New content is added at the end of the page: See our latest contributions, from researcher and writer Bill McGuire and artist Helen Cann.
As with our pages taking the conversations forward on ‘Environmental Justice’ and ‘Environmental Resilience’ — both of which offered creative and reflective responses to the themes explored in early blog posts in the Environmental Keyword series — this page is a space for members of ClimateCultures, as artists, researchers or curators, to share short pieces or extracts of their own work thinking on ideas of ‘Transitions’ in environmental thought and action.
This was the final of three keywords explored at workshops developed by the University of Bristol’s Centre for Environmental Humanities during February and March 2022, and ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe looked at the reflections offered by participants in our post Moving With the Word ‘Transitions’. Here, we take an opportunity to build the conversation — not just between people or ideas of ‘transitions’, but of creative ways to address them.
This page remains open for new contributions from our members, so do send in yours! And anyone can Leave a Reply at the bottom of this page, of course.
Many thanks to our contributors so far: Nadine Andrews, Chantal Bilodeau, Helen Cann, Rajat Chaudhuri, Paul Feather, Stanley Grill, Mick Haining, Jacqui Jones, Bill McGuire, Indigo Moon, Genevieve Rudd, Yky.
Creative contributions from ClimateCultures members
Bilingual writer and activist Rajat Chaudhuri — whose works include eco-disaster novel The Butterfly Effect and work with international NGOs and the UN Commission on Sustainable Development — writes of transitions as ‘pathways to the future’: “All action becomes futile unless we can head towards one of those low emission scenarios through a series of decisions that help to reduce emission while also guaranteeing justice and equity.”
There are various ways that transition can happen and we have the well-known niche, regime, landscape level transitions, one seeding the other. Also times of upheaval and stress could be the right moment to push these transitions from niche to regime and regime to landscape. A big push for renewable energy technologies in the backdrop of oil price shocks is a possibility in this regard. Also in the sphere of collective action and policy to change attitudes and reduce emissions, we have seen commentaries and studies which suggest how socio-economic systems can reach tipping points (similar to earth systems) and transition rapidly (cascading) to better trajectories through concerted action.
Over the last two years, a team of game designers, scientists, subject experts and four writers including me, worked on a video game which uses the concepts of pathways and policy decision-making to explore how our decisions on a host of issues will determine how far we can achieve emissions goals besides justice and equity. The game is titled Survive the Century and it is free to play. I have written a report about the game in The Telegraph: Vaccines & sinking cities. And the video game can be played at Survive the Century.Besides the game mechanics, which uses a climate model, the narrative visions future scenarios through stories written by us. These help the player imagine how the future may change depending on actions we take today and over the coming decades. Such games can also help policymakers use backcasting and other methods to anticipate right policies for transitioning to greener and more equitable futures. Survive the Century will soon be published as a book.
Indigo Moon is a queer creative, writer, artist, poet, witch, activist and founder of Creative Being, a platform and community using creativity to inspire change and amplify marginalised voices. Indigo has responded to this keyword with a third short poem. This and her poems offered for our ‘Justice’ and ‘Resilience’ pages are part of a selection of six recent poems Indigo has now published here on ClimateCultures – see Only Star.
Doubt of Birds Can you doubt - a flock of birds, instinctual, their wings synchronised, destination felt by currents of wind and water When this, you, I, becomes the bird, we never want to walk again.
Writer Mick Haining is a retired drama teacher and writer of short stories, plays and haiku on nature. He shares a selection from a large collection of his haiku on the ecological ad climate crisis. You can find the full collection at haikumick on Instagram. Mick explains:
“What I used to do was to combine haiku with the approach of Andy Goldsworthy [for example], by creating them with or on material that would eventually merge with the environment. Thus, I wrote on leaves, pebbles on the beach and even carved one into a Hallowe’en pumpkin. I also formed them out of sand, leaves, berries, pebbles and even once out of cherry blossom. The last lot I did was on sticky notes I’d leave in supermarkets – I called them Rebel Haiku.”
