This page features recent posts I’ve been reading on other sites – whether news or arts sites, research organisations or personal blogs. It can only be a taster of what’s out there! If you find a post somewhere that you’d like to share with me – and which I might feature here – send a link and a comment via the Contact ClimateCultures form. And do let me know what you find interesting or useful about a post you’ve discovered here.
NB: These posts appear in the order I discover and read them (most recent at the top), rather than the original publication date.
- Welcome to the quiet zone-
Following on from a podcast about the eco soundscape, a BBC Radio 4 series (11-15/8/18) about the strange area of the USA that is "The National Radio Quiet Zone - 13,000 square miles of radio silence, just a few hundred miles from Washington DC. No Wi-Fi; no cell phones; no radio signals. Designated a radio wave free area in the 1950s, the area is home to two giant listening stations. One listens to deep space, as far back as milliseconds after the Big Bang - the Green Bank National Observatory; the other is Naval Communications, the NSA listening ear. Taller than the Statue of Liberty, the Green Bank Telescope is the world's largest moving land object. It has the sensitivity, says Mike Holstine, 'equivalent to a billionth of a billionth of a millionth of a watt... the energy given off by a single snowflake hitting the ground. Anything man-made would overwhelm that signal.' Hence the legal requirement, for a radio frequency free zone."
Five 15 minute episodes, first broadcast in 2015, all available on the BBC website and Radio iPlayer.
- Soundscape ecology with Bernie Krause-
It's sometimes better to listen in than just read on, and occasionally Views from Elsewhere features a podcast or radio feature. Here is a good one, and one that focuses on listening to the soundscape that is integral to the natural and cultural environment. For the Guardian science podcast (15/6/18), Ian Sample talks with soundscape ecologist Bernie Krauss. "For half a century, Bernie has travelled the world, recording the noise of nature. His collection is now one of the oldest we have and as a result, it is a hugely valuable tool in documenting how we’ve changed our planet. For example, when Bernie returned to some sites, the environment has changed so dramatically, it is now silent." And there is a link to an excellent earlier Guardian piece on Krauss' work, from 2o12, which examines that silencing of that natural world by human activity. The podcast includes many audio clips from Krauss' personal archive of soundscape recordings.
Thanks to ClimateCultures Member James Murray-White for pointing out this episode.
- How does plastic pollution affect marine life and how can we reduce it?-
Although blogs on commercial sites aren't my usual reading material, here's a quick and no-nonsense guide to marine plastics pollution from Anna Kurcirkova at MoBox (6/6/18). A timely reminder that, although "it’s hard to imagine life without plastic products [and] Everywhere you look, plastic is rearing its ugly head ... there are ways to combat this, though. Slow down, take a breath, and consider the ways you can fight plastic pollution in the ocean. Take time combing your local beach to pick up litter that may have made its home in the sand, get involved with an organization that’s dedicated to fighting the battles of water pollution, and make tiny changes in your daily routine (like cutting out plastic completely) in order to be the difference the oceans need."
- What are average global temperature targets hiding?-
Writing for Anthropocene Magazine (12/6/18), Sarah DeWeerdt picks apart what 'average' temperature rises at a global level mean for local impacts -- and what's implied by targets such as the Paris Agreement aim "to limit global warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels". "By 'warming,' scientists and policy makers mean an increase in global average, or mean, temperature. But this average hides a lot of complexity, and scientific papers – let alone broader climate change discussions – rarely spell that out."
In reality - and in the models that climate scientists use to project possible future changes - "the effects of a given average temperature increase depend on the pathway we take to get there, as well as how climate averages and extremes change in different regions." For example, in models that indicate a global average temperature of just 1.5 °C, the coldest nights in the Arctic are likely to be 7 °C warmer, and could be 8 °C warmer than pre-industrial temperatures. "So, even if we meet the Paris Agreement goal, there could be much more extreme impacts for some people and regions. How we get to 1.5 °C – and how fast – also matters ...Many climate models that predict this level of warming in the year 2100 include a substantial probability of “overshoot” – that is, global average temperature will breach the 1.5 °C threshold sometime this century, before falling below it again by century’s end ... Overshooting the 1.5 °C goal even temporarily could lead to permanent loss of some species or ecosystems. It would essentially mean faster warming – less time for species to move to areas that are now suitable for them, and less time for people to build adaptation infrastructure ... Finally, computer climate models are probabilistic. So a 1.5 °C scenario is actually one in which global average temperature in 2100 has, say, a 66% probability of remaining below this threshold. In other words, even if we hew to the emissions limits specified in a '1.5 °C' model from this day forward, there’s still a one-in-three chance that warming will be more extreme."
- Web of possibility-
In a short piece for Center for Human & Nature blog (29/5/18), illustrated with her own photographs, naturalist and writer Kelly Brenner reveals how a diagnosis of autism at 39 has helped her reflect on her fascination with nature and the career she has made, as well as the effects of being nature for her wellbeing. "Through my four decades of life undiagnosed, I had found ways to cope with an autistic life. ... I often feel the need to go for a walk in the forest, look for dragonflies in the wetlands, or go explore the shoreline at low tide. It’s a familiar tug. Sometimes when that claustrophobic feeling begins to creep in, I realize I haven’t been on a good walk for a couple days. Over the last few years I’d begun to recognize just how important and essential time spent out in nature is for me ...
"When I’m outside — listening to birds, a river running, wind blowing through trees, or especially the sound of rain — I feel calm. I’ve sought and found some of the landscapes in the city that either drown out or obscure city noises. When I visit the shoreline, the sound of the water is soothing and often masks the general noise of traffic and other racket. The inner areas of forested parks are often quiet because trees filter out a lot of sound, and fewer people venture deep into the woods ... I’m also learning that people on the spectrum are often good at understanding and recognizing patterns and can excel at processing information visually — both of which are excellent traits for a naturalist, which is what I am. I don’t know if these traits led me to a lifelong fascination with nature, or if I excelled at being a naturalist because of these traits, but it’s worked out well for me."
- Andreas Weber on ‘Matter and Desire’-
A wide-ranging interview by Rhonda Fabian at Kosmos (8/5/18) with biologist Andreas Weber, who considers poetry as "the forgotten side of biology." Weber addresses the erosion of an intimate link between humans and other species as "the predicament of our civilization ... I am convinced that every living being is able to understand on a very basic level what it means to be alive and that’s being alive as a sentient and feeling body. We need to look at the history of our idea of making a better world, of dominating that which is not human in order to grant humans or humanness a better place."
Fabian suggests that Weber's book, Matter and Desire: An Erotic Ecology, shows of "how nature speaks to us in every moment in a language both familiar and forgotten", and Weber picks up the theme: "It’s a language which ... we are able to speak from the beginning because we are living bodies as all the other beings are living bodies and at the same time ... I’d say we are taught that other living beings are machines or computers at best or dead matter or mechanisms and normally we don’t really believe ourselves when our senses and our sensitive skin and our desire for a way to get into contact with others tell us that there is a communication happening.
"I really tried to show that everything visible and physical and palpable and graspable has not only an outside but also and always has a meaningful inside and through the world isn’t just a place where stuff is happening but the world is always also an interior and a stage for meaningfulness."
- A history of the Anthropocene in objects-
In what could be a companion to our own A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, this piece by Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero and Robert Emmett for Edge Effects reminds us of a 2014 event at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. "Artists and anthropologists, historians and geographers, literary scholars and biologists from around the world gathered in the playful, performative space of an 'Anthropocene Slam' to shape a cabinet of curiosities for this new age of humans ... What objects should it house? Which issues should it speak to? What emotions might it evoke? And what range of meanings and moral tales might it contain? ... To collect objects of the Anthropocene is to register the diverse emotional responses — loss, grief, hubris, humility, anger, and pain, among others — evoked in a climate of change and uncertainty."
A new book, Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene, combines photographs and essays, "driven by a sense of intrigue and curiosity, inviting the viewer to imagine and explore the past, present, and potentially future meanings of these fossils." And here at ClimateCultures our own growing collection of objects offers further testimony to the emotional power of both objects and the trajectories they offer through the Age of Human.
- For a terrestrial politics-
Another interesting interview -- this one from a couple of months ago, with philosopher / anthroplogist / sociologist Bruno Latour by Camille Riquier for Eurozine (6/2/18). Latour takes another well-aimed swipe at modernity with his analysis of nation states' failure to address climate change. "Since the end of the Second World War, there has been a tragic separation between the social question ... and external nature. Political ecologists have fallen into the trap set up by the modern constitution, written in stops and starts throughout the eighteenth century, a constitution that distinguished the politics of humans from the politics of nature. For thirty years now, I have been arguing that non-human beings are not part of a nature that is exterior to society; that they too form part of the collective ...
"In November 2017, Le Monde ran a headline saying, ‘Tomorrow will be too late’, in a 60-point typeface – the size that would be used if the headline were ‘North Korea bombs Washington’. And yet, this sort of headline has no effect: the very next day they were talking about something else. It is enough to drive you crazy. On the one hand, a threat, of the greatest possible gravity, trumpeted by fifteen thousand research scientists; on the other, a complete lack of action. I am becoming more and more interested in the psycho-social aspect of this indifference. We are bombarded with news, but we do not have the emotional, aesthetic or mental equipment to deal with it. That is the main reason for the return to a mythical definition of the nation. When it comes down to it, this attitude is understandable: if we are going to have to experience a catastrophe, we might as well stay in the gated community we are familiar with, or keep ourselves safe behind a wall. Large and small adopt the same strategy: the wealthy flee to their offshore havens, the common people head for the nation-state of yesteryear ...
"It is not a matter of deciding whether you are on the Left or not, but whether you are terrestrial or not: ‘Have you thought about the material nature of a soil upon which nine or ten billion of us must live?’ It is in this context that the question of migration intersects with the question of climate. People who do not think that the question of climate is important, or who deny that question’s existence, can still see the question of migration perfectly clearly. It is one that is decisive in every country, election after election, and it is driving people back to focusing on national frontiers at precisely the moment when these are least suited to dealing with either the question of climate or of refugees."
- Crowdsourcing the songs of sand-
In a fascinating interview by Jennifer Gersten at Guernica (7/5/18), artist Lotte Geeven reveals the inspiration and process behind her latest work -- bringing the world's 'singing sands' to our attention. Gersten explains that "Singing sand, a rare variety of sand that emits a thunderous hum as it slides down certain dunes, is a phenomenon exclusive to the planet’s nooks and crannies: spots in Nevada’s Mojave Desert, Chile’s Copiapo, and Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, among others. For The Sand Machine, Geeven, in collaboration with two French acousticians, will assemble twelve machines to amplify the sounds of twelve types of singing sand, allowing these typically distant musics to resound in public for the first time, with an exhibition planned for the Hague."
Accompanied here by audio samples of her singing sands, Geeven says: "We live in a systematical world where everything is explained and organized. Beneath this man-made system, there are wild, chaotic forces of nature that choreograph our behavior. While we are inclined to control and explain these forces, I try to see how we can relate to them in a different manner. I find that through art, literature, or poetry we get a deeper, non-intellectual understanding of this unstable world and our place in it ... I have always been fascinated by how a natural sound is able to transport us to an atmospheric mental space disconnected from logic or reason. Whenever such a sound has a debatable or mysterious origin, like those sounds produced by the singing sand, the vivid friction between reason and fiction comes into play. The sounds emitted by the deserts are perfect examples of something that can trigger the process of storymaking. It is so strange and impressive that everywhere around the world, many stories arise from sand or a hole in the earth; trying to give meaning to the unknown. How we attribute personal and cultural meaning to these natural happenings speaks to the way we relate to the abstract unknown."
- Coming to terms with a life without water-
Rosa Lyster, writing in The New Yorker (3/5/18), picks up on the theme of Oliver Morton's latest book, Being Ecological, which has a direct resonance with her own experiences in the prolonged South African drought. When a friend of hers got married in the family garden, "many of the guests were British, and they could not stop remarking on the fineness of the weather. It was a startling reminder that some people still relish hot days with no possibility of rain, that not everyone looks upon February in the Western Cape as something to be endured." But the bride's stepfather had had persistent dreams about the watering of the garden for the event, and Lyster felt "the cold thread of worry that vined its way up the back of my neck, spread out along my collarbones, and settled there. I don’t know why it dawned on me then that the water crisis wasn’t a temporary problem, or that 'crisis' is probably the wrong word for something that is never going away. Perhaps it was the grim specificity of the stepfather’s dream, which contrasted with the whirling happiness of the day. Perhaps it was the slightly too on-the-nose reference to W. H. Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts that I was only just able to prevent myself from making ('how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster'). I don’t know why I felt it then, and, a year later, I still don’t know how to describe it. Something like: ... We’re all going to have to be scared about this, every day, forever."
As Lyster points out, Morton's Being Ecological "argues that humans must find 'a way of feeling ourselves around the age we live in, which is one of mass extinction caused by global warming.' It is an arrestingly horrible requirement to have to meet. I don’t want to think about the implications of the latest U.N. World Water Development Report, which concludes that, by 2050, around three billion people could be living in 'severely water-scarce areas. I want to avert my gaze at the cinema when the trailer for An Inconvenient Sequel comes on."
- Recovering a narrative of place - stories in the time of climate change-
In its 'Friday essay' series, The Conversation (27/4/18) republishes this powerfully evocative essay by Tony Birch (originally published in First Things First, the 60th edition of Griffith Review). Birch recalls a powerful incident from his 1970s childhood, when a friend in his crowded Melbourne inner suburb took him on a long bike ride to his 'secret location' beyond the city. It was a billabong -- a lake cut off from a meandering river; in this case, a much polluted and violated river -- and this encounter was "the first time in the life of an Aboriginal 'slum kid' that country had spoken to me." Although it was a place he wanted to call 'beautiful' he found he had little vocabulary to express this. "After all, at the time, we thought of ourselves the budding kings of a concrete jungle, and taking aside the romance of a life of thuggery, we lived in a world where violence was rarely threatened but often practiced. If I forgot about the billabong for a time, I now believe that amnesia came from having been denied the language to speak of it, to know it."
Birch uses this experience to draw out his later encounters with children and adults in other parts of Australia and around the world, where he works to draw out often marginalised people's connections with the natural world. As part of a project to engage school students with climate change, he asked them to respond through their own creativity, after an introduction to the basic science. "What I discovered in speaking to students was that while they were in no way 'anti-science', headline-grabbing climate change scepticism had impacted on their faith in their own ability to understand science, highlighting what I’ve always believed to be the motivation of sceptics: the undermining of our own confidence to think and grasp ideas. It also took me little time to realise that, in general, the students felt badly let down by some adults: politicians, sections of the media and, to an extent, their own parents, who they felt had neglected an issue that would soon impact negatively on their adult lives."
It was only when he remembered his childhood encounter, walking along the river again, that he came up with his way forward. "I began that morning’s class with a simple prompt: 'Tell me about your river.'" And what he uncovers in our love of place is both a way to break the disengagement of people with the ideas and experiences of climate change and to address the historical and ongoing project of colonialism that fuels climate change and the wider separation of peoples and of 'human' from 'nature'.
- The sea cannot be depleted-
My reading this month has brought some great listening -- and I was captivated by this spoken word piece from The sea cannot be depleted. Wallace Heim's project on the military exploitation of the Solway Firth tells us that its tides "are among the most turbulent around this island, a fast sweep from the Irish Sea into the soft sands of the rivers Esk, Eden and Nith. A line across the blank blue of a map etches the division between Scotland and England" -- and then that "the UK Ministry of Defence fired at least 30 tonnes of artillery shells containing Depleted Uranium into the Solway Firth, to test those munitions on behalf of an unnamed ‘Customer’. The firings began in the 1980’s from the Kirkcudbright Training Range in Dumfries and Galloway, and on land at Eskmeals in Cumbria. The date of the latest confirmed firings is not certain, possibly 2011 or 2013, and the license to test fire may be continuing beyond that date. The MOD have justified this illegal dumping of radioactive waste into the sea as being ‘placements’."
Heim's project "sees the firings as episodes in the interlocked mesh of relations between the military, the nuclear industries, the arms corporations, capital, colonialism and political desires for international status. Uranium makes the situation timeless and without location." The website includes the project's research journal and a performance of the final audio piece, which features the thoughts of a man looking at the estuary from Scotland, a woman watching from its English shore -- and a diver within the watery body of the water itself. These short passages illuminate their thoughts:
The sea never sleeps. Why should I.
Why should I? Because, my fleshy mammal body craves it. Take away my dissolution into dreams, and I dry up. I lose my elements.
But tonight, I just can’t fall into it. These sleepless hours have no numbers.
Get out. Get the dark around you. Imagine it.
The monument is already in the soft, salty cells of our own human bodies.
The sea cannot be depleted. But we can.
What do we do while this place changes us?
What is it that we just can’t learn?
Leave these thoughts to that endless blue.
I need to touch an animal. I need to feel its breath on my hand.
I want to know this sea like the haaf-netters do, the men who fish with their bodies, standing in the waters with their nets, reading the surface for what’s coming. The slightest change and they know what’s moving beneath, how the sands are shifting. Their animal bodies know how to keep them safe.
How do you keep safe?
The Military devised tests to prove these firings were safe for humans. They measured sea weed and crabs and grit and urine.
What they forgot was the sea.
They forgot the turbulence, the planetary forces of gravity pulling oceans across a chiselled bed. They forgot the curiosity of the tender animal, too small for any net. They forgot that some humans are pregnant women.
- There are things more interesting than people-
When Kevin Berger interviews novelist Richard Powers for Literary Hub (23/4/18) -- exploring the inspiration behind his new novel, The Overstory -- he asks "after 11 novels, ... why trees? 'I wanted to bring in the plants,' Powers says. 'Those previous 11 books were very much human-centric books. They were about human exclusivity and human independence.' ... Powers wants The Overstory to immerse readers in the world of trees and pierce them with injustice as timber companies bulldoze them. He wants to show that fiction can be about a lot more than omnipresent bipeds with big brains.
