- The peace of wild things-
Aeon Magazine (11/1/21) shares a moment of contemplation that will strike a chord with many of us during the start of our second year with the Covid19 pandemic and its lockdowns. In this very short animated film by UK animators Katy Wang and Charlotte Ager, American poet, farmer and environmental activist Wendell Berry reads his short poem, The Peace of Wild Things.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
- Mary Wollstonecraft as environmental prophet-
Bee Rowlatt shares with Extinction Rebellion (21/1/21) her "piercing moment of realisation" of climate crisis - and the story of how she later followed in the wake of Enlightenment philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft's own journey to a prophetic insight in 1795 - retracing it in her book In Search of Mary. For Rowlatt it was "a humble example, when I noticed that sparrows, my scruffy childhood favourites, had vanished from London. For so long they cheerfully dotted the urban landscape, hopping and scrapping around. Surely sparrows had the least to fear from humans – they were common and therefore insignificant ... And then they were gone."
For Wollstonecraft, it was "on rough seas off the coast of Norway. She was on a mysterious treasure hunt, in the teeth of the French revolutionary wars, travelling with her baby, and a broken heart." Wollstonecraft's account of these travels, Letters from Norway "is a desperate and doomed love letter, gathering force from her powerful responses to the wild landscapes. And there in the midst of that rollercoaster journey, on a wobbly boat and surrounded by strangers, she is suddenly struck by compassion for future generations in jeopardy" when she foresees the whole planet overpopulated and subjected to humanity's activities, even "'these bleak shores. Imagination went still farther, and pictured the state of man when the earth could no longer support him. ... 'Where was he to fly to from universal famine? Do not smile: I really became distressed for these fellow creatures, yet unborn.'”
Howlatt testifies to the powerful personal impact of moments of imagainative experience and suggests that "as the climate crisis deepens, it matters that we observe moments like this, and mark their arrival. It is the awakening to human fragility, and to the role we play in our own demise."
- Eco-fusion is the new normal, as native and non-native species mix together
Writing for The Conversation (18/2/21), Ian Rotherham and Peter Bridgewater remind that, while many invasive species cause major problems, "the idea that all 'alien' species are inherently bad, and that invasions can be always effectively controlled, is mistaken." Furthermore, as "ecological novelty is now the order of the day, we must adapt both our ideas and our actions to this new reality."
Species of plant and animal, of course, have always moved around the globe and this has lead to processes of 'recombining' within local ecosystems - "eco-fusion or ecological hybridisation" - to establish new or novel mixes of native and non-native species. Such hybrid ecosystems are increasingly common "as the natural world is disrupted by air pollution and climate change, and more land is cleared for buildings or agriculture the numbers and types of fusion ecosystems are increasing." But the researchers warn that "in this context of change, our perceptions and decisions about which species to conserve and which to cull are less objective than we might assume."
They call for a more pragmatic approach to what counts as 'nature'. "In the tumultuous world of the Anthropocene, major changes to environmental conditions such as the climate, globalisation and human numbers, mean that both supposed native and non-native species will continue to interact and evolve."
- An Evergreen and Pleasant Land?
Writing for The Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene Biodiversity (4/2/21), Pete Yeo takes inspiration from the famous lines of William Blake - immortalised in the hymn Jerusalem - "And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England's mountains green: / And was the holy Lamb of God / On England's pleasant pastures seen!" - to contemplate the changes in Britain's vegetation as a result of our changing climate.
"Whilst Blake’s ‘green and pleasant land’ clearly featured ‘pastures’, then as now England’s natural, spontaneous vegetation tends towards verdant yet deciduous forest. This has not always been the case; not so long ago in the geological past the climate was too frigid for most plants, whilst further back in time it has been decidedly subtropical. These warmer epochs witnessed the prominence of evergreen woody species, such as those constituting so-called laurel forest. Climate change is now inviting such vegetation back with profound consequences for our relationship with the land and its always evolving ecosystems."
After periods of Ice Age glaciation, which removed cold-sensitive tree cover, rising temperatures once again permitted some species to colonise or recolonise northward - "though these were descendants that had learnt to cope with cooler, drier conditions. English natives holly and ivy are both examples (to which we can add the conifer yew), whilst other laurel forest relicts such as cherry laurel, holm oak and rhododendron were able to make it to the British Isles during one or other of the warmer interglacial periods..."
And now the rediversification of European forests is underway in response to human-induced changes. "Admittedly, this is not simply due to our warming climate and reducing frosts that now allow seed-set and dispersal. The process has been facilitated by our global society, our love of trade and, especially, horticulture. This ecological mixing was likely inevitable at some point due to larger Earth cycles yet it all represents a great acceleration of evolutionary processes, and brings novel tensions. We are where we are, however. Whilst throw-back winters may occasionally slow evergreen progress, sufficient warming is already locked-in, however good our efforts at emission mitigation. This invites us to adapt and welcome laurel forest species, and to reconcile ecological and cultural tensions as far as possible, without need for Blake’s ‘chariot of fire’."
Pete's article has also been reposted at the website set up by ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe for Finding Blake, the project 'reimagining William Blake for the 21st century'; the site has also featured posts from ClimateCultures members James Murray-White, Clare Crossman and Salli Hipkiss.
- Mapping the Planetary: Five Questions for Dipesh Chakrabarty
In a piece for Edge Effects (30/3/21), Doron Darnov brings together some of the questions to Dipesh Chakrabarty at a workshop in a series 'Alien Earth: Introduction to Planetary Humanities'. Chakrabarty, who has posed crucial interventions in the environmental humanities, especially on the ways that climate change asks us to rethink the project of studying history, proposes an important distinction between the 'globe' - as a construct of human thinking and action - and the 'planet' - as one among many planetary bodies - as well as on the role of affect and the ways 'planetarity' asks us to challenge Eurocentric views of human history. Here is a very short selection from Chakrabarty's answers: for more, and for the questions, do read the full piece.
"The planet that is the 'Earth system' is only a construction, an abstract entity: you can’t visualize it. If you read any basic book on Earth System Science, you’ll find very diagrammatic images of how the planet works as a system. So the actual entity is not visualizable in the way our eyes would see it, whereas Blue Marble [photograph] is how we would see Earth if you were an astronaut up in space. So, something that presents itself to our eyes as a self-made form, as it were, as a spherical thing 'out there,' is a culminating point of 'the globe.'"
"When people ask the question 'can there be life on other planets?' they conceptually project to other planets some of the things they see on this planet as providing for the basis of life, so in that sense the Earth System is inherently interplanetary in that it both draws on the experience of this planet and other planets as well as projects science onto other planets. But the globe, as I keep saying, is what humans have made - through the expansion of Europe, through empire-building, through colonization, through capitalism."
"I learned from Earth System Science that what they call 'the modern atmosphere of the planet' has been more or less in this state for about three hundred seventy-five million years, which means it was not made with us in mind. Earth System Science does for me what Indigenous philosophers also do: not make humans special, not make the story completely anthropocentric. I think there’s something to be learned from Indigenous people, which is that they’ve actually lived for much longer than modern societies have, with their outlook, by not creating a society-nature distinction."
"One aspect of the debate on geoengineering - whether humans should spray aerosols in the stratosphere to reflect some of the sunlight back - is something scientists themselves point out: that with scattered light, the sky will be permanently white. Do you want to live with white skies? You can’t imagine human action on climate change without affect."
"Scale is absolutely important, both of space and time, in the way that power structures are organized. And there is a question of affect for individual human beings, because we make decisions roughly within the time-horizons of our own lives, and at most we think of the next generation, if we can afford to. That completely decides the kind of actions we can take against problems that may actually unfold over thousands of years beyond the human scale. And for me, that is an intrinsic part of the predicament we’re in."
- Flumilightenment – The Great Mental and Emotional Convergence
Writing at her Seasonalight blog (22/3/21), Ginny Battson reminds us that habitually, through the words, phrases and headlines we experience every day, "We are drip-fed news about the non-descript environment as if it were: External to us – somewhere 'out there'; a choice, option, preference, or hobby; something that others make a fuss about because they don’t have to worry about daily traumas such as racism, all other kinds of prejudices, conflicts, ill-health, paying the rent."
Part of the problem here is the very word 'environment' - and 'environmentalism' as some kind of 'niche' activity. "We must now DROP the term 'environmentalism' for the sake of saving life itself. Fluminism is the reality." Ginny uses the word fluminism to express how the physical reality we share with all other living forms and the planet's underlying processes is all flow: "All is flow, and all life forms (even in death) are integral to all. Nothing is truly separate in the realm of reality. What has been separated is our mental and emotional state of being. And continuing to use separate language perpetuates planetary catastrophe."
Ginny's championing of flow extends far beyond the living web of all organisms to the material and energetic realms that pervade and underpin life itself, and it is this kind of imaginative grasp of reality that she calls for in a new enlightenment. "Sometimes, our imaginations are able to envision, though the crisis of imagination right now is profound. Sometimes, we may even think we feel it (I call this sanguimund – bloodearth). I want us to be able to protect it all (I call this praximund – processearth)."
"I hope this makes you feel alert and empowered," she concludes. "You need to be."
- Observing nature in your backyard is not dull but radically significant
For Aeon's Psyche Magazine (3/3/21), Yadvinder Malhi relates an experience that some of us have been fortunate to have even during this time of Covid19, although many have been denied: "solace and refuge in local nature over this year of pandemic and lockdown. When able to escape from Zoom calls and cabin fever, I’ve wandered and exercised in my local floodplain meadow of the Thames. I’ve used books and apps to teach myself new natural history skills, such as identifying birds from their songs, or learning the more obscure local plants. I’ve found comfort and fascination in becoming more aware of this community of beings around me."
For Yadvinder, this complements formal research as an ecosystem scientist - but also contrasts with it, as his role there has been in helping to see "the big picture, synthesising insights across these diverse sites, taking advantage of a common scientific methodology that enables rigorous comparison." Inspired by English 18th-century naturalist Gilbert White's famous attention to the very local in his highly influential book, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, he came to appreciate the immense value of White's approach "as a counterpoint to planet-spanning snapshots. White wrote in detail about such things as plants, birds and worms, patiently observing the flowering times of plants, the migration patterns of birds, even the hibernation routines of his pet tortoise Timothy, purely for the joy of understanding them."
In setting out how White's example begins to chart a journey that can "change our self-understanding, recognising that humans are embedded in a wider natural world" - but a journey that remains incomplete - Yadvinder reminds us that "To see humanity as but one member of a community of animal and plant ‘nations’ is intrinsic to many indigenous world views, including those of Europe. However, this way of seeing retreated in prominence in medieval Europe, and was further diminished by the elevation of the power of reason in the Enlightenment, which enhanced a sense of human superiority over Nature. White’s empathy with the inner lives of other species, married with the emerging scientific values of meticulous observation, record-keeping and quantification, was something new. His observations and writings made a quiet, patient beginning to a revolution that would eventually shake the foundations of our understanding of humanity’s place in the natural world." Radically significant, indeed.
- How a secret Cold War project led to signs of ancient life - and a new warning about the future
Gemma Tarlach relates for Atlas Obscura (15/3/21) how the rediscovery of a lost Arctic sample has rewritten the history of Greenland's ice sheet - with implications for our global future. The core of subglacial sediment and rock was taken from below a mile of ice in 1966 at an American research base in Greenland that had served as cover for a secret military project to build hundreds of miles of tunnels about into the ice to store nuclear missiles within striking range of the Soviet Union. "Since being pulled from beneath the ice sheet, the sample had been separated from the rest of the core, had criss-crossed the Atlantic, was lost, and then rediscovered. But it had never been analyzed."
When Andrew Christ was washing the sample for analysis he found peculiar black specks floating in the water. "'Oh my god, these are plants,' he remembers exclaiming. 'I went full-on mad scientist.'" The new evidence suggested Greenland had been ice-free in the past million years, although it had long been "thought that Greenland’s ice sheet, more than two miles thick in places, was essentially permanent, and had blanketed the island for more than two million years. The subglacial sample confirms the massive ice sheet can probably melt far more easily than most models suggest, which would dump enough water into the oceans to raise sea levels by up to 20 feet, all but wiping major cities such as London and Boston off the map."
With Earth’s polar regions warming much faster than the rest of the planet, “the Greenland Ice Sheet can disappear,” says a climatologist William Colgan: “It is remarkably climate-sensitive.”
The scientists will study material to learn more about the plant material it preserved, "which is unique, since massive ice deposits usually destroy organic material. The next phase of research, already underway, includes searching for traces of DNA that could be used to determine the species present, and even reconstruct the entire ecosystem."
- Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap On Earth Day, three eminent climate scientists write for The Conversation (22/4/21) about their fears for the direction governments have built into their domestic and global efforts to combat climate change, charting the rise of 'Net Zero' as the core concept that is now being promoted above all else. "Collectively we three authors of this article must have spent more than 80 years thinking about climate change," say Bob Watson (the former head of the IPCC), Wolfgang Knorr and James Dyson - before admitting: "Why has it taken us so long to speak out about the obvious dangers of the concept of net zero? In our defence, the premise of net zero is deceptively simple – and we admit that it deceived us." Net zero, they suggest "is a great idea, in principle. Unfortunately, in practice it helps perpetuate a belief in technological salvation and diminishes the sense of urgency surrounding the need to curb emissions now. We have arrived at the painful realisation that the idea of net zero has licensed a recklessly cavalier 'burn now, pay later' approach which has seen carbon emissions continue to soar. It has also hastened the destruction of the natural world by increasing deforestation today, and greatly increases the risk of further devastation in the future."
Charting the steps to net zero goals, alongside technologies that have "removed the need for deep critical thinking", an "implicit promise ... that market-based approaches will always work" and that new, 'breakthrough' technologies for capturing and storing carbon can push back the time when deep emission cuts will actually be needed, the three authors add their own perspectives:
"Over the years, doubt has developed into dread. This gnawing sense that we have made a terrible mistake. There are now times when I freely admit to a sense of panic. How did we get this so wrong?" - James Dyke, senior lecturer in global systems, University of Exeter.
"It came to me as a real shock that I must have contributed personally to the net zero trap ... stating that any remaining carbon dioxide emissions by human activities would have to be 'balanced by an artificial sink'." - Wolfgang Knorr, physical geography & ecosystem science, Lund University.
"The most recent assessments clearly show we are failing to meet any of the agreed targets for limiting climate change or loss of biodiversity. I am ashamed of our repeated failures." - Robert Watson, emeritus professor in environmental sciences, University of East Anglia.
"The time has come to voice our fears and be honest with wider society. Current net zero policies will not keep warming to within 1.5°C because they were never intended to. They were and still are driven by a need to protect business as usual, not the climate. If we want to keep people safe then large and sustained cuts to carbon emissions need to happen now. That is the very simple acid test that must be applied to all climate policies. The time for wishful thinking is over."
- 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."
- 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.
- 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."
- 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."
- We set 20 targets to save our planet a decade ago, and we've missed them all-
"In 2010, 190 member states of the UN's Convention on Biological Diversity committed to a battle plan to limit the damage inflicted on the natural world by 2020," Patric Gale reminds us at Science Alert (16/9/20). "But in its latest Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO) ... the UN said not one of these goals would be met."
The recent assessment lays out pathways to reverse nature loss during the current decade, with a key constituent being the indigenous populations, "which control around 80 percent of biodiversity worldwide." Gale quotes Andy White, coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative, a global coalition of more than 150 groups pushing for indigenous empowerment, saying that boosting indigenous land rights provides "a proven solution for protecting the ecosystems that are vital to the health of the planet and its peoples".
- To stop mass extinction, reform the outdated Victorian harm principle-
"No actions ought to lead towards the extinction of life." Tanya Wyatt argues at The Conversation (28/9/20) that our environmental protection laws allow for harm to the environment because there is no "accepted and fundamental definition of harm" and, in any case, "for far too long, harm to 'others' has only really considered humans." The principles we base our laws on are outdated.
Seeking to use evolutionary principles to rebuild the 'harm principle' so our systems can better address competing harms, both between humans and towards the environment, Wyatt and colleagues define harm as “'that which makes the survival of life more fragile'. By 'life', we mean all living species, not just humans. And by 'survival', we mean the ability to flourish, not just the bare minimum of a tenuous existence ... For example, humans should not be allowed to kill an entire species for use of their body parts, as has been the case with the Northern white rhinoceros.
She draws on examples such as Australia's Wild Law Judgement Project, which rewrite existing laws to be Earth-centred - an approach that is inclusive of humans as part of nature. She takes overfishing as one example from the recent BBC documentary from David Attenborough, Extinction: The Facts, which notes that there may be 100,000 fishing trawlers operating globally at any one time, each trawler maybe the size of four jumbo jets."The timescale of ethical consideration needs to shift from a narrow short-term focus on human individuals (catching as many fish as possible continually) to comprehensive long-term consequences for all life (collapse of fish populations and food insecurity for our children). ... What is needed is a fundamental change to the harm principle which underlies all our laws."
- Making literature in the Anthropocene-
Amy Peterson has been wondering "what the role of the artist is in the Anthropocene, and watched for examples of artists working in ways that cultivate mutual flourishing in this strange and unprecedented ecological era." In her essay for Image (103) she surveys the work of novelists, poets and nonfiction writers, and asks "How can work in the humanities decenter the human? If I attempt in my writing to ascribe agency to plants, animals, and the nonhuman world, won’t I simply be anthropomorphizing? Won’t I be speaking for them, rather than allowing them to speak for themselves—and isn’t that a form of literary violence?"
But she does find examples that help her "understand what it means to be human differently than I used to. I am better able to take my place as a created being with other created beings, to live with curiosity and respect. I am better able to understand that I don’t exist independently of the world around me, that all the boundary lines I like to think keep me separate from others are in some sense imagined and temporally bound. I can’t exist without others. And I may not be the hero of my story."
Drawing on a range of work, she suggests that it is a matter of 'reculturing our imaginations'. And "Before culture meant arts, literature, and music, it meant food: it meant the bacteria and yeasts living in complex ecosystems making our meals delicious."
- Is there an antidote to shifting baseline syndrome?-
"Imagine a world where flocks of birds block out the sun... " At Anthropocene Magazine (16/9/20) Cara Giaimo reminds us that "As generations of humans empty the world, their descendants are unable to see - and so find it hard to understand - how full it once was." This is the well-known - but hard to study - Shifting Baseline Syndrome, which is frequently raised by those concerned with the importance and challenges of conserving the diversity and abundance of the living world.
"In 1995, fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly used the term 'shifting baseline syndrome' to describe this phenomenon: each generation of fisheries scientists, he wrote, 'accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers,' leading to 'a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance' of species." This shifting (in fact, eroding) baseline of what's considered 'normal' has also been classed as a form of 'generational amnesia'. As the natural world is eroded in reality, so it is cultural memory and in our imagination of what 'natural' means. And, seemingly inevitably, this rolling amnesia impacts negatively on crucial support for conserving species and habitats.
Giaimo points to an interesting and hopeful finding in the research she summarises here: that people's ability to recognise by sight particular species (in this study, common birds) was associated with how well they understood the population trends. This is an awareness they might get from personal experience, books or intergenerational sharing of knowledge. "Knowledge begets knowledge, and even if young people have never seen birds block out the sun—or just form a good-sized cloud—we can all hone our ability to imagine such a sight, and think of what it might take to get back there."
- We’ve built enough fences to stretch to the sun—but still don’t understand their effects here on Earth-
Writing in Anthropocene Magazine (21/10/20) Cara Giaimo summarises new analysis of over 400 papers published since the 1940s looking at the ecological effects of fences. This shows how fences - old and new - are now a globally significant ecological feature. Fences, of course, are often part of conservation plans but tend to create winners and losers among species. "Often, these winners are generalists that can handle disturbed areas - in other words, the same ones that survive other types of habitat disruption. More sensitive species tend to lose out. In some cases, fences curtail so many different species that whole ecosystems begin to collapse."
And Giaimo reports that the analysis found gaps in the various studies over the decades, and therefore in our knowledge. "Most of the papers the researchers found were set in just five countries, and a majority focused on fences’ effects on larger mammals. We have a lot to learn about how smaller animals, plants, and fungi - not to mention physical aspects of ecosystems, like rivers and soil - respond to having their habitats sliced and diced."
More new fences are erected than old, redundant ones are removed - "If you put the world’s fences end to end, they would stretch at least as far as the distance between the Earth and the sun—much farther than the length of the world’s combined roads" - and "one easy first step might be to remove the miles upon miles of unused fences currently girdling the world, cutting ecosystems up for no reason. We also might start thinking about how to decide where to put this consequential infrastructure, or how we can change fences themselves to better achieve their goals."
- An ancient Maya city had a surprisingly effective water filtration system-
In an article with good timing for our current post from Lisa Lucero, A Cosmology of Conservation: Ancient Maya Environmentalism, Michelle Starr writes at Science Alert (24/10/20) that "In a reservoir in what was once the major Maya city of Tikal ... archaeologists have found zeolite and quartz – minerals that are not local to the area, and which are both effective at helping remove contaminants such as microbes, heavy metals, and nitrogen compounds from water. So effective, in fact, that they are both used in water filtration systems today."
She quotes the researchers' conclusion that this is "oldest known example of water purification in the Western Hemisphere, and the oldest known use of zeolite for decontaminating drinking water in the world." And, given that the city's only water source was its reservoirs - for reasons explored in Lisa's post - as Starr points out, "it stands to reason that they had some means of keeping the water clean." Because of the large population, "and the highly variable climate that went through periods of seasonal drought, their drinking water was prone to contamination from both microbes and cinnabar, or mercury sulfide, a pigment the Maya used heavily." As one of the researchers says, "The ancient Maya lived in a tropical environment and had to be innovators. This is a remarkable innovation."
- 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.]
- Our five biggest delusions about climate change-
In his op-ed in the Los Angeles Times (27/2/19) David Wallace-Wells briefly lists the five things he thinks we commonly misunderstand about climate change. These include: that somehow it's binary and either will or won't happen, depending on the actions we take now; that it happens slowly, and is mostly a legacy of the Industrial Revolution; that it's mostly about sea level rise and so of greatest concern to those living on coasts; and that two degrees of global warming is the worst case scenario, which we can and must avoid. But the fifth delusion, he suggests is the "misapprehension ... that science is even capable of containing and describing the sum total of the assaults. In fact, the indirect effects may be even more profound: on our psychology, our culture, our sense of place in nature and history, our relationship to technology and to capitalism. Not to mention our geopolitics."
As for the first four delusions, he asserts that: far from being on or off, "climate change is a function that will get worse over time as long as we continue to emit greenhouse gas"; climate change is fast and mostly recent, with "according to my research, more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels ... in the last 30 years"; far from being a coastal threat, "if warming continues unabated, by the end of even this century, no life will remain untouched"; and limiting the global rise to 2oC "is a best-case scenario that, at this point, will be almost impossible to achieve."
These may be Wallace-Wells' own judgement calls, but what seems a safe bet is his suggestion that "We have already exited the environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve in the first place, in an unplanned bet on just what we can endure." And, returning to his fifth delusion, there is the open question: "We have reshaped the world’s climate ... How will climate change reshape us?"
- Here’s how Britain’s changing weather is affecting wildlife-
Writing in The Conversation (27/2/19), Phillip James points out the stark contrast between the unseasonable weather Britain is experiencing this February and the same time last year. Then, the 'Beast from the East' brought a minimum temperature of -11.7°C in Hampshire, and a maximum of only -4.8°C in Cumbria; now temperatures have reached 21.2˚C in south-west London: "the warmest winter day since records began. In February 2019, bumblebee queens were out looking for nest sites, adult butterflies were emerging from their winter hibernation and blossom appeared on some trees and shrubs."
He describes how the science of phenology is uncovering the shifting responses of plants, insects, birds and animals to our changing seasons - and how species that depend on each other can go out of synch. For example, "As the days get longer and warmer in the northern hemisphere, bird species such as the barn swallow follow these natural cues to depart for British habitats, where they nest and rear their young. These insectivorous migratory birds time their breeding season to coincide with insects being present in sufficient numbers to feed their young ... An early spring means that insects could emerge and breed before migratory birds arrive. Once in the UK, the birds may find there are fewer insects to eat and this results in fewer chicks fledging, which leaves their predators, including the sparrowhawk and the stoat, with less to eat. The disconnect between the arrival of insectivorous birds and the abundance of insects ripples through the ecosystem, affecting other animals and plants that at first sight may not seem linked to this seemingly benign change."
"Many people have worried about the unseasonable warmth and spring-like conditions of February 2019. As unseasonably mild weather brings about changes in plant growth that could accelerate climate change and widen the disconnect between elements of ecosystems, this unusual week may leave an even more worrying legacy."
- Wild carnivores stage a comeback in Britain-
ScienceDaily (25/2/19) reports research by Katherine Sainsbury and others showing how "the status of Britain's native mammalian carnivores (badger, fox, otter, pine marten, polecat, stoat and weasel) has 'markedly improved' since the 1960s," and that "the species have largely 'done it for themselves' - recovering once harmful human activities had been stopped or reduced." It was human activity that caused sharp declines: "Hunting, trapping, control by gamekeepers, use of toxic chemicals and destruction of habitats contributed to the decline of most predatory mammals in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, but as Dr Sainsbury says, "unlike most carnivores across the world, which are declining rapidly, British carnivores declined to their low points decades ago and are now bouncing back."
The exception to this good news is the wildcat, now restricted to small numbers in isolated parts of the Scottish Highlands. "Some estimates suggest there are as few as 200 individuals left. Their decline has largely been caused by inter-breeding with domestic cats, leading to loss of wildcat genes." And, as the report states "the status of stoats and weasels remains obscure."
