Regional Futures: Giving Voice to Human and More-Than-Human

Artist Kim V. Goldsmith shares her work with Regional Futures in NSW, Australia, exploring people’s feelings for rural territories. We need to listen better to each other, ourselves, and more-than-human worlds for more collaborative approaches to the future.


2,600 words: estimated reading time = approximately 10 minutes + option audio pieces


Few of us in the ClimateCultures network would dispute that rural and regional territories across the world are on the frontline of climate change. In the past six years, south-eastern Australia has experienced severe drought (2017- 2019), described by our national weather bureau as “a situation with no clear historical precedent” [1], followed by the unprecedented bushfires of 2019/20 that burnt 5.5 million hectares or seven percent of New South Wales (NSW) [2], and just last year, record rainfall events resulted in floods across south-east Queensland and NSW considered to be in our top three historical natural disasters. These are not records to take pride in.

Listening to regional futures in New South Wales

In early 2022, when I was given the opportunity to delve into how people in the regions of NSW feel about the future, it was knowing I’d be working in the heartland of politically conservative Australia [3], where farming and other primary industries are heavily reliant on fossil fuels. I have lived and worked in this part of Australia for most of my life. Despite the devastating impact of drought, fire and floods on these communities, the majority in rural Australia will unfailingly continue to vote for conservative parties. As happened in May 2022, when the Labor Party returned to power in Canberra but little changed in regional electorates. This pattern of voting behaviour continued to result in a similar outcome in the 2023 NSW State election — where the political battlefront was Western Sydney not Western NSW. The only real change has been more conservative Independent candidates in the race against the parties they were once part of.

In her book, How to Talk About Climate Change in a Way That Makes a Difference, Dr Rebecca Huntley writes: “There is clearly a disconnect between what people say they are worried about and want action on and who, when given the chance, they pick to lead their country.” Huntley references Per Espen Stoknes’ book, What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, where he writes: “For those of us who find ourselves stuck in the moral conundrum of the climate doom story, passive denial offers an easy way out.” One might argue that voting actions are perhaps more active denial, as we’ve seen in regional electorates.

However, Huntley also talks about the constant repetition of climate change facts and figures as a familiar script that can leave us cold or, even worse, bored, creating a collective stupor. What the science tends not to recognise is our messy social realities — the rising cost of living, housing shortages, poor health services, personal safety, and mental health issues. The day-to-day chore of living tends to take priority over environmental concerns.

Showing artist Kim V. Goldsmith listening to a solar inverter with an electromagnetic microphone.
Artist, Kim V. Goldsmith listening to a solar inverter with an electromagnetic microphone.

As an artist, my interest over the past decade has largely been creative interpretations of acoustic and social ecologies — the intersection of human and more-than-human species in often fragile and vulnerable rural and regional territories. When the opportunity to be part of a project called Regional Futures came up through the NSW Regional Arts Network — funded by the State Government — I was keen to develop a series of works that would give a voice to the voiceless in our regional environments, and provide a platform for under-represented individuals in the regions to share their fears, anxieties, hopes and dreams of the future — things we are not often asked about. My project is called Vaticinor (The Augur), a reference to predicting the future by observing natural signs.

Over several months, I spoke with 18 residents of the Central West and the Mid North Coast regions of NSW, in an inland/coastal conversation about how the transition to renewable energy sources might shape net-zero regional futures.

 

Aged 15 to 70, the storytellers in this montage all believe Regional NSW is a wonderful place to live but their stories and concerns are genuine and their messages urgent.

My home region of the Central West was the first Renewable Energy Zone (REZ) to be declared in Australia because of its potential (and proximity) to contribute energy to the national electricity market through large-scale solar and wind developments. It’s being billed as a power station of the future. The NSW Government is overseeing the development of the zone, including transmission projects, and expects up to A$5 billion in private investment to the region by 2030. The intended network capacity of this zone is three gigawatts, enough to power 1.4 million homes [4].

What this looks like on the ground is kilometre after kilometre of rolling hills or cleared flat, red soil country covered in black solar panels — shiny sun-seeking faces dominating the landscape; and giant, white wind turbines, blades gracefully arcing against blue skies, spread across thousands of hectares of farmland. Some of these developments sit on farming land while other parcels of land are dedicated to the cause.

Regional Futures: Showing wind turbines near Wellington NSW, part of the Bodangora Wind Farm. Photograph: Kim V. Goldsmith
Wind turbines near Wellington NSW, part of the Bodangora Wind Farm. Photograph: Kim V. Goldsmith

Communities within the REZ are torn about the good these massive clean energy developments offer, despite the negotiation and distribution of community fund sweeteners. Some see solar panels and wind turbines as an eyesore — impacting the visual amenity some regions have come to rely on for attracting new residents and tourism; others believe it is poor use of productive agricultural land needed to feed and clothe us into the future.

