We Saw It All Happen

Poet Julian Bishop uses his collection We Saw It All Happen to witness signs of the climate crisis with the immediacy of news coverage of war and conflict, and to find hope in nature’s ability to hang on.


 

1,880 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


Back in the days when I was a cub reporter on the South Wales Echo I thought words could change the world. And to an extent they did. I’d write a piece about a family with a damp flat and as if by magic the landlord would quickly fix it, shamed by a Page Five lead.

Later I was made the BBC’s first environment reporter in Wales, at a time when climate change was barely on the news agenda. I seem to remember the position was prompted by a series of terrible floods in North and West Wales. And because they were “great pictures”, I often had the top story in bulletins. When the weather was ok, I used to cover any rural issue. Once I reported on a new pesto factory opening in Powys.

Ambition took me to ITN’s News At Ten in London where I switched to more of a production role, eventually being in charge of deciding the running order of news stories. I frequently elevated environmental stories only to have them knocked down to the bottom of the list. Those were the days of ‘climate change’ rather than ‘climate crisis’ but, even so, I’ve noticed that most TV news programmes only lead on it when there are “great pictures” — the recent US wildfires come to mind.

And here’s the problem — war and famine are huge human catastrophes with an immediacy that the climate crisis doesn’t have, except when it manifests itself (increasingly) in fire or flood.

Showing the cover of Julian Bishop's poetry collection, We Saw It All Happen (Fly on the Wall Press, 2023)

Visualising five degrees

Which is where my idea for We Saw It All Happen came in. Is it enough to bear witness to such events and move on or do we have a greater responsibility than that? Is the media necessarily underplaying climate change because of huge unfolding disasters like the conflict in Gaza? There’s a separate blog to be written about the climate factor in this conflict, although probably for another day.

For me, the attack on our natural world is also a form of warfare but one that isn’t on our TV screens daily, if you discount Sir David Attenborough’s increasingly outspoken Planet series. Don’t forget such programmes fall under the general tag of ‘entertainment’ at the BBC.

That said, I wanted to create something engaging to read but that also made a forceful point. For inspiration, I reached back to some of the now hugely out-of-fashion Augustan poets of the 18th Century, for example Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. Generally thought of as satirists, they were also masters of poetic form, another approach I was keen to adopt. So my book contains many sonnets, a specular, sestina, Golden Shovel and riffs on other forms. It’s also very political. I learnt about many of these forms during a year-long poetry course at City Lit in London, an adult education centre just off Covent Garden.

I wrote the ‘anchor poem’ for the book, Five Degrees, after reading a report from scientists at Stanford University which looked at the impact of each extra degree of warming on the planet. I remember I was on the Eurostar going to Brussels for some media event and it made me wonder whether dull-sounding data might somehow be translated into poetry, especially given that many poetic forms depend on various numbers of lines or syllables. ‘Five’ immediately suggested a villanelle, a tricky form with five three-line stanzas and a final quatrain, with the first and third lines of the first stanza repeating alternately in the following stanzas. I knew instantly that the refrain had to be: “too late”. And then with not a little poetic licence I began to fill in the detail, tethering each degree to one of the scientific findings in the Stanford paper.

This is what it looked like:

Five Degrees

Take one – another atoll gone, droughts, faster rate
of ice melt. Sweltering taxis. A few mortuaries fail 
to cope in The Pyrenees. Chin up, it’s not too late. 

Two degrees - forget the Med. Instead, investigate
Aberystwyth for a tan. Gozo is a no-go. You can sail
across London in a skiff! Maybe Donald’s heart-rate

skips a beat. Three degrees. Now the floodgates
open. Holland (and the coral) gone. A large-scale
exodus from Africa. Geo-engineers arrive too late.

Work hard for a degree at Oxford-by-the-Sea, wait 
for a Balliol boat. Bail out - Cambridge is a folktale.
At four, methane leaks from the sea floor, the rate

accelerates. Mangrove swamps, sapodillas recreate
the tropics in Paris. Bananas on a boulevard; so shale
had an upside after all! Take the fifth – way too late

to keep the lid on oceanic gas explosions so great 
Hiroshima is but a flicker. Then the final coffin nail:
supercharged fireballs banging into cities at a rate 
of knots. The lid lowers by degrees. Sorry: too late.

Five Degrees was eventually printed by Magma Poetry magazine in their Schools issue — after Trump lost the election, so “Donald” was changed to “the Earth” which was an extremely satisfying edit! Sadly the poem is proving horribly prophetic…

I say it was an anchor poem because I wanted a central section of the book to deal with current affairs, seen through a poetic eye. I divided the poems into Starters, Mains and Afters, not least because after trying to order the poems I noticed food was a pervasive presence (weird, because I’m skinny, although I do love cooking).

We Saw It All Happen – hope and trauma

My plan was to try and release the strongest poems in a pamphlet and then focus later on a full collection. I sent off a selection to a pamphlet competition run by a small press in Manchester called Fly On The Wall, who caught my eye as one of the few publishers to claim everything they do is with the environment in mind and actually mean it. To my shock, Isabelle Kenyon, who runs the press, asked if I’d like to go ahead with a full collection straight away. Of course the answer was yes!

Then began the terrible process of sifting through several years of poems to work out which ones fitted my chosen framework. I soon realised they were quite a gloomy bunch — and who wants to read a book of poems about the climate emergency without a few notes of hope?