- A conversation with nature-
In another thoughtful and thought-provoking blog at Ecosophia (20/2/19), John Micahel Greer picks up on an interesting case of a so-called invasive species asserting the power of nature to counteract humans' own invasive acts. About 30 years ago, a Russian freighter emptying its bilge tanks into the Great Lakes also released zebra mussels into those highly polluted water. Lake Erie had long been declared biologically dead. "What had once been a beautiful lake full of fish had become a gigantic open sewer, and very little even tried to live there when the zebra mussels arrived, but this didn’t stop the mussels. Within a fairly short time they had colonized the formerly dead lake en masse ... What’s more, as they did what zebra mussels do, the lake began to recover. As filter feeders, zebra mussels strain organic material out of the water, eating what they can and packing the rest into biologically inert 'pseudofeces' which drop to the bottom and are entombed in the sediment. As they fed, the lake water slowly became clear again, letting light down to the lower levels of the water column and permitting other species to return."
For Greer, things get interesting where modern industrial civilisation fails to learn from this natural 'invasion'. "The human reaction was all-out panic, followed by frantic attempts to exterminate the zebra mussels, or at least stop them from getting to other badly polluted lakes, of which there are of course no shortage in that region. To be fair, the mussels have certain habits humans find understandably annoying. They like to fasten onto the outflow pipes for industrial waste, sewage, and heated water from nuclear power plants, blocking the pipes solid and forcing factories and utilities to spend huge amounts every year to bore the pipes open again so they can keep on polluting. (Don’t try to tell me that Mother Nature doesn’t have a wicked sense of humor.) ... If you want to keep on doing business as usual when zebra mussels are present, in other words, it’s going to cost you."
It's an example of humans failing to understand that we're in conversation with the rest of the natural world. "We said 'pollution,' [Mother Nature] quipped 'zebra mussels;' we said 'internal combustion engines', and she smiled and said 'coastal flooding.' We can listen to her responses and learn from them — or not, and find out the hard way what else she has to say."
- How can scholarly work be meaningful in an era of lost causes?-
In a lengthy but highly readable and well-developed essay for Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism (13/2/19), Kelly Sultzbach writes about her work in and out of the classroom with students whose growing awareness of environmental crisis leads them to ask "what they could do and ... what we as a class would do. How do we begin to frame our response? ... In the humanities, I have been better equipped to craft a syllabus of readings that provoke interlacing questions and multiple interpretations than to articulate solutions or a list of action steps ... The humanities have trained us to enable students to see the impact of invisible power dynamics of privilege, to process feelings that are part of the human condition, and to adopt multiple perspectives that germinate a creative imagination."
As she discovers with her students, "it is easy to feel overwhelmed and alone facing the questions of the Anthropocene age, when in fact, there is a deep history of hope-as-work and a wealth of inter-generational mentors." And in addressing this tension between overwhelm and practical hope, her account of the value of environmental humanities shows how, "just as important as a broad sense of ‘environmental texts’ is a generous conception of environmental ways of reading – ferreting out rhetorical revealings and concealings, unexpected psychological shifts, markers of economic ‘health’ – that must be brought to bear on a range of genres: literary, scientific, and social." Such reading can increase our appreciation of uncertainty and the multiple perspectives it generates in any choice about the future. "Those ambiguities can’t be too hastily turned into answers; that back-and-forth of people finding different ways of responding to shared problems is part of the tensile swaying strength of a surviving river or a tree that will outlast a storm."
In this fascinating piece for Inside Out (14/2/19), Caspar Henderson writes of the enduring fascination with labyrinths across human cultures around the world and from ancient times to modern times. He quotes neuropsychologist Paul Broks: "the universal fascination with the image of the labyrinth suggests some fundamental psychological significance, that perhaps it holds the power to captivate and transform the mind in some way. It’s been suggested, for example, that threading the spirals of a labyrinth works to loosen the grip of rational, analytical, ‘left-brain’ styles of thinking, thereby opening the mind to more intuitive, spiritual, ‘right-brain’ modes of experience and the imaginal reality of ghosts and gods." And Henderson draws on this possibility and the ambiguity of popular representations of labyrinths to suggest this ability to loosen the group of habitual ways of seeing the world might be essential resources for getting to grips - mental, social, political - with wicked problems (or, better in my view, predicaments) such as the crises of climate change and the Sixth Mass Extinction.
"How to think and feel?" he asks. "What to do? ... The environmental crisis is a wicked problem, and most of us are implicated in it by the basic privileges our societies have afforded us ... But it is not impossible that the appetite and ingenuity that have delivered so much well-being by means that are ultimately destructive can be turned to good ends. And this brings me back to the labyrinth ... To make a more beautiful human labyrinth in a larger non-human world we will need (among other things) to think about re-integration ... of human and natural richness."
- She finds clues to future sustainability in old food webs-
For Quanta Magazine (21/3/19), Elizabeth Preston interviews ecologist Jennifer Dunne, who explains that "'when ecologists do consider humans, they often treat us as an external factor causing something like climate change. Throughout history, however, we’ve been enmeshed in the planet’s networks of life-forms eating one another.'" Through analysing food webs that include humans alongside other species - both in the world today and in past times - she and colleagues have proposed a new form of web; "not a food web, but a web of use ... [looking] at six populations of preindustrial or nonindustrial humans, cataloging every way that people interacted with the species around them: pelts for clothing, wood for shelter, leaves for medicine and so on. To visualize the results, the researchers map a culture’s five or six most-used species onto a circular plot, along with a 'taxonomy of uses.' The result resembles a thickly woven dreamcatcher."
Dunne explains that "'It’s providing new kinds of species-interaction data centered around humans, which give us access to this slew of interesting ecological, cultural and socioecological questions. And it gives us a new way, I hope, to think about sustainability. We’re studying some systems that had bad environmental outcomes, like species loss and environmental degradation, and also human cultural chaos or breakdown. Are there lessons for thinking about sustainability, now and into the future?'"
Looking at predominant economic systems today, she observes how "'You get this perverse anti-ecological dynamic. In an ecological system, as something becomes rarer and harder to find, its ecological value goes down. That’s why predators prey switch: They have to expend too many calories to try to get that prey, or it’s too dangerous. But in a luxury market, all of a sudden you get the perverse incentive to hunt more because it’s worth more and more money. A bluefin tuna was just sold recently for more than 3 million dollars, a new record ... It’s destabilizing — not just for bluefin tuna but potentially for the whole food web. The tuna are embedded within a whole network of interactions. And that’s part of the point of doing food web research, or interaction research. You pull out one node, you pull out one interaction, and it’s not just about those species. It’s about impacts that can potentially ripple throughout the whole system, and often in unexpected ways.'"
- Climate strikes: Greta Thunberg calls for ‘system change not climate change’ – here’s what that could look like-
Sheila Cannon writes about system change for the Conversation (15/3/19), drawing on demands that in order to fight climate change we need to change our political and economic systems. Social movements such as the school climate strikes sparked by the activism of Greta Thunberg are founded on a realisation that profound change is needed. "But," Cannon asks, "what is system change? How do entire systems change? When we see 'save the planet' initiatives, they often look like individual decisions that don’t cost much, like switching to a bamboo toothbrush or washing containers before you recycle them. By all means, do these things, but don’t confuse them with system change." Token gestures, she points out, can even reinforce the system that's perpetuating the problem they intend to counter. In this case, Cannon suggests, the system that needs to change is capitalism.
Part of the problem, she explains, is that we look for familiar structures to help shape 'solutions' to 'problems' such as climate change, because these structures help create the meaning through which we understand our situations. "People create meaning, follow rules and reproduce structures ... based on assumptions of what is right and proper. ... Because we are part of these meaning structures, we reproduce existing norms and beliefs and resist change. System change happens when we don’t take our assumptions for granted, which allows more and more people to question the status quo." She offers a 'Three Horizons Framework' approach to illustrate how systems can and do change: "Horizon one is business as usual – the status quo – and the outgoing institution in times of change. Horizon three is the new institution – with newly legitimised structures and beliefs. The space between them is horizon two, which is occupied by people focused on social change – who lead the transition from an old system to the new."
Glimpses of horizon three can already be glimpsed within the current system ('the future', famously, 'is already here; it just hasn't been evenly distributed'). "When aspects of horizon three appear – glimpses of a more sustainable system – they are usually rejected as illegitimate or too radical ... [but] if the climate strikers can continue to grow their movement and sustain momentum, their leadership could be an important part of society’s transition to a more sustainable system in horizon three."
- Thank you, climate strikers. Your action matters and your power will be felt-
In an opinion piece for the Guardian (15/3/19), Rebecca Solnit writes to "all the climate strikers today: thank you so much for being unreasonable. That is, if reasonable means playing by the rules, and the rules are presumed to be guidelines for what is and is not possible, then you may be told that what you are asking for is impossible or unreasonable. Don’t listen. Don’t stop."
Solnit reminds younger generations that "The world I was born into no longer exists. The role of women has changed extraordinarily since then, largely for the better. The entire Soviet empire collapsed suddenly 30 years ago ... I saw apartheid fall in South Africa, and a prisoner doing life become its president ... I saw wind and solar power go from awkward, ineffectual, expensive technologies only 20 years ago to become the means through which we can leave the age of fossil fuel behind. I have seen a language to recognize the Earth’s environmental systems arise in my lifetime, a language that can describe how everything is connected, and everything has consequences. Through studying what science teaches us about nature and what history teaches us about social forces I have come to see how beautiful and how powerful are the threads that connect us."
Acknowledging the unexpected power of school children such as Sweden's Greta Thunberg to change the popular landscape of possibility on climate change and mass extinction, Solnit says that "The rules are the rules of the obvious, the easy assumptions that we know who holds power, we know how change happens, we know what is possible. But the real lesson of history is that change often comes in unpredictable ways, power can suddenly be in the hands of those who appear out of what seems to the rest of us like nowhere. I did not see Thunberg coming..."
- How imagination will save our cities-
Writing in Nautilus (7/3/19) Paul Dobraszczyk draws on visual artists' depictions of far future cities to distinguish the power of our own imagination from that of technical projections in helping us understand what adapting to climate change might entail. Part of the problem in using scientific data about possible futures to engage present-day decisions is that, "grounded in empirical evidence, they are nevertheless essentially predictive, laying out a whole host of possible futures that rely on our ability to imagine those futures, even with the help of a welter of facts and figures." What is required in the first place is the imagination. "The overwhelmingly future-oriented language of climate change is perhaps the principal reason why it has been and continues to be so difficult to find common agreement as to how to act in the face of such fundamental uncertainty."
"In both literary and visual depictions of submerged urban futures, the intention is clearly to engage our imaginations in thinking through a radically different kind of future urban life." And, after surveying a range of imagined futures from the past and present, Dobraszczyk lands on one recent painting - Alexis Rockman's ironically titled Manifest Destiny - to illustrate how imagination can bridge the gap between possible futures and current realities.
"Even though the painting transports the viewer to a barely conceivable 3,000 years into the future, it nevertheless spells out clearly the connections between our own time and this long jump forward. The painting breaks down the entrenched humanist distinction between natural and human history -- in Manifest Destiny, both the future of the city and of nature are thoroughly intertwined. As such, the painting clearly flags up the need to think through those connections today and to recognize that they are already putting us on the road to the future envisaged in the painting. However, as its ironic title suggests, such a future is not inevitable; rather, Manifest Destiny invites us to consider how our own small actions are interwoven with the world and how they might be changed to co-create a more sustainable future."
- Who gets to have ecoanxiety?-
Joseph Weiss writes for Edge Effects (24/4/19) that "The 'new abnormal' isn’t very new at all for most of the communities living on this earth. They’ve been dealing with it for a very long time indeed and, most importantly, they’ve been continuing to build futures in spite of – and in relationship with – rapid, devastating, and unforeseen transformations in their lived social and ecological worlds. Without marginalizing the very real fears that come with climate change, I’d like to suggest that we don’t allow our own anxieties to blind us to the historical and ongoing realities of Indigenous and other marginalized communities. So too, we might start paying attention to the ways these communities have led the way in coping with the anxious ecological futures that we all share."
Taking the example of the peoples of Haida Gwaii - "a series of islands just off the west coast of what we now call Canada" - Weiss calls on the contemporary psychological condition of ecoanxiety as described by the American Psychiatric Association and associated with the planetary condition of the Anthropocene to look at historical (and ongoing) experiences of collapse or genocide brought to indigenous peoples by settler societies. Around 1870, for the Haida the 'new abnormal' arrived with the influx of disease, missionaries, colonial rule, deforestation and the appropriation of fisheries and other natural resources. "All this means that few, if any, Haida have the luxury of being 'anxious' about the possibility of ecological transformation. Instead, on Haida Gwaii, the apocalypse came to stay. ... Haida have been working throughout the last century and still today to continue to build different futures for themselves that push back against the idea that they, their culture, or the lands and seas upon which they live will disappear. And they do this work, each and every day."
- Life in Pripyat before, and the morning after, the Chernobyl disaster-
"As dawn approached, Esaulov watched from behind his desk as a single ambulance raced down Lenina Prospekt from the direction of the plant. Its emergency lights flashed, but the siren remained silent. The driver took a sharp right at the Rainbow department store, tore along the southern side of the square, and then swung away in the direction of the hospital. A few moments later, a second ambulance followed, and it, too, disappeared around the corner."
Adam Higginbottom provides an extract from his book, Midnight in Chernobyl, for Atlas Obscura (22/4/19), drawing out the sheer ordinariness of life in Pripyat on the extraordinary day in 1986 that saw the world's worst nuclear accident at that time. "Across the city’s five schools and in the Goldfish and Little Sunshine kindergartens, thousands of children started their lessons. Beneath the trees outside, mothers walked babies in their strollers. People took to the beach to sunbathe, fish, and swim in the river. In the grocery stores, shoppers stocked up on fresh produce, sausage, beer, and vodka for the May Day holiday." It was an ordinariness that was immediately disrupted forever - at the same time as the authorities tried to paper over the cracks.
"It was the weekend, so it was hard to find doctors, and, at first, no one understood what they were dealing with: The uniformed young men being brought from the station had been fighting a fire and complained of headaches, dry throats, and dizziness. The faces of some were a terrible purple; others, a deathly white. Soon all of them were retching and vomiting, filling wash basins and buckets until they had emptied their stomachs, and even then unable to stop. The triage nurse began to cry."
Higginbottom's matter-of-fact prose delivers the unfolding disaster in an unflinching manner, and encapsulates within it what is perhaps a metaphor for our own times from the dying years of an archaic and inflexible system of governing society and nature.
"Inside the fourth-floor conference hall, Vladimir Malomuzh, the Party’s second secretary for the Kiev region, took the stage ... 'Under no circumstances should you panic.'"
- Extinction Rebellion wants to save the planet. Could it save the arts in the process?-
Witnessing some of the International Rebellion's artistic interventions in London this week, India Bourke writes in the New Statesman (15/4/19) that "one thing emerging from the movement’s brightly-coloured activities is Britain’s dynamic and resolute arts scene."
She reminds us that it's important to set this upwelling of creative energy not just against ecological and climate emergency but also against the programme of austerity in public arts and culture, with cuts of more than £100m of annual arts funding. "And it’s not just the big museums and galleries that have suffered; libraries are struggling; school trips and plays are dwindling. Local authority spending on culture has also declined by almost £400m since 2010... Finding the most inclusive and effective way to highlight climate change’s existential threat is no easy task – but in harnessing the power of spectacle, the movement is reminding the country of a cultural strength it cannot afford to lose."
- Activist Dilemmas-
Writing for Inside Out (April), Anthea Lawson examines the dilemmas involved in activist choices, as she considered how to join the Extinction Rebellion activities this week. "So in this dilemma I find myself weighing up two impossible-to-compare scenarios. The practicalities of childcare to cover a night in a police cell and court dates, against the possibility of halting the extinction of human and nonhuman life on earth. That’s what climate change and mass extinction do, once you take them seriously: they make everything else seem utterly ridiculous. And yet even as we’re trying to protect life in the future, we cannot entirely forget the life that we are living; I cannot leave a three and a six year old without care. Luckily there are many options for support I can give to others who are going to get themselves arrested, even if I don’t, so I will find a way to join in." She sees how activism brings dilemmas not just for participants but for the opponents to the changes activists are working toward, and for the actions' audiences.
"At the core of the Gandhian nonviolence that inspires Extinction Rebellion is the proposition that you can oppose and resist a system without dehumanising your opponents. Extinction Rebellion, a decentralised movement in which anyone can organise actions as long as they stick to the principles, is insistent on not blaming and shaming. Only by observing this principle can we avoid creating an ‘other’ on whom we end up projecting the unwanted, unacknowledged, perhaps less attractive parts of ourselves, since that route, as psychotherapists recognise, has always been the path to conflict. In Gandhi’s words, ‘It is quite proper to resist and attack a system, but to resist and attack its author is tantamount to resisting and attacking oneself."
- The power of ‘what if’ – leaping ahead of the game by imagining ourselves in a sustainable future-
At The Infinite Game (7/4/19) Stephen Woroniecki and Niki Harre explore the power of asking "What would it mean to act as if we are already living in the world we hope to create?" Is this a form of 'complacent hope', an empty question that risks inaction? Or does it open up possibilities for our imagination to move beyond the obvious problems to what change could look like? They suggest that such imagination "instead acts in the spirit of prefiguration: leaping ahead of the game and thereby helping to change it."
Offering a sketch of four approaches - "a kind of edgework that sees cracks in current modes of practice and tries to prise them open ... aligned with a renewed interest in speculative fiction and the promise of artistic and performative methods for reimagining sustainability" - they invite our reactions to the idea that we might: assume that those we encounter want a world that promotes wellbeing for all; act as a guardian to our land, among other guardians; act as if we have time; as best we can, practise the future we imagine.
What if ... "people we label as [...] or [...] have a contribution to make and perhaps they talk as they do because they are locked in the same us/them game that we are? ... instead of striving to be the next hero of the hour, we were to uncover and highlight existing place-based commitments to restorative work that cast a legacy of collective worth? ... we had time [to] care for the other – their knowledge, their experience and their right to dissent? ... sustainability was not a promised land but a journey into unknown territory?"
- Climate change: yes, your individual action does make a difference-
Steve Westlake at The Conversation (11/4/19) writes that, although the decades-long debate and will continue to rage over whether personal actions or political change offer the greatest prospect of tackling climate change, his own research "supports the arguments that this is a false dichotomy: individual action is part of the collective ... doing something bold like giving up flying can have a wider knock-on effect by influencing others and shifting what’s viewed as 'normal'."
Taking the example of making a personal decision to fly less, he interviewed some of the people who'd been influenced by a 'non-flyer'. "They explained that the bold and unusual position to give up flying had: conveyed the seriousness of climate change and flying’s contribution to it; crystallised the link between values and actions; and even reduced feelings of isolation that flying less was a valid and sensible response to climate change. They said that 'commitment' and 'expertise' were the most influential qualities of the person who had stopped flying." At the same time, of course, "suggesting that everyone should fly less, which may seem the implicit message of someone who gives up flying because of climate change, can lead to arguments and confrontation" - and those who advocate low carbon policies but clock up huge air miles of their own open up the 'fly less' argument to charges of hypocrisy, which prominent 'no flyers' can counterbalance.
And then there's the question of inequality. "In the UK, around 15% of people take 70% of the flights, while half of the population don’t fly at all in any one year. As emissions from aviation become an ever increasing slice of the total (currently around 9% in the UK, 2% globally) this inequality will become harder for everyone to ignore."
- It’s wrongheaded to protect nature with human-style rights-
Anna Grear's opinion piece for Aeon (19/3/19, published with the Center for Humans and Nature) asks "How can the law account for the value of complex, nonhuman entities such as rivers, lakes, forests and ecosystems?" and challenges the temptation to simply extend the path of the "discourse of human rights, commonly traced back to the Enlightenment, [which] has held sway over the sections of the Western public for decades, if not centuries ... to the complex, nonhuman systems that we wish to protect."
Instead, she suggests we "inch closer to acknowledging the complexity and liveliness of the nonhuman by admitting the porousness of our own boundaries. Perhaps we should not extend outwards from ourselves, so much as question humanity’s entitlement to act as a model. After all, it is a hubristic belief in our own singularity and exceptionalism that’s partly responsible for destroying the planet ... The law, in short, needs to develop a new framework in which the human is entangled and thrown in the midst of a lively materiality – rather than assumed to be the masterful, knowing centre, or the pivot around which everything else turns."
As to what such a shift might mean for the law and legal practice, Grear suggests "it would certainly require courts to be open to a wider field of meaning-making. It would mean ‘hearing’ from multiple communities (human and nonhuman) by relying on the best new science. It would also demand situated, careful enquiry that examines the nuanced interactions making up the dynamics and relationships among the entities in question." The law is on the move, she says, "embracing the idea of nonhuman legal persons (such as rivers) and showing signs of a more materially sensitive, contextualised awareness" - but nothing in development so far is as radical as she says is required. "Some interesting thought-experiments and developments show promising directions, but there is more radical thinking to be done."
- Forget the Anthropocene: we’ve entered the synthetic age-
Christopher Preston writes for Aeon (6/5/19) that while the concept of the Anthropocene has familiarised us with the reality that no part of the earth is now free from the material signs of human activity elsewhere on the globe - "The chemical and biological signatures of our species are everywhere ... transported around the globe by fierce atmospheric winds, relentless ocean currents, and the capacious cargo-holds of millions of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles..." - what is much less appreciated is how we're altering the planet's processes. Preston cites two potentially powerful forms of engineering, at the levels of genes and of climate. "It is not just that human activities have stained every corner of the entire planet. The simultaneous arrival of a range of powerful new technologies are starting to signal a potential takeover of Earth’s most basic operations by its most audacious species."
Noting that "accidental changes are entirely different from deliberate ones," he suggests that "The crossing of this line represents radically new territory for both our species and for the planet. Nature itself will be shaped by processes redesigned and ‘improved’ by geneticists and engineers. We should call this transition the beginning of a ‘synthetic age’, a time in which background constants are increasingly replaced by artificial and ‘improved’ versions of themselves. This remaking of the metabolism of the Earth strikes at the very core of how we understand our surroundings and our role in them."
And as for how we imagine, talk about and try to either reshape or to live with such a transition? "An Anthropocene epoch requires one kind of psychological adjustment. A synthetic age demands something considerably more."
- Wood wide web: Trees' social networks are mapped-
Claire Marshall writes at BBC News (15/5/19) that researchers have now mapped the "underground social network ... of roots, fungi and bacteria helping to connect trees and plants to one another" - quoting Professor Thomas Crowther, that 'It's the first time that we've been able to understand the world beneath our feet, but at a global scale.'" And the changing climate is impacting the types of mycorrhizal fungi found beneath different forests around the globe - which could itself accelerate climate change: "'The types of fungi that support huge carbon stores in the soil are being lost and are being replaced by the ones that spew out carbon into the atmosphere.'"
- Microplastic pollution and wet wipe ‘reefs’ are changing the River Thames ecosystem-
At the Conversation (17/6/19), Alex McGoran highlights the increasing fate of the world's rivers as sites for catastrophic accumulations of plastic wastes - often overlooked in the focus on our notoriously polluted oceans.
Both the beds and the foreshores of tidal rivers such as the Thames are being reshaped by single-use plastics: "Researchers recovered nearly 8,500 items from the Thames riverbed over three months in 2012. After 20 river cleans on the foreshore of the Thames in 2019, nearly 9,000 plastic items were recovered, almost all of which were single-use. ... On the Thames foreshore at Hammersmith in early 2019, 23,000 wipes were collected, averaging 201 wipes per square metre. You may have heard of wet wipes forming 'fatbergs' in sewers, but on the banks of the Thames there are wet wipe reefs that are slowly changing the shape of the river itself."
Along with the microplastics themselves, chemical coatings on the plastics can accumulate in the food webs. And, as Alex's own research reveals, it's not just the familiar single-use items and the minute beads they degrade into that are endangering river and marine ecologies: "Though plastic straws and other single-use items have taken much of the blame, the plastic most commonly eaten by flatfish – a species often caught by fishers – are fibres. These are long threads of plastic which originate in our fabrics. Straws may flow out to sea quicker but during my research in the Thames, I found that 80% of all plastic extracted from animals there were fibres."
- Preparing for life after peak oak-
For Anthropocene (26/6/19) Brandon Keim reports on recent research by ecologist Ruth Mitchell and others, which involved "assembling a database of plant and animal species associated with Quercus robur and Quercus petraea, the two oaks native to the United Kingdom. They tabulated 2300 species altogether -- including 716 lichens, 108 fungi, 229 bryophytes, 1089 invertebrates, 31 birds, and 38 mammals --of which some 326 live only on oaks." As Keim reminds us, the oak "is afflicted by a combination of pests, pathogens, and climate change. The precise causes of oak declines are often unknown, but the challenge is clear: to nourish oaks and the nonhumans who rely upon them through an uncertain future."
Mass tree death can be an example of Shifting Baseline Syndrome, with Mitchell explaining that: “I grew up without elms in southern England due to Dutch elm disease but accepted it as ‘normal' ... The current generation are likely to grow up without many ash trees and will accept this as ‘normal.’ Will future generations grow up without the oak and accept this as normal?” But in the case of oaks, which support so much biodiversity, an oakless 'new normal' might be very bleak; as Keim reports, "the researchers found that no single tree species supports more than a small fraction of oak-associated species. Preventing oak decline from triggering a biodiversity collapse may thus require people to manage woodlands so that oaks are replaced by a diverse mix of trees -- alders and birch, rowan and holly, common ash and wych elm, and on and on."
"Apart from scientific insights, protecting what oaks remain and mitigating the consequences of their loss will require time and resources. Last year British conservation organizations and government agencies founded the Action Oak Partnership to spur this commitment -- and, perhaps, set an example for conserving other trees imperilled at a time of fast-spreading pathogens and fast-changing weather."