"The challenge Powers set for himself in writing The Overstory, he says, is nothing less than what now faces humanity. Treating plants and trees solely as materials to sate our appetites doesn’t fare well for humans in the long run. It also diminishes us in the short one. 'A huge part of human anxiety is fomented by what psychologists call ‘species loneliness,’ the sense we’re here by ourselves, and there can be no purposeful act except to gratify ourselves,' he says. 'We have to un-blind ourselves to human exceptionalism. That’s the real challenge. Unless forest-health is our health, we’re never going to get beyond appetite as a motivator in the world. The exciting challenge is how to make people plant-conscious, make them realize happiness depends on understanding and reintegrating into this astonishingly complicated and robust way of being that we have exiled ourselves from.'
"That’s an incredible challenge, I say. How do you even begin? 'Start looking,' Powers says."
- Back to the wild!-
Isabella Tree writes in this excellent piece for the Mail Online (20/4/18) about her and her husband's experiences of rewilding the Knepp Estate in Sussex. In passages adapted from her new book, Wilding: the return of nature to a British farm, she provides an exhaustive and inspiring list of the wildlife that has returned to their 3,500 acres — "Cuckoos, spotted flycatchers, fieldfares, hobbies, woodlarks, skylarks, lapwings, house sparrows, lesser spotted woodpeckers, yellowhammers, woodcock, red kites, sparrowhawks, peregrine falcons, all five types of British owl, the first ravens at Knepp in the past 100 years — the list goes on and on. The speed at which all these species — and many more — have appeared has astonished observers, particularly as our intensively farmed land was, biologically speaking, in dire condition in 2001, at the start of the project.
"The key to Knepp’s extraordinary success? It’s about surrendering all preconceptions, and simply observing what happens. By contrast, conventional conservation tends to be about targets and control, and often involves micro-managing a habitat for the perceived benefit of several chosen species."
- Warm Data - contextual research and new forms of information-
"Information can come in many forms, depending on what is being studied," Nora Bateson reminds us at Hacker Noon, in a post from last year (28/5/17). "There is a need now for a way to gather and impart relational information when what we need to study is relational in nature. Warm Data is a category of information to develop in tandem to existing forms of data. This kind of information is a slippery mess of variables, changes, and ambiguities. It does not sit nicely in graphs or models, and it takes longer to produce. Since Warm Data describes relational interdependencies it must also include the necessary contradictions, binds (double-binds and more), and inconsistencies that occur in interrelational processes over time. Warm Data is the delivery of these multiple descriptions in active comparison, usually in a form that permits and even encourages the subjectivity of the observer within which it is possible to make meta connections."
Drawing and building on the work of her late father, Gregory Bateson, Nora emphasises the need to bring "not only context, but multiple contexts into the inquiry process" - a need more urgent than ever when, today "it is nearly impossible to get through a day without contributing to the destruction of our world. By lunchtime most people have participated in: further disruption to the ecology, an increase in the wealth gap, the demise of social justice, and the vengeful division between cultures ... Yet these harmful practices have been approved by the institutional authorities of science and society. How has it come to this? And how can new patterns of interaction in our societies be encouraged to emerge? Our social deference to authorized institutions in the interest of collective safety has evolved over centuries. But that safety has been contaminated, along with our trust in the institutions that are supposed to provide truth and justice. How can science evolve to contribute to greater trustworthiness of our socio-economic institutions? How can sense be made of this tangle?"
- Helen Mayer Harrison (1927-2018)-
Writing at eco/art/scot/land (3/4/18), Anne Douglas and ClimateCultures Member Chris Fremantle pay tribute to the artist Helen Mayer Harrison who died recently. With Newton Harrison, Helen produced Greenhouse Britain: Losing Ground, Gaining Wisdom. In his email to ClimateCultures, Chris commented that "their commitment to collaborative work and to do only work that benefited the ecosystem perhaps obscures Helen's role as a key artist and inspiration for generations of artists who have turned to creating work in relation to the lifeweb." With this tribute at eco/art/scot/land you can also watch a short video in which Helen talks about empathy, and how with it "the world becomes a different place."
"It was through Greenhouse Britain that they first talked about the ‘form determinant’ which later became the ‘force majeure’: “We suggest that the existing plans for greenhouse emissions control will be insufficient to keep temperature rise at 2° or less. In this context, the rising ocean becomes a form determinant. By “form determinant” we mean the ocean will determine much of the new form, that culture, industry and many other elements of civilization may need to take.” (Greenhouse Britain, 2007)
"We heard Helen read from the end of their magnum opus, Lagoon Cycle, many times, in meetings and at events and performances. She read,
And the waters will rise slowly
at the boundary
at the edge
redrawing that boundary
moment by moment
all at once
It is a graceful drawing and redrawing
this response to the millennia of the making of fire
And in this new beginning
this continuously rebeginning
will you feed me when my lands can no longer produce
and will I house you when your lands are covered with water
so that together
we can withdraw
as the waters rise
(Lagoon Cycle, 1984)"
- A new mourning: Remembrance Day for Lost Species-
For Undark (10/4/18) P K Read offers a moving account of a Brighton ceremony for Remembrance Day for Lost Species, an event marking the extinction threats to pollinators which turns personal for her. "One thing I’ve learned is that real spectacle starts where tamed emotion ends. At the pollinator procession, people aired their grievances, and all of the complaints began with anger. Isn’t anger at an original insult, at a profound loss, the very cornerstone of grief? That might be why, in spite of being there as an observer, I heard my own voice rising with those around the sunflower in Brighton, lamenting a recent loss of my own: an old cherry grove lost to suburban development where I live in rural France, and the numerous birds’ nests in the unfinished house walls that had been smashed one day in early spring. There was a murmur of sad disgust as I finished my story, a moment of shared silence while I pictured the grove in its former glory, rich with birdsong, thick with bees, heavy with summer cherries."
"Grieving is never going to get easier," she reminds us, "but it can be shaped. It’s no surprise that the RDLS ceremony was a loose wobble of lament, humor, and ashes. It’s a new approach to a new phenomenon. Of course we should all be doing what we can to prevent habitat loss, to prevent extinction where we can, in whatever way we can. The extinction wave right now, unchecked by immediate human action on a vast scale, will affect and afflict everyone in unpredictable ways. Pretend it’s not happening or acknowledge that it is, the wave is already crashing, and the horizons are changing. It’s time to figure out what kind of ritual raft will keep us afloat."
- Time reconstrained-
Writing at the Crap Futures blog (19/3/18), James Auger considers how time is implicated in our (mis)understanding of our energy choices and their consequences. The ideas underpinning their current design exhibition in Barcelona - indicating "a shift away from quick, thoughtless consumption of ancient resources, towards visible, tangible, real-time consumption" - make for interesting reading, especially alongside the piece below by Lara Trang, on Curating the Anthropocene.
"A piece of coal provides roughly eight kilowatt hours of energy per kilogram, which in one sense is extremely efficient. But the coal takes hundreds of millions of years to form. This almost unimaginable quantity of time is consumed with the flick of a switch, or at the press of a button - all dissipated, all devoured in an instant, to light a room or power a computer. When time is factored in, therefore, fossil fuels actually provide surprisingly low efficiency, low yield in terms of a time-energy ratio. A gravity battery, while seemingly of negligible energy storage value compared to fossil fuels, becomes much more powerful when time is factored into the equation." Before rethinking energy on such timescales is "dismissed on grounds of impracticality," he continues, "it is worth noting that our everyday relationship with energy is also a dream, an illusion of through-the-wall magic. It is unsustainable, based on a fantasy of unlimited supply, when in fact it has long been operating on a system of sleight of hand and perpetual deferral ... Even the generic and ubiquitous electrical sockets in our homes are anything but harmless. The apparent banality of the plug and socket has masked a century of unprecedented environmental destruction. By hiding energy, we have made it seem free of both limitations and consequences. A temporal convenience such as a hot bath or a flash of light releases potential (stored) energy irreversibly. Buttons, switches and plugs conceal enormous infrastructures and exploitation of existing resources on a truly sublime scale."
- Curating the Anthropocene: fearsome or romantic?-
In a very brief post at the University of Toronto's Musings museums studies blog (23/3/18), Lana Tran describes the concept of the Anthropocene as a "curiously circular thing – an age of human influence, conceived and ruminated by humans themselves ... From artistic representations to academic conference themes, the Anthropocene is becoming a term for people of varied fields in academia and beyond to circle around." And, observing that museums are increasingly "addressing the topic from a huge array of perspectives," she asks if there are correct and incorrect ways to curate the Anthropocene?
"In actuality, teasing apart the issues that confound the Anthropocene concept – such as anthropocentrism, capitalism, colonialism…(the list goes on) – is not a task easily accomplished in a series of displays alone. Indeed, the Anthropocene concept is a conspicuous platform from which museums are challenged to communicate with the utmost nuance." And, appropriately, Tran curates a short reading list, with links, for the reader to explore.
- When you give a tree an email address-
This is an old one but it only just came my way, via Twitter (in a fortnight that's been full of stories of Sheffield Council's contractors felling so many street trees in the face of large scale public protests). It's from The Atlantic (10/7/15), where Adrienne LaFrance reports that in Melbourne, Australia, "officials assigned the trees ID numbers and email addresses in 2013 as part of a program designed to make it easier for citizens to report problems like dangerous branches. The 'unintended but positive consequence,' as the chair of Melbourne’s Environment Portfolio, Councillor Arron Wood, put it to me in an email, was that people did more than just report issues. They also wrote directly to the trees -- everything from banal greetings and questions about current events to love letters and existential dilemmas.
To: Algerian Oak, Tree ID 1032705
2 February 2015
Dear Algerian oak,
Thank you for giving us oxygen. Thank you for being so pretty.
I don’t know where I’d be without you to extract my carbon dioxide. (I would probably be in heaven) Stay strong, stand tall amongst the crowd.
You are the gift that keeps on giving.
We were going to speak about wildlife but don't have enough time and have other priorities unfortunately.
Hopefully one day our environment will be our priority.
"Some of the messages have come from outside of Melbourne -- including this message, written from the perspective of a tree in the United States:
To: Oak, Tree ID 1070546
11 February 2015
Just sayin how do.
My name is Quercus Alba. Y’all can call me Al. I’m about 350 years old and live on a small farm in N.E. Mississippi, USA. I’m about 80 feet tall, with a trunk girth of about 16 feet. I don't travel much (actually haven’t moved since I was an acorn). I just stand around and provide a perch for local birds and squirrels.
Have good day,
And La France says some of the human correspondents have even received replies, as in this exchange between a person curious about biology and a willow leaf peppermint:
To: Willow Leaf Peppermint, Tree ID 1357982
29 January 2015
Hello Mr Willow Leaf Peppermint, or should I say Mrs Willow Leaf Peppermint?
Do trees have genders?
I hope you've had some nice sun today.
30 January 2015
I am not a Mr or a Mrs, as I have what's called perfect flowers that include both genders in my flower structure, the term for this is Monoicous. Some trees species have only male or female flowers on individual plants and therefore do have genders, the term for this is Dioecious. Some other trees have male flowers and female flowers on the same tree. It is all very confusing and quite amazing how diverse and complex trees can be.
Mr and Mrs Willow Leaf Peppermint (same Tree)
Maybe Sheffield Council just missed the memo from the trees?...
- Extending the glide: an interview with Jim Bendell-
For The Dark Mountain Project (19/3/18), Dougal Hind speaks with Jim Bendell, Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria. Bendell has been developing an agenda he calls Deep Adaptation and, in a fascinating interview, he describes how this came about through his inaugural professorial talk in 2014 "at a big literary festival in Cumbria. I’d already become aware of some of the latest science on climate change, so I decided to frame sustainability as an adventure – to say that we have to let go of our incremental, non-ambitious, conformist approaches. I gave a speech about that, because it was a frame that could be palatable to my colleagues, my employer, my academia and my audience. But I was coming down with the flu during the speech. And for the week after, I was in bed ill. There’s something emotional about a conclusion – that’s what you do in an inaugural lecture, you try and synthesise twenty years of your work, and by summarising, you’re also concluding it. So I spent that week in bed, with a fever, not doing much apart from reading scientific papers and watching traumatising videos from the Arctic. And I actually went into despair. It took years before I became more deliberate and public about this, and in a way it’s taken me until now to realise that I’ve been going through a professional catharsis which goes back to March 2014.
"Looking back over the last few years, I didn’t really know what to do about this realisation that we can’t fix climate change, that so much of the impact for our civilisation is already locked in. I didn’t know how to work on that. And I realised that one of the reasons was the lack of a framework to get your head around all this. So I thought it might be useful to come up with a map for people who are climate experts, policymakers, researchers about what this might mean. A map that would sound approachable, but would actually be the thin end of a wedge, in terms of where it would take them ... I called it Deep Adaptation. I introduced the three ‘R’s: Resilience, Relinquishment and Restoration... So Resilience is ‘how do we keep what we really want to keep?’, Relinquishment is ‘what do we need to let go of?’ and Restoration is ‘what can we bring back to help us through this?’"
- The right way to remember Rachel Carson-
Writing in The New Yorker (26/3/18 issue), Jill Lepore regrets that so much of Rachel Carson's earlier writing on the sea has been eclipsed by her last, and classic, work -- 1962's Silent Spring. She sees how this has come about though: “'Silent Spring,' a landlubber, is no slouch of a book: it launched the environmental movement; provoked the passage of the Clean Air Act (1963), the Wilderness Act (1964), the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act (both 1972); and led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, in 1970. The number of books that have done as much good in the world can be counted on the arms of a starfish. Still, all of Carson’s other books and nearly all of her essays concerned the sea. That Carson would be remembered for a book about the danger of back-yard pesticides like DDT would have surprised her in her younger years, when she was a marine biologist at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, writing memos about shad and pondering the inquiring snouts of whales, having specialized, during graduate school, in the American eel." In fact. it's perhaps surprising that Carson's career - as a writer and scientist - should be founded in a passion for the sea, when Lepore notes that "She herself could not swim. She disliked boats. In all her childhood, she never so much as smelled the ocean." But, as a shild "she tried to picture it: 'I used to imagine what it would look like, and what the surf sounded like.' All creatures are made of the sea, as Carson liked to point out; “'the great mother of life,' she called it. Even land mammals, with our lime-hardened skeletons and our salty blood, begin as fetuses that swim in the ocean of every womb." Carson's story is a remarkable one, this is a moving tribute to her.
- How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that's already happened)-
This essay by David Graeber and David Wengrow for Eurozine (2/3/18) is mind-expanding and well-argued challenge to the standard, prevailing narrative of human prehistory and history. "Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility ... There is a fundamental problem with this narrative. It isn’t true."
The apparent inevitability of 'inequality' as the cost of 'progress' is "a dismal conclusion ... for anybody who ever wondered if there might be some viable alternative to the status quo", and one that disempowers our imagination. "But on one thing we insist. Abandoning the story of a fall from primordial innocence does not mean abandoning dreams of human emancipation – that is, of a society where no one can turn their rights in property into a means of enslaving others, and where no one can be told their lives and needs don’t matter. To the contrary. Human history becomes a far more interesting place, containing many more hopeful moments than we’ve been led to imagine, once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what’s really there." Packed with arguments and examples, this is an enlightening and encouraging read.
- The top 10 most pioneering art/sustainability initiatives in the UK-
For Artists and Climate Change (8/3/18), curator Yasmine Ostendorf gives her personal "Top 10 list of my favorite art organizations talking the talk and walking the walk" on engaging artists with environmental and climate change. Read about the work of Open Jar Collective, Invisible Dust, Creative Carbon Scotland, Grizedale Arts, Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World, ONCA, Deveron Projects, The Morning Boat, Scottish Sculpture Workshop, and Arts Catalyst.
"Back in the days when I was still working for Cape Farewell in London, the appetite for artistic engagement with climate change seemed to be everywhere, including in the big cultural venues: from Ten Billion, the shocking science-lecture-performance at the Royal Court, to programs at the Science Museum and the Tate ... Ambitious productions, touring and attending conferences and Biennale all over the world – greening our own practice was just as (or even more) important as raising awareness about melting glaciers. And here the amazing ladies (mostly ladies) of Julie’s Bicycle jumped to help. Since 2012, all cultural organizations that receive regular funding from Arts Council England are required to report on their environmental impact, using Julie’s Bicycle Creative IG tools – advanced carbon calculators designed specifically for the cultural sector. This has made Arts Council England the first arts funding body to recognize the environmental role that the cultural field can play. Museums, theatres, festivals, tours, galleries and productions started to reduce their carbon emissions (as well as water use and waste) as it was made fun and clear how to do so."
- Analysis: UK carbon emissions in 2017 fell to levels last seen in 1890-
Writing for Carbon Brief (7/3/18), Zeke Hausfather reports on that organisation's analysis of newly released Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) energy use figures, which "shows the UK’s CO2 emissions from fossil fuels fell by 2.6% in 2017, driven by a 19% decline in coal use. This follows on the heels of a larger 5.8% drop in CO2 in 2016, which saw a record 52% drop in coal use. The UK’s total CO2 emissions are currently 38% below 1990 levels and are now as low as emissions were back in 1890 – the year the Forth Bridge opened in Scotland and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was published."
Adding that BEIS will publish its own CO2 estimates in late March and that Carbon Brief's "estimate of carbon emissions from fossil fuels using this approach may differ slightly from official greenhouse gas inventories due to different sectors included and assumed emission factors ... the results are generally within 1% to 3% of total reported non-land-use CO2 emissions for prior years." They also add the hugely important caveat that "this analysis using the latest government data is unable to calculate the UK’s “imported” emissions. Carbon Brief covered this topic last year and found: 'Even though domestic emissions have fallen 27% in the UK between 1990 and 2014, once CO2 imports from trade are considered this drops to only an 11% reduction.'" (Mention of The Picture of Dorian Gray might perhaps offer an unfortunate analogy?)
