This is the ClimateCultures monthly selection of Views from Elsewhere for 2018, featuring stories from over 50 sources throughout the year:
Aeon, Aesthetica Magazine, Anthropocene, Artists and Climate Change, The Atlantic, Atlas Obscura,
BBC Radio, BBC Television, Burning Embers,
Canada's National Observer, Carbon Brief, Caught By The River, Centre for Human & Nature, The Clearing, The Conversation, Crap Futures,
The Dark Mountain Project,
eco/art/scot/land, The Ecologist, The Economist, Ecosophia, Edge Effects, Electric Lit, Ensia, ENTITLE, Environmental Research Web, Eurozine,
Geographical, The Good Men Project, The Guardian, Guernica,
Hacker Noon, Humanities for the Environment, Hyperallergic,
Iain Biggs, Inhabiting the Anthropocene,
The Journal of Wild Culture, JSTOR Daily,
The Mail Online, MoBox, Musings,
Nature, The New Yorker, The New York Times,
Pacific Standard, Platypus,
the sea cannot be depleted, Seasonalight, Science News, Skeptical Science,
Undark, Uneven Earth
For the Views from Elsewhere 2019, with the latest selections of good reads so far this year, go here.
For our Views from Elsewhere for 2017 (with around 100 good reads linked to over 35 sources) see here.
NB: These posts appear in the order I discover and read them (most recent at the top), rather than the original publication date.
- The flight from nature-
At Ecosophia (19/12/18) John Michael Greer reads into an op-ed piece on climate change two things he claims the writer omitted: "any sense that climate change activists might learn a lesson or two from their movement’s many defeats"; and "even a hint of the idea that people who want industrial society to stop flooding the atmosphere with greenhouse gases need to start leading by example, and make the same changes in their own lives first."
To me, Greer's attacks on climate activists are off the mark, as there are many who do lead by example - either in many small ways or in one or more very major ones. They often do so without making a song or dance about it, so maybe Greer has missed them. Greer is no climate change doubter or an admirer of deniers: "I learned enough about energy flow and the laws of thermodynamics many years ago to realize that if you dump billions of tons of infrared-trapping gases into Earth’s atmosphere, you’re going to play hob with the delicate energy balance that maintains Earth’s climate in its present condition. The fact that Earth’s climate has changed drastically in the past, without benefit of human interference, simply shows how stupid it is to tamper with a system so obviously vulnerable to destabilization ... anthropogenic climate change has become an everyday reality, and that it can be expected to get much, much worse so long as modern industrial civilization keeps bumbling on its merry way, ripping through half a billion years of fossil sunlight to prop up a few short centuries of absurd extravagance."
But his first point is well made: "twenty years of strident yelling by climate change activists have not succeeded in convincing either their opponents or the undecided of the rightness of their cause and the urgency of change." He thinks that many climate activists are as wedded to 'modern industrial civilization' as much as those they are trying to convince - and that for both camps, this is a sign of our separateness from nature. "Nearly everything that frames a middle- or upper middle-class lifestyle in the industrial world today can be described, without too much difficulty, as a way to avoid dealing with nature."
- Towards the Picascene-
This short post from Ginny Battson at Seasonalight (21/12/18) captures the particular attraction of that raucous bird, the European Magpie - "a whirl of black and white feather-tempest, a stunning aves with a glint in each onyx eye. If sunbeams infuse among her barbules, purple-blue-green iridescence radiates out as a thing to behold."
I'd been reading of magpies as one of the (as far as we know) small number of other animals who share our ability to recognise ourselves in mirrors -- a mark of the psychology of individual self-awareness, mentioned in the book, Future Remains, which I've just reviewed here. Battson speculates that maybe this ability "gives rise to a folly; the reflected self image as superior being," and it's an arresting thought: if self-awareness means self-regard, a separation that's so dangerous in the wrong hands?
But there's comfort to be found in these other mirrored beings. "They bring me both smiles and daily stories, something I cherish very much in life."
- What does shooting wolves have to do with rivers?-
Writing at the Good Men Project (3/10/18), Jill Sisson Quinn recalls an episode with the English class she leads in Wisconsin, leading a group of teenagers through an essay reading after an outing to hike a section of the Ice Age Trail, along the farthest reach of the most recent glacier across Wisconsin. The essay was Aldo Leopold's Thinking Like a Mountain, and Quinn didn't have high expectations of her students' receptiveness to this account of Leopold's own conversion from a hunter's 'predator-minded' logic to a more ecological thinking. Especially Cody, the brightest but most resistant of the class. "If the only thing that interested or excited my students about wolves was the prospect of killing them, how could I prepare them for Leopold’s suggestion that the wolf has a role in nature other than to compete with humans for deer?"
"I began the class by asking the students how many had heard a wolf howl ... I explained that we’d be reading Leopold’s essay, and that he begins by describing what the howl of a wolf means to a deer, a spruce tree, a man, and a mountain. I played a ninety-second clip of a wolf chorus and asked the students to come up with an adjective to describe the howls, or a phrase that explained what the howls reminded them of."
As for the essay, she was astonished by the depth of response. "Two groups discussed the symbolism of the 'green fire' that Leopold saw extinguished in the eyes of the old wolf he shot. Another tried to decipher the 'secret opinion' Leopold says mountains hold about wolves. A third group tried to understand the quote, 'He [who shoots wolves] has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls and rivers washing the future into the sea.' My students wondered, 'What does shooting wolves have to do with rivers?' ... Cody raised his hand. I called on him. 'Shooting wolves causes the deer population to increase,' he began, in a descending monotone, as if nothing that school presented him with could ever be difficult to unravel. 'Then the deer browse the plants on the mountain, killing them. The roots of the plants are what hold the mountain together. So without wolves, eventually the mountain dies.'”
- The moral assumptions embedded in economic models of climate change-
The Economist (8/12/18) editorial provides a timely and concise look at the question of the discount rates used by policy makers when thinking what actions to take on climate change. This rate "represents how much the value of a present good fades as it is delayed into the future." In other words, how much it is deemed 'worth' paying now to achieve that good in the future. "These calculations may look bloodless, but they are built on weighty moral assumptions, namely, how to value other people’s lives. Though it is hard to know what might finally impel humanity to take the threat of climate change seriously, speaking more plainly about its moral costs might help."
"Philosophers are accustomed to discussions about how to value lives distant from our own in time and place; economists are not." So using their conventional tools - designed for choices about what pension to take out, for example - don't look especially useful for giving weight to the impact of our current CO2 emissions to people a century from now: "given a 5% rate of discount, one human life today is worth 132 a century hence. Is it really ethically acceptable to save one life now at the expense of so many in the future? The lives of humans born decades from now might be difficult for us to imagine, or to treat as of equal worth to our own. But our own lives were once similarly distant from those taking their turn on Earth; the future, when it comes, will feel as real to those living in it as the present does to us. Economists should treat threats to future lives as just as morally reprehensible as present threats to our own."
Of course - as the article doesn't spell out - the future is not just 100 years from now, or 50 or 12. It is now, with millions of present human lives and the existence of many other species and much of the natural world already being destroyed, now. And being discounted now in the decisions politicians, economists and most of must make every day.
