A Cosmology of Conservation: Ancient Maya Environmentalism

Anthropologist Lisa J. Lucero shares a talk she recorded specially for ClimateCultures, drawing on her extensive archaeological research into how ancient Maya culture adapted to environmental change, and whose non-anthropocentric cosmology can help us rethink our own worldview.


1,190 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes + 42 minutes video


I have spent over 30 years studying the ancient Maya, and I have learned so much from the Maya, past and present. The book I am working on — Sacred Maya Forests, Ancient Environmentalism, and Our Future — shares what I have learned about the Maya world and the insights we can draw from that are relevant today.

Both the archaeological record and Maya foremen and field assistants (the guys), some of whom have worked with me for over 20 years, have taught me much about their way of life. I have seen their children grow, get married, and have children of their own. Even though I have been working in central Belize for decades, I still would never go into the jungle without the guys — Mother Nature only laughs at high tech toys. Nothing is better than their knowledge and experience. They not only help me teach students archaeology, but they also provide lots of the gear we need. They make ladders from trees for taking photos and for getting in and out of deep excavation pits. They also make unit stakes, screen racks and tables using branches and vines. To protect us and excavations from sun and rain, the guys use corozo leaf and logs to make palapas — open-sided dwellings with a thatched roof. Cleofo, a Mopan Maya and one of my foremen, uses bamboo to make tools to excavate human remains since they don’t scratch bones like metal tools do.

I only hope I get to go to Belize in May 2021 for a six-week field season. I have a three-year National Science Foundation Grant to fund a rescue archaeology project in recently cleared areas that have exposed hundreds of ancient Maya mounds/structures. There is so much more to learn.

A cosmology for sustainability

Together, the archaeological record and my Maya foremen and assistants provide the means to address major questions, the key ones being: how have the Maya been able to farm for 4,000 years without denuding the tropical landscape? What insights can we draw from the Maya that are relevant today? I begin addressing these questions in my presentation here, ‘Ancient Maya Environmentalism: A Cosmology of Conservation’, which you can watch below.

The Classic Maya (c. 250-900 CE) are famous for their jungle cities with temples, palaces, tombs, ballcourts, exquisitely carved monuments, inscribed jades, and painted ceramics. Maya farmers, who supported this urban system, lived before, during, and after the emergence and demise of Maya kings between c. 200 BCE and 900 CE because of how they lived, which itself was informed by their non-anthropocentric worldview. This worldview, a cosmology of conservation, resulted in sustainable practices and was expressed in their daily life — rituals, farming, hunting, forest management, socializing, etc. As a case study, I highlight the pilgrimage destination of Cara Blanca, Belize.

Ego vs ecocentrism in Maya cosmology
Ego vs. Eco: the former resulted in the Anthropocene, the latter in sustainable practices. Generated by J. Gonzalez Cruz and L. J. Lucero, 2020

The traditional Maya worldview espouses that humans were one of many parts (animals, birds, trees, clouds, stone, earth, etc.) with mutual responsibilities to maintain the world they shared. Everything in Classic Maya society was animated and connected via souls. The Maya worked with nature, not against it. Nor did they attempt to control it. Such a view promoted biodiversity and conservation, allowing the Maya to feed more people in the pre-Columbian era than presently.

Adapting to a changing world

The Classic Maya lived in hundreds of cities, each with their own king, surrounded by rural farmsteads. This low-density agrarian urban system integrated water and agricultural systems, cities, farmsteads and communities, exchange networks, and resources. Rural farmers depended on city reservoirs during the annual five-month dry season — the agricultural downtime. Cities exerted a centripetal pull on rural Maya through markets, public ceremonies, and other large-scale public events — and the massive reservoirs. In turn, cities depended on the rural populace to fund the political economy in the form of labor, services (craft specialists, hunters, etc.), agricultural produce (e.g. maize, beans, manioc, squash, pineapple, tobacco, tomatoes, etc.), and forest resources (wood, fuel, construction materials, medicinal plants, chert, game, fruit, etc.).

Showing an abandoned Mayan city, Tikal
Tikal – abandoned Mayan city
Photo: A. Kinkella

The Maya relied on rainfall to nourish their fields and replenish reservoirs during the annual rainy season between about mid-June to mid-January. The relatively little surface water due to the porous limestone bedrock, topography (e.g. entrenched rivers), and dispersed resources discouraged large-scale irrigation systems. The Maya began building reservoirs in cities c. 100 BCE. A growing population resulted in increasingly larger and more sophisticated reservoirs (e.g. dams, channels, filtration, etc.). Urban planning and layout increasingly became interlinked with reservoir systems, creating anthropogenic landscapes still visible today. Further, maintaining reservoir water quality would have been crucial to curtail the presence of waterborne parasites and diseases, such as hepatic schistosomiasis, and the build-up of noxious elements such as nitrogen. The Maya kept water clean by creating wetland biospheres through the use of certain surface and subsurface plants, as well as aquatic life.

A series of prolonged droughts struck between c. 800 and 930 CE. When reservoir levels began dropping, water quality worsened and water plants died, along with Maya kingship. Maya abandoned kings and cities, dispersing out of the interior southern lowlands in all directions. While this response was drastic, it was an adaptive strategy — one that worked, as evidenced by the over seven million Maya currently living in Central America and elsewhere.

Maya farmers survived because they relied on sustainable agricultural practices and forest management, both designed within the constructs of their worldview. The insights I have gained from the archaeological record and my Maya crew are a roadmap for a more sustainable future for us all. By the end of my presentation, I hope to convince you rethinking how we view and interact with the world is the first step for a sustainable future.

Click on the screenshot below to view Lisa’s presentation.

Ancient Maya Environmentalism: A Cosmology of Conservation
Click on image to link to Lisa’s ClimateCultures talk, ‘Ancient Maya Environmentalism: A Cosmology of Conservation’ https://mediaspace.illinois.edu/media/1_b0f1i6fj

Find out more

Lisa has shared some suggested reading from her research, for you to explore beyond her presentation. You can also read her earlier ClimateCultures post, Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Maya Kings.

