exploring cultural responses to environmental change
Views from Elsewhere 2019
This is the ClimateCultures monthly selection of Views from Elsewhere for 2019. Each month, editor Mark Goldthorpe adds new stories he’s discovered (most recent reads at the top for each month, rather than in order of original publication). This year’s stories come from Aeon, The American Geophysical Union, Anthropocene Magazine, Atlas Obscura, BBC News, CityLab, The Conversation, Dezeen, Ecosophia, Edge Effects, Emergence Magazine, Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism, The Guardian, Guernica, The Infinite Game, Inside Out, JSTOR Daily, The Los Angeles Times, Minding Nature, Nautilus, The New Republic, The New Statesman, The Outline, Public Books, Quanta Magazine, ScienceDaily, Vox.
In 2018, ClimateCultures featured more than 80 stories from over 50 sources; you can find them here. For our 2017 selection — around 100 stories from over 35 sources — see here.
For The New Republic (16/11/19) Kate Aronoff investigates the relationship between mineral exploitation and political crisis in South America and environmental policy in northern states. "Over half of the world’s lithium reserves are held in ... the Andes’ otherworldly, high-altitude salt flats formed from lakes of lithium-rich brine. Mining companies remove that and transport it to massive evaporation ponds to sit in the sun for months or even years. As the water evaporates it leaves behind magnesium, calcium, sodium, potassium and — the main prize — lithium, a white powder sometimes called 'white gold.'" The process uses massive amounts of water in some of the driest places on earth, disrupts ecosystems and indigenous communities, and sees profits accumulate elsewhere.
But, as Aronoff points out, "demand for lithium is set to explode. Building a green energy grid, expanding renewables and electrifying everything from cars to cooktops requires more lithium and other so-called technology metals that are central to clean energy." A world run fully on renewables by 2050 would demand 85 percent of the planet’s total lithium resources.
This bind reveals the tension between "the kind of cheery techno-optimism" that sugests "we have the money and technology to mostly maintain business as usual by simply replacing the energy source that powers it [while] the supply chains and extraction that make them possible are kept out of sight." And it reminds us that a country's "climate policy is also its foreign policy."
Sarah DeWeerdt at Anthropocene Magazine (10/12/19) summarises new research which argues that, just as climate modelling often understates the speed of climate change and its tipping points, future emissions modelling underestimates the speed with which society decarbonises its energy production. "That suggests there’s more hope for holding climate change in check than we think," she says.
While models of future carbon emissions often use data on trends between about 1970 and 2010, this research suggests that "an inflection point occurred around 2010. Since then, the energy and carbon intensity of the global economy ... has been falling, and at an accelerating rate." Missing that change in this past decade means that, while the older data "suggest that holding climate change to 2 °C, let alone 1.5 °C, is almost an impossibility at this point ... focusing on this decade’s data suggests that 'Neither complacency nor despair is warranted,' and there’s still a real chance to achieve the 1.5 °C benchmark."
And the much-needed headroom comes not just from recent progress in decarbonisation, the research suggests, but also from a realisation that not all greenhouse gases are equal. While "analyses have treated short-lived causes of warming like methane the same as long-lived ones like carbon dioxide ... there’s an opportunity to massively decrease methane emissions now in order to buy time to reduce carbon emissions in the coming decades. 'Changing how we think and talk about the dynamics of methane in the atmosphere would be akin to discovering a small but useful emergency handbrake on our runaway carbon train: its prompt use alone can’t stop the speeding train, but can markedly slow it down,'" the researchers write.
Arguing at The Conversation (28/11/19) that, with public realisation of the reality of climate change growing, "at such a crossroads, it is important to be able to identify the different types of denial," Mark Maslin shares a helpful taxonomy to "help you spot the different ways that are being used to convince you to delay action on climate change."
Between them, science denial, economic denial, humanitarian denial, political denial and crisis denial seek to persuade us that: "climate change is just part of the natural cycle. Or that climate models are unreliable and too sensitive to carbon dioxide"; "climate change is too expensive to fix"; "climate change is good for us ... longer, warmer summers in the temperate zone will make farming more productive"; "we cannot take action because other countries are not taking action"; "climate change is not as bad as scientists make out. We will be much richer in the future and better able to fix climate change."
As Maslin points out - refuting each of these false claims - "similarly hollow arguments were used in the past to delay ending slavery, granting the vote to women, ending colonial rule, ending segregation, decriminalising homosexuality, bolstering worker’s rights and environmental regulations, allowing same-sex marriages and banning smoking. The fundamental question is why are we allowing the people with the most privilege and power to convince us to delay saving our planet from climate change?"
Writing for CityLab (18/11/19) Sophie Knight reports that "the Netherlands is one of the brightest countries in Europe. Thanks to a high population density and a landscape saturated with highways, industry, and illuminated greenhouses, the country that produced Van Gogh’s Starry Night is now covered in a thick layer of light pollution. Even on the clearest nights, only 10 percent of the stars visible from Earth can be seen from Dutch cities." More widely, the Milky Way is invisible to nearly 80 percent of Americans and 60 percent of Europeans. And satellite data shows how the world’s skies are getting brighter still.
Periods of darkness are essential for growth and repair cycles in plants and animals - including ourselves. So it's significant that the Netherlands holds an annual Nacht van de Nacht (Night of the Night), which culminates in an annual event where local governments and companies turn off lights and "people gather in towns and woods to savour the absence of artificial light".
Last year, design studio Monnik created a "theatrical workshop designed to give earthlings a version of the 'overview effect,' a cognitive shift that astronauts experience as they look at Earth from space. This is characterized by deep feelings of awe, a realization that everything is connected, and a sense of renewed responsibility. 'The closest thing to the overview effect on Earth is to see the stars,' says Edwin Gardner, co-founder of Monnik."