- Pursuit of beauty - hurricane bells-
In this excellent and moving programme for BBC Radio 4 (13/11/18), Peter Shenai, an artist working with sound and who previously cast bells based on climate change graphs, shares his latest project: to make bells that tell some of the stories of Hurricane Katrina. "Bells can signal alarm, they can be a cause for celebration, they can be a symbol for memorial." Walking in London to meet atmospheric scientist Carlo Corsaro to discuss the practicality of his idea, bells form the background soundscape, a reminder of their universal human presence. Corsaro offers Shenai data from the hurricane, which hit New Orleans in August 2005; a 3D image of the hurricane's evolving wind speed gives him the shape of the bell. Watching the hurricane make landfall, Shenai sees "concentric circles growing in intensity. That's kind of terrifying!" A Katrina survivor says "The hurricane was supposed to drop its water as it crossed the 60 miles of swamp. But it didn't, it sneaked in by Lake Pontchartrain, dropped the water there. That didn't flood us but it all washed into our drainage canals. And that's what did us in."
In a project about destruction, Shenai experiences both excitement at using scientific data to create his unique bells, and guilt at taking them to the people who were directly affected. "Should l even do this? This is asking people to bring up traumatic experiences which probably haven't even left." The project and programme bring us the voices of survivors and bells, combining science, art, first-hand experiences of climate catastrophe and the tension of creative endeavours as we follow the making of the bells and their first sounding. Musicians from New Orleans reflect on the strange, eery musicality of nature re-presented through art.
"Each bell represents a particular time within Hurricane Katrina's development. What I want to do is take each bell to a person that has a memory associated with that time, when the hurricane was building and eventually when it hit the coast. And I want them to strike the bell and tell me about what they remember. Bells represent a musical instrument that's unlike any ... orchestral musical instrument. They're often installed in places like towers and struck with a regularity and often mark anniversaries, so they relate us to time, often even epochal time, and they relate us to memory. So I want the first formal introduction of the bells to the public to be a symbol of the time that they represent. And I want the memories of the people that they talk about there to be encoded in the bells, so that whenever they're played after that there's a sense in which those bells are then broadcasting those memories."
I'm grateful to ClimateCultures Member Nick Comer-Calder for recommending this programme. I've also posted about this programme at my small blog.
- Meet the fatbergs-
With perfect timing to link with Nick Drake's contribution to our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects - including Stranger Thing, his poem on the Whitechapel fatberg - Atlas Obscura (20/11/18) posts Jessica Leigh Hester's article on fatbergs around the world. Giant mounds of fats, oils, and debris that accumulate in sewers, "stinky, sprawling, subterranean, they start small, then get bigger and bigger, and sometimes grow to gargantuan proportions, occasionally surpassing a double-decker bus or even an airliner in size. They tend to lurk, unnoticed, until they claim so much of a pipe that wastewater can hardly flow past them. Then, they’re investigated and hauled to the surface bit by bit, where they elicit fascination and no small measure of nausea."
Hester looks at the processes that create and shape them, and at the unique characteristics of fatbergs in three different cities: London, Singapore, and Charleston, South Carolina. "Fatberg ingredients vary from city to city, and perhaps even from street to street ... One kind of cooking oil would leave behind a different signature than another, and the grease from chicken is different than the grease from beef. But anything that is flushed or dumped might glom on to the fatberg."
But, as Hester points out, wherever they’re found, "the recipe for preventing fatbergs is the same ... upkeep on grease interceptors, and maybe even replacing existing sewer pipes with ones made from different materials that are less likely to leach calcium and provide snag points. And, of course, it requires residents to curb the habit of putting things down the pipes - no grease, no wipes, no floss. Nothing that feeds the fatberg."
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change take-away: Imagine. Take action. Repeat.-
Writing at Transition Network (8/11/18), Rob Hopkins looks at the impact of the most recent IPCC report through the lens of imagination. "I find myself intrigued with a thought that doesn’t seem to want to leave my head, namely that the deeper we get into climate change, the harder we seem to be finding it to imagine a way out. It’s an idea that, for me anyway, gets under the skin. We know that the more we see and feel its impacts, the more anxious we become, which in turn results in more cortisol in our systems and the contraction of our hippocampus, the imagination centre in our brain, hampering our ability to imagine the future. We know that the increase of CO2 in the air we breathe impacts our cognitive abilities to the extent that the rise to 660ppm of CO2 by the end of the century forecast by the IPCC would lead to a 15% decline in those abilities. If we don’t intentionally put our priority on rebuilding the collective imagination, that vital ability may just slide out of our grasp." That's a stark reframing of the crisis, a fresh way of hammering home the problem that we're cutting away the branches we're sitting on.
Hopkins sees hope as well as alarm in our ability (still) to imagine the better as well as the worse. "It feels vital to me that alongside the declaration of a ‘climate emergency’ ... we must never lose sight of the need to fire the imagination about the future it is still possible to create ... [And] those stories are infectious. Really bold, amazing, world-changing, imagination-firing stuff is happening all over the world, even though you most likely won’t see it on the BBC News ... While mass arrests and a firm “no” is vital, our “yes” being sufficiently rich in imagination, play, invitation, joy, awe and possibility matters just as much."
- A ‘great and merciless thinning:’ the vanishing world of insects-
In a disturbing companion piece to Jeff VanderMeer's piece on Ecology, storytelling, and the White Deer Terroir project - but one that likewise feels packed with opportunity to improve our understanding of ecology and growing crisis - this openDemocracy article by Michael Malay (1/11/18) takes the startling action of extinguishing from our literary ecology the same insect life that's under threat of extinction in the natural world.
"What would English literature look or sound like if there were no insects? What if someone were to ransack the literary past...? A great silence would follow. Poems that were full of life would suddenly be untenanted, their landscapes no longer pulsing..." Given the urgency of the ecological crisis and the problem of how to encourage citizens to care about animals about which they know very little, Malay suggests we "find ways of portraying the ‘great thinning’ in ways that can’t be ignored, and it is here that artists, poets and environmental scholars have a role to play. By asking different questions from conservationists, and bringing new perspectives to bear on the issue, they may be able to illuminate the consequences of extinction in other ways."
Malay uses examples from his own scrapbook of blanked out poems to bring the method home. "The process of compiling the scrapbook produced many feelings of unease: to remove lines from a poem felt like an act of desecration. At the same time, it offered a way of giving concrete expression to ecological degradation. Without his ‘bee-loud glade’, Yeats’s Innisfree is impoverished, and what is Dickinson’s field without her cicadas, observing their ‘unobtrusive mass’?"
- Meghan Brown: Ecology, storytelling, and the White Deer Terroir project-
At Guernica (31/8/18) Author Jeff VanderMeer talks with biology professor Meghan Brown about an intriguing experiment using his creative writing guide with her science students as a way to understand the ecology of place. The place in question being an abandoned US Army depot in upstate New York that's now home for rare white deer and other wildlife. "Given these animals’ rarity, the abandoned depot has become a flash point for environmental discussion, especially in light of a recent proposal by waste-to-energy company Circular enerG. The company proposes to develop a trash incinerator on the site, which would burn approximately 2,640 tons of garbage each day. " Great material for creative writing students, but what would biology students make of a writing project in place of their usual lab classes?
Vandermeer asks what Brown sees as the biggest challenges in conveying information to the general public? "I suppose it is like most things: people generally listen to what they want to hear, and from that limited information adopt whatever fits into their world view. I think that makes us allergic to nuance, which is what science is all about. As a scientist, I thrive on the uncertainty, the variability, the unknown; but the public often wants static, deterministic, linear responses to complex questions. It is a balancing act, to keep faithful to the science (and my love of its complexity) while building a story that communicates the gist of the problem or solution in a way that general audiences can understand."
