Dystopian Farming: An Inquiry

For animist farmer and author Paul Feather, 2024 brings a creative inquiry into ‘dystopian farming’ as resistance as well as sustenance, and a search for joy and meaning that makes our dire times tolerable: the potential for liberation.


1,100 words: estimated reading time = 4 minutes


I have been farming for twenty years, and I’ve had some success in growing food. Enough success that people ask me lots of questions about it, and that I have several hundred pounds of sweet potatoes, yacón, pumpkins, and potatoes stacked in crates in the cellar alongside shelves full of canned tomatoes, pears, and pickled everything. Enough that I don’t feel overworked in producing all of this. I have been farming for twenty years, yet I still don’t feel like I know how to do it — even less do I know how to talk about it or how to answer your questions about farming.

Farming dystopia. Showing Full Life Farm in the lower piedmont of the Appalachian mountains.
Farming dystopia: Full Life Farm in the lower piedmont of the Appalachian mountains. Photograph: Terra Currie © 2023

Whether I have answers or not, people continue to ask how my farm works. So, in pursuit of these answers that I don’t yet have, in 2024 I will make an inquiry into what I do. I shall call it ‘Farming Dystopia’, because I feel that dystopia best describes our cultural and ecological context. I resonate with the words of Potawatomi scholar Kyle Powys Whyte who points out that “some indigenous peoples already inhabit what [their] ancestors would have likely characterized as a dystopian future” in which settler colonialism has so drastically altered people’s environment that it is harder to obtain the traditional foods and materials that they have relied on for millennia. He emphasizes that in spite of this unfortunate reality, “we do not give up by dwelling in a nostalgic past even though we live in our ancestors’ dystopia.”1

This dystopia does not only affect Indigenous people (even if it does affect them most severely). We all live in a world of façade and confusion, where every practice, including farming, requires some not-quite-tolerable measure of exploitation half perceived, but partly veiled by the cognitive dissonance that makes it possible to get through the day. The present dystopia is a soul-numbing experience for anyone, at best; and a terrifying and dangerous one for far too many.

Farming for liberation

If I would honestly describe my farming methodology, acknowledgment of our dystopian context would have to be the jumping-off point. I am farming within a dystopian context. I am inside The Matrix. It is Nineteen Eighty-Four, and this is a Brave New World. Dystopian farming is a means of sustenance and also resistance. It is a frank admission of our dire context, but also — maybe even primarily — a search for the joy and meaning that makes that context tolerable.

This inquiry originates as an attempt to answer questions about my farming methods, and so its initial structure will be blog-like: if I can’t ‘explain’ my methods, perhaps I can narrate them every week or so. However, I would also like to de-center my own methods, because farming is extremely context-dependent. I have no real way to know whether my particular methods will be helpful for people with different access to land, different body types, different social and family structures, different climates … different everything. In the dystopian context, the value of a method is in its potential for liberation, and I don’t know how much my methods can liberate others, especially people with less privilege than I have enjoyed. I would like to be able to answer that question.

If my inquiry is to be successful, it will also have to include other voices, other platforms, and other knowledge. Perhaps it will evolve away from a personal blog to become more like a book, a zine, or a journal article. If there is dialogue, we could even borrow the format of a podcast.

For now, I will inquire and write. My initial reflections have been about the curious mix of liberation and obligation that goats bring into my life. As I make small daily movements in preparation for spring seeding, I will snap pictures and share thoughts about how to coax another round from the dirt. What do I owe the dirt for this?

Dystopian farming in dialogue

As I hope to include others in this inquiry, I think it is helpful to situate dystopian farming in a broad dialogue about global agriculture. Without making prescriptions about what people should or shouldn’t be doing in contexts that I haven’t experienced, I hope I can narrow the scope of the inquiry in a way that invites the participation I am looking for.

I think that dystopian farming should be agroecological and radically holistic. Agroecology is a broad framework that includes dimensions of science, social movement, and practice.2 It is true that like many frameworks, the concept of agroecology is partially coopted by institutions3, so for this inquiry we retain the multidimensionality of agroecology and emphasize its roots in peasant social movements such as La Via Campesina.4 We also use it as a framework that addresses multiple scales: from the ecology of a single farm plot all the way to the global food system as a whole.