This led to some research on efforts being made to save endangered species from extinction and the birth of poems such as Little Whirlpool Ramshorn Snail, one of a sequence of poems inspired by the Back From The Brink project, a collaboration between several different UK wildlife agencies to save some 20 species from extinction. The poem was also published in an issue of Magma Poetry:

Little Whirlpool Ramshorn Snail

A name twenty times its length, curled
on a page indexing threatened species -
smaller even than a waterboatman's oar
pushed out to the fringes of extinction.

These water specks, scaled-down ammonites, 
translucent on the edge of a British ditch,
crawl among the marginals, dodging carp
to clamp onto reeds they still call home.

Despite the incursion, the plucky Ramshorns
cling on, skim ditches for scraps of algae, 
flattened whorls spiralling ever further down 
through the ferny fringes of a marshy nook.

Small coils that spin in a run-down clock,
man's hands have been moving against them,
conchologists wading in to their rescue,
trying to wind the miniature cogs back.

And I needed a title poem for the book. I eventually decided to re-work a draft of a poem I’d called ‘That Scene With The Walruses’ which was about watching an episode of David Attenborough’s Netflix documentary series Our Planet where walruses appeared to be climbing cliffs in search of food only to throw themselves off. It now appears they may have been fleeing from polar bears but whatever the reason, I found the film extremely traumatic and wrote the poem straight after watching the programme.

So it seemed most fitting to re-title the poem We Saw It All Happen, given that an important function of the book was to examine the role of the media — for better or worse — in how we formulate perceptions about the climate emergency.

Rather gratifyingly, some poems have taken on a life beyond the book. One called Lobster was runner-up in the international Ginkgo Prize, a major international award for ecopoetry, in 2018, where the prize was a week’s residency at a retreat near Ballinskelligs in southern Ireland. I used the time to put together a first draft for the book and the residency inspired a few new poems as well. But the poem was picked up by several other publications, most recently an anthology of poetry and short stories from Guts Publishing called The Transformative Power Of Tattoo. In case you’re wondering what the connection is, here’s the poem:

'Lobster', one of Julian Bishop's poems in his 2-23 collection, We Saw It All Happen

Relating to the natural world

We Saw It All Happen has been out nearly a year now and I’ve been concentrating on promoting it. Most bizarrely, I was asked to give a talk to a group of City types with offices near The Gherkin in London. They’re a firm of environmental consultants and I tried to convince them that maybe there’s a place for poetry in corporate boardrooms or at least as part of a distinctive pitch. I’m not sure how the message landed but I managed to sell quite a few books.

Julian Bishop reading at a Magma launch, London 2023

And of course I’m planning a possible follow-up, this time with more of a focus on plants and trees and how humans relate to them. I’ve been greatly inspired by Canadian scientist Suzanne Simard and her book Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest, (Penguin, 2022). Her work explores the symbiosis between fungi and trees and how trees use fungi to communicate with one another.

Another mini project has been what I’m calling Shakespeare Shovels – using lines about the natural world from Shakespeare plays as the basis for climate-related poems. I’m convinced that if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be a climate protester!

To finish with, here’s a sneak preview based on a quote from Macbeth Act II, Scene 3 (“some say the Earth was fev’rous and did shake”):


Find out more

We Saw It All Happen is available from Fly on the Wall Press (2023).

The Ginkgo Prize is a major international award for ecopoetry, funded by the Edward Goldsmith Foundation and organised by the Poetry School. You can download each year’s anthology of winners and runners up — including the 2018 anthology featuring Julian’s poem, Lobster

Suzanne Simard’s book Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest is published by Penguin (2022).

Julian Bishop
Julian Bishop
A former journalist, environment reporter and tv news editor who writes poetry about eco issues and was runner-up in the 2018 Ginkgo Poetry Prize.

Giving Voice to the Nonhuman

Photographer and writer Joan Sullivan shares her realisation that, no longer content to simply document climate change, a more fluid, non-linear visual language can evoke the nonhuman voice and reflect our own impermanence in a rapidly warming world.


2,300 words: estimated reading time = 9 minutes


A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.
— Dorothea Lange

Earlier this year, I had the great pleasure to collaborate with a sound artist, Robin Servant, to create an interactive climate change art installation in Quebec, Canada. The result of our collaboration was ‘La voix des glaces’ (in English: ‘Ice Voices’), a multi-sensory installation that gives voice to the nonhuman: the disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence River.

Sensing the nonhuman voice: Showing a visitor touching the braille text from recent IPCC reports embossed onto photographic ice sculptures, to listen to the underwater 'ice voices' during the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES, created by Joan Sullivan and Robin Servant for the Centre d'artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer, Quebec, Canada, from 24 Feb to 31 March 2023. Photograph: Joan Sullivan © 2023
Touching the braille text from recent IPCC reports embossed onto photographic ice sculptures, Edwige Leblanc listens to the underwater ‘ice voices’ during the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES. Photograph: Joan Sullivan © 2023

This was the first time that I exhibited my photographs as tactile sculptures. I grouped 24 of my abstract photographs of the rapidly disappearing river ice into eight triangular triptychs suspended from the ceiling in the center of the gallery. Swaying in the natural air currents of the gallery, these ‘ice sculptures’ resembled floating blocks of ice in the Saint Lawrence River.

Sensing the nonhuman voice: Showing a close-up of four ice sculptures at the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES by Joan Sullivan and Robin Servant, held at the Centre d'artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer, Quebec, from 24 February to 31 March 2023. Photograph: Joan Sullivan © 2023
Close-up of four ice sculptures at the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES. Photograph: Joan Sullivan © 2023

Each photograph was embossed with braille text from recent IPCC reports. Visitors – both sighted and visually-impaired – were invited to touch the braille relief in a gesture symbolic of our collective blindness to climate change.