Isaac Schultz at Atlas Obscura (21/11/19) reports on a real-life test of the New York subway system's new flood protection scheme. On the day, commuters in Brooklyn "noticed something strange — a subway station flooded above street level, a sight that hadn’t been appeared since 2012, when Superstorm Sandy inundated nearly a dozen tunnels and many stations around the city." This time the intentional 'flood' water "was being held back by a woven kevlar flex gate ... In flooding events, these rolls of kevlar will be able to be unfurled from hidden receptacles attached to the signs that mark subway entrances. They can be pulled over the stairwell and attached to the highest step, to create a seal to prevent the worst from happening." As the Metropolitan Transit Authority's Twitter account explained, “We’re doing this because climate change is real.”
But, as Schultz points out, "water is a slippery foe." He quotes Thaddeus Pawlowski, of Columbia University’s Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes: "'These gates do not address the increasing stress of groundwater penetration into the subway, which is also likely to increase with climate change ... Many of the streams that once flowed through the city are buried underground and find their way into the subway.”
Thomas Lowe Fleischner writes about the need to understand natural history as a practice of attentiveness - "a doing; a verb, not a noun" - for Minding Nature (Fall 2019). "This kind of expansive, interspecific affinity is deep in our bones, encoded in our genes ... But we live in a historical anomaly — human acknowledgement of the rest of the living world has never been so rare as today ... our lack of kinship is so thorough it often goes unnoticed."
One part of the disconnect is language. Words can open up possibilities as well as can constrain experience, but often our language "is structured to deny kinship with Others." Fleischner quotes Native American ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer: “'...in English, a being is either a human or a thing.' She goes on to assert that we need a new pronoun — one that denotes respect and animacy rather than objecthood. Drawing upon her native Anishinaabe language, she suggests ki as a respectful pronoun for an animate being of the Earth. And the plural of ki already exists in English: kin. Thus, what might seem at first to be a linguistic contrivance, turns out to lubricate the psychic gears of our turning toward kinship. As Kimmerer states, 'The language of animacy, of kinship, can be medicine for a broken relationship.'”
In this Aeon (11/11/19) essay, Dagomar Degroot looks to past examples of how societies responded to abruptly changing climate conditions and finds "hotbeds not only of vulnerability to climate change, but also of resilience and adaptation." History can reveal useful 'parables'. "It suggests, for example, that relatively small environmental shocks can provoke outsized human responses, especially in times when economic or political systems are strained to the breaking point. Yet it also reveals that climate change does not simply determine human outcomes, as some have assumed."
While history cannot reveal the future and therefore how we will cope with the unprecedented changes that are already being experienced, he suggests that looking to these parables can help us avoid the debilitating paralysis that either fear or complacency risk. "Our tendency in both popular media and academia to tell simplistic climate-change disaster stories has not served us well, either in understanding the past or in preparing for the future. Popular misconceptions that humanity is doomed ... threaten to discourage the very action that could still limit anthropogenic climate change to manageable levels. Far less defensible assumptions that climate change has happened before and is therefore nothing to worry about – ahistorical nonsense often fronted by those who once denied the very existence of human-caused warming – pose even greater obstacles to urgent action. It is crucial that we expand the space between these harmful extremes. Writing more nuanced histories of past climate change is one way to do it."
Brandon Keim at Anthropocene Magazine (13/11/19) writes about a recent study of how the state of urban pigeon's feet reveals the hostile environment our cities can present for wildlife. "Scientists have previously found that pigeon feathers are a convenient biomarker of urban heavy metal pollution", but this study of pigeon health at 46 sites around Paris has found a correlation between pigeon's foot deformities - "Eagle-eyed urbanites will have noticed that these are prone to strange lumps and missing digits" - and local air and noise pollution.
The researchers don’t think it's the pollution itself that causes this particular harm, but pollution acts as a useful proxy for human activity and population density. The problem seems to be "what’s known as 'stringfeet,' produced when a string or hair wraps around a pigeon’s digits, cutting off circulation until the tissue dies and falls off." It's suggested that higher human population densities "result in pigeons encountering more hair and string. Conversely, where locales had more parks and natural areas, rates of foot deformities decreased ... When pigeon feet are deformed, it’s a sign that the neighbourhood needs less trash and more greenery."
At Anthropocene Magazine (23/10/19), Brandon Keim shares recent research on the importance of wilderness areas across the planet that's "underscored by new findings that put a number on the relationship between wilderness and biodiversity. According to researchers ... preserving Earth’s remaining wilderness areas will reduce extinction risks for terrestrial species by more than half." Keim recognises that 'wilderness' has become a troubled concept, "Yet for all its philosophical troubles, wilderness — big, contiguous places with minimal Homo sapiens footprints — is still enormously important."
The researchers mapped plants and invertebrates around the world, as surrogates of wider biodiversity, to "build a fine-grained, global-scale model of where species are likely to persist or go extinct." They found that "the average likelihood of a species going extinct outside wilderness areas is roughly 5.6 percent. Inside a wilderness, that figure drops to around 2.1 percent. 'The buffering effect that wilderness has on extinction risk was found in every bio-geographical realm,' wrote the researchers; and the larger a given wilderness, the greater the effect." Keim adds that they highlight how "'These areas urgently require targeted protection,'", and that "it should happen at the same time as nature-loving people attend to nourishing and restoring non-wilderness places."
Amy Brady at Guernica (15/10/19) shares a recent discussion she chaired on the power of narrative in addressing climate change, with four storytellers in different fields - policy, fiction, art and journalism. Policy advocate Robert Moore suggests that "writers and artists fill in a lot of cognitive gaps for people. I read a study a couple of years ago about how people perceive their future selves as almost complete strangers. But when they read fictional stories set in the future, they have a stronger empathetic connection to the characters than they do to their own future selves. So, in essence, I think art and fiction writing can help draw people into a future that they otherwise have a hard time picturing," while novelist Pitchaya Sudbanthad cautions that it's important to bring into a narrative those that are often excluded: "language frames the way that climate change is talked about, and in the past, climate issues have been presented at a privileged distance. That distance is collapsing, and there’s more acknowledgement that climate change results from a voracious over-feeding of empire."