And for VanderMeer, of course, that is the core issue. "The intricate relations between the depot, its deer, and its fragile ecosystem made me think about how looking at a particular place’s terroir - a term used by wine enthusiasts to refer to the environmental factors that influence the growth and development of wine grapes - might help students to better understand a place’s complexity. And this, in turn, could help them generate stories, as well as explore how stories get told."
- Anthropocene: why the chair should be the symbol for our sedentary age-
For The Conversation (26/10/18), Vybarr Cregan-Reid makes an interesting claim for a new indicator for the Anthropocene ... chairs. "If I was asked to make even a conservative estimate of the number of chairs in the world, I’d find it hard to go lower than 8-10 per person. Applying that logic, there could be more than 60 billion of them on the planet. Surely chairs should be one of the universal signals of the arrival of the Anthropocene?" Whether or not many would survive into future archaeological records (those particularly cheap and uncomfortable metal-and-plastic ones, certainly), that's a lot of chairs.
And what makes them an interesting indicator is how their numbers have grown. "While chairs began to appear with a little more frequency in the early modern period, it seems that they became much more widely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries during the Industrial Revolution. Before the 18th century, a chair was relatively easily come by, but the majority of the population had little use for them."
And it's a case of chairs shaping us we shape the planet through our increasingly sedentary lives and increasing consumption of the world's resources. "Just as we have an Anthropocene environment, we might equally class ourselves as Anthropocene humans. Palaeolithic humans died most frequently in infancy. Violence and injury were also common causes of mortality in later life. Modern humans, though, overwhelmingly die as a result of metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers – all strongly linked with inactivity: namely, chair use."
Many thanks to ClimateCultures Member Robynne Limoges for pointing out this story. And to the chairs we were using while reading it.
- To sway science skeptics, first listen to them-
Undark (10/10/18) carries a piece by Anita Makri looking back at work in the 1980s to understand the rising conflicts between 'expert' and 'public' views of risk - work that has great relevance today. Psychologist Paul Slovic looked at how scientists sought to assuage fears of nuclear power, and how this 'deficit model' (where experts feel that more information and better explanation of 'the facts' will meet the public's obvious need to be persuaded) wasn't working. Unsurprisingly, we might think.
"Slovic’s approach to probing how people think and respond to risk focused on the mental strategies, or heuristics, people use to make sense of uncertainty. Sometimes these strategies are valid; sometimes they lead to error. But heuristics aren’t deployed exclusively by the masses, Slovic wrote. Experts use them too, and are prone to similar errors."
As Makri explains, much work has been done since on the social perceptions of risk, "but Slovic’s underlying message seems daring, even today. Are we ready to accept that attitudes, values, and emotions like fear and desire have a legitimate role in establishing 'truth'? How can we negotiate compatible roles for scientific and non-scientific considerations in decision-making? These are tricky propositions."
Efforts to bring experts and publics together in conversation - and acknowledging the different expertise that both groups hold - are demanding. "They bring scientists and the public together in an uncomfortable space, where they are forced to try to understand each other. But if we are to find socially and scientifically acceptable solutions to contentious problems, perhaps that’s what it will take."
- How I made musical instruments from lab equipment to create empathy with the Arctic-
Kat Austen, who is "exploring the role of art as a route to knowing the environment in an alternative way", writes at The Conversation (31/10/18) about her work to engage people with climate change through increased empathy with the natural world. "Providing people with more scientific information has been shown to have little effect on the degree to which people care about the climate or understand the impact of human activity. Something else is needed to jolt us out of our current trajectory."
Her latest work, The Matter of the Soul, hacks the electronics of lab equipment, transforming them into musical instruments that play the sounds of melting ice from her journeys around Baffin Island in the High Arctic. "I set up a temporary studio on the top deck of the ship ... where I could tinker with all of my equipment and explore the aesthetic of this fascinating place, so different from my European home ... Around the ship, and on land in the open, rocky landscapes, I interviewed visitors to and residents based around Baffin Island. But I also captured the voice of the ocean and ice. I wanted to draw an analogy between bodies of water and human culture. To capture the voice of the water, I decided to explore the chemical consequences of ice melting."
Distinct from the direct sonification of data, Austen's recordings "are not directly representative of the value of the measurements. They are rather derived from what happens inside the machines during the process of measurement ... a reflection on the process of measurement as a passive way of knowing..." The post includes examples of her work, and the raw material and compositions from the project will also be released online under Creative Commons.
- Can you be a beef farmer if the animals are your friends?-
In director Alex Lockwood's beautifully thoughtful and moving film, 73 Cows, (posted at Aeon), farmers Jay and Katja Wilde share their journey from raising beef cattle to animal-free lives - and the journey of the animals themselves. "Coming to recognise them as individuals with rich inner lives rather than just ‘units of production’, Wilde eventually found the emotional burden of sending his cattle to the abattoir too crushing to bear. ... Melancholic yet stirring and gently hopeful, this short documentary ... deftly traces the complexities of Wilde’s decisionmaking process. In doing so, it reaches far beyond the English countryside, asking viewers to reckon with the moral intricacies of eating animals."
It's an insightful encounter with the personal realities of life on the land and living in close relationship with animals; "you realise they do have personalities and they experience the world. That they are not just robots that eat and sleep. I couldn't disconnect that feeling of having to get the job done from the fact that they were individuals and not just units of production: more than a number, really."
- Anthropocene TV-
"We stand in the world within a complex series of networks, systems and processes. It is only our action, repeated on a vast scale, which appears to place us outside these wild systems, rather than a part of them. It is a dangerous illusion," writes Adam Scovell for The Clearing (1/10/18). In this excellent survey of 1960s-80s British TV's fictional treatment of ecological controversies and alarm calls, Scovell uses Timothy Morton's writings on 'dark ecology', 'hyperobjects' and 'the severing' of modern humans from the natural world to show how awareness of the Anthropocene has been with us for almost as long as the Great Acceleration itself.
"What series like these and others show, is how such environmental awareness went unheeded. It’s not that these programmes were ahead of their time: it is more frustratingly, that we have moved on so little in how we deal with the monumentality of ecological issues and their increasing scarring of the strata of our planet; the danger has been growing but with far more fervour than our willingness to address it."
"But within these television dramas are the first signs that the Anthropocene was coming, in a time when we may have still been able to turn the clocks back. It’s not that we didn’t heed their warning, it’s that we’ve never heeded such warnings. We cannot put fences around things for protection and watch as everything on the other side crumbles. The message of these programmes has always been that change is within us and that such problems are still ultimately about our disconnect with the world..."
- The hope at the heart of the apocalyptic climate change report-
Jason Hickel's Foreign Policy (18/10/18) piece reminds us that the recent IPCC Special 1.5oC report "has issued a clear and trenchant call for action - its most urgent yet. It says we need to cut annual global emissions by half in the next 12 years and hit net zero by the middle of the century. It would be difficult to overstate how dramatic this trajectory is. It requires nothing less than a total and rapid reversal of our present direction as a civilization."