- Animal agents-
In an excellent article for Aeon (26/2/18), Amanda Rees asks can animals shape their own lives, and maybe the course of history? "It's time to reconsider the significance of animal agency. Plato’s attempt 2,500 years ago to define the human as ‘a featherless biped’ had to be swiftly qualified –‘with broad flat nails’ – when Diogenes presented him with a plucked chicken. Many subsequent attempts at human self-definition have faced similar problems in relation to exceptionality. Yet lately, scholars have begun to conclude that while the difference between humans and other animals is great, it is one of degree, not kind. "
Drawing examples from literature (an interesting companion-piece to Gregory Norrinton's article for Resurgence - see below) as well as from science, Rees sets out how we have tended to view "the difference between agency and consciousness – and between agency and subjectivity, or agency and individuality. Humans have the capacity to act as agents, because they are considered to know what they are doing and why they are doing it. But even though nonhumans possess individuality and consciousness, too, the absence of self-consciousness among them has generally been taken to preclude agency."
Against this assumption of human uniquesness, both ecology and ethology have taken "the first steps towards being able to see what it might mean to be an agent in an animal’s world ... By adopting a new approach to animal agency, we can develop new ways of thinking about multiple, distributed agencies and the way that they are remaking the world. In the age of the Anthropocene, we cannot afford to assume that these changes will always and forever be under conscious human control."
- We need to rewild the novel-
Writing for Resurgence (March/April 2018), Novelist Gregory Norminton asks how can the novel - "a form that evolved alongside humanism and the Enlightenment, and that primarily concerns itself with the inner lives and motivations of socialised humans" - broaden its scope to ring in the more-than-human? "Legend tells that Orpheus, ‘the father of songs’, who perfected the lyre (from which we derive our word ‘lyric’), sang so sweetly that wild beasts, forgetting their hunger, lay down to listen ... Lyric poetry is of the Earth – it is rooted. The novel, by contrast, has foundations – it is of the city.
"As a novelist and environmentalist, I have been puzzling for years about how to bring my concerns together. It troubles me that my chosen literary form appears barely cognisant of our ecological crisis ... For decades, environmentalists have been wondering how our rapacious species can live enduringly with the planet that sustains it. Technological ingenuity on its own is not enough: in order to change our behaviour, we must widen the circle of our compassion to include the non-human. We must, deep ecologists argue, dethrone ourselves, shedding our illusions of superiority to acknowledge our kinship with the rest of Nature." And Norminton evokes the conservation concept of 'rewilding', which "begins with the ability to recognise that we have accustomed ourselves to our ecological impoverishment. We learn to look at our empty uplands and realise that they need not be barren, that only culture and habit (the great deadener) keep them denuded ... "Novels that make no space for Nature – that are inattentive to landscape and the non-human – are perpetuating what ecologists call ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, whereby we mistake our self-impoverishment for the natural order of things. Yet rewilding the novel means more ... than adding a few mentions of animals and plants to anthropocentric narratives. It means acknowledging in our fiction where we come from, where we are going, and what we have lost and are losing on the way. It allows for abundance and jubilation, but also desolation and loss."
- How to spot the fossils hiding in plain sight-
"Traces of prehistoric life are everywhere," Jessica Leigh Hester points out at Atlas Obscura (23/2/18) - and Ruth Siddall, a geologist at University College London, offers her tips on how to spot fossils in the urban environment. "Region-specific guides ... may help you target your search. Siddall’s observations are the backbone of London Pavement Geology, an app and website, and she has guides on her blog. Paleourbana maps finds in Madrid, Buenos Aires, Salt Lake City, Doha, Bogotá, Moscow, and more, and David Williams’s book Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology reads like a prehistoric road trip across America. Search for a resource specific to your area. A local university’s geology department might be a good place to begin, too.
"Your best bet for finding urban fossils is to identify limestone. 'Many limestones, but not all, are fossiliferous, Siddall says. And adjust your expectations. While there’s a romance to finding some magnificently preserved specimen that everyone else missed, the odds are against you. You’re much more likely to spot shells and corals than bones or leaves ... Limestones frequently form in marine environments, where shells and and reefs are the most abundant fossil candidates." Oh, and "train yourself to think in two-dimensions."
- Anthropocene began in 1965, according to signs left in the world’s ‘loneliest tree’-
Chris Turney, Jonathan Palmer and Mark Maslin report in the Conversation (19/2/18) on how their recent research identifies one candidate to mark the start of the Anthropocene. "On Campbell Island in the Southern Ocean, some 400 miles south of New Zealand, is a single Sitka spruce. More than 170 miles from any other tree, it is often credited as the 'world’s loneliest tree'. Planted in the early 20th century ... the tree’s wood has recorded the radiocarbon produced by above ground atomic bomb tests – and its annual layers show a peak in 1965, just after the tests were banned. The tree therefore gives us a potential marker for the start of the Anthropocene ...
The 1960s is a decade forever associated with the hippie movement and the birth of the modern environmentalism, a sun-blushed age in which the Apollo moon landings gave us the iconic image of a fragile planet framed against a desolate lunar surface. It was also a time when the world was fast globalising, with rapid industrialisation and economic growth driving population expansion and a massive increase in our impact on the environment." The researchers ask, "Should we define the Anthropocene by when humanity invented the technology to make themselves extinct? If so, then the nuclear bomb spike recorded in the loneliest tree on the planet suggests it began in 1965."
- The Nubecene: toward an ecology of the cloud-
In a fascinating post for Platypus - a blog for discussion on anthropological studies of science and technology as social phenomena - (14/2/18), Steven Gonzalez introduces a new term, the Nubecene (following the Latin root for cloud – nubes) as a means to capture and make visible the "imprints of computing ... etched into the surface of the earth. Fugitive traces remain captive in its lithic tissues, its waters, and the very air we breathe. Roiling in the most abyssal depths of the seas, coursing through fiber optic cables thinner than human hairs, the amorphous Cloud and its digital ganglia enshroud our planet. By way of its sheer magnitude and complexity, the Cloud eludes human imagination. It is ... a market fantasy of infinite storage capacity, immateriality, and feel-good “green” slogans like 'go paperless.' While envisioned by many to be ether, suspended above matter, the Cloud remains a material ensemble of cables and microchips, computer servers and data centers, electrons and water molecules, cell towers and cell phones, spindly fiber coils undersea and underground that firmly tether communities and consumers to the ground, not the sky."
"The Nubecene is a set of narratives about ecological and political entanglements. Its settings range from dangerous lithium mines in the Global South, to the offices of NGOs whose purpose is to bring rural people online for the first time, to subterranean data centers housed within Cold War era bunkers. It even extends to the remote consoles of bitcoin miners, who expend colossal energy to perform cryptography in the pursuit of wealth."
- Redefining plastics: unprecedented possibilities-
Aesthetica Magazine (8/2/18) reports on a new design publication, Radical Matter, whose authors - Kate Franklin and Caroline Till - address the unparalleled impact of human beings on the Earth’s ecosystems in respect to waste, "whilst offering an optimistic, alternative vision of the future through practitioners who place sustainability at the heart of their work. Till recognises that the time has come to act and strive towards a closed-loop, zero-legacy future: 'We are now equipped with more information than ever, digital communication means that provenance behind material sourcing can’t be ignored anymore.' Practitioners highlighted ... include Will Yates-Johnson (b. 1986), who creates objects which can be infinitely reused. By breaking household items down into fragments and subsequently repurposing them, the designer creates colourful, eclectic products that draw attention to their own physicality. These new creations – collectively named Polyspolia after the ancient Roman philosophy of repurposing building resources – make visual the process of recycling, embodying a sustainable ethos whilst playfully referencing the popular 'terrazzo' aesthetic. The method requires no external energy, and incorporates the whole of the previous iteration, avoiding waste entirely. Till expands: 'Yates-Johnson’s project takes a very systemic approach. It’s about how we use materials, highlighting where they’re coming from and the process of transformation we put them through. It’s an example of thinking of a substance in a continuous cycle. He’s an advocate of inspiring people to think about what will happen to the object after use, taking a playful, accessible approach to quite an academic topic.'"
I'm grateful to ClimateCultures Member Julien Masson for sharing this article.
- Rambling through time-
In this opinion piece for the New York Times (27/1/18), Peter Brannen invites his readers on a walk 500 million years into the past, "with each step representing a century back in time ... The world is old beyond comprehension, and our story on it is short. The conceit of the Anthropocene, the supposed new epoch we’re living in, is that humanity can already make claims to its geological legacy. But if we’re to endure as a civilization, or even as a species, for anything more than what might amount to a thin layer of odd rock in some windswept canyon of the far future, some humility is in order about our, thus far, infinitesimal part in the history of the planet." In whatever city or other place you choose to start such a back-in-time trek - his choice is New York naturally - "we can’t even get to the sidewalk before all of recorded history — all of the empires, the holy books, agriculture, the architecture, all of it — is behind us."
"In the next few decades we will decide whether humanity’s legacy will be a sliver of clay in the limestone strata — a geological embarrassment accessible only in remote outcrops to eagle-eyed geologists of the far future — or an enduring new epoch like the reign of dinosaurs. But even if it’s the former, and we collapse almost as soon, in geologic time, as we got started, the record in the rocks of the extinctions we caused will remain, as eternal as the schist in Central Park."
- Why we need to rethink climate change, with Timothy Morton-
This Guardian Books podcast (13/2/18) is a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion between Timothy Morton and Sian Cain. Sian introduces Timothy with the conventional label, 'philosopher'. Timothy introduces Timothy as an 'absurd clown, holding open the door.' (Which does sound like something we could do with having more of.)
"When you first hear some of philosopher Timothy Morton’s ideas, they may sound bizarre. He argues that everything in the universe - from algae and rocks to knives and forks - has a kind of consciousness. That we need to scrap the concept of “nature” as being distinct to civilisation. And, he says, we’re ruled by a kind of primitive artificial intelligence: industrial capitalism ... but sit down with Timothy for five minutes and they start to make sense. His latest book, Being Ecological, explores the relationship between humanity and the environment and why the world’s current approach to climate change isn’t working. We don’t need endless ''factoids' or 'guilt-inducing sermons', he says, we need to radically change how we think about nature – and stop distinguishing between humans and non-human beings."
- Part of monster sewer fatberg goes on display at London museum-
Mark Brown reports for the Guardian (8/2/18) that the Museum of London has unveiled one of its more unusual displays: "The sample was part of a sewer-blocking fatberg that made headlines last year, weighing 130 tonnes, the equivalent of 11 double decker buses and stretching more than 250 metres, six metres longer than Tower Bridge ... Its aroma was once a mix of rotting meat and a toddler’s nappy that had been left out for months, but it has now, mercifully, calmed down ... The solid calcified mass of fats, oils, faeces, wet wipes and sanitary products tells us something about how we live."
- Ancient kids’ toys have been hiding in the archaeological record-
Bruce Bower writes at Science News (6/2/18) of a number of rounded clay disks, each pierced with two holes, which have mystified investigators for nearly a century. "Unusual finds in Israel dating to around 3,000 years ago ... represent children’s early attempts to mimic adult craftwork ... After passing a string through both of a disk’s holes and tying the ends together, a youngster could swing the string to wind up the toy and then pull both ends of the string to make the disk spin." The article includes a clip showing a replica spinning disk in action, showing a leaping deer, and evidence "that more than 10,000 years earlier, people in France and Spain made similar spinning disks decorated with animals that appeared to move as the toy twirled."
- The Lost Words campaign delivers nature ‘spellbook’ to Scottish schools-
In the Guardian (10/2/18), Patrick Barkham and Alison Flood report on how a book created to celebrate the disappearing words of everyday nature -- from acorn and wren to conker and dandelion -- is fast becoming a cultural phenomenon. "Four months after publication The Lost Words, a collection of poems by Robert Macfarlane and paintings by Jackie Morris, has already shipped 75,000 copies and won two literary prizes. Now the book, aimed at reviving once-common 'natural' words excised from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, will be discovered by a generation of children after a crowdfunding drive to place a copy in every school in Scotland. Jane Beaton, a school bus driver and travel consultant from Strathyre, Stirling, was moved to raise £25,000 to give the book to all 2,681 schools in Scotland after 'a spur of the moment' commitment on Twitter.
The book’s poems, which Macfarlane likens to 'spells' to conjure wild things, were already being adapted as a choral work by a children’s choir, while a theatrical performance will debut at a summer festival before touring schools. The text is also being stitched into embroidered braille and there are plans for celebrity readers to whisper the words through the trees of the National Forest in Derbyshire."
- As climate changes, we need the arts more than ever-
As Richard Heinberg says in this opinion for Ensia (1/2/18), "Anthropologists and historians rightly argue that society’s major transformations have emerged not from the arts, but from our relationship to our environment — for example, our shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture, or from using firewood as our main energy source to using fossil fuels. Nevertheless, artists’ efforts help shape the terms by which society adapts to such transformations and their consequences. And this can be a big deal. Think of how Beethoven marked the beginnings of modern democracy, the Romantic Movement in poetry and philosophy, and the nascent Industrial Revolution with music that shattered the aristocratic formalism of previous generations. Or how Hollywood writers and directors galvanized massive support for the U.S. war effort during the early 1940s." And, turning to the future and the impacts of climate change, "artists will have the opportunity and duty to translate the resulting tumultuous human experience into words, images, and music that help people not just to understand these events mentally, but also to come to grips with them viscerally."
- Our stories bind us-
For Pacific Standard (26/1/18), Kevin Charles Fleming reports on new research on "how far back the evolutionary roots of storytelling go - and how powerful a role storytellers play in society ... The impulse to use narrative to understand the world is perhaps our most irreducibly human quality. Apes rival us with their tool making, ravens with their playfulness, ants and bees with their altruism and collaboration, but no species makes meaning of experience like homo sapiens. Religion, nationhood, currency: Few of our most important cultural constructs hang together if we stop believing our own stories about them ...
"From our earliest days as a species, we've had to coordinate everything from child rearing to food sharing to coalition building. Cooperation can seem like a losing evolutionary strategy—why concern myself with others when I could be thinking about myself?—and, the authors note, even in situations where everyone stands to gain, attempts at cooperation are often plagued by 'free riders' and failures of coordination (see, for example, the Paris Agreement). Critical in such situations is 'meta knowledge,' or a belief about how someone else is likely to act. 'In other words, it is not enough to know how to act in a given situation,' the authors write. 'Individuals need to know that others also know how to act.'"
- How climate change inspires monsters-
"As spring slipped into summer in 1816, something very strange happened. The months went by —April, May, June, July — but summer declined to show up. In May, the Eastern United States was beset by frost, killing crops ... Across the Atlantic, harvests failed throughout Britain and Ireland. Even further afield, in China, India, Japan, and Russia, crops were damaged, water buffalo perished, and torrential rain caused fatal floods." For Atlas Obscura (23/1/18), Natasha Frost recounts the story of how 'the year without a summer' may have inspired not just Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and an early vampire novel, but illustrates how our monsters might shapeshift as our climate changes.
"Scientists now think that the stormy 'summer' that influenced these two texts was caused by a volcano eruption thousands of miles [away] in Indonesia.In April 1815, Mount Tambora spurted out nearly 40 cubic miles of ash, killing at least 71,000 people. It is often described as one of the most deadly volcanic eruptions in recorded history. This eruption sparked a climate event, with tons of sulfur injected into the atmosphere. This in turn formed a kind of veil of sulfates, sprayed into the air as if by a gigantic aerosol can. Under this invisible veil, the earth’s climate went bonkers ... Across the world, millions of people woke up, day after day, and waited for a summer that wasn’t coming.... As the earth changes, monsters real and imagined will come crawling out of the darkness. Some, like Godzilla, will be fictional. Others, like an explosion of seemingly immortal jellyfish, will be real. Even our most popular cryptids will be forced to change their lives, with hotter weather forcing them from their lairs. If the Loch Ness dries up, its monster will have nowhere to live. When the snow melts, Big Foot and the Yeti will have to pack up their caves and head down the mountain."
- Scientists home in on a potential Anthropocene ‘Golden Spike’-
Environmental Research Web (24/1/18) reports that the Anthropocene Working Group has reviewed the potential settings where a global geological 'reference section' for the Anthropocene - "the clearest, sharpest, and most stable signal in strata that might be used to define the Anthropocene as a formal unit of the Geological Time Scale" - might be searched for. "The group has found that a broad range of potential physical, chemical and biological markers characterise the Anthropocene, the clearest global markers being radionuclide fallout signals from nuclear testing and changes in carbon chemistry through fossil fuel burning – these in particular show marked changes starting in the early to mid-1950s.
Professor Colin Waters, who led the study, said: “This study considers those environments in which the very short history of the Anthropocene is best recorded. In addition to ... traditional geological strata, we have also considered human-generated deposits, sediments accumulating in lakes, estuaries and deltas, peat bogs, cave mineral deposits and even biological hosts such as corals and trees. The presence of annual layers or growth rings within many of these provides geologically unprecedented accuracy in the placement of the primary reference marker, wherever this might be ultimately chosen.” ... Professor Mark Williams said: “The range of environments we are working with is remarkable – from polar ice and snow layers to deep lake and sea floors to the skeletons of reef corals and stalactites in caves. The fact that signals of the Anthropocene are so sharply visible in all of these shows just how pervasive human impact has been on the planet in post-war times.”
- We’re climate researchers and our work was turned into fake news-
"Science is slow. It rests on painstaking research with accumulating evidence," Michael Grubb reminds us at the Conversation (25/1/18). "This makes for an inherently uneasy relationship with the modern media age, especially once issues are politicised. The interaction between politics and media can be toxic for science, and climate change is a prominent example ... After we published a paper in the scientific journal Nature Geoscience, in which we concluded that there was more headroom than many had assumed before we breach the goals of the Paris Agreement[, w]e found ourselves not only on the front page of the main British newspapers, but globally, as far-right website Breitbart ran with a story that a small band of buccaneering scientists had finally admitted that the models were all wrong – a fiction rapidly picked up by the more rabid elements in the media. The essence of good science is to continually update, challenge, improve and refine, using as much evidence as possible ...