Brady asks the panel whether, since 'narrative' implies a structure with a beginning, a middle, and an end "and it’s that end part that seems to generate the most controversy. Are we going to end up in a hopeful place? Or are we going to end up in a despairing, end-of-times kind of place? ... How are hope and despair used in your own narratives?" Responding, Sudbanthad sees the appeal of futuristic climate dystopias "because you can milk so much drama out of that ... But from my own experiences with flooding and Hurricane Sandy, I can say that in the aftermath of disaster, humans want to establish some normalcy. Even in the worst situations, people want to be able to walk their pets and read stories to their kids. We want basic things that offer a semblance of love, of life as we know it. And I think that we will continue to strive for those things no matter what happens. I don’t if that is exactly hope, but it’s related."
Artist Eve Mosher, however, worries about the word 'hope' as well as the use of fear when there's no clear path forward. "I don’t love the word 'hope.' It is a word that allows you to feel disembodied, as in, 'Oh, I’m going to hope that someone else fixes this.' We are the ones we’ve been waiting for! We have to get out and do the work. I prefer the word 'courage' instead, because it suggests we take our fear and do something about it. I don’t want everybody to leave this room tonight and be like, 'That was great,' and then go back to normal. I want everyone to leave this room and be like, 'Oh shit, they’re right. I need to go figure out how to get involved. We need to get out into the streets. Let’s make this happen.'”
Marcus Fairs at Dezeen (15/10/19) writes that "designers' efforts to reduce the environmental impact of their products are being hampered by confusion over terminology and rampant greenwashing." Using examples of products and stories from the media to pick apart terms such as 'sustainable', 'biodegradable', 'compostable' and 'circular' - increasingly common in promotional materials but mostly not meaning what consumers understand them to - Fairs finds that "Greenwashing is back. As concern about climate change, pollution, habitat destruction and species extinction rises, so too are spurious claims about saving the planet."
"The growing misuse of language is unhelpful to members of the public who want to make informed purchasing choices. It is also unhelpful to designers, who are already grappling with 'designers' paradox'. This is the moral hazard central to their profession: how can they most effectively mitigate the damage caused by all the consumable stuff they bring into the world? Especially since all that stuff is the biggest contributor to climate change."
In a short piece for the Inside Out blog (2/10/19), Caspar Henderson picks up on Hanien Conradie's recent ClimateCultures post, Writing on Water, setting her film Dart alongside another recent film on a British river, Upstream.
Quoting Han dynasty poet Zhang Heng - 'I am a wave in the river of darkness and light,' Henderson writes "Two short films made at different ends of the island of Britain allow for meditation on rivers and the human condition. Both are serious, even sombre, and, in different ways, contain glimpses of light as well as dark. Rivers allow us to be in a different relation to time."
Upstream - a "dream-voyage to the source of the River Dee on the Cairngorm plateau," features a prose poem by Robert Macfarlane, which "accompanies the flight into a harsh, alien interior."
Siobhan Leddy writes at The Outline (28/8/19) that "Storytelling is a way of configuring and reconfiguring worlds; narratives can bring realities into being" and looks at the fiction and other writing of the late Ursula Le Guin to illuminate the troubled narratives of human 'progress' against nature and of a 'war' on climate change.
Le Guin wrote of the 'The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction' - and of history - as a way to challenge the received view that human development has been first and foremost a story of unrelenting competition and individualist domination. As Leddy puts it, "We have come to embrace the idea that a succession of one thing defeating another literally is history, whether that’s between species, political leaders, or conflicting ideologies." Le Guin proposed that, instead of the spear, the first human invention was the receptacle, allowing people to gather and carry food they'd need later. And Leddy finds the receptacle to be a better analogy for history itself; "unlike the spear (which follows a linear trajectory towards its target), and unlike the kind of linear way we’ve come to think of time and history in the West, the carrier bag is a big jumbled mess of stuff." It was a lack of clear trajectory that Le Guin used to good effect in her fictional world-building.
"We will not 'beat' climate change, nor is 'nature' our adversary. If the planet could be considered a container for all life, in which everything — plants, animals, humans — are all held together, then to attempt domination becomes a self-defeating act. By letting ourselves 'become part of the killer story,' writes Le Guin, 'we may get finished along with it.' All of which is to say: we have to abandon the old story."
Ed Hawkins writes at The Conversation (18/11/19) about the way data visualisations he has created are being used to engage people with climate change. "Explaining climate science to the public can be tricky" - and his Climate Stripes have helped create a visual shortcut. "As grave a matter as it is, it needs to become a conversation we have everywhere, whether it be over the fence to our neighbours, on television soaps or while dancing at festivals. These simple graphics have helped start those conversations."
'Climate stripes' illustrate the global (or regional) average temperature for every year since 1850, with shades of blue and red representing cooler and warmer years respectively. "These graphics are simple and bright, but they’re based on solid science and carry a serious message. They translate complex data into an easily accessible format that transcends language and needs almost no context to explain it. The climate stripes have already been used on posters, on placards in the youth climate strikes and on banners and t-shirts around the world. Helping science to make this leap from the lab to social media is crucial to changing mindsets."
Writing at Atlas Obscura (18/9/19), Sabrina Imbler reports on recent deep-sea investigations into the state of life - or non-life - on the sea bed of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which released four million barrels of oil into the sea over 87 days: "the largest accidental marine oil spill ever recorded, a seething, black apocalypse across hundreds of square miles in the Gulf of Mexico." At the time, most attention was paid to the impacts of the pollution in the surface waters, but approximately 10 million gallons of it settled on the sea bed, "sprawled across more than 1,200 square miles of seafloor". Imbler quotes Clifton Nunnally of the Louisiana University Marine Consortium: “The deep sea is always out of sight, out of mind. You can burn off and disperse oil on the surface, but we don’t have the technology to get rid of oil on the seafloor.” Studies of the deep-sea impacts ceased after 2014 and "in 2015, BP issued a statement claiming that the Gulf was healing itself and 'returning to pre-spill conditions,' which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called 'inappropriate as well as premature'. ... Unsurprisingly, deep-sea biologists are under no such illusions."