Larmon, Jean T., H. Gregory McDonald, Stanley Ambrose, Larisa R. G. DeSantis, and Lisa J. Lucero (2019): A Year in the Life of a Giant Ground Sloth During the Last Glacial Maximum in Belize. (Science Advances, 5:eaau1200).

Lucero, Lisa J. (2017): Ancient Maya Water Management, Droughts, and Urban Diaspora: Implications for the Present, pages 162-188 in Tropical Forest Conservation: Long-Term Processes of Human Evolution, Cultural Adaptations and Consumption Patterns, edited by Nuria Sanz, Rachel Christina Lewis, Jose Pulido Mata, and Chantal Connaughton (UNESCO, Mexico).

Lucero, Lisa J. (2018): A Cosmology of Conservation in the Ancient Maya World. (Journal of Anthropological Research. 74:327-359).

Lucero, Lisa J., and Jesann Gonzalez Cruz (2020): Reconceptualizing Urbanism: Insights from Maya Cosmology. (Frontiers in Sustainable Cities: Urban Resource Management, 2:1).

Lisa Lucero
Lisa Lucero
A professor of Anthropology focusing on how Maya and other societies dealt with climate change: the emergence and demise of political power, ritual and water management.
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Gulp! Water Choices, Stories and Theatre

Gulp! flyer for The Bone Ensemble theatre projectTheatre-maker and arts academic Adam Ledger shares the thinking behind Gulp!, The Bone Ensemble’s project on global water issues, and the challenges of creating an engaging and participatory family drama on environmental issues, inequalities and opportunities during Covid-19.


1,800 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes


It seems strange to be putting down some thoughts about a theatre project that couldn’t quite finish its tour because of the COVID-19 crisis. But the ongoing situation makes me reflect on art-making, connection, on possibilities before, during and after the peculiar feeling of simultaneously being stuck but too busy. And all in the context of a world dealing with a pandemic, how to emerge from lockdown, and where — outside of the four walls we are obliged currently to occupy — another set of issues remain: of environmental challenges and inequalities, but also opportunities. So as lockdown gripped, the skies over major cities began to clear as pollution dispersed, yet at the same time the UNESCO World Water Development Report was published. Its headline findings make for grim reading:

climate change will affect the availability, quality and quantity of water for basic human needs, threatening the effective enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation for potentially billions of people. The alteration of the water cycle will also pose risks for energy production, food security, human health, economic development and poverty reduction, thus seriously jeopardizing the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Gulp! flyer for The Bone Ensemble theatre project

Gulp! More than a drop

It is in these contexts that there are only two ways forward: to do nothing, too often what seems to be the environmental policy of those who purport to be our leaders; or to do at least something. On offering feedback on The Bone Ensemble’s second environmentally-themed family theatre performance, Gulp!, all about water, one rather ill-judged, academically-cocky comment that came my way was ‘how is this more than a drop in the ocean?’. This is an odd way of thinking. Put it this way; if you throw some sort of recyclable plastic item straight in the bin, you’re harming the planet in an almost immeasurably small way. If you put it where you should, in a tiny way you’re triggering help. What choice should you be making?

Back in 2018, the impetus to make Gulp! came from a bit more than a drop, and actually before we created its forerunner, Where’s My Igloo Gone?, a piece about climate change (as a theatre company, we do tend to take on the big stuff..!). We began to realise just how ridiculous bottled water and the consumer con-trick around that ‘industry’ is, let alone the environmental impact of bottled water. We began to think more widely about water. Like the previous production, we wanted to create a positive, participatory experience for our audiences, made up of children 7+ and their families and carers. We continued to hold fast to earlier principles; we would reject dystopian imaginaries, the dramatic tropes of the disaster movie, which we had seen in some work. In no way do we have all the answers, and there is ongoing reflection about the strengths and weakness of the work, but it seems to us that a fundamental dramaturgical shift (the form and content of the work) has to be from a bleak mirroring of a problem, to a principle of empowering and empathetic stories and experiences.

Showing The Bone Ensemble's Gulp! with audience participation
Gulp! participation
Photograph: Graeme Braidwood © 2020

No work can happen without a web of partners. Our theatre-making has been significantly funded by Arts Council England, several trusts and venue partners, the University of Birmingham and through a collaboration with Severn Trent Water. In the academic bit of my life, the two pieces combine to create a practice as research and ‘impact’ project around the efficacy of empathetic, positive dramaturgies of performance and the environment. We also benefit from ongoing relationships with a set of scientists and, because our work is made to be accessible, with advisory d/Deaf artists and those that help us with ‘relaxed’ performances.

Working together in water scenarios

In terms of empathy, both shows have a central character, who undertakes a kind of journey. This has been crucial as a dramatic strategy, and one which is actually pretty classic. Spectators (in order to involve everyone, there are only sixty at a time) see someone in a situation and it’s important that they can somehow identify with them. The story of Gulp! centres on Maya (the name means ‘water’ in Hebrew) who — wait for it! — gets sucked up a tap! Early on, we had also decided that the feel of Gulp! should be contemporary, whereas the earlier Where’s My Igloo Gone? was quite ‘other’, perhaps a folk setting of some kind. In Gulp!’s recognisable world, complete with adverts for bottled water (ours is cheekily called ‘EviClever’), Maya gets spat out of the tap in various locations: a city experiencing a flood; a rural location being polluted by discharge from a factory; the ocean; a desert. Spectators see Maya getting into problems, but as a kind of coda to the story, through participation they help Maya to sort things out: they lend their sandbag cushions to hold back flooding, protest at the ‘baddie’ polluting factory boss, by working together they help to bring water to the elephant at the empty watering hole. Drawing on earlier experience, the show also features no spoken English, in part to reach EAL (English as an Additional Language) and d/Deaf audiences, but also to stimulate a communicative world of sound, partly comprising the made-up language of ‘Waterish’. Overall, too, the audience help make the show’s soundtrack, which we layer live with a loop-station.

