This is the ClimateCultures monthly selection of Views from Elsewhere so far for 2019. Each month, I add new stories as I discover and read them. This year’s stories come from American Geophysical Union, The Conversation, Ecosophia, Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism, Inside Out, JSTOR Daily, The Los Angeles Times, Nautilus, ScienceDaily, Vox.
In 2018, ClimateCultures featured more than 80 stories from over 50 sources throughout the year; you can find them here. For our selection for 2017 (around 100 stories from over 35 sources) see here.
NB: These posts appear in the order I discover and read them (most recent at the top for each month), rather than the original publication date.
- Thank you, climate strikers. Your action matters and your power will be felt-
In an opinion piece for the Guardian (15/3/19), Rebecca Solnit writes to "all the climate strikers today: thank you so much for being unreasonable. That is, if reasonable means playing by the rules, and the rules are presumed to be guidelines for what is and is not possible, then you may be told that what you are asking for is impossible or unreasonable. Don’t listen. Don’t stop."
Solnit reminds younger generations that "The world I was born into no longer exists. The role of women has changed extraordinarily since then, largely for the better. The entire Soviet empire collapsed suddenly 30 years ago ... I saw apartheid fall in South Africa, and a prisoner doing life become its president ... I saw wind and solar power go from awkward, ineffectual, expensive technologies only 20 years ago to become the means through which we can leave the age of fossil fuel behind. I have seen a language to recognize the Earth’s environmental systems arise in my lifetime, a language that can describe how everything is connected, and everything has consequences. Through studying what science teaches us about nature and what history teaches us about social forces I have come to see how beautiful and how powerful are the threads that connect us."
Acknowledging the unexpected power of school children such as Sweden's Greta Thunberg to change the popular landscape of possibility on climate change and mass extinction, Solnit says that "The rules are the rules of the obvious, the easy assumptions that we know who holds power, we know how change happens, we know what is possible. But the real lesson of history is that change often comes in unpredictable ways, power can suddenly be in the hands of those who appear out of what seems to the rest of us like nowhere. I did not see Thunberg coming..."
- How imagination will save our cities-
Writing in Nautilus (7/3/19) Paul Dobraszczyk draws on visual artists' depictions of far future cities to distinguish the power of our own imagination from that of technical projections in helping us understand what adapting to climate change might entail. Part of the problem in using scientific data about possible futures to engage present-day decisions is that, "grounded in empirical evidence, they are nevertheless essentially predictive, laying out a whole host of possible futures that rely on our ability to imagine those futures, even with the help of a welter of facts and figures." What is required in the first place is the imagination. "The overwhelmingly future-oriented language of climate change is perhaps the principal reason why it has been and continues to be so difficult to find common agreement as to how to act in the face of such fundamental uncertainty."
"In both literary and visual depictions of submerged urban futures, the intention is clearly to engage our imaginations in thinking through a radically different kind of future urban life." And, after surveying a range of imagined futures from the past and present, Dobraszczyk lands on one recent painting - Alexis Rockman's ironically titled Manifest Destiny - to illustrate how imagination can bridge the gap between possible futures and current realities.
"Even though the painting transports the viewer to a barely conceivable 3,000 years into the future, it nevertheless spells out clearly the connections between our own time and this long jump forward. The painting breaks down the entrenched humanist distinction between natural and human history -- in Manifest Destiny, both the future of the city and of nature are thoroughly intertwined. As such, the painting clearly flags up the need to think through those connections today and to recognize that they are already putting us on the road to the future envisaged in the painting. However, as its ironic title suggests, such a future is not inevitable; rather, Manifest Destiny invites us to consider how our own small actions are interwoven with the world and how they might be changed to co-create a more sustainable future."
- Our five biggest delusions about climate change-
In his op-ed in the Los Angeles Times (27/2/19) David Wallace-Wells briefly lists the five things he thinks we commonly misunderstand about climate change. These include: that somehow it's binary and either will or won't happen, depending on the actions we take now; that it happens slowly, and is mostly a legacy of the Industrial Revolution; that it's mostly about sea level rise and so of greatest concern to those living on coasts; and that two degrees of global warming is the worst case scenario, which we can and must avoid. But the fifth delusion, he suggests is the "misapprehension ... that science is even capable of containing and describing the sum total of the assaults. In fact, the indirect effects may be even more profound: on our psychology, our culture, our sense of place in nature and history, our relationship to technology and to capitalism. Not to mention our geopolitics."
