exploring cultural responses to environmental change
Views from Elsewhere 2020
This is the ClimateCultures monthly selection of Views from Elsewhere so far for 2020. 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 BBC Future, Climate Lab Book, The Conversation, The Correspondent, The Journal of Wild Culture, The LA Times, Mike Hulme, The New Yorker, Quanta Magazine & Seasonalight.
Since 2017, we’ve covered over 200 stories from almost 100 different sources. You can browse our selections for 2019, 2018 and 2017.
That climate change is too huge a problem for any of us to really grasp has become a truism, and the feeling that it leaves us paralysed and unable to agree on how to act is itself a major impact. As Hua Hsu points out in The New Yorker (21/2/20), maybe "our inability to imagine another path forward reflects a limited vocabulary". He is reviewing An Ecotopian Lexicon by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Brent Ryan Bellamy - a collection of essays he describes as "part dream, part provocation".
"At this point, as they note in their introduction, we know how bad it is out there. They are interested in the 'struggle to understand,' at the level of both politics and emotions, how we might meaningfully respond to life in the Anthropocene." To that end, Schneider-Mayerson and Bellamy invited contributors to choose a word or phrase - "what linguists call loanwords, or 'terms that are adopted into one language from another without translation' - "that might help us understand this struggle anew."
Hsu suggests that the value of loanwords is as "a reminder of the histories and cultures embedded in everyday thought". This maybe offers special benefit in times when we face such uncertainty, complexity and the sheer scale of change that the very familiarity of language might be part of the mental or imaginative block. "It’s easy to feel weighed down by the discourse, but maybe we’ve simply been using the wrong words. Perhaps, at a time of such stark extremes, there’s something meaningful about language that describes transition, a state of in-betweenness."
A feature of Views from Elsewhere, where I reflect on my current reading, viewing or listening, is that this sometimes means catching up on a growing reading pile. So this post at mikehulme (5/12/19) is from last year and I wish I'd read it then, but the timing feels just as right now. In a typically clear and thoughtful piece (to be published in Connectedness – an Incomplete Encyclopedia of the Anthropocene later this year), Mike Hulme contrasts much of the current thinking on climate emergency with how he sees the larger concept of the Anthropocene as "a description of a new condition of being human, an invitation to think differently about ourselves, the material world in which we are embedded" and the future. His metaphor for looking at both the Anthropocene-as-opportunity and at climate-change-as-emergency is the 'window of opportunity'.
A window is a device we look through; it separates us from the other side while at the same time connecting us with it. "A window therefore offers up the imaginative possibility of being in a different place to where one currently is." While climate change is increasingly framed as a state of exceptional threat and the 'window of opportunity' is thus a time-limited call to act with all our combined forces to defeat or to limit it before time runs out (a view that Hulme rejects) the Anthropocene is "an invitation to see the world, and our actions in the world, differently. The window is much more about framing a view than it is about defining a time. It is about changing our ‘minds-eye’." Hulme suggests that this second type of 'window of opportunity' "is all about the appropriateness of the action – what is imaginable, virtuous, appropriate and feasible" rather than simply its timing.
"Rather than thinking temporally we need to think imaginatively, windows not delineated by time but by an imagination. The window in this reading opens up a different world into which we can step. I suggest that we should think about the Anthropocene not as a temporally circumscribed opportunity—act now before it is too late. Rather, it is an invitation to see the world, and our actions in the world, differently. The window is much more about framing a view than it is about defining a time. It is about changing our ‘minds-eye’."
Sarah Lewis writes at Medium (9/2/20) about the climate change writers' retreat she organised with others: writing about climate change and about writing, but also about fear, and friendship, and hope. "Climate change, then, is a blessing. What more reason can there be than to bear witness to the real-life end of times, to tell the story of how we live now and what we did? ... Except, of course, it isn’t a blessing. It’s a nightmare. A bone fide horror show." We want, of course, to find the hero who will put the world to rights, to be the hero of our own story.