Showing The Bone Ensemble's Gulp! in performance
Gulp! performance
Photograph: Graeme Braidwood © 2020

The real problem was finding a story that would ‘hold’ the topic of water. Climate change — and this is, of course, a big generalisation — is a ‘thing’, a more or less tangible issue. It is a recognisable problem, but there appears to be some means of addressing it. For many people, water is just not a problem — we turn on the tap and water comes out of it — it is instead a phenomenon with which we have a relationship. Made up of several perspectives, ‘water’ won’t easily be marshalled into a storyline. Yet it is one of the few, and indeed fundamental things that unites all of us globally, even if many in the world have no tap and no clean water. One of our scientific advisors, Professor David Hannah (University of Birmingham) thus shared how water can be conceived as part of a continuum: too much, too little, too dirty. Part of the narrative answer was to have Maya ‘land’ in different scenarios which, if you look back at the list of locations above, are underpinned by this conception. In the heat of rehearsal (something actual, rather than virtual, in August 2019!), we wrestled still more with the dramaturgical organisation, eventually also conceiving of water as a set of binaries: global and local; need and taking for granted; and also through climatic extremes (heat and flood); and human interventions such as access, control and denial. These themes also hold the topic together across the story.

Small choices matter

Over 2019-20, the production toured extensively to schools, theatres, community and rural settings. Funded by Severn Trent Water, we also produced three thousand copies of what we quite grandly called a ‘children’s graphic novel’, a comic-book version of Gulp! beautifully illustrated by Emily Jones. This was given out free after many performances and also made available digitally. Emily found a way also not to use English in the book; where necessary, the characters speak or think pictures in speech bubbles. Severn Trent Water also produced a very extensive education pack to go with the show and took part in post-show discussions, as well as funding twelve performances in six diverse schools local to us. We also created a ‘PPP song’, which cheerily celebrated what should only go down your loo: paper, pee and poo!

And, of course, we had to gather feedback through several mechanisms. One of the more usual is to use post-show questionnaires. Analysis of their free-text responses (we tried to resist too-leading tick-box questions…) demonstrated that a quarter of people confirmed their changed perception around water use and waste; another 25% of respondents wrote about their changed behaviour in terms of consumption, significantly around the use of plastics. A further 25% of respondents most explicitly wrote that they would cease the use of bottled water. Perhaps this is a response to the thread of ‘EviClever’. But I hope too because of the ocean scene, when plastic objects are turned into an underwater world: at first beautiful, but then where plastic-bag jelly-fish get caught in a turtle’s jaws, and a plastic water bottle is swallowed by a tarpaulin whale. As the UNESCO report also says, water is a direct way we experience climate and the way we understand it, use it and what we allow to be in it (the report speaks of adaptation and mitigation) has global consequences. Again, small choices help.

Showing The Bone Ensemble's Gulp and small choices on water
Gulp! choices
Photograph: Graeme Braidwood © 2020

I’m not a social scientist, a scientist, or even much of an overtly political-environmental activist; I’m a theatre-maker and an arts academic and I have to start from that point. At times, I have to resist or at least find a way to work with some of the instrumentalisation that creating this kind of work attracts, appearing at worst as the academic capitalism that imbues some of the institutional aspects. On the other hand, there is a great pleasure in meeting the spectator’s gaze. This is the real meaning of the work.

Environmentally-based artworks cannot be only negative, nor comprise only information, like some kind of illustrated lecture. Participation is one means whereby spectators often end up modelling a different behaviour, showing how change and intervention are possible. A factually-informed but inherently well-made, emotive piece of artwork really stays with people. If you want to shift people’s knowledge, intentions and, perhaps, behaviour, a means to engage what really leads to change needs to happen. Ultimately, this is people’s hearts and minds.


Find out more

You can read Adam’s ClimateCultures post on The Bone Ensemble’s 2017 climate change production: Action, Participation, Feeling: Where’s My Igloo Gone?, and explore The Bone Ensemble website.

As well as Co-Artistic Director with The Bone Ensemble, Adam is also a Reader in Theatre and Performance at the University of Birmingham, and you can find out more about Gulp! at the university’s Performance and the Environment website — including the lyrics and music for the PPP Song. You can read the e-book of Gulp!, illustrated by Emily Jones, on Issuu, with further resources at the back of the book. Plenty of things to do at home and at school!

The UN Water Development Report 2020 – Water and Climate Change is available at the UNESCO website, along with a ‘Main Messages’ download.

For an explanation of the d/Deaf distinction, see this post from the Royal Association for Deaf People. 

Adam Ledger
Adam Ledger
An artistic director interested in how art practices can bring empowering messages about climate, and a senior lecturer in Drama and Theatre Arts (University of Birmingham).
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In Time: Crisis, Care, Creation

Artist Margin Zheng felt moved to perform Lola Perrin’s work, Significantus, as part of their climate activism, and adapted the piano suite to new conditions when Covid-19 prevented public events, producing a unique online concert: Crisis, Care, Creation.


1,800 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes


It is often the most peculiar motifs of circumstance that make life and art — and the art of life — tremble beautifully, in truth unveiled.

I first learned of Lola’s composition by a chance Internet-search, motivated by a serendipitous moment of curiosity. I was creating a foothold for myself in climate activism, having led a climate rally in September at my college (Haverford College) and started a hub of Sunrise Movement on campus. I knew of — and also personally knew — composers who wrote politically oriented music, and I also was familiar with composers like John Luther Adams who wrote music evocative of the mysterious, mesmerizing powers of nature. So the question came to me — it might have been in November: had anyone written a piano piece about the climate crisis?

Someone had, in the UK: her name was Lola Perrin. Elated, I ordered the score and tried it out, and, entranced, I soon had the inescapable conviction that I would perform Significantus in public someday.