Returning to the seabed at the rig's site in 2017, Nunnally and colleagues found that, while "there were no giant isopods, glass sponges, or whip corals that would have jumped (metaphorically) at the chance to colonize the hard substrate of the rig, such as discarded sections of pipe", there were crabs. "The researchers were shocked by the sheer number of crustaceans and other arthropods that had colonized the spill site ... The crabs also looked anything but normal: some claws shrunken, some swollen, shriveled legs, a dusting of parasites. 'There were deformities, but mostly things were missing,' Nunnally says. 'You come in with eight legs and try to get away on four or five.'
"The researchers hypothesize that degrading hydrocarbons are what’s luring unwitting crabs from the surrounding seafloor to the deep-sea equivalent of a toxic dump. 'The chemical makeup of oil is similar to the oils naturally present on crustaceans,' Nunnally says. 'They’re attracted to the oil site, but everything goes downhill for them once they’re in the area.'”
In another iconoclastic post for his Ecosophia blog (21/8/19), John Michael Greer uses his reading of Plato to give his highly individual take on the myth of a wholly manageable human system, if only the right hands were on the controls.
"The problem can be stated quite simply in the language of modern science. The human brain is a lump of fatty meat about six inches long. It evolved on the African savannahs over a couple of million years for purposes such as finding food, attracting mates, and staying out of the jaws of hungry leopards — none of which are all that intellectually demanding, however important they doubtless seem at the time. It has certain hardwired processes for thinking built into it, which also evolved over that same period in the same environment for the same purposes. Now that we’ve figured out how to describe those processes explicitly, we call them 'logic,' but they’re still the same habits that happened to win out in the struggle for survival because, all things considered, they kept our ancestors alive a little more often than competing habits did.
"That’s the mental equipment we have for making sense of the immensities and intricacies of a cosmos billions of light years across: a lump of flesh the size of a meatloaf, a set of not very accurate sense organs, some habits of data processing that turned out to be useful for staying fed, getting laid, and dodging lions, and a certain amount of recorded experience we can use, if we’re minded to, as a source of guidance. Does that provide the kind of godlike omniscience that experts nearly always end up fantasizing they’ve achieved? Not a chance.
"Thus the ultimate reason why the dream of a managed society always turns sour is that we social primates simply aren’t smart enough to manage the world. Our models, theories, and ideologies are inevitably too simplistic for the overwhelming complexity the world throws at us. Nor, by the way, will it solve the problem to hand the world over to what we quaintly call 'artificial intelligence' — anything designed and built by humans, directly or indirectly, will share the flaws of the human mind."
Drawing on her research into 19th-century belief and debunking of the belief in mesmerism - then a popular 'technique' of entrancement and mind control - Emily Ogden writes in Aeon (12/8/19) about the role of such debunking in our narratives of modernity and progress - and how modernity itself needs a little scepticism. "There is no neutral, universal goal of progress toward which all peoples are progressing; instead, the claim that such a goal ought to be universal has been a means of exploiting and dispossessing supposedly ‘backward’ peoples."
Ogden suggests that while "Secular agency is the picture of selfhood that Western secular cultures have often wanted to think is true," this is "more an aspiration than a reality." The self-serving myth is that "Secular agents know at any given moment what they do and don’t believe. When they think, their thoughts are their own. The only way that other people’s thoughts could become theirs would be through rational persuasion ... they are the owners of their actions and of their speech. When they speak, they are either telling the truth or lying. When they act, they are either sincere or they are faking it. Something like this model of agency not infrequently accompanies the fable of modernity ... The two conceptions make sense together. Modernity, in this picture, is when we take responsibility for ourselves, freeing both society and individuals from comforting lies."
Katie Holten's piece for Emergence Magazine (May 2019) is accompanied by a gallery of her notebook of elegant sketches of lines and veins drawn from rock and stone. In a walk around New York City, she finds that "The air is seething with messages, trees are dripping with secrets, stones store stories." If, as she suggests, "Language is an abbreviation for the world’s readability[,] how can we access languages that are beyond-the-human?"
Recalling that 18th-century French naturalist and mathematician Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, wrote that “the entire face of the Earth today bears the imprint of human power,” Holten highlights for just how long "humans have been aware of the harm we’re causing planetary systems. But we have chosen to ignore it and live as though past and future are irrelevant, as though only the present matters. ... There can be no more talk of inexorable growth. We need to rethink everything." As a way into this rethinking, her notebook records a "nonsensical language, this Stone Alphabet, [which] helps me grapple with the complexity, with reading the landscape — reading the past, present, future — and with thinking beyond the human, thinking like a planet."
Writing for The Conversation (21/8/19), Rupert Read looks to the recent ceremonial mourning of the 700-year-old Okjökull glacier in Iceland - "the first of its major glaciers to die" - to suggest how grieving over ecological destruction can help us face the climate crisis. It's important to acknowledge that denial, as an initial reaction to loss, can be a natural first step towards such grieving. Perhaps this offers a way to understand and respond to others' denial of climate change. "While much climate denial owes itself to corruption and vested interests, the avoidance of grief may explain why many decent and intelligent people are also tempted to deny the climatic breakdown humans are causing ... It isn’t surprising that so many people have been desperately hoping that the science must somehow be wrong, or that so many more act as if we can still hope for the continuation of our same old world..."
A fuller expression of grief "requires sustained strength and attention to gradually turn denial into acceptance and to build a new life. Actions like Iceland’s glacier funeral are a vital part of that process."
For a short but highly meaningful piece for Public Books (2/7/19), Matt Margini reflects on the experience of clearing out his late father's apartment and the memories triggered by a large menagerie of animal effigies to question what we can know, or can imagine, about the lives of other animals. The father's interest in animals led the son to take a first-year course at university; "he was the one who saw the listing for a course named 'Zooësis', and thought I might like it. And I really did." The spark was the JM Coetzee novella the course professor had them read: The Lives of Animals - a "weird, hybrid book".