- Listening to those on the frontline of climate change-
In a fascinating and tightly focused piece for Public Books (21/6/19), Elena Passarello interviews Elizabeth Rush about writing her outstanding book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. Their discussion explores lived experiences of a changing climate, possibilities for resilience and adaptation, the nature of environmental writing and the process of interviewing those on the frontlines. Rush says "it is important to understand that climate change communications is at a kind of crossroads. When I started out, many environmental writers had been sounding the 'world is ending' alarm for a while, and it doesn’t seem to be working. ... I think they make people feel scared to the point of despondency."
"Many people, far more than you would expect, with precious few choices are choosing to move away from risk, and I find that heartening in a way. Retreat as a strategy only makes financial sense if everyone does it together, rich and poor alike. And it is one of the few climate change adaptation strategies that will also give the more-than-human world humming in our tidal wetlands the chance to move too. I mean to say, it is radically egalitarian."
Rush saw her own students affected by the impacts of Hurricane Sandy - many of whom couldn't return to college. "It was then that I knew that sea level rise was already unsettling our very ideas of who we are and where we come from. And that felt like fertile ground on which to write a book. I didn’t want to foreground the science or to argue that sea level rise was happening so much as I wanted to explore how this impossibly large planetary phenomenon was already transforming the places we love and our definition of home."
Rising includes many first-hand testimonies. "Not the kind of abstract, “the world is ending” urgency, but something more intimate and immediate. Climate change as a phenomenon is so slow moving, so place-based. It is about the late arrival of ice on the lake and the sap freezing in the branches of the stone fruit tree that thought that the winter was behind it -- things that one can only really notice when one has been in place for a very long time. I have moved more than a dozen times in my life, so it is nearly impossible for me to see these changes, but there are plenty of folks who have been in place for a very long time. So I turned to them to tell their own story of what it means to watch the shape of our coastline shift."
You can read my March 2019 review of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, Rising: Endsickness and Adaptive Thinking.
- The book that made me: an animal-
For a short but highly meaningful piece for Public Books (2/7/19), Matt Margini reflects on the experience of clearing out his late father's apartment and the memories triggered by a large menagerie of animal effigies to question what we can know, or can imagine, about the lives of other animals. The father's interest in animals led the son to take a first-year course at university; "he was the one who saw the listing for a course named 'Zooësis', and thought I might like it. And I really did." The spark was the JM Coetzee novella the course professor had them read: The Lives of Animals - a "weird, hybrid book".
Margini writes that "I often find myself bummed out by the inadequacy of representation: Specifically, what good are animals in books? Are they not inevitably vessels of human meaning? In Flush, her novel about the inner life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, Virginia Woolf has another way of putting the problem: 'Do words say everything? Can words say anything? Do not words destroy the symbol that lies beyond the reach of words?' To which I would add: Do they not destroy, or at least ignore, the creature beyond the symbol as well?"
But Coetzee's protagonist has another view. "She finds value in poems that try to capture the fluid complexity of a moment of contact across species, rather than try to preserve an imagined essence of the animal in amber. She also defends the human imagination as something more powerful than we give it credit for" - in what Margini calls her embrace of its 'messiness'. For him, and for Coetzee, fiction makes possible what polemic cannot, showing us "the impossibility of speaking from a position outside our embodiment, our emotions, our primordial and instinctual feelings toward kin. In other words, the impossibility of speaking about animals as though we were not animals ourselves."
- What is a species? The most important concept in all of biology is a complete mystery.-
Henry Taylor writes at The Conversation (16/7/19) that while at the core of biological taxonomy lies the notion of the species - where "the basic idea is very simple: that certain groups of organisms have a special connection to each other. There is something that you and I have in common – we are both human beings. That is, we are members of the same species" - when it comes to deciding what actually makes a species specific, "The truth is, we don’t really have any idea."
Whether it's down to mating pairs that produce fertile offspring constituting a species (whereas inter-species breeding can produce sterile offspring, as with the mules that come from crossing horses with donkeys) or finding the common ancestors of today's species classifications, "there is absolutely no agreement among biologists about how we should understand the species. One 2006 article on the subject listed 26 separate definitions of species, all with their advocates and detractors. Even this list is incomplete."
Taylor broaches the radical suggestion that we might scrap the idea of species as a way of classifying the living world - a prospect that "implies that pretty much all of biology, from Aristotle right up to the modern age, has been thinking about life in completely the wrong way ... It suggests that we should give up thinking about life as neatly segmented into discrete groups. Rather, we should think of life as one immense interconnected web. This shift in thinking would fundamentally reorient our approach to a great many questions concerning our relation to the natural world, from the current biodiversity crisis to conservation."
- Speaking the Anthropocene-
In a wide-ranging, in-depth conversation with Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee for Emergence Magazine (July) - available as podcast and text - Robert Macfarlane discusses his fascination with language, naming and story-telling as human engagements with the living world, new cultural discoveries such as the 'Wood Wide Web', and our sense of the Anthropocene. Macfarlane distinguishes between 'bad naming and 'good naming'; "And that good naming might be political, it might be the refusal to describe the natural world as 'the environment,' which I don’t do any longer. I find that to be a problematically chilly and alienating term. I tend to use the phrase 'living world' or 'natural world' ...These are small acts of renaming, which have considerable political encodings and consequences. And then, at a kind of gentler level, there are, it seems to me, these wonderful histories and othernesses that are opened into and onto by forms of common naming, shared naming."
He also touches on the idea of rewilding our contemporary language, especially in how we talk about - and therefore imagine, and live within - landscape and place. "So, this idea of re-wilding - by which I mean this rich regeneration of place, of possibility, of hope, a thriving of diversity as opposed to monoculture - this is a cultural as well as an ecological project, it seems to me, and it’s one that celebrates diversity. And that’s why when I tried to gather this word hoard, as I call it - which is phrased from Beowulf, from the early literature, the early poetry of these islands - I didn’t want it to be the word hoard of one language, English, which is itself anyway a mongrel global tongue. I wanted to delve into the many languages and dialects and subdialects and new apprehensions of place that are underway."
Such re-enagagement with - renewal of - language and of cultural responses to the changing natural world, are key responses to the losses we're experiencing and anticipating. "And I think always at this time of a line from Brecht. Brecht says, 'Will there be singing in the dark times? Yes, there will be singing about the dark times.' And I think this great choir, this multi-voiced, poly-vocal, diverse set of songs is being lifted and raised at the moment. Some of them are angry. Some of them are plangent. Some of them are hopeful and future-oriented. Very few of them are sort of leisured and lazy. I think the sense of loss has become hugely animating to the discourse. And it’s animating politics too."
- The dream of a managed society-
In another iconoclastic post for his Ecosophia blog (21/8/19), John Michael Greer uses his reading of Plato to give his highly individual take on the myth of a wholly manageable human system, if only the right hands were on the controls.
"The problem can be stated quite simply in the language of modern science. The human brain is a lump of fatty meat about six inches long. It evolved on the African savannahs over a couple of million years for purposes such as finding food, attracting mates, and staying out of the jaws of hungry leopards — none of which are all that intellectually demanding, however important they doubtless seem at the time. It has certain hardwired processes for thinking built into it, which also evolved over that same period in the same environment for the same purposes. Now that we’ve figured out how to describe those processes explicitly, we call them 'logic,' but they’re still the same habits that happened to win out in the struggle for survival because, all things considered, they kept our ancestors alive a little more often than competing habits did.
"That’s the mental equipment we have for making sense of the immensities and intricacies of a cosmos billions of light years across: a lump of flesh the size of a meatloaf, a set of not very accurate sense organs, some habits of data processing that turned out to be useful for staying fed, getting laid, and dodging lions, and a certain amount of recorded experience we can use, if we’re minded to, as a source of guidance. Does that provide the kind of godlike omniscience that experts nearly always end up fantasizing they’ve achieved? Not a chance.
"Thus the ultimate reason why the dream of a managed society always turns sour is that we social primates simply aren’t smart enough to manage the world. Our models, theories, and ideologies are inevitably too simplistic for the overwhelming complexity the world throws at us. Nor, by the way, will it solve the problem to hand the world over to what we quaintly call 'artificial intelligence' — anything designed and built by humans, directly or indirectly, will share the flaws of the human mind."
- Debunking debunked-
Drawing on her research into 19th-century belief and debunking of the belief in mesmerism - then a popular 'technique' of entrancement and mind control - Emily Ogden writes in Aeon (12/8/19) about the role of such debunking in our narratives of modernity and progress - and how modernity itself needs a little scepticism. "There is no neutral, universal goal of progress toward which all peoples are progressing; instead, the claim that such a goal ought to be universal has been a means of exploiting and dispossessing supposedly ‘backward’ peoples."
Ogden suggests that while "Secular agency is the picture of selfhood that Western secular cultures have often wanted to think is true," this is "more an aspiration than a reality." The self-serving myth is that "Secular agents know at any given moment what they do and don’t believe. When they think, their thoughts are their own. The only way that other people’s thoughts could become theirs would be through rational persuasion ... they are the owners of their actions and of their speech. When they speak, they are either telling the truth or lying. When they act, they are either sincere or they are faking it. Something like this model of agency not infrequently accompanies the fable of modernity ... The two conceptions make sense together. Modernity, in this picture, is when we take responsibility for ourselves, freeing both society and individuals from comforting lies."
- Stone alphabet-
Katie Holten's piece for Emergence Magazine (May 2019) is accompanied by a gallery of her notebook of elegant sketches of lines and veins drawn from rock and stone. In a walk around New York City, she finds that "The air is seething with messages, trees are dripping with secrets, stones store stories." If, as she suggests, "Language is an abbreviation for the world’s readability[,] how can we access languages that are beyond-the-human?"
Recalling that 18th-century French naturalist and mathematician Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, wrote that “the entire face of the Earth today bears the imprint of human power,” Holten highlights for just how long "humans have been aware of the harm we’re causing planetary systems. But we have chosen to ignore it and live as though past and future are irrelevant, as though only the present matters. ... There can be no more talk of inexorable growth. We need to rethink everything." As a way into this rethinking, her notebook records a "nonsensical language, this Stone Alphabet, [which] helps me grapple with the complexity, with reading the landscape — reading the past, present, future — and with thinking beyond the human, thinking like a planet."
- Iceland is mourning a dead glacier-
Writing for The Conversation (21/8/19), Rupert Read looks to the recent ceremonial mourning of the 700-year-old Okjökull glacier in Iceland - "the first of its major glaciers to die" - to suggest how grieving over ecological destruction can help us face the climate crisis. It's important to acknowledge that denial, as an initial reaction to loss, can be a natural first step towards such grieving. Perhaps this offers a way to understand and respond to others' denial of climate change. "While much climate denial owes itself to corruption and vested interests, the avoidance of grief may explain why many decent and intelligent people are also tempted to deny the climatic breakdown humans are causing ... It isn’t surprising that so many people have been desperately hoping that the science must somehow be wrong, or that so many more act as if we can still hope for the continuation of our same old world..."
A fuller expression of grief "requires sustained strength and attention to gradually turn denial into acceptance and to build a new life. Actions like Iceland’s glacier funeral are a vital part of that process."
- #ShowYourStripes: how climate data became a cultural icon-
Ed Hawkins writes at The Conversation (18/11/19) about the way data visualisations he has created are being used to engage people with climate change. "Explaining climate science to the public can be tricky" - and his Climate Stripes have helped create a visual shortcut. "As grave a matter as it is, it needs to become a conversation we have everywhere, whether it be over the fence to our neighbours, on television soaps or while dancing at festivals. These simple graphics have helped start those conversations."
'Climate stripes' illustrate the global (or regional) average temperature for every year since 1850, with shades of blue and red representing cooler and warmer years respectively. "These graphics are simple and bright, but they’re based on solid science and carry a serious message. They translate complex data into an easily accessible format that transcends language and needs almost no context to explain it. The climate stripes have already been used on posters, on placards in the youth climate strikes and on banners and t-shirts around the world. Helping science to make this leap from the lab to social media is crucial to changing mindsets."
- A decade later, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has left an abyssal wasteland-
Writing at Atlas Obscura (18/9/19), Sabrina Imbler reports on recent deep-sea investigations into the state of life - or non-life - on the sea bed of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which released four million barrels of oil into the sea over 87 days: "the largest accidental marine oil spill ever recorded, a seething, black apocalypse across hundreds of square miles in the Gulf of Mexico." At the time, most attention was paid to the impacts of the pollution in the surface waters, but approximately 10 million gallons of it settled on the sea bed, "sprawled across more than 1,200 square miles of seafloor". Imbler quotes Clifton Nunnally of the Louisiana University Marine Consortium: “The deep sea is always out of sight, out of mind. You can burn off and disperse oil on the surface, but we don’t have the technology to get rid of oil on the seafloor.” Studies of the deep-sea impacts ceased after 2014 and "in 2015, BP issued a statement claiming that the Gulf was healing itself and 'returning to pre-spill conditions,' which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called 'inappropriate as well as premature'. ... Unsurprisingly, deep-sea biologists are under no such illusions."
Returning to the seabed at the rig's site in 2017, Nunnally and colleagues found that, while "there were no giant isopods, glass sponges, or whip corals that would have jumped (metaphorically) at the chance to colonize the hard substrate of the rig, such as discarded sections of pipe", there were crabs. "The researchers were shocked by the sheer number of crustaceans and other arthropods that had colonized the spill site ... The crabs also looked anything but normal: some claws shrunken, some swollen, shriveled legs, a dusting of parasites. 'There were deformities, but mostly things were missing,' Nunnally says. 'You come in with eight legs and try to get away on four or five.'
"The researchers hypothesize that degrading hydrocarbons are what’s luring unwitting crabs from the surrounding seafloor to the deep-sea equivalent of a toxic dump. 'The chemical makeup of oil is similar to the oils naturally present on crustaceans,' Nunnally says. 'They’re attracted to the oil site, but everything goes downhill for them once they’re in the area.'”
- Wilderness areas could reduce extinction risks by more than half-
At Anthropocene Magazine (23/10/19), Brandon Keim shares recent research on the importance of wilderness areas across the planet that's "underscored by new findings that put a number on the relationship between wilderness and biodiversity. According to researchers ... preserving Earth’s remaining wilderness areas will reduce extinction risks for terrestrial species by more than half." Keim recognises that 'wilderness' has become a troubled concept, "Yet for all its philosophical troubles, wilderness — big, contiguous places with minimal Homo sapiens footprints — is still enormously important."
The researchers mapped plants and invertebrates around the world, as surrogates of wider biodiversity, to "build a fine-grained, global-scale model of where species are likely to persist or go extinct." They found that "the average likelihood of a species going extinct outside wilderness areas is roughly 5.6 percent. Inside a wilderness, that figure drops to around 2.1 percent. 'The buffering effect that wilderness has on extinction risk was found in every bio-geographical realm,' wrote the researchers; and the larger a given wilderness, the greater the effect." Keim adds that they highlight how "'These areas urgently require targeted protection,'", and that "it should happen at the same time as nature-loving people attend to nourishing and restoring non-wilderness places."
- Four storytellers tackle climate change-
Amy Brady at Guernica (15/10/19) shares a recent discussion she chaired on the power of narrative in addressing climate change, with four storytellers in different fields - policy, fiction, art and journalism. Policy advocate Robert Moore suggests that "writers and artists fill in a lot of cognitive gaps for people. I read a study a couple of years ago about how people perceive their future selves as almost complete strangers. But when they read fictional stories set in the future, they have a stronger empathetic connection to the characters than they do to their own future selves. So, in essence, I think art and fiction writing can help draw people into a future that they otherwise have a hard time picturing," while novelist Pitchaya Sudbanthad cautions that it's important to bring into a narrative those that are often excluded: "language frames the way that climate change is talked about, and in the past, climate issues have been presented at a privileged distance. That distance is collapsing, and there’s more acknowledgement that climate change results from a voracious over-feeding of empire."
Brady asks the panel whether, since 'narrative' implies a structure with a beginning, a middle, and an end "and it’s that end part that seems to generate the most controversy. Are we going to end up in a hopeful place? Or are we going to end up in a despairing, end-of-times kind of place? ... How are hope and despair used in your own narratives?" Responding, Sudbanthad sees the appeal of futuristic climate dystopias "because you can milk so much drama out of that ... But from my own experiences with flooding and Hurricane Sandy, I can say that in the aftermath of disaster, humans want to establish some normalcy. Even in the worst situations, people want to be able to walk their pets and read stories to their kids. We want basic things that offer a semblance of love, of life as we know it. And I think that we will continue to strive for those things no matter what happens. I don’t if that is exactly hope, but it’s related."
Artist Eve Mosher, however, worries about the word 'hope' as well as the use of fear when there's no clear path forward. "I don’t love the word 'hope.' It is a word that allows you to feel disembodied, as in, 'Oh, I’m going to hope that someone else fixes this.' We are the ones we’ve been waiting for! We have to get out and do the work. I prefer the word 'courage' instead, because it suggests we take our fear and do something about it. I don’t want everybody to leave this room tonight and be like, 'That was great,' and then go back to normal. I want everyone to leave this room and be like, 'Oh shit, they’re right. I need to go figure out how to get involved. We need to get out into the streets. Let’s make this happen.'”
- "To end plastic pollution, we first need to eliminate language pollution"-
Marcus Fairs at Dezeen (15/10/19) writes that "designers' efforts to reduce the environmental impact of their products are being hampered by confusion over terminology and rampant greenwashing." Using examples of products and stories from the media to pick apart terms such as 'sustainable', 'biodegradable', 'compostable' and 'circular' - increasingly common in promotional materials but mostly not meaning what consumers understand them to - Fairs finds that "Greenwashing is back. As concern about climate change, pollution, habitat destruction and species extinction rises, so too are spurious claims about saving the planet."
"The growing misuse of language is unhelpful to members of the public who want to make informed purchasing choices. It is also unhelpful to designers, who are already grappling with 'designers' paradox'. This is the moral hazard central to their profession: how can they most effectively mitigate the damage caused by all the consumable stuff they bring into the world? Especially since all that stuff is the biggest contributor to climate change."
- Streams of consciousness-
In a short piece for the Inside Out blog (2/10/19), Caspar Henderson picks up on Hanien Conradie's recent ClimateCultures post, Writing on Water, setting her film Dart alongside another recent film on a British river, Upstream.
Quoting Han dynasty poet Zhang Heng - 'I am a wave in the river of darkness and light,' Henderson writes "Two short films made at different ends of the island of Britain allow for meditation on rivers and the human condition. Both are serious, even sombre, and, in different ways, contain glimpses of light as well as dark. Rivers allow us to be in a different relation to time."
Upstream - a "dream-voyage to the source of the River Dee on the Cairngorm plateau," features a prose poem by Robert Macfarlane, which "accompanies the flight into a harsh, alien interior."
- We should all be reading more Ursula Le Guin-
Siobhan Leddy writes at The Outline (28/8/19) that "Storytelling is a way of configuring and reconfiguring worlds; narratives can bring realities into being" and looks at the fiction and other writing of the late Ursula Le Guin to illuminate the troubled narratives of human 'progress' against nature and of a 'war' on climate change.
Le Guin wrote of the 'The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction' - and of history - as a way to challenge the received view that human development has been first and foremost a story of unrelenting competition and individualist domination. As Leddy puts it, "We have come to embrace the idea that a succession of one thing defeating another literally is history, whether that’s between species, political leaders, or conflicting ideologies." Le Guin proposed that, instead of the spear, the first human invention was the receptacle, allowing people to gather and carry food they'd need later. And Leddy finds the receptacle to be a better analogy for history itself; "unlike the spear (which follows a linear trajectory towards its target), and unlike the kind of linear way we’ve come to think of time and history in the West, the carrier bag is a big jumbled mess of stuff." It was a lack of clear trajectory that Le Guin used to good effect in her fictional world-building.
"We will not 'beat' climate change, nor is 'nature' our adversary. If the planet could be considered a container for all life, in which everything — plants, animals, humans — are all held together, then to attempt domination becomes a self-defeating act. By letting ourselves 'become part of the killer story,' writes Le Guin, 'we may get finished along with it.' All of which is to say: we have to abandon the old story."
- The five corrupt pillars of climate change denial-
Arguing at The Conversation (28/11/19) that, with public realisation of the reality of climate change growing, "at such a crossroads, it is important to be able to identify the different types of denial," Mark Maslin shares a helpful taxonomy to "help you spot the different ways that are being used to convince you to delay action on climate change."
Between them, science denial, economic denial, humanitarian denial, political denial and crisis denial seek to persuade us that: "climate change is just part of the natural cycle. Or that climate models are unreliable and too sensitive to carbon dioxide"; "climate change is too expensive to fix"; "climate change is good for us ... longer, warmer summers in the temperate zone will make farming more productive"; "we cannot take action because other countries are not taking action"; "climate change is not as bad as scientists make out. We will be much richer in the future and better able to fix climate change."
As Maslin points out - refuting each of these false claims - "similarly hollow arguments were used in the past to delay ending slavery, granting the vote to women, ending colonial rule, ending segregation, decriminalising homosexuality, bolstering worker’s rights and environmental regulations, allowing same-sex marriages and banning smoking. The fundamental question is why are we allowing the people with the most privilege and power to convince us to delay saving our planet from climate change?"
- Holland aims to bring back its starry nights-
Writing for CityLab (18/11/19) Sophie Knight reports that "the Netherlands is one of the brightest countries in Europe. Thanks to a high population density and a landscape saturated with highways, industry, and illuminated greenhouses, the country that produced Van Gogh’s Starry Night is now covered in a thick layer of light pollution. Even on the clearest nights, only 10 percent of the stars visible from Earth can be seen from Dutch cities." More widely, the Milky Way is invisible to nearly 80 percent of Americans and 60 percent of Europeans. And satellite data shows how the world’s skies are getting brighter still.
Periods of darkness are essential for growth and repair cycles in plants and animals - including ourselves. So it's significant that the Netherlands holds an annual Nacht van de Nacht (Night of the Night), which culminates in an annual event where local governments and companies turn off lights and "people gather in towns and woods to savour the absence of artificial light".
Last year, design studio Monnik created a "theatrical workshop designed to give earthlings a version of the 'overview effect,' a cognitive shift that astronauts experience as they look at Earth from space. This is characterized by deep feelings of awe, a realization that everything is connected, and a sense of renewed responsibility. 'The closest thing to the overview effect on Earth is to see the stars,' says Edwin Gardner, co-founder of Monnik."
- How do you keep a subway from flooding in the Age of Rising Seas?-
Isaac Schultz at Atlas Obscura (21/11/19) reports on a real-life test of the New York subway system's new flood protection scheme. On the day, commuters in Brooklyn "noticed something strange — a subway station flooded above street level, a sight that hadn’t been appeared since 2012, when Superstorm Sandy inundated nearly a dozen tunnels and many stations around the city." This time the intentional 'flood' water "was being held back by a woven kevlar flex gate ... In flooding events, these rolls of kevlar will be able to be unfurled from hidden receptacles attached to the signs that mark subway entrances. They can be pulled over the stairwell and attached to the highest step, to create a seal to prevent the worst from happening." As the Metropolitan Transit Authority's Twitter account explained, “We’re doing this because climate change is real.”
But, as Schultz points out, "water is a slippery foe." He quotes Thaddeus Pawlowski, of Columbia University’s Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes: "'These gates do not address the increasing stress of groundwater penetration into the subway, which is also likely to increase with climate change ... Many of the streams that once flowed through the city are buried underground and find their way into the subway.”
- Natural history as a practice of kinship-
Thomas Lowe Fleischner writes about the need to understand natural history as a practice of attentiveness - "a doing; a verb, not a noun" - for Minding Nature (Fall 2019). "This kind of expansive, interspecific affinity is deep in our bones, encoded in our genes ... But we live in a historical anomaly — human acknowledgement of the rest of the living world has never been so rare as today ... our lack of kinship is so thorough it often goes unnoticed."
One part of the disconnect is language. Words can open up possibilities as well as can constrain experience, but often our language "is structured to deny kinship with Others." Fleischner quotes Native American ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer: “'...in English, a being is either a human or a thing.' She goes on to assert that we need a new pronoun — one that denotes respect and animacy rather than objecthood. Drawing upon her native Anishinaabe language, she suggests ki as a respectful pronoun for an animate being of the Earth. And the plural of ki already exists in English: kin. Thus, what might seem at first to be a linguistic contrivance, turns out to lubricate the psychic gears of our turning toward kinship. As Kimmerer states, 'The language of animacy, of kinship, can be medicine for a broken relationship.'”
- Little Ice Age lessons-
In this Aeon (11/11/19) essay, Dagomar Degroot looks to past examples of how societies responded to abruptly changing climate conditions and finds "hotbeds not only of vulnerability to climate change, but also of resilience and adaptation." History can reveal useful 'parables'. "It suggests, for example, that relatively small environmental shocks can provoke outsized human responses, especially in times when economic or political systems are strained to the breaking point. Yet it also reveals that climate change does not simply determine human outcomes, as some have assumed."
While history cannot reveal the future and therefore how we will cope with the unprecedented changes that are already being experienced, he suggests that looking to these parables can help us avoid the debilitating paralysis that either fear or complacency risk. "Our tendency in both popular media and academia to tell simplistic climate-change disaster stories has not served us well, either in understanding the past or in preparing for the future. Popular misconceptions that humanity is doomed ... threaten to discourage the very action that could still limit anthropogenic climate change to manageable levels. Far less defensible assumptions that climate change has happened before and is therefore nothing to worry about – ahistorical nonsense often fronted by those who once denied the very existence of human-caused warming – pose even greater obstacles to urgent action. It is crucial that we expand the space between these harmful extremes. Writing more nuanced histories of past climate change is one way to do it."