Lola Perrin’s ‘Significantus’
Photograph: Margin Zheng

After a few emails and conversations, including an email and WhatsApp exchange with Lola herself, and an application to a student performance fund offered by my college, I received in January the happy news. I had received the E. Clyde Lutton 1966 Memorial Fund. With the support of Haverford College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities, I was going to perform Significantus in a concert in Earth Week — with a personal spin.

Climate activism under lockdown

The general format of the performance was to mostly follow the score: first seven movements of music, then a short talk by a guest speaker, after that audience participation in breakout groups, and finally the last musical movement, followed by a reception and informal conversation. But instead of focusing on sharing information on climate change for the audience to reflect upon, my event was to center on storytelling and emotional connection: the guest speaker was to share a personal story about how they became called to climate activism, and the audience was then to share in small groups their own stories of thinking, feeling, experiencing a world in crisis. The final movement was to be a collective improvisation, beginning with just me playing, then continuing as a duet with the guest speaker (also a performer), and finally expanding to the audience members, who were to contribute something of their own to the performance by singing, speaking, playing an ‘instrument’, dancing, whatever else they imagined, symbolizing the collective creation of a better future.

Logistics were a battle from the start, mostly because I was so unfamiliar with the challenges of planning a concert and thus approached the task too dreamily. It was not until spring break, in March, when I finally got my guest speaker confirmed, but by then all plans were in peril. The pandemic had penetrated the county where my college was, and soon after it spread all over the region. After a few weeks, what was increasingly likely became inevitable: classes were to be online for the rest of the semester, and all on-campus events were cancelled. Most students, including myself, were barred from returning to campus (exceptions including many international students and students without a safe home to stay in); I was to spend the rest of my semester at home.

I was devastated. I had such wonderful visions for a concert of compassion and creation, and now they were stolen away! The fund that was supporting the concert required performances to be in the semester the money was granted, so there was no chance for the concert to be postponed to the fall, when hopefully on-campus activities would recommence. Besides, there was intentional meaning in scheduling the concert during Earth Week, two days before the mass strikes that were to sweep the U.S. — it was the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, in a crucial year for action.

Crisis, Care, Creation

The concert was always about performing ‘in time’: not just tickling vague eternities with delicate trained fingers in hypnotic moto perpetuo, but contextualizing my performance — and generally my being — in the tensions of my times. In the great existential crisis of a humanity that seems so determined, to its own peril, to go on and on and on producing — but needs to stop and reflect and confront itself: whom is ‘business as usual’ hurting the most? (The already marginalized and oppressed: people of color and especially Indigenous people, poor and working-class people, people with disabilities, young people, etc.) And what are they saying, doing, demanding? 

I am a young, Chinese American, genderqueer person from a middle to upper-middle class background. I was born a U.S. citizen and am the child of immigrants. I was not raised in any religion, but I feel deeply spiritual, a Seeker. I exist with a particular combination of privileges and challenges, and though I cannot speak and act for anyone else, I must live with full intention as who I am, embedded in human and nonhuman space and time.

Before I sent the audience into breakout groups, I shared my own story of living in the climate crisis.
Margin Zheng

So when I realized that the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate emergency were really twin crises, both the result of governments caring more for concentrated profit and political power than for the health and wellbeing of people, I decided that my project — early on titled ‘Crisis, Care, Creation’ — had to continue, in whatever way it could. This was the gift I had for this moment, a gift I had to give.

The result was a Zoom-based concert on April 20th. The original format I had planned turned out to speak profoundly to the needs of the times and to require only a few adjustments: in lieu of a guest speaker/performer, I spoke my own story after the initial half-hour of music; audience members joined Zoom breakout rooms to reflect upon how they were emotionally processing the moment of multilayered crisis and to practice collective care; and the final movement still invited audience members to join me (while on mute) with their own musical, kinesthetic, or visual performances (some people even drew pictures) as I gradually broke away from Lola’s score and started improvising.

While performing, I felt thoroughly in a state of flow.
Margin Zheng

After the initial awkwardness of speaking to a Zoom audience (since my video was pinned onto the screen, I had to watch myself as I spoke!), the experience was for me one of intellectually, emotionally, physically, spiritually engaging flow. I took many artistic liberties in my interpretation, breathing through the music and dancing through its spirit. I embodied yearning, awe, sorrow, numbness, anger — every emotion a different subjective time, every movement in time like a river. I spoke the first words of my personal story — “This should be my time of dreams!” — with the final chord of the seventh movement (entitled ‘We are playing with fire, a reckless mode of behaviour we are likely to come to regret unless we get a grip on ourselves’) still resounding, and I still panting from exertion. After speaking, I then joined a breakout room myself, shared in heart-to-heart dialogue. Afterwards, I concluded with the last movement — a joyful part-planned, part-spontaneous performance despite my not being able to hear the audience’s own improvisations — and then some last words, though by then I found it hard to speak, how exhausted and elated I was from it all. 

Imagine better, create!

Throughout the performance, my body and spirit were spellbound, and — I am told — many in the audience were too. Even without the usual physical performance space enabling a palpable sonic resonance, there was communication, fellowship, spiritual reverberance. Many were stressed and lonely, and in music, conversation, and creation, they found emotional grounding and solace. As I read the messages people sent me afterwards, I felt joy, pride, gratitude. My ‘crazy’ idea worked! — and it meant something.

After the concert, one audience member shared with me the drawing he made during the collective improvisation as an expression of thanks. Image used with permission.

This was an event I shall always remember, as it brought people together, and it touched them deep.

I write this nearly two weeks after the performance, on May Day 2020, the International Workers’ Day, when many people in the U.S. and elsewhere — especially those deemed ‘essential workers’ during the pandemic — are striking, protesting, and otherwise mobilizing for urgent aid and protection: for safe working conditions, for accessible medical care, for rent and mortgage cancellations and an end to water shutoffs, for the release of those confined in unsafe prisons and detention centers, for a #PeoplesBailout: for the basic right to life. I stand in solidarity with the people who striked that day as well as with the people who cannot or do not strike but still call upon those with privilege to support them and to demand crucial change — both the immediate and the deep.

