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 Adweek, Aeon, Anthropocene Magazine, Art-Agenda, Atlas Obscura, BBC Future, Bruno Latour, Climate Lab Book, The Conversation, The Correspondent, Edge Effects, Emergence Magazine, Inhabiting the Anthropocene, Integration and Implementation Insights, Jennifer Atkinson, The Journal of Wild Culture, The LA Times, Mike Hulme, New Histories, The New Yorker, Quanta Magazine, Seasonalight & Sverige Radio.
Since 2017, we’ve covered over 200 stories from almost 100 different sources. You can browse our selections for 2019, 2018 and 2017.
- Making meaning in an Age of Data-
In a conversation at Edge Effects (30/7/20) Min Hyoung Song and author Heather Houser discuss her new book Infowhelm: Environmental Art and Literature in the Age of Data - "how the concept of 'infowhelm' might help us think about contemporary events, the role art plays in making meaning of environmental crises, and how we might anticipate what’s coming."
Song says: "In your first book Ecosickness, which is a fantastic book, you make it a point to emphasize early on that there is a need not to decouple responsibility and agency. I understand you meaning that it’s important to be able to name those who have directly contributed to environmental problems as responsible for the mess they’ve made—that you know when we talk about, let’s say, environmental crises, it’s important for us to be able to say it’s not caused by all of us but caused by certain individuals or certain institutions. I wonder if your idea of artistic mediation signals a continued commitment to this idea of thinking about human agency and responsibility together?"
Houser responds that: "With all environmental issues, but especially climate change, the question of responsibility is incredibly complex because there is a degree to which a lot of those people living in affluent countries have all contributed to carbon emissions, oceanic pollution and plastics, and all the planetary changes that are taking place. However, I think the question of responsibility on a large scale has to name names. I think it’s important not to say that no individual has any responsibility or agency. But it’s also important to acknowledge the disproportionate responsibilities and contributions certain corporations, institutions, countries (and communities within them) have made.
"Artistic mediation is central to this question because of those complexities of navigating scale— keeping some focus on the individual or the local while also encompassing broader perspectives, global perspectives, and uneven burdens and damages. When we walk through our lives it can be quite easy to focus just on what we see day-to-day. We read the newspaper—and this goes back to infowhelm—and it can be alienating or disturbing or it can be othering of the problem. Even when we take in those perspectives beyond our immediate ones, it can sometimes be hard to really take them in as something that we’re a part of. Literature, film, visual media of different kinds can really help navigate those gaps between ourselves and the rest of the world. I don’t think this is necessarily about empathy. I don’t know that empathy is always the mechanism at work. But I do think artistic mediation is crucial to drawing some of those bridges between scales and between individual experiences and collective experiences and burdens."
- How Earth’s climate changes naturally (and why things are different now)-
For Quanta Magazine (21/7/20), Howard Lee offers a very useful primer on 10 ways that our climate varies naturally, and how each compares with what’s happening now - from geological and biological phenomena over different timescales here on Earth, through variations in the Earth's motion on its axis and its movement around the Sun, to changes in the Sun itself and other phenomena in the solar system.
You're probably familiar with a few of the drivers of climate change but some of these will be new to you. Key to the (un)balancing act between different drivers is the 'weathering thermostat' and, of course, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - "the main control knob for Earth’s climate through deep time".
"In the end-Permian event 252 million years ago, which wiped out 81% of marine species, underground magma ignited Siberian coal, drove up atmospheric carbon dioxide to 8,000 parts per million and raised the temperature by between 5 and 9 degrees Celsius. The more minor Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum event 56 million years ago cooked methane in North Atlantic oil deposits and funneled it into the sky, warming the planet by 5 degrees Celsius and acidifying the ocean; alligators and palms subsequently thrived on Arctic shores. Similar releases of fossil carbon deposits happened in the end-Triassic and the early Jurassic; global warming, ocean dead zones and ocean acidification resulted.
"If any of that sounds familiar, it’s because human activity is causing the same effects today. As a team of researchers studying the end-Triassic event wrote in April in Nature Communications, 'Our estimates suggest that the amount of CO2 that each … magmatic pulse injected into the end-Triassic atmosphere is comparable to the amount of anthropogenic emissions projected for the 21st century.'”