By touching my photographs, visitors triggered underwater audio recordings of the ice blocks as they shift and crack from friction, waves and tidal movements. Every time someone touched an image, the gallery filled with haunting, otherworldly ice voices. They destabilize us, pulling us into their evocative vortex, coaxing us to listen more intently. We find ourselves imagining what the ice is trying to tell us.

Sending the nonhuman voice: Showing a close-up of a visitor touching the braille text from recent IPCC reports during the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES by Joan Sullivan and Robin Servant, held at the Centre d'artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer, Quebec, from 24 February to 31 March 2023
Close-up of a visitor touching the braille text from recent IPCC reports during the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES. Photograph: Joan Sullivan © 2023.

Bringing back the nonhuman voice

Giving voice to the nonhuman has, since 2019, transformed my photographic practice from documentary to abstraction. This shift was triggered by two events. The first (which will likely repeat itself in 2023) was Australia’s 2019-2020 Black Summer – the catastrophic, uncontrollable wildfires that killed an estimated three billion nonhuman beings. I was traumatized by the images of blood-red skies, charred kangaroos clinging to fences, and birds falling out of the sky. I suddenly realized that I could no longer participate in documenting climate change. I felt an overpowering sense of urgency to find a more fluid, non-linear, non-narrative language with which to express my ecoanxiety.

The second event that made me question the role of photography in the Anthropocene was a 2019 interview with the author Amitav Ghosh. Responding to a question from Amy Brady, Ghosh explains:

“I think, in literary terms, the most difficult challenge a writer has in an age of climate change is determining how to give a voice to the non-human (emphasis added). And not just in terms of natural disaster – in general. It’s such a challenge. One writer who has done this very well is Richard Powers. I thought his book, The Overstory, was a huge event because it expanded the boundaries of what writers can do. Now I am asking similar questions: How do we restore nonhuman voices? How do we trace the influence of the human among the nonhuman?”

I had previously read Ghosh’s 2016 non-fiction book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. But it was his 2019 quote above that inspired me — no, pushed me! — to completely change the way I used a camera. Instead of creating images from my perspective (while hiding behind a camera), I wanted to know how the nonhuman beings in front of my camera perceived climate change, from their perspective. What do they see when they look back at us? What do they feel about our destructive behavior and disregard for nonhuman life? What advice would they offer if given the chance? I was desperate to give voice to these nonhuman beings threatened in the age of man.

This shift in perspective, from the human to the nonhuman, has profoundly changed my art. Since 2020, I have been working on two series of abstract photos: ‘Je suis fleuve’ (in English: ‘Becoming River’) and ‘If I were a tree’. For both series, I have adopted a phenomenological approach in order to embody the nonhuman beings in front of my camera. It’s their story, not mine. If we humans are to survive the coming upheavals, we have no choice but to learn from our nonhuman relatives who were here millions of years before Homo sapiens sapiens first walked the earth. And many of them will likely still be here long after we have disappeared. So it would behove our self-described ‘wise’ species to absorb some of the wisdom from these ancient beings while there’s still time. But in order to do so, we must first slow down. We must learn to listen. We must learn to ‘see’ viscerally with our whole bodies, not just visually. This is embodiment.

A beauty filled with dread 

Since Australia’s Black Summer, I have become obsessed with finding non-visual ways to enhance the photographic experience, both for myself (during the creative process) and for viewers (in the gallery setting). Instead of ‘photographing the river or the trees’, I ‘become the river or the trees’ through sustained contemplation and mimicry – moving my body in sync with the flowing water or the wind blowing through the branches. I do this using the technique ICM (Intentional Camera Movement). All of my ICM images are created in-camera; nothing is Photoshopped in post. To date, all my ICM images are single exposures, usually 1-2 seconds long. Through this experimental process, I have learned to embrace chance and mistakes. Most importantly, I have learned to stop trying to control every aspect (sharpness, composition, depth of field, etc.) as I did for 25+ years as a documentary photographer.

Untitled. From the series ‘Je suis fleuve’ by Joan Sullivan © 2023

I describe my new abstract photos as fluid and fleeting. My hope is that these ephemeral images provoke reflection on our own impermanence in a rapidly warming world. An article in a French-language art magazine here in Quebec described my new abstract photos as “d’une beauté pleine d’effroi” (in English: “of a beauty filled with dread”). To me, that’s as close to a perfect description as possible, not just of my photos but also of my state of mind.

Yes, I am filled with dread. Things do not seem to be heading in the right direction; there’s no sense of urgency. But I also refuse to do nothing while we collectively watch the world burn on our cellphones. I counter this dread with a more powerful burning passion: to dedicate every second of my remaining years (15? max 20?) to helping shatter the absurd illusion that Homo sapiens sapiens is somehow separate from and superior to the one trillion other species with whom we share this planet and upon whom we depend for our own survival.

Images 1-9: Untitled. From the series ‘Je suis fleuve’ by Joan Sullivan © 2023. Click images for full size.

