A Nature More Resilient

Responding to our Environmental Keywords post on ‘Resilience’, psychotherapist Susan Holliday uses a story from her book Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart to seek a more resilient nature, finding signs that collective stresses need not overwhelm us.


1,870 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


Ralph tells me he has come to therapy to learn how to be more resilient. His broad frame perches awkwardly, as though the softness of the chair threatens to emasculate him. Arms heavy with a calligraphy of tattoos — serpents, skulls, a bird of prey — every inch of his body communicates toughness. Only his eyes give him away. His look is haunted, as though a ghost stalks through the inner chambers of his being.

The record company Ralph works for operates in a competitive market. Its staff are rewarded for high-octane performance and long hours. Like his colleagues, Ralph works hard and plays hard. In recent months his sleep has been disturbed by night terrors, which can no longer be assuaged through drinking. He feels he has reached a breaking point. Ralph blames himself for not being tougher. This brings us to the heart of the matter, for Ralph is always trying to be tougher. The only alternative he can see to being tough is to give in to being weak.

“What might it look like to be more resilient?” I ask. Perplexed by the question, Ralph replies “I’d be able to take the heat, like everyone else.” I feel him bristle with irritation. He wants solutions from me, not daft questions. “How do you take the heat at the moment?” I persist. Looking me straight in the eye he replies, “I just keep going. I try harder.”

Taking the heat

Ralph is like a moon unable to turn away from the sun. It simply hasn’t occurred to him that there might be a natural limit to the amount of heat he can take. Competition in the marketplace keeps getting hotter. Everyone is stressed. They just have to deal with it. Resilience in this relentlessly ratcheted environment begins to fail. Under the skin, beneath the protective totems of toughness, Ralph is beginning to crack. His intimate anguish unfolds out of sight. The face he presents to the world is indestructible.

Ralph’s tattoos intrigue me. What might these sentinels be guarding, I wonder. What treasure might warrant this level of protection? We begin by exploring the qualities of his shield — tough, hard, impenetrable, deflecting, protecting. Then, looking for the concealed aspect, I suggest we reverse the tattoo qualities (like a negative in the darkroom). Together we begin to discern the inverse faces of his toughness — soft, tender, yielding, revealing, allowing. Risking everything, I ask Ralph if there might be something he secretly wishes to reveal, something he longs to allow, something he might want to feel. His face flushes. He looks away.

Ralph does not show up for his next session. Nor the one after that. I fear I have lost him. To my surprise, he returns the following week carrying a battered old shoe box covered in faded stickers. Opening the lid Ralph shows me a roughly packaged pile of cassette tapes. A secret hoard of songs, written and recorded when he was just fifteen. This is the first time he has opened the box in twenty years.

Ralph recalls the morning he woke to find his father missing from the breakfast table. A neatly written note explained that he had left them to be with a woman he had met the year before at a conference in Germany. Ralph’s mother said his father was ‘a lousy piece of shit’ and they were better off without him. He would get over it. In the months that followed she soldiered on, modelling a kind of stoic fortitude. Bewildered and bereft, Ralph found himself being the ‘man around the house’, looking out for his mother and three sisters. He had to be strong, for all their sakes.

In the concealed safety of his bedroom the tender adolescent survived — for a while. Wrapped around his guitar he wrote songs about anger and fear, about love and loss. Music stopped him dying inside. No one listened. Hollowed out with forbidden grief for his father, Ralph’s emotional world remained hidden. Shameful evidence of his ‘weakness’. Increasingly he found himself in trouble at school. He got into fights and began taking drugs. They helped block out his vulnerability, his yearning, his grief. In the years since then he has walked through life as a shadow artist, toughing it out organising gigs and record deals for musicians with half his raw talent.

Ralph asks me if I would like to hear one of his songs. He has brought an old cassette player. Slowly, tentatively, he presses the red button to ‘play’. A rough and tender voice pierces the space between us. It is shot through with the raw edge of adolescent loss. Ralph observes me intently. He sees that I’m moved. He knows then that something about his expression of vulnerability is good.

Listening to these songs together in the weeks that follow, Ralph and I begin to discern that sensitivity (not weakness) is the hidden aspect which lies on the other side of his armoured strength. In time he is able to acknowledge that he has never stopped loving his father. He misses him every day. Connected once more to the vulnerability of his heart, he is surprised to discover that love is a power. It stirs in him now with a force that feels unbreakable.

A more resilient nature

It seems that ‘toughness’ has become the exclusive aspect to which we aspire. We admire ‘nerves of steel’ and ‘rock-hard determination’. We ‘hammer out’ and ‘battle through’ our problems. We spin the promise that through therapy and mindfulness we can withstand the intolerable ratcheting up of societal stresses. This confounding of resilience with a limitless capacity to absorb pressure masks the structural problems behind so much of our suffering. It locates the cause of our distress in failures of individual resilience. Worse still perhaps, in our quest to mask our vulnerability, to override our sensitivity and ultimately to deny the inconvenient truth of human limitation, we stuff ourselves with things. Mountains of things.