This inquiry will naturally interact with dialogue about permaculture — which along with ‘regenerative farming’ seems to have captured much of the imagination of the ecological farming movement — but we should critique these frameworks for their extraction of Indigenous farming practices while failing to integrate Indigenous critiques of modernity. Permaculture and regenerative agriculture have also failed to credit Indigenous people for their intellectual foundation or adequately address the legacies of settler colonialism. This is not something I will critique on the basis of morals or ideology, but because the approach I describe as dystopian farming is radically holistic and acknowledges that failure to integrate these critiques makes our farming practice more damaging to the land, weakens our social movements, and undermines our scientific foundation.

Showing Full Life Farm logo
Full Life Farm. Design: Terra Currie

Finally, dystopian farming is pragmatic. There is room for abstract discussion — and possibly even fiction — but in the end we must have sweet potatoes and a cellar to put them in. Obviously my initial inquiry is personal and fundamentally anecdote, and perhaps that is all it will ever be. But this is also an invitation — or maybe it’s a manifesto to co-create something far more interesting than anecdote or my personal critique of a farming ethos that fails to address the deeper crises of our modern dystopia.


References

[1] Whyte, Kyle Powys, “Our Ancestors’ Dystopia Now: Indigenous Conservation and the Anthropocene”, in The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities (2021, Routledge).

[2] Steve Gliessman (2018) Defining Agroecology, Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 42:6, 599-600.

[3] Omar Felipe Giraldo & Peter M. Rosset (2017) Agroecology as a territory in dispute: between institutionality and social movements, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 45:3, 545-564.

[4] Val, V., Rosset, P. M., Zamora Lomelí, C., Giraldo, O. F., & Rocheleau, D. (2019). Agroecology and La Via Campesina I. The symbolic and material construction of agroecology through the dispositive of “peasant-to-peasant” processes. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 43(7-8), 872-894; Rosset, P., Val, V., Barbosa, L. P., & McCune, N. (2019). Agroecology and La Via Campesina II. Peasant agroecology schools and the formation of a sociohistorical and political subject. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 43(7-8), 895-914.

Find out more

You can find Paul’s Farming Dystopia blog at his website with Terra Currie, where they discuss Full Life Farm — the ecological experiment they established in 2007 on five acres in the lower piedmont of the Appalachian mountains – as well as present their art and writing and health and education work.

Paul Feather

Paul Feather

An animist farmer and author whose artistic interests include the courtship of landscapes for food and seed and translating animist thought into the language of physics.

Power, Love, Religion & Climate Fiction: Life Imitating Art

Writer Rod Raglin discusses his novel The Triumvirate and how a story about power, love and religion finds echoes in our unfolding climate crisis and how we try to come to grips with a hostile and uncertain future.


1,160 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes


I wonder if other writers of climate fiction get the feeling of life imitating art as they watch events unfold this summer.

All my novels have a subplot that addresses one or more environmental issues, however, The Triumvirate – Love for Power, Love of Power, the Power of Love is the only one that could be labeled climate dystopia, “the global collapse of human civilization as either a direct or indirect result of anthropogenic climate change.”

One of the reasons for writing The Triumvirate was to try to imagine the future impact of climate change on where I live, British Columbia, Canada. I looked at how we were responding to the stresses that were developing in our everyday life, the society we lived in and influences beyond our borders. Then I tried to imagine, not dramatically, but realistically how they would manifest in the years to come. I took into account local, national and global attempts to mitigate effects.

Power Love Religion - showing the cover art for The Triumvirate by Rod Raglin

The Triumvirate was completed in 2019 and one of the issues addressed included the likelihood of pandemics. A year later COVID hit and the world was in lockdown. Others were drought, human migration and the breakdown of social order including insurrection and secession.