This is what prompted me, in part, to question the environmental impact of my own photographic practice. I started to think about all the toxic chemicals in the inks and photo papers that are used to create the photographic prints for my exhibits. Even for those photos that were never printed, a huge amount of electricity is required 24/7 to store them on my computer, in multiple external backup drives, and on my website. Social media, email, charging camera batteries, and driving to locations also require electricity and energy. Then there’s the undeniable problem of how to dispose of photographic prints (they are not recyclable), not to mention the layers of plastic and stryrofoam that protect them during shipping. I could go on and on…

But it wasn’t until November 2021, during a duo exhibit with the video artist Anna Woch, that I became aware of an even more existential dilemma for a photographer. As I looked at my photos on the wall, a wave of queasiness came over me: I felt strangely uninspired by my own work. Or, I should say, uninspired by the way they were presented: as static, two-dimensional objects hanging against a flat wall, protected behind glass to ensure that no one would damage them. After standing alone in the gallery trying to understand why I felt this way, it finally dawned on me: how absurd it was that these abstract images of the rapidly disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence River were considered untouchable, yet we humans are constantly meddling with and disturbing nature. Photographs are ephemeral, just like the disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence. Why was it so sacrosanct to protect ‘art’ for decades if the world around us was burning down? What’s the effing point? On the day that I took those photos down, I mentioned to the director of the artist-run center, Philippe Dumaine, that this would be the last time that I exhibited my photographs in the traditional manner, two-dimensionally. I had no idea what my next exhibit would look like, but I sensed that I was standing on the threshold of a new direction in my artistic practice.

A month later, I was sitting at the kitchen table of the sound artist Robin Servant, whom I had heard through the grapevine was collecting underwater recordings of the river ice with his hydrophones. In our early discussions, I had not yet developed a vision for the tactile three-dimensional photo sculptures; that would come much later thanks to the input of several artist friends. But when I first proposed this project to Robin, I already knew that I wanted to incorporate braille text into my photos in response to the rhetorical question “Are we not collectively blind to the impact of climate change?” After many iterations over the next 14 months and in collaboration with the local chapter of People Living with Visual Handicaps, we presented ‘La voix des glaces’ in February-March 2023 at the Centre d’artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer in eastern Quebec. Funding for ‘La voix des glaces’ was provided by the Canada Council for the Arts.

Images 10-13 from the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES. Photographs: Joan Sullivan © 2023. 10 A partial view of the installation, made up of eight triangular abstract photo sculptures representing the disappearing ice on Quebec’s Saint Lawrence River. 11 A visitor touches the braille text on one of the eight photographic ice sculptures. 12 A group from the Gaspesie chapter of the Association of Persons with Visual Handicaps visits the installation. 13 Gaëtan Banville, who is blind and a member of the Lower Saint Lawrence chapter of the Association of Persons with Visual Handicaps, reads the braille text from recent IPCC reports embossed onto the eight photographic ice sculptures. Click images for full size.

The response to this multisensory interactive installation, in which visitors were able to experience embodiment of the disappearing river ice by using three of their five senses — sight, touch and hearing — was phenomenal. According to the Centre’s director, attendance at our installation broke all recent records. Especially among the youth. The secondary school students in particular were most captivated by ‘La voix des glaces’. One of their art teachers showed me some of the artwork that her students created after visiting our installation — such incredible abstract paintings, full of energy, movement, and emotion. And yes, rage. It gave me goosebumps knowing that some part of my work resonated with and was internalized by these young people. This gives me hope. We can live with beauty and sadness at the same time.

Showing a publicity poster for the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES at the Centre d'artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer, Quebec.
A publicity poster for the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES at the Centre d’artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer, Quebec.

I’m currently working on the conception for a new exhibit in 2024 or 2025 — my most audacious to date — that incorporates elements of ‘La voix des glaces’ but goes one step further. I’ll write about this in a future post.

Hope you enjoyed reading.

P.S. If anyone out there knows Amitav Ghosh, please thank him for inspiring me to experiment using my camera in new ways that give voice to the nonhuman.


Find out more

‘La voix des glaces’ — created by Joan Sullivan and Robin Servant — was exhibited at Vaste et Vague artists’ centre in Carleton-sur-Mer (Quebec) from 24th February to 31st March 2023. It was supported by The Canada Council for the Arts. 

Les artistes remercient le Conseil des arts du Canada de son soutien financier, et tous ses partneraires pour l’appui précieux : Centre d’artistes Vaste et Vague, Centre VU, Engramme et La Chambre Blanche. / The artists thank the Canada Council for the Arts for its financial support, and all its partners for their valuable support: Center d’artistes Vaste et Vague, Center VU, Engramme and La Chambre Blanche.

Le Devoir, Quebec’s largest independent French-language newspaper, published Faire parler les glaces pour montrer que le climat s’effrite, a review of ‘La voix des glaces’, in February 2023. The Vie des arts magazine article that described Joan’s abstract images as “d’une beauté pleine d’effroi” (“of a beauty filled with dread”) is Un vent du fleuve : expositions au Centre d’art de Kamouraska (A wind from the river: exhibitions at the Kamouraska Art Center: 19th September 2020).

You can see more of Joan’s series ‘Je suis fleuve’/’Becoming River’ and ‘If I were a tree’ at her website. 

You can read Joan’s previous ClimateCultures post, Deconstructing our Dominion Stories in a Time of Unravelling, a joint review of After Ithaca: Journeys in Deep Time, by Charlotte Du Cann (2022) and Loss Soup and Other Stories, by Nick Hunt (2022).

The 2019-20 Black Summer in Australia was covered by Reuters in Australia, scarred by bushfires, on high alert for dangerous summer (19th September 2023) and by the Guardian in The black summer bushfires killed 3 billion animals. They are our relatives; they deserve to be mourned (31st March 2023).

Amy Brady interviewed Amitav Ghosh for the Chicago Review of Books: The Uncanniness of Climate Change (18th September 2019). Ghosh’s 2016 book, The Great Derangement: Climate change and the unthinkable was published by University of Chicago Books.

Joan Sullivan

Joan Sullivan

A photographer, writer and farmer who focuses on climate change and whose abstract, phenomenological approach to photography expresses her ecoanxiety and gives voice to the nonhuman.