This compulsive consumption is costing us the earth.

In her highly influential TED talk ‘The Power of Vulnerability’, Brené Brown challenges the way we understand our relationship to vulnerability, arguing that our sensitivity to feeling lies at the very heart of our ability to survive and to thrive: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability and authenticity. If we want greater clarity or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

Author of The Highly Sensitive Person, Elaine Aron suggests that heightened sensitivity manifests in a certain proportion of all higher species, because it is essential for the survival, expression and evolution of the whole group. As a community of beings we are in effect all aspects of one indivisible skin, which needs to be both tough enough to protect and sensitive enough to feel.

Showing bleached coral

We can see this intimate correlation between sensitivity and toughness throughout the natural world. Reef-building corals for example survive for millennia in a continual cycle of impact and renewal. The living polyps may only be a few years old, but they rely on an underlying skeleton that can live for thousands of years. These corals can adapt to withstand short periods of elevated seawater temperatures. Sensing the warming waters, they expel the microscopic marine algae that live in their tissues exposing the white exoskeleton beneath and losing their vibrant colours. This coral bleaching is a natural process combining sensitivity and strength. It enables the reef to adapt to summer months when the ocean temperatures are warmer.

In recent years sustained marine heatwaves have led to mass coral bleaching events. The Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest reef system, has already suffered five mass bleaching events since 1998. The events in 2016 and 2017 alone led to the death of 50% of the iconic reef. This unspeakable tragedy points to a condition of nature, concerning which we are increasingly in denial: Nature, including human nature, operates within limits.

Like coral reefs, we too are deformed under excessive stress. The damage begins at the more vulnerable margins, with those of us who are by nature, or through poverty, or by age or youth, more sensitive. But in the end the unbound stresses will affect us all.

Increasingly I see the people who courageously step into the therapy room as equivalents to canaries in the coalmine. Their sensitivity alerts the wider community to psychological toxins and rising temperatures in our collective environment which threaten to overwhelm the balance and limits of resilience in our human ecology as a whole. If we could begin to listen to these more tender voices, rather than medicating them into dumb silence, if we could stop urging people like Ralph to toughen up, we might recover qualities of sensitivity that makes us more resilient as a community.

Could it be that the explosion in mental health problems in people of all ages and backgrounds is not a straightforward failure of individual resilience, but a sign that collective stresses are overwhelming the inherent limits of our shared nature? Ralph’s story reminds us that the waters of our human ecology are overheating. At this point it seems we have two choices. We calcify. Through medication, consumption and addiction we numb the sentient organs of perception that feel. Or we crack, as the colour bleaches out of our lives. The people I worry most about are those who choose to calcify. They are often the ones who head up our corporate organisations and lead our nations. Shorn of their capacity to feel they become a danger to themselves and to others. Increasingly they lead us into war and to the irreparable despoiling of our planet.

A Nature More resilient: showing healthy coral

Of course, there is a third choice. We could hold the reciprocal qualities of strength and sensitivity in equal regard. We could understand that resilience depends on their intimate correlation.


Find out more

Susan Holliday’s book Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart (2021) is published by Matador. You can read fellow ClimateCultures member James Murray-White’s review for us, Seeing Nature’s Wonders in the Human Heart. Lucy Jones, author of Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild, says of the book: “A wonderful book. Reminded me of The Examined Life or Love’s Executioner, but with an added ecological perspective I’d been thirsting for.”

Susan mentions Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead (Penguin, 2015). You can view Brené’s TED talk ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ at her website.

Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person (2017) is published by Harper Collins.

Susan contributed this piece in response to an earlier post in our series on Environmental Keywords, Growing With the Word ‘Resilience’, which offers reflections on that word from participants at a recent workshop at the University of Bristol. Environmental Keywords is part of a short project led by Dr Paul Merchant of the University of Bristol’s Centre for Environmental Humanities.

Susan Holliday

Susan Holliday

A psychotherapist and writer committed to the rewilding of human nature, exploring the correlation between despoiling our natural world and the desolation of the human spirit ...
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Growing With the Word ‘Resilience’

Showing a mapping exercise for the word 'resilience' at the Environmental Keyword project eventClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reflects on some of the participants’ encounters and experiences at a workshop exploring the word ‘Resilience’, the second in the short Environmental Keywords series from the University of Bristol during February and March 2022.


2,100 words: estimated reading time = 8.5 minutes


For the second Environmental Keywords workshop, another group of researchers from different university departments, as well as writers (fiction, non-fiction and poetry) and others gathered in Bristol to explore a local area and one of the critical concepts in addressing how we respond to our biodiversity and climate predicaments. On this occasion, the event took place in the Barton Hill area of the city and — as with the earlier session in Easton — everyone shared a walk there before discussions back at the university’s local micro campus. While a couple of the participants had been to that earlier session on ‘Justice’, it was mostly a new group that came together here to discuss the word ‘Resilience’.