The climate crisis is not just about nature, and the pandemic is not just about a virus. They are both manifestations of the greater plague of capitalism and of money-run politics: life-devaluing systems that if we — the united peoples of Earth — do not soon uproot will only cause even more death and irreversible destruction. Can we act — in time? Connected with our identities, our personal and collective histories, our individual and shared longings for the future, can we move the rhythms of our world and dance a variegated, syncopated, yet more harmonious tune?

Showing Margaret Zheng's performance, Crisis, Care, Creation on Earth Day 2020
At the end of Crisis, Care, Creation, I departed from the score in partly planned improvisation, synchronously performing with each audience member.
Margin Zheng

I would like to end with the words with which I concluded my virtual concert. Let them resonate with you, my fellow human being, a being in time:

So long as we live in a world of crisis, we must continue to practice care for ourselves and other living beings and to day by day strive to create a thriving, more beautiful future. Thus I leave you with one more question, to be answered in contemplation and in action:

How do the crises of the emerging world compel us to live anew?


Find out more

Signicantus composer Lola Perrin is a fellow ClimateCultures member and creator of the  ClimateKeys global initiative.

Sunrise Movement is a movement in the USA to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process.

‘Crisis, Care, Creation’ was performed for Earth Day 2020. Growing out of the first Earth Day in 1970, Earth Day Network aims to diversify, educate and activate the environmental movement worldwide.

Margin Zheng
Margin Zheng
A philosopher, artist, awakener, and spiritual intellectual, formally studying music and mathematics, informally learning voraciously about our world in transformation, involved in actions promoting climate justice.
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Urban Resilience? Art, the Missing Link

Citizen Artist Yky explores urban resilience and the importance of building joint commitments by experts and artists to improve our understanding of this concept in ‘citizen science’ and other approaches to empower citizens in planning for the future.

 

2,600 words: estimated reading time 10.5 minutes


Recently, three publications pointed out the difficulty for most people to understand the deep changes in our environment. At first sight, those publications have very little in common. But ultimately, the three converge towards the same conclusion: a link is missing in how to empower urban citizens as full stakeholders in the process of mitigation/adaptation that should improve their well-living and well-being.

The first — To Survive Climate Change, We’ll Need a Better Story — was an article about the Viable Cities programme, the largest research and innovation initiative taken in Sweden in the field of sustainable cities. Their conclusion is beyond dispute: the scientific community may understand the complex concepts of the Anthropocene, but without an appropriate storytelling it will fail to engage people for a simple reason: facts are not enough; we need the right narrative.

The second — How climate-related tipping points can trigger mass migration and social chaos — was written by François Gemenne, director of the Hugo Observatory at the University of Liège, Belgium. He points out that facts and perceptions are independent tipping points, in particular when assessing the social consequences of climate change. Commonly, a tipping point is a tiny perturbation that may alter the whole stability of a system. The theory of tipping points has been recently used to refer to climate change, but as explained by the author, it often overlooks the role of inequalities, perceptions, governance, solidarity networks, and cultural values in their evaluation of the future social impacts of climate change.

The third event was the emergence of The Freaks, a collective representing 68 French artists and prominent representatives of the cultural scene committed to 42 steps to ‘save the planet’. Some of them did reconsider our current consumption paradigm, others did not and, except for one, all of them were individual recommendations. No need to say that this initiative is welcome; but the legitimate question is whether it might better impact community awareness of climate change than the continuous warnings of climate experts’?

Citizen Science for urban resilience

Paradoxically, experts recognize the importance of including civil society as stakeholders, as shown by the emergence of ‘Citizen Science’. Though laudable, this approach is most of the time ‘thought by experts for experts’ with no obvious operational application at the citizen’s level. Some independent initiatives gathering either experts or artists have been shown to play an active role in developing community awareness on matters related to urban resilience. But few have brought experts and artists together. This post argues in favour of a joint commitment between artists and experts to improve understanding of urban resilience.

Déjeuner, by artist Yky, shows two people eating lunch facing a wall at Les Grandes Voisins, a former hospital. Yky has used the wall to show text on Urban Resilience, from sources that inspire his work.
Déjeuner
Artist: Yky © 2019 https://www.resi-city.com

The first question coming to anyone’s mind will be the definition of urban resilience. It seems that there is a huge ambiguity on this point. In 2015, Sara Meerow and colleagues from the University of Michigan found 25 different definitions, all of them published by editors of recognized journals. None of them appeared satisfactory. In Defining urban resilience: a review, Meerow gave the 26th. This shows the difficulty in translating a concept into operations across many threats and challenges faced by urban citizens. However, as explained below, it is possible to elaborate upon a simple definition: an urban space is resilient when it can integrate the occurrence of hazards without compromising its operations. Let’s also recall that a definition is not a description. A definition sets limits, while a description opens the limits. Perhaps forgetting this distinction, many of the expert definitions of urban resilience will appear too complex to be understood by non-expert citizens, and this will not create the desirable conditions for a pedagogical process.

Art as a pedagogic tool

Using art as a pedagogic tool to enable experts and artists to describe urban resilience, and better explain the complexity of this concept, requires some guidelines.

The first one is to understand the paradigm of cognitive apprenticeship. A lot of publications are available online and can help us acquire the basic knowledge needed to engage in a learning process. They will be helpful for learning how and why we need to give a simple definition of the concept while, at a further stage, being able to brainstorm on the limits of the definition.

The second guideline is to share a common language between artists and experts. This is needed to build a joint productive activity and will help artists to translate their message and emotions and engage in a dialogical process with citizens. With no clear understanding, there is no possible empowerment; and the stakes are too high for us to conceptualize urban resilience without actually bringing operational results, considering the current threats of hazards and their related disasters. In this regard, the open access Disaster Science Vocabulary provided by Ilan Kelman in his paper Lost for words amongst Disaster Risk Science vocabulary? is a valuable source of information.