Hope Tales – Stories for Change

Entrepreneurial thinker, practical activist and artist Nicky Saunter shares the Hope Tales project she’s working on to find creative ways to make sustainable futures and talk about the role of hope, imagination and story in facing climate change.


1,170 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes approximately


My work with the Rapid Transition Alliance is frequently a strange mix of dreadful fear and awe-inspiring hope. Our field is bang in the middle of climate change and therefore features a daily stream of reports, commentary, data and science on how poorly we tiny humans are doing in curbing our overconsumption and weening ourselves off our drug of choice that is fossil fuels. It is a veritable tsunami that threatens to overwhelm us every day: as wide as it is deep and moving faster every day. It can seem too large to approach with any purpose or clarity. Feelings of panic and hopelessness start to flutter in our bellies — you are probably feeling this already. What is more, climate change is now part of a ‘polycrisis’ — a perfect storm of catastrophic issues, from social division and isolation to pandemics and ecological breakdown.

Grim stuff indeed. But then suddenly in comes a story about yet another person or group who get together — often without much money to start with but a big idea — and do something that is simply brilliant and gives us hope for the future. And I can take a breath again.

Creativity for building change

The significance of this maybe lies less in the actual idea and the ‘fix’ that is being applied to a particular part of this vast issue. Instead, it lies in the inspiring way that single humans continue to work together in the face of impossible odds to cooperate, create and heal — often with surprising success. Despite what pundits would have us think Darwin said about the survival of the fittest and the drive for ruthless competition, we are excellent at cooperating and skillful at creative thinking. We are also capable of fast, practical action. The bit we find hardest is to stop either scaring ourselves witless or putting our fingers in our ears and waiting for all the horrible stuff to go away. How do we open our eyes, follow the science and use our creativity to design and build a new future together on this beautiful planet?

Our Hope Tales project focuses specifically on this feeling; looking at creative ways to make a sustainable future, and talking about the role of hope, imagination and story in facing climate change. Hope Tales is a collaboration between the Rapid Transition Alliance, the Centre for Public and Policy Engagement at the University of Essex and the New Weather Institute, using the power of story to investigate real hope for our future. The Rapid Transition Alliance is known for its research and publications on “evidence-based hope” — stories from the near and distant past that illustrate how real rapid change might be made. But the Hope Tales work has pushed further into the field of creativity, using fiction, poetry and art to stimulate both thought and action on potential new ways of living on Earth.

Showing 'Hope Tales' Chapbook 1: Air

Air, Land, Water – Hope Tales in place

The concept is simple: to gather a group of people in a specific place for a few hours to share short performances of their work on a given topic. The overarching theme is Hope and each event looks through the lens of a further elemental subject. So far, we have looked at Air in a beautifully appointed vintage cinema in Crystal Palace, considered the Land in earthy Somerset in an old woollen mill, and felt the pull of Water in ancient Colchester as part of the Essex book festival. We have held a pinecone on our palm while telling the story of a tree planted by suffragettes, we have woven local plants into plaits in thanks, we have watched oysters clean river water of our filth, and we have listened to the tale of two plaice swimming the seas of Eastern England. We have met a lot of new people, shared spaces and tea and mince pies with them, laughed and gasped in equal share, wondering at the ideas of others and the beauty of their self-expression.

Showing Oysters cleaning polluted river water
Oysters cleaning polluted river water
Hope tales: Showing Weaving plants into plaits
Weaving plants into plaits
Hope Tales: Showing a collaborative poem on earth
Collaborative poem on earth

Photos above by: Nicky Saunter, Andrew Simms and Jules Pretty © 2023

Once the event is over, the content prepared for this one-off performance is then compiled into a small and beautiful book, called a ‘chapbook’. Chapbooks were small, cheaply produced books widely sold and highly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sold by a ‘chapman’, they were used to publish popular or folk literature, almanacks, children’s stories, folk tales, ballads, political prospectuses, poetry and religious tracts. Our own chapbooks follow this tradition of broad subject matter, bite-sized pieces for easy reading and made to be shared and passed on. 

Pandemic learning in action

There is something about the forming and sharing of creative work in an intimate space for a one-off performance that generates excitement, concentrated listening and a keen enjoyment of what others bring. It also reminds us how such interactive and collaborative forms of entertainment are so much more fulfilling to all than the treadmill of consumption we so often ride.

Part of the inspiration for this work came from the global pandemic, during which a flourishing of creative, homemade entertainment was shared and enjoyed worldwide without huge investment or any financial purchases being required. The Rapid Transition Alliance documented this flowering of generosity and creativity in a series of short reports that looked at examples of positive stories. Remember how nature returned and deer wandered through empty shopping malls? How ballerinas unable to dance on stage took to their kitchens and balconies for impromptu performances watched by millions stuck at home? How people of all skill levels took up pencils, paints and brushes, tried sculpture, made their own clothes, sewed and crocheted for each other? How we mended our old stuff, swapped it with others, cooked for those who couldn’t and planted seeds once again?

Hope Tales is taking the pandemic learning and putting it into action with a real focus on place. We try to choose towns that are not big, wealthy or famous for anything in particular. We are showing the diversity of the ordinary and the stories that lie around us in droves, just waiting to be heard and acted on.

Showing Hope Tales Chapbook II: Land


Find out more

The first two Hope Tales chapbooks can be found here: The Hope Tales series. Check the Margate School events listings for the Hope Tales event on 31st October.

You can explore the work of the Rapid Transition Alliance to share inspiring and varied examples of rapid transition and show what kind of changes are possible, how people can help to shape them, and what conditions can make them happen.