- Facing It - love, loss, and the natural world-
"The age of climate crisis is upon us, and grief and anxiety are on the rise." In this series of short podcasts (July 2020 onwards), environmental humanities scholar Jennifer Atkinson explores the emotional burden of climate change, and why despair leaves so many people unable to respond to our existential threat. The series introduces ways to move from despair to action by addressing the psychological roots of our unprecedented ecological loss.
In episode 1, Atkinson discusses how "overcoming that paralysis is the first step in moving to action, and yet official climate strategies rarely address the emotional toll of climate grief and eco anxiety ... "
In the second episode, she asks "Is reason or emotion more important in driving climate action? Will solutions to mass extinction come from the head or the heart? Or are these binaries themselves part of the problem? While some climate activists argue that we should focus on facts instead of feelings, others know that our intense emotional response to climate chaos is far from irrational."
Anger, hope, anxiety, fear and our other emotions shape how we perceive the world, and can motivate us to act on or to retreat from its challenges. "To better understand how those mental and emotional states relate to environmental crisis and public perceptions of risk, this episode explores why emotions matter in the climate battle [and] how narrative can rouse the public to action, and draws on insights from evolutionary psychology to examine the ancient relation between mind and environment as expressed in feelings of love and wonder toward the natural world."
The first five episodes are available now.
- Could an ecological handprint make a positive impression?-
For Anthropocene Magazine (14/7/20), Sarah DeWeerdt summarises research by Joseph Guillaume and colleagues into a complementary measure to the now-familiar ecological footprint. Where the footprint describes the negative impact of an organisation's or individual's activities on some aspect of the environment, a handprint can capture positive impacts and, in the words of the researchers, this "positive framing shifts the focus to opportunities rather than blame and emphasizes what is possible rather than what is going wrong.” The handprint concept is less well defined than the footprint - which DeWeerdt suggests "was popularized by fossil fuel companies - neatly shifting responsibility for the climate crisis from their own predatory profit-making to individual consumers, who often face constraints in reducing their own dependence on fossil fuel energy" - and the new research seeks to improve on that.
As for the advantages of adding this new approach to the established analysis, "while a footprint usually encompasses only physical impacts, a handprint analysis also includes other causal relationships, especially social links. And while a footprint is merely descriptive, the handprint is subjective, inherently reflecting values and norms." De Weerdt suggests that developing a handprint approach can help overcome the despair that can arise from contemplating your footprint and the inaction this can breed.
"In line with this, the researchers also identify five questions that a handprint analysis should answer: What is being improved? What changes will be measured, and from what baseline? Whose actions does the handprint capture, and how do entities influence others’ actions? What credit should a person or entity receive for improvement? And what constraints should be placed on action?"
- Why the Anthropocene began with European colonisation, mass slavery and the ‘great dying’ of the 16th century-
For The Conversation (25/6/20), Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis address the debate as to when we should define the historical period when humanity brought the planet out of the Holocene - "the 10,000 years of stability that allowed farming and complex civilisations to develop" - and entered the Anthropocene.
"Our planetary impacts have increased since our earliest ancestors stepped down from the trees, at first by hunting some animal species to extinction. Much later, following the development of farming and agricultural societies, we started to change the climate. Yet Earth only truly became a 'human planet' with the emergence of something quite different. This was capitalism, which itself grew out of European expansion in the 15th and 16th century and the era of colonisation and subjugation of indigenous peoples all around the world." The colonisation of the Americas, for example, resulted in the death of over 90% of the indigenous populations and led to the enforced deportation of over 12 million Africans into slavery - and an initial decline in atmospheric carbon as colonisation wiped out indigenous farming and changed the landscape of the Americas.
"The deadly diseases hitched a ride on new shipping routes, as did many other plants and animals. This reconnecting of the continents and ocean basins for the first time in 200 million years has set Earth on a new developmental trajectory. The ongoing mixing and re-ordering of life on Earth will be seen in future rocks millions of years in the future. The drop in carbon dioxide at 1610 provides a first marker in a geological sediment associated with this new global, more homogeneous, ecology, and so provides a sensible start date for the new Anthropocene epoch."