These last two weeks, the news is validating many of my premises. For example:

— In B.C., Drought Level 5 is the highest level. It means adverse impacts on both communities and ecosystems are almost certain. As of August 3rd, most of B.C.’s water basins are at Drought Level 4 or 5. Officials blamed the conditions on unusually low amounts of rainfall recorded over the last year.

— 366 wildfires currently ravaging B.C. have 30,000 people on evacuation order and 36,000 more under evacuation alert.

— As of August 21st, 5,849 fires had burned 15 million hectares (over 37 million acres), about four percent of the entire forest area of Canada and more than six times the long-term average of 2.46 million hectares (6.1 million acres) for that time of the year.

— “Sell them for nothing or watch them starve”. As B.C.’s drought worsens, farmers are scrambling to protect their livestock and crops. The impacts could be felt for years to come. 

— July 3rd-6th, 2023, were the warmest days on record, crossing 17°C for the daily global mean surface are temperature. The global mean temperature statistic masks the extreme events taking place worldwide.

Daily global mean surface air temperatures – see note for link

Those stories are climate specific, but other more disturbing stories are emerging, and though not directly attributed to climate change are the result of it. Consider:

— A new survey finds more Canadians would vote for a political leader who promised to cut immigration levels than would be repelled by this. This is partly a response to the pressure on healthcare and housing.

— In an op-ed piece, Jason Opal, Professor of History at McGill University, suggests that “America is on the brink of another civil war, this one is fueled by Donald Trump”.

Power, love and religion

In The Triumvirate, the three main characters begin as childhood friends, each with strong principles and character.

Shyloh watched the dynamic develop. Judith and Aiya were opposites. Judith was strength; Aiya feelings. Judith was about action; Aiya considered consequences. Judith looked to the end; Aiya the means. This natural adversity seemed to challenge them, bring out their best.

When the dissension, disagreement, and at times hostility threatened to destroy this triumvirate, a word Shyloh borrowed from history class which meant a group of three powerful people, it was up to him to take the heat and energy generated from the polarity and craft a consensus, identify a goal and, most importantly, create a process for getting there. 

They emerge as adults with their personalities leading them to pursue their principles. Shyloh becomes a politician, Aiya an inter-faith leader and Judith a commander in the military.

When economic and social pressures spawned by climate change make the Canadian federation untenable, Shyloh leads a political movement for secession and wins when Aiya encourages her followers, primarily new immigrants, to support it. But when the government reneges on a promise of citizenship for illegals now in the country — a promise that was key in getting the ethnic vote — violence flares. 

As the government equivocates, Judith, now head of the security forces, doesn’t, and declares martial law.

Making a better world — but which one?

Now cast in key leadership roles, could they come to a consensus as they so often had in the past, one that would restore order and democracy, or would circumstances harden their positions, leaving no room for compromise — as so often is the case today?

They sat at the table, Aiya across from Shyloh and Judith.

“Your gesture in the Legislature was appreciated,” Aiya said.

Shyloh nodded.

“It was reckless,” Judith said. “It was an implicit approval to break the law.”

“If laws are broken it won’t be because of Shyloh’s act of solidarity with the new immigrant population,” Aiya said. “It will be because of the betrayal of the government.”

“Will laws be broken, Aiya?” Shyloh said.

“Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the state has become lawless or corrupt,” Aiya quoted.

“In a democracy, there is only one rule of law, Aiya,”, Judith said. She leaned forward and fixed the other woman with a hard stare. “And it applies to everyone.”

Aiya didn’t flinch. She folded her hands on the table and stared back. Black coals met grey steel.

“A citizen who barters with such a state, shares in its corruption and lawlessness,” Aiya said.

Judith stood. “The army is sworn to support the democratically elected government of Cascadia. We will uphold the rule of law.”

“Shyloh?” Aiya said.

Both women looked at him. In the past, he’d been able to broker a compromise, or better still a third way, which was ultimately stronger. He’d never taken sides before. He wasn’t about to now. Sometimes the best response was no response.

The question posed to the three characters in the novel is already being debated at a societal level, among families, even between partners. If there can only be one better world, whose will be best?