Again, my role — as someone who couldn’t be in Bristol for these workshops — has been to speak with participants afterwards and gather their reflections once a little time had passed, allowing the walk, discussions and role-playing session to ‘settle’ with them. So, as with my post on the ‘Justice’ session, this cannot offer an objective account of the workshop or of the word ‘Resilience’ and its meanings. Instead — as one commenter on that first post rightly described it — I offer a personal, ‘impressionistic view’ rather than attempt any definition: definitions (hopefully many of them) must come later, as part of the wider conversation. I hope this is a fair reflection of what participants have shared with me once they’ve had some distance from the workshop, and that it offers a way towards further conversations. As before, I encourage all ClimateCultures members and other visitors to our site to offer their own insights and responses, ideas and examples.

Getting going

As with the ‘Justice’ session, the local walk proved to be a popular way into the topic. One person noted examples of resilience in how the natural world responded to the human environment of hard structures and air pollution: “As we walked over a bridge — traffic-jammed, and rather a hideous piece of brutal architecture, I noticed from in between the cracks between the tarmac and the concrete a bed of low weeds was flowering madly. Really pretty little white blossoms. Despite the noise, the stink of exhaust fumes, the grim and rather chilly day. It struck me again (after all it’s that most miraculous of seasons, spring) that nature — plants anyway — just want to grow. And they will, given half, a quarter, a tenth of a chance.”

Showing a visual metaphor for the word 'resilience: photograph of weeds growing in a concrete crack
‘Give nature half an inch’
Photograph: Workshop participant © 2022

Another noted how “walking there was good and thinking about the reality of the area with the tower blocks and the park, which turns out to be an old chemical dump”, was maybe a way of “checking our assumptions, coming from a place of privilege.” And a reminder of how, as a more general point, it’s important to be “led by local people, and not enforcing solutions.”

Another person said of this integral part of the workshop design, “the walk at the beginning is amazing, it really gets people going,” while a fourth emphasised how “My strongest memory was the spaciousness the workshop gave, thanks to the walking format. It gave a real opportunity to reflect what we mean by resilience before jumping in to make our points.” And having a range of people with whom to share these local encounters was clearly important: “I met a wide array of people from artists, social scientists to an engineer.” As another of the respondents put it: “There was room for a range of conversations from philosophical to quite practical: what are we resilient for, for what are we resilient against?” And another mentioned that “Everybody was very eloquent and engaging, I was really taken by the stories they told.”

Reclaiming the word ‘resilience’

Thinking on the word ‘Resilience’ itself, one person reflected on how “I guess I’d been … using it without necessarily thinking how others interpret the word. I was surprised to hear that for one of the others … it has negative connotations.” And “for architects and builders the important thing is to make structures stronger and more stable, not more permeable and likely to ‘bend in the wind’, if you like.” And another person admitted that “I was not particularly attracted to this word. To me it had contradictory meanings, relating to being tough and strong.”

As one contributor said, “It’s made me look at it in a much more nuanced, complex way, more of a live way. It’s one of these words where we become almost blind to it. It’s almost like a buzzword. Some of these words now are becoming so co-opted by greenwash, it’s like a cliche: so, reclaiming that. For me it’s alongside ‘regeneration’, which is a great precept of the XR movement: we have to look at how do we regenerate ourselves, look after ourselves.” 

Showing a local poster on the climate crisis
‘The sign says it all’
Photograph: workshop participant © 2022

Another person expanded on this sense of the nuanced nature of ‘resilience’: “a word I’ve been considering for some weeks now, which I think is pertinent to resilience: ‘provisionality’, in the sense that everything is provisional. None of us knows what will happen tomorrow or even in the next hour, so many things being dependent on so many others … I think emotional resilience can be improved by helping people engage their imaginations more effectively while navigating the uncertain — the provisional — and holding in tension many different uncertainties, at the same time as working for the best options available (or even imagining those options into being). So projects involving science, technology, the arts, and communities are key to this. I feel this kind of active and practical imaginative work within communities will contribute to resilience in all its many meanings.” This was reiterated by the respondent who said “I think imagination is a very powerful tool. Imagining together within the community how the future should be gives us the tools to be resilient.”

Showing local graffiti in Bristol
‘What have you truly loved so far?’
Photograph: workshop participant © 2022

One comment maybe suggests another word that can be appropriate to discussions of resilience — ‘transience’. Someone had pointed out during the workshop conversation “that actually in nature there were things that were not resilient, that were actually very fragile. A delicate flower, for example … That led me first to think — and I think I said — ‘resilient’ does not mean ‘permanent’. The two terms are often conflated. And at the heart of the matter is our equation of death/decay/transiences with failure. When the delicate flower ‘dies’ this is not the failure of the flower to beat the odds, as it were. That ‘explanation’ makes no sense! The natural world being so continuous, contiguous, is something that we modern humans, wedded to the idea of our separateness, find extremely hard to comprehend. We are not permanent, we are fleeting — always changing, transitioning into new forms constantly.”