The problem with 'net zero', Hickel points out, is that "during that very same period, the global economy is set to nearly triple in size. That means three times more production and consumption than we are already doing each year. It would be hard enough to decarbonize the existing global economy in such a short timespan. It’s virtually impossible to do it three times over." He draws our attention to the one scenario in the report that doesn't rely on BECCS - “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage ” - to draw our continually rising emissions back out of the atmosphere: "an exciting new scenario that - for the first time - does not rely on speculative technology. Developed by an international team of scientists, it projects that we can reduce emissions fast enough to keep under 1.5 degrees but only if we’re willing to fundamentally change the logic of our economy. Instead of growing industrial output at all costs, it proposes a simple alternative: that we start to consume less ... to scale down global material consumption by 20 per cent, with rich countries leading the way. What does that look like? It means moving away from disposable products toward goods that last ... It means investing in public goods and finding ways to share stuff - from cars to lawn mowers - shifting from an ethic of ownership to an ethic of usership."
- Mental health must be part of the climate change conversation-
In this short piece for Canada's National Observer (10/10/18), Amy Anne Lubik & Celia Walker contrast the attention paid to the physical health impacts of climate change in their region - on respiratory illnesses, for example - with awareness of the mental health impacts. The need to address this imbalance is two-fold, they say: "As British Columbia works to create a mental health and addictions strategy, it is important that all angles, from treatment to prevention to the societal and environmental factors that are linked to high rates of mental illness be considered; and this includes climate change. Similarly, B.C. needs to take mental health into account as we develop a comprehensive and effective climate change strategy."
As with the rest of the world, British Columbia "has been experiencing an increase in dramatic climate change related disasters from floods to wildfires resulting in the mass evacuation of people from their communities. These climate change related disasters can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, grief, survivor guilt, vicarious trauma, recovery fatigue, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts. Like most illnesses, the most marginalized and impoverished populations are most likely to suffer the direct and indirect consequences."
And, of course, mental health impacts such as 'solastalgia' -- the distress experienced with local environmental destruction -- also come from those activities causing climate change as well as from the results of those changes. "Communities that are impacted by fossil fuel extraction, such as Fort Nelson First Nation in Northeast B.C. also experience the depression that accompanies solastalgia as their traditional hunting, fishing and trapping territory becomes more riddled with mining, dams, and fracking..."
- We need stories of dystopia without apocalypse-
Here's an 'old' piece I missed first time: Writing at Electric Lit (20/7/17), Emmalie Dropkin identifies a key tool for engaging others (and ourselves) with the seemingly distant realities of climate change, given the evolutionary idiosyncracies of the human brain: "Fortunately our species has spent thousands of years developing the intervention we need: literature." After a discussion of the social psychology of climate change (see our post this month from writer Deborah Tomkins), Dropkin suggests that "There’s a narrow path between the pitfalls suggested by the psychological and sociological research about climate change. As humans, we need stories to help us make sense of our world and empathize with the future. At this moment, we need stories that make the realities of climate change concrete and pervasive and of human origin, as well as viscerally emotional when it comes to the struggles of our descendants. We need stories of dystopia, but not apocalypse."
She draws on examples of mainstream literary fiction - rather than self-identified 'Cli-Fi' - such as Jane Smiley's Golden Age and Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. "Both Smiley and Proulx are known for their writing of place and environment, but these novels are a quintessential model for the new climate fiction we need. As we set them down our attention is directed from the many generations behind us to those ahead, to the legacies we’re forced to imagine because the effects of human activity and climate change are already concrete and clear, as real as the personal drama that occurs alongside them that usually fills our range of vision on its own."
- Anthropocene-Fi: a new way to write (& read) upbeat, hopeful novels about climate change-
While publishing our latest post, from writer Debrah Tomkins on fellow writers' discussions on writing about climate change, I've also seen a number of other interesting pieces on the topic. Views from Elsewhere is an ideal place to bring a few of these together - starting with the latest from Dan Bloom at Burning Embers (8/10/18), the global 'cli-fi' forum he's created. Cli-Fi -- Climate fiction -- is the term he coined back in 2010 for fictions addressing climate change and its impacts on the world. Some disagree with Dan's description of it as a genre (in her recent two-part post for ClimateCultures, writer Mary Woodbury prefers 'eco-fiction' as the term, and sees it "not so much as a genre as a way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness into other genres") but no one would disagree that Cli-fi, "also dubbed 'Anthropocene fiction,' ... has become a publishing phenomenon, with sci-fi novelists Margaret Atwood and Kim Stanley Robinson among those conjuring up ''what if'' near-futures."
And, as he points out, "Cli-fi novels can take place in the past, the present and the future, the near future and the distant future ... They should be storytelling pure and simple. Family dramas, love stories, psychological tales, and full of emotion and memorable characters."
As with other expressions of an increasing 'climate change awareness', recent news has helped stimulate the appetite for new insights, in fiction as in non-fiction: "with a series of massive and deadly wildfires this past summer in Greece and California, newspaper headlines and TV reports around the world in 2018 have made the public more aware of climate events linked to global warming. This awareness translates to a hunger to read novels about climate change with good emotive storytelling... With the latest IPCC climate report released in October, runaway climate change risks are on everyone's mind now. Cli-fi is in the air."
- Neptune’s treasure: confronting the Anthropocene with the ancient aroma of ambergris-
Cathleen Faubert, an artist who "uses aroma as a link to an earlier time, on the belief that we can access the past through esoteric smells", is planning to "use the olfactory story of ambergris to recall the history of whaling as an early foundation of America’s energy economy." As she writes for Inhabiting the Anthropocene (19/9/18), the aromas she is able to extract from natural materials "represent the local landscape through aroma, molecular structure and symbolic meaning of the materials gathered. Aromatic materials, alchemical possibilities and cultural symbolism are central to the work. We respond to scent viscerally, at first, not logically. I believe this makes fragrance a potent vehicle for exploring arcane history, which can include truth and myth."
Her article — and the planned exhibition — explore the way the early Industrial Revolution, prior to the exploitation of mineral oils was fuelled by mass slaughter of whales for their fats, which were then processed into oil for lighting, power and lubrication. "Looking back on whaling makes us confront the economy of energy production and consumption, pointing us forward in time to its result, the Anthropocene."
But it's the mysterious allure of ambergris as the precious basis for perfumes which particularly fascinates Faubert. A substance excreted by whales after they've first secreted it to coat irritants in their guts, harvesting this doesn't entail slaughter. "In perfumery, the seashore is an elusive and desirable aroma, particularly the salty smell of skin and hair after a day at the beach. Sweet sun-warmed skin, fresh sweat, marine air, the significant scent of iodine and sulfur from seaweed and decomposing microplankton in the wet sand. This combo hits you in different frequencies at particular locations and it’s not simply the beauty of the odour, it’s the attraction to the place and the associations with pleasure, leaving the material world behind. The marvel of ambergris is its ability to melt into skin and aromatically conjure this oceanic illusion as no other material can."
- Microplastics can spread via flying insects, research shows-
In The Guardian (19/9/18), Damian Carrington describes recent research showing how mosquito larvae ingest microplastics that are the same size as their algae food and that, as the insects mature and fly, this "microplastic can escape from polluted waters ... contaminating new environments and threatening birds and other creatures that eat the insects." The article quotes Professor Amanda Callaghan, at the University of Reading, who led the new research: “Much recent attention has been given to the plastics polluting our oceans, but this research reveals it is also in our skies.”