The third requirement is selecting the appropriate artistic approach. The needs of citizens should be at the core of the process. When there is a requirement for a local community in the southern hemisphere, asking for the contribution of an artist coming from the northern hemisphere with a global approach is risky and potentially off-topic. Priority should be given to local artists conveying a message that could make sense for local citizens.

From theory to practice

Recalling that mental pictures precede spoken language, sociologists have described how virtuality and reality interact with each other and ultimately lead to a new perception of the world. Fictional narratives help to transform our own representation of reality. Representing the reality of the world becomes a virtual act and the reality of this virtuality plays a fundamental role in the sense we give to our actions. Fictional narratives are therefore a powerful way to build the required tripartite relationship ‘virtuality-reality-action’ between artists, experts and citizens. The scenario needs to be built beforehand in such a way that all matters relevant to the hazard (potentially) impacting citizens have been thoroughly discussed between the expert and the artist. The fictional example below makes use of one of my photographic works, Shakes, selected by the World Bank in Washington DC for the Art of Resilience exhibition.

Shakes, a diptych by artist Yky, explores urban resilience by presenting two images. The first one illustrates the hazard (here, the earthquake), the second the impact on a non-resilient city.
Shakes, a diptych: D0 and D+ (click for larger image)
Artist: Yky © 2018 https://www.resi-city.com

This work questions the challenge of implementing an urban resilience strategy after a widespread seismic destruction. With architectural symbols, broken reflections, and linear designs that at once feel as much like an earthquake monitor as they do a heart monitor, it talks about an irrational fear: the destruction of our matrix. The approach is here described as a ‘theatrical scenette’ with a teaching process that will need to encompass the following:

  • the sociological causes of so-called ‘natural disasters’ (recognizing that there is no such thing as a natural disaster, only natural hazards, while at the same time recalling the consequences of human activity on nature in the Anthropocene).
  • the relation between resilience and vulnerability;
  • the question of bouncing back (to business as usual) vs bouncing forward;
  • a comparison with Japan and their risk management approach in case of earthquakes;
  • a general conclusion on the meaning of urban resilience for the group of citizens;
  • a plan of actions.

The fiction of Shakes

Citizen 1 to Yky: Your work is really frightening. There is broken glass everywhere. Obviously, everyone is dead in this landscape.

Citizen 2 to Yky: How can you speak about Urban Resilience when everything looks destroyed?

Yky to citizens: Yes, quakes are frightening. When I started this work, I was wondering: “How is it possible that people can ever adapt to a seismic environment? I still wonder. Are we less vulnerable in case of flooding?”

Expert to citizens: At first glance, this work does not look very encouraging. But before concluding that nothing can be done in case of quakes, we should ask ourselves a first question: What has caused such a mess, as shown in the picture?

Yky to expert: Mother Nature obviously.

Expert to citizens: Yky‘s answer makes sense. What do you think?

Citizen 1: Hold on. What about the infrastructures? Did they comply with seismic norms?

Expert to citizen 1: Probably not …

Citizen 2 to Yky: And what about people? We see nobody in your work. Are they all dead?

Yky to Citizen 2: Oh, no. They are neither dead nor alive. They are not here. I did not know how to show a sign of human activity. I wanted to underline the question of vulnerability.

Citizen 2 to Yky: What do you mean?

Expert to citizens: I think I understand what Yky wants to say. The work does not say anything about the social positions of the inhabitants. A high income person can be less vulnerable than a low income person. Can you figure how?

All citizens together: For sure! The rich one had his private jet and could leave quickly after the first quake. And the poor one, as always, had no other place to go …

Expert to citizens: This seems to be a general rule. Low income people are always the most vulnerable. Some of you may have higher income than others. So knowing we all live in a seismic zone, what should we do to prepare ourselves before and after the quake? And then, let’s see with Yky if another approach of his work is conceivable.

Citizen 3 to expert: Excuse me. I do not want to spoil your teaching process. But I am sure you are going to show us nice examples of what other threatened communities do. And this is OK with me. But what worries me more are the decisions that local authorities will take in terms of going back as quickly as possible to the situation that prevailed before the quake. What I see in Yky’s work is not very optimistic.

Yky’s answer: Well, it depends on how you will consider it. You may see only a broken path filled with pieces of glass. But this path may also lead to a new way of living together, should it help to become aware of our fragility. Why is it that we are so vulnerable and what could we do about it?

Expert’s answer: If we sum up what we have discussed, I see three points on which I propose to elaborate: 1- What do we mean by (so-called) ‘natural disasters’ and are they comparable to each other? 2- What do we mean by ‘vulnerability’? 3- When we say that we want to come back to a ‘normal’ situation, what does this mean? Let’s try to answer those questions before answering the final one: What should be done to be prepared and to anticipate a quake?

In Shakes as in my other works, my photographic technique makes use of a well-known property of argentic paper, which is to darken when exposed to light. This will produce a diptych of two images. The first one illustrates the hazard (here, the earthquake) while the second one darkens in time. The comparison between both images will highlight the related disaster and the questioning which will be used to support the pedagogic work with the expert. By doing so, my works contribute to engaging citizens in considering the most appropriate way to operationalize resilience.

It goes without saying that all form of art can use such an approach, as long as the cognitive apprenticeship has been finalized with the expert.


Find out more 

The World Bank’s The Art of Resilience exhibition of artworks from around the world includes three of Yky’s photographic works: The Japanese Paradox; Shakes; La Seine. You can read more on the issues explored Shakes in Yky’s blog post Can urban resilience cope with earthquakes? (9/7/18), and explore his technique in other photographic works on his site.

To Survive Climate Change, We’ll Need a Better Story, by Feargus O’Sullivan and published by CityLab (11/11/19), features Per Grankvist, chief storyteller for Sweden’s Viable Cities programme. Grankvist’s job is to communicate the realities of day-to-day living in a carbon-neutral world.  