Margini writes that "I often find myself bummed out by the inadequacy of representation: Specifically, what good are animals in books? Are they not inevitably vessels of human meaning? In Flush, her novel about the inner life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, Virginia Woolf has another way of putting the problem: 'Do words say everything? Can words say anything? Do not words destroy the symbol that lies beyond the reach of words?' To which I would add: Do they not destroy, or at least ignore, the creature beyond the symbol as well?"
But Coetzee's protagonist has another view. "She finds value in poems that try to capture the fluid complexity of a moment of contact across species, rather than try to preserve an imagined essence of the animal in amber. She also defends the human imagination as something more powerful than we give it credit for" - in what Margini calls her embrace of its 'messiness'. For him, and for Coetzee, fiction makes possible what polemic cannot, showing us "the impossibility of speaking from a position outside our embodiment, our emotions, our primordial and instinctual feelings toward kin. In other words, the impossibility of speaking about animals as though we were not animals ourselves."
Henry Taylor writes at The Conversation (16/7/19) that while at the core of biological taxonomy lies the notion of the species - where "the basic idea is very simple: that certain groups of organisms have a special connection to each other. There is something that you and I have in common – we are both human beings. That is, we are members of the same species" - when it comes to deciding what actually makes a species specific, "The truth is, we don’t really have any idea."
Whether it's down to mating pairs that produce fertile offspring constituting a species (whereas inter-species breeding can produce sterile offspring, as with the mules that come from crossing horses with donkeys) or finding the common ancestors of today's species classifications, "there is absolutely no agreement among biologists about how we should understand the species. One 2006 article on the subject listed 26 separate definitions of species, all with their advocates and detractors. Even this list is incomplete."
Taylor broaches the radical suggestion that we might scrap the idea of species as a way of classifying the living world - a prospect that "implies that pretty much all of biology, from Aristotle right up to the modern age, has been thinking about life in completely the wrong way ... It suggests that we should give up thinking about life as neatly segmented into discrete groups. Rather, we should think of life as one immense interconnected web. This shift in thinking would fundamentally reorient our approach to a great many questions concerning our relation to the natural world, from the current biodiversity crisis to conservation."
In a wide-ranging, in-depth conversation with Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee for Emergence Magazine (July) - available as podcast and text - Robert Macfarlane discusses his fascination with language, naming and story-telling as human engagements with the living world, new cultural discoveries such as the 'Wood Wide Web', and our sense of the Anthropocene. Macfarlane distinguishes between 'bad naming and 'good naming'; "And that good naming might be political, it might be the refusal to describe the natural world as 'the environment,' which I don’t do any longer. I find that to be a problematically chilly and alienating term. I tend to use the phrase 'living world' or 'natural world' ...These are small acts of renaming, which have considerable political encodings and consequences. And then, at a kind of gentler level, there are, it seems to me, these wonderful histories and othernesses that are opened into and onto by forms of common naming, shared naming."
He also touches on the idea of rewilding our contemporary language, especially in how we talk about - and therefore imagine, and live within - landscape and place. "So, this idea of re-wilding - by which I mean this rich regeneration of place, of possibility, of hope, a thriving of diversity as opposed to monoculture - this is a cultural as well as an ecological project, it seems to me, and it’s one that celebrates diversity. And that’s why when I tried to gather this word hoard, as I call it - which is phrased from Beowulf, from the early literature, the early poetry of these islands - I didn’t want it to be the word hoard of one language, English, which is itself anyway a mongrel global tongue. I wanted to delve into the many languages and dialects and subdialects and new apprehensions of place that are underway."
Such re-enagagement with - renewal of - language and of cultural responses to the changing natural world, are key responses to the losses we're experiencing and anticipating. "And I think always at this time of a line from Brecht. Brecht says, 'Will there be singing in the dark times? Yes, there will be singing about the dark times.' And I think this great choir, this multi-voiced, poly-vocal, diverse set of songs is being lifted and raised at the moment. Some of them are angry. Some of them are plangent. Some of them are hopeful and future-oriented. Very few of them are sort of leisured and lazy. I think the sense of loss has become hugely animating to the discourse. And it’s animating politics too."
At the Conversation (17/6/19), Alex McGoran highlights the increasing fate of the world's rivers as sites for catastrophic accumulations of plastic wastes - often overlooked in the focus on our notoriously polluted oceans.
Both the beds and the foreshores of tidal rivers such as the Thames are being reshaped by single-use plastics: "Researchers recovered nearly 8,500 items from the Thames riverbed over three months in 2012. After 20 river cleans on the foreshore of the Thames in 2019, nearly 9,000 plastic items were recovered, almost all of which were single-use. ... On the Thames foreshore at Hammersmith in early 2019, 23,000 wipes were collected, averaging 201 wipes per square metre. You may have heard of wet wipes forming 'fatbergs' in sewers, but on the banks of the Thames there are wet wipe reefs that are slowly changing the shape of the river itself."
Along with the microplastics themselves, chemical coatings on the plastics can accumulate in the food webs. And, as Alex's own research reveals, it's not just the familiar single-use items and the minute beads they degrade into that are endangering river and marine ecologies: "Though plastic straws and other single-use items have taken much of the blame, the plastic most commonly eaten by flatfish – a species often caught by fishers – are fibres. These are long threads of plastic which originate in our fabrics. Straws may flow out to sea quicker but during my research in the Thames, I found that 80% of all plastic extracted from animals there were fibres."
For Anthropocene (26/6/19) Brandon Keim reports on recent research by ecologist Ruth Mitchell and others, which involved "assembling a database of plant and animal species associated with Quercus robur and Quercus petraea, the two oaks native to the United Kingdom. They tabulated 2300 species altogether -- including 716 lichens, 108 fungi, 229 bryophytes, 1089 invertebrates, 31 birds, and 38 mammals --of which some 326 live only on oaks." As Keim reminds us, the oak "is afflicted by a combination of pests, pathogens, and climate change. The precise causes of oak declines are often unknown, but the challenge is clear: to nourish oaks and the nonhumans who rely upon them through an uncertain future."