With birds, bats, spiders and other species eating large numbers of insects, it's possible that they're also consuming microplastics. Callaghan says: “You can get swarms of insects. You could have a lot of plastic going up. It’s totally depressing. These plastics are going to be around forever.”
- High ice and hard truth: the poets taking on climate change-
Bill McKibben writes in The Guardian (12/9/18) about the meeting of glaciologist Jason Box with two poets, Aka Niviana from Greenland and Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Pacific's Marshall Islands, and the work the poets did together - through their collaborative poem, Rise - to 'Let me bring my home to yours.'
"Aka Niviana, grew up on the northern coast of Greenland; as its ice inexorably thaws, her traditional way of life disappears. And the water that melts off that ice sheet is drowning the home of Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner and everyone else in her home nation, the Marshall Islands of the Pacific. One poet watches her heritage turn to water; the other watches that same water sweep up the beaches of her country and into the houses of her friends. The destruction of one’s homeland is the inevitable destruction of the other’s." But, McKibben writes, "they don’t watch impassively. Both are climate activists, and both have raised their voices in service of their homelands."
"The hardest idea to get across is also the simplest: we live on a planet, and that planet is breaking. Poets, it turns out, can deliver that message." You can watch Rise, the pair's poem film at the Guardian article.
- On waste plastics at sea, she finds unique microbial multitudes-
For Quanta Magazine (13/9/18) Elizabeth Svoboda interviews oceanographer Maria-Luiza Pedrotti about her research into plastic pollution of our seas. Pedrotti is "stalking the mysterious inhabitants of what she calls the “plastisphere.” Her goal is to understand what kinds of microbes populate this newly evolved ecosystem and what biological tasks they perform." Pedrotti is currently investigating the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch and its novel microbe communities - Pedrotti refers to it as a “'soup,' but, you know, it’s a poor soup, because there’s a lot of plastic and few plankton - but has also researched plastics in the Mediterranean and other seas.
"The plastic fragments that make up the patches’ confetti-like slurry, Pedrotti says, harbor large quantities of bacteria from the genus Vibrio, which includes human pathogens like cholera. Studies elsewhere have suggested other dangers brewing within the plastisphere. Earlier this year, researchers ... reported that bacteria living on microplastics have very high rates of gene exchange, perhaps due to the generous surface area the plastics give microbes to grow on. That rapid gene exchange facilitates the spread of antibiotic resistance, which could eventually affect land-dwellers like us. Findings like these have alarmed ecologists and infectious-disease experts. But getting rid of ocean garbage patches isn’t as simple as deploying cleanup boats, according to Pedrotti. For one thing, we don’t yet know how closely the garbage patch microbial system and the larger food web have become intertwined: Eliminating the plastisphere could have unpredictable effects on the ocean ecosystem as a whole. And to some extent, the cleanup question is moot, because it’s impossible to remove even a significant fraction of the plastic from the ocean. Much of it is microscopic in size and cannot be captured even by nets with a lace-fine mesh."
Note: this piece in Quanta is one recent article that I also picked up in my miniblog: the new daily post of no more than 200 words on my personal website, which I'll link to occasionally here. For thoughts sparked off by Elizabeth Svoboda's interview with Maria-Luiza Pedrotti, see my small blog ~034 Our Plastisphere future?
- Pulling the magical lever - a critical analysis of techno-utopian imaginaries-
In this thoughtful piece for Uneven Earth (2/9/18), Rut Elliot Blomqvist celebrates the current recognition of the importance of the imagination in addressing political and ecological crisis but warns that, as well as "creative efforts to imagine other futures, we also need critical analyses of such visions. This is because imaginative responses to crises cover a broad spectrum of politics and worldviews — and even our dreams of a better future can be constrained by the political structure and ideologies of the present."
She looks at the recent spate of techno-utopian fiction and nonfiction stories, in particular at three works where she sees some interesting similarities and differences: "British campaigner and lobbyist Jonathon Porritt’s design fiction book The world we made, futurist Jacque Fresco’s The Venus project, and the movement for Fully Automated Luxury Communism." Although each has a different ideology, Blomqvist suggests that "the device of the fetishised magical lever of solar power (along with other magical industrial technologies) is equally central in all three stories." Whatever your view of technology as a means to drive social progress and environmental protection (or your views on ideas of 'progress' and 'environment' in the first place), this article is a good place to stretch your views and refresh your critical imagination on our futures. "A critical approach to utopian imaginaries is essential for any rethinking of political futures; without it, we risk being trapped in the same old stories even as we see ourselves as thinking outside the old story box."
- Six key questions in whole systems thinking-
As Daniel Christian Wahl reminds us in this article for The Ecologist (14/8/18), a whole-systems understanding of the world as always more than the simple sum of its parts "pays attention to the diversity of elements, the quality of interactions and relationships, and the dynamic patterns of behaviour that often lead to unpredictable and surprising innovations and adaptations ... Whole-systems thinking has to be a transdisciplinary activity that maps and integrates relationships, flows and perspectives into a dynamic understanding of the structures and processes that drive how the system behaves."
Systems - whether biological cells, organisms, a community or the Earth - act as sets of interconnected elements that together form a coherent pattern and exhibit "properties of the whole that emerge out of the interactions and relationships of the individual elements ... In many ways, a system is less a ‘thing’ than a pattern of relationships and interactions..." But Wahl also reminds us that, while systems thinking is a valuable corrective to reductionist approaches that always look for explanations within the simplest units and often ignore the 'emergent' pattern that is the whole, it's important to realise "that the systems view itself is also just another map that ... should not be confused with the territory. We can reduce the world to a whole just as easily as we can reduce it to a collection of parts. Neither the whole nor parts are primary; they come into being through the dynamic processes that define their identity through relationships and networks of interactions."
- Why we’re hunting for treasure – in old landfill sites-
Anyone who watched the recent shocking BBC Four documentary The secret life of landfill (23/8/18) won't be surprised to learn that "Old landfills do have valuable waste, the most obvious being processed metals, glass and electronics." As Jamie Pringle and Sharon George point out in this article for The Conversation (29/8/18), "junk electronic goods such as old TVs or computers typically have higher concentrations of gold and rare earth elements per tonne than are found naturally in ore. A 2014 United Nations University report stated that each year more than 300 tonnes of processed gold are dumped in landfills – that’s 10% of the total amount mined worldwide. Belgium, for example, is already mining its old landfills, by extracting waste and filtering for metals and recyclable material."
And yet, even though the UK recycles 45% of domestic waste, "that still means more than 12m tonnes are buried in the ground every year."
- Why all fiction should be climate fiction-
In this audio and text interview by Helen Phillips for Edge Effects (21/8/18), author Lauren Groff says "I do think that the way that one engages with climate change, without necessarily allowing it to kill you, because it could kill you out of dread and fear and anxiety, is you have to find a laser-like focus on a few things because we cannot mitigate the whole thing all by ourselves. But we can each do something small or smallish. My only talent is as a writer. That’s the only thing I can do. So now I feel as though I am being immoral if I am not addressing it somehow in my work. Of course, I write literary fiction, so it can’t be polemical. If it’s polemical, I’ve failed. I need to do something more scalpel-like, something a little bit sideways."