- What pigeon feet say about the way we live-
Brandon Keim at Anthropocene Magazine (13/11/19) writes about a recent study of how the state of urban pigeon's feet reveals the hostile environment our cities can present for wildlife. "Scientists have previously found that pigeon feathers are a convenient biomarker of urban heavy metal pollution", but this study of pigeon health at 46 sites around Paris has found a correlation between pigeon's foot deformities - "Eagle-eyed urbanites will have noticed that these are prone to strange lumps and missing digits" - and local air and noise pollution.
The researchers don’t think it's the pollution itself that causes this particular harm, but pollution acts as a useful proxy for human activity and population density. The problem seems to be "what’s known as 'stringfeet,' produced when a string or hair wraps around a pigeon’s digits, cutting off circulation until the tissue dies and falls off." It's suggested that higher human population densities "result in pigeons encountering more hair and string. Conversely, where locales had more parks and natural areas, rates of foot deformities decreased ... When pigeon feet are deformed, it’s a sign that the neighbourhood needs less trash and more greenery."
- Climate change’s great lithium problem-
For The New Republic (16/11/19) Kate Aronoff investigates the relationship between mineral exploitation and political crisis in South America and environmental policy in northern states. "Over half of the world’s lithium reserves are held in ... the Andes’ otherworldly, high-altitude salt flats formed from lakes of lithium-rich brine. Mining companies remove that and transport it to massive evaporation ponds to sit in the sun for months or even years. As the water evaporates it leaves behind magnesium, calcium, sodium, potassium and — the main prize — lithium, a white powder sometimes called 'white gold.'" The process uses massive amounts of water in some of the driest places on earth, disrupts ecosystems and indigenous communities, and sees profits accumulate elsewhere.
But, as Aronoff points out, "demand for lithium is set to explode. Building a green energy grid, expanding renewables and electrifying everything from cars to cooktops requires more lithium and other so-called technology metals that are central to clean energy." A world run fully on renewables by 2050 would demand 85 percent of the planet’s total lithium resources.
This bind reveals the tension between "the kind of cheery techno-optimism" that sugests "we have the money and technology to mostly maintain business as usual by simply replacing the energy source that powers it [while] the supply chains and extraction that make them possible are kept out of sight." And it reminds us that a country's "climate policy is also its foreign policy."
- Are we underestimating the potential for both climate disaster and climate action?-
Sarah DeWeerdt at Anthropocene Magazine (10/12/19) summarises new research which argues that, just as climate modelling often understates the speed of climate change and its tipping points, future emissions modelling underestimates the speed with which society decarbonises its energy production. "That suggests there’s more hope for holding climate change in check than we think," she says.
While models of future carbon emissions often use data on trends between about 1970 and 2010, this research suggests that "an inflection point occurred around 2010. Since then, the energy and carbon intensity of the global economy ... has been falling, and at an accelerating rate." Missing that change in this past decade means that, while the older data "suggest that holding climate change to 2 °C, let alone 1.5 °C, is almost an impossibility at this point ... focusing on this decade’s data suggests that 'Neither complacency nor despair is warranted,' and there’s still a real chance to achieve the 1.5 °C benchmark."
And the much-needed headroom comes not just from recent progress in decarbonisation, the research suggests, but also from a realisation that not all greenhouse gases are equal. While "analyses have treated short-lived causes of warming like methane the same as long-lived ones like carbon dioxide ... there’s an opportunity to massively decrease methane emissions now in order to buy time to reduce carbon emissions in the coming decades. 'Changing how we think and talk about the dynamics of methane in the atmosphere would be akin to discovering a small but useful emergency handbrake on our runaway carbon train: its prompt use alone can’t stop the speeding train, but can markedly slow it down,'" the researchers write.
- The flight from nature-
At Ecosophia (19/12/18) John Michael Greer reads into an op-ed piece on climate change two things he claims the writer omitted: "any sense that climate change activists might learn a lesson or two from their movement’s many defeats"; and "even a hint of the idea that people who want industrial society to stop flooding the atmosphere with greenhouse gases need to start leading by example, and make the same changes in their own lives first."
To me, Greer's attacks on climate activists are off the mark, as there are many who do lead by example - either in many small ways or in one or more very major ones. They often do so without making a song or dance about it, so maybe Greer has missed them. Greer is no climate change doubter or an admirer of deniers: "I learned enough about energy flow and the laws of thermodynamics many years ago to realize that if you dump billions of tons of infrared-trapping gases into Earth’s atmosphere, you’re going to play hob with the delicate energy balance that maintains Earth’s climate in its present condition. The fact that Earth’s climate has changed drastically in the past, without benefit of human interference, simply shows how stupid it is to tamper with a system so obviously vulnerable to destabilization ... anthropogenic climate change has become an everyday reality, and that it can be expected to get much, much worse so long as modern industrial civilization keeps bumbling on its merry way, ripping through half a billion years of fossil sunlight to prop up a few short centuries of absurd extravagance."
But his first point is well made: "twenty years of strident yelling by climate change activists have not succeeded in convincing either their opponents or the undecided of the rightness of their cause and the urgency of change." He thinks that many climate activists are as wedded to 'modern industrial civilization' as much as those they are trying to convince - and that for both camps, this is a sign of our separateness from nature. "Nearly everything that frames a middle- or upper middle-class lifestyle in the industrial world today can be described, without too much difficulty, as a way to avoid dealing with nature."
- Towards the Picascene-
This short post from Ginny Battson at Seasonalight (21/12/18) captures the particular attraction of that raucous bird, the European Magpie - "a whirl of black and white feather-tempest, a stunning aves with a glint in each onyx eye. If sunbeams infuse among her barbules, purple-blue-green iridescence radiates out as a thing to behold."
I'd been reading of magpies as one of the (as far as we know) small number of other animals who share our ability to recognise ourselves in mirrors -- a mark of the psychology of individual self-awareness, mentioned in the book, Future Remains, which I've just reviewed here. Battson speculates that maybe this ability "gives rise to a folly; the reflected self image as superior being," and it's an arresting thought: if self-awareness means self-regard, a separation that's so dangerous in the wrong hands?
But there's comfort to be found in these other mirrored beings. "They bring me both smiles and daily stories, something I cherish very much in life."
- What does shooting wolves have to do with rivers?-
Writing at the Good Men Project (3/10/18), Jill Sisson Quinn recalls an episode with the English class she leads in Wisconsin, leading a group of teenagers through an essay reading after an outing to hike a section of the Ice Age Trail, along the farthest reach of the most recent glacier across Wisconsin. The essay was Aldo Leopold's Thinking Like a Mountain, and Quinn didn't have high expectations of her students' receptiveness to this account of Leopold's own conversion from a hunter's 'predator-minded' logic to a more ecological thinking. Especially Cody, the brightest but most resistant of the class. "If the only thing that interested or excited my students about wolves was the prospect of killing them, how could I prepare them for Leopold’s suggestion that the wolf has a role in nature other than to compete with humans for deer?"
"I began the class by asking the students how many had heard a wolf howl ... I explained that we’d be reading Leopold’s essay, and that he begins by describing what the howl of a wolf means to a deer, a spruce tree, a man, and a mountain. I played a ninety-second clip of a wolf chorus and asked the students to come up with an adjective to describe the howls, or a phrase that explained what the howls reminded them of."
As for the essay, she was astonished by the depth of response. "Two groups discussed the symbolism of the 'green fire' that Leopold saw extinguished in the eyes of the old wolf he shot. Another tried to decipher the 'secret opinion' Leopold says mountains hold about wolves. A third group tried to understand the quote, 'He [who shoots wolves] has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls and rivers washing the future into the sea.' My students wondered, 'What does shooting wolves have to do with rivers?' ... Cody raised his hand. I called on him. 'Shooting wolves causes the deer population to increase,' he began, in a descending monotone, as if nothing that school presented him with could ever be difficult to unravel. 'Then the deer browse the plants on the mountain, killing them. The roots of the plants are what hold the mountain together. So without wolves, eventually the mountain dies.'”
- The moral assumptions embedded in economic models of climate change-
The Economist (8/12/18) editorial provides a timely and concise look at the question of the discount rates used by policy makers when thinking what actions to take on climate change. This rate "represents how much the value of a present good fades as it is delayed into the future." In other words, how much it is deemed 'worth' paying now to achieve that good in the future. "These calculations may look bloodless, but they are built on weighty moral assumptions, namely, how to value other people’s lives. Though it is hard to know what might finally impel humanity to take the threat of climate change seriously, speaking more plainly about its moral costs might help."
"Philosophers are accustomed to discussions about how to value lives distant from our own in time and place; economists are not." So using their conventional tools - designed for choices about what pension to take out, for example - don't look especially useful for giving weight to the impact of our current CO2 emissions to people a century from now: "given a 5% rate of discount, one human life today is worth 132 a century hence. Is it really ethically acceptable to save one life now at the expense of so many in the future? The lives of humans born decades from now might be difficult for us to imagine, or to treat as of equal worth to our own. But our own lives were once similarly distant from those taking their turn on Earth; the future, when it comes, will feel as real to those living in it as the present does to us. Economists should treat threats to future lives as just as morally reprehensible as present threats to our own."
Of course - as the article doesn't spell out - the future is not just 100 years from now, or 50 or 12. It is now, with millions of present human lives and the existence of many other species and much of the natural world already being destroyed, now. And being discounted now in the decisions politicians, economists and most of must make every day.
- Pursuit of beauty - hurricane bells-
In this excellent and moving programme for BBC Radio 4 (13/11/18), Peter Shenai, an artist working with sound and who previously cast bells based on climate change graphs, shares his latest project: to make bells that tell some of the stories of Hurricane Katrina. "Bells can signal alarm, they can be a cause for celebration, they can be a symbol for memorial." Walking in London to meet atmospheric scientist Carlo Corsaro to discuss the practicality of his idea, bells form the background soundscape, a reminder of their universal human presence. Corsaro offers Shenai data from the hurricane, which hit New Orleans in August 2005; a 3D image of the hurricane's evolving wind speed gives him the shape of the bell. Watching the hurricane make landfall, Shenai sees "concentric circles growing in intensity. That's kind of terrifying!" A Katrina survivor says "The hurricane was supposed to drop its water as it crossed the 60 miles of swamp. But it didn't, it sneaked in by Lake Pontchartrain, dropped the water there. That didn't flood us but it all washed into our drainage canals. And that's what did us in."
In a project about destruction, Shenai experiences both excitement at using scientific data to create his unique bells, and guilt at taking them to the people who were directly affected. "Should l even do this? This is asking people to bring up traumatic experiences which probably haven't even left." The project and programme bring us the voices of survivors and bells, combining science, art, first-hand experiences of climate catastrophe and the tension of creative endeavours as we follow the making of the bells and their first sounding. Musicians from New Orleans reflect on the strange, eery musicality of nature re-presented through art.
"Each bell represents a particular time within Hurricane Katrina's development. What I want to do is take each bell to a person that has a memory associated with that time, when the hurricane was building and eventually when it hit the coast. And I want them to strike the bell and tell me about what they remember. Bells represent a musical instrument that's unlike any ... orchestral musical instrument. They're often installed in places like towers and struck with a regularity and often mark anniversaries, so they relate us to time, often even epochal time, and they relate us to memory. So I want the first formal introduction of the bells to the public to be a symbol of the time that they represent. And I want the memories of the people that they talk about there to be encoded in the bells, so that whenever they're played after that there's a sense in which those bells are then broadcasting those memories."
I'm grateful to ClimateCultures Member Nick Comer-Calder for recommending this programme. I've also posted about this programme at my small blog.
- Meet the fatbergs-
With perfect timing to link with Nick Drake's contribution to our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects - including Stranger Thing, his poem on the Whitechapel fatberg - Atlas Obscura (20/11/18) posts Jessica Leigh Hester's article on fatbergs around the world. Giant mounds of fats, oils, and debris that accumulate in sewers, "stinky, sprawling, subterranean, they start small, then get bigger and bigger, and sometimes grow to gargantuan proportions, occasionally surpassing a double-decker bus or even an airliner in size. They tend to lurk, unnoticed, until they claim so much of a pipe that wastewater can hardly flow past them. Then, they’re investigated and hauled to the surface bit by bit, where they elicit fascination and no small measure of nausea."
Hester looks at the processes that create and shape them, and at the unique characteristics of fatbergs in three different cities: London, Singapore, and Charleston, South Carolina. "Fatberg ingredients vary from city to city, and perhaps even from street to street ... One kind of cooking oil would leave behind a different signature than another, and the grease from chicken is different than the grease from beef. But anything that is flushed or dumped might glom on to the fatberg."
But, as Hester points out, wherever they’re found, "the recipe for preventing fatbergs is the same ... upkeep on grease interceptors, and maybe even replacing existing sewer pipes with ones made from different materials that are less likely to leach calcium and provide snag points. And, of course, it requires residents to curb the habit of putting things down the pipes - no grease, no wipes, no floss. Nothing that feeds the fatberg."
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change take-away: Imagine. Take action. Repeat.-
Writing at Transition Network (8/11/18), Rob Hopkins looks at the impact of the most recent IPCC report through the lens of imagination. "I find myself intrigued with a thought that doesn’t seem to want to leave my head, namely that the deeper we get into climate change, the harder we seem to be finding it to imagine a way out. It’s an idea that, for me anyway, gets under the skin. We know that the more we see and feel its impacts, the more anxious we become, which in turn results in more cortisol in our systems and the contraction of our hippocampus, the imagination centre in our brain, hampering our ability to imagine the future. We know that the increase of CO2 in the air we breathe impacts our cognitive abilities to the extent that the rise to 660ppm of CO2 by the end of the century forecast by the IPCC would lead to a 15% decline in those abilities. If we don’t intentionally put our priority on rebuilding the collective imagination, that vital ability may just slide out of our grasp." That's a stark reframing of the crisis, a fresh way of hammering home the problem that we're cutting away the branches we're sitting on.
Hopkins sees hope as well as alarm in our ability (still) to imagine the better as well as the worse. "It feels vital to me that alongside the declaration of a ‘climate emergency’ ... we must never lose sight of the need to fire the imagination about the future it is still possible to create ... [And] those stories are infectious. Really bold, amazing, world-changing, imagination-firing stuff is happening all over the world, even though you most likely won’t see it on the BBC News ... While mass arrests and a firm “no” is vital, our “yes” being sufficiently rich in imagination, play, invitation, joy, awe and possibility matters just as much."
- A ‘great and merciless thinning:’ the vanishing world of insects-
In a disturbing companion piece to Jeff VanderMeer's piece on Ecology, storytelling, and the White Deer Terroir project - but one that likewise feels packed with opportunity to improve our understanding of ecology and growing crisis - this openDemocracy article by Michael Malay (1/11/18) takes the startling action of extinguishing from our literary ecology the same insect life that's under threat of extinction in the natural world.
"What would English literature look or sound like if there were no insects? What if someone were to ransack the literary past...? A great silence would follow. Poems that were full of life would suddenly be untenanted, their landscapes no longer pulsing..." Given the urgency of the ecological crisis and the problem of how to encourage citizens to care about animals about which they know very little, Malay suggests we "find ways of portraying the ‘great thinning’ in ways that can’t be ignored, and it is here that artists, poets and environmental scholars have a role to play. By asking different questions from conservationists, and bringing new perspectives to bear on the issue, they may be able to illuminate the consequences of extinction in other ways."
Malay uses examples from his own scrapbook of blanked out poems to bring the method home. "The process of compiling the scrapbook produced many feelings of unease: to remove lines from a poem felt like an act of desecration. At the same time, it offered a way of giving concrete expression to ecological degradation. Without his ‘bee-loud glade’, Yeats’s Innisfree is impoverished, and what is Dickinson’s field without her cicadas, observing their ‘unobtrusive mass’?"
- Meghan Brown: Ecology, storytelling, and the White Deer Terroir project-
At Guernica (31/8/18) Author Jeff VanderMeer talks with biology professor Meghan Brown about an intriguing experiment using his creative writing guide with her science students as a way to understand the ecology of place. The place in question being an abandoned US Army depot in upstate New York that's now home for rare white deer and other wildlife. "Given these animals’ rarity, the abandoned depot has become a flash point for environmental discussion, especially in light of a recent proposal by waste-to-energy company Circular enerG. The company proposes to develop a trash incinerator on the site, which would burn approximately 2,640 tons of garbage each day. " Great material for creative writing students, but what would biology students make of a writing project in place of their usual lab classes?
Vandermeer asks what Brown sees as the biggest challenges in conveying information to the general public? "I suppose it is like most things: people generally listen to what they want to hear, and from that limited information adopt whatever fits into their world view. I think that makes us allergic to nuance, which is what science is all about. As a scientist, I thrive on the uncertainty, the variability, the unknown; but the public often wants static, deterministic, linear responses to complex questions. It is a balancing act, to keep faithful to the science (and my love of its complexity) while building a story that communicates the gist of the problem or solution in a way that general audiences can understand."
And for VanderMeer, of course, that is the core issue. "The intricate relations between the depot, its deer, and its fragile ecosystem made me think about how looking at a particular place’s terroir - a term used by wine enthusiasts to refer to the environmental factors that influence the growth and development of wine grapes - might help students to better understand a place’s complexity. And this, in turn, could help them generate stories, as well as explore how stories get told."
- Anthropocene: why the chair should be the symbol for our sedentary age-
For The Conversation (26/10/18), Vybarr Cregan-Reid makes an interesting claim for a new indicator for the Anthropocene ... chairs. "If I was asked to make even a conservative estimate of the number of chairs in the world, I’d find it hard to go lower than 8-10 per person. Applying that logic, there could be more than 60 billion of them on the planet. Surely chairs should be one of the universal signals of the arrival of the Anthropocene?" Whether or not many would survive into future archaeological records (those particularly cheap and uncomfortable metal-and-plastic ones, certainly), that's a lot of chairs.
And what makes them an interesting indicator is how their numbers have grown. "While chairs began to appear with a little more frequency in the early modern period, it seems that they became much more widely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries during the Industrial Revolution. Before the 18th century, a chair was relatively easily come by, but the majority of the population had little use for them."
And it's a case of chairs shaping us we shape the planet through our increasingly sedentary lives and increasing consumption of the world's resources. "Just as we have an Anthropocene environment, we might equally class ourselves as Anthropocene humans. Palaeolithic humans died most frequently in infancy. Violence and injury were also common causes of mortality in later life. Modern humans, though, overwhelmingly die as a result of metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers – all strongly linked with inactivity: namely, chair use."
Many thanks to ClimateCultures Member Robynne Limoges for pointing out this story. And to the chairs we were using while reading it.
- To sway science skeptics, first listen to them-
Undark (10/10/18) carries a piece by Anita Makri looking back at work in the 1980s to understand the rising conflicts between 'expert' and 'public' views of risk - work that has great relevance today. Psychologist Paul Slovic looked at how scientists sought to assuage fears of nuclear power, and how this 'deficit model' (where experts feel that more information and better explanation of 'the facts' will meet the public's obvious need to be persuaded) wasn't working. Unsurprisingly, we might think.
"Slovic’s approach to probing how people think and respond to risk focused on the mental strategies, or heuristics, people use to make sense of uncertainty. Sometimes these strategies are valid; sometimes they lead to error. But heuristics aren’t deployed exclusively by the masses, Slovic wrote. Experts use them too, and are prone to similar errors."
As Makri explains, much work has been done since on the social perceptions of risk, "but Slovic’s underlying message seems daring, even today. Are we ready to accept that attitudes, values, and emotions like fear and desire have a legitimate role in establishing 'truth'? How can we negotiate compatible roles for scientific and non-scientific considerations in decision-making? These are tricky propositions."
Efforts to bring experts and publics together in conversation - and acknowledging the different expertise that both groups hold - are demanding. "They bring scientists and the public together in an uncomfortable space, where they are forced to try to understand each other. But if we are to find socially and scientifically acceptable solutions to contentious problems, perhaps that’s what it will take."
- How I made musical instruments from lab equipment to create empathy with the Arctic-
Kat Austen, who is "exploring the role of art as a route to knowing the environment in an alternative way", writes at The Conversation (31/10/18) about her work to engage people with climate change through increased empathy with the natural world. "Providing people with more scientific information has been shown to have little effect on the degree to which people care about the climate or understand the impact of human activity. Something else is needed to jolt us out of our current trajectory."
Her latest work, The Matter of the Soul, hacks the electronics of lab equipment, transforming them into musical instruments that play the sounds of melting ice from her journeys around Baffin Island in the High Arctic. "I set up a temporary studio on the top deck of the ship ... where I could tinker with all of my equipment and explore the aesthetic of this fascinating place, so different from my European home ... Around the ship, and on land in the open, rocky landscapes, I interviewed visitors to and residents based around Baffin Island. But I also captured the voice of the ocean and ice. I wanted to draw an analogy between bodies of water and human culture. To capture the voice of the water, I decided to explore the chemical consequences of ice melting."
Distinct from the direct sonification of data, Austen's recordings "are not directly representative of the value of the measurements. They are rather derived from what happens inside the machines during the process of measurement ... a reflection on the process of measurement as a passive way of knowing..." The post includes examples of her work, and the raw material and compositions from the project will also be released online under Creative Commons.
- Can you be a beef farmer if the animals are your friends?-
In director Alex Lockwood's beautifully thoughtful and moving film, 73 Cows, (posted at Aeon), farmers Jay and Katja Wilde share their journey from raising beef cattle to animal-free lives - and the journey of the animals themselves. "Coming to recognise them as individuals with rich inner lives rather than just ‘units of production’, Wilde eventually found the emotional burden of sending his cattle to the abattoir too crushing to bear. ... Melancholic yet stirring and gently hopeful, this short documentary ... deftly traces the complexities of Wilde’s decisionmaking process. In doing so, it reaches far beyond the English countryside, asking viewers to reckon with the moral intricacies of eating animals."
It's an insightful encounter with the personal realities of life on the land and living in close relationship with animals; "you realise they do have personalities and they experience the world. That they are not just robots that eat and sleep. I couldn't disconnect that feeling of having to get the job done from the fact that they were individuals and not just units of production: more than a number, really."
- Anthropocene TV-
"We stand in the world within a complex series of networks, systems and processes. It is only our action, repeated on a vast scale, which appears to place us outside these wild systems, rather than a part of them. It is a dangerous illusion," writes Adam Scovell for The Clearing (1/10/18). In this excellent survey of 1960s-80s British TV's fictional treatment of ecological controversies and alarm calls, Scovell uses Timothy Morton's writings on 'dark ecology', 'hyperobjects' and 'the severing' of modern humans from the natural world to show how awareness of the Anthropocene has been with us for almost as long as the Great Acceleration itself.
"What series like these and others show, is how such environmental awareness went unheeded. It’s not that these programmes were ahead of their time: it is more frustratingly, that we have moved on so little in how we deal with the monumentality of ecological issues and their increasing scarring of the strata of our planet; the danger has been growing but with far more fervour than our willingness to address it."
"But within these television dramas are the first signs that the Anthropocene was coming, in a time when we may have still been able to turn the clocks back. It’s not that we didn’t heed their warning, it’s that we’ve never heeded such warnings. We cannot put fences around things for protection and watch as everything on the other side crumbles. The message of these programmes has always been that change is within us and that such problems are still ultimately about our disconnect with the world..."
- The hope at the heart of the apocalyptic climate change report-
Jason Hickel's Foreign Policy (18/10/18) piece reminds us that the recent IPCC Special 1.5oC report "has issued a clear and trenchant call for action - its most urgent yet. It says we need to cut annual global emissions by half in the next 12 years and hit net zero by the middle of the century. It would be difficult to overstate how dramatic this trajectory is. It requires nothing less than a total and rapid reversal of our present direction as a civilization."
The problem with 'net zero', Hickel points out, is that "during that very same period, the global economy is set to nearly triple in size. That means three times more production and consumption than we are already doing each year. It would be hard enough to decarbonize the existing global economy in such a short timespan. It’s virtually impossible to do it three times over." He draws our attention to the one scenario in the report that doesn't rely on BECCS - “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage ” - to draw our continually rising emissions back out of the atmosphere: "an exciting new scenario that - for the first time - does not rely on speculative technology. Developed by an international team of scientists, it projects that we can reduce emissions fast enough to keep under 1.5 degrees but only if we’re willing to fundamentally change the logic of our economy. Instead of growing industrial output at all costs, it proposes a simple alternative: that we start to consume less ... to scale down global material consumption by 20 per cent, with rich countries leading the way. What does that look like? It means moving away from disposable products toward goods that last ... It means investing in public goods and finding ways to share stuff - from cars to lawn mowers - shifting from an ethic of ownership to an ethic of usership."
- Mental health must be part of the climate change conversation-
In this short piece for Canada's National Observer (10/10/18), Amy Anne Lubik & Celia Walker contrast the attention paid to the physical health impacts of climate change in their region - on respiratory illnesses, for example - with awareness of the mental health impacts. The need to address this imbalance is two-fold, they say: "As British Columbia works to create a mental health and addictions strategy, it is important that all angles, from treatment to prevention to the societal and environmental factors that are linked to high rates of mental illness be considered; and this includes climate change. Similarly, B.C. needs to take mental health into account as we develop a comprehensive and effective climate change strategy."
As with the rest of the world, British Columbia "has been experiencing an increase in dramatic climate change related disasters from floods to wildfires resulting in the mass evacuation of people from their communities. These climate change related disasters can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, grief, survivor guilt, vicarious trauma, recovery fatigue, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts. Like most illnesses, the most marginalized and impoverished populations are most likely to suffer the direct and indirect consequences."
And, of course, mental health impacts such as 'solastalgia' -- the distress experienced with local environmental destruction -- also come from those activities causing climate change as well as from the results of those changes. "Communities that are impacted by fossil fuel extraction, such as Fort Nelson First Nation in Northeast B.C. also experience the depression that accompanies solastalgia as their traditional hunting, fishing and trapping territory becomes more riddled with mining, dams, and fracking..."