- A heuristic framework for reflecting on joint problem framing-
At Integration and Implementation Insights (23/6/20), BinBin Pearce and Olivier Ejderyan present a short set of questions that can help us when we're working with others to explore the complex problems that, by definition, need diverse perspectives to solve. Individually, our own 'small scale models' of the problem - "formed from each individual’s experiences, interests, knowledge and environment" - set the boundaries on any definitions and solutions seem relevant to us; and, of course, our personal mental models will tend to exclude or downplay factors that are most important to others, making promising solutions even harder to find.
"Joint problem framing then, involves a process of eliciting, clarifying, reconfiguring and reconciling (though not necessarily agreeing upon) different mental models in order to formulate the problem clearly and to identify common goals and criteria. Joint problem framing is the key to harnessing diversity as a resource rather than a stumbling block." And the process of bringing these perspectives together, naturally, throws up issues and boundaries of its own." They suggest this is an under-researched area and, although they are focusing on researchers, the questions they set out for these 'always starting again' conversations apply to anyone trying to get to the 'bigger picture'...
Their heuristic framework "is intended to help those just starting off in research on complex problems by providing a means to structure new experiences, as well as assisting more advanced researchers who are interested in assessing and systematising past experiences of joint problem framing." They're inviting feedback on how useful this framework is, and what further challenges you might include.
- Where to land after the pandemic? A paper and now a platform-
In what he calls "a little exercise to make sure things don’t restart after the lock out just as they were before", Bruno Latour suggests (29/3/20) we "take advantage of the forced suspension of most activities to take stock of those we would like to see discontinued and those, on the contrary, that we would like to see developed." He offers a short questionnaire for us to try for ourselves: "It will be especially useful as it will be based on a personal experience that has been directly lived. This exercise is not a question of expressing an opinion but of describing your situation..."
What are the activities now suspended that you would like to see not resumed? Why do you think this activity is harmful / superfluous / dangerous/ inconsistent and how would its disappearance / suspension / substitution make the activities you favour easier/ more consistent? What measures do you recommend to ensure that the workers / employees / agents / entrepreneurs who will no longer be able to continue in the activities you are removing are helped in their transition toward other activities?
Which of the now suspended activities would you like to develop / resume or even create from scratch? Why does this activity seem positive to you and how would it make it easier / more harmonious / consistent with other activities that you favour and help to combat those you consider unfavourable? What measures do you recommend to help workers / employees / agents / entrepreneurs acquire the capacities / means / income / instruments to take over / develop / create this favoured activity?
The site links to What protective measures can you think of so we don’t go back to the pre-crisis production model?, an English translation (and other translations) of his original essay, and also to a new platform, where responses can be collected and discussed. "Compiling and then superimposing the answers should gradually produce a landscape made of lines of conflict, alliances, controversy and opposition. This terrain may provide a concrete opportunity for creating the forms of political expression these activities require."
- Greta Thunberg: Humanity has not yet failed-
In this excellent podcast for Sverige Radio (20/6/20) - available here in an English version as well as Swedish - Greta Thunberg takes us along on her trip to the front lines of the climate crisis. She gives a vivid account of her experiences in North America in 2019, where she addressed the United Nations General Assembly, and the planned trip from there to Chile for the COP25 climate conference that was subsequently moved to Spain.
"We don't accept these odds," was her principal message to the UN General Assembly, referring to humanity's remaining CO2 budget, but the only message that seems to have resonated is "How dare you?" After her speech, Greta and her father travelled through 37 states and was discouraged from visiting the state of Alberta in Canada - one of the western world's largest oil producers, with a very powerful and aggressive oil lobby - but she went there anyway.
This year - 2020 - the emission curve must be steeply downwards if we are still to have even a small chance of achieving the goals that world leaders have agreed to, says Greta Thunberg. "Either we go on as a civilization, or we don't. Doing our best is no longer good enough. We must now do the seemingly impossible. And that's up to you and me. Because no one else will do it for us."
- We are nature-
While we see other terrestrial beings as part of a state of 'nature', Beth Lord suggests at Aeon (28/4/20), that "is a state that we perceive ourselves to be at odds with: ‘nature’ as the object alternately of our guilt-ridden violence, pity or longing, something over there that we do things to. What we need is a narrative that rejects those perceptions and feelings, and founds a citizenry of all living beings. A story of the ‘contract’ by which we gave up our right to dominate nature and realised that we are part of it. A story that leads us to act and feel differently, and that instils in us a commitment to worldwide legislation for a less fearful, precarious and oppositional way of being on Earth."