As for the first four delusions, he asserts that: far from being on or off, "climate change is a function that will get worse over time as long as we continue to emit greenhouse gas"; climate change is fast and mostly recent, with "according to my research, more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels ... in the last 30 years"; far from being a coastal threat, "if warming continues unabated, by the end of even this century, no life will remain untouched"; and limiting the global rise to 2oC "is a best-case scenario that, at this point, will be almost impossible to achieve."
These may be Wallace-Wells' own judgement calls, but what seems a safe bet is his suggestion that "We have already exited the environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve in the first place, in an unplanned bet on just what we can endure." And, returning to his fifth delusion, there is the open question: "We have reshaped the world’s climate ... How will climate change reshape us?"
- Here’s how Britain’s changing weather is affecting wildlife-
Writing in The Conversation (27/2/19), Phillip James points out the stark contrast between the unseasonable weather Britain is experiencing this February and the same time last year. Then, the 'Beast from the East' brought a minimum temperature of -11.7°C in Hampshire, and a maximum of only -4.8°C in Cumbria; now temperatures have reached 21.2˚C in south-west London: "the warmest winter day since records began. In February 2019, bumblebee queens were out looking for nest sites, adult butterflies were emerging from their winter hibernation and blossom appeared on some trees and shrubs."
He describes how the science of phenology is uncovering the shifting responses of plants, insects, birds and animals to our changing seasons - and how species that depend on each other can go out of synch. For example, "As the days get longer and warmer in the northern hemisphere, bird species such as the barn swallow follow these natural cues to depart for British habitats, where they nest and rear their young. These insectivorous migratory birds time their breeding season to coincide with insects being present in sufficient numbers to feed their young ... An early spring means that insects could emerge and breed before migratory birds arrive. Once in the UK, the birds may find there are fewer insects to eat and this results in fewer chicks fledging, which leaves their predators, including the sparrowhawk and the stoat, with less to eat. The disconnect between the arrival of insectivorous birds and the abundance of insects ripples through the ecosystem, affecting other animals and plants that at first sight may not seem linked to this seemingly benign change."
"Many people have worried about the unseasonable warmth and spring-like conditions of February 2019. As unseasonably mild weather brings about changes in plant growth that could accelerate climate change and widen the disconnect between elements of ecosystems, this unusual week may leave an even more worrying legacy."
- Wild carnivores stage a comeback in Britain-
ScienceDaily (25/2/19) reports research by Katherine Sainsbury and others showing how "the status of Britain's native mammalian carnivores (badger, fox, otter, pine marten, polecat, stoat and weasel) has 'markedly improved' since the 1960s," and that "the species have largely 'done it for themselves' - recovering once harmful human activities had been stopped or reduced." It was human activity that caused sharp declines: "Hunting, trapping, control by gamekeepers, use of toxic chemicals and destruction of habitats contributed to the decline of most predatory mammals in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, but as Dr Sainsbury says, "unlike most carnivores across the world, which are declining rapidly, British carnivores declined to their low points decades ago and are now bouncing back."
The exception to this good news is the wildcat, now restricted to small numbers in isolated parts of the Scottish Highlands. "Some estimates suggest there are as few as 200 individuals left. Their decline has largely been caused by inter-breeding with domestic cats, leading to loss of wildcat genes." And, as the report states "the status of stoats and weasels remains obscure."
- A conversation with nature-
In another thoughtful and thought-provoking blog at Ecosophia (20/2/19), John Micahel Greer picks up on an interesting case of a so-called invasive species asserting the power of nature to counteract humans' own invasive acts. About 30 years ago, a Russian freighter emptying its bilge tanks into the Great Lakes also released zebra mussels into those highly polluted water. Lake Erie had long been declared biologically dead. "What had once been a beautiful lake full of fish had become a gigantic open sewer, and very little even tried to live there when the zebra mussels arrived, but this didn’t stop the mussels. Within a fairly short time they had colonized the formerly dead lake en masse ... What’s more, as they did what zebra mussels do, the lake began to recover. As filter feeders, zebra mussels strain organic material out of the water, eating what they can and packing the rest into biologically inert 'pseudofeces' which drop to the bottom and are entombed in the sediment. As they fed, the lake water slowly became clear again, letting light down to the lower levels of the water column and permitting other species to return."