How climate-related tipping points can trigger mass migration and social chaos, by François Gemenne, director of the Hugo Observatory at the University of Liège, was published by Perry World House, the University of Pennsylvania’s hub for global engagement, for a regular column for Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (8/11/19).  

The Freaks is a collective of artists and personalities who are committed to adopting new behaviours to fight against over-consumption, pollution, global warming and protect biodiversity. 

Citizen Science is defined by National Geographic as “the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge. Through citizen science, people share and contribute to data monitoring and collection programs.” It is explored in this paper by Susanne Hecker et al (2/12/19) in Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, 4(1): How Does Policy Conceptualise Citizen Science? A Qualitative Content Analysis of International Policy Documents. To recognize how citizen science is perceived to foster joint working at the science-society-policy interface, a mutual understanding of the term ‘citizen science’ is required. Here, we assess the conceptualisation and strategic use of the term ‘citizen science’ in policy through a qualitative content analysis of 43 international policy documents edited by governments and authorities … Interestingly, documents largely fail to address the benefits and challenges of citizen science as a tool for policy development, i.e., citizen science is mainly perceived as only a science tool.”

Defining urban resilience: a review, by Sara Meerow, Joshua Newell & Melissa Stults, was published in Landscape and Urban Planning 147 (2016) 3. It “concludes that the term has not been well defined. Existing definitions are inconsistent and underdeveloped with respect to incorporation of crucial concepts found in both resilience theory and urban theory”; and identifies “six conceptual tensions fundamental to urban resilience: (1) definition of ‘urban’; (2) understanding of system equilibrium; (3) positive vs. neutral (or negative) conceptualizations of resilience; (4) mechanisms for system change; (5) adaptation versus general adaptability; and (6) timescale of action. To advance this burgeoning field, more conceptual clarity is needed. This paper, therefore, proposes a new definition of urban resilience. This definition takes explicit positions on these tensions, but remains inclusive and flexible enough to enable uptake by,
and collaboration among, varying disciplines. The paper concludes with a discussion of how the definition might serve as a boundary object, with the acknowledgement that applying resilience in different contexts requires answering: Resilience for whom and to what? When? Where? And why?”

Lost for words amongst Disaster Risk Science vocabulary? by Ilan Kelman was published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Science (2018) 9:281–291: “Like other subjects, disaster risk science has developed its own vocabulary with glossaries. Some keywords, such as resilience, have an extensive literature on definitions, meanings, and interpretations. Other terms have been less explored. This article investigates core disaster risk science vocabulary that has not received extensive attention [and] draws out understandings of disasters and disaster risk science, which the glossaries do not fully provide in depth, especially vulnerability and disasters as processes.”

You can find articles on the virtual and the real, in French, in these discussions of the 2009 book Le Réel et le virtuel (in which “sociologist André Petitat examines the relationship between action and representation, exploring notions of interpretive plurality and underlining how fictional imagination contributes to the construction of real action.”): Grand résumé de Le Réel et le virtuel. Genèse de la compréhension, genèse de l’action by André Petitat and Comment l’imaginaire construit le réel by Francis Farrugia.

For another read on resilience and vulnerability, you could read Mark Goldthorpe’s post Rising — endsickness and adaptive thinking, a review of Elizabeth Rush’s book Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore: a contemplation of transience, connection and the possibilities of resilience, demonstrating the power of story to highlight opportunities to attend and adapt to a changing world.

Yky
Yky
A citizen artist exploring urban resilience whose photographic works use argentic paper's response to light to highlight the challenges raised by climate hazards in urban spaces.
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Five Notes on Thinking Through ‘Ensemble Practices’

Artist and researcher Iain Biggs shares thoughts on the place of artists, and of creative ensemble practices, in a culture of possessive individualism that must urgently address its chronic failure of imagination in the face of eco-social crisis.


1,480 words: estimated reading time 6 minutes 


“Art is a parasite that feeds upon the corpus of culture. Its insularity is just a conceit….”
– Simon Read

One — driven to be part of the problem

The Great Below: A Journey Into Loss is Maddy Paxman’s account of facing the consequences of the death of her husband, the poet Michael Donaghy, from a brain haemorrhage at the age of fifty. She has worked as a counsellor in women’s health, a music teacher, musician and painter and currently teaches the Alexander Technique. She writes:

“Although I don’t think of myself as an artist, in that I am not ‘driven’, painting is a form of expression that seems necessary to me and I miss it when it’s not part of my life.”

This sentence, which comes towards the end of her account of her relationship with the husband she loved deeply, a man very clearly ‘driven’ to the exclusion of much that did not immediately concern his poetry, gives me pause for thought. In part because I recognise all-too-clearly the need to paint that she speaks of. In part because I think that, indirectly, her observation relates to the performance artist Andrea Fraser’s claim that artists are not part of the solution to our current socio-environmental crisis, as many assume, but part of the problem.

That sounds like a betrayal of both my own work and that of many people I deeply admire, at least until I think about the art world’s financial reality, its ‘big hitters’ — Jeff Koons, John Currin, Damian Hurst, Odd Nurdrum et al. What is the nature of the work such artists produce if not an expression of the culture of possessive individualism, the global economics the culture feeds and is fed by, and the deepening epistemological crisis in which current presuppositions about creativity are embedded? And that’s clear even before we link these things to an environmental situation that, in all probability, is now nearing its terrible endgame.

Two — the Great Derangement

As it happens, Andrea Fraser is simply restating in variation concerns raised by the artist-turned-anthropologist A. David Napier, the liberation psychologist Mary Watkins, the writer, poet and art critic Thomas McEvilley and, most recently, the writer and academic Amitav Ghosh. Despite a lifetime spent making and teaching art, I find myself sharing their various concerns. So I want to raise two possibilities.

Firstly that, if we have a stake in the arts, we should now very seriously consider in what ways the arts, in the culture of possessive individualism, have and are enacting just the chronic failure of imagination that Ghosh calls the ‘Great Derangement’. Not as some kind of quasi-masochistic guilt-trip in the best Protestant tradition, but as a necessary step to re-orienting our notions of creativity.