Groff has just published Florida, a collection of short stories, and Phillips asks her "What do you want your readers to do after reading this book? What kind of action would you hope for?" Groff's response: "So that’s the problem with literary fiction that’s trying to be non-polemical. I actually don’t have any actions. I don’t have any ways for other people to act. I do think that we cannot continue to avert our eyes. We have to look harder. We have to actually pay attention, no matter how painful it is. We have to take joy in the daily ... I don’t know what it is for every individual, but just find one thing you can accomplish, do it, and then find another thing and commit with your whole self."
- Cold storage: cooling the internet-
Laura Cole writes in Geographical (4/8/18) that the tech giants are turning to the seas to help battle the energy demands of powering the internet. Off the coast of northern Scotland, a "bus-sized, white capsule turns a shade of aquamarine as it is lowered from a floating crane platform into the Hoy Sound ... A foot of sea water froths over its top before it sinks to the floor of the salt water bay where it will remain for at least the next five years, powered by Orkney’s renewable energy and cooled by the seawater."
"As the capsule sinks from view, it’s a reminder that the seemingly ethereal internet still has a physical footprint. Data centres – though more often found in warehouses on land – take up space. They also run hot. Keeping them powered and preventing them from overheating takes up a considerable amount of energy. In fact, an estimated three per cent of the world’s entire electricity usage goes to powering the ICT industry, a significant chunk of that on data centres. The internet also has one of the fastest growing carbon footprints, linked to the exponential increase in demand for data. We produced more data in the last year alone than throughout the rest of human history. To prevent this data climb from creating an even larger carbon footprint, efforts are being made to push data centres into colder territories: the sea, the Arctic, and possibly even into orbit."
- When ice molecules meet black carbon-
This piece for the Journal of Wild Culture (7/4/18) is a few months old but I'm glad I caught up with it. Carol Devine says that "Black Carbon is like what you might imagine — tiny dark particles of pure carbon ... Two thirds of black carbon in the Arctic is traced to the use of heavy fuel oil (HFO), which emits black carbon during combustion." With the 'consistency of peanut butter,' HFO is literally the bottom of the barrel, left over from the oil refining process and "is the preferred fuel for the marine shipping industry because it’s cheap, widely available, and large marine engines are built to handle it."
Devine illustrates her essay with images that show the extent of the problem and, using solarized versions of her own photos of Arctic ice and habitats, brings home the impact. "By their nature, glaciers are dynamic. But we have changed these dynamics for the worse with our carbon obsession ... Yet, I'm buoyed and hopeful that there are many past and current earth stewards, scientists and innovators protecting mother nature and standing for humanity and earth. Action matters."
- As people drive mammals into night, new problems appear-
Brandon Keim writes at Anthropocene (8/8/18) about recent Israeli research that could have implications elsewhere as many mammals become increasingly nocturnal in response to human activity. "There’s a certain poetry to the idea of night as a refuge in a human-dominated world — but ... researchers describe some of the practical and potentially unfortunate implications of this shift, which may render seemingly verdant habitats inhospitable to certain species." The work, led by ecologist Hila Shamoon of Tel Aviv University, monitored the movements of mountain gazelles and their primary predators, golden jackals, as well as Indian crested porcupines, red foxes, and wild boar. "In the protected areas and little-used vineyards, these animals were quite active. As human presence increased, however, the animals’ daytime movements diminished ... Foxes and particularly jackals thrived in this shorter, nocturnal window. Their numbers and presence increased dramatically in vineyards closest to human settlements. This squeezed out the gazelles, who in daytime hide from people and at night must hide from jackals. For them ... 'no low-fear temporal window is left.' Rather than having nowhere to go, they have nowhen to go" as a result of human-induced prey-predator behavioural changes.
- The ghosts of our future climate at Storm King-
At Hyperallergic (29/7/18), Louis Bury offers his well illustrated reflections on a wide-ranging exhibition of climate change art at Storm King art centre in New York. Indicators: Artists on Climate Change, he suggests, "implicitly asks what type of indicator visual art might be with respect to anthropogenic climate change" by analogy with economic indicators. Such measurements are classified as either lagging indicators (which change only after the economy as a whole changes), coincident indicators (changing at approximately the same time as the economy), or leading indicators (which change before the rest of the economy), so each type gives clues to the past, present, or future. From among the 20 or so artists on show, Bury selects examples of art that suggest the same relationships with our changing climate:
"A selection of artworks that point back in time evince a strong sense of historical conscience ... A spirit of defiant resolve animates many of these historically minded works ... The artworks that resemble coincident indicators also emphasize imaginative creation by putting twists on mimetic or documentary techniques. ... While many of the exhibition’s lagging and coincident indicators seek to prick the viewer’s conscience, the works that resemble leading indicators are rarely accusatory or moralistic. The emphasis in such forward-looking works is less on what has been lost to climate change and more on how our species might adapt to, and cope with, the coming changes. The result is a set of works that, though created in the present, speak in a peculiar future perfect tense."
- Defending degrowth at ecomodernism’s home-
Writing for ENTITLE (12/7/18) Sam Bliss shares her experiences of speaking at the latest Annual Breakthrough Dialogue. "I was to participate in a panel called 'Decoupling vs. Degrowth'. My role was the token 'degrowther' making my case to a majority 'decoupler' crowd. In this context, degrowth is the proposal to intentionally shrink the physical size of wealthy economies, whereas decoupling is the hope that growing economies will at last break free from growing resource use and environmental damage. The former renews environmentalism as a subversive political movement. The latter is firmly post-environmentalist, often associated with support for nuclear energy, industrial agriculture, and artificial technologies. With my mentor Giorgos Kallis, we’ve spent three years working together on a critical analysis of this post-environmentalism that emanates from the Breakthrough Institute and their self-styled ecomodernist friends."
It's a really interesting account of the meetings (and non-meeting) of minds located on radically different wavelengths on the 'environmental' spectrum. And worth reading, whatever your wavelength...
"I think I made a bulletproof case for degrowth. I learned lots about geoengineering, carbon capture, agricultural modernization, and other topics from brilliant thought leaders ... Talking with journalists and scientists who had never engaged with degrowth before made the Dialogues worthwhile. I expected to feel like a visiting team player in a hostile professional sports arena, but really it was more like being a foreigner who people are interested in but don’t always know how to interact with."
- Geology’s timekeepers are feuding-
Robinson Meyer reports for The Atlantic (20/718) on the recent decision by the International Commission on Stratigraphy - "the global governing body that formally names geological eras, associating each rock layer with a specific stretch of time" - to divide our current stretch of geological time, the Holocene Epoch, into three new.
"This is particularly noteworthy to the human species, as we have been living in the Holocene for the last 12,000 years. After this announcement, we still live in that epoch, but we also live in the youngest of these new subdivisions: the Meghalayan Age." It's a decision that has caused an unusual amount of controversy and high-temperature exchange in what might as easily be called the Twitterocene - because of the way the new sequence of ages within the Holocene interacts (or doesn't) with that other new age on the block: the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene (the age of humans as a planetary force) has not yet been formally adopted by the ICS, and maybe won't be despite the momentum it has gained in scientific and wider cultural circles. And now the Holococene - the time since the end of the most recent of Earth's many 'ice ages', and which "is everything for humans [and] encompasses all of human history and much of our prehistory: the flourishing of the first cities, the revelation of every major religion, and the invention of the rifle, the rice paddy, and the radio" - has three freshly-minted phases. The most recent of these, the Meghalayan Age, began 4,250 years ago. We are still in this newest of new ages - and will be until and unless the ICS adopts the ultra-new Anthropocene.