Stanley Grill is a composer of music that attempts to translate something about the nature of the physical world or promote world peace, sparking positive thoughts and inspiring change. Here, he offers thoughts on transitions — and a video of his composition, Transfiguration for Four Violas: “This recording was one of those ‘only in a pandemic’ activities, with Brett Deubner, isolated in the studio, brilliantly playing all four parts, and I, from home, listening in.”
TRANSITIONS. These are random thoughts evoked by the word. Transition is our constant state of being. Like most, I rarely think of my life that way, always fixed on a belief in the permanence of who I am, even if knowing, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, that such a belief is an illusion. We are not fixed. At every instant, we are in flux, poised between our past and our future. We can become something new, something different, in an instant, if only we could see the possibility and release our furious grip on the past.
And what is true for each of us as individuals is also true for humanity at large. Our behaviors, for both good and ill, never seem to change – but our nature is malleable and all could change – in an instant. We just don’t. Our world is in transition, as it always was, only today, the pace at which we are transformed and at which we transform the world around us, seems to increase at an exponential rate.
What keeps us from changing for the better? From saying no to our most destructive behaviors and yes to becoming less self-centered, kinder, in harmony with our world? Fear. We fear we might lose ourselves if we changed our habitual ways of living, of thinking. Creatures of habit, most of us are mired in old ways of thinking, of doing, of living, and too fixed in our ways to transition with intentionality. Rather, the transitioning happens to us, as there is no staying still in the same place. It happens to us, and often that change, wrought upon us by the blind actions of others, is for the worse.
Instead, with intentionality, fill our minds with a vision of a different world, one in which humanity exists in harmony with itself and with all that film of life that coats our planet and with whom we are interdependent, and an altogether different journey can begin.
Citizen artist Yky explores urban resilience with photographic works that use argentic paper’s response to light to highlight the challenges raised by climate hazards in urban spaces. Offering examples from his ‘Tipping Points’ series of works, he asks “What is the meaning we can give to the word ‘transitions’? And how do we perceive them in a world that has glorified a Western culture grounded in the enlightenment in disregard of a purported indigenous ignorance? Last year, The Earth Institute of Columbia University, NYC, organized a four-day conference on climate-forced displacement, with the evocative title “At What Point Managed Retreat? Resilience, Relocation and Climate Justice”.
Interestingly, one panel discussed how colonialism created institutions that have subjugated indigenous communities in their right to self-determination on grounds of “necessary” transition.
Undoubtedly, climate change consequences, ignored despite three decades of scientific warning, reinforce the panarchy framework of our societies, adding complexity to socio-cultural adaptations and challenging our level of transition’s acceptability. Our understanding of biased assessments is improving thanks to the continuous efforts of the scientific community. But it has its limits in the way we can prepare ourselves for a future with unpredictability becoming the new norm. We may realize how unsustainable are our consumption patterns but, still, we tend to bounce back to our old habits when facing disasters. ‘Bouncing forward’ remains a vague concept, hurting our systemic habits inherited for generations.
In this respect, “tipping points” provide a useful insight on the way we should understand the complexity of transitional changes. A tipping point refers to a small change making a huge difference in the way our society is organized, causing a major shift to our daily lives. Mostly used to address environmental-related issues, tipping points should be seen as having the potential of critical social changes as well, impacting governance, solidarity, or sense of care. Leading to irreversible consequences, their outcome is in theory positive or negative. However, the fundamental threats and challenges to (human) nature are so high that the dominant view emphasizes our inability to perceive the disruptions driven by the Anthropocene. More than ever, the cornerstone of resilience thinking appears in its full magnitude: nothing should be taken for granted. We urgently need to refine our ability to reconsider what needs to be reconsidered, to better face the transitions to come.
In the below photographic works, the argentic paper’s property of darkening when exposed to light is used to magnify the tensions between the original materiality of our surroundings and their projected ephemerality. While one half of the photograph remains stable, the other half will continuously darken in time, with a dividing line based on figures of socio-ecological disruptions which have occurred over the past two decades. Contrary to what most people could think, the darkening half in no way means a negative vision which would be opposed to the stable one. The darkening process recalls that the stability of a system should never be taken for granted, without any assumption of a desired or undesired outcome. Current challenges may look insurmountable but only the future will tell if our planetary boundaries have been crossed with no hope of return. Bouncing forward is still an option, hopefully helping us to understand the meaning of “transitions”.