She traces some of the ideas that link Thomas Hobbes' concept of the civil contract, which humans supposedly developed to help us neutralise the fear of mutual violence - giving up our 'natural right' to exert our individual power - to Baruch Spinoza's view that, organised within human society, we are entiitled to use all natural resources "in pursuit of our own advantage. Our right to do so is based in our greater power. No moral codes govern our relations to nonhumans, for they take place in the ‘state of nature’, where there is no good or evil, and no law but natural right." And on to James Lovelock's "shout of joy" for the Anthropocene: "'joy at the colossal expansion of our knowledge of the world and the cosmos that this age has produced’", and to Bruno Latour's model of a new state that supersedes the civil state: "a terrestrial state, the goal of which is the flourishing of all the individuals and systems that compose it."
Lord asks: "How would such a state work in practice? Would animals and insects become citizens? Should rivers and forests have seats at the UN? Should nature be recognised as a collective subject with legal rights, as has happened in Bolivia and Ecuador? Such strategies have their uses. But the procedural detail of how to establish a terrestrial state is less important than its utility as a narrative. Unlike Hobbes, Spinoza stresses that the social contract story is just that: a story, designed to bind people together as citizens. The emergence of the civil state from the state of nature is not a historical fact, but a fiction that makes us understand the power and advantage of all humans working together towards common goals. When people commit to this narrative, they act in ways that promote the common good, even if they don’t fully understand why they should do so. The terrestrial state is a similarly useful fiction that can bind us together, not just as humans seeking human flourishing, but as ‘terrestrials’ seeking the flourishing of life as such."
- The coronavirus is rewriting our imaginations-
Kim Stanley Robinson, who knows a thing or two about writing science fiction, knows that "Science-fiction writers don’t know anything more about the future than anyone else. Human history is too unpredictable; from this moment, we could descend into a mass-extinction event or rise into an age of general prosperity. Still, if you read science fiction, you may be a little less surprised by whatever does happen. Often, science fiction traces the ramifications of a single postulated change; readers co-create, judging the writers’ plausibility and ingenuity, interrogating their theories of history. Doing this repeatedly is a kind of training. It can help you feel more oriented in the history we’re making now." Writing in The New Yorker (1/5/20), he suggests that "This radical spread of possibilities, good to bad, which creates such a profound disorientation; this tentative awareness of the emerging next stage" is part of a new 'structure of feeling' in our times. He's referring to the way each historical period has a way of seeing itself, understanding itself: the way the world seems to it. And the way the Covid-19 pandemic perhaps changes the way we see our time in history, and the reality of climate change and mass extinction which - as individuals - our heads could already see but, as societies, our hearts have not caught up with.
"On a personal level, most of us have accepted that we live in a scientific age. If you feel sick, you go to a doctor, who is really a scientist; that scientist tests you, then sometimes tells you to take a poison so that you can heal—and you take the poison. It’s on a societal level that we’ve been lagging. Today, in theory, everyone knows everything. We know that our accidental alteration of the atmosphere is leading us into a mass-extinction event, and that we need to move fast to dodge it. But we don’t act on what we know. We don’t want to change our habits. This knowing-but-not-acting is part of the old structure of feeling."
Although 'the tragedy of the time horizon' expresses how we don’t care enough about future people (or people and other beings now who are remote from us) - the people "who will have to fix, or just survive on, the planet we’re now wrecking" - the pandemic and the urgency of the message to 'flatten the curve' means that the time horizon has become compressed: "We’re now confronting a miniature version of the tragedy of the time horizon. We’ve decided to sacrifice over these months so that, in the future, people won’t suffer as much as they would otherwise. In this case, the time horizon is so short that we are the future people ... There will be enormous pressure to forget this spring and go back to the old ways of experiencing life. And yet forgetting something this big never works. We’ll remember this even if we pretend not to. History is happening now, and it will have happened. So what will we do with that?"