Mass tree death can be an example of Shifting Baseline Syndrome, with Mitchell explaining that: “I grew up without elms in southern England due to Dutch elm disease but accepted it as ‘normal' ... The current generation are likely to grow up without many ash trees and will accept this as ‘normal.’ Will future generations grow up without the oak and accept this as normal?” But in the case of oaks, which support so much biodiversity, an oakless 'new normal' might be very bleak; as Keim reports, "the researchers found that no single tree species supports more than a small fraction of oak-associated species. Preventing oak decline from triggering a biodiversity collapse may thus require people to manage woodlands so that oaks are replaced by a diverse mix of trees -- alders and birch, rowan and holly, common ash and wych elm, and on and on."
"Apart from scientific insights, protecting what oaks remain and mitigating the consequences of their loss will require time and resources. Last year British conservation organizations and government agencies founded the Action Oak Partnership to spur this commitment -- and, perhaps, set an example for conserving other trees imperilled at a time of fast-spreading pathogens and fast-changing weather."
In a fascinating and tightly focused piece for Public Books (21/6/19), Elena Passarello interviews Elizabeth Rush about writing her outstanding book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. Their discussion explores lived experiences of a changing climate, possibilities for resilience and adaptation, the nature of environmental writing and the process of interviewing those on the frontlines. Rush says "it is important to understand that climate change communications is at a kind of crossroads. When I started out, many environmental writers had been sounding the 'world is ending' alarm for a while, and it doesn’t seem to be working. ... I think they make people feel scared to the point of despondency."
"Many people, far more than you would expect, with precious few choices are choosing to move away from risk, and I find that heartening in a way. Retreat as a strategy only makes financial sense if everyone does it together, rich and poor alike. And it is one of the few climate change adaptation strategies that will also give the more-than-human world humming in our tidal wetlands the chance to move too. I mean to say, it is radically egalitarian."
Rush saw her own students affected by the impacts of Hurricane Sandy - many of whom couldn't return to college. "It was then that I knew that sea level rise was already unsettling our very ideas of who we are and where we come from. And that felt like fertile ground on which to write a book. I didn’t want to foreground the science or to argue that sea level rise was happening so much as I wanted to explore how this impossibly large planetary phenomenon was already transforming the places we love and our definition of home."
Rising includes many first-hand testimonies. "Not the kind of abstract, “the world is ending” urgency, but something more intimate and immediate. Climate change as a phenomenon is so slow moving, so place-based. It is about the late arrival of ice on the lake and the sap freezing in the branches of the stone fruit tree that thought that the winter was behind it -- things that one can only really notice when one has been in place for a very long time. I have moved more than a dozen times in my life, so it is nearly impossible for me to see these changes, but there are plenty of folks who have been in place for a very long time. So I turned to them to tell their own story of what it means to watch the shape of our coastline shift."
Anna Grear's opinion piece for Aeon (19/3/19, published with the Center for Humans and Nature) asks "How can the law account for the value of complex, nonhuman entities such as rivers, lakes, forests and ecosystems?" and challenges the temptation to simply extend the path of the "discourse of human rights, commonly traced back to the Enlightenment, [which] has held sway over the sections of the Western public for decades, if not centuries ... to the complex, nonhuman systems that we wish to protect."
Instead, she suggests we "inch closer to acknowledging the complexity and liveliness of the nonhuman by admitting the porousness of our own boundaries. Perhaps we should not extend outwards from ourselves, so much as question humanity’s entitlement to act as a model. After all, it is a hubristic belief in our own singularity and exceptionalism that’s partly responsible for destroying the planet ... The law, in short, needs to develop a new framework in which the human is entangled and thrown in the midst of a lively materiality – rather than assumed to be the masterful, knowing centre, or the pivot around which everything else turns."
As to what such a shift might mean for the law and legal practice, Grear suggests "it would certainly require courts to be open to a wider field of meaning-making. It would mean ‘hearing’ from multiple communities (human and nonhuman) by relying on the best new science. It would also demand situated, careful enquiry that examines the nuanced interactions making up the dynamics and relationships among the entities in question." The law is on the move, she says, "embracing the idea of nonhuman legal persons (such as rivers) and showing signs of a more materially sensitive, contextualised awareness" - but nothing in development so far is as radical as she says is required. "Some interesting thought-experiments and developments show promising directions, but there is more radical thinking to be done."
Christopher Preston writes for Aeon (6/5/19) that while the concept of the Anthropocene has familiarised us with the reality that no part of the earth is now free from the material signs of human activity elsewhere on the globe - "The chemical and biological signatures of our species are everywhere ... transported around the globe by fierce atmospheric winds, relentless ocean currents, and the capacious cargo-holds of millions of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles..." - what is much less appreciated is how we're altering the planet's processes. Preston cites two potentially powerful forms of engineering, at the levels of genes and of climate. "It is not just that human activities have stained every corner of the entire planet. The simultaneous arrival of a range of powerful new technologies are starting to signal a potential takeover of Earth’s most basic operations by its most audacious species."
Noting that "accidental changes are entirely different from deliberate ones," he suggests that "The crossing of this line represents radically new territory for both our species and for the planet. Nature itself will be shaped by processes redesigned and ‘improved’ by geneticists and engineers. We should call this transition the beginning of a ‘synthetic age’, a time in which background constants are increasingly replaced by artificial and ‘improved’ versions of themselves. This remaking of the metabolism of the Earth strikes at the very core of how we understand our surroundings and our role in them."
And as for how we imagine, talk about and try to either reshape or to live with such a transition? "An Anthropocene epoch requires one kind of psychological adjustment. A synthetic age demands something considerably more."