This opening up of one term through others — of the word ‘resilience’ through ‘provisionality’, ‘transience’, ‘imagination’ — perhaps speaks not just to those nuances of resilience itself but to the actual value of encounters and conversations like these walk-and-workshops: that our understanding of keywords such as these cannot be ‘monolingual’, so to speak. As another comment offered: “It made me realise how complex it is as a topic, how many different ways of looking at resilience there are. How there were people there who were working on it at a grassroots level, or looking at structural engineering as a form of resilience … [or] looking at resilience in terms of how do we access the land and grow our vegetables. Or myself looking at how do we prepare ourselves for what’s to come. And we drilled down into: is resilience necessarily a positive thing or not?” 

Grounded connection

A couple of participants looked to particular examples like this as a way of demonstrating resilience at these different scales or sites, drawing on their own backgrounds or on the role-playing session midway through the afternoon. “Our ‘team’ worked on looking at the local streets and parks by focusing on the disused, or unloved ‘edges’. The small bits of road or edges of fields or pathways, that could be loved back into everyday life. Planting fruit trees or bushes, creating wildflower areas, making things more wildlife-friendly, especially for insects: this could all be done relatively easily but only with the direct involvement of the people who lived right next to those spaces … [who] have a more intimate and grounded connection with their own environment and place within it.”

Showing a mapping exercise for the word 'resilience' at the Environmental Keyword project event
‘Our ‘Green Edge’ project takes shape’
Photograph: workshop participant © 2022

Another reflected a personal motivation to use their ethnographic experience with engineers “to share how critical infrastructure engineers understand this concept … [So] I did share a couple of engineering perspectives on resilience, how they relate to sustainability, what their limitations are.” Terms that this contributor fed back, such as ‘redundancy’ and ‘preparedness’, and ideas of ‘bouncing back (or forward)’ from extreme events or of some things being beyond our control — all play into complementary or overlapping understandings of ‘resilience’.

One person observed that “We can’t just always be resilient … I shared something that’s important to me, that it’s important that we allow ourselves to break sometimes, or to bend. I shared some of the emotions and the psychology around it, which is something I think about a lot.” This was complemented by another’s reflection that “Particularly when we’re talking about extreme weather events (but also with the ’emotional weather’) we need to find ways to counter the common assumption that you need to do more to stand strong against these things in a direct kind of way (e.g. flood defences/higher walls) and advocate more strongly for things like tree planting, soil health, etc so water can be absorbed and dissipated and held more gently.”

Showing a workbook form the event on the word 'resilience'
‘Workshop notebook’
Photograph: workshop participant © 2022

Clearly, as with ‘Justice’, these are conversations that can run on in time and shift into wider territories, and will continue to influence how we see the language as well as how the issues are illustrated all around us. As one person told me, “I will carry on thinking about it for sure. Just the act of being in a room together is so much bigger than the sum of its parts. I’m such a believer in that interdisciplinary ‘just hanging out’ together, having tea and doing activities that break down the barriers.” And another suggested that this dialogue between disciplines and experiences reminds us that “There will never be a single authoritative definition (and that’s a good thing!) but it’s certainly useful to think how/whether we can apply thinking in one area to another.”

As another put it: “I definitely like the word more now. I can see it doesn’t necessarily mean to be strong but to be adaptive. Also [it] made me reflect that maybe it’s not about adapting to climate change but to a new way of living that doesn’t cause climate change.”


Find out more

Do contribute your responses below to be part of the conversation! See the Leave a Reply box underneath the existing comments.

Environmental Keywords is a short interdisciplinary project at the University of Bristol, investigating three keywords — ‘Justice’, ‘Resilience’ and ‘Transitions’ — that are common in the environmental discourses that shape how we think of, talk about and act on the ecological and climate predicaments facing us.

With funding from the Natural Environment Research Council, the project is led by Dr Paul Merchant, Co-Director of the University’s Centre for Environmental Humanities, and involves colleagues from different departments and disciplines, as well as local community groups, ClimateCultures members and other creative practitioners.

The project focuses on three workshops in Bristol, facilitated by Anna Haydock-Wilson and complemented by online content here at ClimateCultures:

‘Justice’ — Wednesday 16th February 2022
‘Resilience’ — Wednesday 9th March 2022
‘Transitions’ – Thursday 24th March 2022

We have two previous posts in the series, both reflecting on our first keyword ‘Justice’: Walking With the Word ‘Justice’, also by Mark Goldthorpe; and Permeability: On Green Frogs, Imagination & Reparations, a response from writer Brit Griffin. And the main Environmental Keywords section on this site also now has a new page with other creative responses on that word: ‘Environmental Justice’ – Taking the Conversation Forward. You can help us build the page for our new word, ‘Resilience’: do let us have your thoughts, questions suggestions and examples via the Leave a Reply box on this post or via our Contact page. 

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
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Permeability: On Green Frogs, Imagination & Reparations

Responding to our Environmental Keywords post on ‘Justice’, writer Brit Griffin shares reflections on permeability — in the natural membranes of the living world, in our binary concepts and in our imaginations — as reaching towards the more-than-human.