The regions, particularly those inland, are doing much of the heavy lifting when it comes to energy supply in the form of food and power production. Cities and more densely populated coastal areas are facing critical land and housing shortages, with limited capacity to produce food or power for their growing populations; they will lean more heavily on the regions in years to come [5].

Investments into renewables is an opportunity for some who have fought to remain viable through droughts, floods and seasons of low productivity; solar or wind hosting arrangements are providing the financial security they need to remain on the land they love.

Karin Stark lives on a farm near Narromine — a particularly conservative rural community in the Central West, where she has driven the conversation around renewable energy in agriculture. With her credentials in environmental science and farming, she’s keen to see rural and regional communities empowered in the transition to renewables, particularly in areas where there’s large-scale development.

“It’s important that agriculture does continue to develop and adapt to different technologies, different weather events, to secure our food supplies. But I think really with energy and food we need to have a more interconnected or integrated way of thinking, so that we can do both in this region.

“There needs to be more focus on the distribution level of allowing farmers and regional communities to produce the energy themselves rather than (rely on) these massive solar and wind farms.”

Some are quietly fearful of what the future holds for rural communities despite the work being done to adapt. Fourth-generation Narromine farmer, Bruce Maynard won the prestigious National Landcare Award in 2022 for his agroecology work and advocacy, believing that broadening the on-farm biodiversity base also means broadening the productive capacity. He firmly believes people are the reason behind doing any of this.

Regional Futures: Showing Bruce Maynard, 2022 National Landcare Award winner and fourth-generation farmer at Narromine in Central West NSW. Photo by Kim V. Goldsmith.
Bruce Maynard, 2022 National Landcare Award winner and fourth-generation farmer at Narromine in Central West NSW. Photograph: Kim V. Goldsmith

“I do feel somewhat challenged and pessimistic about rural communities in Australia in particular, in that they continue to shrink. I put people first, landscape, and then business third as serving those other two main factors … for any of our efforts out here to be worthwhile, I believe it needs a thriving community.”

Conversations with discomfort and hope

Transitions to new ways of being and thinking don’t come without discomfort and a strong sense of inequity. For those not privileged enough to buy into the renewables revolution or who are simply more concerned about their personal safety and putting food on the table, the conversation about climate change and what that means is still abstract.

Having recently moved to the Central West for a job following tertiary study, 25-year-old Bageshri still has close ties to India.

“There are people I have grown up with that have way more complex issues to deal with, just regarding their safety or the place that they live.

“I definitely think people who can make change are people in positions of power, people with money, people with influence. We just need to really look at who we’re voting for, and elect people who actually think about the future.”

Stephen Callaghan moved to Dubbo in Central West NSW about six years ago, to an area of the city he describes as a low socio-economic area. To offset rising power costs, his family used a small inheritance to invest in a solar battery system. It’s something they felt they couldn’t afford not to do.

“I honestly don’t know, looking at our electricity bill, how some of our neighbours are coping. 

“I can see a future where it’s not going to be survival of the fittest, but it’s definitely going to be the haves and have-nots, and it’s going to be related around power and energy.”

Net-zero targets by 2050 were described by 16-year-old high school student, Madelyn Leggett as being like a homework assignment. She has a very strong sense of her place in the world and is itching for the day she can exercise her vote.

“People procrastinate and procrastinate, and nothing gets done and then we reach December 2049, and we go ‘Oh! Nothing’s happened!’ We still haven’t changed enough, and there still hasn’t been enough policy or legislation passed to make an effective change or impact on the environment.

“I think the political push for a net zero world is there. And I think it does affect people’s outlook on how we see the future and I think it affects the way that people consider not just consumerism but voting and democracy, and how they consider their political actions.”

Regional Futures: showing High school student, Madelyn Leggett, from Wellington NSW. Photograph by Kim V. Goldsmith
High school student, Madelyn Leggett, from Wellington NSW. Photograph: Kim V. Goldsmith

As parents of young children and living off-the-grid in a coastal forest on the Mid North Coast, Aliya Aamot and her partner are passionate about guiding their children through a more ‘self-efficient’ way of life.

“These children that grow up in the bush, with parents who are teaching them life skills, this is what the planet needs for the future.

“It’s very important for us, especially kids in cities to know this process of where the food comes from, how it’s been grown… There’s just so much nature will teach the children just by letting the children be in nature.”