You can see Yky’s full series of 10 ‘Tipping Points’ images on his Resi-city site, and read more about the art and ideas he presented at the “At What Point Managed Retreat?…” conference in New York in his ClimateCultures post The Art of Reimagining Managed Retreat. And you can watch some of the conference on YouTube.
Yky mentions ‘panarchy’ as a feature of our complex social, ecological and planetary systems, and you can read more about that in a short introduction from the Resilience Alliance: “Panarchy is a framework of nature’s rules, hinted at by the name of the Greek god of nature – Pan – whose persona also evokes an image of unpredictable change.” And Yky has also provided this link to a short introduction from the Stockholm Resilience Centre to the concept of nine planetary boundaries, within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come.
Chantal Bilodeau is a playwright and translator whose work focuses on the intersection of science, policy, art, and climate change, and is co-organizer of Climate Change Theatre Action. She offers an excerpt from her one-act play Homo Sapiens. “This play was written for Climate Change Theatre Action 2017. It has been performed in over 100 venues around the world. As part of the performance, actors are asked to take a photo of themselves with the homo sapiens in the theatre.”
Homo Sapiens is a 5-minute play for two actors, any gender, and was inspired by Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction. Did homo sapiens cause their own demise? Or did they evolve into the next species?
[Sometime in the future. The character is talking to the audience as if they were animals in a zoo…]
It’s weird to be looking at your own past. Then again, I can only imagine what it must be like to stare at your future… And you know, whatever happened, I’m sure it was complicated, these things always are, so I’m gonna go out on a limb here and assume that you tried your best. It was a mess, some of you fucked up, some of you fought hard, and here we are. And isn’t it wonderful? You evolved. All of the shit you went through made you evolve into me, a new species. I mean, think about it. Six extinctions! Not one, not two, six! Six times the earth was nearly wiped out of all life so the odds that you and I would be standing here today… Anyway, we should cut you some slack is what I’m saying. No species is perfect. So, thank you. Whatever you did wrong, you also did a lot of things right and that’s the story I want to remember. That’s the story I want to tell. That’s the story we need to celebrate – us, here, six extinctions later. I’m proud of being your kin, I really am. And I hope the species that comes after me will be proud of being mine.
Homo Sapiens is published in the anthology Where Is the Hope? An Anthology of Short Climate Change Plays. You can explore more of Chantal’s work at her website.
Paul Feather is an animist farmer and author whose artistic interests include the courtship of landscapes for food and seed and translating animist thought into the language of physics. He has commented on the links between our three environmental keywords of ‘Justice’, ‘Resilience’ and ‘Transitions’ — see the end of this page. And he has offered his own contribution here for ‘Transitions’, saying “about a year into the pandemic, I wrote in a blog post about root causes of our predicament, and suggested some transitions we could make in the way we perceive the world—and especially data over time—that I find helpful for navigating our broad cultural crisis.” The excerpt below comes from that post, Fingerprints:
We live in an extremely abstract world of words. It appears to be an almost universal human experience to spend much of one’s time in active thought with words running through the mind. These words are all metaphors, and as the linguist Guy Deutscher points out, most of them have become unmoored from their physical origins: the words behind and ahead are spatial metaphors frequently exported from that domain to apply to our linearized notion of time. When we hear them today, these words barely connote their even earlier origins as metaphors referencing parts of the body. Many other words have become so abstract that their roots in concrete reality are relegated to academic journals. We forget they were ever metaphors at all, but those roots are always there.
We also forget that the language of science is metaphorical. As Nietzsche observed 150 years ago (and many others before and since), “every concept originates with our equating what is unequal.” Science amounts to the adoption of “customary metaphors—an obligation to lie according to a fixed convention.” We talk about COVID deaths as if they’re all the same, but they’re not. Each person who dies of or with COVID has a different health history, different career, and different social network. There are a whole slew of factors that undermine or fortify our personal resistance to this pandemic, and to equate the death of one person with the death of another is an abstraction. It is a metaphor. We must concede the metaphorical expression of reality, even in science. (This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have concepts and metaphors. There is a post-modern tendency to violate every concept that ever existed—at least the inconvenient ones—on the principle that no concept is perfect. That isn’t what I’m talking about.)