1,500 words: estimated reading time = 6 minutes


A tiny smushed head/body and long, extended legs, splayed out, stuck to the bottom of the ditch. I wasn’t even sure what I was seeing — a partially eaten frog, a deformed one? And how to think about it — can I mourn this creature in the particular, as an individual, when we are so accustomed to thinking in terms of populations, relating to creatures at a species-level? And if I can realign my perspective to see this one frog, how then to mourn, and is mourning enough, are reparations owing? I have no idea, but this seeing-imagining-reparations is what I am trying to explore in my thinking and writing.

Showing Green Frog on ditch bottom.
Green Frog on ditch bottom
Photograph: Brit Griffin © 2022

I think best when I am walking, following the same path daily, sometimes twice a day. I live just outside a worn-out mining town in northern Ontario, the scars of homo extractus are everywhere1. It is surely a place of hard takings.

So, the morning walk: past the towering cement ruins of the mine mill, along patches of Baltic Rush (remarkably arsenic tolerant), down a small hill flanked by historical tailings dumps with their arsenic, cobalt, and mercury. The ditches that run between the bottom of this hill and the road rarely hold much water, but if there is enough rain it will pool in these shallow troughs, gathering just enough water to attract frogs.

On that morning, the oddly distorted frog caught my eye, warranted a closer look. There were others, small Green Frogs (Lithobates clamitans melanota) seemingly inert: were they dead? The disfigured one, yes, dead. And the one floating on the surface, belly up and coated in Oomycetea, a gelatinous water mold, he or she was also dead2.

Permeability: Showing Frog coated with water mold, photo by Brit Griffin
Frog coated with water mold.
Photograph: Brit Griffin ©2022

The permeability of the frog

But what of the ones I startled, that hopped into the water and settled on pond bottom? There they became immobile, appeared to be mud-sunk dead. Have to say it’s a pretty good party trick — they can safely rest down there because they have no air in their lungs. They do, however, still need oxygen when they are under water — so, clever creatures that they are, they breathe it in through their skin. This interests me. This permeability of the frog.

A frog’s skin is composed of a thin, membranous tissue that can bring oxygen directly into its blood vessels. The porous membrane can also act as a sponge, soaking up scarce water from pond bottom or even dew. Such a fine line, then, between the outside and the inside of the frog. What seems like a hard and defined distinction, inside/outside, is suddenly in jeopardy, even in flux, what with those gases diffusing in and spreading out. Nothing to stop them. That is the strand I want to follow.

Permeability is a brilliant adaption that is key to frog survival. But when you factor in homo extractus, well, it’s a whole other ballgame.

For their magic skin to work, it needs to stay wet. Right there, a red flag. Hotter summers, drought — climate change won’t be too kind to frogs. But it gets worse. A warming climate not only stresses creatures but seems to increase the toxicity of environmental contaminants.

In my region, agriculture and forestry now dominate the landscape. Both are promiscuous with the use of glyphosate-based herbicides that are delivered mostly through aerial spraying during the late summer. The toxicity of glyphosate is made worse by the surfactant (POEA) that is added to the mix to make the herbicide stick to, and penetrate, the plants more effectively. I guess it is not surprising that something called polyoxyethylene tallow amine does damage to frogs — it increases the permeability of their skin3, letting in more poison.

I think of frog: that wet membrane, the coolness of the shade, tucked in under a leafy overhang. Then what? The scorching of the defoliant, home laid bare, skin burning?

We have little idea as to how a frog might process the experience of being sprayed with herbicide, but we have some idea of what it does: mouth deformities, eye abnormalities, impairment of their breathing ability and predator avoidance response, decrease and damage to the tail length of tadpoles, affecting their burst swim speed. Lethal and sub-lethal impacts.

Breaking down the boundaries

You know, it is odd, but sometimes when scientists conduct their studies on the impact of herbicides on frogs, they spray them with it, observe the impacts, measure, and record. I have no useful way of thinking about this except to say that it disturbs me. And that I think even when we are trying to be better, more careful, we still don’t quite get to the right place: that it isn’t frogs, habitats, populations. It is this particular frog, it is a home, a community. But between the science and the empathy lie hard and often unyielding binaries and boundaries: human/non-human, civilization/wild, emotional/rational. Until we break these down it is unlikely that we will know frog well enough to see what justice for frogs could even look like and what form of reparations would get us there.

Perhaps we need to turn to the frog and permeability for insight. To consider permeability as a means of soaking in otherness – as an aspect of imagination, a pathway to perhaps dissolving, or at least thinning, the binary that currently rules our thinking about animal/human realities.

Showing Green Frog in ditch, photo by Brit Griffin
Frog in ditch
Photograph Brit Griffin © 2022

The writer Jean MacNeil, discussing a writer’s ability to enter into animal consciousness, describes listening to lions in the night, writing that their calls to one another “… took up a splintered space inside me like the other slashes of perception that ripped through there – sunset, sunrise, the wind, the chocolate earth, the olive green of the desert after rain.” This is the outside moving inside, the permeability of the artist’s imagination, as McNeil felt herself “…ebbing away from the world of the human…” so she could pay attention to what she could “… absorb of an animal’s state of mind, the energy they cast around them …”4

So yes, the ebbing away, the moving from actor to receptor. Opening oneself up to another’s suffering is often a natural path towards acts of solidarity. Such acts could include things like habitat restoration and preservation, committing to less lethal lifestyles (limiting both waste and extraction, developing creature-friendly practices) and achieving a radical redistribution of the world’s wealth.