A fascinating read on many levels - on the science, on the turf war between different working groups of the ICS, on the wider cultural arguments for what the human influence on the planet means and when it started, and on the practical question of who needs these definitions anyway ... this article is a useful primer on looking for light within the heat.
- Roy Scranton: Some new future will emerge-
As Amy Brady points out in Guernica (10/7/18), ever since The Epic of Gilgamesh, written four thousand years ago, "writers have long faced the apocalypse ... Flash forward a few centuries, and Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells bring us their own visions of the end of the world," and many others since have carried on the tradition. "Each of these writers shares the idea that the end will come quickly, sparked by an event that tumbles the pillars of civilization like dominoes. It takes little to understand why visions of sudden apocalypse - as opposed to a long, drawn-out one - are popular: a quick and dirty end to everything absolves us from having had anything to do with it. If we never saw the apocalypse coming, how could it have been our fault?"
Brady interviews author Roy Scranton, whose latest book, We’re Doomed. Now What? Essays on War and Climate Change, is a "thoughtful and deeply moving collection" discussing two subjects "that aren’t exactly strange bedfellows. As Scranton says ... both engines of colossal destruction emerge from 'the basic structures of our existence.'" In the interview, Scranton suggests "You can only build a new future using the rocks of the past. Some new future will emerge, certainly, but we don’t have a lot of control over how that happens. What we can do is facilitate its emergence in a more peaceful and thoughtful way ... Our way of life is going to be very different in the future than the way it is now, though I don’t know exactly what that means. One of the complicated things about living through the end of the world as we know it is that the end doesn’t come about because of a single event. It’s actually just a day-to-day occurrence that’s going to take a long time. We’ll see transformation and degradation, an increase in violence and insanity, the breakdown of social order in neighborhood by neighborhood, then city by city. We’re watching it happen now.
"But there will be opportunities for joy and for living a meaningful life. It’s just that we won’t find those things by acting in ways we always thought we could. We have to learn to be more flexible, much more adaptable, and much more grounded in the present. That last part may seem like an odd thing to say, but living in the present means facing unpleasant facts, recognizing our fear and sitting with it, and accepting our sorrow and griefs and dealing with them. These aren’t things that we can just push aside in order to get to the next thing on our list. They are who we are."
- Introducing the HfE Observatories blog-
Joni Adamson of the Environmental Humanities Initiative, Arizona State University, kicks off a new series of blog posts from members of the Humanities for the Environment (HfE) network of Observatories (11/7/18), launched five years ago. "The term 'Observatory' was chosen to encourage humanists to think outside the limitations of traditional humanities research protocols, such as the single-authored monograph. New Observatories would work to pilot collaborative, interdisciplinary public-facing projects and publications ... Six “Common Threads” found on the HfE website connect regionally distinct Observatory projects and collaborations. These include 1) recognizing the role that humans have played in transforming Earth’s atmosphere, land surfaces and oceans; 2) re-envisioning concepts of intergenerational justice to promote multispecies flourishing and planetary health; 3) honoring the long history of arts and humanities disciplines in discussions of environmental risks and opportunities; 4) recognizing various ways of knowing, including place-based and indigenous knowledges; 5) tackling complex social and environmental challenges with humanities methodologies and content; and 6) considering diverse environmental literacies and knowledges as key to the broader objectives of Humanities for the Environment initiatives.
- Rewilding the novel-
Gregory Norminton kicks off a series by fellow novelists at the Dark Mountain Project (25/6/18) with this confession: "As an environmentalist and novelist, I have been puzzling for years about how to bring my concerns together. It troubles me that my chosen form appears barely cognisant of our ecological crisis. Yet is it reasonable to expect otherwise? Can a form that evolved alongside Humanism and the Enlightenment, and which primarily concerns itself with the inner lives and motivations of socialised humans, broaden its scope to add, in Richard Smyth’s phrase, ‘the non-human to the anthropocentric’? 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 ... In conservation, one response to this thinking is the concept of ‘rewilding’, whereby humans withdraw from parts of the planet to allow natural processes to play themselves out without disruption from our desires and narratives. Rewilding, as defined for many of us by George Monbiot in Feral (2013), 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 ...
"Yet ‘rewilding the novel’ means more, or should mean 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. We could draw further parallels with the ecological idea of rewilding by allowing our stories freedom from the constrictions of narrative convention, from the enclaves of genre and ideology. The rewilded novel would absorb and reflect the repressed wildness in our natures; it should remind us that we are tellurian – of this Earth – and that what awaits us on a denatured planet is loneliness and grief, however sublimated by technology and the disorders of our politics. It must not be sentimental: the wild contains violence and horror, but also interdependence and a startling capacity for self-renewal."
- What this 19th-century poet knew about the future-
Reporting for JSTOR Daily (4/5/18) on research by anthropologists Richard Irvine and Mina Gorji, Matthew Wills writes that "the Anthropocene requires a new history to explain how humans transform the planet. The work of poet John Clare is a good place to start ... making no distinction between human and natural history."
To Irvine and Gorji, the radical novelty of the Anthropocene "necessarily calls for a re-visioning of the past. How did we get here? Where did the road to the present start? Is there any turning back? In approaching these questions, they call for merging the humanities with economics and biology and think the poet John Clare (1793-1864) is an excellent precedent ... 'These processes cannot be understood on a purely human level; in understanding humans as geological agents, we need to locate anthropogenic activity not only in social terms but as part of a wider system of relations with a physical and biological environment.'
"They note his intuitive sense of time beyond human lifespans ... and argue that Clare’s 'challenges to our dominant sense of value' ... 'may help us to think beyond anthropocentricism and to re-evaluate assumptions of economic progress.' ... "Clare had a fondness for weeds, which are, after all, just plants that aren’t wanted in a particular place. They appear to lack a use value, but that concept is anthropocentric. Irvine and Gorji value these alternatives to anthropomorphism. They conclude, 'from a non-anthropocentric perspective, looking at our actions with the recognition that we are geological agents, we might be startled to learn that we are the weeds.'"
- Explore the sound of islands that never existed-
Continuing the watery theme to round off this month's selection after my time at art.earth's Liquidscapes symposium, I was drawn to Sarah Laskow's account for Atlas Obscura (27/6/18) of composer Andrew Pekler's latest project. Pekler uses synthetic sounds to make music "that builds real-seeming places. With electronic instruments, he creates the sound of wind, waves, bird calls, and insects." His new online, interactive soundscape called Phantom Islands offers "a tour of islands that mapmakers once believed were real, but do not actually exist." In this map of imagined islands each, has its own fictional soundscape.
"When European ships were traveling the world during the Age of Exploration, the men on board would come back with tales of the islands they’d come across, previously unknown to their societies. Usually these reports would be accurate enough, but sometimes this system went awry. Ship captains would conjure up imaginary islands to please their funders; their senses miscalibrated by months at sea, sailors would report seeing land where none existed ... strange relics of a human attempt to better understand the world, with all the flaws that came along with that project." Pekler says: “These nonexistent places are connected with real stories of human avarice, bravery, piety, cruelty, fallibility, and arrogance”.
Take a tour "bubbling with uncanny sounds ... hopping from one island to another, imagining places that never existed."