- Desire paths-
"Distance turns out to be a mirage," David Farrier writes in this short, eloquent piece for Emergence Magazine (May 2020). In Covid-19 lockdown, while "exploring ways to get lost close to home" during the permitted daily exercise, he's become drawn to paths he'd ordinarily have ignored or just not noticed. 'Desire paths', such as those left by animals - including human animals - in grass or woods, "speak of possibility. ... Paved roads show us where we ought to go, but desire paths are made when we step off the road and let our hearts decide the way. They seek out the most direct connection between where we are and where we wish to be. Worn by the pressure of passing feet, they’re declarations of a kind: there is another way."
Desire is an uncertain guide and in these times of pandemic the future seems more than usually unknowable. "There are glimpses of what the new world could be like—slower, quieter, more given to care—but much of this strange time looks like the old world of inequality and neglect asserting itself with a vengeance. The transition from old to new seems far from clear. This is why, I think, I keep looking for new ways to get lost, even briefly, in places that are most familiar to me. Discovering another way to join two points I have always connected by the same traverse yields a richer, more densely knotted sense of place. It shows me that, in the midst of constraint, new discoveries are possible."
Desire paths are all around us, often ephemeral and showing for a time the passing choices made by fox or deer, but sometimes with a more lasting power to suggest future change. The confluence of the desire paths of warm waters that carve their way beneath the Antarctic ice "nuzzles the ice and pushes back the grounding line, the point where the ice meets bedrock", threatening to loosen the Thwaites glacier and unlock the vast sheet of ice behind. The path made by the water is also "the trace of countless journeys and desires which, unchecked, have brought us to the threshold of an utterly changed world. Like a key in a lock, Thwaites holds back the entire West Antarctic ice sheet. Turning the key would release enough meltwater to raise the oceans by three meters and inundate New York, Shanghai, and Bangladesh. However removed it might seem, our connection with this glacier is as intimate as with our dearest loved ones."
- Which way to turn?-
The editors of Art-Agenda (1/5/20) comment on the possible but unintended deadening effect of supposedly motivational 'factoids' circulating in the pandemic -- for example, that Shakespeare composed King Lear while self-isolating during the plague, or that the very word 'crisis' means 'a turning point' in a disease. And a turning point can take us in many directions; we still need to find our way and decide on the preferred one. It's best to be prepared for a crisis, and to use it to help us navigate the uncertainty it brings.
To do that, they suggest, we need to preserve a freedom to "write against consensus ... Which is to say, the freedom not to follow the prevailing wind but independently to interpret the signs and think about where they might lead. Critics see these signs everywhere: in the representation of nature in capitalist societies; in the use of metaphors of illness and virality in recent digital art; in how allegiances are formed online; in how contemporary art can help us to figure different futures for society."
And, as they point out, the word 'criticism' derives from the same root as 'crisis'. "Crises — a series of branching paths marked by different signs — are for critics not epochal events but a means of navigating the world. The editors work on the principle that we should not have to wait for a global catastrophe to think about the direction in which we are travelling. But now that it's here, let us wish you a safe journey through the coming weeks."
- The role of art in a pandemic-
At the same time as culture is proving to be a refuge during Covid-19 and lockdown, Robert Bailey reminds us at Inhabiting the Anthropocene (8/4/20) that "crucially, art offers more than solace. The role of art in a pandemic is to constitute the visibility of vital knowledge. ... We need art to say what others — governments, media, etc. — do not say, and we need its messages to get across amidst the din of information competing for our attention." One of those things to say is that what we are going through is not simply a 'natural' event, or Nature acting on us: "Pandemics, like climate change, are strange combinations of human activity and other natural processes. We make pandemics through all that we do — moving, touching, caring, talking, and so forth — because viruses thrive on our capacity to find them new hosts."
Bailey draws on examples from the AIDS pandemic from the 1980s onwards to show artists' work in resisting and subverting the mainstream narratives of the times, and assert that -- although this is a different moment -- "the basic messages of these images are still relevant enough (government is failing us; love, don’t fear, those who are sick; we’re all in this together) to learn much from the precedent of the sophisticated and complex yet simple and incisive images delivering them to us. Many, many bad things will come from the COVID-19 pandemic, but one good thing that can come from it is a more knowledgeable public, ... particularly where our inextricable capture in natural and social processes is concerned — so that our obligation to care for one another and for the planet becomes more evident and more integrated into our artful ways."