For Greer, things get interesting where modern industrial civilisation fails to learn from this natural 'invasion'. "The human reaction was all-out panic, followed by frantic attempts to exterminate the zebra mussels, or at least stop them from getting to other badly polluted lakes, of which there are of course no shortage in that region. To be fair, the mussels have certain habits humans find understandably annoying. They like to fasten onto the outflow pipes for industrial waste, sewage, and heated water from nuclear power plants, blocking the pipes solid and forcing factories and utilities to spend huge amounts every year to bore the pipes open again so they can keep on polluting. (Don’t try to tell me that Mother Nature doesn’t have a wicked sense of humor.) ... If you want to keep on doing business as usual when zebra mussels are present, in other words, it’s going to cost you."
It's an example of humans failing to understand that we're in conversation with the rest of the natural world. "We said 'pollution,' [Mother Nature] quipped 'zebra mussels;' we said 'internal combustion engines', and she smiled and said 'coastal flooding.' We can listen to her responses and learn from them — or not, and find out the hard way what else she has to say."
- How can scholarly work be meaningful in an era of lost causes?-
In a lengthy but highly readable and well-developed essay for Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism (13/2/19), Kelly Sultzbach writes about her work in and out of the classroom with students whose growing awareness of environmental crisis leads them to ask "what they could do and ... what we as a class would do. How do we begin to frame our response? ... In the humanities, I have been better equipped to craft a syllabus of readings that provoke interlacing questions and multiple interpretations than to articulate solutions or a list of action steps ... The humanities have trained us to enable students to see the impact of invisible power dynamics of privilege, to process feelings that are part of the human condition, and to adopt multiple perspectives that germinate a creative imagination."
As she discovers with her students, "it is easy to feel overwhelmed and alone facing the questions of the Anthropocene age, when in fact, there is a deep history of hope-as-work and a wealth of inter-generational mentors." And in addressing this tension between overwhelm and practical hope, her account of the value of environmental humanities shows how, "just as important as a broad sense of ‘environmental texts’ is a generous conception of environmental ways of reading – ferreting out rhetorical revealings and concealings, unexpected psychological shifts, markers of economic ‘health’ – that must be brought to bear on a range of genres: literary, scientific, and social." Such reading can increase our appreciation of uncertainty and the multiple perspectives it generates in any choice about the future. "Those ambiguities can’t be too hastily turned into answers; that back-and-forth of people finding different ways of responding to shared problems is part of the tensile swaying strength of a surviving river or a tree that will outlast a storm."
In this fascinating piece for Inside Out (14/2/19), Caspar Henderson writes of the enduring fascination with labyrinths across human cultures around the world and from ancient times to modern times. He quotes neuropsychologist Paul Broks: "the universal fascination with the image of the labyrinth suggests some fundamental psychological significance, that perhaps it holds the power to captivate and transform the mind in some way. It’s been suggested, for example, that threading the spirals of a labyrinth works to loosen the grip of rational, analytical, ‘left-brain’ styles of thinking, thereby opening the mind to more intuitive, spiritual, ‘right-brain’ modes of experience and the imaginal reality of ghosts and gods." And Henderson draws on this possibility and the ambiguity of popular representations of labyrinths to suggest this ability to loosen the group of habitual ways of seeing the world might be essential resources for getting to grips - mental, social, political - with wicked problems (or, better in my view, predicaments) such as the crises of climate change and the Sixth Mass Extinction.
"How to think and feel?" he asks. "What to do? ... The environmental crisis is a wicked problem, and most of us are implicated in it by the basic privileges our societies have afforded us ... But it is not impossible that the appetite and ingenuity that have delivered so much well-being by means that are ultimately destructive can be turned to good ends. And this brings me back to the labyrinth ... To make a more beautiful human labyrinth in a larger non-human world we will need (among other things) to think about re-integration ... of human and natural richness."
- When Europeans feared the wind-
In an interesting echo of ClimateCultures Member Nick Hunt's series of posts from his book, Where the Wild Winds Are, Livia Gershon writes at JSTOR Daily (2/1/19) about early modern Europeans' beliefs on illnesses that they attributed to the winds they encountered on their travels. Reporting on the research of Vladimir Jankovic, she describes how "As Europeans travelled within and beyond the continent during the early modern period, they found strange and deadly winds. French scholar Chardin described victims of the African samiel wind, which was said to separate victims’ limbs from their bodies. Another killing wind, khamsin, left bodies warm, swollen, and blue. On the other hand, the dry African wind called harmattan parched the skin but cured fevers, smallpox, and diarrhea. The sirocco wind, which blew through Gibraltar and Naples, had a depressing effect. It also stopped digestion and killed over-eaters."