Cover to 'The Great Derangement' by Jill Shimabukuro
Cover to ‘The Great Derangement’
Artist: Jill Shimabukuro

Secondly, that we might ask ourselves whether the tendency to psychic monomania that Maddy Paxman describes as ‘driven-ness’ can be addressed by radically rethinking the nature of creative activity from a more inclusive perspective. Might it not be both more productive and more accurate to consider the attention and skills associated with arts practices, not as an end in themselves that justifies the artist as a ‘driven’ individual, but as catalysts or models for larger ensembles of heterogeneous skills, concerns and activities? Ensembles that would retain the psychic (if not necessarily the economic) benefits of a creative practice, but at some distance from the assumptions, expectations, and protocols central to the hyper-professionalised art world to which Andrea Frazer refers. Considering increasingly heterogeneous creative practices as compound ensembles might be a useful step towards reversing the situation in which art serves to perpetuate the culture of possessive individualism, and with it the Global North’s Great Derangement.

Three — ensemble practices

In the past I’ve used the term ‘mycelial’ to describe how the work of Christine Baeumler incorporates the roles and skills of citizen, neighbour, artist, university teacher, student of ecology, researcher, curator, mentor and, more recently, fortune-teller and student of shamanism. Maybe ‘ensemble practice’ is a better term, more able to consolidate the more inclusive understanding I’m reaching for. To stress an individual’s mycelial entanglement in multiple, interconnected tasks, connectivities and interdependences, all of which will, to a greater or lesser extent, involve creativity understood inclusively. If nothing else, the concept of ‘ensemble practices’ posits the parallel notion that individuals are themselves compound, multi-relational ensembles, supporting by extension a view of the artist that does not presuppose an exclusive hyper-individualism.

ensemble practices - Akin: art by Lucy Gorell Barnes
Akin: compost, strawberries, Letraset, pencil, watercolour and gesso on paper
Artist: Luci Gorell Barnes © 2019 www.lucigorellbarnes.co.uk

Four — between self and other

I think we now need to face the fact that the symbolic function of the artist in the culture of possessive individualism is to epitomise the notion of individual exceptionalism; to reinforce the presupposition that creativity is ‘owned’ by exceptional and self-contained individuals in ways that reinforce currently orthodox notions of personhood, nature and society. We are in reality, of course, constituted quite differently, in and through our connections, attachments and relationships. Consequently, I’m intrigued by the distinction Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead make in proposing a spectrum of identity positions between a ‘life-as’ at one extreme and ‘being-as-becoming’ at the other.

‘Life-as’ requires massive investment in a monolithic psychosocial identity, one that must oppose or deny all values, connections, and relationships that do not reinforce its coherence. It lacks, that is, the basic capacity for empathetic imagination that enables us to negotiate the constant movement between self and other, to properly engage in and with the multiplicity of psychic, social and environmental realities in which we find ourselves. At the other end of their spectrum is a sense of selfhood as coexistent with the psychosocial and environmental multiverse — fluid, relationally contingent, mutable, open-ended.

The psychosocial and political stakes here are simple. To face our eco-social crisis, we must now find ways to attend to, sustain, and cherish as many ways of belonging in the multiverse as possible if we are to adapt to an unprecedented need to change. This cannot be done by investing in any ‘life-as’, including ‘life-as an Artist’.

ensemble practices - I am done with apple picking now: art by Luci Gorell Barnes
I am done with apple picking now: knife marks, apple juice, watercolour, pencil and gesso on paper
Artist: Luci Gorell Barnes © 2019 www.lucigorellbarnes.co.uk

Five — placing the artist

Do we now need to differentiate ‘life-as an Artist’ from an involvement in making art that’s ultimately predicated on the understanding that the self cannot be reduced to a categorical identity? Isn’t this what’s implicit in Edward S. Casey’s distinction between a ‘position’ as a fixed postulate within a given culture and a sense of ‘place’ that, notwithstanding its nominally settled appearance, is experienced through living experimentally within a constantly shifting culture? If so, then isn’t what ‘places’ those who acknowledge the ensemble nature of practices itself predicated on negotiating multiple psychic, social and environmental connections, attachments, and relationships? On an open engagement with the productive tensions between experience and category, reality and representation, life and language?


Find out more

Iain’s notes on ensemble practices relate to a book chapter he has recently submitted for the ecology section of an anthology, The Routledge Companion to Art in the Public Realm, which should be published later this year. “These are, as the title suggests, simply notes and lack the references, etc. which will appear in the final chapter when it sees the light of day.”

When working on these notes, Iain had in mind the work of two visual artists. Simon Read — who he quotes at the beginning — is an artist who fosters projects on a collaborative basis and who has immersed himself in environmental debates where collaboration on an interdisciplinary level is vital. Luci Gorell Barnes — who has herself recently joined ClimateCultures — is a visual artist whose participatory practice and responsive processes aim to help people think imaginatively with themselves and others. Iain and Luci have worked together on various projects, including a ‘deep mapping‘ workshop that I took part in at art.earth’s Liquidscapes symposium in 2018. When I approached Luci, she generously agreed for me to use her images as an accompaniment to Iain’s text.

You can read more of Iain’s reflections on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement (2016, published by University of Chicago Press) on his blog.  In the book, Ghosh asks “Are we deranged?”, seeking to explain our imaginative failure to grasp — at the level of literature, history, and politics — the scale and violence of climate change.

Fellow ClimateCultures Member Cathy Fitzgerald uses the term ‘eco-social art’ for her own works, which she also describes as ensemble practices: “often involving art and non-art activities and many ways of knowing from art, ecophilosophy, science and traditional and local knowledge and practical experiential knowledge.”

Iain Biggs
Iain Biggs
An independent artist, teacher and researcher interested in place seen through the lens of Felix Guattari's ecosophy, working extensively on ‘deep mapping’, other projects and publications.
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