But what happens as the ‘ebbing away’ continues, if the boundaries keep weakening, thinning? When we move from managing for to living with, when Green Frog goes from a vulnerable amphibian to simply my neighbour? What will that relationship look like?

That is as much a question for art as for science, this shift to a relational way of being. This way of being is a dream, a vision that needs to be created from old wisdom and new insights. Quiet and still on the bottom of our imaginariums, seemingly inert, we can consider the weight of damage done, let the burden of it all crack open those silos of thinking, and then we too become permeable, able to absorb and be absorbed by the thrum and the tangle, within and without. Then perhaps we could be living the dream with our fellow traveller, Green Frog.


Find out more 

Brit offered the following notes with her post:

  1. My home sits on the traditional territory of the Timiskaming First Nation. An Algonquin community, the Saugeen Anishabeg have never signed a treaty with the Crown – their traditional territory remains unceded. The need for reparations and a just resolution to this hard taking (and for all Indigenous communities dispossessed of the land) is inseparable from the creation of a liveable, alternative future for any and all of us.
  2. A local mining company doing remediation work in the area came by and took the frog corpses and some water samples for testing. Cause of death? Unknown, probably roadwork; also, the gelatinous coating on the frog was a water mold.
  3. Norman Wagner et al. Questions concerning the potential impact of glyphosate-based herbicides on amphibians, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry Vol. 32, No. 8 (2013): 1688–1700, 
  4. Jean McNeil, Them and Us: animal consciousness in fiction, jeanmcneil’s blog, 2021

Brit offered her piece in response to the first in our series of Environmental Keywords posts, Walking With the Word ‘Justice’, which offers reflections on that keyword from participants at a recent workshop at the University of Bristol. A short extract of Brit’s piece has also been included in a new page in our Environmental Keywords section, along with further creative explorations of ‘environmental justice’. Environmental Keywords is part of a short project led by Dr Paul Merchant of the University of Bristol’s Centre for Environmental Humanities.

Brit Griffin
Brit Griffin
Author of three near-future cli-fi novels and a writer of poetic/story musings, whose interests lay in reconciling with non-humans and exploring the human/creature boundaries.
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The Art of Reimagining Managed Retreat

Artist Yky shares ideas and artworks he presented to an international conference addressing scientific, social, and governance issues around ‘managed retreat’ — and how artists need to engage with pedagogy to contextualize and reimagine responses to climate change.


2,440 words: estimated reading time = 10 minutes


In June 2021, Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York City organised a four-day conference addressing scientific, social, and governance issues around the theme of ‘managed retreat’. This conference covered a broad spectrum of topics, but all of them were meant to discuss resilience, relocation, and climate justice when facing the consequences of flooding. I was invited to discuss how art could address the challenges of climate-caused relocation.

At what point managed retreat? Columbia Climate School conference 2021

It was no surprise to me that, amongst key issues, it was recognised that most practitioners facing climate change and resilience challenges had no adequate professional preparation in terms of communication. Scientists are often blamed for not being able to see the value of unconventional narratives. But artists also have their share of responsibility. During this conference, it appeared that the meaning we give to the words ‘managed retreat’ and how to bring pedagogy into the process were two essential issues. To give more insights on the way art should address the question of communication improvement, I presented five of my works that question how vulnerabilities may turn natural hazards in disasters.

‘Managed retreat’ — advancing in a different direction?

Art provides powerful narratives, enabling us to bridge the gap between scientists and non-expert citizens. It gives a better understanding of the world. Its vision of reality enriches the collective debate, enabling a significant change by shifting the perspective to more open-minded views. It gives the opportunity to understand reality differently, either using our sense of understanding or our sense of emotions, or both. Facing disasters, be it due to climate change or others hazards, artists will use their skills to convey the message they find appropriate. Most often, the vulnerabilities that shape such disasters translate into a scope of artistic representations which are direct, realistic, emotional, strong, and visually meaningful.

But, seen from the artistic point of view, translating into a piece of art the meaning of ‘managed retreat’, though terribly actual, is much more challenging. During my presentation, one of the questions sent through the Q & A session asked “is the word ‘retreat’ appropriate to discuss the topics of the conference?” I think this was one of the most interesting questions, as indeed, the word ‘retreat’ can have a negative perception. It is linked to this idea that you have been defeated and that there is no other alternative than withdrawing and leaving the field to the ‘enemy’. Flooding-caused displacement cannot ignore our attachments to a community or a place. It needs to address social and environmental justice issues as integral parts of the retreat management. But at the same time, it is ambiguous. What do fairness or justice mean when dealing with the unavoidable tradeoffs linked to forced evictions, when prioritising access to retreat resources, when ignoring the fact that indigenous communities have tribal rights that are too often ignored by our post-colonialist behaviours?