While a dominant part of the narrative for now is the desire or need to 'return to normal' once the coronavirus is defeated - and, likewise, once climate change is 'solved' - Bailey reminds us that "we would all be better off if, having learned all that we will from this pandemic, we carry on with a much deeper appreciation for the consequences of our activity and inactivity, especially our 'normal' doings. Everything we do, all of it artful, constitutes what we see around us (and what we don’t see), and all of it is now on trial. A crisis is like a sieve: some things pass through and others do not. Art is among the keepers of this most important of gates."
- Hear the soundscapes of cities transformed-
At Atlas Obscura (17/4/20) Matt Mikkelsen shares audio clips from five city locations in India, the UK and USA. As a nature sound recordist, part of his job is "to protect the few remaining 'quiet' places" with NGO Quiet Parks International. In normal times, he says, "recording the uninterrupted sounds of nature in our industrialized world is difficult, if not nearly impossible. All you have to do is look at a map of air-traffic patterns to grasp how few places in the world are truly quiet ... It’s amazing how much we’ve just grown accustomed to the noise."
With lockdown under the Covid-19 pandemic, however, "the sonic landscape has changed. Even in the biggest, most densely populated cities, amid the uncertainty and suffering of the pandemic, people are beginning to hear something entirely new." Mikkelsen finds there are "moments of connection and grace ... It seems like there’s nothing that hasn’t been affected by this crisis, including the way the entire world sounds. It is, in a word, quiet."
Using social media, he has gathered new urban soundscapes from others around the world. Includes in his piece are examples from Kolkata, London, Los Angeles and New York, New York (so good, they recorded it twice).
- Is there a limit to optimism when it comes to climate change?-
Fiacha Heneghan writes for Aeon (14/4/20) that "climate-concerned Earthlings ... know what is happening. We know what to do. The remaining question is how to convince ourselves to do it." He suggests that two kinds of responses are emerging. "One camp – let us call its members ‘the optimists’ – believes that foremost in our minds ought to be the strict possibility of surmounting the challenge ahead. Yes, it is also possible that we will fail, but why think about that? To doubt is to risk a self-fulfilling prophecy. ... Those in the other camp, ‘the pessimists’, argue that countenancing the possibility, perhaps the likelihood, of failure, should not be avoided. In fact, it might very well open new pathways for reflection. In the case of climate change, it might, for example, recommend a greater emphasis on adaptation alongside mitigation."
Heneghan says that while both optimists and pessimists call for action on climate change, the former tend to be consequentialists and the latter to be Kantians. For consequentialists, "right and wrong are a matter of the consequences of actions, not their particular character" and they argue that acting on climate change is effectively a win-win. On the other hand "a Kantian thinks that justice is valuable in itself, and that we stand under obligations of justice even when they are futile ... what’s wrong with rapacious extractive capitalism, with climate apartheid, with doing nothing, is not, primarily, the long-term implications for GDP. It is a question of justice."
- Art Director designs flooded font to call attention to climate change-
For Adweek (17/4/20), Patrick Kulp reports that Yiğit Karagöz, a senior art director in Hamburg, has released a free downloadable font called Garamond Warming. "The design features letters with various degrees of solid color filling in their apertures—the typography term for the holes of white space partially or fully enclosed by the rest of the letter (e.g., the middle of an “O” or “U”)."
Apparently, Garamond typeface dates back to the first printing presses in the 16th century, and Karagöz conceived of his new variant as a form of recycling, to keep climate change in people's minds as our attention, understandably, is more on the impacts of Covid-19. Karagöz hopes "it will serve as a tiny reminder to everyone that millions of people will be affected by this issue.”
Kulp adds that Karagöz’s project is not the only one to update famous fonts for these pandemic times: "other campaigns have also used fonts to highlight and promote social distancing measures to fight the pandemic. Third Street Attention Agency recently designed a typeface called Times Uncertain, which features spaced-out letters meant to mimic the six feet of space public health agencies recommend people give one another to avoid viral spread."
- Psychic numbing: keeping hope alive in a world of extinctions-
Carl Safina writes at Yale Environment 360 (26/2/20) that, when it comes to awareness and action on species loss, "Things have gotten better, and things have gotten worse. A United Nations panel last year released a summary of an upcoming report, roughly extrapolating — based on the proportion of species that the International Union for Conservation of Nature has assessed as 'threatened' or 'endangered' — that a million species face extinction in this century. A million deaths, Stalin reputedly said, is just statistics. Even Mother Teresa said, 'If I look at the mass I will never act.' This emotional overwhelm, this paralyzing tsunami to the soul, has been termed 'psychic numbing.' Mother Teresa had added, though, 'If I look at the one, I will.'”
