… Ecological & Climate Predicaments

Editor Mark Goldthorpe gives a personal take on the issues that ClimateCultures explores. On the following page, he introduces the members of our growing network of artists, curators and researchers. For his introduction to how our site came about, see About ClimateCultures.

Climate what?

So, ClimateCultures is a network and a space for different creative voices. What about the issues we’re exploring? And what of the language we use to make sense of them? Is this a crisis, an emergency, a disruption or a breakdown? Are we are embarking on something called the Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene or another version of this unprecedented planetary age? ClimateCultures cannot present singular, unified answers; the diversity of views and calls and language is a defining part of the landscape of ecological and climate change. Recognising that diversity is itself an important feature of the creative conversations we need to move us forward.

Whatever we call it, it grabs headlines, triggers controversies and provokes action and reaction. But it sometimes seems we haven’t got very far agreeing what ‘climate change’ means, what the priorities are, what they need from us, what we can actually do. Many other concerns often seem more pressing than something as abstract, as far off, as amorphous as climate change can seem. It is none of these things, of course — it is real, it is here, it takes shape in very specific ways.

And as for the ecological priorities, species extinction, habitat loss, energy sustainability, threats to water resources, mineral depletion, ocean acidification, pollution of water, land, air and life itself — all these seemingly compete with the challenges of feeding people, reducing poverty, and tackling health crises, social injustice, economic inequality, political instability or insecurity. And climate change seems to compete with them all for our attention. In reality, of course, all of these rising challenges are interlinked in a web of cause, effect, feedback and cascade.

What ClimateCultures can perhaps help to demonstrate is that the ‘problem’ is not merely a technical one, or a political or an economic one, or a social one — or even a simple mix of these. It seems somehow bigger and more fundamental: a predicament of the imagination.

Predicament of the imagination - showing SeaHeart, a sculpture by Liz McGowan on Brancaster Beach, Norfolk
SeaHeart: Brancaster Beach, Norfolk 2016
Sculpture commissioned by National Trust & Climate Coalition
Artist: Liz McGowan © 2016

Wicked problems — or predicaments?

While, in principle, we can solve ordinary, ‘tame’ problems with conventional approaches — given the vision, the will, the knowledge and the resources — so-called ‘wicked’ problems resist straightforward solutions. They’re riddled with complex interdependencies and manifest deep uncertainties. And our attempts to tackle any one of their entangled threads in isolation — as if it were a tame problem — cause others to go out of control. Trying to simplify wicked problems so we can get hold of them just seems to give whatever aspects we try to exclude or downplay to come back at us with a vengeance. “You may expel nature with a pitchfork,” said the Roman poet Horace, “but she will always return.”

So, while we might centre ‘climate change’ as a specific focus (the changes to our atmospheric, geological, water and biological systems as a result of increasing global temperatures and greenhouse gases) it can also serve as a shorthand for this larger wicked complex of environmental, social and economic problems. It’s not just ‘climate change’, it’s everything change — all the above, and more. To be useful as such a mental shorthand, however, climate change requires us to keep in mind its interdependencies and uncertainties and its recalcitrant tendencies to ‘exceed’ whatever neat conceptual bounds we try to impose on it.

But more than that. Maybe, while we look for actions that feel like solutions, the thing we call climate change is more like a predicament than a problem. Even wicked problems seem to trigger a solutions mindset and the familiar temptation to narrow in on ‘the one true’ approach and exclude the competing ones. Unlike a problem, however, a predicament doesn’t have a solution, a fix or an exclusive offer. Predicaments only have responses: often rule-of-thumb ways to minimise, share and work with them — but not to completely avoid or cure the negative consequences. ‘The future’s already here – it just isn’t evenly distributed.’ There will be some degree of living with the climate crisis, even when we’ve done all we can to combat it. Maybe seeing climate change as a predicament is a more hopeful, but no less urgent, way of finding out what we might do, what change we can make…

The Anthropocene?

Predicament or problem, the scale and scope of human-made changes to our climate and the living world are massive and widely distributed: a phrase that has been used to describe the concept of ‘Hyper Objects’, which are within our experience but not contained by it or by the imaginings of any single human being, localised community or even generation. The climate and ecological predicament seems to fit this bill. So massive and so widely distributed are human impacts on the planet that the growing awareness of this changing reality is captured in suggestions that we’ve brought the world into an entirely new geological phase: the so-called Anthropocene, or Age of Human. Something that big exceeds our ability to capture it in a neat phrase or label — so, of course, that is exactly what we try to do…

This emerging era of the human species — or the portion of it most implicated in the scale and patterns of globalised industrial activity — as a shaper of the world’s living and life support systems confronts and tangles with an older truth: that the world is and always has been more-than-human. While the natural world is beyond any attempts we might make to actively control it, it’s clearly not beyond the reach of our actions, which — whether measured as kicking off only in the past few decades of the Great Acceleration, or in the centuries since the Industrial Revolution, or before that with the Age of European Colonisation, or millennia ago with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution — amounts to a huge, unanticipated and uncontrolled chemical and biological experiment.

Ecological & Climate Predicament - showing Unsafe Area, Whitby Pier.
Unsafe Area (Whitby Pier) 2007
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017 markgoldthorpe.net

A matter of words?

Language matters. Our choice of words makes a difference in how we communicate, how we see the world, how we think about its problems, how and where we choose to act and not to act. A whole lexicon has exploded in recent years to fill in what we’re talking about when we talk (or don’t talk) about ‘environmental change’ or ‘climate change’. Across the spectrum of voices calling for immediate, powerful and lasting shifts in our relationships with the planet are words of breakdown, catastrophe, crisis, disruption, emergency, extinction — in place of the pallid word ‘change’. The ‘environment’ is really the living world, ‘warming’ is really overheating. Distinctions between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, when you come down to it, are superficial: what we are (part of) and how we express it.

The Anthropocene itself is revealed as a site of creative disagreement, lumping together as it does all of humanity as the site of this new, lumbering form of planet-wide uncontrolled experiment. Whose fingerprint, exactly, is the human mark that’s now all over the soils, waters, air and life of the planet?

Are we all — whether rich or poor, intensive or subsistence feeders on the world — agents of the mass extinction, the depletion of the world’s living systems, the disrupters of climate and ocean cycles? Or is it not our species but our choice of societies that is the root of the predicament? Other labels have been proposed that claim to better capture the heterogeneous nature of humanity’s role in the planetary crisis and the wildly unequal impacts that feed back into more vulnerable regions and populations. Cause and effect do not occur in the same place. So: Anthropocene — or Capitalocene, Chthuluscene, Plantationocene, Technocene? Welcome to the Catastrophozoic…

Meanwhile, there is the living world and its life-supporting systems, processes, cycles and interdependencies — and our place within these. ClimateCultures is one venue where we can explore that place and our different ideas of it, and we have a growing and lively network of members bringing their creative attention to it.