The New Weather Institute is a co-op and a think-tank, created to accelerate the rapid transition to a fair economy that thrives within planetary boundaries. The Centre for Public and Policy Engagement at the University of Essex supports academic communities build partnerships with policymakers and the public so that research and education at the University of Essex can improve people’s lives.

Nicky Saunter

Nicky Saunter

An entrepreneurial thinker, practical activist and campaigner, and creative artist who is driven by what we can do rather than what we cannot change.

Power, Love, Religion & Climate Fiction: Life Imitating Art

Writer Rod Raglin discusses his novel The Triumvirate and how a story about power, love and religion finds echoes in our unfolding climate crisis and how we try to come to grips with a hostile and uncertain future.


1,160 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes


I wonder if other writers of climate fiction get the feeling of life imitating art as they watch events unfold this summer.

All my novels have a subplot that addresses one or more environmental issues, however, The Triumvirate – Love for Power, Love of Power, the Power of Love is the only one that could be labeled climate dystopia, “the global collapse of human civilization as either a direct or indirect result of anthropogenic climate change.”

One of the reasons for writing The Triumvirate was to try to imagine the future impact of climate change on where I live, British Columbia, Canada. I looked at how we were responding to the stresses that were developing in our everyday life, the society we lived in and influences beyond our borders. Then I tried to imagine, not dramatically, but realistically how they would manifest in the years to come. I took into account local, national and global attempts to mitigate effects.

Power Love Religion - showing the cover art for The Triumvirate by Rod Raglin

The Triumvirate was completed in 2019 and one of the issues addressed included the likelihood of pandemics. A year later COVID hit and the world was in lockdown. Others were drought, human migration and the breakdown of social order including insurrection and secession.

These last two weeks, the news is validating many of my premises. For example:

— In B.C., Drought Level 5 is the highest level. It means adverse impacts on both communities and ecosystems are almost certain. As of August 3rd, most of B.C.’s water basins are at Drought Level 4 or 5. Officials blamed the conditions on unusually low amounts of rainfall recorded over the last year.

— 366 wildfires currently ravaging B.C. have 30,000 people on evacuation order and 36,000 more under evacuation alert.

— As of August 21st, 5,849 fires had burned 15 million hectares (over 37 million acres), about four percent of the entire forest area of Canada and more than six times the long-term average of 2.46 million hectares (6.1 million acres) for that time of the year.

— “Sell them for nothing or watch them starve”. As B.C.’s drought worsens, farmers are scrambling to protect their livestock and crops. The impacts could be felt for years to come. 

— July 3rd-6th, 2023, were the warmest days on record, crossing 17°C for the daily global mean surface are temperature. The global mean temperature statistic masks the extreme events taking place worldwide.

Daily global mean surface air temperatures – see note for link

Those stories are climate specific, but other more disturbing stories are emerging, and though not directly attributed to climate change are the result of it. Consider:

— A new survey finds more Canadians would vote for a political leader who promised to cut immigration levels than would be repelled by this. This is partly a response to the pressure on healthcare and housing.

— In an op-ed piece, Jason Opal, Professor of History at McGill University, suggests that “America is on the brink of another civil war, this one is fueled by Donald Trump”.

Power, love and religion

In The Triumvirate, the three main characters begin as childhood friends, each with strong principles and character.

Shyloh watched the dynamic develop. Judith and Aiya were opposites. Judith was strength; Aiya feelings. Judith was about action; Aiya considered consequences. Judith looked to the end; Aiya the means. This natural adversity seemed to challenge them, bring out their best.

When the dissension, disagreement, and at times hostility threatened to destroy this triumvirate, a word Shyloh borrowed from history class which meant a group of three powerful people, it was up to him to take the heat and energy generated from the polarity and craft a consensus, identify a goal and, most importantly, create a process for getting there. 

They emerge as adults with their personalities leading them to pursue their principles. Shyloh becomes a politician, Aiya an inter-faith leader and Judith a commander in the military.

When economic and social pressures spawned by climate change make the Canadian federation untenable, Shyloh leads a political movement for secession and wins when Aiya encourages her followers, primarily new immigrants, to support it. But when the government reneges on a promise of citizenship for illegals now in the country — a promise that was key in getting the ethnic vote — violence flares. 

As the government equivocates, Judith, now head of the security forces, doesn’t, and declares martial law.

Making a better world — but which one?

Now cast in key leadership roles, could they come to a consensus as they so often had in the past, one that would restore order and democracy, or would circumstances harden their positions, leaving no room for compromise — as so often is the case today?

They sat at the table, Aiya across from Shyloh and Judith.

“Your gesture in the Legislature was appreciated,” Aiya said.

Shyloh nodded.

“It was reckless,” Judith said. “It was an implicit approval to break the law.”

“If laws are broken it won’t be because of Shyloh’s act of solidarity with the new immigrant population,” Aiya said. “It will be because of the betrayal of the government.”

“Will laws be broken, Aiya?” Shyloh said.

“Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the state has become lawless or corrupt,” Aiya quoted.

“In a democracy, there is only one rule of law, Aiya,”, Judith said. She leaned forward and fixed the other woman with a hard stare. “And it applies to everyone.”

Aiya didn’t flinch. She folded her hands on the table and stared back. Black coals met grey steel.

“A citizen who barters with such a state, shares in its corruption and lawlessness,” Aiya said.

Judith stood. “The army is sworn to support the democratically elected government of Cascadia. We will uphold the rule of law.”

“Shyloh?” Aiya said.