The Triumvirate is a story about love and loyalty, politics and power, race and religion, and sacrifice and survival. More than that, it’s a story I’m seeing unfold before my eyes as I watch us try to come to grips with a hostile and uncertain future.


Find out more

Rod Raglin’s novel The Triumvirate – Love for Power, Love of Power, the Power of Love is available from Amazon in Kindle and in paperback. And you can read his previous for ClimateCultures, A Drop in the Pond.

The graphic for daily global surface air temperature is from the story from Axios on 7th July 2023 Earth saw hottest day yet Thursday…

Rod Raglin

Rod Raglin

A journalist, publisher of an online community newspaper, photographer and writer of novels, plays and short stories that address the human condition and serious environmental issues ...

A Drop in the Pond

Writer and online community newspaper publisher, Rod Raglin shares the story of a local Vancouver, Canada, park pond reduced to a seasonal wetland — and a neigbourhood’s dispute with administrators on how to respond amid severe climate change.


940 words: estimated reading time = 4 minutes


The pond at South Memorial Park is not so spectacular. It’s situated in the northwest corner of a thirteen-and-a-half-hectare suburban park in the Sunset neighbourhood of Vancouver, Canada. A few picnic tables are situated beneath the shade of some willows at one end of the pond and are popular during the summer months.

The vast majority of the park is given over to tennis courts, baseball diamonds, a soccer pitch and a running track complete with outdoor exercise equipment.

Park pond - showing the local pond in Vancouver, Canada, as it was
The pond as it was. Photograph: Rod Raglin ©2023

Intervening in the park pond

In the past, the water level of the pond would fluctuate somewhat with the seasons, but never to the extent that it threatened the resident Mallards. What did begin to impinge on their living space were the reeds (phragmites) and yellow flag irises (Iris pseudacorus). These invasive species choked most of the shoreline and extended further and further into the open waterways, limiting flight and paddling paths.

The Vancouver Park Board decided to take action and initiated a costly renovation of the pond that included backhoes removing the infestations of reeds and yellow flags. A new boardwalk was constructed along a stretch of the shoreline and the pond was transformed from a brooding marsh to a sparkling gem.

But something went wrong and the pond levels began to recede – dramatically. Residents claimed Park Board workers damaged the pond’s natural clay membrane with the heavy equipment, causing it to leak. The Park Board denied it but, being an election year, conceded to the demands of the vocal and vociferous pond advocates.

The water levels were topped up with trucked in water for the balance of the summer until the fall rains did it naturally.

The next year the same thing began to happen, and once again the same people demanded that the pond be topped up until the Park Board fixed what they’d broken.

But by this time Vancouver City Council had passed the Water Works By-law (Prohibition Against Wasting Water) and the Drinking Water Conservation By-law (General Prohibition Against Wasting Water) which prohibited the use of potable water in park water features until such time as they could be retrofitted to be recirculating.

Significant ripples

British Columbia is feeling the brunt of climate change. For a number of years now, hot dry summers have sparked forest fires in the interior of the province that raged unabated. Outflow winds blow toxic wildfire smoke onto the coast and it’s not unusual for Vancouver’s air quality during the summer to be the worst on the planet.   

In 2021, a heat dome parked over the province and sent temperatures soaring into the mid 40s Celsius for six days, resulting in 619 related deaths. The temperature in the village of Lytton in the Fraser Canyon hit 49/6° C, the highest ever recorded in Canada. The following day a wildfire burned the entire town to the ground.

Every year, the snowpack in the mountains is less, summer starts earlier and lasts longer, with the average temperature inching up. Where once watering restrictions were imposed occasionally, now they’re implemented annually without exception.

It turns out, to top up the pond for one year took 11 million litres of drinking water.

No, the Park Board said, the pond would not be topped up and would become a seasonal wetland.

