Words matter. When it comes to talking about the ecological and climate predicaments we already live with or see coming down the tracks — and sharing ideas about how we should respond to these urgent priorities and their ramifications — our different interpretations of those words can entangle us in disagreement, confusion and competing visions. They can also enrich our conversations and lead us to reappraise some of our ideas and choices.
A diversity of meanings
What do we mean by ‘environment’ or ‘climate’? What do we imagine ‘change’ involves: whether those changes that some people and places are already experiencing, those that others are fearing or maybe feel indifferent to, or the changes we want to make in order to tackle the problems? Is it a ‘climate crisis’, a ‘climate emergency’ or a ‘climate breakdown’, an ‘extinction catastrophe’ or some other verbal shorthand for what we’re living through? The diversity of ideas, and of our language and other ways of expressing the times we’re in, is at the core of ClimateCultures. A diversity of imaginings of where and how we are and what might be.
The idea of ‘keywords’ is one way into exploring the varied but shared landscape of our changing natural and social worlds and climate.
We are delighted to be part of a short interdisciplinary project created by the University of Bristol, whose Centre for Environmental Humanities is one of a growing network of such academic centres that bring fresh literary, artistic and historical perspectives to the issues from beyond (but informed by) the expanding natural and physical and social sciences of the ‘environment’. This Environmental Keywords project — which has received funding from the Natural Environment Research Council — is led by Dr Paul Merchant, Co-Director of the Centre and Senior Lecturer in Latin American Film and Visual Culture in the School of Modern Languages.
The project focuses on three keywords, three half-day workshops in Bristol to explore these words, and online content here at ClimateCultures.
Keywords, local workshops
The local workshops were facilitated by Anna Haydock-Wilson, who organises arts activities and events within diverse communities that bring people together to explore social and environmental realities, enjoy creative processes and help to amplify under-represented voices. These small, friendly events offered a space for conversations between researchers from different departments and disciplines across the University of Bristol, representatives of local community groups, and creative practitioners — for example members of ClimateCultures and Bristol Climate Writers.
‘Justice’ — Wednesday 16th February 2022
‘Resilience’ — Wednesday 9th March 2022
‘Transitions’ – Thursday 24th March 2022
Anna made this short Environmental Keywords film with Paul and fellow workshop participants:
Each word, selected because of its resonance with so many of our social and environmental priorities, has been a contested and critical focus for local, national and global attention — not least the COP26 global climate change conference in Glasgow in November 2021. Together, these three words — and so many more — inform agendas for action. But whose agenda and what action? There are at least as many answers to those questions as there are meanings of the words themselves.
All three events began with a ‘Walk and Talk’ in a different local area of Bristol, where participants met, explored ideas of justice, resilience and transitions and made personal notes about what these mean in an environmental context. Everyone then gathered back at the venue to share their perspectives, and take part in role-playing and mapping activities to help bring these views together.
After the first workshop, on ‘Justice’ at the Easton Community Centre in Bristol, project leader Paul Merchant said:
I was really happy with how this first workshop went. I thought that our walk and activities revealed unexpected common points of view across disciplinary and professional differences, and I’m looking forward to building on our ideas for an environmentally fairer Bristol in the next session. Given today’s events with Storm Eunice, ‘Resilience’ seems a timely theme!— Dr Paul Merchant, Co-Director of the Centre for Environmental Humanities, University of Bristol
Towards an ‘Undisciplined Glossary’
On these pages, ClimateCultures will be following up on some of the ideas from the workshops, with editor Mark Goldthorpe speaking one-to-one with the participants to help with this. He explains: “With this project, as well as the workshops, we’re seeing if we can develop the beginnings of what we’re calling an ‘Undisciplined Glossary’ for these keywords.
“The idea of a ‘glossary’ is intended to be a ‘proof of concept’: proposing the idea that our different creative practices as well as our many academic disciplines and lived experiences can together offer a range or spectrum of interpretations of the words we all use a lot but often use in different ways and contexts. The idea of this glossary is not to seek to narrow down our descriptions towards something singular but to keep them open, while giving us a space where we’re not just talking past each other when we use our own versions of these words. So this glossary might be ‘undisciplined’ as well as interdisciplinary, in the sense that it wouldn’t aim to convince everyone of its meanings and strive for a final consensus. Not only is this too small a project for that grand aim, but that desire to come to a quick agreement — although understandable in the face of urgent issues — risks closing down the conversation just when we need to hold it open and invite in different voices and views. Disciplines have great strength and value in how we build and expand our knowledge and how we communicate that, so it’s clear that every discipline will arrive at its own definitions and ways of speaking to itself and others. As such, ‘undisciplining’ something like a glossary hopefully is not seen as being ‘anti-disciplines’ but as a way of holding open the borders and the in-between spaces so that we can explore the possibilities of the interstices. Gaps from which more understanding can emerge.”
So look out for new content on our blog and in our new Keywords section as this work takes shape over the next few weeks and beyond. Mark is contacting the first set of workshop participants now and will be sharing insights, ideas and prompts for discussion here very soon — with an invitation for other artists, curators and researchers to join in the conversation.
Environmental Keywords on the ClimateCultures blog
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reflects on some of the participants’ insights from a workshop exploring the word ‘Justice’. This was the first in the short Environmental Keywords series from the University of Bristol during February and March 2022.
16 March 2022
Responding to our first Environmental Keywords post on ‘Justice’, writer Brit Griffin shares a reflection on permeability — in the natural membranes of the living world, in our binary concepts and in our imaginations — as a reaching towards the more-than-human.
30 March 2022
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reflects on some of the participants’ encounters and experiences at a workshop exploring the word ‘Resilience’, the second in the short Environmental Keywords series from the University of Bristol during February and March 2022.
11 April 2022
Responding to our Environmental Keywords post on ‘Resilience’, psychotherapist Susan Holliday uses a story from her book Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart to seek a more resilient nature, finding signs that collective stresses need not overwhelm us.
18 April 2022
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe shares participants’ reflections from a workshop exploring the word ‘Transitions’ – the final Environmental Keywords discussion from the University of Bristol – and the sense that we need better words to capture our imaginations.
20 May 2022
Taking the Conversation Forward — Creative Responses
In these pages, you can explore more from our contributors on this first two keywords — ‘Justice’ and ‘Resilience’ — with extracts from creative pieces, links to books, papers and other resources, and quotes — examples that perhaps suggest paths towards possible definitions.
All ClimateCultures members and other visitors to our site are invited to offer their own insights and responses, ideas and examples. Do let us have your thoughts, questions suggestions and examples via the Leave a Reply box on the Walking With the Word Justice' post or via our Contact page.