- We need stories of dystopia without apocalypse-
Here's an 'old' piece I missed first time: Writing at Electric Lit (20/7/17), Emmalie Dropkin identifies a key tool for engaging others (and ourselves) with the seemingly distant realities of climate change, given the evolutionary idiosyncracies of the human brain: "Fortunately our species has spent thousands of years developing the intervention we need: literature." After a discussion of the social psychology of climate change (see our post this month from writer Deborah Tomkins), Dropkin suggests that "There’s a narrow path between the pitfalls suggested by the psychological and sociological research about climate change. As humans, we need stories to help us make sense of our world and empathize with the future. At this moment, we need stories that make the realities of climate change concrete and pervasive and of human origin, as well as viscerally emotional when it comes to the struggles of our descendants. We need stories of dystopia, but not apocalypse."
She draws on examples of mainstream literary fiction - rather than self-identified 'Cli-Fi' - such as Jane Smiley's Golden Age and Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. "Both Smiley and Proulx are known for their writing of place and environment, but these novels are a quintessential model for the new climate fiction we need. As we set them down our attention is directed from the many generations behind us to those ahead, to the legacies we’re forced to imagine because the effects of human activity and climate change are already concrete and clear, as real as the personal drama that occurs alongside them that usually fills our range of vision on its own."
- Anthropocene-Fi: a new way to write (& read) upbeat, hopeful novels about climate change-
While publishing our latest post, from writer Debrah Tomkins on fellow writers' discussions on writing about climate change, I've also seen a number of other interesting pieces on the topic. Views from Elsewhere is an ideal place to bring a few of these together - starting with the latest from Dan Bloom at Burning Embers (8/10/18), the global 'cli-fi' forum he's created. Cli-Fi -- Climate fiction -- is the term he coined back in 2010 for fictions addressing climate change and its impacts on the world. Some disagree with Dan's description of it as a genre (in her recent two-part post for ClimateCultures, writer Mary Woodbury prefers 'eco-fiction' as the term, and sees it "not so much as a genre as a way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness into other genres") but no one would disagree that Cli-fi, "also dubbed 'Anthropocene fiction,' ... has become a publishing phenomenon, with sci-fi novelists Margaret Atwood and Kim Stanley Robinson among those conjuring up ''what if'' near-futures."
And, as he points out, "Cli-fi novels can take place in the past, the present and the future, the near future and the distant future ... They should be storytelling pure and simple. Family dramas, love stories, psychological tales, and full of emotion and memorable characters."
As with other expressions of an increasing 'climate change awareness', recent news has helped stimulate the appetite for new insights, in fiction as in non-fiction: "with a series of massive and deadly wildfires this past summer in Greece and California, newspaper headlines and TV reports around the world in 2018 have made the public more aware of climate events linked to global warming. This awareness translates to a hunger to read novels about climate change with good emotive storytelling... With the latest IPCC climate report released in October, runaway climate change risks are on everyone's mind now. Cli-fi is in the air."
- Neptune’s treasure: confronting the Anthropocene with the ancient aroma of ambergris-
Cathleen Faubert, an artist who "uses aroma as a link to an earlier time, on the belief that we can access the past through esoteric smells", is planning to "use the olfactory story of ambergris to recall the history of whaling as an early foundation of America’s energy economy." As she writes for Inhabiting the Anthropocene (19/9/18), the aromas she is able to extract from natural materials "represent the local landscape through aroma, molecular structure and symbolic meaning of the materials gathered. Aromatic materials, alchemical possibilities and cultural symbolism are central to the work. We respond to scent viscerally, at first, not logically. I believe this makes fragrance a potent vehicle for exploring arcane history, which can include truth and myth."
Her article — and the planned exhibition — explore the way the early Industrial Revolution, prior to the exploitation of mineral oils was fuelled by mass slaughter of whales for their fats, which were then processed into oil for lighting, power and lubrication. "Looking back on whaling makes us confront the economy of energy production and consumption, pointing us forward in time to its result, the Anthropocene."
But it's the mysterious allure of ambergris as the precious basis for perfumes which particularly fascinates Faubert. A substance excreted by whales after they've first secreted it to coat irritants in their guts, harvesting this doesn't entail slaughter. "In perfumery, the seashore is an elusive and desirable aroma, particularly the salty smell of skin and hair after a day at the beach. Sweet sun-warmed skin, fresh sweat, marine air, the significant scent of iodine and sulfur from seaweed and decomposing microplankton in the wet sand. This combo hits you in different frequencies at particular locations and it’s not simply the beauty of the odour, it’s the attraction to the place and the associations with pleasure, leaving the material world behind. The marvel of ambergris is its ability to melt into skin and aromatically conjure this oceanic illusion as no other material can."
- Microplastics can spread via flying insects, research shows-
In The Guardian (19/9/18), Damian Carrington describes recent research showing how mosquito larvae ingest microplastics that are the same size as their algae food and that, as the insects mature and fly, this "microplastic can escape from polluted waters ... contaminating new environments and threatening birds and other creatures that eat the insects." The article quotes Professor Amanda Callaghan, at the University of Reading, who led the new research: “Much recent attention has been given to the plastics polluting our oceans, but this research reveals it is also in our skies.”
With birds, bats, spiders and other species eating large numbers of insects, it's possible that they're also consuming microplastics. Callaghan says: “You can get swarms of insects. You could have a lot of plastic going up. It’s totally depressing. These plastics are going to be around forever.”
- High ice and hard truth: the poets taking on climate change-
Bill McKibben writes in The Guardian (12/9/18) about the meeting of glaciologist Jason Box with two poets, Aka Niviana from Greenland and Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Pacific's Marshall Islands, and the work the poets did together - through their collaborative poem, Rise - to 'Let me bring my home to yours.'
"Aka Niviana, grew up on the northern coast of Greenland; as its ice inexorably thaws, her traditional way of life disappears. And the water that melts off that ice sheet is drowning the home of Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner and everyone else in her home nation, the Marshall Islands of the Pacific. One poet watches her heritage turn to water; the other watches that same water sweep up the beaches of her country and into the houses of her friends. The destruction of one’s homeland is the inevitable destruction of the other’s." But, McKibben writes, "they don’t watch impassively. Both are climate activists, and both have raised their voices in service of their homelands."
"The hardest idea to get across is also the simplest: we live on a planet, and that planet is breaking. Poets, it turns out, can deliver that message." You can watch Rise, the pair's poem film at the Guardian article.
- On waste plastics at sea, she finds unique microbial multitudes-
For Quanta Magazine (13/9/18) Elizabeth Svoboda interviews oceanographer Maria-Luiza Pedrotti about her research into plastic pollution of our seas. Pedrotti is "stalking the mysterious inhabitants of what she calls the “plastisphere.” Her goal is to understand what kinds of microbes populate this newly evolved ecosystem and what biological tasks they perform." Pedrotti is currently investigating the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch and its novel microbe communities - Pedrotti refers to it as a “'soup,' but, you know, it’s a poor soup, because there’s a lot of plastic and few plankton - but has also researched plastics in the Mediterranean and other seas.
"The plastic fragments that make up the patches’ confetti-like slurry, Pedrotti says, harbor large quantities of bacteria from the genus Vibrio, which includes human pathogens like cholera. Studies elsewhere have suggested other dangers brewing within the plastisphere. Earlier this year, researchers ... reported that bacteria living on microplastics have very high rates of gene exchange, perhaps due to the generous surface area the plastics give microbes to grow on. That rapid gene exchange facilitates the spread of antibiotic resistance, which could eventually affect land-dwellers like us. Findings like these have alarmed ecologists and infectious-disease experts. But getting rid of ocean garbage patches isn’t as simple as deploying cleanup boats, according to Pedrotti. For one thing, we don’t yet know how closely the garbage patch microbial system and the larger food web have become intertwined: Eliminating the plastisphere could have unpredictable effects on the ocean ecosystem as a whole. And to some extent, the cleanup question is moot, because it’s impossible to remove even a significant fraction of the plastic from the ocean. Much of it is microscopic in size and cannot be captured even by nets with a lace-fine mesh."
Note: this piece in Quanta is one recent article that I also picked up in my miniblog: the new daily post of no more than 200 words on my personal website, which I'll link to occasionally here. For thoughts sparked off by Elizabeth Svoboda's interview with Maria-Luiza Pedrotti, see my small blog ~034 Our Plastisphere future?
- Pulling the magical lever - a critical analysis of techno-utopian imaginaries-
In this thoughtful piece for Uneven Earth (2/9/18), Rut Elliot Blomqvist celebrates the current recognition of the importance of the imagination in addressing political and ecological crisis but warns that, as well as "creative efforts to imagine other futures, we also need critical analyses of such visions. This is because imaginative responses to crises cover a broad spectrum of politics and worldviews — and even our dreams of a better future can be constrained by the political structure and ideologies of the present."
She looks at the recent spate of techno-utopian fiction and nonfiction stories, in particular at three works where she sees some interesting similarities and differences: "British campaigner and lobbyist Jonathon Porritt’s design fiction book The world we made, futurist Jacque Fresco’s The Venus project, and the movement for Fully Automated Luxury Communism." Although each has a different ideology, Blomqvist suggests that "the device of the fetishised magical lever of solar power (along with other magical industrial technologies) is equally central in all three stories." Whatever your view of technology as a means to drive social progress and environmental protection (or your views on ideas of 'progress' and 'environment' in the first place), this article is a good place to stretch your views and refresh your critical imagination on our futures. "A critical approach to utopian imaginaries is essential for any rethinking of political futures; without it, we risk being trapped in the same old stories even as we see ourselves as thinking outside the old story box."
- Six key questions in whole systems thinking-
As Daniel Christian Wahl reminds us in this article for The Ecologist (14/8/18), a whole-systems understanding of the world as always more than the simple sum of its parts "pays attention to the diversity of elements, the quality of interactions and relationships, and the dynamic patterns of behaviour that often lead to unpredictable and surprising innovations and adaptations ... Whole-systems thinking has to be a transdisciplinary activity that maps and integrates relationships, flows and perspectives into a dynamic understanding of the structures and processes that drive how the system behaves."
Systems - whether biological cells, organisms, a community or the Earth - act as sets of interconnected elements that together form a coherent pattern and exhibit "properties of the whole that emerge out of the interactions and relationships of the individual elements ... In many ways, a system is less a ‘thing’ than a pattern of relationships and interactions..." But Wahl also reminds us that, while systems thinking is a valuable corrective to reductionist approaches that always look for explanations within the simplest units and often ignore the 'emergent' pattern that is the whole, it's important to realise "that the systems view itself is also just another map that ... should not be confused with the territory. We can reduce the world to a whole just as easily as we can reduce it to a collection of parts. Neither the whole nor parts are primary; they come into being through the dynamic processes that define their identity through relationships and networks of interactions."
- Why we’re hunting for treasure – in old landfill sites-
Anyone who watched the recent shocking BBC Four documentary The secret life of landfill (23/8/18) won't be surprised to learn that "Old landfills do have valuable waste, the most obvious being processed metals, glass and electronics." As Jamie Pringle and Sharon George point out in this article for The Conversation (29/8/18), "junk electronic goods such as old TVs or computers typically have higher concentrations of gold and rare earth elements per tonne than are found naturally in ore. A 2014 United Nations University report stated that each year more than 300 tonnes of processed gold are dumped in landfills – that’s 10% of the total amount mined worldwide. Belgium, for example, is already mining its old landfills, by extracting waste and filtering for metals and recyclable material."
And yet, even though the UK recycles 45% of domestic waste, "that still means more than 12m tonnes are buried in the ground every year."
- Why all fiction should be climate fiction-
In this audio and text interview by Helen Phillips for Edge Effects (21/8/18), author Lauren Groff says "I do think that the way that one engages with climate change, without necessarily allowing it to kill you, because it could kill you out of dread and fear and anxiety, is you have to find a laser-like focus on a few things because we cannot mitigate the whole thing all by ourselves. But we can each do something small or smallish. My only talent is as a writer. That’s the only thing I can do. So now I feel as though I am being immoral if I am not addressing it somehow in my work. Of course, I write literary fiction, so it can’t be polemical. If it’s polemical, I’ve failed. I need to do something more scalpel-like, something a little bit sideways."
Groff has just published Florida, a collection of short stories, and Phillips asks her "What do you want your readers to do after reading this book? What kind of action would you hope for?" Groff's response: "So that’s the problem with literary fiction that’s trying to be non-polemical. I actually don’t have any actions. I don’t have any ways for other people to act. I do think that we cannot continue to avert our eyes. We have to look harder. We have to actually pay attention, no matter how painful it is. We have to take joy in the daily ... I don’t know what it is for every individual, but just find one thing you can accomplish, do it, and then find another thing and commit with your whole self."
- Cold storage: cooling the internet-
Laura Cole writes in Geographical (4/8/18) that the tech giants are turning to the seas to help battle the energy demands of powering the internet. Off the coast of northern Scotland, a "bus-sized, white capsule turns a shade of aquamarine as it is lowered from a floating crane platform into the Hoy Sound ... A foot of sea water froths over its top before it sinks to the floor of the salt water bay where it will remain for at least the next five years, powered by Orkney’s renewable energy and cooled by the seawater."
"As the capsule sinks from view, it’s a reminder that the seemingly ethereal internet still has a physical footprint. Data centres – though more often found in warehouses on land – take up space. They also run hot. Keeping them powered and preventing them from overheating takes up a considerable amount of energy. In fact, an estimated three per cent of the world’s entire electricity usage goes to powering the ICT industry, a significant chunk of that on data centres. The internet also has one of the fastest growing carbon footprints, linked to the exponential increase in demand for data. We produced more data in the last year alone than throughout the rest of human history. To prevent this data climb from creating an even larger carbon footprint, efforts are being made to push data centres into colder territories: the sea, the Arctic, and possibly even into orbit."
- When ice molecules meet black carbon-
This piece for the Journal of Wild Culture (7/4/18) is a few months old but I'm glad I caught up with it. Carol Devine says that "Black Carbon is like what you might imagine — tiny dark particles of pure carbon ... Two thirds of black carbon in the Arctic is traced to the use of heavy fuel oil (HFO), which emits black carbon during combustion." With the 'consistency of peanut butter,' HFO is literally the bottom of the barrel, left over from the oil refining process and "is the preferred fuel for the marine shipping industry because it’s cheap, widely available, and large marine engines are built to handle it."
Devine illustrates her essay with images that show the extent of the problem and, using solarized versions of her own photos of Arctic ice and habitats, brings home the impact. "By their nature, glaciers are dynamic. But we have changed these dynamics for the worse with our carbon obsession ... Yet, I'm buoyed and hopeful that there are many past and current earth stewards, scientists and innovators protecting mother nature and standing for humanity and earth. Action matters."
- As people drive mammals into night, new problems appear-
Brandon Keim writes at Anthropocene (8/8/18) about recent Israeli research that could have implications elsewhere as many mammals become increasingly nocturnal in response to human activity. "There’s a certain poetry to the idea of night as a refuge in a human-dominated world — but ... researchers describe some of the practical and potentially unfortunate implications of this shift, which may render seemingly verdant habitats inhospitable to certain species." The work, led by ecologist Hila Shamoon of Tel Aviv University, monitored the movements of mountain gazelles and their primary predators, golden jackals, as well as Indian crested porcupines, red foxes, and wild boar. "In the protected areas and little-used vineyards, these animals were quite active. As human presence increased, however, the animals’ daytime movements diminished ... Foxes and particularly jackals thrived in this shorter, nocturnal window. Their numbers and presence increased dramatically in vineyards closest to human settlements. This squeezed out the gazelles, who in daytime hide from people and at night must hide from jackals. For them ... 'no low-fear temporal window is left.' Rather than having nowhere to go, they have nowhen to go" as a result of human-induced prey-predator behavioural changes.
- The ghosts of our future climate at Storm King-
At Hyperallergic (29/7/18), Louis Bury offers his well illustrated reflections on a wide-ranging exhibition of climate change art at Storm King art centre in New York. Indicators: Artists on Climate Change, he suggests, "implicitly asks what type of indicator visual art might be with respect to anthropogenic climate change" by analogy with economic indicators. Such measurements are classified as either lagging indicators (which change only after the economy as a whole changes), coincident indicators (changing at approximately the same time as the economy), or leading indicators (which change before the rest of the economy), so each type gives clues to the past, present, or future. From among the 20 or so artists on show, Bury selects examples of art that suggest the same relationships with our changing climate:
"A selection of artworks that point back in time evince a strong sense of historical conscience ... A spirit of defiant resolve animates many of these historically minded works ... The artworks that resemble coincident indicators also emphasize imaginative creation by putting twists on mimetic or documentary techniques. ... While many of the exhibition’s lagging and coincident indicators seek to prick the viewer’s conscience, the works that resemble leading indicators are rarely accusatory or moralistic. The emphasis in such forward-looking works is less on what has been lost to climate change and more on how our species might adapt to, and cope with, the coming changes. The result is a set of works that, though created in the present, speak in a peculiar future perfect tense."
- Defending degrowth at ecomodernism’s home-
Writing for ENTITLE (12/7/18) Sam Bliss shares her experiences of speaking at the latest Annual Breakthrough Dialogue. "I was to participate in a panel called 'Decoupling vs. Degrowth'. My role was the token 'degrowther' making my case to a majority 'decoupler' crowd. In this context, degrowth is the proposal to intentionally shrink the physical size of wealthy economies, whereas decoupling is the hope that growing economies will at last break free from growing resource use and environmental damage. The former renews environmentalism as a subversive political movement. The latter is firmly post-environmentalist, often associated with support for nuclear energy, industrial agriculture, and artificial technologies. With my mentor Giorgos Kallis, we’ve spent three years working together on a critical analysis of this post-environmentalism that emanates from the Breakthrough Institute and their self-styled ecomodernist friends."
It's a really interesting account of the meetings (and non-meeting) of minds located on radically different wavelengths on the 'environmental' spectrum. And worth reading, whatever your wavelength...
"I think I made a bulletproof case for degrowth. I learned lots about geoengineering, carbon capture, agricultural modernization, and other topics from brilliant thought leaders ... Talking with journalists and scientists who had never engaged with degrowth before made the Dialogues worthwhile. I expected to feel like a visiting team player in a hostile professional sports arena, but really it was more like being a foreigner who people are interested in but don’t always know how to interact with."
- Geology’s timekeepers are feuding-
Robinson Meyer reports for The Atlantic (20/718) on the recent decision by the International Commission on Stratigraphy - "the global governing body that formally names geological eras, associating each rock layer with a specific stretch of time" - to divide our current stretch of geological time, the Holocene Epoch, into three new.
"This is particularly noteworthy to the human species, as we have been living in the Holocene for the last 12,000 years. After this announcement, we still live in that epoch, but we also live in the youngest of these new subdivisions: the Meghalayan Age." It's a decision that has caused an unusual amount of controversy and high-temperature exchange in what might as easily be called the Twitterocene - because of the way the new sequence of ages within the Holocene interacts (or doesn't) with that other new age on the block: the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene (the age of humans as a planetary force) has not yet been formally adopted by the ICS, and maybe won't be despite the momentum it has gained in scientific and wider cultural circles. And now the Holococene - the time since the end of the most recent of Earth's many 'ice ages', and which "is everything for humans [and] encompasses all of human history and much of our prehistory: the flourishing of the first cities, the revelation of every major religion, and the invention of the rifle, the rice paddy, and the radio" - has three freshly-minted phases. The most recent of these, the Meghalayan Age, began 4,250 years ago. We are still in this newest of new ages - and will be until and unless the ICS adopts the ultra-new Anthropocene.
A fascinating read on many levels - on the science, on the turf war between different working groups of the ICS, on the wider cultural arguments for what the human influence on the planet means and when it started, and on the practical question of who needs these definitions anyway ... this article is a useful primer on looking for light within the heat.
- Roy Scranton: Some new future will emerge-
As Amy Brady points out in Guernica (10/7/18), ever since The Epic of Gilgamesh, written four thousand years ago, "writers have long faced the apocalypse ... Flash forward a few centuries, and Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells bring us their own visions of the end of the world," and many others since have carried on the tradition. "Each of these writers shares the idea that the end will come quickly, sparked by an event that tumbles the pillars of civilization like dominoes. It takes little to understand why visions of sudden apocalypse - as opposed to a long, drawn-out one - are popular: a quick and dirty end to everything absolves us from having had anything to do with it. If we never saw the apocalypse coming, how could it have been our fault?"
Brady interviews author Roy Scranton, whose latest book, We’re Doomed. Now What? Essays on War and Climate Change, is a "thoughtful and deeply moving collection" discussing two subjects "that aren’t exactly strange bedfellows. As Scranton says ... both engines of colossal destruction emerge from 'the basic structures of our existence.'" In the interview, Scranton suggests "You can only build a new future using the rocks of the past. Some new future will emerge, certainly, but we don’t have a lot of control over how that happens. What we can do is facilitate its emergence in a more peaceful and thoughtful way ... Our way of life is going to be very different in the future than the way it is now, though I don’t know exactly what that means. One of the complicated things about living through the end of the world as we know it is that the end doesn’t come about because of a single event. It’s actually just a day-to-day occurrence that’s going to take a long time. We’ll see transformation and degradation, an increase in violence and insanity, the breakdown of social order in neighborhood by neighborhood, then city by city. We’re watching it happen now.
"But there will be opportunities for joy and for living a meaningful life. It’s just that we won’t find those things by acting in ways we always thought we could. We have to learn to be more flexible, much more adaptable, and much more grounded in the present. That last part may seem like an odd thing to say, but living in the present means facing unpleasant facts, recognizing our fear and sitting with it, and accepting our sorrow and griefs and dealing with them. These aren’t things that we can just push aside in order to get to the next thing on our list. They are who we are."
- Introducing the HfE Observatories blog-
Joni Adamson of the Environmental Humanities Initiative, Arizona State University, kicks off a new series of blog posts from members of the Humanities for the Environment (HfE) network of Observatories (11/7/18), launched five years ago. "The term 'Observatory' was chosen to encourage humanists to think outside the limitations of traditional humanities research protocols, such as the single-authored monograph. New Observatories would work to pilot collaborative, interdisciplinary public-facing projects and publications ... Six “Common Threads” found on the HfE website connect regionally distinct Observatory projects and collaborations. These include 1) recognizing the role that humans have played in transforming Earth’s atmosphere, land surfaces and oceans; 2) re-envisioning concepts of intergenerational justice to promote multispecies flourishing and planetary health; 3) honoring the long history of arts and humanities disciplines in discussions of environmental risks and opportunities; 4) recognizing various ways of knowing, including place-based and indigenous knowledges; 5) tackling complex social and environmental challenges with humanities methodologies and content; and 6) considering diverse environmental literacies and knowledges as key to the broader objectives of Humanities for the Environment initiatives.
- Rewilding the novel-
Gregory Norminton kicks off a series by fellow novelists at the Dark Mountain Project (25/6/18) with this confession: "As an environmentalist and novelist, I have been puzzling for years about how to bring my concerns together. It troubles me that my chosen form appears barely cognisant of our ecological crisis. Yet is it reasonable to expect otherwise? Can a form that evolved alongside Humanism and the Enlightenment, and which primarily concerns itself with the inner lives and motivations of socialised humans, broaden its scope to add, in Richard Smyth’s phrase, ‘the non-human to the anthropocentric’? For decades, environmentalists have been wondering how our rapacious species can live enduringly with the planet that sustains it. Technological ingenuity on its own is not enough: in order to change our behaviour, we must widen the circle of our compassion to include the non-human ... In conservation, one response to this thinking is the concept of ‘rewilding’, whereby humans withdraw from parts of the planet to allow natural processes to play themselves out without disruption from our desires and narratives. Rewilding, as defined for many of us by George Monbiot in Feral (2013), begins with the ability to recognise that we have accustomed ourselves to our ecological impoverishment. We learn to look at our empty uplands and realise that they need not be barren, that only culture and habit (the great deadener) keep them denuded ...
"Yet ‘rewilding the novel’ means more, or should mean more, than adding a few mentions of animals and plants to anthropocentric narratives. It means acknowledging in our fiction where we come from, where we are going, and what we have lost and are losing on the way. It allows for abundance and jubilation but also desolation and loss. We could draw further parallels with the ecological idea of rewilding by allowing our stories freedom from the constrictions of narrative convention, from the enclaves of genre and ideology. The rewilded novel would absorb and reflect the repressed wildness in our natures; it should remind us that we are tellurian – of this Earth – and that what awaits us on a denatured planet is loneliness and grief, however sublimated by technology and the disorders of our politics. It must not be sentimental: the wild contains violence and horror, but also interdependence and a startling capacity for self-renewal."
- What this 19th-century poet knew about the future-
Reporting for JSTOR Daily (4/5/18) on research by anthropologists Richard Irvine and Mina Gorji, Matthew Wills writes that "the Anthropocene requires a new history to explain how humans transform the planet. The work of poet John Clare is a good place to start ... making no distinction between human and natural history."
To Irvine and Gorji, the radical novelty of the Anthropocene "necessarily calls for a re-visioning of the past. How did we get here? Where did the road to the present start? Is there any turning back? In approaching these questions, they call for merging the humanities with economics and biology and think the poet John Clare (1793-1864) is an excellent precedent ... 'These processes cannot be understood on a purely human level; in understanding humans as geological agents, we need to locate anthropogenic activity not only in social terms but as part of a wider system of relations with a physical and biological environment.'
"They note his intuitive sense of time beyond human lifespans ... and argue that Clare’s 'challenges to our dominant sense of value' ... 'may help us to think beyond anthropocentricism and to re-evaluate assumptions of economic progress.' ... "Clare had a fondness for weeds, which are, after all, just plants that aren’t wanted in a particular place. They appear to lack a use value, but that concept is anthropocentric. Irvine and Gorji value these alternatives to anthropomorphism. They conclude, 'from a non-anthropocentric perspective, looking at our actions with the recognition that we are geological agents, we might be startled to learn that we are the weeds.'"