"In the mid-nineteenth century, Jankovic writes, medical scholars began trying to define the medical properties of the winds in measurable, scientific terms. Perhaps, some thought, atmospheric electricity related to the wind’s ozone content might throw off some bodily functions. Others proposed that the real role of a wind might be simply bringing in different kinds of weather. A south wind often ushered in heat and humidity, which could promote epidemics. Northeasterlies were known for their chill, bringing croup, sore throats, and swollen glands."
- The world we’ll leave our grandchildren: theatre as a means of stimulating the public discussion of climate change-
Chris Rapley, Professor of Climate Science at UCL, has written on the American Geophysical Union blogosphere (28/1/19) about his experience using theatre to build audiences' confidence in discussing climate change. "I knew from focus group studies carried out during the design of the £4.5m climate science gallery ‘atmosphere’ at the London Science Museum (where I was Director and gallery Head of Content) that even members of the ‘Alarmed’ and ‘Concerned’ segments of society are generally hazy about the climate change narrative. As a result, they tend to be reluctant to discuss the topic. This is especially so if a ‘dismisser’ is present."
He wrote and performed in '2071', a play commissioned by the Royal Court theatre in London and the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg. Writing this as a 'fireside chat' and presenting it as an 'expert citizen' rather than academic "allowed me to weave in anecdotes, express emotions, and to frame climate change in terms of its social, ethical, economic and political implications, in addition to the science, and the technological advances that offer hope ... Unexpectedly, some members of the ‘Cautious’ and ‘Doubtful’ segments who attended were apparently persuaded to change their positions."
Many thanks to ClimateCultures Member Lucy Davies, Executive Producer at London's Royal Court, for alerting me to Chris Rapley's post. You can read Lucy's ClimateCultures post about the recent Artists' Climate Lab she helped create here.
- The case for 'conditional optimism' on climate change-
Writing for Vox (31/12/18), David Roberts questions the question he's often asked about climate change: "Is there hope?" It's the wrong question, he says. "When people ask about hope, I don’t think they are after an objective assessment of the odds. Hope is not a prediction that things will go well. It’s not a forecast or an expectation. But then, what is it exactly?" he suggests that what people are looking for in 'hope' is more like 'fellowship': not being alone in facing up to the daunting odds that climate change is going to go (even more) terribly wrong.
Roberts thinks that 'hope' is a malformed question. Climate change is already a reality and it will get worse whatever we do. The emissions we've already released are working their way through the atmosphere-ocean-ice-land-life systems. We're committed. "In a sense," he says, "we’re already screwed, at least to some extent ... But we have some choice in how screwed we are, and that choice will remain open to us no matter how hot it gets. Even if temperature rise exceeds two degrees, the basic structure of the challenge will remain the same ... Two degrees will be bad, but three would be worse, four worse than that, and five worse still."
Roberts sets out the case for pessimism and optimism on us not exceeding 2 degrees (this century) and settles for a mix of the two. And, in the end, he seems to row back on his dismissal of hope because rapid change is possible. In both technology and in politics, "there are 'tipping points' after which change accelerates, rendering the once implausible inevitable ... Relying on them can seem like hoping for miracles. But our history is replete with miraculously rapid changes. They have happened; they can happen again. And the more we envision them, and work toward them, the more likely they become. What other choice is there?"
- The environmental impact of music: digital, records, CDs analysed-
We begin the new year of our Views from Elsewhere feature with this piece at The Conversation (10/1/19). Sharon George and Deirdre McKay consider the carbon and materials pros and cons of the different ways we now listen to our music, given that physical media such as vinyl records are experiencing a revival. Downloading and streaming music electronically remain the most popular media. And you might think they give better environmental performance because of their nonmaterial nature and the lack of transport and disposal they require.
"Modern records typically contain around 135g of PVC material with a carbon footprint of 0.5kg of CO₂ ... Sales of 4.1m records would produce 1.9 thousand tonnes of CO₂ – not taking transport and packaging into account. That is the entire footprint of almost 400 people per year." And, like CDs, vinyl records can't be recycled. Against that, however, "if we listen to our streamed music using a hifi sound system it’s estimated to use 107 kilowatt hours of electricity a year, costing about £15.00 to run. A CD player uses 34.7 kilowatt hours a year and costs £5 to run." Downloading music and storing it locally to play, of course, has a lower energy requirement each time you play it. So the answer to the question of which option is the greener "depends on many things, including how many times you listen to your music."
[If you want to find out something interesting about the history of vinyl recording and playback, and the key role of one woman inventor played in how we came to enjoy high quality music in our homes, check out another site from ClimateCultures creator Mark Goldthorpe: Marie Louise Killick.]