Unfortunately, while good science embraces uncertainty, politics abhors it and the media seems confounded by it. That in turn pressures researchers to simplify their message, and treat existing estimates – often, from a range – like a position to be defended. It is a risky trap for scientists, however eminent and well-intentioned, to wield overnight reactions to parry months of painstaking peer review and refinement that lie behind analyses published in leading journals. So how should science respond? The climate policy implications are easy: nothing significant has changed. We have but one planet, and both the physical and economic processes that are driving climate change have enormous inertia. If a big ocean liner were steaming into dense fog in polar seas, only a fool would maintain full speed on the basis that the technicians were still discussing the distance to the first big iceberg."
- Ten ‘stealth microplastics’ to avoid if you want to save the oceans-
As Sharon George and Deirdre McKay explain in this piece from the Conversation (17/1/19), "all plastic ends up tiny. And it persists, no matter what its size. In the ocean, even the largest and most resilient bits of plastic are broken up and degraded by the waves and sunlight until eventually these chunks measure less than five millimetres across – about the size of an ant – and they are classed as 'secondary microplastics'. This type of plastic, that started out as drinks bottles, fishing gear, disposable cutlery and so on, is much more abundant than 'primary microplastics' that started out small, such as the microbeads found in toothpaste. Microbeads are among the most familiar sources of tiny plastic pollution, but this means there are other less obvious sources of microplastics in everyday use." Among the 'stealth microplastics' they discuss are the residues from our everyday use of tyres, synthetic clothing, cigarette butts, glitter, wet wipes, paint, plastic cups and tea bags.
- Evaluating biases in Sea Surface Temperature records using coastal weather stations-
As Kevin C says at the start of this short and clear post on Skeptical Science (8/1/18), "Science is hard. Some easy problems you can solve by hard work, if you are in the right place at the right time and have the right skills. Hard problems take the combined effort of multiple groups looking at the problem, publishing results and finding fault with each other's work, until hopefully no-one can find any more problems. When problems are hard, you may have to publish something that even you don't think is right, but that might advance the discussion." We've been measuring sea surface temperatures for a long time; inevitably, this means that the technologies and methods we've used have changed markedly over that time. "The calculation of an unbiased sea surface temperature record is a hard problem. Historical sea surface temperature observations come from a variety of sources, with early records being measured using wooden, canvas or rubber buckets, later readings being taken from engine room intakes or hull sensors, and the most recent data coming from drifting buoys and from satellites. These different measurement methods give slightly different readings, with the transition from bucket to engine room observations during the second world war being particularly large: this represents the single largest correction to the historical temperature record, and reduces the estimated warming since the mid 19th century by 0.2-0.3 C compared to the uncorrected data". And different national science agencies adopt different methods to reconcile these changes ... all of which makes for a scientific detective tale, and a fascinating insight into the processes by which we reach for an always imperfect understanding, while increasing our confidence in this knowledge.
- The secret to creativity – according to science-
Valerie van Mulukom writes at the Conversation (3/1/18) that "Imagination is what propels us forward as a species – it expands our worlds and brings us new ideas, inventions and discoveries. But why do we seem to differ so dramatically in our ability to imagine?" She explains that there are two phases to creative thinking: divergent and convergent thinking: a fast and automatic mode that brings in a wide variety of ideas, drawing on intuition; followed by a slower and more deliberative evaluation, to analyse these ideas. To select the right idea, "research suggests that the first requirement is actually exposure and experience. The longer you have worked and thought in a field and learned about a matter – and importantly, dared to make many mistakes – the better you are at intuitively coming up with ideas and analytically selecting the right one." And Valerie suggests that we deploy both 'fantastical imagination' - "probably best predicted by your fantasy proneness and imaginative immersion" - and 'episodic imagination', "which helps individuals to better imagine alternative pasts and learn from their mistakes, or imagine their futures and prepare for them."
- Cornerstones - Flint-
In the first of a new sequence in BBC Radio 3's The Essay, author Alan Garner "sparks with flint, the stone that, perhaps more than any other, has enabled human civilisation. It's a stone that has featured in some of his novels, such as Red Shift, where the same Neolithic hand axe resurfaces across different times to haunt his characters. And it is time and evolution that he looks at in this essay: 'My blood walked out of Africa ninety thousand years ago. We came by flint. Flint makes and kills; gives shelter, food; it clothes us. Flint clears forest. Flint brings fire. With flint we bear the cold.'" Listening to Garner read his thoughts on the deep time of cosmology, geology and biology, and how he taps into the workings of the Jodrell Bank radio telescope he can see from his home, and into the long history of human handling of the stones he has dug out of the Bronze Age settlement in his garden, is to capture faint echoes of a past that is not wholly past.
- Introducing Ecopsychoanalysis: mind, politics and ecology-
Writing at Entitle (18/12/17) Ed Thornton asks "Do mental states have their own ecology? ... Psychoanalysis can help us to make sense of the strange mix of emotional states that the looming presence of ecological catastrophe can elicit. Whether it be anxiety, denial, paranoia, guilt, hope, or despair, discussions of climate change are never without their psychological dimension. The problem of apathy is especially acute. Psychoanalysis offers us a set of theories designed to explore the origins of these strange neuroses. It also offers a toolbox of techniques devised to work through whatever we find ... [B]y concentrating on the fact that we are not directly conscious of our own desires, psychoanalysts pay close attention to the gap between what we seem to want and what really drives us. By exploring the contents of this gap, psychoanalytic techniques can show how behaviors that seem irrational on the surface might have their own, hidden logic. In short, psychoanalysis can help us to explore the madness of our situation ... The global circulation of desire, the circulation of capital, and the circulation of carbon-dioxide are intimately linked. As long as this is the case, the question of how our mental lives interact with our environment must be confronted."
- Darkness Visible in the Echo Chamber-
As many of us gather in Reading for the closing ceremony to the city's year-long innovative Festival of the Dark, BBC Radio 4's The Echo Chamber (17/12/17) broadcasts this 'total darkness' encounter between poet Paul Farley and visual artist Sam Winston. "Sam spent a week living in total darkness, recording the experience in a series of 'blind' drawings. He later invited three poets to undertake 'darkness residencies', asking them to write new work in response to the experience." You can listen to this programme on the BBC website and BBC iPlayer Radio, with Paul Farley visiting Sam's installation at the Southbank Centre to spend time in the dark himself, and to hear the resulting poems by Kayo Chingonyi, Emily Berry and George Szirtes.
The Darkness Visible exhibition runs at the Southbank Centre in London until 25th March and there is an event at Whitechapel Gallery in London on 11th January - see our Events page.
- Gimme shelter in the deep future-
Writing at the Journal of Wild Culture (17/12/17), Judith Mueller - a college professor who "struggles to keep her students from falling prey to a despairing pessimism ... about current ecological crises" - discovers temporal complexity in an account of "time shelters", which might provide a livable alternative. "Dire times call for radical temporal recalibration. That is, how might we reframe the conversation about Time? The Anthropocene demands — or perhaps enables — this dwelling at once on at least two (multi-layered) temporal scales: 1) the temporality of a human lifetime, made up of various sub-temporalities (a childhood, a campaign, a bus ride, an undergraduate career, a pregnancy, a beloved dog, a summer, a clematis vine, a friendship) with the opportunities for action and meaning-making these human time-scales afford; and, 2) the deep timescale that can conceive a planetary history stretching long before and well beyond homo sapiens and the other creatures whose world we share in this moment, a vast temporality with lived sub-temporalities visible in rocky traces ... David Wood’s notion of “time shelters” might be useful here. In his book, Time After Time (2007), Wood engages with Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida, and accepts, without pessimism, the broad postmodern idea of the end of time. In doing so he exposes the rich, stratified, and non-linear textures of temporal complexity that characterize our world. A time shelter, as he conceives it, is an “economy” of temporal organization. In an entropic universe, living beings “are essentially negentropic”: resisting disorder and creating order “whether at the molecular level or that of information”, or that of a tidy room. Each organization comprises a time shelter."
- Leading doctors back legal action to force UK government to cut carbon emissions-
Writing for the British Medical Journal (7/12/17), Zosia Kmietowicz reports that doctors "are backing legal action against UK government ministers on the grounds they have not fulfilled their commitments to cutting carbon emissions in line with the Climate Change Act of 2008 and the Paris Agreement objective of limiting warming to 1.5°C or “well below” 2°C. In an open letter published in The BMJ, 18 health professionals, including The BMJ’s editor in chief Fiona Godlee, are supporting campaign group Plan B’s legal challenge to force the government to revise its 2050 carbon target, saying it is inconsistent with the Paris Agreement temperature objective."
- How to get environmental art right-
Another interesting piece from the Conversation (29/11/17). Rachel Witherst set out to explore the environmental artworks in Norway’s Artscape Nordland collection – 36 permanent public sculptures installed in 35 of Nordland’s municipalities. "Objections to public artworks and 'environmental' art ... can be as diverse as the genre itself. But some themes recur. Most obviously, there are objections of taste, often based on the prejudice that contemporary art per se is a load of ludicrous charlatanry. These taste-based beefs often lurk behind 'economic' objections ('the money would be better spent on hospitals/schools/housing/roads' etcetera ...). There are ecological issues: will installations lead to increased foot and road traffic, trampled habitats, disturbed livestock, dumped litter, other kinds of damage? ... An infrequently mentioned but inevitable function of permanent public artworks, however interesting in themselves, is that they never simply enhance a site. They shut down possible ways of seeing, reading and inhabiting an environment, as well as adding new ones. The issue is whether what’s gained outweighs what is lost. I fretted that I’d find myself niggling at this effect of the sculptures – wishing I could swig the landscape neat, as it were, minus the contemporary art tonic." Join Rachel on her tour of these impressive works of art: a collection which quashes her doubts.
- A glass of whisky could help you get your head around deep time-
An anthropologist, a geologist, a literary scholar, a palaeoecologist, and a radiocarbon dating expert walked into a bar...
"Take a glass of whisky," the authors of this piece in the Conversation (8/12/17) advise, and who needs to be asked twice? Carina Fearnley, Lourdes López-Merino, Niamh Downing and Richard Irvine - members of an interdisciplinary research team investigating Deep Time in the everyday, remind us that the term “deep time” was coined in 1981 as a way of "highlighting the apparent insignificance of the span of human existence in the face of geological processes. Yet such scale is inherently difficult to conceive of. And so as societies face changing environments, with challenges of energy and food security, the short-term perspective is often politically and economically dominant. But this way of thinking is high risk. If we are to adequately respond and adapt to landscape change, we need think about time differently, take a more holistic view. As such, over the last year we have been exploring different ways in which we might understand how humans think about deep time, and how it shapes our behaviours ... Deep time, for all its vastness, becomes intimate when we trace it in things that are familiar to us ... Deep time is therefore visible in our daily lives, and if we look closely enough we can understand time through the material presence of objects. Take a glass of whisky." Then take another one and start reading.
- A few notes on nature spirits, part two: into a living world-
Quoting the poet William Blake - "May God us keep / From single vision and Newton’s sleep!" - John Michael Greer completes his two-part post at Ecosophia (6/12/17) with his understanding of 'nature spirits' via a 'four-fold' vision that Blake subscribed to. "Single vision - the shrill and dogmatic insistence that real knowledge can only come through the material senses, and must never be understood as anything but the random acts of dead matter and mindless energy in a dead and mindless cosmos - pervades contemporary industrial civilization. It’s because we’re so used to thinking in these terms that we’ve gotten so good at manipulating matter and energy, but it’s also because we’re so used to thinking in these terms that we’ve done such a dismal job of maintaining the balance of the living planet on which our own lives depend ... You and I, dear reader, are members of the animal kingdom. That means, among many other things, that our material bodies are more completely differentiated from their environment than the bodies of living things that belong to other kingdoms. That doesn’t mean that we’re entirely separate from our environments, not by a long shot; we constantly absorb things from our environments and release other things into our environments, and about ten per cent of our body weight is made up of microbes of various kinds, without which we can’t survive - but unless you use a microscope, it’s fairly easy to figure out where our bodies stop and the environment starts. That’s less true of other living things."
- A few notes on nature spirits, part one: Nature as “it,” Nature as “you”-
Writing at his site Ecosophia (29/11/17), John Michael Greer often asks his readers what they'd like him to write on, and the most recent topic has been 'nature spirits.' "The mere act of mentioning the words 'nature spirits,' or any of their synonyms, calls up shrill prejudices in most people in today’s industrial societies. It’s indicative that when members of the current crop of evangelical atheists want to be just as nasty about other people’s religious beliefs as they possibly can, they refer to gods as 'sky fairies.' Against belief in gods, these same atheists deploy any number of arguments, and some of them - by no means all, or even most, but some - are serious philosophical challenges. Against belief in faeries and other nature spirits, they don’t even bother. Far beyond the bounds of devout evangelical atheism, the notion that there might be disembodied (or rather, as we’ll see, differently bodied) intelligent beings in the natural world, corresponding more or less to what’s described in traditional lore concerning faeries and nature spirits, is dismissed as too absurd to consider." And with that, he's off - on a two part article which is well worth a read whether you think you're firmly on the material plane, find yourself enquiring into the astral from time to time, or are happily - well, away with the faeries. Either way, it's an interesting enqiry into how we see the place of human beings - and being human - in the Anthropocene; and as Greer says, "the terror of finding out that we don’t own the planet is one of the things that has to be faced"...
- Cities in the Technosphere-
Inhabiting the Anthropocene (29/11/17) features a discussion by Peter Soppelsa of recent special papers in The Anthropocene Review focusing on the 'technosphere.' (See also 'Technosphere' in September's Views from Elsewhere). "The technosphere is defined as the totality of human artifice, the earth’s 'archaeological strata,' including landscapes, technologies, and material culture. For example, as Gabrielle Hecht and Pamila Gupta recently wrote, 'there’s now enough concrete on the planet to produce a 2mm thick, full-scale replica of Earth, and enough plastic to completely wrap that replica in cling film.' ... [T]his human-made sphere displays three important characteristics—autonomy from human action, global integration, and a systematic character. Thus, the term raises the question of whether the things that humans produce can take on a 'meta-ecological' role analogous to other spheres (biosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, etc.) that are self-organizing, -preserving, and -replicating, while exerting a structuring or limiting effect on human activity ... And just as water is an important medium of interaction between the bio-, hydro-, and atmospheres, so material produced in the technosphere can have effects that feed back into the other spheres."
- Erratic monuments to a melting world-
Writing for Edge Effects (30/11/17), artist Nina Elder introduces images and notes on her encounters with erratics: rocks carved and carried by glaciers moving from one geological environment to another and dropped as the glacier melts. "An erratic signifies the time and place where the glacier originated - often hundreds of miles and hundreds of years distant. Erratics hold traces of the parent bedrock, the path that the glacier traveled, and the process of deposition. They are time travelers, treasure troves, reliquaries, and rubble. Encountering an erratic is akin to encountering a piece of sculpture, perched in a surprising location with an unstable or alien appearance. The material presence of an erratic is strange, an anomaly mismatched to its surroundings. It is often not clear how this solitary rock arrived. Erratics have a newness, a vulnerability, and a childlike awkwardness. They have an aura of meaning, promise and poetry that, for those of us who are not geologists, remains a mystery." One of her images is captioned, "Land feels like a verb out here," another contains a prose poem: "The poet writes about wildfire ash crossing oceans and coating glaciers. On the other side of the planet, the glaciologist discovers 8-million-year-old soot and silt. The cryospherologist toggles satellites in scientific orbit and sees a future with more fires and less ice. His poem settles into the pores and crevasses and gets caught in a cosmic wind. One scientist looks down from her satellite, the other looks up from her cold brittle instruments. There is a bridge of comprehension that has a poem in the middle."
- Animal sentience: what is really going on with the controversial Brexit amendment?-
In an update on - and correction to - their recent reporting on the UK Parliament vote on the EU Withdrawal Bill, Andrew Griffin at the Independent (24/11/17) looks in more detail at how UK does (or does not) acknowledge the sentience of (non-human) animals, and what failing to carry over the relevant EU Lisbon Treaty protocol into UK law after Brexit might mean. "Animal rights campaigners, politicians and journalists are involved in an argument about whether the Government believes animals are sentient. But what’s the truth? The issue arose after a vote last week as part of the process of bringing EU legislation into UK law. Part of that process included a vote that, if passed, would have officially said that the UK recognises animals can be sentient.That amendment didn’t pass. And it’s from that event that the confusion and disputation of this week emerged."
The article also mentions a written statement from Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, in which he explains the government's position. You can read that in full here.
- MPs vote 'that animals cannot feel pain or emotions' into the Brexit bill-
Rachael Ravesz, writing in the Independent (20/11/17), reports on British MPs decision in the first vote on the EU Withdrawal Bill "to reject the inclusion of animal sentience – the admission that animals feel emotion and pain – into the EU Withdrawal Bill. The move has been criticised by animal rights activists, who say the vote undermines environment secretary Michael Gove’s pledge to prioritise animal rights during Brexit. The majority of animal welfare legislation comes from the EU. The UK Government is tasked with adopting EU laws directly after March 2019 but has dismissed animal sentience." Animal sentience was incorporated into EU law in 2009 via the Lisbon Treaty, following years of campaigning by animal rights activists.
The article quotes Richard Bowler, a wildlife photographer: "Science is showing more and more animal intelligence and emotions and yet our government has yet again ignored it. There can only be one reason to deny animal sentient status, and that is to exploit them." Anyone who agrees that the decision should be reversed can sign peritions from 38 Degrees or Change.org or others and/or email their MP; you can find your MP and their email address by entering your postcode at the Parliament website.
- What a card game teaches us about moving through a city-
Writing for Edge Effects (21/11/17), Stepha Velednitsky and Jared Wood give a highly readable precis of the origins of psychogeography and the Situationists in Paris in the late 1950s, who rejected the way that urban life has increasingly been reduced to 'a series of work and consumption routines'. This is a starting point for Atlas, a new "card game in which players explore urban places and map their experiences. Created by Jared Wood (a co-author of this essay) and Richie Rhombus in the spirit of psychogeographic games, Atlas takes players to places they would have never found on their own - and gets them lost in places they thought they knew ... Atlas is not easy. Instead, it intentionally complicates the players’ journeys through urban space in an effort to open up new ways of moving through and relating to cities ... Though the increasingly commodified cities in which we live look very different from mid-century Paris, the practice of psychogeography is more relevant now than ever before. Atlas encourages players to enter their own psychogeographic studies by making maps of their game, documenting not only the places they wander to, but the physical and psychological journeys of doing so. While these maps don’t help anyone get from point A to B, they do recall visceral memories of what it felt like to be somewhere—and why."