The 'gotten worse' part is easy enough to see, if and when we choose to. "Animal populations are declining so broadly and rapidly that scientists have invented the term 'defaunation.' In the last four decades, population abundances in vertebrate species have declined about a third on average. Because species don’t get onto endangered lists until they are rare, it is imperative that we wake up to the broad across-the-board declines that are happening."
All this, Safina writes, "sums to something profoundly disturbing: At this point in the history of the world, humankind has made itself incompatible with the rest of life on Earth. We’re too much of a good thing. I don’t think that’s how we’d want to be remembered. Unless we see the big picture and care about our role in maintaining or destroying the miracle of living existence, we will continue to do the latter. But the big picture is exactly what can be numbing. Fortunately, none of us has to tackle the big picture."
It is the smaller pictures that can help us see the 'gotten better' part, while never ignoring the dismal trend. Safina describes the many successes in reversing decline, and the hope that these provide. "No one worked on all of those successes. But someone worked on each of them, and that’s what made the difference. It would help all of us, and the cause of the world’s species, if we think more granularly; speak more specifically; focus on what can be meaningful; and stay observant of the many beauties remaining."
- From bats to human lungs, the evolution of a coronavirus-
As Carolyn Kormann explains in The New Yorker (27/3/20) the coronavirus causing the Covid-19 pandemic is the latest manifestation of zoonotic viruses - those that jump from animals to humans.
"For thousands of years, a parasite with no name lived happily among horseshoe bats in southern China. The bats had evolved to the point that they did not notice; they went about their nightly flights unbothered. One day, the parasite—an ancestor of the coronavirus, sars-CoV-2—had an opportunity to expand its realm. Perhaps it was a pangolin, the scaly anteater, an endangered species that is a victim of incessant wildlife trafficking and sold, often secretly, in live-animal markets throughout Southeast Asia and China. Or not. The genetic pathway remains unclear. But to survive in a new species, whatever it was, the virus had to mutate dramatically. It might even have taken a segment of a different coronavirus strain that already inhabited its new host, and morphed into a hybrid—a better, stronger version of itself, a pathogenic Everyman capable of thriving in diverse species. More recently, the coronavirus found a new species: ours."
Kormann charts the research work that identified the virus, beginning with the 2003 SARS outbreak. "After years of further bat surveillance, researchers eventually found the direct coronavirus antecedent to SARS, as well as hundreds of other coronaviruses circulating among some of the fourteen hundred bats species that live on six continents. Coronaviruses, and other virus families, it turns out, have been co-evolving with bats for the entire span of human civilization, and possibly much longer."
When the first cases of pneumonia were declared in Wuhan, China, they were connected to a wet market "with a notorious wildlife section. Animals are stacked in cages—rabbits on top of civets on top of ferret-badgers." One of the researchers described it as "just a gravitational exchange of fecal matter and viruses." Kormann's piece sets out the differences between coronaviruses and those that cause more familiar diseases, and how this particular one goes about its task of using human hosts to replicate and spread. "It has spent thousands of years evolving to get where it is. We’re now just rushing to catch up."
- The dual status of cats as both predator and companion requires a new ecology-
Setting aside for now whether you're a member of the 'cat person' tribe or else the 'dog person' tribe or are among the nonaligned, here's an interesting snippet from Cara Giaimo at Anthropocene Magazine (11/3/20). Yes, cats inspire divided reactions in people - "some consider them pure menaces to birds and other wildlife, while to others, they’re beloved pets" - but maybe the animal's own contradictions make sense from the perspective of the species' history. Giaimo quotes recent research that suggests that "unlike other companion species, 'the cat maintains liminal status as both a domestic and a wild animal' ... While cats’ domestic traits make them an inextricable part of human society, their wild traits keep them outside of our control. And if we want to manage them, the authors argue, we have to understand both sides."