In forgetting that our perception and science are metaphorical, we have created a situation where we simply can’t notice when our information is distorted by those metaphors. On top of this, through centuries of genocide and cultural erasure, we have made it very unlikely that we will ever encounter metaphorical maps that differ noticeably from our own. Now, our metaphors are failing, and our civilization is in crisis. It’s very likely that a viable response to our crisis will require information seriously distorted by the metaphors of modern science and culture. Our problems are so large that we cannot approach them using small, reduced patterns that are perceivable in real time. This means that we are faced with the task of substantially reworking our understanding of the world in the near vacuum we’ve created by systematically expunging other cosmologies, other languages, and other systems of metaphors that may have provided well-proven templates.
I believe it is imperative that we begin to see ourselves as an inextricable part of a polyrhythmic cosmology wherein every phenomenon is composed of multiple repeating cycles. We must greatly deemphasize our linear conception of time or abandon it altogether. In order to do this, we will probably need to materially acknowledge the terrible tragedy of our genocidal history—and the reality that this history isn’t ‘gone’ into some abstract past. That’s a tall order, but I believe it’s an honest assessment of the challenges now facing modern civilization.
You can read the full post, and more, at the website of Paul Feather and Terra Currie. And Paul has also contributed to our page ‘Environmental Justice’ – Taking the Conversation Forward.
Nadine Andrews is a researcher, coach, facilitator and consultant with cultural, arts and heritage organisations, specialising in creative nature-based and mindfulness-based approaches. Nadine offers her reflections on some of the key personal transitions in life, along with her image and mantra, From Form to Formless.
Transitioning from one state to another, from life to post-life, the fleeting expression of wonder and joy on my mother’s face as she took her last breath – the unfathomable mystery of that! And later, the deep ache of loss and unfolding grief, a journey navigated with the aid of a mantra inspired by my Taoist physical arts practice: from form to formless, from form to formless.
Genevieve Rudd is an artist exploring time and seasons using Cyanotype and Anthotype photographic techniques and leading heritage and environmental community arts projects through drawing, textiles and found materials. She writes that “Transitions are something integral to the ethos of Yarmouth Springs Eternal – a community arts, walking and nature project I instigated and lead. Through our programme, we explore what living/working in Great Yarmouth means – whether people are here through choice or necessity – and continue to explore the symbolism of Spring unfolding, plants growing in neglected or overlooked places, and bleak spaces becoming beautiful with the presence of abundant life.
This year, supported by Creative Practices for Transformational Futures (CreaTures), we have been making space for reflections on our practice, relationships and the roles we play as ‘Facilitators’ and ‘Participants’ in a project – the social changes, as well as our deepening connection to local environments.
Some of the people taking part in Yarmouth Springs Eternal have been reflecting on the transitions, developments and changes that have emerged from taking part:
“To compare to last year, I feel more confident. It’s so important to share knowledge and experience with others. I received so much positive feedback” Sara Moreira, reflecting on leading an event for the public
“After the first Yarmouth Springs Eternal, I was really looking forward to the next one. This year has exceeded expectations. This group has helped me to create space in my head to appreciate the spaces around me. I enjoyed hosting a session” Russell Hughes, reflecting on the whole programme and leading a public event
“Six years ago, when I was in the depth of depression and addiction, I would never have thought I would be leading a group. It has really boosted my confidence, and inspired me” Participant, sharing their personal journey with pride after leading a public event
“As artists we often talk about ‘co-production’ and ‘collaboration’ as a way of working, but that’s often offered up as a limited choice by the facilitators for them to act upon. Yarmouth Springs Eternal is not just co-production, this is simply production! It is brave and bold, and puts people at the core of the project. Being involved has helped me to “practice what I preach” and reflect on the way I work with people, and my own creative practice connecting with nature” Holly Sandiford, visiting artist reflecting on the project.