But what about understanding retreat as ‘advancing in a different direction’? Could we think of retreat as being a way to reimagine, reinvent, redefine processes to give the environment its full place, promoting visions radically different from massive human movements? Undoubtedly, the creativity and imagination required to propose new scenarios, even ones seen as utopian, are the privilege of artists. But how can we describe the complexity of urban space from the artistic perspective? How could artists translate into their works the unpredictability of our future as described by Carl Folke of the Stockholm Resilience Centre?

There is a need for all artists to better understand some concepts. ‘Resilience’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘risk management’ are not interchangeable words. When sustainability calls for more efficiency, resilience is more focused on redundancy. Both need to be linked, and the conditions providing a synergistic effect between the two concepts are key when looking for the path to reimagine ‘managed retreat’. Artists don’t need to be experts, but they need to know how to address through their skills the issues related to climate disasters. Empathy is not enough; there is a need to better engage with scientists, to better contextualize the concepts so that such concepts, through an artistic expression, help non-expert citizens to understand how and why retreating from flooding-prone areas and moving to safer ground can also meet their needs.

Bringing pedagogy into the process

The scientific community may understand complex concepts but without appropriate storytelling it will fail to engage people, for a simple reason: facts are not enough. We also need the right narrative and, in this respect, art can help.

There are many examples of associations, like Art of Change in France, Artseverywhere in Canada, or Julie’s Bicycle in the UK, with talented artists who are committed towards climate change. And some of them bring artists and experts together to imagine and propose answers and ideas for adaptation and transformation. But few are engaged together in a pedagogical process. However, artists need to recognise their social responsibility and be involved in an artistic approach consistent with the objectives we are trying to reach. Some of them may find it difficult to leave their comfort zone: going beyond a natural sensitivity finding its expression in a painting, in a sculpture or in a poem is not easy, and sometimes not feasible. But artists can also engage in improving our well-being and well-living, using their skills to increase our collective awareness, through a designed pedagogical approach together with scientists in a co-working exercise.

Ultimately, the threats and challenges we all face are so high that being committed towards non-expert citizens becomes a duty. A pedagogical approach is not needed simply to make non-expert citizens aware of the challenges they face; but it is definitely a requirement if artists want to play a role in explaining the systemic nature of socio-ecological threats shaping our vulnerabilities.

Pedagogy cannot be decreed; it needs to be learned. And in the specific case of hazards and related disasters, teaching is cognitively challenging. When both experts and artists decide to join their skills, Paulo Freire can be very helpful. Freire was a Brazilian educator and sociologist who dedicated most of his work to vulnerable communities. His work — most of it can be found online — was about how knowledge should be transferred from teacher to learner, and the core was based on the idea that unequal social relations build the path to a “culture of silence” which is created to oppress. To this extent, it leads to questioning the systemic nature of inequalities in our society, shaping the vulnerabilities that lead to disasters. ‘Teachers’ following Freire’s principles, will need to develop the critical consciousness of ‘learners’, aiming to build a “cultural action for freedom”.

Managed retreat: the art of critical thinking

Redefining ‘managed retreat’ in such a way that the focus moves from disruption in human occupancy to promoting new visions incorporating issues of gender, race and equity questions the nature of artistic approaches. How can they be consistent with the duty to (re)educate communities about conceptual processes which themselves had their share of responsibility in creating inequalities? In line with Freire’s approach to giving more importance to questions than to answers, artworks should prioritise such issues. By doing so, art will engage in this ‘critical thinking’, seen as the cornerstone that enables us to reconsider what has been taken for granted when this is needed.

In the five works I showed during the conference, and seen below, the property of argentic paper to darken when exposed to light should be seen as an allegory of ephemerality, questioning the value of what lasts in time. Each is a diptych of two photographs illustrating a given urban space impacted by a natural hazard. While the first one is stable in time, the second image darkens — with some parts disappearing as the argentic emulsion turns black. It is the comparison between the two photographs that will lead the viewer to question the resilience level of the urban space. Being ephemeral, this work can be seen as having no value, unless its value lies in the questions it raises.

“Only the ephemeral is of lasting value.”
Eugène Ionesco (playwright, 1909-1994)

Shakes 

‘Shakes’ questions how resilience can be implemented in the case of widespread destruction by earthquakes, which are devastating at different levels. They impact the cities, the organisations and the persons. But they also talk about an irrational fear, which is the destruction of our matrix. In this diptych, the second picture darkens in time in such a way that only the broken glass path remains, referring to our fears and vulnerability, while two attributes of our cultural heritage — a Le Corbusier building and the Golden Gate Bridge — are endangered even when not destroyed

Yrban resilience: Showing Shakes, a diptych by artist Yky
Shakes, a diptych: D0 and D+
Artist: Yky © 2018

The Japanese paradox

The Japanese paradox’ is all about the difference between risk management and urban resilience. It is well-known that the Japanese culture of risk management is almost second nature. But do we really speak of urban resilience, the way we understand it, when philosophical and/or religious principles refrain from addressing the norms that sometimes need to be reconsidered? In that work, darkness in time is detrimental to the city and its inhabitants, confronting the great wave of Hokusaï, symbolising the almighty nature that no one can stop.