Claire Marshall writes at BBC News (15/5/19) that researchers have now mapped the "underground social network ... of roots, fungi and bacteria helping to connect trees and plants to one another" - quoting Professor Thomas Crowther, that 'It's the first time that we've been able to understand the world beneath our feet, but at a global scale.'" And the changing climate is impacting the types of mycorrhizal fungi found beneath different forests around the globe - which could itself accelerate climate change: "'The types of fungi that support huge carbon stores in the soil are being lost and are being replaced by the ones that spew out carbon into the atmosphere.'"
Joseph Weiss writes for Edge Effects (24/4/19) that "The 'new abnormal' isn’t very new at all for most of the communities living on this earth. They’ve been dealing with it for a very long time indeed and, most importantly, they’ve been continuing to build futures in spite of – and in relationship with – rapid, devastating, and unforeseen transformations in their lived social and ecological worlds. Without marginalizing the very real fears that come with climate change, I’d like to suggest that we don’t allow our own anxieties to blind us to the historical and ongoing realities of Indigenous and other marginalized communities. So too, we might start paying attention to the ways these communities have led the way in coping with the anxious ecological futures that we all share."
Taking the example of the peoples of Haida Gwaii - "a series of islands just off the west coast of what we now call Canada" - Weiss calls on the contemporary psychological condition of ecoanxiety as described by the American Psychiatric Association and associated with the planetary condition of the Anthropocene to look at historical (and ongoing) experiences of collapse or genocide brought to indigenous peoples by settler societies. Around 1870, for the Haida the 'new abnormal' arrived with the influx of disease, missionaries, colonial rule, deforestation and the appropriation of fisheries and other natural resources. "All this means that few, if any, Haida have the luxury of being 'anxious' about the possibility of ecological transformation. Instead, on Haida Gwaii, the apocalypse came to stay. ... Haida have been working throughout the last century and still today to continue to build different futures for themselves that push back against the idea that they, their culture, or the lands and seas upon which they live will disappear. And they do this work, each and every day."
"As dawn approached, Esaulov watched from behind his desk as a single ambulance raced down Lenina Prospekt from the direction of the plant. Its emergency lights flashed, but the siren remained silent. The driver took a sharp right at the Rainbow department store, tore along the southern side of the square, and then swung away in the direction of the hospital. A few moments later, a second ambulance followed, and it, too, disappeared around the corner."
Adam Higginbottom provides an extract from his book, Midnight in Chernobyl, for Atlas Obscura (22/4/19), drawing out the sheer ordinariness of life in Pripyat on the extraordinary day in 1986 that saw the world's worst nuclear accident at that time. "Across the city’s five schools and in the Goldfish and Little Sunshine kindergartens, thousands of children started their lessons. Beneath the trees outside, mothers walked babies in their strollers. People took to the beach to sunbathe, fish, and swim in the river. In the grocery stores, shoppers stocked up on fresh produce, sausage, beer, and vodka for the May Day holiday." It was an ordinariness that was immediately disrupted forever - at the same time as the authorities tried to paper over the cracks.
"It was the weekend, so it was hard to find doctors, and, at first, no one understood what they were dealing with: The uniformed young men being brought from the station had been fighting a fire and complained of headaches, dry throats, and dizziness. The faces of some were a terrible purple; others, a deathly white. Soon all of them were retching and vomiting, filling wash basins and buckets until they had emptied their stomachs, and even then unable to stop. The triage nurse began to cry."
Higginbottom's matter-of-fact prose delivers the unfolding disaster in an unflinching manner, and encapsulates within it what is perhaps a metaphor for our own times from the dying years of an archaic and inflexible system of governing society and nature. "Inside the fourth-floor conference hall, Vladimir Malomuzh, the Party’s second secretary for the Kiev region, took the stage ... 'Under no circumstances should you panic.'"
Witnessing some of the International Rebellion's artistic interventions in London this week, India Bourke writes in the New Statesman (15/4/19) that "one thing emerging from the movement’s brightly-coloured activities is Britain’s dynamic and resolute arts scene."
She reminds us that it's important to set this upwelling of creative energy not just against ecological and climate emergency but also against the programme of austerity in public arts and culture, with cuts of more than £100m of annual arts funding. "And it’s not just the big museums and galleries that have suffered; libraries are struggling; school trips and plays are dwindling. Local authority spending on culture has also declined by almost £400m since 2010... Finding the most inclusive and effective way to highlight climate change’s existential threat is no easy task – but in harnessing the power of spectacle, the movement is reminding the country of a cultural strength it cannot afford to lose."
Writing for Inside Out (April), Anthea Lawson examines the dilemmas involved in activist choices, as she considered how to join the Extinction Rebellion activities this week. "So in this dilemma I find myself weighing up two impossible-to-compare scenarios. The practicalities of childcare to cover a night in a police cell and court dates, against the possibility of halting the extinction of human and nonhuman life on earth. That’s what climate change and mass extinction do, once you take them seriously: they make everything else seem utterly ridiculous. And yet even as we’re trying to protect life in the future, we cannot entirely forget the life that we are living; I cannot leave a three and a six year old without care. Luckily there are many options for support I can give to others who are going to get themselves arrested, even if I don’t, so I will find a way to join in." She sees how activism brings dilemmas not just for participants but for the opponents to the changes activists are working toward, and for the actions' audiences.
"At the core of the Gandhian nonviolence that inspires Extinction Rebellion is the proposition that you can oppose and resist a system without dehumanising your opponents. Extinction Rebellion, a decentralised movement in which anyone can organise actions as long as they stick to the principles, is insistent on not blaming and shaming. Only by observing this principle can we avoid creating an ‘other’ on whom we end up projecting the unwanted, unacknowledged, perhaps less attractive parts of ourselves, since that route, as psychotherapists recognise, has always been the path to conflict. In Gandhi’s words, ‘It is quite proper to resist and attack a system, but to resist and attack its author is tantamount to resisting and attacking oneself."
At The Infinite Game (7/4/19) Stephen Woroniecki and Niki Harre explore the power of asking "What would it mean to act as if we are already living in the world we hope to create?" Is this a form of 'complacent hope', an empty question that risks inaction? Or does it open up possibilities for our imagination to move beyond the obvious problems to what change could look like? They suggest that such imagination "instead acts in the spirit of prefiguration: leaping ahead of the game and thereby helping to change it."