You can read more in a blog Genevieve wrote for Climate Museum UK about the project, which unpicks some of these thoughts: Yarmouth Springs Eternal: a reflection on the season.
Jacqui Jones is a multi-media artist immersed in current social, political and scientific thinking, whose work encourages thought, conversation and action, focusing on the climate crisis and single-use plastics. She shares an image from her recent installation, Urban Sprawl, at St Mary’s Works in Norwich, 2022, which used UK Ordnance Survey maps.
Urban Sprawl was created in a redundant shoe factory, bought by developers to undergo a transition into our uncertain 21st century world.
The work clings onto the wall merging with the peeling paint, slumping and tumbling downwards in topographic waves until it meets the floor. Created from Ordnance Survey maps depicting high density areas in the UK it comments on the relationship between the urban built environment and the Anthropocene. It questions if our endless quest for new roads and new housing is out of control? The construction industry is responsible for 40% of carbon emissions globally and consumes resources in ways that are not sustainable. The work depicts the imbalance in approaching life from a human-centric perspective and considers the possibility of approaching our environment from a more bio-centric point of view.
Bill McGuire is a researcher in the science of global heating and climate breakdown, and a writer of non-fiction on natural hazards and climate change and of speculative and climate-related fiction, who values his contribution to climate activism above everything else. Bill writes that “Even though it is no longer practically possible to keep this side of the 1.5°C dangerous climate breakdown guardrail, there is still time for us to transition global economy and society so as to prevent a dangerous future becoming a cataclysmic one. The following extract from my new book, Hothouse Earth: an Inhabitant’s Guide, provides a glimpse of how the UK capital might look if we take the action required to do this – and if we don’t.
“We are at a fork in the road that one way leads to a calamitous and unsustainable future, and the other to a world in which rapidly falling emissions have slowed the rate of heating and large-scale adaptation has led to much greater resilience. The two perspectives of a future London that follow provide a flavour of what the choices we make in the next few years might mean for our world 80 or so years hence, and for those who live in it.”
The late August bank holiday of 2100 dawns hot and clear, the Sun beating down on a city that glows emerald in its brilliant light. From the air, the London cityscape is a patchwork of green, white and silver, every roof either covered with greenery, painted white to reflect the Sun’s rays or clad in solar panels. Streets are barely visible beneath spreading canopies of trees that keep the worst of the heat at bay. It looks like being another scorcher, but temperatures are down on previous summers, a trend that is forecast to continue.
The sounds of children playing in the traffic-free avenues are carried far and wide in the pristine, pollution-free air. Gaps in the foliage provide glimpses of chattering crowds, strolling on foot or riding bicycles, as they enjoy the leafy shade. Plentiful public transport powered by wind, solar and the new network of tidal barrages have made cars largely redundant in the city and all but the main thoroughfares have been reclaimed for the enjoyment of Londoners.
Streets are lined with homes that have been retrofitted to be carbon-free and insulated to keep out the summer heat. Deep channels below street level carry excess water from flash floods north and south to the river and east to where the sea has encroached inland. Here, wetlands host a huge variety of wildlife and provide all sorts of water sports for bank holiday visitors.
To the west, giant, fuel-cell-powered airships come and go from their Heathrow terminus, some slowly descending their mooring masts to offload, others detaching, turning like enormous white birds and heading off sedately to destinations at home and abroad. All around the city margins, smallholdings powered by solar grow the fruit and vegetables that land every day on the tables of city residents. Drought can still be a problem, but an efficient system of water recycling and catchments designed to make the most of rainfall from the evening storms mean that there is usually plenty to go around.
The motorways that used to head out from the capital in all directions are mainly gone now, replaced by fast electric trains and tram networks or demolished and redeveloped as market gardens. Goods are brought to the city by rail and unloaded at giant distribution centres around the periphery for onward journeys in small electric trucks. As the Sun climbs towards its zenith, people migrate towards the shaded street cafes and bars to enjoy a cooling drink away from the heat. The tinkling notes of a street
piano drift up through the greenery and across the rooftops, mingling with the sound of animated conversation and the chatter of birds in the trees.