Both women looked at him. In the past, he’d been able to broker a compromise, or better still a third way, which was ultimately stronger. He’d never taken sides before. He wasn’t about to now. Sometimes the best response was no response.

The question posed to the three characters in the novel is already being debated at a societal level, among families, even between partners. If there can only be one better world, whose will be best?

The Triumvirate is a story about love and loyalty, politics and power, race and religion, and sacrifice and survival. More than that, it’s a story I’m seeing unfold before my eyes as I watch us try to come to grips with a hostile and uncertain future.


Find out more

Rod Raglin’s novel The Triumvirate – Love for Power, Love of Power, the Power of Love is available from Amazon in Kindle and in paperback. And you can read his previous for ClimateCultures, A Drop in the Pond.

The graphic for daily global surface air temperature is from the story from Axios on 7th July 2023 Earth saw hottest day yet Thursday…

Rod Raglin

Rod Raglin

A journalist, publisher of an online community newspaper, photographer and writer of novels, plays and short stories that address the human condition and serious environmental issues ...

Create the Future – Creatives in Residence for Climate Change

Actor, director and cultural entrepreneur, Giovanni Enrico Morassutti shared case studies of creatives in residence, of climate theatre and community engagement with an international conference, exploring strategies for encouraging cross-disciplinary projects to address the biodiversity and climate crisis.


1,800 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes


In November 2022 I was invited to give a presentation to ‘Create the Future’, the international conference on opportunities in the arts organised by the TransCultural Exchange at Boston’s Colleges of the Fenway, Massachusetts USA. I focused on Environmental, Climate Change, and Sustainable Art Practices.

I was invited to the conference by artist and curator Mary Sherman and my presentation was sponsored by the TransCultural Exchange’s Betsy Carpenter Foundation and the Rudi Punzo Memorial Fund.

Being part of the conference as a panelist along with American artist and curator Janeil Engelstad, cultural innovator Gordon Knox, and Ute Meta Bauer, director of the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Singapore, enriched my understanding of artistic practices dealing with ecological and climate-related topics. During the panel, we focused on how creative residencies can provide artists with direct access to understanding climate change.

Art Aia – Creatives In Residence

I presented strategies for encouraging activities and opportunities for cross-disciplinary projects incorporating art, theatre, science, environmentalism, and business. I described a few case studies such as the ATE Residency in Sustainable Practice, a residency programme sponsored by the Center for Sustainable Practices in the Arts, and a think tank for sustainability in the arts and culture. I curated and organised this programme in 2018 together with Gudrun Filipska from the Arts Territory Exchange, a nonprofit organisation in the arts that is creating vast global opportunities for artists. Two international artists (Kelly Leonard and Beatrice Lopez) got the opportunity to stay at Art Aia – Creatives In Residence, exploring their ecological art practices by sharing, after a year’s correspondence, their perspectives on sustainability.

Showing the setting for Art Aia - Creatives In Residence, a cultural centre and creative residency, in the Friulian countryside in the province of Pordenone, Italy. Photograph: Stefano Padovan
Art Aia – Creatives In Residence. Photograph: Stefano Padovan

Art Aia – Creatives In Residence (AACIR) is a cultural centre, a creative residency, located within an agricultural centre situated in the Friulian countryside near the town of Sesto al Reghena in the province of Pordenone, Italy. Its aims are artistic research and experimentation in the area, information, and promotion of art and culture locally and internationally, promoting exchanges and collaborations between individual artists and groups of various nationalities and backgrounds. I founded Art Aia – Creatives In Residence to create a place for artistic production and research that focuses on the creative process and facilitates cultural exchange across borders. The main focus of our programmes is climate change art and theatre and sustainable art practices. I am glad to perform a leading role in the organisation, and this work represents my contribution to the Climate Justice movement.

AACIR also intends to raise awareness and call for action on issues related to global warming, climate change, and the risks that biodiversity is facing. During the ATE Residency in Sustainable Practice, for instance, Kelly and Beatrice also met Prince Guecello di Porcia, among other eco-entrepreneurs, and discussed the intertwining of sustainable business and art practices. Guecello is the owner of Cantina Principi di Porcia, a sustainable farm and vineyard that limits the use of environmental resources thanks to technological innovation.

While visiting his farm, the artists walked with a large filtering fabric in front of a large deposit of processed soy to emphasise the necessity of filtering and recycling. The fabric was then hung up in one of the art spaces of Art Aia – Creatives In Residence, along with the residue of processed soy from the winery as a symbol of a sustainable future, creating the artwork ‘Filter’. The ATE Residency in Sustainable Practice has been an opportunity to create connections between people coming from different fields, creating a dialogue and opening up strategies for interdisciplinary sustainable practices.

Showing 'Filtering' and other artworks at Art Aia - Creatives In Residence. Photograph: Beatrice Lopez
‘Filtering’ and other artworks at Art Aia – Creatives In Residence. Photograph: Beatrice Lopez

I was pleased by what Guecello said referring to Art Aia – Creatives In Residence during the Circular Economy forum in Milan in 2020, that its initiatives offer opportunities to discover a territory almost completely unknown to tourists from a unique perspective. He was very impressed by the work of Beatrice and Kelly, especially by their capacity to express the concept of sustainability through their artworks. About the local environment, Kelly Leonard was affected by the verdancy of the area surrounding AACIR. She said: “I found the area of Italy to be too green, too rich, too comfortable…”

Showing hay bales in the countryside near Art Aia - Creatives in Residence, Italy. Photograph: Clara Filipelli
Hay bales in the countryside. Photograph: Clara Filipelli

Climate Change Theatre Action

The other case study I dispensed in Boston was based on climate change theatre. I participated in Climate Change Theatre Action 2021, a worldwide series of readings and performances of short climate change plays presented biennially to coincide with the United Nations climate change COP meetings.