"My daughter asks about the climate school strikes. Do you want to go? I ask her. No, she says, I don’t want to miss algebra. I laugh. Anyway, she says, what is climate change? I catch my breath."
Addressing the real, bodily emotion of climate change alongside and within the story of her path to here and now, she brings into sharp relief the everyday denial and diversion at play in the normal world. At the heart of the matter is the significance of story, the power of writing a new story. "I have spent years arranging my life around my shame, around avoiding my grief, around closing my ears to the ever-loudening call of the story yet to be told. But the more I ignore it the louder it gets, the more it needles and nags and finds ways to cause me pain. And if I want to answer it, to understand and to tell the story, I cannot leave any part of me behind, because the story of climate change is the story of all of us. I — we — have to pick over the bones of our fear and see what is on the other side."
The Journal of Wild Culture (9/2/20) has published the full text of the March 2018 talk that campaigner and writer George Monbiot gave at Falmouth University (also available to watch in full): How to Really Take Back Control. Answering his own question 'Why Don't I Despair?', Monbiot gives a typically clear and forthright guide to the story of neoliberalism: how it developed, how it gets its power, and how the equally powerful story of conventional Keynesian economics can't provide the convincing response to it or to the ecological and climate crisis that it too helps to fuel.
Monbiot identifies both narratives as examples of the 'restoration story', with the common structure of their opposing political narratives answering the question: 'How do we restore order to the land? "It goes as follows: the land has been thrown into disorder by powerful and nefarious forces working against the interests of humanity. But the ‘hero’ of the story — who might be one person or a group of people or even an institution — will take on, against the odds, the powerful and nefarious forces, overthrow them and restore order to the land. It's the Lord of the Rings story, it's a Narnia story, you've seen it a thousand times, and it turns out that both of those stories use that structure."
In a talk and essay that cover a lot of ground - the nature of the commons and of participatory culture, the poetry of John Clare - Monbiot centres on the power of engagement and narrative. "So we need a new story, a new restoration story, a story that tells us how we got here, where we now stand, what the future holds, and what it's going to be like when we get there. A story that lights a path to a better world, a story based on fact because there's no point in basing it on fairytales, as I believe the neoliberals have done. This sounds like a tall order, but I believe such a story is waiting to be told, and it goes something like this:" ...
In her latest post at Seasonalight (5/2/20), Ginny Battson writes on "new words for new times", and our tendency to dwell on the past rather than contemplate the future. "This is reflected in the words we use ... With so many things re-quiring a very new approach (at least in living memory), I am beginning to dislike the prefix RE. re-wire, re-weave, re-wild, re-store – ‘re’ as in to go back. Latin re- again, go back, Latin possibly from PIE [Proto-Indo-European] ~ wret."
With this in mind (and maybe with trouble ahead for the ClimateCultures newsletter, Re:Culture? A different kind of prefix, though...), Battson proposes that, in pace of 're' we instead adopt new words beginning with ‘for’, "the "Old English prefix usually meaning 'away, opposite, completely,' ... so I suggest we for-quire FOR as in forward, a well-used term from forth – out and away from a starting point. for-wire, for-weave, for-wild, for-store… and not least, to foreducate…"
Seasonalight also features Ginny Battson's Neologisms page -- 'new words for rapidly changing times': from Avumbra to Witanslay, and Caelosemiotics to Xenotrauma.
Ed Hawkins - creator of the famous Warming Stripes visualisations - has published at Climate Lab Book (30/1/20) a striking visual response to the question he's commonly asked: "‘What happened before 1850’? I’m glad you asked.
"We have a new reconstruction of global temperature going back to the year 1AD thanks to the work of the PAGES2k team. This reconstruction includes data from a wide variety of proxy records such as tree rings, cave deposits, corals, etc. The warming over the past 50 years is stark compared to the variations that have occurred naturally over the last 2000 years. It is not normal."