- The good news about plastic waste-
Writing in the Conversation (15/11/17), Deirde McKay surveys some of the creative uses that artists around the world are finding in waste plastics. "Waste plastics contaminate our food, water and air. Many are calling for a global ban on single-use plastics because throwing them “away” often means into our river systems and then into the world’s oceans ... It’s suspected that much of the “recycling” shipped to Asia may be joining local waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This soupy collection of plastic debris is trapped in place by ocean currents, slowly breaking into ever-smaller pieces, but never breaking down. Covered by bacterial plaques, they are mistaken for food by fish. Ingested, they contaminate the food chain and, potentially, may even be disrupting the biophysical systems that keep our oceans stable, thus contributing to climate change. So we need to use far less plastic, re-use what we can, and dispose of what we must far more wisely. In facing this challenge, developed countries can learn from innovations in the less-developed world. People, globally, are innovating, creating new processes to use waste plastics and making new objects and art forms."
- Pathogens and the Anthropocene: Germs, Genes, Geography, Part 2-
In the concluding part of her post for Inhabiting the Anthropocene (25/10/17), Kyle Harper develops her theme that "To speak of an 'Anthropocene for pathogens' is to imagine the ways that human transformation of the environment has shaped the ecology and evolution of infectious microbes. In other words, it is to imagine the interrelated history of humans and our germs." Surveying how human habitats define germ habitats, how we transform the ecologies of hosts and vectors, and human health is a war on pathogenic microbes, she says that "In short, the old model of disease history is crumbling and nothing has yet replaced it, in part because the rise of genomic evidence is moving more quickly than the field can keep up. But, ultimately, the story of human pathogens will be one that requires us to imagine how humans have shaped their ecology and evolution. It will be a story that is temporally deep, global in scale, and sensitive to the importance of geography. Already we might try to catalogue some of the ways that human civilization has changed the rules of the game for infectious microbes."
- Raj Patel on how to break away from capitalism-
I'm grateful to ClimateCultures member Mark Nash-Williams for sharing this very interesting piece from Chris Winters at Resilience (3/11/17). It's an interview with Raj Patel, co-author, The History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. The book describes how the 'cheapness' of our hidden social, ecological and economic infrastructure - nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives - drives our global economy and mindset, andventually forces the things we neglect (the 'externalities', in economists' jargon) to strike back in ways we are becoming very familiar with... It's a short interview and sounds like an excellent book. It calls for cultural re-imagination, a psychological shift to overcome "the bumper sticker problem that a number of people notice ... that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. When you ask folks to imagine what they want instead of this world? Blank stares all around. Yet, not far from here, you have Coast Salish communities that have profoundly interesting relationships with nature, relationships that can point the way to what a different world might be like. So let’s look at the salmon festival. It begins with the celebration of the first salmon caught swimming upstream. The festival runs for 10 days, during which no fishing is allowed. While the first salmon is prepared and eaten, all the other salmon go upstream and they spawn. And then you start fishing for salmon. But for 10 days, you don’t, and instead you celebrate the treaty that your people have with the salmon people ... To enter into a treaty with extra-human life rather than simply possess it involves a deep psychological reorientation. It’s an individual transformation of a relationship in the world and with nature, but also it’s a social one. If an individual asserted, “I’ve signed a treaty with salmon,” that’d be bonkers. … These transformations have to be collective and social."
- The fragile society we’ve built from rocks: a conversation with Gregory Cushman-
In a fascinating interview piece for Edge Effects ( 17/10/17), Elizabeth Hennessy speaks with Gregory Cushman, a professor of International Environmental History at the University of Kansas, about his history of the Anthropocene focused on humanity’s changing relationship to the Earth’s crust, the Lithosphere. "An old parable promises security to the man who builds his house on solid rock, but as Gregory Cushman observes, building a civilization based on the consumption of irreplaceable “rocks” is an unsustainable endeavor. Cushman, whose first book, Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History, explored the rise of the industrial production of guano, nitrates, and phosphates in agricultural fertilizers, is now taking a broader look at ... humanist approaches to studying the lithosphere. Our conversation explores extractivism, the globalization of fossil fuel consumption, and what the changing human history with rocks can tell us about when the Anthropocene epoch began, who is implicated in it, and what needs to be done about it." You can listen to the interview or read the transcript.
- Nature is one of the most under-appreciated tools for reigning in carbon-
In this short post for Anthropocene magazine (20/10/17), Emma Bryce summarises recent research findings showing how "better global land stewardship - conserving and restoring wild habitats and practicing more sustainable farming - could get us more than one-third of the way to the Paris climate mitigation targets. Nature may not be the most sexy tool in the shed, but it has tremendous power to move the climate change needle ... For instance, carbon-sequestering peatlands, if undisturbed, can keep vast amounts of this greenhouse gas on lockdown. More sustainable fertilizer use on farms could reduce the amount of nitrous oxide leaching into the atmosphere, while improved animal feed can cut down on the huge quantities of methane that cows spew. To put a figure on this potential, the researchers modeled 20 options for improvement at the global-scale, which they labeled ‘Natural Climate Solutions’ (NCS). These included reforesting deforested land–as well as land that has been converted to livestock pasture–restoring peatland and wetland areas, improving livestock feed, and boosting conservation agriculture practices, like planting trees amid crops. They added constraints to the model that ensured the solutions aligned with necessary land requirements for food production. Based on that, they found that NCS could save a maximum 23.8 billion tons of CO2 equivalent annually. Then the researchers applied a financial constraint to the model, to ensure that land-use options would also be cost-effective. Under this scenario, the annual emissions savings were still over 11 billion tons, which could provide 37% of the mitigation needed to limit a temperature increase to 2° C."
- A speck of dust-
Some listening, rather than reading, for a change - an intriguing episode of BBC Radio Four's series Four Thought (19/10/17). Jay Owens argues that dust is a lot more interesting than we think, and we ought to pay more attention to it. From 100 tons of cosmic dust raining down on Earth every day, to Saharan sands fertilising the Amazon rainforests and Chinese soils blown to the Greenland ice sheet, what the dust in ice cores from there tell us about ancient climates and what can be discovered in house dust - 60% of which comes from outside, and creates an archive of pesticides and radionuclides in our carpets... "Jay has spent years researching dust, and produces a popular newsletter on the subject ... She shares some stories from the field of dust research that up until now have only been known to other 'dust people', as she calls her fellow dust researchers."
- Pathogens and the Anthropocene: germs, genes, geography, Part 1-
Kyle Harper, writing for Inhabiting the Anthropocene (18/10/17), introduces the suggestion that human transformation of the global environment has long extended to the microorganisms that have flourished with our species' success - and cause widespread human suffering and mortality: viruses, bacteria and other disease-causing microbes. "In AD 166, the city of Rome was invaded by an unfamiliar enemy. Invisible to the naked eye, this enemy was more destructive than any the Romans had ever encountered in their long history. We cannot yet say with certainty what this microorganism was, although most historians strongly suspect that it was the debut of the smallpox virus, Variola major ... a disease characterized by a ghastly pustular rash wrapping the entire body, a drawn out course of infection, hemorrhagic cases, and high mortality. There are simply few pathogens that are capable of accomplishing what this germ did. Within a few years, the disease rampaged from Egypt to Britain, from the Danube to the Sahara ... How are we to understand a biological event of this magnitude, which might deserve to be considered history’s first true “pandemic”? The answer, I would suggest, takes us to the heart of what Michael Gillings and Ian Paulsen have called “the microbiology of the Anthropocene.” The Antonine Plague occurred at the intersection of human and natural factors. If the disease was indeed smallpox, the agent of the pestilence evolved, relatively recently, in Africa, from an ancestral rodent Orthopoxvirus, and entered the Roman Empire as an evolutionary newborn. It was carried into the empire on the trading networks that had grown up in the first centuries, connecting the lands lying around the Indian Ocean. The Red Sea was a major theater of Roman trade, bringing spices, silks, ivories, slaves, etc. into the empire, in massive quantities. This trading network, the scene of incipient globalization, also brought germs. The Antonine Plague, then, was the conjuncture of human transformation of the planet with random, evolutionary events far beyond human influence."
- Two audiences and five aims of action researchers-
In this short but useful reminder of the value of participatory research at the Integration and Impemantation Insights blog (19/10/17), Hilary Bradbury addresses how "Action researchers, often working in inter-disciplinary settings, hold in mind that technical, practical and emancipatory goals of action research require us to develop facility in communicating with two audiences: the ‘local’ practitioners and the ‘cosmopolitan’ community of scholars ... Generally speaking, action researchers ought to find ways to communicate with the local community first, using this as an opportunity for validating and disseminating local learning." Bradbury goes on to highlight that quality in research "develops from action research praxis of participation with practitioners; is guided by locals’ concerns for practical results; is inclusive of stakeholders’ ways of knowing, which means letting go the conventional over-emphasis of rational frameworks; helps to build capacity for ongoing change efforts; and, results from choosing to engage with those issues people might consider significant; from asking “how do we accomplish more good together?"
- Most museums are too chicken to celebrate ‘boring beasts’ – but we’re not-
Writing for the Conversation (27/9/17), Jack Ashby of the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL says of their new exhibition, "which we have called The Museum of Ordinary Animals, we want to highlight the boring beasts that have changed the world, including dogs, rats, cats, cows, chickens and mice. Ordinary animals are everywhere, and the ways they interact with our lives are endless and varied. We have invited them into our homes as pets; their role in our diets has changed us biologically; they are critical to modern medicine and they hold huge symbolic value in many cultures. These animals have had profound impacts on humanity and the natural world, and we have learned extraordinary things from them." He contrasts this to the "noticeable bias in what kinds of animals museums choose to display: on the whole, the huge, exotic, rare and extraordinary get more than their fair share of shelf-space. As a result, natural history museum galleries are not accurate reflections of the nature they might be thought to represent. Around 80% of described species are arthropods – the group that contains insects, crustaceans and arachnids; and around 80% of living individual animals are nematode worms."
- Ursula K. Heise thinks beyond melancholy: a review of “Imagining Extinction”-
At Edge Effects (10/10/17), Amy Free offers a very interesting review of Ursual Heise's new book, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species. Heise "quickly identifies themes familiar to such [extinction] narratives: “decline,” “crisis,” “loss is inevitable,” and “one last stab at survival.” The stories are urgent and foreshadow tragedy, leaving all of us koala lovers, bee observers, and gardeners in a state of melancholy. “Melancholy,” Heise says, “can be considered an integral part of the environmentalist worldview.” How true! ... It can feel impossible to muster that bit of optimistic belief that humans could do right by other species. Heise asks readers to wonder along with her:
…stories and images of decline go only so far. Is it possible to acknowledge the realities of large-scale species extinction and yet to move beyond the mourning, melancholia, and nostalgia to a more affirmative vision of our biological future?
And she provides the answer. It is."
- Long-term outcomes for the natural environment – the climate change challenge-
Writing on the Committee on Climate Change blog (4/10/17) Kathyrn Brown highlights the new advice from Natural Capital Committee on what long-term goals are needed in the Government's forthcoming plan for the UK’s natural environment over the coming 25 years. "Climate change will exacerbate existing pressures on wildlife, water, soil health and habitats – so working out how this affects long-term goals (and how to measure success) is a huge challenge ... I love my garden. It’s a tiny plot on the edge of a 1960s new town, which my husband and I manage in our own small way for the benefit of our local wildlife. As a result of our efforts, we see over 20 different species of birds, plus frogs, bats, lizards and (my favourite) hedgehogs on a regular basis. We make specific choices with our garden to do our bit for local biodiversity and because the benefit we get – pure joy – far outweighs the effort we put in. The whole of the English landscape is similarly managed ... a result of centuries of individual choices, which is why it’s referred to as ‘semi-natural’. Given that we have no ‘purely natural state’ in England to aim for, what should our goals be for the natural environment, and how does climate change affect our ability to achieve them?"
- Scientists call for more research on how human activities affect the seabed-
Martin Solan and others share results from new research in this post at Environmental Research Web (4/10/17): "A group of UK scientists, co-ordinated by the University of Southampton, has published extensive research into how industry and environmental change are affecting our seafloors ... Researchers from eight institutions and organisations have worked together to examine areas of sea or ocean located on the UK continental shelf to understand the sensitivity of these systems to human activities. The societal importance of these ecosystems extends beyond food production to include biodiversity, carbon cycling and storage, waste disposal, nutrient cycling, recreation and renewable energy. Martin Solan, lead principal investigator and Professor in Marine Ecology at the University of Southampton, comments: “... Human intervention, such as fishing, pollution and activities causing climate change are all affecting these finely balanced ecosystems. Collectively, our research provides us with a new perspective on how the seafloor is being modified, for better or for worse – but more research is now needed to understand the longer-term consequences of such change for the wider environment and for society at large.”
- Now really isn’t the best time to talk about climate change-
This post by George Marshall at Climate Outreach (14/9/17) revisits the question of how (and when) to make the links between extreme weather events and underlying climate change. "Hurricanes Irma and Harvey were unprecedented in many ways. But of greatest interest to us, as people who have been fascinated by climate change communication, was that for the first time we heard climate scientists in the media making a confident (albeit hedged) connection between an extreme weather event and climate change. Recent breakthroughs in modelling have enabled scientists to attribute the role of climate change in an extreme weather event quickly and accurately. But this raises an important question: are people in Florida, Texas, the wider US and the Caribbean going to make that connection, or accept it when made by others? In short, will storms like Harvey and Irma increase public concern about climate change and generate increased demands for collective action?"
- Badger or Bulbasaur - have children lost touch with nature?-
In this thoughtful - and beautifully illustrated piece for the Guardian (30/9/17), Robert Macfarlane muses on findings that children aged eight and over are '“substantially better” at identifying Pokémon “species” than “organisms such as oak trees or badgers”: around 80% accuracy for Pokémon, but less than 50% for real species. For weasel read Weedle, for badger read Bulbasaur – and this was before the launch of Pokémon Go. The researchers published their paper in Science. Their conclusions were unusually forthright – and tinged by hope and worry. “Young children clearly have tremendous capacity for learning about creatures (whether natural or manmade),” they wrote, but they are presently “more inspired by synthetic subjects” than by “living creatures”. They pointed to evidence linking “loss of knowledge about the natural world to growing isolation from it”. We need, the paper concluded, “to re-establish children’s links with nature if we are to win over the hearts and minds of the next generation”, for “we love what we know … What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never seen a wren”?'
- The great nutrient collapse-
In a thought-provoking piece (13/9/17) for Politico, Helena Bottemiller Evich reports on how the work of Irakli Loladze, a mathematician with a passion for biology, has revealed a worrying trend in the nutritional value of crops as a direct result of increasing atmospheric CO2 levels. "It was already well documented that CO2 levels were rising in the atmosphere, but he was astonished at how little research had been done on how it affected the quality of the plants we eat. For the next 17 years, as he pursued his math career, Loladze scoured the scientific literature for any studies and data he could find. The results, as he collected them, all seemed to point in the same direction: The junk-food effect he had learned about in that Arizona lab also appeared to be occurring in fields and forests around the world. 'Every leaf and every grass blade on earth makes more and more sugars as CO2 levels keep rising,' Loladze said. 'We are witnessing the greatest injection of carbohydrates into the biosphere in human history―[an] injection that dilutes other nutrients in our food supply.'"
- The Florida Keys are the canaries in the climate-change coalmine-
In this post (15/9/17) for the Guardian, poet Joanna Guthrie writes that "The Florida Keys are still closed until further notice. On the far side of the blockade that inhabitants of the lower Keys negotiate to return to their homes, the US One highway, a tarmac spine over the limestone vertebrae of the islands, makes its way 127 miles down to Key West, battered and torn. Key West, final south-easterly outpost of mainland North America and the self-styled “last resort”, is, still, four days after Hurricane Irma hit, almost completely out of contact with the outside world ... I know and love these islands well. I’m wondering what they did with the dolphins in the sea aquarium; how the evacuation of the mental health facilities went; whether the drive-through bank where I used to cash my pay cheque got wrecked; what it’s like in the Winn-Dixie supermarket right now, and in the Kmart, in the dark."
- Scientists can calculate how much climate change individual oil companies are responsible for-
In a short but fascinating summary of recent research, Sarah DeWeerdt writes (12/9/17) for Anthropocene that "Roughly one-quarter of global warming can be traced to carbon emissions from less than two-dozen companies, according to research published last week in Climatic Change. The analysis reflects an emerging idea that responsibility for climate change lies not just with the countries where past carbon emissions occurred but also the companies that profited from those emissions. It builds on a 2014 study that traced nearly two-thirds of all industrial carbon dioxide emissions between 1880 and 2010 to just 90 companies, including 83 fossil fuel producers and 7 cement manufacturers ... The researchers also calculated the effect of emissions since 1980, a period of robust public and scientific awareness of the dangers of anthropogenic climate change – in other words, a period during which the companies knew their products were harmful and might have taken action to reduce that harm. Instead, emissions (and companies’ efforts to obscure and deny their effects) have only accelerated. 'Strikingly, more than half of all emissions traced to carbon producers over the 1880-2010 period were produced since 1986,' the researchers write."