- Explore the sound of islands that never existed-
Continuing the watery theme to round off this month's selection after my time at art.earth's Liquidscapes symposium, I was drawn to Sarah Laskow's account for Atlas Obscura (27/6/18) of composer Andrew Pekler's latest project. Pekler uses synthetic sounds to make music "that builds real-seeming places. With electronic instruments, he creates the sound of wind, waves, bird calls, and insects." His new online, interactive soundscape called Phantom Islands offers "a tour of islands that mapmakers once believed were real, but do not actually exist." In this map of imagined islands each, has its own fictional soundscape.
"When European ships were traveling the world during the Age of Exploration, the men on board would come back with tales of the islands they’d come across, previously unknown to their societies. Usually these reports would be accurate enough, but sometimes this system went awry. Ship captains would conjure up imaginary islands to please their funders; their senses miscalibrated by months at sea, sailors would report seeing land where none existed ... strange relics of a human attempt to better understand the world, with all the flaws that came along with that project." Pekler says: “These nonexistent places are connected with real stories of human avarice, bravery, piety, cruelty, fallibility, and arrogance”.
Take a tour "bubbling with uncanny sounds ... hopping from one island to another, imagining places that never existed."
- Rewilding London’s Rivers-
Kirsten Downer writes for Caught By The River (23/6/18) about efforts to bring London's 'vanished' rivers back to light and back to life. She starts with her own introduction to the river Quaggy, "one of the most engineered rivers in the UK", which rises just outside London, "wiggles its way through the suburbia of Bromley and Greenwich ... joins the Ravensbourne river in Lewisham and finally flows into the Thames at Deptford ... I was standing outside Aldi, waiting for my partner to finish his beer shopping, when a shock of brilliant aquamarine caught my eye at the edge of the carpark. I walked over, and on the other side of a concrete wall I saw a burbling stream. I realised that I just seen my first kingfisher, in the least glamorous location possible."
Kirsten relates a map which shows how "twenty or so mighty rivers, blue marks on the map, converge on London and the Thames and then suddenly vanish. Except of course, these rivers haven’t vanished. They run beneath our feet as ghost rivers, purdahed by planners who wanted the stench and filth that had been thrown into them to disappear. So culverts and roads were built over them and they became part of London’s sewage system. Post war, as London surged in size, planners constrained and corralled yet more rivers into concrete culverts, aiming to get them away from people as quickly as possible. They saw urban rivers as little more than troublesome drains."
But urban rivers "can’t just be dismissed. As well as harbouring our guilty secrets – plastic, wet wipes and fatbergs – they also have the potential to heal and rescue us from our city claustrophobia, if we just give them a little help ... Climate change, with its pattern of prolonged periods of drought, combined with intense periods of rainfall, can turbo-charge our rivers, unleashing their force in dangerous ways. And a natural river with a floodplain, vegetation and water meadows can cope with a sudden increase in water better than a concrete channel ... In some karmic way, the climate change we have created has forced us to finally respect the power of our rivers."
- Write fiction to discover something new in your research-
A great insight from marsupial biologist Amanda Niehaus, who writes in Nature (9/5/18) about her research into northern quolls (Dasyurus hallucatus): "For me, compressing science into academic journals simply isn’t enough. I’m frustrated by the need to reduce my ideas and experiments to publishable pieces while simultaneously ensuring that they are broadly relevant. I believe that the most exciting things happen at the fringe, the overlap, the moment we look at the same question through a different lens altogether. New ideas happen outside our comfort zone.
"In writing quoll biology into my novel and a short story, I discovered that artists and writers seek truth as much as scientists do. They embed facts with experiences to give them context and meaning. And stories deal not only with what is true, but also with what is possible. Through fiction, I may discover something about sex and death that my research did not tell me. Where to start? Take a workshop in creative writing, curate an online gallery of inspiring images or invite writers to your next symposium. Stories are there in every book, movie and conversation — so notice them, and harness their energy to share your work."
- The password-
More excellent water-writing in this beautifully written and illustrated essay, this time from Elizabeth Rush at Terrain (7/6/18), where she recalls her exploration of the wetlands of Rhode Island, which is also an exploration of language and the value of naming. "A month or two before I witnessed my first dead tupelo, and right before I packed up my apartment in Brooklyn and moved north, I found a scrap of language in an essay on Alzheimer’s and stuck it to my computer monitor, thinking it might serve some future purpose. It read, 'Sometimes a key arrives before the lock.' Which I understood as a reminder to pay attention to my surroundings. That hidden in plain sight I might discover the key I do not yet know I need, but that will help me cross an important threshold somewhere down the line. When I see that stand of tupelos I instinctually lodge their name in my mind, storing it for a future I do not yet understand ...I’ll be the first to admit that before I started coming to Jacob’s Point I couldn’t tell the difference between black tupelo and black locust, between needlerush and cordgrass. I would learn their names only after I realized the ways in which their letters on my lips might point toward (or away from) incredible loss. Then I became fascinated. Because unlike Descartes, I believe that language can lessen the distance between humans and the world of which we are a part; I believe that it can foster interspecies intimacy and, as a result, care. If, as Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests in her essay on the power of identifying all living beings with personal pronouns, 'naming is the beginning of justice,' then saying tupelo takes me one step closer to recognizing these trees as kin and endowing their flesh with the same inalienable rights we humans hold."
Her essay -- an extract from her new book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore -- charts the threat to coastal wetlands as accelerating sea level rise shifts the processes that shape them. "I have written about communities affected by sea level rise. But my life has seemed so removed, so buffered from those events. At Jacob’s Point I am finally glimpsing the hem of the specter’s dressing gown. The tupelos, the dead tupelos that line the edge of this disappearing marshland, are my Delphi, my portal, my proof, the stone I pick up and drop in my pocket to remember. I see them and know that the erosion of species, of land, and, if we are not careful, of the very words we use to name the plants and animals that are disappearing is not a political lever or a fever dream. I see them and remember that those who live on the margins of our society are the most vulnerable, and that the story of species vanishing is repeating itself in nearly every borderland."
- Slow flow: a layered mapping-
One of the (many) highlights of my three days at the recent Liquidscapes conference in Dartington was the workshop offered by Iain Biggs and Luci Gorell Barnes: 'Slow flow: a layered mapping.' In the introductory talk -- which he has posted in full at Iain Biggs educator / artist / researcher (23/6/18) -- Iain says "Herman Hesse writes in Siddhartha that: 'the river taught him how to listen – how to listen with a quiet heart and a waiting soul …'. He’s right, listening to flowing water can remind us to listen to the world. Listen, perhaps, to a poet, a political geographer and a Greek philosopher – who tell us that: 'where we live in the world is never one place …', that '… space' is 'a simultaneity of stories-so-far', and that 'everything changes and nothing stands still'. What these three say can be unsettling, of course. It’s easier to lose oneself in the hypnotic flow, the running, restless energy of water that chimes with our assumptions about needing to ‘keep busy’, ‘move on’, ‘go somewhere’, all the assumptions that drive our increasingly frantic lives..." And Iain questions the tendency to focus on faster-flowing bodies of water -- or rather, he expands our awareness to take in bogs and mires and other slower flows.
"I think it’s connected to their being sedentary places, to the specific reveries they encourage. Reveries fed by quiet, slow, downward-oriented processes that, in blanket bog, result in the patient accumulation of layer upon layer of peat that’s central to carbon capture. This slow layering is a flow of a kind, but one that takes place in slow motion, gradually preserving a unique and irreplaceable archive of plant and animal remains. It archives time as a deposit, allowing us to trace the changing historical patterns of vegetation, climate, and land use. Walking in bogs, mires and mosses also invites patient attention to small-scale, undramatic, shifts of scale and emphasis, prompts us to notice what might otherwise be overlooked. For the most part, these are worlds of small, gradual, unspectacular happenings and low-key changes that echo the regular, often overlooked, sedimentations of our daily life; the mundane, taken-for-granted silt in which more dramatic events are embedded like bog oak in peat."
And so indeed, our mapping workshop encouraged us to attend to "the ‘muted and marginal’ within ourselves. ... Our maps will value what is subtle and slight, because the experiences we have are often not stories as such, but more like little floating particles, memory fragments of people, events and places, lodged in our memories like photographic slides. We will pay particular attention to our relationship with water in these landscapes, be they streams, ponds, bogs, oceans or puddles, and we will use water imagery to focus on the ‘slow flow’ of sedimentationin our lives, and how and what ‘deposits’ we have laid down over time."
- Welcome to the quiet zone-
Following on from a podcast about the eco soundscape, a BBC Radio 4 series (11-15/8/18) about the strange area of the USA that is "The National Radio Quiet Zone - 13,000 square miles of radio silence, just a few hundred miles from Washington DC. No Wi-Fi; no cell phones; no radio signals. Designated a radio wave free area in the 1950s, the area is home to two giant listening stations. One listens to deep space, as far back as milliseconds after the Big Bang - the Green Bank National Observatory; the other is Naval Communications, the NSA listening ear. Taller than the Statue of Liberty, the Green Bank Telescope is the world's largest moving land object. It has the sensitivity, says Mike Holstine, 'equivalent to a billionth of a billionth of a millionth of a watt... the energy given off by a single snowflake hitting the ground. Anything man-made would overwhelm that signal.' Hence the legal requirement, for a radio frequency free zone."
Five 15 minute episodes, first broadcast in 2015, all available on the BBC website and Radio iPlayer.
- Soundscape ecology with Bernie Krause-
It's sometimes better to listen in than just read on, and occasionally Views from Elsewhere features a podcast or radio feature. Here is a good one, and one that focuses on listening to the soundscape that is integral to the natural and cultural environment. For the Guardian science podcast (15/6/18), Ian Sample talks with soundscape ecologist Bernie Krauss. "For half a century, Bernie has travelled the world, recording the noise of nature. His collection is now one of the oldest we have and as a result, it is a hugely valuable tool in documenting how we’ve changed our planet. For example, when Bernie returned to some sites, the environment has changed so dramatically, it is now silent." And there is a link to an excellent earlier Guardian piece on Krauss' work, from 2o12, which examines that silencing of that natural world by human activity. The podcast includes many audio clips from Krauss' personal archive of soundscape recordings.
Thanks to ClimateCultures Member James Murray-White for pointing out this episode.
- How does plastic pollution affect marine life and how can we reduce it?-
Although blogs on commercial sites aren't my usual reading material, here's a quick and no-nonsense guide to marine plastics pollution from Anna Kurcirkova at MoBox (6/6/18). A timely reminder that, although "it’s hard to imagine life without plastic products [and] Everywhere you look, plastic is rearing its ugly head ... there are ways to combat this, though. Slow down, take a breath, and consider the ways you can fight plastic pollution in the ocean. Take time combing your local beach to pick up litter that may have made its home in the sand, get involved with an organization that’s dedicated to fighting the battles of water pollution, and make tiny changes in your daily routine (like cutting out plastic completely) in order to be the difference the oceans need."
- What are average global temperature targets hiding?-
Writing for Anthropocene Magazine (12/6/18), Sarah DeWeerdt picks apart what 'average' temperature rises at a global level mean for local impacts -- and what's implied by targets such as the Paris Agreement aim "to limit global warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels". "By 'warming,' scientists and policy makers mean an increase in global average, or mean, temperature. But this average hides a lot of complexity, and scientific papers – let alone broader climate change discussions – rarely spell that out."
In reality - and in the models that climate scientists use to project possible future changes - "the effects of a given average temperature increase depend on the pathway we take to get there, as well as how climate averages and extremes change in different regions." For example, in models that indicate a global average temperature of just 1.5 °C, the coldest nights in the Arctic are likely to be 7 °C warmer, and could be 8 °C warmer than pre-industrial temperatures. "So, even if we meet the Paris Agreement goal, there could be much more extreme impacts for some people and regions. How we get to 1.5 °C – and how fast – also matters ...Many climate models that predict this level of warming in the year 2100 include a substantial probability of “overshoot” – that is, global average temperature will breach the 1.5 °C threshold sometime this century, before falling below it again by century’s end ... Overshooting the 1.5 °C goal even temporarily could lead to permanent loss of some species or ecosystems. It would essentially mean faster warming – less time for species to move to areas that are now suitable for them, and less time for people to build adaptation infrastructure ... Finally, computer climate models are probabilistic. So a 1.5 °C scenario is actually one in which global average temperature in 2100 has, say, a 66% probability of remaining below this threshold. In other words, even if we hew to the emissions limits specified in a '1.5 °C' model from this day forward, there’s still a one-in-three chance that warming will be more extreme."
- Web of possibility-
In a short piece for Center for Human & Nature blog (29/5/18), illustrated with her own photographs, naturalist and writer Kelly Brenner reveals how a diagnosis of autism at 39 has helped her reflect on her fascination with nature and the career she has made, as well as the effects of being nature for her wellbeing. "Through my four decades of life undiagnosed, I had found ways to cope with an autistic life. ... I often feel the need to go for a walk in the forest, look for dragonflies in the wetlands, or go explore the shoreline at low tide. It’s a familiar tug. Sometimes when that claustrophobic feeling begins to creep in, I realize I haven’t been on a good walk for a couple days. Over the last few years I’d begun to recognize just how important and essential time spent out in nature is for me ...
"When I’m outside — listening to birds, a river running, wind blowing through trees, or especially the sound of rain — I feel calm. I’ve sought and found some of the landscapes in the city that either drown out or obscure city noises. When I visit the shoreline, the sound of the water is soothing and often masks the general noise of traffic and other racket. The inner areas of forested parks are often quiet because trees filter out a lot of sound, and fewer people venture deep into the woods ... I’m also learning that people on the spectrum are often good at understanding and recognizing patterns and can excel at processing information visually — both of which are excellent traits for a naturalist, which is what I am. I don’t know if these traits led me to a lifelong fascination with nature, or if I excelled at being a naturalist because of these traits, but it’s worked out well for me."
- Andreas Weber on ‘Matter and Desire’-
A wide-ranging interview by Rhonda Fabian at Kosmos (8/5/18) with biologist Andreas Weber, who considers poetry as "the forgotten side of biology." Weber addresses the erosion of an intimate link between humans and other species as "the predicament of our civilization ... I am convinced that every living being is able to understand on a very basic level what it means to be alive and that’s being alive as a sentient and feeling body. We need to look at the history of our idea of making a better world, of dominating that which is not human in order to grant humans or humanness a better place."
Fabian suggests that Weber's book, Matter and Desire: An Erotic Ecology, shows of "how nature speaks to us in every moment in a language both familiar and forgotten", and Weber picks up the theme: "It’s a language which ... we are able to speak from the beginning because we are living bodies as all the other beings are living bodies and at the same time ... I’d say we are taught that other living beings are machines or computers at best or dead matter or mechanisms and normally we don’t really believe ourselves when our senses and our sensitive skin and our desire for a way to get into contact with others tell us that there is a communication happening.
"I really tried to show that everything visible and physical and palpable and graspable has not only an outside but also and always has a meaningful inside and through the world isn’t just a place where stuff is happening but the world is always also an interior and a stage for meaningfulness."
- A history of the Anthropocene in objects-
In what could be a companion to our own A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, this piece by Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero and Robert Emmett for Edge Effects (22/5/18) reminds us of a 2014 event at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. "Artists and anthropologists, historians and geographers, literary scholars and biologists from around the world gathered in the playful, performative space of an 'Anthropocene Slam' to shape a cabinet of curiosities for this new age of humans ... What objects should it house? Which issues should it speak to? What emotions might it evoke? And what range of meanings and moral tales might it contain? ... To collect objects of the Anthropocene is to register the diverse emotional responses — loss, grief, hubris, humility, anger, and pain, among others — evoked in a climate of change and uncertainty."
A new book, Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene, combines photographs and essays, "driven by a sense of intrigue and curiosity, inviting the viewer to imagine and explore the past, present, and potentially future meanings of these fossils." And here at ClimateCultures our own growing collection of objects offers further testimony to the emotional power of both objects and the trajectories they offer through the Age of Human.
- For a terrestrial politics-
Another interesting interview -- this one from a couple of months ago, with philosopher / anthroplogist / sociologist Bruno Latour by Camille Riquier for Eurozine (6/2/18). Latour takes another well-aimed swipe at modernity with his analysis of nation states' failure to address climate change. "Since the end of the Second World War, there has been a tragic separation between the social question ... and external nature. Political ecologists have fallen into the trap set up by the modern constitution, written in stops and starts throughout the eighteenth century, a constitution that distinguished the politics of humans from the politics of nature. For thirty years now, I have been arguing that non-human beings are not part of a nature that is exterior to society; that they too form part of the collective ...
"In November 2017, Le Monde ran a headline saying, ‘Tomorrow will be too late’, in a 60-point typeface – the size that would be used if the headline were ‘North Korea bombs Washington’. And yet, this sort of headline has no effect: the very next day they were talking about something else. It is enough to drive you crazy. On the one hand, a threat, of the greatest possible gravity, trumpeted by fifteen thousand research scientists; on the other, a complete lack of action. I am becoming more and more interested in the psycho-social aspect of this indifference. We are bombarded with news, but we do not have the emotional, aesthetic or mental equipment to deal with it. That is the main reason for the return to a mythical definition of the nation. When it comes down to it, this attitude is understandable: if we are going to have to experience a catastrophe, we might as well stay in the gated community we are familiar with, or keep ourselves safe behind a wall. Large and small adopt the same strategy: the wealthy flee to their offshore havens, the common people head for the nation-state of yesteryear ...
"It is not a matter of deciding whether you are on the Left or not, but whether you are terrestrial or not: ‘Have you thought about the material nature of a soil upon which nine or ten billion of us must live?’ It is in this context that the question of migration intersects with the question of climate. People who do not think that the question of climate is important, or who deny that question’s existence, can still see the question of migration perfectly clearly. It is one that is decisive in every country, election after election, and it is driving people back to focusing on national frontiers at precisely the moment when these are least suited to dealing with either the question of climate or of refugees."
- Crowdsourcing the songs of sand-
In a fascinating interview by Jennifer Gersten at Guernica (7/5/18), artist Lotte Geeven reveals the inspiration and process behind her latest work -- bringing the world's 'singing sands' to our attention. Gersten explains that "Singing sand, a rare variety of sand that emits a thunderous hum as it slides down certain dunes, is a phenomenon exclusive to the planet’s nooks and crannies: spots in Nevada’s Mojave Desert, Chile’s Copiapo, and Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, among others. For The Sand Machine, Geeven, in collaboration with two French acousticians, will assemble twelve machines to amplify the sounds of twelve types of singing sand, allowing these typically distant musics to resound in public for the first time, with an exhibition planned for the Hague."
Accompanied here by audio samples of her singing sands, Geeven says: "We live in a systematical world where everything is explained and organized. Beneath this man-made system, there are wild, chaotic forces of nature that choreograph our behavior. While we are inclined to control and explain these forces, I try to see how we can relate to them in a different manner. I find that through art, literature, or poetry we get a deeper, non-intellectual understanding of this unstable world and our place in it ... I have always been fascinated by how a natural sound is able to transport us to an atmospheric mental space disconnected from logic or reason. Whenever such a sound has a debatable or mysterious origin, like those sounds produced by the singing sand, the vivid friction between reason and fiction comes into play. The sounds emitted by the deserts are perfect examples of something that can trigger the process of storymaking. It is so strange and impressive that everywhere around the world, many stories arise from sand or a hole in the earth; trying to give meaning to the unknown. How we attribute personal and cultural meaning to these natural happenings speaks to the way we relate to the abstract unknown."
- Coming to terms with a life without water-
Rosa Lyster, writing in The New Yorker (3/5/18), picks up on the theme of Oliver Morton's latest book, Being Ecological, which has a direct resonance with her own experiences in the prolonged South African drought. When a friend of hers got married in the family garden, "many of the guests were British, and they could not stop remarking on the fineness of the weather. It was a startling reminder that some people still relish hot days with no possibility of rain, that not everyone looks upon February in the Western Cape as something to be endured." But the bride's stepfather had had persistent dreams about the watering of the garden for the event, and Lyster felt "the cold thread of worry that vined its way up the back of my neck, spread out along my collarbones, and settled there. I don’t know why it dawned on me then that the water crisis wasn’t a temporary problem, or that 'crisis' is probably the wrong word for something that is never going away. Perhaps it was the grim specificity of the stepfather’s dream, which contrasted with the whirling happiness of the day. Perhaps it was the slightly too on-the-nose reference to W. H. Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts that I was only just able to prevent myself from making ('how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster'). I don’t know why I felt it then, and, a year later, I still don’t know how to describe it. Something like: ... We’re all going to have to be scared about this, every day, forever."
As Lyster points out, Morton's Being Ecological "argues that humans must find 'a way of feeling ourselves around the age we live in, which is one of mass extinction caused by global warming.' It is an arrestingly horrible requirement to have to meet. I don’t want to think about the implications of the latest U.N. World Water Development Report, which concludes that, by 2050, around three billion people could be living in 'severely water-scarce areas. I want to avert my gaze at the cinema when the trailer for An Inconvenient Sequel comes on."
- Recovering a narrative of place - stories in the time of climate change-
In its 'Friday essay' series, The Conversation (27/4/18) republishes this powerfully evocative essay by Tony Birch (originally published in First Things First, the 60th edition of Griffith Review). Birch recalls a powerful incident from his 1970s childhood, when a friend in his crowded Melbourne inner suburb took him on a long bike ride to his 'secret location' beyond the city. It was a billabong -- a lake cut off from a meandering river; in this case, a much polluted and violated river -- and this encounter was "the first time in the life of an Aboriginal 'slum kid' that country had spoken to me." Although it was a place he wanted to call 'beautiful' he found he had little vocabulary to express this. "After all, at the time, we thought of ourselves the budding kings of a concrete jungle, and taking aside the romance of a life of thuggery, we lived in a world where violence was rarely threatened but often practiced. If I forgot about the billabong for a time, I now believe that amnesia came from having been denied the language to speak of it, to know it."
Birch uses this experience to draw out his later encounters with children and adults in other parts of Australia and around the world, where he works to draw out often marginalised people's connections with the natural world. As part of a project to engage school students with climate change, he asked them to respond through their own creativity, after an introduction to the basic science. "What I discovered in speaking to students was that while they were in no way 'anti-science', headline-grabbing climate change scepticism had impacted on their faith in their own ability to understand science, highlighting what I’ve always believed to be the motivation of sceptics: the undermining of our own confidence to think and grasp ideas. It also took me little time to realise that, in general, the students felt badly let down by some adults: politicians, sections of the media and, to an extent, their own parents, who they felt had neglected an issue that would soon impact negatively on their adult lives."
It was only when he remembered his childhood encounter, walking along the river again, that he came up with his way forward. "I began that morning’s class with a simple prompt: 'Tell me about your river.'" And what he uncovers in our love of place is both a way to break the disengagement of people with the ideas and experiences of climate change and to address the historical and ongoing project of colonialism that fuels climate change and the wider separation of peoples and of 'human' from 'nature'.
- The sea cannot be depleted-
My reading this month has brought some great listening -- and I was captivated by this spoken word piece from The sea cannot be depleted. Wallace Heim's project on the military exploitation of the Solway Firth tells us that its tides "are among the most turbulent around this island, a fast sweep from the Irish Sea into the soft sands of the rivers Esk, Eden and Nith. A line across the blank blue of a map etches the division between Scotland and England" -- and then that "the UK Ministry of Defence fired at least 30 tonnes of artillery shells containing Depleted Uranium into the Solway Firth, to test those munitions on behalf of an unnamed ‘Customer’. The firings began in the 1980’s from the Kirkcudbright Training Range in Dumfries and Galloway, and on land at Eskmeals in Cumbria. The date of the latest confirmed firings is not certain, possibly 2011 or 2013, and the license to test fire may be continuing beyond that date. The MOD have justified this illegal dumping of radioactive waste into the sea as being ‘placements’."
Heim's project "sees the firings as episodes in the interlocked mesh of relations between the military, the nuclear industries, the arms corporations, capital, colonialism and political desires for international status. Uranium makes the situation timeless and without location." The website includes the project's research journal and a performance of the final audio piece, which features the thoughts of a man looking at the estuary from Scotland, a woman watching from its English shore -- and a diver within the watery body of the water itself. These short passages illuminate their thoughts:
The sea never sleeps. Why should I.
Why should I? Because, my fleshy mammal body craves it. Take away my dissolution into dreams, and I dry up. I lose my elements.
But tonight, I just can’t fall into it. These sleepless hours have no numbers.
Get out. Get the dark around you. Imagine it.
The monument is already in the soft, salty cells of our own human bodies.
The sea cannot be depleted. But we can.
What do we do while this place changes us?
What is it that we just can’t learn?
Leave these thoughts to that endless blue.
I need to touch an animal. I need to feel its breath on my hand.
I want to know this sea like the haaf-netters do, the men who fish with their bodies, standing in the waters with their nets, reading the surface for what’s coming. The slightest change and they know what’s moving beneath, how the sands are shifting. Their animal bodies know how to keep them safe.
How do you keep safe?
The Military devised tests to prove these firings were safe for humans. They measured sea weed and crabs and grit and urine.
What they forgot was the sea.
They forgot the turbulence, the planetary forces of gravity pulling oceans across a chiselled bed. They forgot the curiosity of the tender animal, too small for any net. They forgot that some humans are pregnant women.
- There are things more interesting than people-
When Kevin Berger interviews novelist Richard Powers for Literary Hub (23/4/18) -- exploring the inspiration behind his new novel, The Overstory -- he asks "after 11 novels, ... why trees? 'I wanted to bring in the plants,' Powers says. 'Those previous 11 books were very much human-centric books. They were about human exclusivity and human independence.' ... Powers wants The Overstory to immerse readers in the world of trees and pierce them with injustice as timber companies bulldoze them. He wants to show that fiction can be about a lot more than omnipresent bipeds with big brains.
