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, Inside Out, JSTOR Daily, 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.
- 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.]