- Rewilding London’s Rivers-
Kirsten Downer writes for Caught By The River (23/6/18) about efforts to bring London's 'vanished' rivers back to light and back to life. She starts with her own introduction to the river Quaggy, "one of the most engineered rivers in the UK", which rises just outside London, "wiggles its way through the suburbia of Bromley and Greenwich ... joins the Ravensbourne river in Lewisham and finally flows into the Thames at Deptford ... I was standing outside Aldi, waiting for my partner to finish his beer shopping, when a shock of brilliant aquamarine caught my eye at the edge of the carpark. I walked over, and on the other side of a concrete wall I saw a burbling stream. I realised that I just seen my first kingfisher, in the least glamorous location possible."
Kirsten relates a map which shows how "twenty or so mighty rivers, blue marks on the map, converge on London and the Thames and then suddenly vanish. Except of course, these rivers haven’t vanished. They run beneath our feet as ghost rivers, purdahed by planners who wanted the stench and filth that had been thrown into them to disappear. So culverts and roads were built over them and they became part of London’s sewage system. Post war, as London surged in size, planners constrained and corralled yet more rivers into concrete culverts, aiming to get them away from people as quickly as possible. They saw urban rivers as little more than troublesome drains."
But urban rivers "can’t just be dismissed. As well as harbouring our guilty secrets – plastic, wet wipes and fatbergs – they also have the potential to heal and rescue us from our city claustrophobia, if we just give them a little help ... Climate change, with its pattern of prolonged periods of drought, combined with intense periods of rainfall, can turbo-charge our rivers, unleashing their force in dangerous ways. And a natural river with a floodplain, vegetation and water meadows can cope with a sudden increase in water better than a concrete channel ... In some karmic way, the climate change we have created has forced us to finally respect the power of our rivers."
- Write fiction to discover something new in your research-
A great insight from marsupial biologist Amanda Niehaus, who writes in Nature (9/5/18) about her research into northern quolls (Dasyurus hallucatus): "For me, compressing science into academic journals simply isn’t enough. I’m frustrated by the need to reduce my ideas and experiments to publishable pieces while simultaneously ensuring that they are broadly relevant. I believe that the most exciting things happen at the fringe, the overlap, the moment we look at the same question through a different lens altogether. New ideas happen outside our comfort zone.
"In writing quoll biology into my novel and a short story, I discovered that artists and writers seek truth as much as scientists do. They embed facts with experiences to give them context and meaning. And stories deal not only with what is true, but also with what is possible. Through fiction, I may discover something about sex and death that my research did not tell me. Where to start? Take a workshop in creative writing, curate an online gallery of inspiring images or invite writers to your next symposium. Stories are there in every book, movie and conversation — so notice them, and harness their energy to share your work."
- The password-
More excellent water-writing in this beautifully written and illustrated essay, this time from Elizabeth Rush at Terrain (7/6/18), where she recalls her exploration of the wetlands of Rhode Island, which is also an exploration of language and the value of naming. "A month or two before I witnessed my first dead tupelo, and right before I packed up my apartment in Brooklyn and moved north, I found a scrap of language in an essay on Alzheimer’s and stuck it to my computer monitor, thinking it might serve some future purpose. It read, 'Sometimes a key arrives before the lock.' Which I understood as a reminder to pay attention to my surroundings. That hidden in plain sight I might discover the key I do not yet know I need, but that will help me cross an important threshold somewhere down the line. When I see that stand of tupelos I instinctually lodge their name in my mind, storing it for a future I do not yet understand ...I’ll be the first to admit that before I started coming to Jacob’s Point I couldn’t tell the difference between black tupelo and black locust, between needlerush and cordgrass. I would learn their names only after I realized the ways in which their letters on my lips might point toward (or away from) incredible loss. Then I became fascinated. Because unlike Descartes, I believe that language can lessen the distance between humans and the world of which we are a part; I believe that it can foster interspecies intimacy and, as a result, care. If, as Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests in her essay on the power of identifying all living beings with personal pronouns, 'naming is the beginning of justice,' then saying tupelo takes me one step closer to recognizing these trees as kin and endowing their flesh with the same inalienable rights we humans hold."
Her essay -- an extract from her new book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore -- charts the threat to coastal wetlands as accelerating sea level rise shifts the processes that shape them. "I have written about communities affected by sea level rise. But my life has seemed so removed, so buffered from those events. At Jacob’s Point I am finally glimpsing the hem of the specter’s dressing gown. The tupelos, the dead tupelos that line the edge of this disappearing marshland, are my Delphi, my portal, my proof, the stone I pick up and drop in my pocket to remember. I see them and know that the erosion of species, of land, and, if we are not careful, of the very words we use to name the plants and animals that are disappearing is not a political lever or a fever dream. I see them and remember that those who live on the margins of our society are the most vulnerable, and that the story of species vanishing is repeating itself in nearly every borderland."
- Slow flow: a layered mapping-
One of the (many) highlights of my three days at the recent Liquidscapes conference in Dartington was the workshop offered by Iain Biggs and Luci Gorell Barnes: 'Slow flow: a layered mapping.' In the introductory talk -- which he has posted in full at Iain Biggs educator / artist / researcher (23/6/18) -- Iain says "Herman Hesse writes in Siddhartha that: 'the river taught him how to listen – how to listen with a quiet heart and a waiting soul …'. He’s right, listening to flowing water can remind us to listen to the world. Listen, perhaps, to a poet, a political geographer and a Greek philosopher – who tell us that: 'where we live in the world is never one place …', that '… space' is 'a simultaneity of stories-so-far', and that 'everything changes and nothing stands still'. What these three say can be unsettling, of course. It’s easier to lose oneself in the hypnotic flow, the running, restless energy of water that chimes with our assumptions about needing to ‘keep busy’, ‘move on’, ‘go somewhere’, all the assumptions that drive our increasingly frantic lives..." And Iain questions the tendency to focus on faster-flowing bodies of water -- or rather, he expands our awareness to take in bogs and mires and other slower flows.
"I think it’s connected to their being sedentary places, to the specific reveries they encourage. Reveries fed by quiet, slow, downward-oriented processes that, in blanket bog, result in the patient accumulation of layer upon layer of peat that’s central to carbon capture. This slow layering is a flow of a kind, but one that takes place in slow motion, gradually preserving a unique and irreplaceable archive of plant and animal remains. It archives time as a deposit, allowing us to trace the changing historical patterns of vegetation, climate, and land use. Walking in bogs, mires and mosses also invites patient attention to small-scale, undramatic, shifts of scale and emphasis, prompts us to notice what might otherwise be overlooked. For the most part, these are worlds of small, gradual, unspectacular happenings and low-key changes that echo the regular, often overlooked, sedimentations of our daily life; the mundane, taken-for-granted silt in which more dramatic events are embedded like bog oak in peat."
And so indeed, our mapping workshop encouraged us to attend to "the ‘muted and marginal’ within ourselves. ... Our maps will value what is subtle and slight, because the experiences we have are often not stories as such, but more like little floating particles, memory fragments of people, events and places, lodged in our memories like photographic slides. We will pay particular attention to our relationship with water in these landscapes, be they streams, ponds, bogs, oceans or puddles, and we will use water imagery to focus on the ‘slow flow’ of sedimentationin our lives, and how and what ‘deposits’ we have laid down over time."
- 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 (22/5/18) 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.
This is the ClimateCultures selection of Views from Elsewhere 2018 so far. For our Views from Elsewhere for 2017 see here.