Showing the data both in the conventional scientific graph and the warming stripes sequence (you'll need to click through to the story to see it) make the point very elegantly. "The data show that the modern period is very different to what occurred in the past. The often quoted Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age are real phenomena, but small compared to the recent changes. ... The invention of the efficient steam engine in 1790 by James Watt kick-started the industrial revolution and our reliance on burning fossil fuels for energy. This has brought many benefits to humankind, but we are now experiencing the side effects of that development."
Julia Rosen's piece in The LA Times (11/1/20) explores the art that Daniela Molnar produced in response to a shape left by a melting glacier as it exposed land for the first time in centuries. "Little did she know, it was a shape that would expose a profound feeling of grief within her — and then help her process it."
As Rosen explains, Molnar's original intention was to make realisable the often abstract concept of climate change, in a way that might provoke feelings. She succeeded -- provoking deep feelings in herself in the process. "After Molnar had created more paintings of vanishing ice, it hit her: this is what it feels like to try to hold the enormous losses brought about by climate change" - even though, "at first glance, it’s not clear what Molnar’s works are about. She paints with translucent, often iridescent pigments that morph from yellow to green, teal to indigo, purple back to red. The shapes are vibrant and beautiful — culled from scientific studies and satellite images — and they cover the canvas in a colorful confetti of ruin."
Rosen's article draws on the reflections of others in exploring climate grief and the risks of not recognising the emotional costs of climate change alongside the physical, social and environmental ones, including psychotherapist Rosemary Randall. Grief can be seen as "an ongoing set of tasks — like making space for uncomfortable feelings and adjusting to a new reality — that can be embraced or ignored. The goal, after all, isn’t to 'fix' grief. It’s to learn to live with loss."
With over 36 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted around the world every year, and any one person's share of that amounting to at most a few tonnes, as Tom Oliver writes in The Conversation (23/1/20) "It seems unlikely that our lone actions and voices can really make a difference. But our actions do matter. The global environment is withering from the accumulation of billions of small impacts. Each of our individual purchases or travel choices is a vote for how we treat other people and the natural world, and even if we don’t directly see the results, our votes do count."
Oliver goes beyond the common sense of this appeal to point out the ways in which science shows we do not really ever act 'only' as individuals. From the way "most of our 37 trillion human cells have such a short lifespan that we are essentially made anew every few months, directed by a genetic code that is a shared heritage not just of humanity but all life on Earth" to the way all the external stimuli we receive -- from other people and the more-than-human world -- reshape the neural networks of our brains and our identity as selves; and how our sense of connectedness with nature reinforces our attitudes and wellbeing.
He concludes that "to solve the major environmental problems the world now faces, we actually need to do both – to change the world and ourselves. In fact, it is even more nuanced than that – because changing ourselves is a prerequisite for changing the world. Realising the true nature of our human connectedness actually engenders more ethical and environmentally responsible behaviours."
Glenn Hadikin writes for The Conversation (22/1/20) that, while "there has been research into how languages and words evolve and become extinct and even how others survive ... there is a lack of academic research which looks specifically at the language of nature. And even he, studying language use for 21 years, "became more keenly aware of the relationship between noticing the natural world and being able to name bits of it when I read Robert MacFarlane’s book Landmarks." After reading about forgotten words for natural features in the landscape, Hadikin says "I have noticed a lot more ammil and smeuses since I read the book, which describes hundreds of words from across the British isles for snow, ice, animal calls and noises." (Ammil and Smeuse? Read his article to find out!)
And the vocabulary for nature is being whittled down, he explains, citing research that "discovered that words from the 1990s which were entirely used to refer to the natural world, have now taken on meaning from the world of computers and the internet. Cloud, stream and tweet are such examples. In a comparable dataset from the 2010s ... cloud has fallen to 77%, stream is down to 36% and tweet is down to 1% of its old usage in everyday conversation."