Collaborative, more-than-human regional futures

It’s very easy to put humans at the centre of this conversation — we do it all the time. However, there’s a growing awareness that our future hinges on a more collaborative approach, where more-than-human species gain more rights [6] and a greater voice. This is what has really underpinned my interest in the Regional Futures project and the works I developed through Vaticinor.

I’ve observed the discord at the intersection of the human and more-than-human species across rural and regional territories, yet to be resolved. The multi-track soundscape composition, Humi, I created for the Regional Futures exhibition brings the sounds of the more-than-human together with the built structures and technologies we’ve created for our convenience, including renewables, weaving together a story around this uncertain period of transition between our past and our future. The work is accompanied by a haptic experience, reducing the soundscape to vibrations through 3D-printed hands, reminding us we are one with the sonic world whether we hear it or not.

Showing Humi Haptic Hands co-designed by Kim V. Goldsmith and Brian McNamara, which reduce the Humi soundscape to four frequencies experienced as vibrations through 3D printed hands. Photo by Kim V. Goldsmith.
Humi Haptic Hands co-designed by Kim V. Goldsmith and Brian McNamara, reduce the Humi soundscape to four frequencies experienced as vibrations through 3D printed hands. Photograph: Kim V. Goldsmith

The signs of what potentially lies ahead have been there for some time now, but as Stoknes suggests, ignoring them may have been a way of dealing with the discomfort. The cocoons we’ve woven around our lives in rural and regional Australia and beyond are unravelling in the face of extreme weather events, or as James Bridle puts it in Ways of Being: Beyond Human Intelligence: “…tiny moments of turbulent activity through which we can barely grasp an unseen, unknowable totality.”

As we come to terms with that totality, the challenge will be creating equity for all in the transition to a fossil-fuel-free world at the same time as developing a more connected and entangled life with those other species we share the planet with — those who remain mostly voiceless. We need to listen better to each other, to ourselves, and to more-than-human worlds. In the meantime, we shall continue to sit with the discomfort of our choices.

 

The Humi soundscape composition is a story of the discordant interdependence of human and more-than-human species against a backdrop of pressing time. Weaving their way through the composition are sounds of species not often heard by the naked human ear or those given little thought to in our daily busyness — earthworms, bats, fish, individual birds in choruses of birdsong reverberating through remnant forests on the edges or urban development and cleared farmland. Meanwhile, manmade structures click and thrum, boom and hum — solar arrays, wind turbines, dam walls, motorboats, and fossil-fuelled vehicles — designed for our convenience and enjoyment, creating around-the-clock noise within worlds we do not hear or see.


References

[1] Australian Bureau of Meteorology: Previous Droughts.

[2] NSW Department of Planning and Environment: Understanding the effects of the 2019-20 fires.

[3] Australian Electoral Commission: Results from the 2022 Australian Government election at which the Australian Labor Party won (last in power in 2013).

[4] NSW Government: Central-West Orana Renewable Energy Zone.

[5] Greater Cities Commission: Past, present and future.

[6] The Brooks McCormick Jr. Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School: One Rights: Human and Animal Rights in the Anthropocene (3/1/23).

Find out more

Kim V. Goldsmith was commissioned by Dubbo Regional Council in partnership with Orana Arts to be part of the Regional Futures project. For more information about the Vaticinor project and resulting artwork, see Vaticinor.

The first Soundcloud audio piece in Kim’s post is a 39-minute montage of 18 storytellers sharing their thoughts about the future, presented for exhibition as part of the ‘Regional Futures’ series of exhibitions in NSW Australia, in a vintage suitcase, upholstered in custom-printed fabric, with postcards of links and invitations to audiences to share their story. 

The second Soundcloud audio piece is ‘Humi’ (in/on/to the ground), a 15-minute composition of field recordings, transitional tones and chords melding sounds of the Mid North Coast, Manning Valley and Central West of NSW into one story; a story of the discordant interdependence of human and more-than-human species against a backdrop of pressing time. 

The sound and text works of Vaticinor will be shown in Sydney from 24th June – 24th September 2023 in Regional Futures: Artists in a Volatile Landscape, at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Western Sydney.

You can read Kim’s previous post for ClimateCultures, co-authored with Andrew Howe: Mosses and Marshes: Creative Engagement with Wetlands.

The books Kim quotes from are:

Kim V. Goldsmith

Kim V. Goldsmith

An artist exploring layers of nuance, complexity and hidden elements to present rural, regional and remote landscapes and communities in ways that make the familiar, unfamiliar.

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