"The challenge Powers set for himself in writing The Overstory, he says, is nothing less than what now faces humanity. Treating plants and trees solely as materials to sate our appetites doesn’t fare well for humans in the long run. It also diminishes us in the short one. 'A huge part of human anxiety is fomented by what psychologists call ‘species loneliness,’ the sense we’re here by ourselves, and there can be no purposeful act except to gratify ourselves,' he says. 'We have to un-blind ourselves to human exceptionalism. That’s the real challenge. Unless forest-health is our health, we’re never going to get beyond appetite as a motivator in the world. The exciting challenge is how to make people plant-conscious, make them realize happiness depends on understanding and reintegrating into this astonishingly complicated and robust way of being that we have exiled ourselves from.'
"That’s an incredible challenge, I say. How do you even begin? 'Start looking,' Powers says."
- Back to the wild!-
Isabella Tree writes in this excellent piece for the Mail Online (20/4/18) about her and her husband's experiences of rewilding the Knepp Estate in Sussex. In passages adapted from her new book, Wilding: the return of nature to a British farm, she provides an exhaustive and inspiring list of the wildlife that has returned to their 3,500 acres — "Cuckoos, spotted flycatchers, fieldfares, hobbies, woodlarks, skylarks, lapwings, house sparrows, lesser spotted woodpeckers, yellowhammers, woodcock, red kites, sparrowhawks, peregrine falcons, all five types of British owl, the first ravens at Knepp in the past 100 years — the list goes on and on. The speed at which all these species — and many more — have appeared has astonished observers, particularly as our intensively farmed land was, biologically speaking, in dire condition in 2001, at the start of the project.
"The key to Knepp’s extraordinary success? It’s about surrendering all preconceptions, and simply observing what happens. By contrast, conventional conservation tends to be about targets and control, and often involves micro-managing a habitat for the perceived benefit of several chosen species."
- Warm Data - contextual research and new forms of information-
"Information can come in many forms, depending on what is being studied," Nora Bateson reminds us at Hacker Noon, in a post from last year (28/5/17). "There is a need now for a way to gather and impart relational information when what we need to study is relational in nature. Warm Data is a category of information to develop in tandem to existing forms of data. This kind of information is a slippery mess of variables, changes, and ambiguities. It does not sit nicely in graphs or models, and it takes longer to produce. Since Warm Data describes relational interdependencies it must also include the necessary contradictions, binds (double-binds and more), and inconsistencies that occur in interrelational processes over time. Warm Data is the delivery of these multiple descriptions in active comparison, usually in a form that permits and even encourages the subjectivity of the observer within which it is possible to make meta connections."
Drawing and building on the work of her late father, Gregory Bateson, Nora emphasises the need to bring "not only context, but multiple contexts into the inquiry process" - a need more urgent than ever when, today "it is nearly impossible to get through a day without contributing to the destruction of our world. By lunchtime most people have participated in: further disruption to the ecology, an increase in the wealth gap, the demise of social justice, and the vengeful division between cultures ... Yet these harmful practices have been approved by the institutional authorities of science and society. How has it come to this? And how can new patterns of interaction in our societies be encouraged to emerge? Our social deference to authorized institutions in the interest of collective safety has evolved over centuries. But that safety has been contaminated, along with our trust in the institutions that are supposed to provide truth and justice. How can science evolve to contribute to greater trustworthiness of our socio-economic institutions? How can sense be made of this tangle?"
- Helen Mayer Harrison (1927-2018)-
Writing at eco/art/scot/land (3/4/18), Anne Douglas and ClimateCultures Member Chris Fremantle pay tribute to the artist Helen Mayer Harrison who died recently. With Newton Harrison, Helen produced Greenhouse Britain: Losing Ground, Gaining Wisdom. In his email to ClimateCultures, Chris commented that "their commitment to collaborative work and to do only work that benefited the ecosystem perhaps obscures Helen's role as a key artist and inspiration for generations of artists who have turned to creating work in relation to the lifeweb." With this tribute at eco/art/scot/land you can also watch a short video in which Helen talks about empathy, and how with it "the world becomes a different place."
"It was through Greenhouse Britain that they first talked about the ‘form determinant’ which later became the ‘force majeure’: “We suggest that the existing plans for greenhouse emissions control will be insufficient to keep temperature rise at 2° or less. In this context, the rising ocean becomes a form determinant. By “form determinant” we mean the ocean will determine much of the new form, that culture, industry and many other elements of civilization may need to take.” (Greenhouse Britain, 2007)
"We heard Helen read from the end of their magnum opus, Lagoon Cycle, many times, in meetings and at events and performances. She read,
And the waters will rise slowly
at the boundary
at the edge
redrawing that boundary
moment by moment
all at once
It is a graceful drawing and redrawing
this response to the millennia of the making of fire
And in this new beginning
this continuously rebeginning
will you feed me when my lands can no longer produce
and will I house you when your lands are covered with water
so that together
we can withdraw
as the waters rise
(Lagoon Cycle, 1984)"
- A new mourning: Remembrance Day for Lost Species-
For Undark (10/4/18) P K Read offers a moving account of a Brighton ceremony for Remembrance Day for Lost Species, an event marking the extinction threats to pollinators which turns personal for her. "One thing I’ve learned is that real spectacle starts where tamed emotion ends. At the pollinator procession, people aired their grievances, and all of the complaints began with anger. Isn’t anger at an original insult, at a profound loss, the very cornerstone of grief? That might be why, in spite of being there as an observer, I heard my own voice rising with those around the sunflower in Brighton, lamenting a recent loss of my own: an old cherry grove lost to suburban development where I live in rural France, and the numerous birds’ nests in the unfinished house walls that had been smashed one day in early spring. There was a murmur of sad disgust as I finished my story, a moment of shared silence while I pictured the grove in its former glory, rich with birdsong, thick with bees, heavy with summer cherries."
"Grieving is never going to get easier," she reminds us, "but it can be shaped. It’s no surprise that the RDLS ceremony was a loose wobble of lament, humor, and ashes. It’s a new approach to a new phenomenon. Of course we should all be doing what we can to prevent habitat loss, to prevent extinction where we can, in whatever way we can. The extinction wave right now, unchecked by immediate human action on a vast scale, will affect and afflict everyone in unpredictable ways. Pretend it’s not happening or acknowledge that it is, the wave is already crashing, and the horizons are changing. It’s time to figure out what kind of ritual raft will keep us afloat."
- Time reconstrained-
Writing at the Crap Futures blog (19/3/18), James Auger considers how time is implicated in our (mis)understanding of our energy choices and their consequences. The ideas underpinning their current design exhibition in Barcelona - indicating "a shift away from quick, thoughtless consumption of ancient resources, towards visible, tangible, real-time consumption" - make for interesting reading, especially alongside the piece below by Lara Trang, on Curating the Anthropocene.
"A piece of coal provides roughly eight kilowatt hours of energy per kilogram, which in one sense is extremely efficient. But the coal takes hundreds of millions of years to form. This almost unimaginable quantity of time is consumed with the flick of a switch, or at the press of a button - all dissipated, all devoured in an instant, to light a room or power a computer. When time is factored in, therefore, fossil fuels actually provide surprisingly low efficiency, low yield in terms of a time-energy ratio. A gravity battery, while seemingly of negligible energy storage value compared to fossil fuels, becomes much more powerful when time is factored into the equation." Before rethinking energy on such timescales is "dismissed on grounds of impracticality," he continues, "it is worth noting that our everyday relationship with energy is also a dream, an illusion of through-the-wall magic. It is unsustainable, based on a fantasy of unlimited supply, when in fact it has long been operating on a system of sleight of hand and perpetual deferral ... Even the generic and ubiquitous electrical sockets in our homes are anything but harmless. The apparent banality of the plug and socket has masked a century of unprecedented environmental destruction. By hiding energy, we have made it seem free of both limitations and consequences. A temporal convenience such as a hot bath or a flash of light releases potential (stored) energy irreversibly. Buttons, switches and plugs conceal enormous infrastructures and exploitation of existing resources on a truly sublime scale."
- Curating the Anthropocene: fearsome or romantic?-
In a very brief post at the University of Toronto's Musings museums studies blog (23/3/18), Lana Tran describes the concept of the Anthropocene as a "curiously circular thing – an age of human influence, conceived and ruminated by humans themselves ... From artistic representations to academic conference themes, the Anthropocene is becoming a term for people of varied fields in academia and beyond to circle around." And, observing that museums are increasingly "addressing the topic from a huge array of perspectives," she asks if there are correct and incorrect ways to curate the Anthropocene?
"In actuality, teasing apart the issues that confound the Anthropocene concept – such as anthropocentrism, capitalism, colonialism…(the list goes on) – is not a task easily accomplished in a series of displays alone. Indeed, the Anthropocene concept is a conspicuous platform from which museums are challenged to communicate with the utmost nuance." And, appropriately, Tran curates a short reading list, with links, for the reader to explore.
- When you give a tree an email address-
This is an old one but it only just came my way, via Twitter (in a fortnight that's been full of stories of Sheffield Council's contractors felling so many street trees in the face of large scale public protests). It's from The Atlantic (10/7/15), where Adrienne LaFrance reports that in Melbourne, Australia, "officials assigned the trees ID numbers and email addresses in 2013 as part of a program designed to make it easier for citizens to report problems like dangerous branches. The 'unintended but positive consequence,' as the chair of Melbourne’s Environment Portfolio, Councillor Arron Wood, put it to me in an email, was that people did more than just report issues. They also wrote directly to the trees -- everything from banal greetings and questions about current events to love letters and existential dilemmas.
To: Algerian Oak, Tree ID 1032705
2 February 2015
Dear Algerian oak,
Thank you for giving us oxygen. Thank you for being so pretty.
I don’t know where I’d be without you to extract my carbon dioxide. (I would probably be in heaven) Stay strong, stand tall amongst the crowd.
You are the gift that keeps on giving.
We were going to speak about wildlife but don't have enough time and have other priorities unfortunately.
Hopefully one day our environment will be our priority.
"Some of the messages have come from outside of Melbourne -- including this message, written from the perspective of a tree in the United States:
To: Oak, Tree ID 1070546
11 February 2015
Just sayin how do.
My name is Quercus Alba. Y’all can call me Al. I’m about 350 years old and live on a small farm in N.E. Mississippi, USA. I’m about 80 feet tall, with a trunk girth of about 16 feet. I don't travel much (actually haven’t moved since I was an acorn). I just stand around and provide a perch for local birds and squirrels.
Have good day,
And La France says some of the human correspondents have even received replies, as in this exchange between a person curious about biology and a willow leaf peppermint:
To: Willow Leaf Peppermint, Tree ID 1357982
29 January 2015
Hello Mr Willow Leaf Peppermint, or should I say Mrs Willow Leaf Peppermint?
Do trees have genders?
I hope you've had some nice sun today.
30 January 2015
I am not a Mr or a Mrs, as I have what's called perfect flowers that include both genders in my flower structure, the term for this is Monoicous. Some trees species have only male or female flowers on individual plants and therefore do have genders, the term for this is Dioecious. Some other trees have male flowers and female flowers on the same tree. It is all very confusing and quite amazing how diverse and complex trees can be.
Mr and Mrs Willow Leaf Peppermint (same Tree)
Maybe Sheffield Council just missed the memo from the trees?...
- Extending the glide: an interview with Jim Bendell-
For The Dark Mountain Project (19/3/18), Dougal Hind speaks with Jim Bendell, Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria. Bendell has been developing an agenda he calls Deep Adaptation and, in a fascinating interview, he describes how this came about through his inaugural professorial talk in 2014 "at a big literary festival in Cumbria. I’d already become aware of some of the latest science on climate change, so I decided to frame sustainability as an adventure – to say that we have to let go of our incremental, non-ambitious, conformist approaches. I gave a speech about that, because it was a frame that could be palatable to my colleagues, my employer, my academia and my audience. But I was coming down with the flu during the speech. And for the week after, I was in bed ill. There’s something emotional about a conclusion – that’s what you do in an inaugural lecture, you try and synthesise twenty years of your work, and by summarising, you’re also concluding it. So I spent that week in bed, with a fever, not doing much apart from reading scientific papers and watching traumatising videos from the Arctic. And I actually went into despair. It took years before I became more deliberate and public about this, and in a way it’s taken me until now to realise that I’ve been going through a professional catharsis which goes back to March 2014.
"Looking back over the last few years, I didn’t really know what to do about this realisation that we can’t fix climate change, that so much of the impact for our civilisation is already locked in. I didn’t know how to work on that. And I realised that one of the reasons was the lack of a framework to get your head around all this. So I thought it might be useful to come up with a map for people who are climate experts, policymakers, researchers about what this might mean. A map that would sound approachable, but would actually be the thin end of a wedge, in terms of where it would take them ... I called it Deep Adaptation. I introduced the three ‘R’s: Resilience, Relinquishment and Restoration... So Resilience is ‘how do we keep what we really want to keep?’, Relinquishment is ‘what do we need to let go of?’ and Restoration is ‘what can we bring back to help us through this?’"
- The right way to remember Rachel Carson-
Writing in The New Yorker (26/3/18 issue), Jill Lepore regrets that so much of Rachel Carson's earlier writing on the sea has been eclipsed by her last, and classic, work -- 1962's Silent Spring. She sees how this has come about though: “'Silent Spring,' a landlubber, is no slouch of a book: it launched the environmental movement; provoked the passage of the Clean Air Act (1963), the Wilderness Act (1964), the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act (both 1972); and led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, in 1970. The number of books that have done as much good in the world can be counted on the arms of a starfish. Still, all of Carson’s other books and nearly all of her essays concerned the sea. That Carson would be remembered for a book about the danger of back-yard pesticides like DDT would have surprised her in her younger years, when she was a marine biologist at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, writing memos about shad and pondering the inquiring snouts of whales, having specialized, during graduate school, in the American eel." In fact. it's perhaps surprising that Carson's career - as a writer and scientist - should be founded in a passion for the sea, when Lepore notes that "She herself could not swim. She disliked boats. In all her childhood, she never so much as smelled the ocean." But, as a shild "she tried to picture it: 'I used to imagine what it would look like, and what the surf sounded like.' All creatures are made of the sea, as Carson liked to point out; “'the great mother of life,' she called it. Even land mammals, with our lime-hardened skeletons and our salty blood, begin as fetuses that swim in the ocean of every womb." Carson's story is a remarkable one, this is a moving tribute to her.
- How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that's already happened)-
This essay by David Graeber and David Wengrow for Eurozine (2/3/18) is mind-expanding and well-argued challenge to the standard, prevailing narrative of human prehistory and history. "Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility ... There is a fundamental problem with this narrative. It isn’t true."
The apparent inevitability of 'inequality' as the cost of 'progress' is "a dismal conclusion ... for anybody who ever wondered if there might be some viable alternative to the status quo", and one that disempowers our imagination. "But on one thing we insist. Abandoning the story of a fall from primordial innocence does not mean abandoning dreams of human emancipation – that is, of a society where no one can turn their rights in property into a means of enslaving others, and where no one can be told their lives and needs don’t matter. To the contrary. Human history becomes a far more interesting place, containing many more hopeful moments than we’ve been led to imagine, once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what’s really there." Packed with arguments and examples, this is an enlightening and encouraging read.
- The top 10 most pioneering art/sustainability initiatives in the UK-
For Artists and Climate Change (8/3/18), curator Yasmine Ostendorf gives her personal "Top 10 list of my favorite art organizations talking the talk and walking the walk" on engaging artists with environmental and climate change. Read about the work of Open Jar Collective, Invisible Dust, Creative Carbon Scotland, Grizedale Arts, Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World, ONCA, Deveron Projects, The Morning Boat, Scottish Sculpture Workshop, and Arts Catalyst.
"Back in the days when I was still working for Cape Farewell in London, the appetite for artistic engagement with climate change seemed to be everywhere, including in the big cultural venues: from Ten Billion, the shocking science-lecture-performance at the Royal Court, to programs at the Science Museum and the Tate ... Ambitious productions, touring and attending conferences and Biennale all over the world – greening our own practice was just as (or even more) important as raising awareness about melting glaciers. And here the amazing ladies (mostly ladies) of Julie’s Bicycle jumped to help. Since 2012, all cultural organizations that receive regular funding from Arts Council England are required to report on their environmental impact, using Julie’s Bicycle Creative IG tools – advanced carbon calculators designed specifically for the cultural sector. This has made Arts Council England the first arts funding body to recognize the environmental role that the cultural field can play. Museums, theatres, festivals, tours, galleries and productions started to reduce their carbon emissions (as well as water use and waste) as it was made fun and clear how to do so."
- Analysis: UK carbon emissions in 2017 fell to levels last seen in 1890-
Writing for Carbon Brief (7/3/18), Zeke Hausfather reports on that organisation's analysis of newly released Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) energy use figures, which "shows the UK’s CO2 emissions from fossil fuels fell by 2.6% in 2017, driven by a 19% decline in coal use. This follows on the heels of a larger 5.8% drop in CO2 in 2016, which saw a record 52% drop in coal use. The UK’s total CO2 emissions are currently 38% below 1990 levels and are now as low as emissions were back in 1890 – the year the Forth Bridge opened in Scotland and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was published."
Adding that BEIS will publish its own CO2 estimates in late March and that Carbon Brief's "estimate of carbon emissions from fossil fuels using this approach may differ slightly from official greenhouse gas inventories due to different sectors included and assumed emission factors ... the results are generally within 1% to 3% of total reported non-land-use CO2 emissions for prior years." They also add the hugely important caveat that "this analysis using the latest government data is unable to calculate the UK’s “imported” emissions. Carbon Brief covered this topic last year and found: 'Even though domestic emissions have fallen 27% in the UK between 1990 and 2014, once CO2 imports from trade are considered this drops to only an 11% reduction.'" (Mention of The Picture of Dorian Gray might perhaps offer an unfortunate analogy?)
- Animal agents-
In an excellent article for Aeon (26/2/18), Amanda Rees asks can animals shape their own lives, and maybe the course of history? "It's time to reconsider the significance of animal agency. Plato’s attempt 2,500 years ago to define the human as ‘a featherless biped’ had to be swiftly qualified –‘with broad flat nails’ – when Diogenes presented him with a plucked chicken. Many subsequent attempts at human self-definition have faced similar problems in relation to exceptionality. Yet lately, scholars have begun to conclude that while the difference between humans and other animals is great, it is one of degree, not kind. "
Drawing examples from literature (an interesting companion-piece to Gregory Norrinton's article for Resurgence - see below) as well as from science, Rees sets out how we have tended to view "the difference between agency and consciousness – and between agency and subjectivity, or agency and individuality. Humans have the capacity to act as agents, because they are considered to know what they are doing and why they are doing it. But even though nonhumans possess individuality and consciousness, too, the absence of self-consciousness among them has generally been taken to preclude agency."
Against this assumption of human uniquesness, both ecology and ethology have taken "the first steps towards being able to see what it might mean to be an agent in an animal’s world ... By adopting a new approach to animal agency, we can develop new ways of thinking about multiple, distributed agencies and the way that they are remaking the world. In the age of the Anthropocene, we cannot afford to assume that these changes will always and forever be under conscious human control."
- We need to rewild the novel-
Writing for Resurgence (March/April 2018), Novelist Gregory Norminton asks how can the novel - "a form that evolved alongside humanism and the Enlightenment, and that primarily concerns itself with the inner lives and motivations of socialised humans" - broaden its scope to ring in the more-than-human? "Legend tells that Orpheus, ‘the father of songs’, who perfected the lyre (from which we derive our word ‘lyric’), sang so sweetly that wild beasts, forgetting their hunger, lay down to listen ... Lyric poetry is of the Earth – it is rooted. The novel, by contrast, has foundations – it is of the city.
"As a novelist and environmentalist, I have been puzzling for years about how to bring my concerns together. It troubles me that my chosen literary form appears barely cognisant of our ecological crisis ... For decades, environmentalists have been wondering how our rapacious species can live enduringly with the planet that sustains it. Technological ingenuity on its own is not enough: in order to change our behaviour, we must widen the circle of our compassion to include the non-human. We must, deep ecologists argue, dethrone ourselves, shedding our illusions of superiority to acknowledge our kinship with the rest of Nature." And Norminton evokes the conservation concept of 'rewilding', which "begins with the ability to recognise that we have accustomed ourselves to our ecological impoverishment. We learn to look at our empty uplands and realise that they need not be barren, that only culture and habit (the great deadener) keep them denuded ... "Novels that make no space for Nature – that are inattentive to landscape and the non-human – are perpetuating what ecologists call ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, whereby we mistake our self-impoverishment for the natural order of things. Yet rewilding the novel means more ... than adding a few mentions of animals and plants to anthropocentric narratives. It means acknowledging in our fiction where we come from, where we are going, and what we have lost and are losing on the way. It allows for abundance and jubilation, but also desolation and loss."
- How to spot the fossils hiding in plain sight-
"Traces of prehistoric life are everywhere," Jessica Leigh Hester points out at Atlas Obscura (23/2/18) - and Ruth Siddall, a geologist at University College London, offers her tips on how to spot fossils in the urban environment. "Region-specific guides ... may help you target your search. Siddall’s observations are the backbone of London Pavement Geology, an app and website, and she has guides on her blog. Paleourbana maps finds in Madrid, Buenos Aires, Salt Lake City, Doha, Bogotá, Moscow, and more, and David Williams’s book Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology reads like a prehistoric road trip across America. Search for a resource specific to your area. A local university’s geology department might be a good place to begin, too.
"Your best bet for finding urban fossils is to identify limestone. 'Many limestones, but not all, are fossiliferous, Siddall says. And adjust your expectations. While there’s a romance to finding some magnificently preserved specimen that everyone else missed, the odds are against you. You’re much more likely to spot shells and corals than bones or leaves ... Limestones frequently form in marine environments, where shells and and reefs are the most abundant fossil candidates." Oh, and "train yourself to think in two-dimensions."
- Anthropocene began in 1965, according to signs left in the world’s ‘loneliest tree’-
Chris Turney, Jonathan Palmer and Mark Maslin report in the Conversation (19/2/18) on how their recent research identifies one candidate to mark the start of the Anthropocene. "On Campbell Island in the Southern Ocean, some 400 miles south of New Zealand, is a single Sitka spruce. More than 170 miles from any other tree, it is often credited as the 'world’s loneliest tree'. Planted in the early 20th century ... the tree’s wood has recorded the radiocarbon produced by above ground atomic bomb tests – and its annual layers show a peak in 1965, just after the tests were banned. The tree therefore gives us a potential marker for the start of the Anthropocene ...
The 1960s is a decade forever associated with the hippie movement and the birth of the modern environmentalism, a sun-blushed age in which the Apollo moon landings gave us the iconic image of a fragile planet framed against a desolate lunar surface. It was also a time when the world was fast globalising, with rapid industrialisation and economic growth driving population expansion and a massive increase in our impact on the environment." The researchers ask, "Should we define the Anthropocene by when humanity invented the technology to make themselves extinct? If so, then the nuclear bomb spike recorded in the loneliest tree on the planet suggests it began in 1965."
- The Nubecene: toward an ecology of the cloud-
In a fascinating post for Platypus - a blog for discussion on anthropological studies of science and technology as social phenomena - (14/2/18), Steven Gonzalez introduces a new term, the Nubecene (following the Latin root for cloud – nubes) as a means to capture and make visible the "imprints of computing ... etched into the surface of the earth. Fugitive traces remain captive in its lithic tissues, its waters, and the very air we breathe. Roiling in the most abyssal depths of the seas, coursing through fiber optic cables thinner than human hairs, the amorphous Cloud and its digital ganglia enshroud our planet. By way of its sheer magnitude and complexity, the Cloud eludes human imagination. It is ... a market fantasy of infinite storage capacity, immateriality, and feel-good “green” slogans like 'go paperless.' While envisioned by many to be ether, suspended above matter, the Cloud remains a material ensemble of cables and microchips, computer servers and data centers, electrons and water molecules, cell towers and cell phones, spindly fiber coils undersea and underground that firmly tether communities and consumers to the ground, not the sky."
"The Nubecene is a set of narratives about ecological and political entanglements. Its settings range from dangerous lithium mines in the Global South, to the offices of NGOs whose purpose is to bring rural people online for the first time, to subterranean data centers housed within Cold War era bunkers. It even extends to the remote consoles of bitcoin miners, who expend colossal energy to perform cryptography in the pursuit of wealth."
- Redefining plastics: unprecedented possibilities-
Aesthetica Magazine (8/2/18) reports on a new design publication, Radical Matter, whose authors - Kate Franklin and Caroline Till - address the unparalleled impact of human beings on the Earth’s ecosystems in respect to waste, "whilst offering an optimistic, alternative vision of the future through practitioners who place sustainability at the heart of their work. Till recognises that the time has come to act and strive towards a closed-loop, zero-legacy future: 'We are now equipped with more information than ever, digital communication means that provenance behind material sourcing can’t be ignored anymore.' Practitioners highlighted ... include Will Yates-Johnson (b. 1986), who creates objects which can be infinitely reused. By breaking household items down into fragments and subsequently repurposing them, the designer creates colourful, eclectic products that draw attention to their own physicality. These new creations – collectively named Polyspolia after the ancient Roman philosophy of repurposing building resources – make visual the process of recycling, embodying a sustainable ethos whilst playfully referencing the popular 'terrazzo' aesthetic. The method requires no external energy, and incorporates the whole of the previous iteration, avoiding waste entirely. Till expands: 'Yates-Johnson’s project takes a very systemic approach. It’s about how we use materials, highlighting where they’re coming from and the process of transformation we put them through. It’s an example of thinking of a substance in a continuous cycle. He’s an advocate of inspiring people to think about what will happen to the object after use, taking a playful, accessible approach to quite an academic topic.'"