- The normalization of mega-risk-
In a thought-provoking piece (10/9/17) for Wild Culture, Craig Comstock looks at the 70+ years of nuclear standoff to consider how massive risks are normalised in a "world [that] is a set of rational games until it isn’t, until there’s an accident, a miscalculation, a system that gets out of hand ... We humans react to immediate threats, but are not very good at dealing with threats thought to be improbable (such as nuclear war) or far-off (climate change). Even if the event would be devastating, we hesitate to react if the probability seems extremely low. The age of nuclear weapons began in 1945 and thus has gone on for more than seventy years without a nuclear weapon being used against an enemy, at least after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The system of mutual threats seems to work, or has worked so far. These two dangers (nuclear war and climate change) share some characteristics. In each instance a powerful economic interest is involved: in the case of climate, the fossil fuel purveyors (and users), and in the case of the nuclear system, what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. Second, the danger is also largely hidden in each case: greenhouse gases are invisible, and the missiles are underground or under the sea. Third, the danger is so extreme as to be unimaginable to many: in the case of climate change, some scientists worry that it could even cause “near term human extinction,” and in the case of the nuclear system, the sudden killing of hundreds of millions (and the corresponding destruction of things). Fourth, our governing systems seem insufficient to the task. For example, the Paris Accord on climate change is insufficient (in terms of promises made), non-binding (if promises are not kept), and has been denounced as unnecessary by the current U.S. regime."
- Put a price on urban trees – and halt this chainsaw massacre-
In this piece (11/9/17) for the Guardian, Patrick Barkham reports on the current spate of urban tree felling,. He cites examples where campaigners have highlighted the value of the condemned trees (as far as this can be captured in financial calcluations of 'ecosystem services' *): "Chestnut Avenue [Wandswoth] is currently worth £2.6m, according to this method. The young trees that will replace it are estimated at £50,000-£100,000. Spending £45,000 to destroy a multimillion-pound community asset doesn’t stack up. In Sheffield’s long-running tree saga, independent professionals calculated that trees worth £66m have been cut down in the past five years. The ruination of this community asset is being orchestrated by a cash-strapped Labour council that sought salvation in a PFI contract with the infrastructure company Amey to rebuild its roads. Big trees are replaced by saplings, which are cheaper to maintain over 25 years of the contract but possess few of large trees’ beneficial effects – for example on flood alleviation and pollution. The devil is in the mostly hidden detail of the PFI contract. Campaigners have discovered that this contract permits a very limited range of engineering solutions for unruly trees. Pollarding a tree, for instance – the simplest way to rejuvenate an old tree or make it safe – is not a “free” option under the contract."
*As Patrick himself notes, "Some environmentalists view such “ecosystem service” arguments as the great hope for saving a planet ruled by accountants. Others fear that such calculations are reductive, and underestimate “natural assets” – i-Tree valuations do not include less easily calculable tree benefits, such as the improved mental health of local people, or ecological diversity. Ultimately, nature will always be the loser in any cost-benefit crunch."
- Plastic fibres found in tap water around the world, study reveals-
Damien Carrington for the Guardian (6/9/17) brings a disturbing new link in the chain that is the Age of Unintended Consequences (aka the Age of Stupid): "Microplastic contamination has been found in tap water in countries around the world, leading to calls from scientists for urgent research on the implications for health. Scores of tap water samples from more than a dozen nations were analysed by scientists for an investigation by Orb Media, who shared the findings with the Guardian. Overall, 83% of the samples were contaminated with plastic fibres ... How microplastics end up in drinking water is for now a mystery, but the atmosphere is one obvious source, with fibres shed by the everyday wear and tear of clothes and carpets. Tumble dryers are another potential source, with almost 80% of US households having dryers that usually vent to the open air."
Meanwhile, in more evidence of 'disturbia'...
- Acid drainage: the global environmental crisis you’ve never heard of-
For the Conversation (5/9/17), Stephen Tuffnell writes about the reopening of a vast gold mine in Romania and the global pollution legacy of extracting gold and other metals by cyanidisation: "In nearly all metal mines, and some coal mines, acid drainage occurs because of the oxidation of iron ore found alongside precious mineral deposits. Uncovered by the mining process, the iron reacts with the air and releases sulphuric acid into the water. This process can last centuries. Spills from cyanidation waste are more short-lived, but more highly toxic than acid mine drainage occurring through iron oxidation. The ratio of waste to metal recovered in gold mining is vastly disproportionate: the Fimiston Super Pit, near the West Australian town of Kalgoorlie, and until recently the largest open cut mine in the world, has returned approximately 1,640 tonnes of gold since operations began there in 1989. But that’s only a small portion of the 15m tonnes of rock extracted per year. On a more personal scale, a single gold wedding ring generates 20 tonnes of waste."
In this episode (31/8/17) of BBC Radio 4's Inside Science, Adam Rutherford introduces a five minute feature (starting 8:15 minutes into the programme) on how our technologies will endure - after a fashion - as fossils in the human Technosphere of the Anthropocene: "We know about extinct species from fossils in rocks. But in the future there will be techno-fossils too, evidence of our civilisation. Katie Kropshofer has been finding out from Professors Jan Zalasiewicz and Sarah Gabbot of the University of Leicester what we’re leaving for the hypothetical geologists of the future."
- Don’t blame climate change for the Hurricane Harvey disaster – blame society-
"A disaster involving a hurricane cannot happen unless people, infrastructure and communities are vulnerable to it," Ilan Kelman writes in the Conversation (29/8/17). This neglects the impacts of such events on wildlife and the more-than-human world in general - and his opening claim that "Weather and climate don’t cause disasters – vulnerability does" maybe ignores the blurring of 'cultural' and 'natural' that human-compounded climate change heralds - but his point is a very good one. "People become vulnerable if they end up lacking knowledge, wisdom, capabilities, social connections, support or finances to deal with a standard environmental event such as a hurricane. This can happen if lobbyists block tougher building codes, planning regulations, or enforcement procedures. Or if families can’t afford insurance or the cost of alternative accommodation if they evacuate. Or if limited hurricane experience induces a sense of apathy."
Compare and contrast this post with George Monbiot's article on the same day, in the Guardian - see below.
- Why are the crucial questions about Hurricane Harvey not being asked?-
George Monbiot writes in the Guardian (29/8/17) that "It is not only Donald Trump’s government that censors the discussion of climate change; it is the entire body of polite opinion. This is why, though the links are clear and obvious, most reports on Hurricane Harvey have made no mention of the human contribution to it ... This is not an accident. But nor (with the exception of Fox News) is it likely to be a matter of policy. It reflects a deeply ingrained and scarcely conscious self-censorship. Reporters and editors ignore the subject because they have an instinct for avoiding trouble. To talk about climate breakdown (which in my view is a better term than the curiously bland labels we attach to this crisis) is to question not only Trump, not only current environmental policy, not only current economic policy – but the entire political and economic system ... I believe it is the silence that’s political. To report the storm as if it were an entirely natural phenomenon, like last week’s eclipse of the sun, is to take a position. By failing to make the obvious link and talk about climate breakdown, media organisations ensure our greatest challenge goes unanswered. They help push the world towards catastrophe."
- What type of changemaker are you?-
This short post (25/8/17) from Brett Chamberlin at the The Story of Stuff is an opportunity for you to answer that question and explore how change is made by a combination of all these builders, nurturers, networkers, communicators, resisters and investigators. "Ever wondered how to start making change? Take the quiz and learn your changemaker type! Then keep reading meet some of the changemaker types who exemplify the Story of Stuff Community!"
- Big, non-native mammal invaders: not a problem, but a solution.-
Brandon Keim writes at Anthropocene (23/8/17) that "Even as native populations of large-bodied herbivores fall at alarming rates, others of their kind are thriving in new locales — yet they’re often regarded as unwelcome aliens, a source of environmental catastrophe. It’s a strange dichotomy, say some ecologists, and one that’s blinded people to the potential importance of these so-called invaders."
- The butterfly effect: everything you need to know about this powerful mental model-
This post (14/8/17) at Farnam Street sets out what the famous 'butterfly effect' is, and is not, and how it helps us understand the world. "The butterfly effect is the idea that small things can have non-linear impacts on a complex system. The concept is imagined with a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a typhoon. Of course, a single act like the butterfly flapping its wings cannot cause a typhoon. Small events can, however, serve as catalysts that act on starting conditions ... The butterfly effect is somewhat humbling - a model that exposes the flaws in other models. It shows science to be less accurate than we assume, as we have no means of making accurate predictions due to the exponential growth of errors."
- Your Prius is not enough-
Max Holleran at Public Books (16/8/17) reviews a new book, Environmentalism of the Rich by Peter Dauvergne, which "traces the shifting tactics of mainstream environmentalism from the radicalism of the 1970s to the corporate partnerships of the 1990s", up to the present and the different approaches in the 'Global North' and 'Global South'. The article reviews a broad spectrum of 'environmentalisms' and how these have shifted in recent years; and argues that this diversity is important. "On one hand, a diversity of tactics is needed to restore some semblance of environmental balance to a cooking planet. At the same time, without a radical environmentalism that addresses the economic system as a whole, these tactics are meaningless."
- Data rescue projects-
Gavin Schmidt's short post (17/8/17) at RealClimate lists many of the historic climate datasets that are being worked on to improve our understanding of different aspects of climate change - projects which 'citizen scientists' can often get involved in. "It's often been said that while we can only gather new data about the planet at the rate of one year per year, rescuing old data can add far more data more quickly. Data rescue is however extremely labor intensive. Nonetheless there are multiple data rescue projects and citizen science efforts ongoing, some of which we have highlighted here before." And there is a link to an introductory article on this topic.
- Seven ways of looking at an eclipse-
Edge Effects looked forward to the 'Great American Eclipse' with a collection of mini-essays from its editorial team (15/8/17): "You have no shortage of places to turn for rundowns of the eclipse’s chronology and geography, for primers on eyewear and camera tips, for descriptors of what to expect from birds and squirrels and spiders. But what can you expect from people?" Here are short extracts from five of them ...
"Solar eclipses like the ones on Earth must be rare across the universe. How many planets have their star blocked by a moon that just happens to appear to be the same size as that star? And of those, how many have intelligent life that can appreciate it? With such long odds, one might be inclined to think himself special should the maximum point of eclipse fall over his hometown—especially if he’s 12."
"We gathered on the rooftop garden of our house and from there, as the sky started to darken, we could watch birds hurry back to their shelter and listen to dogs howl. We heard conch shells, blown by our neighbors to protect their homes from bad omens—a practice rooted in the Hindu tradition that holds the demon Rahu swallows the sun to cause eclipses. The sounding of these shell trumpets scored anxious minutes for domestic life: some forbid cooking until the sunshine returns; some believe pregnant women must not pee. Though the sun and moon begged attention to the cosmos, what I remember most is what happened within our homes."
"So, on Monday, the children of the Enlightenment will step out to take in the visceral pleasures of what is, thanks to uncontested science, widely considered a predictable, unthreatening display. And yet, the event is not merely one of orbital mechanics, but of human actions, too, and thus stubbornly unpredictable. So forests may burn, snakes may attack, people may go blind. Stay safe out there."
"As alternate forms of meaning-making, astronomy and meteorology offer a different vision of the solar eclipse. Here, the occlusion of the sun is a surprisingly banal matter—indeed, it is one of Earth’s few natural phenomena which remain unthreatened by global climate change. In the era of record-breaking heat waves and collapsing ice shelves, perhaps it is time to rethink the cosmological significance of this cosmic event. What kind of meaning-making—across political, social, and physical distances—do we need in order to recognize the real signs of a climactic apocalypse? And how can we galvanize our fellow eclipse-lovers to participate in the kind of dramatic, impactful action necessary on a rapidly heating planet?"
"The title of our post today riffs on a Wallace Stevens’s poem 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,' in which the speaker can never really see the bird in question. One looks at a blackbird through a fragmented filter of experience and sensation, hears its whistle, senses the shadow of its wings, perhaps reads it as an omen. But like an eclipse, one cannot see it directly. Although the poem is often read as an anthropocentric meditation on human experience, I’ve always read Stevens’ deep respect for how entwined we humans and our meaning making are with the more-than-human worlds. The blackbird, the speaker tells us, “is involved / In what I know.”
- Al Gore Q&A: fixing democracy to combat climate change-
In this piece for the Conversation (13/8/17), Mark Maslin speaks to Al Gore about his new film An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. "It is more than ten years since Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth brought climate change to the masses. At its heart, it showed the former US vice-president giving a comprehensive global warming slide show – warning of the dire consequences if we do nothing about the climate crisis." Maslin asks: "I was struck in the middle of your film by a profound statement: “To fix the climate crisis we need to fix democracy”. And then the film moved on to another topic. How do you think we can fix our democracies now in the 21st century?"
- In other tongues: badger dissonance-
"For a year, the American writer Barry Lopez pulled over whenever he passed a dead creature on the road. Animal or bird or reptile, he picked them up – sometimes he had to scrape them up – and took them away to be buried and honoured. When asked why he bothered, he said: ‘You never know. The ones you give some semblance of a burial, to whom you offer an apology, may have been like seers in a parallel culture. It is an act of respect, a technique of awareness.’" So begins Dougie Strang's piece (7/8/17) for the Dark Mountain blog, drawing on his perforemance of Badger Dissonace at art.earth's In Other Tongues event in June. With musical and sung accompaniment, the performance included the creation of a shrine to each of the animals he encountered as roadkill. "My first was a roe deer on the A75. I’d passed it already but this time it spooked me, its dead eye hooked me. I kept driving, got home, put a spade in the boot, went back. Its belly was swollen, crows had started in on the mouth. Cars were slowing, suspicious as they passed: ‘What’s he doing, bothering the roadkill?’"
- The eco guide to optimism-
Two short quotes from Lucy Siegle's short column in the Guardian (13/8/17) contrast the good news and the bad: "Let’s begin with the bad news. First, Earth Overshoot Day – the point at which the world consumes more natural resources than the planet can renew throughout the year – shifted forward this year to 2 August, putting humanity in the red for longer ... As an antidote, visit mission2020.global, convened by Christiana Figueres (star of the Paris talks), and acknowledge the eco “wins”. These include the fact that last year global emissions plateaued while growth has continued. Previously emissions have only plateaued during recessions."
- Trying to keep nature the same is a fool’s errand – we should embrace change-
Alistair Jump writes for the Conversation (2/8/17) that "When it comes to deciding which plants and animals to protect and which to remove, our approach might make even the most forthright nationalist blush if it were ever applied to people. The central question in the UK and many other countries is whether a particular species is native or non-native. Rarer natives are more likely to have government money spent on their protection ... On the face of it, native is good and non-native is bad. Not only do we make this distinction at UK level, we do it for species in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It may seem simple, but the very definition is less clear cut than it first appears."
- Carmakers’ electric dreams depend on supplies of rare minerals- Writing in the Observer (29/7/17), Karl West brings the recent French and British policy announcements of zero new diesel and petrol cars by 2040 down nto earth: "the road to a promised land of zero-emission vehicles is littered with speed bumps and red lights that threaten to seriously slow the progress of the electric car. Battery makers are struggling to secure supplies of key ingredients in these large power packs – mainly cobalt and lithium. The hopes of both battery and vehicle manufacturers hang on the mining sector finding more deposits of these precious minerals. Trent Mell of First Cobalt, a Toronto-based mining company, said: 'Cobalt is tricky because of the scarcity of supply. There aren’t a lot of producers. We’re relying on more discoveries. It’s out there: we’ve just got to find it.' [And] while big corporations work on a green energy revolution, Amnesty International has shone a light on the dark side of this dream ... In 2014, according to Unicef, about 40,000 children were working in mines across southern DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo], many of them extracting cobalt ... Mark Dummett, business and human rights researcher at Amnesty International, said: 'The glamorous shop displays and marketing of state-of-the-art technologies are a stark contrast to the children carrying bags of rocks, and miners in narrow manmade tunnels risking permanent lung damage.'"
- Seeds as time capsules- Another interesting post at Edge Effects (25/7/17), where historian Kevin Walters reviews a recent book: "Like any good grad student, the first time I picked up The Profit of the Earth by Courtney Fullilove, I flipped right to the back, scouring the index for my dissertation’s keywords. Alongside predictable entries for seeds, wheat, agriculture, and Kansas, I found Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and a long list of page numbers under “Patent Office” and “Mennonites” - all in a book with a title that quotes Ecclesiastes. Each of these subjects, in a series of happy surprises sprinkled throughout the text, bring to life Fullilove’s central claim: the history of American agriculture can be read in the genes of a seed ... that seeds should be understood as “deep-time technologies” layered with hundreds of generations of agricultural labor and knowledge. When entrepreneurs, research stations, and corporations bred new cash crops with higher yields, they erected new regimes of intellectual property to protect their inventions. In the process, they not only reduced the level of biodiversity but obscured the collective, ancient work without which even the most advanced species of wheat could never have been possible. As Fullilove argues, agriculture inescapably reduces the variety of species and innovation, destroying the old when it creates the new. And yet, The Profit of the Earth takes as its premise that no matter how much human activity has narrowed this range, the history embedded in seeds can recover the biodiversity of the past, help scholars recognize the complexity of the present, and inform humanity about how to expand the possibilities of its future."
- Joy plots for climate change- Drawing on an iconic LP album cover from the 1970s - Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, showing a plot of signals from a 'pulsar' star, with its successive pulses plotted on top of each other - climatologist Gavin Schmidt at Real Climate (2/7/17) generates so-called "Joy Plots" for climate data. ("This is joy as in ‘Joy Division’, not as in actual fun," he explains with dry humour - no one ever had fun listening to Joy Division...) "I thought it would be fun to try out something similar for climate data ... After a little playing around and putting together an animation of the results I produced this, showing successive monthly distributions for each 30 year climatology period (stacked every 10 years), and adding the last two years independently." You can watch a selection of his animations, showing how temperature variables have changed over the past century.
- Michael Gove and the science of beauty and emotion- Psychology researcher and writer Miles Richardson posts at his Finding Nature blog (22/7/17) on a speech by the new UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove, and links to his own research into the science of beauty, emotion, meaning and compassion: "In ‘The Unfrozen Moment – Delivering A Green Brexit,’ Secretary of State Michael Gove sets out his vision on the future of our natural environment. In this speech, and at the Green Alliance event a week earlier, I was struck by the recurring themes of beauty, emotion, meaning and compassion. Four aspects of our relationship with the natural world that our recent research has linked to improving our connection with nature ... Over the last 15 years, nature connection has become a recognised and measurable psychological construct – one that describes an individual’s sense of their relationship with the natural world. That is our emotional attachment and beliefs about our inclusion within nature. These aspects affect our being – how we experience the world, our emotional response, our attitudes and behaviour towards nature."