The late August bank holiday of 2100 dawns hot and clear, but there is no sign of Londoners attempting a quick getaway to reach the nearby beaches or the countryside. In fact, the streets of London are all but empty. Those lucky enough to have air conditioning, when the power is on, are cloistered in their homes from the scorching heat; the thermometer already touching 32°C and forecast to reach 44°C later in the day. Those without access to conditioned air have either joined the exodus north to escape the terrible summer heat, are camped out in the treeless and desiccated parks, or are sheltering in the shadows of the derelict streets. No one buys property in London any longer and those that own it can no longer sell.
In the south and east of the city, the sea has made deep inroads and shanties have grown up where a coastal breeze takes the edge off the heat and humidity, but there is a deadly price to pay in the form of endemic cholera and malaria. This is a killing ground for other reasons too, as the indigenous destitute and the penniless migrants who have fled even warmer Southern Europe and beyond scrabble violently to protect what little they have.
In Westminster, the Houses of Parliament still stand, but the sound of debating has long gone, driven northwards to Carlisle by the smell of raw sewage flushed daily into the Thames by flash floods accompanying the evening thunderstorms. To the west, just one runway and a single terminal remain open at Heathrow Airport. Since the swingeing personal carbon levies were imposed – a far too tardy response to try to slow climbing emissions – flying is a luxury only the very rich can afford.
All around the city, the landscape is brown and parched, much of the ancient water distribution system long ago succumbing to settling and subsidence as the soils dried out, shattering mains and contaminating supplies. The motorways that head out from the city like the spokes of a wheel carry little traffic. Construction of the infrastructure to support electric vehicles never really got going and since the recent economic crisis, driven by the final collapse of the fossil fuel industry, the cost of fuel has been astronomical.
As the Sun climbs higher in the sky, a hot wind builds, ruffling the thick coat of dust and blown topsoil that blankets streets and buildings after six years of extreme drought. Carried aloft by air currents, it hangs like a grey cloud over the city but does little to ease the Sun’s blazing light.
Hothouse Earth: an Inhabitant’s Guide will be published by Icon Books on August 4th, 2022. Bill has also contributed an excerpt from his novel Skyseed to our page on Environmental Justice – Taking the Conversation Forward.
Helen Cann is an artist, author and illustrator specialising in hand-drawn maps, interested in how creating these allows us to notice what’s important to us in our natural environment. Sharing an excerpt from a recent blog post she wrote about a current project, Helen says: “My practice involves creating maps – multi-layered documents of image and text exploring our understanding of a place. At the moment I’m working on mapping a restored lowland raised bog for Natural England and in association with the University of Cumbria as an Honorary Research Fellow. The map is part of a larger project called ‘Moss of Many Layers’ which has been initiated by the PLACE collective (of which I’m a member). The post describes a site visit to the bog, which is in mid-restoration and therefore in constant flux. Understanding that led to a realisation that my initial map ideas had to change as the land had changed.”
I look out over the site. It’s a work in progress and will be for decades to come. Ideas are being trialed and constantly readjusted to calibrate to a shifting environment’s needs. The belief in the restoration of Bolton Fell Moss as a carbon sink and nature reserve is unwavering for the future though, however long it takes.
Now I’m here, I’m less certain of my first map drafts and will need to change them as the restoration work and the bog itself have obviously changed from my initial understanding. I have to accept that this is a place in flux and my map can only be a document of this one landscape at one particular moment in time.
I’m happy, though, that I can take some stories from the Moss, stories I might never have heard had I not visited. On the map I’ll include the larks and the lichen, the frogs in the rushy pool, the voices of the warden, the volunteer and the artist. The science. The history. The hope. They all add to the multilayered understanding of a place – to be used in a map that’s not simply a reductivist document of roads or territory.
The world’s climate is shifting now and so must we. We have to find ways to capture carbon and prevent carbon release. Restoring bogland will help us do that so in order to encourage this equally shifting landscape, this forever changing land of peat and water and moss, we must learn to shift with it too. And on a personal level, on coming to Bolton Fell, I recognise that my own ideas have shifted and subtly, with them, so has my own world.
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