Cats 'self-domesticated' around 10,000 years ago but haven't actually changed that much since then, leading to a double identity as wild predator and domestic companion. "Conservationists consider the wild side of cats to be their most important trait, and think unowned ones should be managed accordingly — trapped and sterilized, relocated, or even lethally removed from wild landscapes. Meanwhile, feline advocates urge us to treat all cats, including feral ones, with the compassion we usually show to our domestic companions." The suggestion then is that an “'interdisciplinary companion animal ecology' ... can help us tease out the relationships between all of these issues, and make good management decisions about this boundary-crossing creature."
- Poetic activism – painting a picture-
Margaret Gearty writes at her New Histories blog (23/2/20) about the phrase 'poetic activism', an idea she discovered in the work of American social constructionist Ken Gergen. "He said that if we long for change, we have to find: 'new forms of language and ways of interpreting the world'. Only then can there be new possibilities for action. He went on to say that: 'New ways of living are not secured simply by refusing or rejecting the meanings as given, for example, avoiding sexist or racist language'. In our increasingly partisan times finding poetic moves that might help us live into that space between angry rebuttal and passive acquiescence seems ever more pressing."
Sharing the phrase with others, Gearty discovered mixed reactions: it "attracted some and repelled others. Still, like a meme, those two simple words kept re-surfacing and provoking me to say them out loud. The words were a micro-version of themselves I suppose – they created a slightly different world for me to inhabit." In exploring what being a poetic activist might mean, she developed a 6-point manifesto - which she shares here - that will strike a chord with many people wondering what meaningful action might look like in their own lives. And yet, as Gearty points out, "stridency and the word activism itself can be problematic. Many people don’t really see themselves as having that resistant fiery energy inside them. 'The word activism turns me right off', said a colleague P. across the table from me recently when I mentioned my recent blogging adventures, 'but it doesn’t mean I don’t care and passionately want to do something for the next generation'. Many people don’t want to be preached to or preachy. They don’t want to join marches and yet they are deeply concerned. So they respond, often privately, in their own way."
Is there a 'call' to be a poetic activist, in the way many other activisms are triggered and shared? And then "Suppose the world was filled with people who could name and find legitimacy in the private ‘activisms’ of their lives. Wouldn’t there be some merit in connecting that up in some way? Could stepping into the identity of the ‘poetic activist’ be one way to come together some way and tell that story? Trusting that if enough people did, surprising things might happen."
- How birds are used to reveal the future-
Felice Wyndham writes for The Conversation (26/2/20) about the value of ecoliteracy - in particular, how "people around the world and throughout history have used birds to think about and predict the future ... In many cases, the 'reading' of birds is related to a sophisticated understanding of ecological relationships..."
Studying more than 500 accounts from around the world, in more than 100 languages, she and her colleague Karen Park have amassed examples of how people in all cultures pay attention to particular birds in order to gain particular information about the world around them. "Ecologists are increasingly documenting the ways that birds are able to predict environmental conditions such as tornados – by avoiding severe storms on their migration paths, possibly through infrasound perception ... Knowledge of these ecological indicators by professionals and local people are examples of sophisticated ecoliteracy – the ability to read landscapes, waterscapes and skyscapes to know what has occurred and thus what may yet occur."
While, as the article points out, ecoliteracy traditions around the world have helped us know the world, and until quite recently provided "a taken-for-granted baseline education many around the world experienced as an integral part of ... informal childhood learning", such skills are today on the wane, though far from lost. "It is detrimental if we lose specific bits of ecological knowledge, but it is even worse if we stop paying attention to the natural world altogether ... We are, after all, constantly trying to learn from the past and to anticipate the future."
- The search for new words to make us care about the climate crisis-
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."
- ‘Window of Opportunity’-
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’."
- The story at the end of the world-
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."
- Shoveling out the dregs of neoliberalism: a crash course-
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:" ...
- Re to For-
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.
- 2019 years-
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."
- An artist set out to paint climate change. She ended up on a journey through grief.-
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."
- Climate crisis: we are not individuals fighting a faceless system – we are the system that needs to change-
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."
- Tweet, stream, cloud: it’s time to bring ‘nature’ words back to the countryside-
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."
- The Voyage to the End of Ice-
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."
- Is it wrong to be hopeful about climate change?-
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.
- In 2030, we ended the climate emergency. Here’s how.-
"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."