- Climate politics in the long run- International relations and political science scholar Romain Felli reminds us in this Entitle post (25/7/17) how some climate scientists have engaged in the politics of change, even from the 'early days' of the 1970s. "According to philosopher of science Bruno Latour, the rise of climate scepticism in public debates reflects the lack of political engagement from climate scientists. He argues that, having restrained themselves to a discourse of “facts” and “science”, climatologists have been toothless in the face of a growing opposition to climate science, which wittingly seeds doubts about the quality of expert knowledge ... However, climate science is no stranger to politicization. As noted by historians of the discipline, many early scientific contributions to the climate question were indeed quite political. A prime example is offered by the respected and influential climatologist Stephen Schneider (1945-2010), the founder and first managing editor of the journal Climatic Change (and later a lead contributor to IPCC reports) ... Forty years ago, in 1976, Schneider, then a young scientist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, published a ground-breaking book on climate change, The Genesis Strategy: Climate and Global Survival. He quickly became a recognised “spokesperson” for climate change ... Schneider used his wide-ranging scientific and communication skills to summarize cutting-edge research on climate and atmospheric sciences, agronomy, energy and water, and translate them into a coherent and accessible narrative. He used his scientific credentials to offer analysis of the 'human predicament' and possible solutions to it."
- Can a piano sing a birdsong?- In this post (18/7/17) for Edge Effects, Kyle Johnson introduces a new series of podcasts investigating composer Olivier Messiaen's 'Catalogue of Birds'. "The present-day popularity of composers like John Luther Adams suggests a societal interest in contemporary depictions of nature in the arts. However, the idea of ecological music raises the question of what, exactly, is translated from nature to the manuscript page and then on to listeners’ ears? There are numerous instances within music history of composers who use birdsong, particularly, in their works, most notably Beethoven in his Pastoral Symphony. But in the 20th century, a new figure emerged who brought a scientific perspective to the representation of nature: French composer Olivier Messiaen ... It is often described as Messiaen’s most abstract work, but also his most literal, as every bit of musical material receives a label in the score. Thus, each page is littered with names of specific landmarks and animal species ... The only man-made element in the entire Catalogue [is] a famous lighthouse ... Considering the function of a lighthouse - to warn sailors of dangerous areas - and the fact that among Messiaen’s labels of the curlew’s call was 'a siren,' ... is a siren that alerts us of the possibility that among the endangered species is humanity itself."
- The defenders- A very sobering new feature at the Guardian (last updated 31/5/17) in collaboration with Global Witness, this series "will attempt to record the deaths of all these people, whether they be wildlife rangers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or indigenous land rights activists in Brazil. At this current rate, chances are that four environmental defenders will be killed this week somewhere on the planet." So far this year, 98 environmental defenders have been killed, and by naming them and honouring their struggles, this initiative is an important mark of what is at stake.
- A detailed reply to Scott Adams on climate science- Here's a bitter-sweet one - at least for fans, like me, of Scott Adams' classic Dilbert cartoon strips. I'd not picked up on the artist's 'interesting' take on climate change 'predictions', just enjoyed his hilarious take on office life in corporatesville. But somewhere, the other day, I saw a reference to him as a sceptic and followed the Google trail. After reading his own blog from March, How to convince climate skeptics that climate change is a problem, I read this response from Keith Pickering on Daily Kos (9/3/17), and it's well worth checking out. "In a recent blog posting, cartoonist Scott Adams (drawer of "Dilbert") took climate scientists to task for his own failure to understand how climate science (and as it turns out, science in general) works. Actually, I quite sympathize with Scott. He clearly spends a lot of time reading "fake news" on climate skeptic websites, and that takes so much of his time that reading real science just gets crowded out. Like Talking Barbie used to say, "Math is hard!" And science is even harder, especially when there are vast reams of fossil-fuel-funded nonsense non-science out there, deliberately designed to fool the gullible. And those booby-traps really do trap quite a few boobies." Like Pickering, I have some sympathies for Adams, who says he accepts the science, has some not-totally-stupid questions to ask and seems to want answers; but he he could found them so easily for himself and shared what he'd learned, with some basic reading or actually asking someone who knows, rather than recirculating the nonsense he comes across: funny for his great characters to do, not so much in real life!
- Research as art: revealing the creativity behind academic output- As this piece by Richard Johnston for the Conversation (14/7/17) points out, while research is central to the life of universities "there are very few ways for those behind the academic output to show the real creativity and emotion that underpins it. The story of the research is lost – the many failures that led to the results, the often tortuous process, or the ecstatic highs of successes and the serendipitous path that changes the researcher’s career all fall by the wayside." The article highlights finalists in Swansea University's latest Research as Art competition, which "gives researchers a platform to explore their creativity and convey the emotion and humanity in their research." I particualrly liked Bioblocks: building for nature by Ruth Callaway, where "over 200 children used cubes of clay to sculpt ecologically attractive habitats for coastal creatures. These bioblocks demonstrate that human-made structures can support marine life, while children and their families have gained a better understanding of the unique resilience of sea creatures."
- The one question that will make you more creative, guaranteed- Larry Robertson writes for The Creativity Post (10/7/17) that "One of the most powerful forces for tapping and honing your creativity is inquiry. It isn’t the question, however, that makes inquiry so potent. It’s the mindset, the way in which you look at the world around you and the thinking that accompanies it ... When we neglect that distinction we forget that questions are simply tools. Questions aid the probing and direct curious exploration. But once the questions are answered, the inquiry remains – at least for the person who understands that creativity is a uniquely human capacity in need of perpetual use and shaping." Roberston suggests that the key is to keep asking yourself "Are there certain questions that keep resurfacing for you?" It's a question that does its job by "stimulating deeper curiosity and fueling the pursuit of passion" and is "also 'perpetual'. There is no single or final answer ... It’s the very kind of question that ensures inquiry remains the focal point. Such questions exist for us all. No one can tell us what ours is ... What the question means to you, how you phrase or apply it, even the question itself is meant to have a strong element of fluidity. What matters is the habit of asking, and when we allow a question to drive us to keep doing that, our odds of being creative rise dramatically. Guaranteed."
- Thoreau, prophet of the Anthropocene- Robert Hardies reviews a new biography of Henry David Thoreau by Laura Dassow Walls, for Public Books.(12/7/17) - a biography that argues against popular caricatures of Thoreau. "Only from the fullness of his life can Thoreau speak meaningfully to the conditions and challenges of our generation ... At the heart of Walls’s argument for Thoreau’s ongoing significance is his commitment to the earth and to conscientious resistance. Above all, her Thoreau is a herald and prophet of the Anthropocene. In 1843, as he scouted the woods around Walden for a cabin site, Irish immigrants were cutting a wide swath through the forest a mere stone’s throw from Walden’s shore, laying tracks for a railroad that would connect the riches of America’s interior with the port of Boston and the world. By the time Thoreau left his cabin in 1847, approximately 20 passenger and freight trains passed by daily, their whistles sounding the onset of industrialization. Nearby, free blacks, poor whites, and Native Americans squatted in the shanties left by the railroad workers. Only after Thoreau’s death did Walden become the protected park it is today. Thoreau’s cabin wasn’t a primitive retreat, Walls argues, but a front row seat to the ravages and displacements that would become the Anthropocene."
- East African hunter-gatherer research suggests the human microbiome is an ecological disaster zone- In this piece from the Conversation (2/17), Jeff Leach looks at the biosphere we share with our gut flora - our microbiome - and the possible effects of our dietary, hygiene and healthcare regimes. "The world we occupy today is very different from the one occupied by our not-so-distant ancestors. As we enter a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene, in which the human footprint has left its mark – there is much concern about global deforestation, melting ice sheets and general biosphere degradation. But another, often overlooked, casualty of this new epoch is the diversity of microorganisms (including bacteria, viruses and fungi) that live on and in us. If our microbiome – the genetic diversity of these organisms – is a canary in the microbial coal mine, then my work with East African hunter-gatherers suggests that it is hanging upside down on its perch"
- Artificial environments are turning the world outside in, but that’s no way to save the planet- In this article (7/7/17) at the Conversation, Simon Marvin and Jonathan Rutherford look at the move to provide 'safe spaces' for ecosystems that are nevertheless synthetic environments, excluding not just the risks of environmental change but the 'natural' environment itself... "When meltwater breached the global seed bank near Svalbard in May, after unusually warm weather, it served as a stark reminder of the need to safeguard humanity’s future in the face of increasing turbulence ... Yet for some, the solution is not to continue trying to save the “outside”, but to rework and intensify previous efforts to make new outsides – inside. More and more attempts are being made to create new synthetic environments, which reproduce an artificial “outside” within enclosed membranes ... The new logic here is to create improved, processed, extracted and intensified environments. These are not simulations or recreations – they are new designer environments in their own right: specialised, productive, desirable and (it is claimed) safe and secure."
- Five mass extinctions – and what we can learn from them about the planet today- In this concise guide to mass extinctions of the past, Alex Dunhill writes at the Conversation (29/6/17) "Of all the species that have ever lived, more than 99% are now extinct. Most of them quietly disappeared during periods of “background extinction”, whereby a handful of species become extinct every 100,000 years or so. But there were also occasions when extinction rates increased rapidly in short periods of time and wiped out a significant proportion of all life on Earth. These are known as mass extinctions. They have profoundly influenced the history of life – and many scientists now argue that we are in the midst of another one. To see if they’re right, we can look at previous occasions when large numbers of species went extinct."
- There's something wrong with the bees: on sun hives and crisis houses- On the Dark Mountain blog (19/6/17), Carrie Foulkes writes powerfully and personally of the wholeness of the bee 'colony' and its hive, of the crisis in beekind and humankind and our need for habitats in which we can flourish. "I have a memory of having to do an exercise at school. A sheet of paper was divided into two columns, with pictures of animals on one side and pictures of animal products on the other. You had to draw straight lines to match them up. Cow and milk. Sheep and woollen socks. Bees and honey. I wonder why I remember this. It must have unsettled me in some way. It wasn’t an intuitive way of viewing animals, at least not to a child’s mind ... When we think about bees, we often refer to them as a colony. A family may consist of up to 50,000 bees, all related by blood, scent and purpose. Another way of perceiving the bees, and one that appears quite naturally in mind if you spend any length of time with them, is as a single organism consisting of all the individual bees and their honeycomb together. In this way each bee is akin to a cell, the cells together forming organs, the organs together a system, an organism with many parts, each aspect indivisible from the others."
- 50 questions about humanity’s past connections to the environment- In this piece (25/5/17) from the Future Earth blog, Daniel Strain picks up on a recent research paper which "highlights the priorities, and future directions, of historical ecology – a research arena that explores the relationships between people and natural ecosystems over millennia ... The field pulls together researchers and methods from a wide range of disciplines, including anthropology, archaeology, climatology and ecology. That diversity that can make historical ecology difficult, if not impossible, to define ... The researchers’ efforts resulted in a list of 50 questions that they published in February in the journal PLOS ONE. The queries range from 'What roles have humans played in extinction events and what can we learn about these large and small-scale changes?' to 'How has the construction of borders, boundaries, and frontiers affected land use practices?'"
- Endarkenment- In this long, thoughtful and clear article in the May issue of Minding Nature from the Center for Humans and Nature (and in their newsletter 28/6/17), Matt Miles connects the light pollution of the modern world with thoughts on an "overflow of human consciousness" resulting from the Enlightenment, the loss of wildernes, other forms of pollution and many more of our Wicked Problems. Beginning with personal experiences of the l night skies of Idaho in the USA and the Black Mountains of the Welsh borders, part way through he asks "How wild or pristine or remote can a place really be if every night the haze and glare from distant settlements rolls in like a tide to wash away any pretense of a place removed from human development? And to what extent has the advent of electric light altered our relationship with the natural world in which humankind has been embedded for the entire course of our history? Or for that matter, how has our humanity, both as individuals and as communities, been affected by the proliferation of artificial light?"
- How mindfulness can help the shift towards a more sustainable society- Christine Wamsler writes in the Conversation (28/6/17) that "We know that mindfulness can transform the life of an individual. But did you know it could also change the world? We are facing increasingly complex global challenges, of which climate change is perhaps the most important. It is obvious that we must do something about our carbon emissions and the increase in floods, windstorms, and heatwaves that threaten our environment – but we don’t seem to know what.It is becoming clear, however, that the problem can’t simply be solved by new technology or new governments alone. We also need to develop new social practices and encourage a broader cultural shift towards more sustainable living and climate action. We have to completely rethink how we do things. This is where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the present moment. It is more than just moment-to-moment awareness. It is a kind, curious and non-judgemental awareness that helps us relate to ourselves, others, and our environment with compassion."
- Heritage beyond saving- Picking up on the story below ('Some heritage sites ... should be allowed to decay'), this episode (21/6/17) of BBC Radio 4's Thinking Allowed features Caitlin DeSilvey, associate professor of cultural geography at Exeter University discussing her new book, "which journeys from Cold War test sites to post industrial ruins. Do we need to challenge cherished assumptions about the conservation of cultural heritage? Might we embrace rather than resist natural processes of decay and decline?" Caitlin and presenter Laurie Taylor debate these questions with Haidy Geismar, reader in anthropology at University College, London & Tiffany Jenkins, sociologist at Edinburgh University.
- Preventing the all-consuming sound pollution of modern life starts with listening to nature- Just after I posted my impressions of a recent Climate Symphony Lab workshop, my subscription to the Aeon newsletter brought this post (23/6/17) of Gordon Hempton's short video, Being Hear. Hempton's (‘Nature is music. I’m not asking you to get all theoretical here – I’m saying, just listen’) name had come up in a fascinating conversation I had with a sound recordist at the workshop, amidst the hubbub of the data trawling and soundtrack-making, and it's good to discover his work and place it alongside the sound recordings of Chris Watson and Tim Dee, which I've referenced in other posts.
"There are vanishingly few places left on land untouched by human-made sounds, and those quiet areas are shrinking every year. No one knows this better than the US sound recordist and acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, an Emmy award-winner who specialises in capturing the sounds of nature. At once a profile, a guided meditation and a call to action, Being Hear follows Hempton as he records sounds on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula – a National Park that contains the continental United States’ only rainforest. Combining Hempton’s measured words with striking scenes and sounds of the park’s lush vegetation, rippling waters and diverse animal life, the film suggests that ensuring that parts of nature remain untouched by human sound starts with us listening attentively and with intention."
- NASA and the explosive 1960s: a conversation with Neil Maher- In this post (20/6/17) at Edge Effects, Lisa Ruth Rand interviews Neil Maher about his environmental history of NASA's 1960s space programme - an era often referenced with the nostalgic phrase “If we can put a man on the moon…” As Rand writes, "This expression usually precedes a question about why American ingenuity and perseverance have not yielded solutions to a goal less complicated than traveling to another celestial body. In the decades since the heyday of American space exploration it has become a common way to proclaim measures of national pride and exasperation. Yet, this saying took root well before the first astronauts set foot on the lunar surface. Neil Maher, an associate professor of history at the Federated History Department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University, Newark, has written a book that takes a fresh, synthetic look at the moon program alongside American social movements of the 1960s. Apollo in the Age of Aquarius not only examines how the work of engineers, administrators, astronauts, and bureaucrats at NASA influenced American culture; it also foregrounds how a broad array of countercultural groups, from civil rights activists and environmentalists to hippies and second-wave feminists, altered the arc of spaceflight history." During the interview, Maher explains: "We often think of the environment as stopping with the Earth or perhaps the Earth’s atmosphere ... it extends on into space. In the book, I talk about bodies in space, bodies in space suits, environmental simulators, and I try to connect that environment with the environment back on Earth. The whole book is about trying to connect space, and the technology that allows us to explore space, with nature back on Earth."
- 'A reckoning for our species': the philosopher prophet of the Anthropocene- It's worth spending some time on this 'long read' (15/6/17) in the Guardian, which examines the thinking of Timothy Morton - from hyperobjects and strange awareness to dark ecology - and the contentions his work addresses and provokes. As Alex Blasdel says, "Timothy Morton wants humanity to give up some of its core beliefs, from the fantasy that we can control the planet to the notion that we are ‘above’ other beings. His ideas might sound weird, but they’re catching on...
"The Anthropocene is not only a period of manmade disruption. It is also a moment of blinking self-awareness, in which the human species is becoming conscious of itself as a planetary force. We’re not only driving global warming and ecological destruction; we know that we are. One of Morton’s most powerful insights is that we are condemned to live with this awareness at all times. It’s there not only when politicians gather to discuss international environmental agreements, but when we do something as mundane as chat about the weather, pick up a plastic bag at the supermarket or water the lawn. We live in a world with a moral calculus that didn’t exist before. Now, doing just about anything is an environmental question. That wasn’t true 60 years ago – or at least people weren’t aware that it was true. Tragically, it is only by despoiling the planet that we have realised just how much a part of it we are."
- Antarctic explorer’s 118-year-old painting discovered among penguin poo- This short piece (13/6/17) from Australian Associated Press in the Guardian includes a video on the discovery of a beautiful watercolour of a Tree Creeper. It had been painted by Edward Wilson, the chief scientist on the ill-fated Scott south pole expedition. "Dr Edward Wilson, who died with Captain Robert Scott and three others in 1912 as they battled to return from their trip to the south pole, painted the watercolour of a small bird ... found among a portfolio of papers inside a bunk at the hut at Cape Adare, says the Antarctic Heritage Trust, which is restoring 1,500 artefacts from the hut." In the video, which shows the watercolour and images of the Cape Adare camp, Nigel Watson of the Antarctic Heritage Trust describes the significance of Cape Adare as the last surviving example of the first human building on any continent.