Of course, language is dynamic, and "children will not stop playing computer games and they will not stop having an interest in new technology – and nor should they. But the adults in this conversation must explore ways to combine modern technology with a love of nature."
Writing in Quanta Magazine (16/1/20), Shannon Hall describes her six-week journey visit to scientists spending a year in a German icebreaker that's been trapped within the sea ice at the top of the globe. The researchers are monitoring the Arctic in order to better quantify some of the Arctic unknowns and so better inform models of the changing climate.
As Hall discusses "while the ice-albedo feedback loop is simple in theory, a number of complexities play into it, including ice thickness, the different types of ice, the presence of snow and clouds, and the physical interactions that govern those complexities. Slowly, scientists have begun to incorporate these intricacies into their simulations. Yet despite these recent improvements, our understanding of these and other feedback loops is still far too crude. That much can be seen in the variety of outcomes that various models predict. Some forecast that summer sea ice will continue to exist until sometime in the 22nd century. Others predict it will be lost within the next 10 years. Whenever it happens, the transformation will affect the entire planet."
But personal encounters with the shifting ice bring home the strangeness of a habitat with profound implications for changes close to home and around the world. "Around 4 a.m. the day after the ice cracked beneath my feet, the thin veneer of ice started to explode with deafening booms that woke up the ship. Before I left for the trip, I spoke with a number of Arctic researchers who told me to listen to the ice. I thought that meant I had to kneel down on the ice and put my ear against the floe — that the ice would whisper to me. But the ice does not whisper. It screams. Whenever the pressure builds up, you can hear a large hissing sound — almost like the screeching from an exploding soda bottle. It sizzles. It pops. It groans. And it does so loudly. A polar bear standing in the distance likely would have heard something akin to thunder."
In an interesting piece for BBC Future (10/10/20) Diego Arguedas Ortiz describes how he is inspired by "a handful of marine biologists who are fighting coral bleaching" as much as by young climate activists, atmospheric scientists and climate essayists. These biologists grow tiny bits of coral in underwater nurseries "and once they’re big enough move them back to the reef, hoping to restore it. Their pace is slow, possibly too slow to keep up with bleaching due to climate change. Warming waters swipe entire reefs in a matter of weeks. The biologists need months to nurture enough corals to restore a couple of square meters. Reef restoration seems like an impossible task, but they are relentless. It must be done to give corals a chance, so they are doing it ... They were earning their own hope, one coral at a time."
Whenever he is asked "What gives you hope?” in the context of climate change, Ortiz knows that what people really want to know is “Where can I find hope?” He suggests that rather than looking for hope 'out there', "real, good, useful hope has nothing to do with positive news. Instead, it is profoundly linked with action: both ours and that of others alongside us." He quotes Rebecca Solnit's book Hope in the Dark, where she writes of hope that "'It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency.'” As his article explores, there are key distinctions between hope and optimism, though we tend to use the words interchangeably.
"What is human civilisation if not the result of all the stories we’ve been told?" asks Eric Holthaus in The Correspondent (8/1/20). "Our story of the 2020s is yet to be written, but we can decide today whether or not it will be revolutionary. Radical imagination could help us begin to see that the power to change reality starts with changing what we consider to be possible." With an infinite number of possible paths ahead of us, he offers one scenario to halve global emissions in a decade: "a story about our journey to 2030 – a vision of what it could look and feel like if we finally, radically, collectively act to build a world we want to live in.
Charting this year by year over the coming decade, Holthaus starts with 2020 as "the year we acknowledge that the most urgent thing we can do in an emergency is to passionately tell others that it exists"; by mid-decade "through art, music, memes, and methods-yet-to-be-invented, we will laugh and love and interpret what it means to be a part of a thriving global civilisation in the middle of the most transcendent decade in human history" and "expand our practice of regenerative agriculture." And by 2030 "perhaps the most radical change of all this decade will be our newfound ability to tell a story – a positive story – about the future and mean it."