I contacted the prominent Italian environmental association Legambiente to collaborate on the production of an event near the Tagliamento river, which is considered the last morphologically intact river in the Alps. I decided on such a location in respect of its authenticity. Its canals and water make me feel connected to nature and life. I think it is crucial to create occasions to share the delicate balance of Planet Earth that we have drastically violated in the last 50 years. In Friuli Venezia Giulia, the region where my art residency is located, Climate Change Theatre Action involved different partners, both public and private. The Regional Environmental Protection Agency sent one of their scientists to illustrate climate changes at local and global levels, reconnecting what is happening in the territory to phenomena on a global scale: their causes, effects, and possible actions to limit and cope with climate change. The municipality of Morsano al Tagliamento hosted part of the conference in the historical landmark of an old furnace.

To produce the event, I launched grassroots fundraising to connect with the region and foster community involvement. The first part of the event had the character of an informational meeting for citizens. Several local artists took part, such as Silvia Braida. And Edoardo Marcon, owner of the company La Casa del Sole, explained how photovoltaic panels work and provided a solar power station to give clean energy during the event.

For Climate Change Theatre Action sul Tagliamento, as a theater director, I presented the play When, written by playwright Wren Brian. We rehearsed the play at AACIR, where actresses Viviana Piccolo and Clelia DelPonte could focus on its environmental message. I decided to direct this play because of its universal meaning to reconnect with nature, to re-establish a connection with Mother Earth.

In the production, I also added some recordings of memorable speeches delivered by young activists including Greta Thunberg and Severn Cullis-Suzuki — also known as “The Little Girl Who Silenced the World for 5 Minutes” when she addressed the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. I was moved by their courage and spontaneity and I thought that such recordings could express a sense of urgency and be a good addition to the composition of the play. I discussed my creative choice with Wren Brian, and not only did she like the idea but, as a Canadian living in Treaty 1 territory, the ancestral and traditional homeland of Anishinaabe people, she also suggested I do some research on Autumn Peltier, an Anishinaabe Indigenous rights advocate from the Wikwemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada. I was impressed by Autumn Peltier’s activism on the issue of water protection, and since the play was staged by the river, I decided to include part of her speech as well.

Showing the Climate Ribbon in Friuli Venezia Giulia, for Climate Change Theatre 2021 at Art Aia - Creatives in Residence. Photograph: Francesco Simoni
The Climate Ribbon in Friuli Venezia Giulia. Photograph: Francesco Simoni

Our team installed a climate ribbon — inspired by The Climate Ribbon project that started in New York City at the 2014 People’s Climate March — which featured a large tree where anyone who wished to do so was able to express, by writing on a ribbon, their thoughts on what they love and what they fear losing due to climate change. Also, in Friuli, by hanging ribbons on the tree, each participant expressed their solidarity and will to fight against climate chaos.

Together with the Regional Environmental Protection Agency, we also created an online questionnaire where people could reveal anonymously their fears about the climate crisis. The phrases collected online, such as “the sound of the wind blowing in the trees” or “the snow”, were transcribed on ribbons and displayed during Climate Change Theatre Action sul Tagliamento.

My effort is to strengthen the ecological component of AACIR through further cultural and artistic initiatives and through the restoration of some spaces to be repurposed for artistic practices in harmony with the natural environment of the territory. I am glad that Art Aia – Creatives In Residence is recognised abroad. Being invited as a speaker to the Transcultural Exchange Conference in Boston and tapping into their network of artists, curators, residency directors, grantmakers and international arts professionals — as well as judging the work of other artists in the portfolio of review sessions — all expanded my horizons.

I believe a multidisciplinary approach to the topic of climate change can raise awareness and increase solidarity among different partners. These projects created a kind of connection between people that led to collective civic action, political expression, community dialogue, and shared cultural experiences, seeing art as a vehicle for understanding environmental issues, and better reflecting on practical solutions to prevent the climate crisis and to foster sustainability.


Find out more

Create the Future was TransCultural Exchange’s 2022 International Conference on Opportunities in the Arts, in Boston, Massachusetts USA from 4th – 6th November 2022. TransCultural Exchange’s mission is to foster a greater understanding of world cultures. They do this through large-scale, global art projects, cultural exchanges and educational programming.

Explore the residencies and other activities of Art Aia – Creatives In Residence, an international art residency for artistic production and research that combines art, environmental sustainability and ecotherapy practices. AACIR focuses on the development of the creative process, facilitating cultural exchange across borders. It is located near the Comune of Sesto al Reghena in the north-eastern Italian region Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

You can watch the short and powerful speech that 12-year old Severn Cullis-Suzuki from British Columbia, Canada gave to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro at Before Greta, there was Severn, the B.C. girl who silenced the world in the Vancouver Sun (26/9/19). And you can read an interview with Autumn Peltier, who is the Anishinabek Nation chief water commissioner, explaining how Indigenous communities in Canada are fighting for their right to safe, clean drinking water in Autumn Peltier: a long walk for First Nations’ water rights from CIWEM, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management. 

You can read about Wren Brian’s play Whencommissioned for Climate Change Theatre 2021 and performed in six countries, including Italy — at her website, where you can also hear a short audio from a performance.

Giovanni Enrico Morassutti

Giovanni Enrico Morassutti

An actor, director, cultural entrepreneur, founder of Art Aia - Creatives In Residence, promoting environmental and biodiversity protection, inviting communities to take action on the climate emergency.