Offering a sketch of four approaches - "a kind of edgework that sees cracks in current modes of practice and tries to prise them open ... aligned with a renewed interest in speculative fiction and the promise of artistic and performative methods for reimagining sustainability" - they invite our reactions to the idea that we might: assume that those we encounter want a world that promotes wellbeing for all; act as a guardian to our land, among other guardians; act as if we have time; as best we can, practise the future we imagine.
What if ... "people we label as [...] or [...] have a contribution to make and perhaps they talk as they do because they are locked in the same us/them game that we are? ... instead of striving to be the next hero of the hour, we were to uncover and highlight existing place-based commitments to restorative work that cast a legacy of collective worth? ... we had time [to] care for the other – their knowledge, their experience and their right to dissent? ... sustainability was not a promised land but a journey into unknown territory?"
Steve Westlake at The Conversation (11/4/19) writes that, although the decades-long debate and will continue to rage over whether personal actions or political change offer the greatest prospect of tackling climate change, his own research "supports the arguments that this is a false dichotomy: individual action is part of the collective ... doing something bold like giving up flying can have a wider knock-on effect by influencing others and shifting what’s viewed as 'normal'."
Taking the example of making a personal decision to fly less, he interviewed some of the people who'd been influenced by a 'non-flyer'. "They explained that the bold and unusual position to give up flying had: conveyed the seriousness of climate change and flying’s contribution to it; crystallised the link between values and actions; and even reduced feelings of isolation that flying less was a valid and sensible response to climate change. They said that 'commitment' and 'expertise' were the most influential qualities of the person who had stopped flying." At the same time, of course, "suggesting that everyone should fly less, which may seem the implicit message of someone who gives up flying because of climate change, can lead to arguments and confrontation" - and those who advocate low carbon policies but clock up huge air miles of their own open up the 'fly less' argument to charges of hypocrisy, which prominent 'no flyers' can counterbalance.
And then there's the question of inequality. "In the UK, around 15% of people take 70% of the flights, while half of the population don’t fly at all in any one year. As emissions from aviation become an ever increasing slice of the total (currently around 9% in the UK, 2% globally) this inequality will become harder for everyone to ignore."
For Quanta Magazine (21/3/19), Elizabeth Preston interviews ecologist Jennifer Dunne, who explains that "'when ecologists do consider humans, they often treat us as an external factor causing something like climate change. Throughout history, however, we’ve been enmeshed in the planet’s networks of life-forms eating one another.'" Through analysing food webs that include humans alongside other species - both in the world today and in past times - she and colleagues have proposed a new form of web; "not a food web, but a web of use ... [looking] at six populations of preindustrial or nonindustrial humans, cataloging every way that people interacted with the species around them: pelts for clothing, wood for shelter, leaves for medicine and so on. To visualize the results, the researchers map a culture’s five or six most-used species onto a circular plot, along with a 'taxonomy of uses.' The result resembles a thickly woven dreamcatcher."
Dunne explains that "'It’s providing new kinds of species-interaction data centered around humans, which give us access to this slew of interesting ecological, cultural and socioecological questions. And it gives us a new way, I hope, to think about sustainability. We’re studying some systems that had bad environmental outcomes, like species loss and environmental degradation, and also human cultural chaos or breakdown. Are there lessons for thinking about sustainability, now and into the future?'"
Looking at predominant economic systems today, she observes how "'You get this perverse anti-ecological dynamic. In an ecological system, as something becomes rarer and harder to find, its ecological value goes down. That’s why predators prey switch: They have to expend too many calories to try to get that prey, or it’s too dangerous. But in a luxury market, all of a sudden you get the perverse incentive to hunt more because it’s worth more and more money. A bluefin tuna was just sold recently for more than 3 million dollars, a new record ... It’s destabilizing — not just for bluefin tuna but potentially for the whole food web. The tuna are embedded within a whole network of interactions. And that’s part of the point of doing food web research, or interaction research. You pull out one node, you pull out one interaction, and it’s not just about those species. It’s about impacts that can potentially ripple throughout the whole system, and often in unexpected ways.'"
Sheila Cannon writes about system change for the Conversation (15/3/19), drawing on demands that in order to fight climate change we need to change our political and economic systems. Social movements such as the school climate strikes sparked by the activism of Greta Thunberg are founded on a realisation that profound change is needed. "But," Cannon asks, "what is system change? How do entire systems change? When we see 'save the planet' initiatives, they often look like individual decisions that don’t cost much, like switching to a bamboo toothbrush or washing containers before you recycle them. By all means, do these things, but don’t confuse them with system change." Token gestures, she points out, can even reinforce the system that's perpetuating the problem they intend to counter. In this case, Cannon suggests, the system that needs to change is capitalism.
Part of the problem, she explains, is that we look for familiar structures to help shape 'solutions' to 'problems' such as climate change, because these structures help create the meaning through which we understand our situations. "People create meaning, follow rules and reproduce structures ... based on assumptions of what is right and proper. ... Because we are part of these meaning structures, we reproduce existing norms and beliefs and resist change. System change happens when we don’t take our assumptions for granted, which allows more and more people to question the status quo." She offers a 'Three Horizons Framework' approach to illustrate how systems can and do change: "Horizon one is business as usual – the status quo – and the outgoing institution in times of change. Horizon three is the new institution – with newly legitimised structures and beliefs. The space between them is horizon two, which is occupied by people focused on social change – who lead the transition from an old system to the new."
Glimpses of horizon three can already be glimpsed within the current system ('the future', famously, 'is already here; it just hasn't been evenly distributed'). "When aspects of horizon three appear – glimpses of a more sustainable system – they are usually rejected as illegitimate or too radical ... [but] if the climate strikers can continue to grow their movement and sustain momentum, their leadership could be an important part of society’s transition to a more sustainable system in horizon three."
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..."
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."
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?"
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."
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."
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."
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."
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."
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.
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?"
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.]