- Some heritage sites cannot be preserved and should be allowed to decay, academic claims- This short piece (5/6/17) from Peter Walker in the Telegraph makes an interesting accompaniment to ClimateCultures' recent post Óshlið: River Mouth \\ Slope by Sarah Thomas and Jon Randall. 'We should 'let go' of some of the country's most prided heritage sites and leave them to decay 'gracefully', a leading British academic has said. Professor Caitlin DeSilvey has suggested that despite people's 'strong feelings' some perishing landmarks should be allowed to crumble because of climate change and falling budgets. "There is room to explore more creative approaches in how we care for heritage," said Prof DeSilvey, who is an associate professor of cultural geography at the University of Exeter. "What happens if we choose not to intervene? What possibilities emerge when change is embraced rather than resisted? What if we allow things to become ruins? Processes of decay and disintegration can be culturally - as well as ecologically - productive, but we also need to recognise that people have very strong feelings about these places, and those need to be considered as well."'
- Theory from the ruins- How grand do you like your narratives? And how do they trap us in our own history and ideas of progress and separation from nature? In this compelling piece (31/5/17) for Aeon, Stuart Walton casts an eye back over the critical theory of the Frankfurt school, which "argued that reason is dangerous, mass culture deadening, and the Enlightenment a disaster. Were they right? One wants to break free of the past,’ Theodor Adorno, one of the Frankfurt School’s leading luminaries, wrote in an essay in 1959. ‘Rightly, because nothing at all can live in its shadow, and because there will be no end to the terror as long as guilt and violence are repaid with guilt and violence; wrongly, because the past that one would like to evade is still very much alive.’ In an age when the meanings of the past and the functions they are called upon to serve are so hotly contested, Adorno’s insight reminds us, in a typically double-edged way, that humanity is both composed of and trapped inside its history. This view of history underpinned the work of the boldest and bravest philosophers of the past century: the first generation of the Frankfurt School. Their arguments lacked for nothing in theoretical aspiration, and have scarcely begun to be assimilated, even today."
- Prospection and the Anthropocene- In this post (31/5/17) at Inhabiting the Anthropocene, Zev Trachtenberg draws out lessons on forethought and hubris from "two recent items from the news that make a sobering pairing. The first is an opinion piece in the New York Times ... summarizing a new theory about human beings that emphasizes our orientation toward the future. Seligman suggests that this orientation is the distinguishing characteristic of our species. Rather than identifying ourselves in terms of our purported wisdom—the “sapiens” part of “Homo sapiens”—Seligman argues that 'a more apt name for our species would be Homo prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects. The power of prospection is what makes us wise.' ... The second item—a news story from The Guardian on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, ... on water intrusion due to melting of the permafrost into which the vault is built. The Seed Vault seems like an epitome of prospection ... constructed in part as a prospective response to potential disruptions to agriculture due to climate change. And its site was chosen with the prospect of sea level rise in mind: it is high enough to be “protected from ocean flooding according to worst case scenario sea level rises.” The project seems to be organized around the idea of foresight. However, it appears that the planners of the vault did not foresee the possibility that the permafrost itself might melt."
- Celebs back ethical RSC tickets in stand against BP- This piece (31/5/17) from Maisie Jeynes at the Stratford Observer reports on a campaign by Culture Unstained to crowdfund free and fossil fuel-free tickets to Royal Shakespeare Company productions. "Stage and screen stars have backed the launch of an alternative cheap ticket scheme for young people. The so-called Fossil Free scheme will offer the same £5 tickets to 16 to 25 year-olds, but with the assurance they come from an ethical source. Organisers behind the Fossil Free tickets hope to show the RSC many of its own artists and its audience are against BP sponsorship and would prefer to support a positive alternative. More than 30 leading figures in the theatre world have backed the campaign, including Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, Kristin Scott Thomas, Zoë Wanamaker, and Miriam Margolyes. Mark Rylance and Jasper Britton, who are both RSC associate artists, have both added their names to the growing list of stage luminaries."
To find out more about Culture Unstained, check out their entry on our Links page.
- Reading classic novels in an era of climate change- I'm grateful to Hilary Jennings at Happy Museum for pointing out this post (22/5/17) I missed. Philip Steer at The Conversation offers some revealing readings of Victorian novels in light of that era's industrial expansion of fossil fuel economies on the one hand, and its new awareness of deep time and global environmental change on the other. "There is a strange and troubled kind of intimacy between our own moment of climate change and 19th century Britain. It was there that a global, fossil fuel economy first took shape, through its coal-powered factories, railways, and steamships, which drove the emergence of modern consumer capitalism ... Literature in itself isn’t going to save us from global warming — if salvation is even possible, at this point — but then neither, on their own, will economics or science. But if Amitav Ghosh [The Great Derangement] is right, and climate change has revealed an imaginative paralysis in western culture, one thing that the Victorian novel offers us is a means of thinking and feeling about our own moment anew."
- Environmentalism used to be about defending the wild – not any more- In this thoughtful and challenging piece (22/5/17) for the Guardian, Mark Boyle reminds us of the four qualities that economist E F Schumacher proposed to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate technologies, and claims that "Most of us find it easier to imagine a world without pine martens, honeybees, otters and wolves than one without social media, lattes, cheap flights and dishwashers. Even environmentalism, which was once motivated by a love of the natural world, now seems more concerned with finding slightly less destructive ways of enabling an overprivileged civilisation to carry on surfing the internet and buying laptops and yoga mats than it does with protecting wildlife from its ravenous jaws."
- The eco guide to unusual materials- In her latest Ecoguide piece (21/5/17) for the Guardian, Lucy Siegl looks at the growth (in both senses) of uncoventional fibres as alternatives to our dependence on agroindustrial monocultures and petrochemicals: "Future generations will shake their heads at our loyalty to a handful of fibres with terrible environmental profiles, such as cotton (thirsty for pesticides and water) and plastic (oil based). They’ll want to know why we didn’t display more imagination."
- How World War I changed the weather for good- Another post from The Conversation. In this one (18/5/17), Barry Shells describes how the technical needs of warfare drove a change in how we forecast - and think about - the weather. "Culture has rarely tired of speaking about the weather. Pastoral poems detail the seasonal variations in weather ad nauseam, while the term “pathetic fallacy” is often taken to refer to a Romantic poet’s wilful translation of external phenomena – sun, rain, snow – into aspects of his own mind. Victorian novels, too, use weather as a device to convey a sense of time, place and mood: the fog in Dickens’s Bleak House (1853), for example, or the wind that sweeps through Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847). And yet the same old conversations fundamentally changed tense during World War I. Because during the war, weather forecasting turned from a practice based on looking for repeated patterns in the past, to a mathematical model that looked towards an open future."
- What’s the point of art?- This post (17/5/17) by Derek Hodgson for The Conversation gives an interesting insight into the prehistoric origins of art, possibly as a means to build community and trust as human networks grew. "One of the great paradoxes of human endeavour is why so much time and effort is spent on creating things and indulging in behaviour with no obvious survival value – behaviour otherwise known as art .. We can start by looking at how art, or the arts, were practised by early humans during the Upper Palaeolithic period, 40,000 to 12,000 years ago, and immediately thereafter. This period is a far longer stretch of human history than the “modern” age and so how the arts were practised during it should serve as the starting point for any viable explanation. And while art in the modern world is often exploited as a means of expressing individualism, during most of cultural evolution it was utilised by small hunter-gatherer groups as a means of articulating social norms among most, if not all, members of a community."
- Listen harder!- This excellent episode (8/5/17) of BBC Radio 4's Start the Week features a really interesting discussion between poet and performer Kate Tempest and writers Lewis Hyde, Tracy Chevalier and Hanif Kureishi on the the value of artifice, art as 'empathy machine', myth, boundary crossers and mischief makers. It makes a great pairing with the previous episode (1/5/17) - also hosted by Andrew Marr - with writer Paul Kingsnorth, poet Wendell Berry and 'renegade economist' Kate Raworth. Take 90 minutes, your favoured beverage and enjoy both... As Kate Tempest says, " We can all do with reminding ourselves of not just the importance of telling our stories, but the absolute integral importance of listening harder. You think you can listen well? Listen harder. It's something extremely important, if we're going to get out of the situation we're in, that we humble ourselves. And that we learn to listen, especially to narratives that wer're not used to hearing."
- Winter is a time of regeneration: we’ll miss it when it’s gone- As the northern spring takes hold, discovering this evocative Aeon post from January (25/1/17) reminds us of the cultural association of winter. Bernd Brunner writes that "Winter can mean different things, depending on where you are. It rages most fiercely in the north – in Scandinavia, Siberia, Alaska or Canada – and in the extreme south, the Antarctic. In these places, winter is the darkest season. The Norwegian village of Rjukan, tucked away in a steep valley, was shaded from the Sun for close to six months of the year, until its inhabitants began using giant mirrors to direct sunlight into the vale a few years ago ... But climate change is a confounding factor. Now that we have officially arrived in the Anthropocene, winters in many places are getting shorter, wetter and warmer ... The devastating effects of these changes on the Earth’s natural ecosystems should be our most urgent concern. But we might also consider what we will miss, philosophically and spiritually, if winter as we know it disappears in the Anthropocene."
- How a tiny group of insects escaped extinction by hiding in a bush for 80 years- Also from Aeon (5/5/17), this rotoscope animation from director Jilli Rose highlights the accelerating wave of humanity's extinction of animal and plant species through the example of one species that somehow clung on... "It’s not often that you get to see something that has disappeared forever."
- A guide to ontology, epistemology, and philosophical perspectives for interdisciplinary researchers- In this concise and readable post (2/5/17) from Integration and Implementation Insights, Katie Moon and Deborah Blackman ask questions as important to understanding what we can say about climate change and the Anthropocene as they are to any other area of human knowledge: "How can understanding philosophy improve our research? How can an understanding of what frames our research influence our choices? Do researchers’ personal thoughts and beliefs shape research design, outcomes and interpretation? These questions are all important for social science research. Here we present a philosophical guide for scientists to assist in the production of effective social science." A useful guide for the non-scientist too, exploring different takes on ontology (what there is to know), epistemology (how we can produce and use knowledge) and philosophical perspectives (our generalised views of the world, influencing what and how we want to know).
- Hunting a Unicorn: A Conversation with William deBuys- In this post (2/5/17) from EdgeEffects, Daniel Grant interviews environmental writer William deBuys. "In a modern age that has produced landscapes of scarcity and loss, how do we spin stories that make us engage more deeply with them? This question has animated much of the work of environmental writer William deBuys. Rather than turn away from such landscapes, it is precisely here where we must look, deBuys argues, whether in the salt-encrusted lowlands of the California deserts or in the remote mountainous corners of Laos."
- Bringing climate change statistics to life- In this post (18/4/17) from Adobe's Project 1324, artist and scientist Jill Pelto describes how she travels to remote locations collecting data about climate change and turns her research into paintings, using the power of art to change minds. "Art has the power to transform the way people think and behave: it can both change one’s understanding of climate data and spur sustainable behavior. It is a vehicle for changing perception in a way that other mediums cannot."
- Engaging communities on climate adaptation through art- In this post (24/4/17) from Creative Carbon Scotland, sociologist Dr Leslie Mabon reflects on a recent mini-festival. "The purpose of the festival was to engage with the community on climate change adaptation through the lens of art ... Over the course of the day we had three workshops. First, musician Simon Gall used old Doric (the local language in Aberdeen) rhymes and songs to get us to think about how we represent trends, events and processes in society and culture, which led into us writing short lyrics of our own about how we might understand changes in the climate. Then, Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman brought us the Museum of Future Middlefield, where we were given objects, a year, and a bit of social context, and worked in teams to write a narrative as to what that object did in relation to climate change that led to it being in the Museum of Future Middlefield in the Year 3000. Lastly, Alice Mary Cooper led a theatre-based session, in which we used the metaphor of a suitcase to imagine not only what possessions we would take in an evacuation emergency, but also what personal and community qualities Middlefield could offer to Aberdeen more widely in a climate event."
- Climate change and storytelling- In this post (26/4/17) at Running in the Anthropocene, 'EM' describes a panel discussion following the recent March for Science in Vancouver, Canada. The discussion included questions on 'which works better (in fiction about climate change): doom and gloom or cheer?': "We realize that dystopia brings to fiction tension and conflict, which makes for good drama and storytelling. It’s also somewhat a reflection of where we’re headed as far as climate change goes. A happy unicorn story where nothing happens and everything is perfect is boring. On the other hand, building hope in a dystopian framework shows the positive outcomes of dealing with an otherwise gloomy future. Many readers just cannot stomach gloomy dystopia. I brought up my interview with Cory Doctorow, where he talked about his viewpoint – that in times of disaster, it is shown that people, in general, are helpful to each other and work toward a better world. If you build these people into even the direst of dystopian novel, your novel starts to edge toward utopian. It becomes an uplift rather than a takedown."
- Weatherfronts: Climate change and the stories we tell- In this piece (25/4/17) from Cambria Publishing, David Thorpe announces the publication of the complete anthology of Weatherfronts poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Arising from the two Weatherfronts events organised by TippingPoint and partners, "this collection presents twelve very individual approaches. The authors’ experience of the subject is very varied, but all have committed themselves deeply to their own interpretation of the theme. All have also benefited from meeting and talking to scientists, social scientists and geographers to whom they have been introduced by TippingPoint." The collection - you can download for free from Cambria - combines two publications only available previously as PDFs into one e-book.
- A world first in climate change imagery- In this piece (25/4/17) from Climate Outreach, Adam Corner says that "Despite 25 years of campaigning and communication, climate change still has an image problem: polar bears, melting ice and smokestacks continue to define climate change in digital imagery and the public mind. The Climate Outreach project Climate Visuals is a world first, offering a vital new approach: a collection of curated climate images based on social research with thousands of people in Europe and America, plus guidance and practical resources to spark a more diverse, engaging and compelling iconography for climate change. Climate Visuals is a platform for images that are fresh, innovative and proven to be effective for public engagement, helping to lift climate change out of the margins and into the mainstream ... The Climate Visuals image library now includes nearly 400 images, and is being developed with leading photographic agencies. Our first partner is outdoor photography specialists Aurora Photos, with a contribution of around 100 brand new images that match the Climate Visuals principles for effective visual communication.
- Fingerprints of climate change are detectable in wild weather around the globe- This Anthropocene post (25/4/17) by Sarah DeWeerdt reports how "in the last decade, researchers have begun to make progress in the field of so-called ‘single event attribution.’ They are using powerful computer models and statistical analysis of large sets of climate observations to quantify the influence of global warming on individual weather events ... Climate change has increased the odds and the intensity of extreme heat over more than 80 percent of the Earth’s surface for which records are available ... And has also increased the probability and severity of droughts and floods over about half of the area for which observations are available."
- The banality of the Anthropocene- This provocative piece (22/2/17) from Cultural Anthropology explores the 'routinised everydayness' of the unprecedented age we live in and recreate in our choices. Locating her global view in her home state, Heather Anne Swanson says this is what "makes the Iowa Anthropocene so terrifying ... For many living in precarious situations, the Anthropocene is already life-altering, life-threatening, and even deadly ... But for others ... the Anthropocene is so banal that they do not even notice it. It is the green front lawn, the strip-mall parking lot, ... the cornfield and the industrial pig farm."
- Rewording the Anthropocene- This very short post (18/4/16) from Language Making Nature highlights the value of creating new words (such as Anthropocene itself): "Not all these new words are elegant but they perfectly capture how important word-making skills become when we're exploring ideas at the limits of our knowledge, vocabulary, and imagination."
- A timeline of Earth's average temperature since the last Ice Age glaciation- This rolling timeline cartoon from xkcd ("a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math and language") complements the post 'SkS Analogy 1: Speed kills' (below) to make super-uncomfortable reading. "When people say 'The climate has changed before', these are the sorts of changes they are talking about."
- Paintings, sunspots and frost fairs: rethinking the Little Ice Age- This Environmental Research Web post (17/4/17) from the Royal Astronomical Society examines the historical - including art historical - evidence for the so-called "Little Ice Age", arguing that "the whole concept of the 'Little Ice Age' is 'misleading', as the changes were small-scale, seasonal and insignificant compared with present-day global warming."
- A reading list to stay grounded on Earth Day- 22nd April is Earth Day and this post (20/4/17) from Edge Effects discusses nine explorations of environmental history: "Earth Day invites us to see the planet from all angles and at all scales, and to hold these perspectives in relation to each other. But what books, ideas, or geographies can carry us from stardust to coal dust and back? We surveyed a handful of recent works in environmental history that together, compose an Earth history reading list to keep us grounded on Earth Day."
- Indigenous science- Following the Earth Day theme mentioned in the Edge Effects post, 22nd April also sees the March for Science in Washington D.C. and over 500 other cities across the world - including 6 in the UK. This post (20/4/17) from ENTITLE "endorses the call by original peoples and their allies to march not just for Science but for Sciences; to acknowledge the multiple other ways of knowing that play an essential role in advancing knowledge for the health of all life."
- Ethics in the Anthropocene: A research agenda- This post (19/4/17) at Inhabiting the Anthropocene asks "Does the Anthropocene represent a radical discontinuity with the past, only comprehensible through newly invented modes of thinking? Or is it in fundamental ways continuous with the past, thus something we can approach with categories we have inherited?" It's a short review of a paper of the same title (by Jeremy Schmidt, Peter Brown and Christopher Orr, published in The Anthropocene Review - details in the article), which "shows how the answer to both questions is yes - hence that formulating a moral response to the Anthropocene requires a nuanced use of moral tradition along with a readiness to acknowledge ways that traditional approaches fall short and must be supplemented or replaced."
- SkS Analogy 1 - Speed Kills- In this graphic post (19/4/17) from Skeptical Science ("getting skeptical about global warming skepticism"), our accelerating addition to the background, natural rates of global warming is likened to "decelerating your car from 60 mph to 0 in … 30 seconds ... 3 sec ... 0.3 sec ... 0.03 sec." (Clunk Click Every Trip...)
- Learning to tackle wicked problems through games- This post (11/4/17) from Integration and Implementation Insights explores experiences of using games in the schoolroom, seminar room or board room to address wicked problems "Can we help the next generation of policy makers, business leaders and citizens to become creative, critical and independent thinkers? Can we make them aware of the nature of the problems they will be confronted with? Can we strengthen their capacity to foster and lead stakeholder processes to address these problems? Yes."