lives. Business is good at giving customers what they want, so let’s get on with it.” (Alan Knight, Virgin)
Climate change framed as problem: “The best solution, nearly all scientists agree, would be the simplest: stop burning fossil fuels, which would reduce the amount of carbon we dump into the atmosphere.” (Michael Specter, science journalist)
Climate change framed as predicament: “It has been revealed that humankind’s activities giving rise to our present global warming and climate change predicament occurred during that extremely short 57 year period.” (Bob Robertson, author)
To my mind, the first three of these are usually examples of, rather than alternatives to, ‘problem thinking’, reducing the overall complex mix of issues to a single dimension and expectations that a solution is at hand. But each could also be cast as ‘predicament thinking’. The course explains the distinction:
“Many things we’ve conceptualized as problems are actually predicaments. The difference is that a problem calls for a solution; the only question is whether one can be found and made to work, and once this is done, the problem is solved. A predicament, by contrast, has no solution. Faced with a predicament, people come up with responses.” – John Michael Greer
Solutions make problems disappear; responses keep predicaments in view. Solutions promise completion; responses offer coping. Guess which sounds sexier; admit which is more honest. So, if one response is to adapt to a climate that continues changing even when all the remaining oil is left in the ground (because the atmosphere and oceans respond slowly to past greenhouse gas emissions) then these stronger, adaptive communities will still have to deal with the impacts of a changing climate. And surely we know that ‘security,’ ‘violence’ and ‘economics’, which we also treat as problems, are more like predicaments which no ‘solutions’ are likely to make disappear? Better responses might help minimise the impacts and live more safely, justly and prosperously.
If ‘security’, ‘violence’ and ‘business’ framings (and many other ways of simplifying the idea of climate change) can be deployed in either ‘problem-solution’ or ‘predicament-response’ ways, then perhaps there is another level to our stories. But whether that is so, or ‘problem’ and ‘predicament’ are simply two framings among others, The Stories We Live By has already given me something I’ve been looking for: the extra step beyond my earlier journey from ‘problem’ to ‘wicked problem’ to ‘clumsy solutions’, but without leaving me in the slightly nebulous territory of ‘idea.’ Predicaments are what humans do, after all.
It’s refreshing to take a course that invites me to acknowledge my subjectivity, my own set of values and attitudes, and informs them with some new thinking on ecosophies, framings and, in particular, predicaments. The Stories We Live By asks me to acknowledge that this subjectivity is where I build my judgements of others’ views and actions as protecting or damaging to the environment. That stories, and not unquestionable facts, live in our heads and shape how we think, speak and act is not a new thought for me or for many people, but it’s one we need to come back to if we’re to avoid our own judgements taking on the same ‘natural’ force that the dominant narratives have assumed. Knowing our stories as stories can help us keep open the space we need for creative conversations.
Find out more
You can view and download all the notes and exercises for the course at The Stories We Live By. And if you register, you can also access the forum, additional reading and volunteer tutors. Everything is free and available to enjoy at your own pace.
The original essay from which the John Michael Greer quote above is taken can be found here, in the Archdruid Report archive. I am currently reading his book, Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush, which includes essays from that site.
Questioning Problems & Predicaments? Space for creative thinking...
"For you, is climate change a problem or a predicament? How would your creative response change if you swapped these frames? How would you talk differently about it with others?"
Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.