Managed retreat: showing 'A Japanese paradox at D0 and D+', a diptych by artist Yky
‘A Japanese paradox at D0 and D+’, a diptych
Artist: Yky © 2018

La Seine

La Seine’ was taken during the substantial flood in Paris three years ago. And this work is about the adaptation of historical cities’ urban environment. How far are we ready to go in losing our cultural heritage, and what does this mean in terms of resilience?

Managed retreat: Showing 'La Seine, a diptych at D0 and D+' by Yky
‘La Seine, a diptych at D0 and D+’
Artist Yky © 2018

NB: ‘Shakes’, ‘The Japanese paradox’, and ‘La Seine’ were showcased just before the pandemic during the Art of Resilience exhibition organised by the World Bank in Washington DC.

Do cities learn from getting burned?

This work was inspired by the Australian tragedy that we all remember but is also related to the ongoing and never-stopping fires in California. And it speaks of the moment where cities will be impacted, and not only the wild-urban interface. It also questions our inability or difficulty to learn from aboriginal traditions in terms of fire risk management.

Do cities learn from getting burned, a diptych at D0 and D+' by artist Yky
‘Do cities learn from getting burned, a diptych at D0 and D+’
Artist: Yky © 2019

Is NYC retreat inevitable?

This work refers to the different issues discussed during the conference. It was inspired by an article published last year in the online journal NewCities in which the CEO of the Star City group explained why he decided to leave the Hudson River area where he was living and why he did not believe any longer in urban resilience. This work concluded my presentation, not only because it refers directly to the conference topic, but also because not being able to explain to non-expert citizens the meaning of urban resilience should be seen as a collective failure.

'Managed retreat: Showing 'Is NYC retreat inevitable? a diptych at D0 and D+' by artist Yky
‘Is NYC retreat inevitable? a diptych at D0 and D+’
Artist: Yky © 2020

Find out more

You can explore the programme for the At What Point Managed Retreat? conference and watch videos of all the sessions. Yky explores many aspects of urban resilience in a changing climate in his Resi-city blog about his work picturing urban resilience seen from the citizen point of view: for example, Exploring spirituality in the urban frame. Some of the artworks featured in this post — including Shakes — were exhibited at Art of Resilience, organised by the World Bank in Washington, DC. In Urban Resilience? Art, the Missing Link, his earlier post for ClimateCultures, Yky offers further thoughts on art as a pedagogic tool and imagines a conversation between citizens, a scientist and the artist himself as they consider Shakes.

You can read about the language we associate with coastal change and particular responses such as managed retreat in You can’t resist the sea: Evolving attitudes and responses to coastal erosion at Slapton, South Devon, a 2009 paper by geographer Stephen Trudgill.

Yky mentions the work of Carl Folke and the Stockholm Resilience Centre. You can download and read Resilience: Now more than ever, an article co-authored by Folke for Ambio: A journal of the Human Environment in 2002 and shared as part of the journal’s 50 years celebration in 2021: “As proffered in the Ambio article, resilience is about learning from and developing with change, rather than managing against change. Resilience is about having the capacities to live with complexity, uncertainty, and change, abrupt or incremental, and continue to develop with ever changing environments. This includes both adaptation and transformation.”

Among the organisations bringing together artists’ responses to environmental and climate change, Yky mentions: Art of Change in France, which was created in Paris in 2014 ahead of COP21 and “highlights the role of artists and creativity as accelerators of the ecological transition and acts on an international scale”; Artseverywhere in Canada, “a platform for artistic experimentation and exploration of the fault lines of modern society”; and Julie’s Bicycle in the UK, “mobilising the arts and culture to take action on the climate and ecological crisis.”

The work of Brazilian educator and sociologist Paulo Freire is celebrated by the Freire Institute, an organisation for transformative community-based learning, and many other organisations around the world (which you can find listed at the Freire Institute). “Freire developed an approach to education that links the identification of issues to positive action for change and development. While Freire’s original work was in adult literacy, his approach leads us to think about how we can ‘read’ the society around us. For Freire, the educational process is never neutral. People can be passive recipients of knowledge — whatever the content — or they can engage in a ‘problem-posing’ approach in which they become active participants. As part of this approach, it is essential that people link knowledge to action so that they actively work to change their societies at a local level and beyond.” Freire wrote The Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1968, translated into English in 1970.

Yky mentions Anthony Townsend, the CEO of the Star City group, who decided to leave the Hudson River area over climate resilience concerns when the river flooded Hoboken, New Jersey: Our Inevitable Retreat is the article Townsend wrote for NewCities. “The plan I came up with was simple — move inland and uphill. To my disbelief, the housing market hadn’t skipped a beat. Once I finally pulled the trigger, my condo sold in less than a week, at a profit.” 

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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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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