I'm grateful to ClimateCultures Member Julien Masson for sharing this article.
- Rambling through time-
In this opinion piece for the New York Times (27/1/18), Peter Brannen invites his readers on a walk 500 million years into the past, "with each step representing a century back in time ... The world is old beyond comprehension, and our story on it is short. The conceit of the Anthropocene, the supposed new epoch we’re living in, is that humanity can already make claims to its geological legacy. But if we’re to endure as a civilization, or even as a species, for anything more than what might amount to a thin layer of odd rock in some windswept canyon of the far future, some humility is in order about our, thus far, infinitesimal part in the history of the planet." In whatever city or other place you choose to start such a back-in-time trek - his choice is New York naturally - "we can’t even get to the sidewalk before all of recorded history — all of the empires, the holy books, agriculture, the architecture, all of it — is behind us."
"In the next few decades we will decide whether humanity’s legacy will be a sliver of clay in the limestone strata — a geological embarrassment accessible only in remote outcrops to eagle-eyed geologists of the far future — or an enduring new epoch like the reign of dinosaurs. But even if it’s the former, and we collapse almost as soon, in geologic time, as we got started, the record in the rocks of the extinctions we caused will remain, as eternal as the schist in Central Park."
- Why we need to rethink climate change, with Timothy Morton-
This Guardian Books podcast (13/2/18) is a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion between Timothy Morton and Sian Cain. Sian introduces Timothy with the conventional label, 'philosopher'. Timothy introduces Timothy as an 'absurd clown, holding open the door.' (Which does sound like something we could do with having more of.)
"When you first hear some of philosopher Timothy Morton’s ideas, they may sound bizarre. He argues that everything in the universe - from algae and rocks to knives and forks - has a kind of consciousness. That we need to scrap the concept of “nature” as being distinct to civilisation. And, he says, we’re ruled by a kind of primitive artificial intelligence: industrial capitalism ... but sit down with Timothy for five minutes and they start to make sense. His latest book, Being Ecological, explores the relationship between humanity and the environment and why the world’s current approach to climate change isn’t working. We don’t need endless ''factoids' or 'guilt-inducing sermons', he says, we need to radically change how we think about nature – and stop distinguishing between humans and non-human beings."
- Part of monster sewer fatberg goes on display at London museum-
Mark Brown reports for the Guardian (8/2/18) that the Museum of London has unveiled one of its more unusual displays: "The sample was part of a sewer-blocking fatberg that made headlines last year, weighing 130 tonnes, the equivalent of 11 double decker buses and stretching more than 250 metres, six metres longer than Tower Bridge ... Its aroma was once a mix of rotting meat and a toddler’s nappy that had been left out for months, but it has now, mercifully, calmed down ... The solid calcified mass of fats, oils, faeces, wet wipes and sanitary products tells us something about how we live."
- Ancient kids’ toys have been hiding in the archaeological record-
Bruce Bower writes at Science News (6/2/18) of a number of rounded clay disks, each pierced with two holes, which have mystified investigators for nearly a century. "Unusual finds in Israel dating to around 3,000 years ago ... represent children’s early attempts to mimic adult craftwork ... After passing a string through both of a disk’s holes and tying the ends together, a youngster could swing the string to wind up the toy and then pull both ends of the string to make the disk spin." The article includes a clip showing a replica spinning disk in action, showing a leaping deer, and evidence "that more than 10,000 years earlier, people in France and Spain made similar spinning disks decorated with animals that appeared to move as the toy twirled."
- The Lost Words campaign delivers nature ‘spellbook’ to Scottish schools-
In the Guardian (10/2/18), Patrick Barkham and Alison Flood report on how a book created to celebrate the disappearing words of everyday nature -- from acorn and wren to conker and dandelion -- is fast becoming a cultural phenomenon. "Four months after publication The Lost Words, a collection of poems by Robert Macfarlane and paintings by Jackie Morris, has already shipped 75,000 copies and won two literary prizes. Now the book, aimed at reviving once-common 'natural' words excised from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, will be discovered by a generation of children after a crowdfunding drive to place a copy in every school in Scotland. Jane Beaton, a school bus driver and travel consultant from Strathyre, Stirling, was moved to raise £25,000 to give the book to all 2,681 schools in Scotland after 'a spur of the moment' commitment on Twitter.
The book’s poems, which Macfarlane likens to 'spells' to conjure wild things, were already being adapted as a choral work by a children’s choir, while a theatrical performance will debut at a summer festival before touring schools. The text is also being stitched into embroidered braille and there are plans for celebrity readers to whisper the words through the trees of the National Forest in Derbyshire."
- As climate changes, we need the arts more than ever-
As Richard Heinberg says in this opinion for Ensia (1/2/18), "Anthropologists and historians rightly argue that society’s major transformations have emerged not from the arts, but from our relationship to our environment — for example, our shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture, or from using firewood as our main energy source to using fossil fuels. Nevertheless, artists’ efforts help shape the terms by which society adapts to such transformations and their consequences. And this can be a big deal. Think of how Beethoven marked the beginnings of modern democracy, the Romantic Movement in poetry and philosophy, and the nascent Industrial Revolution with music that shattered the aristocratic formalism of previous generations. Or how Hollywood writers and directors galvanized massive support for the U.S. war effort during the early 1940s." And, turning to the future and the impacts of climate change, "artists will have the opportunity and duty to translate the resulting tumultuous human experience into words, images, and music that help people not just to understand these events mentally, but also to come to grips with them viscerally."
- Our stories bind us-
For Pacific Standard (26/1/18), Kevin Charles Fleming reports on new research on "how far back the evolutionary roots of storytelling go - and how powerful a role storytellers play in society ... The impulse to use narrative to understand the world is perhaps our most irreducibly human quality. Apes rival us with their tool making, ravens with their playfulness, ants and bees with their altruism and collaboration, but no species makes meaning of experience like homo sapiens. Religion, nationhood, currency: Few of our most important cultural constructs hang together if we stop believing our own stories about them ...
"From our earliest days as a species, we've had to coordinate everything from child rearing to food sharing to coalition building. Cooperation can seem like a losing evolutionary strategy—why concern myself with others when I could be thinking about myself?—and, the authors note, even in situations where everyone stands to gain, attempts at cooperation are often plagued by 'free riders' and failures of coordination (see, for example, the Paris Agreement). Critical in such situations is 'meta knowledge,' or a belief about how someone else is likely to act. 'In other words, it is not enough to know how to act in a given situation,' the authors write. 'Individuals need to know that others also know how to act.'"
- How climate change inspires monsters-
"As spring slipped into summer in 1816, something very strange happened. The months went by —April, May, June, July — but summer declined to show up. In May, the Eastern United States was beset by frost, killing crops ... Across the Atlantic, harvests failed throughout Britain and Ireland. Even further afield, in China, India, Japan, and Russia, crops were damaged, water buffalo perished, and torrential rain caused fatal floods." For Atlas Obscura (23/1/18), Natasha Frost recounts the story of how 'the year without a summer' may have inspired not just Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and an early vampire novel, but illustrates how our monsters might shapeshift as our climate changes.
"Scientists now think that the stormy 'summer' that influenced these two texts was caused by a volcano eruption thousands of miles [away] in Indonesia.In April 1815, Mount Tambora spurted out nearly 40 cubic miles of ash, killing at least 71,000 people. It is often described as one of the most deadly volcanic eruptions in recorded history. This eruption sparked a climate event, with tons of sulfur injected into the atmosphere. This in turn formed a kind of veil of sulfates, sprayed into the air as if by a gigantic aerosol can. Under this invisible veil, the earth’s climate went bonkers ... Across the world, millions of people woke up, day after day, and waited for a summer that wasn’t coming.... As the earth changes, monsters real and imagined will come crawling out of the darkness. Some, like Godzilla, will be fictional. Others, like an explosion of seemingly immortal jellyfish, will be real. Even our most popular cryptids will be forced to change their lives, with hotter weather forcing them from their lairs. If the Loch Ness dries up, its monster will have nowhere to live. When the snow melts, Big Foot and the Yeti will have to pack up their caves and head down the mountain."
- Scientists home in on a potential Anthropocene ‘Golden Spike’-
Environmental Research Web (24/1/18) reports that the Anthropocene Working Group has reviewed the potential settings where a global geological 'reference section' for the Anthropocene - "the clearest, sharpest, and most stable signal in strata that might be used to define the Anthropocene as a formal unit of the Geological Time Scale" - might be searched for. "The group has found that a broad range of potential physical, chemical and biological markers characterise the Anthropocene, the clearest global markers being radionuclide fallout signals from nuclear testing and changes in carbon chemistry through fossil fuel burning – these in particular show marked changes starting in the early to mid-1950s.
Professor Colin Waters, who led the study, said: “This study considers those environments in which the very short history of the Anthropocene is best recorded. In addition to ... traditional geological strata, we have also considered human-generated deposits, sediments accumulating in lakes, estuaries and deltas, peat bogs, cave mineral deposits and even biological hosts such as corals and trees. The presence of annual layers or growth rings within many of these provides geologically unprecedented accuracy in the placement of the primary reference marker, wherever this might be ultimately chosen.” ... Professor Mark Williams said: “The range of environments we are working with is remarkable – from polar ice and snow layers to deep lake and sea floors to the skeletons of reef corals and stalactites in caves. The fact that signals of the Anthropocene are so sharply visible in all of these shows just how pervasive human impact has been on the planet in post-war times.”
- We’re climate researchers and our work was turned into fake news-
"Science is slow. It rests on painstaking research with accumulating evidence," Michael Grubb reminds us at the Conversation (25/1/18). "This makes for an inherently uneasy relationship with the modern media age, especially once issues are politicised. The interaction between politics and media can be toxic for science, and climate change is a prominent example ... After we published a paper in the scientific journal Nature Geoscience, in which we concluded that there was more headroom than many had assumed before we breach the goals of the Paris Agreement[, w]e found ourselves not only on the front page of the main British newspapers, but globally, as far-right website Breitbart ran with a story that a small band of buccaneering scientists had finally admitted that the models were all wrong – a fiction rapidly picked up by the more rabid elements in the media. The essence of good science is to continually update, challenge, improve and refine, using as much evidence as possible ...
Unfortunately, while good science embraces uncertainty, politics abhors it and the media seems confounded by it. That in turn pressures researchers to simplify their message, and treat existing estimates – often, from a range – like a position to be defended. It is a risky trap for scientists, however eminent and well-intentioned, to wield overnight reactions to parry months of painstaking peer review and refinement that lie behind analyses published in leading journals. So how should science respond? The climate policy implications are easy: nothing significant has changed. We have but one planet, and both the physical and economic processes that are driving climate change have enormous inertia. If a big ocean liner were steaming into dense fog in polar seas, only a fool would maintain full speed on the basis that the technicians were still discussing the distance to the first big iceberg."
- Ten ‘stealth microplastics’ to avoid if you want to save the oceans-
As Sharon George and Deirdre McKay explain in this piece from the Conversation (17/1/19), "all plastic ends up tiny. And it persists, no matter what its size. In the ocean, even the largest and most resilient bits of plastic are broken up and degraded by the waves and sunlight until eventually these chunks measure less than five millimetres across – about the size of an ant – and they are classed as 'secondary microplastics'. This type of plastic, that started out as drinks bottles, fishing gear, disposable cutlery and so on, is much more abundant than 'primary microplastics' that started out small, such as the microbeads found in toothpaste. Microbeads are among the most familiar sources of tiny plastic pollution, but this means there are other less obvious sources of microplastics in everyday use." Among the 'stealth microplastics' they discuss are the residues from our everyday use of tyres, synthetic clothing, cigarette butts, glitter, wet wipes, paint, plastic cups and tea bags.
- Evaluating biases in Sea Surface Temperature records using coastal weather stations-
As Kevin C says at the start of this short and clear post on Skeptical Science (8/1/18), "Science is hard. Some easy problems you can solve by hard work, if you are in the right place at the right time and have the right skills. Hard problems take the combined effort of multiple groups looking at the problem, publishing results and finding fault with each other's work, until hopefully no-one can find any more problems. When problems are hard, you may have to publish something that even you don't think is right, but that might advance the discussion." We've been measuring sea surface temperatures for a long time; inevitably, this means that the technologies and methods we've used have changed markedly over that time. "The calculation of an unbiased sea surface temperature record is a hard problem. Historical sea surface temperature observations come from a variety of sources, with early records being measured using wooden, canvas or rubber buckets, later readings being taken from engine room intakes or hull sensors, and the most recent data coming from drifting buoys and from satellites. These different measurement methods give slightly different readings, with the transition from bucket to engine room observations during the second world war being particularly large: this represents the single largest correction to the historical temperature record, and reduces the estimated warming since the mid 19th century by 0.2-0.3 C compared to the uncorrected data". And different national science agencies adopt different methods to reconcile these changes ... all of which makes for a scientific detective tale, and a fascinating insight into the processes by which we reach for an always imperfect understanding, while increasing our confidence in this knowledge.
- The secret to creativity – according to science-
Valerie van Mulukom writes at the Conversation (3/1/18) that "Imagination is what propels us forward as a species – it expands our worlds and brings us new ideas, inventions and discoveries. But why do we seem to differ so dramatically in our ability to imagine?" She explains that there are two phases to creative thinking: divergent and convergent thinking: a fast and automatic mode that brings in a wide variety of ideas, drawing on intuition; followed by a slower and more deliberative evaluation, to analyse these ideas. To select the right idea, "research suggests that the first requirement is actually exposure and experience. The longer you have worked and thought in a field and learned about a matter – and importantly, dared to make many mistakes – the better you are at intuitively coming up with ideas and analytically selecting the right one." And Valerie suggests that we deploy both 'fantastical imagination' - "probably best predicted by your fantasy proneness and imaginative immersion" - and 'episodic imagination', "which helps individuals to better imagine alternative pasts and learn from their mistakes, or imagine their futures and prepare for them."
- Cornerstones - Flint-
In the first of a new sequence in BBC Radio 3's The Essay, author Alan Garner "sparks with flint, the stone that, perhaps more than any other, has enabled human civilisation. It's a stone that has featured in some of his novels, such as Red Shift, where the same Neolithic hand axe resurfaces across different times to haunt his characters. And it is time and evolution that he looks at in this essay: 'My blood walked out of Africa ninety thousand years ago. We came by flint. Flint makes and kills; gives shelter, food; it clothes us. Flint clears forest. Flint brings fire. With flint we bear the cold.'" Listening to Garner read his thoughts on the deep time of cosmology, geology and biology, and how he taps into the workings of the Jodrell Bank radio telescope he can see from his home, and into the long history of human handling of the stones he has dug out of the Bronze Age settlement in his garden, is to capture faint echoes of a past that is not wholly past.
- Introducing Ecopsychoanalysis: mind, politics and ecology-
Writing at Entitle (18/12/17) Ed Thornton asks "Do mental states have their own ecology? ... Psychoanalysis can help us to make sense of the strange mix of emotional states that the looming presence of ecological catastrophe can elicit. Whether it be anxiety, denial, paranoia, guilt, hope, or despair, discussions of climate change are never without their psychological dimension. The problem of apathy is especially acute. Psychoanalysis offers us a set of theories designed to explore the origins of these strange neuroses. It also offers a toolbox of techniques devised to work through whatever we find ... [B]y concentrating on the fact that we are not directly conscious of our own desires, psychoanalysts pay close attention to the gap between what we seem to want and what really drives us. By exploring the contents of this gap, psychoanalytic techniques can show how behaviors that seem irrational on the surface might have their own, hidden logic. In short, psychoanalysis can help us to explore the madness of our situation ... The global circulation of desire, the circulation of capital, and the circulation of carbon-dioxide are intimately linked. As long as this is the case, the question of how our mental lives interact with our environment must be confronted."
- Darkness Visible in the Echo Chamber-
As many of us gather in Reading for the closing ceremony to the city's year-long innovative Festival of the Dark, BBC Radio 4's The Echo Chamber (17/12/17) broadcasts this 'total darkness' encounter between poet Paul Farley and visual artist Sam Winston. "Sam spent a week living in total darkness, recording the experience in a series of 'blind' drawings. He later invited three poets to undertake 'darkness residencies', asking them to write new work in response to the experience." You can listen to this programme on the BBC website and BBC iPlayer Radio, with Paul Farley visiting Sam's installation at the Southbank Centre to spend time in the dark himself, and to hear the resulting poems by Kayo Chingonyi, Emily Berry and George Szirtes.
The Darkness Visible exhibition runs at the Southbank Centre in London until 25th March and there is an event at Whitechapel Gallery in London on 11th January - see our Events page.
- Gimme shelter in the deep future-
Writing at the Journal of Wild Culture (17/12/17), Judith Mueller - a college professor who "struggles to keep her students from falling prey to a despairing pessimism ... about current ecological crises" - discovers temporal complexity in an account of "time shelters", which might provide a livable alternative. "Dire times call for radical temporal recalibration. That is, how might we reframe the conversation about Time? The Anthropocene demands — or perhaps enables — this dwelling at once on at least two (multi-layered) temporal scales: 1) the temporality of a human lifetime, made up of various sub-temporalities (a childhood, a campaign, a bus ride, an undergraduate career, a pregnancy, a beloved dog, a summer, a clematis vine, a friendship) with the opportunities for action and meaning-making these human time-scales afford; and, 2) the deep timescale that can conceive a planetary history stretching long before and well beyond homo sapiens and the other creatures whose world we share in this moment, a vast temporality with lived sub-temporalities visible in rocky traces ... David Wood’s notion of “time shelters” might be useful here. In his book, Time After Time (2007), Wood engages with Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida, and accepts, without pessimism, the broad postmodern idea of the end of time. In doing so he exposes the rich, stratified, and non-linear textures of temporal complexity that characterize our world. A time shelter, as he conceives it, is an “economy” of temporal organization. In an entropic universe, living beings “are essentially negentropic”: resisting disorder and creating order “whether at the molecular level or that of information”, or that of a tidy room. Each organization comprises a time shelter."
- Leading doctors back legal action to force UK government to cut carbon emissions-
Writing for the British Medical Journal (7/12/17), Zosia Kmietowicz reports that doctors "are backing legal action against UK government ministers on the grounds they have not fulfilled their commitments to cutting carbon emissions in line with the Climate Change Act of 2008 and the Paris Agreement objective of limiting warming to 1.5°C or “well below” 2°C. In an open letter published in The BMJ, 18 health professionals, including The BMJ’s editor in chief Fiona Godlee, are supporting campaign group Plan B’s legal challenge to force the government to revise its 2050 carbon target, saying it is inconsistent with the Paris Agreement temperature objective."
- How to get environmental art right-
Another interesting piece from the Conversation (29/11/17). Rachel Witherst set out to explore the environmental artworks in Norway’s Artscape Nordland collection – 36 permanent public sculptures installed in 35 of Nordland’s municipalities. "Objections to public artworks and 'environmental' art ... can be as diverse as the genre itself. But some themes recur. Most obviously, there are objections of taste, often based on the prejudice that contemporary art per se is a load of ludicrous charlatanry. These taste-based beefs often lurk behind 'economic' objections ('the money would be better spent on hospitals/schools/housing/roads' etcetera ...). There are ecological issues: will installations lead to increased foot and road traffic, trampled habitats, disturbed livestock, dumped litter, other kinds of damage? ... An infrequently mentioned but inevitable function of permanent public artworks, however interesting in themselves, is that they never simply enhance a site. They shut down possible ways of seeing, reading and inhabiting an environment, as well as adding new ones. The issue is whether what’s gained outweighs what is lost. I fretted that I’d find myself niggling at this effect of the sculptures – wishing I could swig the landscape neat, as it were, minus the contemporary art tonic." Join Rachel on her tour of these impressive works of art: a collection which quashes her doubts.
- A glass of whisky could help you get your head around deep time-
An anthropologist, a geologist, a literary scholar, a palaeoecologist, and a radiocarbon dating expert walked into a bar...
"Take a glass of whisky," the authors of this piece in the Conversation (8/12/17) advise, and who needs to be asked twice? Carina Fearnley, Lourdes López-Merino, Niamh Downing and Richard Irvine - members of an interdisciplinary research team investigating Deep Time in the everyday, remind us that the term “deep time” was coined in 1981 as a way of "highlighting the apparent insignificance of the span of human existence in the face of geological processes. Yet such scale is inherently difficult to conceive of. And so as societies face changing environments, with challenges of energy and food security, the short-term perspective is often politically and economically dominant. But this way of thinking is high risk. If we are to adequately respond and adapt to landscape change, we need think about time differently, take a more holistic view. As such, over the last year we have been exploring different ways in which we might understand how humans think about deep time, and how it shapes our behaviours ... Deep time, for all its vastness, becomes intimate when we trace it in things that are familiar to us ... Deep time is therefore visible in our daily lives, and if we look closely enough we can understand time through the material presence of objects. Take a glass of whisky." Then take another one and start reading.
- A few notes on nature spirits, part two: into a living world-
Quoting the poet William Blake - "May God us keep / From single vision and Newton’s sleep!" - John Michael Greer completes his two-part post at Ecosophia (6/12/17) with his understanding of 'nature spirits' via a 'four-fold' vision that Blake subscribed to. "Single vision - the shrill and dogmatic insistence that real knowledge can only come through the material senses, and must never be understood as anything but the random acts of dead matter and mindless energy in a dead and mindless cosmos - pervades contemporary industrial civilization. It’s because we’re so used to thinking in these terms that we’ve gotten so good at manipulating matter and energy, but it’s also because we’re so used to thinking in these terms that we’ve done such a dismal job of maintaining the balance of the living planet on which our own lives depend ... You and I, dear reader, are members of the animal kingdom. That means, among many other things, that our material bodies are more completely differentiated from their environment than the bodies of living things that belong to other kingdoms. That doesn’t mean that we’re entirely separate from our environments, not by a long shot; we constantly absorb things from our environments and release other things into our environments, and about ten per cent of our body weight is made up of microbes of various kinds, without which we can’t survive - but unless you use a microscope, it’s fairly easy to figure out where our bodies stop and the environment starts. That’s less true of other living things."
- A few notes on nature spirits, part one: Nature as “it,” Nature as “you”-
Writing at his site Ecosophia (29/11/17), John Michael Greer often asks his readers what they'd like him to write on, and the most recent topic has been 'nature spirits.' "The mere act of mentioning the words 'nature spirits,' or any of their synonyms, calls up shrill prejudices in most people in today’s industrial societies. It’s indicative that when members of the current crop of evangelical atheists want to be just as nasty about other people’s religious beliefs as they possibly can, they refer to gods as 'sky fairies.' Against belief in gods, these same atheists deploy any number of arguments, and some of them - by no means all, or even most, but some - are serious philosophical challenges. Against belief in faeries and other nature spirits, they don’t even bother. Far beyond the bounds of devout evangelical atheism, the notion that there might be disembodied (or rather, as we’ll see, differently bodied) intelligent beings in the natural world, corresponding more or less to what’s described in traditional lore concerning faeries and nature spirits, is dismissed as too absurd to consider." And with that, he's off - on a two part article which is well worth a read whether you think you're firmly on the material plane, find yourself enquiring into the astral from time to time, or are happily - well, away with the faeries. Either way, it's an interesting enqiry into how we see the place of human beings - and being human - in the Anthropocene; and as Greer says, "the terror of finding out that we don’t own the planet is one of the things that has to be faced"...
- Cities in the Technosphere-
Inhabiting the Anthropocene (29/11/17) features a discussion by Peter Soppelsa of recent special papers in The Anthropocene Review focusing on the 'technosphere.' (See also 'Technosphere' in September's Views from Elsewhere). "The technosphere is defined as the totality of human artifice, the earth’s 'archaeological strata,' including landscapes, technologies, and material culture. For example, as Gabrielle Hecht and Pamila Gupta recently wrote, 'there’s now enough concrete on the planet to produce a 2mm thick, full-scale replica of Earth, and enough plastic to completely wrap that replica in cling film.' ... [T]his human-made sphere displays three important characteristics—autonomy from human action, global integration, and a systematic character. Thus, the term raises the question of whether the things that humans produce can take on a 'meta-ecological' role analogous to other spheres (biosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, etc.) that are self-organizing, -preserving, and -replicating, while exerting a structuring or limiting effect on human activity ... And just as water is an important medium of interaction between the bio-, hydro-, and atmospheres, so material produced in the technosphere can have effects that feed back into the other spheres."
- Erratic monuments to a melting world-
Writing for Edge Effects (30/11/17), artist Nina Elder introduces images and notes on her encounters with erratics: rocks carved and carried by glaciers moving from one geological environment to another and dropped as the glacier melts. "An erratic signifies the time and place where the glacier originated - often hundreds of miles and hundreds of years distant. Erratics hold traces of the parent bedrock, the path that the glacier traveled, and the process of deposition. They are time travelers, treasure troves, reliquaries, and rubble. Encountering an erratic is akin to encountering a piece of sculpture, perched in a surprising location with an unstable or alien appearance. The material presence of an erratic is strange, an anomaly mismatched to its surroundings. It is often not clear how this solitary rock arrived. Erratics have a newness, a vulnerability, and a childlike awkwardness. They have an aura of meaning, promise and poetry that, for those of us who are not geologists, remains a mystery." One of her images is captioned, "Land feels like a verb out here," another contains a prose poem: "The poet writes about wildfire ash crossing oceans and coating glaciers. On the other side of the planet, the glaciologist discovers 8-million-year-old soot and silt. The cryospherologist toggles satellites in scientific orbit and sees a future with more fires and less ice. His poem settles into the pores and crevasses and gets caught in a cosmic wind. One scientist looks down from her satellite, the other looks up from her cold brittle instruments. There is a bridge of comprehension that has a poem in the middle."