Park pond - showing the local pond in Vancouver, Canada, as it is now - "a seasonal wetland".
The pond as it is today – “a seasonal wetland”. Photograph: Rod Raglin ©2023

The response immediately devolved into the type of rancorous debate characterized by adversarial rhetoric and personal attacks. Proponents for the pond cited the fact that a number of park water features had been exempted from the bylaws and were still operating. All were on the west side of the city, home to the affluent neighbourhoods. Politicians were accused of favouring one side of the city over the other, the side where they and their supporters live. It was even suggested that the decision to not top up the pond was racist, Sunset being one of the most racialized neighbourhoods in Vancouver.

The opposition was mute. If you were against the pond and for water conservation it was implied you were racist, elitist, privileged. Open-minded thinking shut down, trust was undermined, and misinformation thrived.

In the end, City Council passed a motion acknowledging the concerns of the pond proponents and requested an “update on the Park Board’s assessment of and plans for the restoration of the pond.”

A glimpse of the future

At the moment, the pond is almost dry, the ducks have abandoned it, and no one is picnicking around a smelly mud hole. On the other hand, the reservoir is ahead 11 million litres of drinking water.

Whether the pond is full or empty doesn’t put anyone’s life at risk, nor anyone’s livelihood for that matter. Livestock don’t die, crops don’t wither. Climate conflict is happening throughout the world and in many areas it’s not about a meditative moment or a family picnic

Vancouverites got a glimpse of the future. They saw how a small issue exacerbated by a far greater one can divide a neighbourhood, even a city. The advocates let emotion trump reason, and our leaders chose expedience over prudence.


Find out more

You can read more about the dispute over the South Memorial Park pond in The Revue, the Southeast Vancouver neighbourhood newspaper that Rod publishes and edits. For example: Information swirling around pond just gets murkier (8th July 2023).

Rod Raglin

Rod Raglin

A journalist, publisher of an online community newspaper, photographer and writer of novels, plays and short stories that address the human condition and serious environmental issues ...

Regional Futures: Giving Voice to Human and More-Than-Human

Artist Kim V. Goldsmith shares her work with Regional Futures in NSW, Australia, exploring people’s feelings for rural territories. We need to listen better to each other, ourselves, and more-than-human worlds for more collaborative approaches to the future.


2,600 words: estimated reading time = approximately 10 minutes + option audio pieces


Few of us in the ClimateCultures network would dispute that rural and regional territories across the world are on the frontline of climate change. In the past six years, south-eastern Australia has experienced severe drought (2017- 2019), described by our national weather bureau as “a situation with no clear historical precedent” [1], followed by the unprecedented bushfires of 2019/20 that burnt 5.5 million hectares or seven percent of New South Wales (NSW) [2], and just last year, record rainfall events resulted in floods across south-east Queensland and NSW considered to be in our top three historical natural disasters. These are not records to take pride in.

Listening to regional futures in New South Wales

In early 2022, when I was given the opportunity to delve into how people in the regions of NSW feel about the future, it was knowing I’d be working in the heartland of politically conservative Australia [3], where farming and other primary industries are heavily reliant on fossil fuels. I have lived and worked in this part of Australia for most of my life. Despite the devastating impact of drought, fire and floods on these communities, the majority in rural Australia will unfailingly continue to vote for conservative parties. As happened in May 2022, when the Labor Party returned to power in Canberra but little changed in regional electorates. This pattern of voting behaviour continued to result in a similar outcome in the 2023 NSW State election — where the political battlefront was Western Sydney not Western NSW. The only real change has been more conservative Independent candidates in the race against the parties they were once part of.

In her book, How to Talk About Climate Change in a Way That Makes a Difference, Dr Rebecca Huntley writes: “There is clearly a disconnect between what people say they are worried about and want action on and who, when given the chance, they pick to lead their country.” Huntley references Per Espen Stoknes’ book, What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, where he writes: “For those of us who find ourselves stuck in the moral conundrum of the climate doom story, passive denial offers an easy way out.” One might argue that voting actions are perhaps more active denial, as we’ve seen in regional electorates.

However, Huntley also talks about the constant repetition of climate change facts and figures as a familiar script that can leave us cold or, even worse, bored, creating a collective stupor. What the science tends not to recognise is our messy social realities — the rising cost of living, housing shortages, poor health services, personal safety, and mental health issues. The day-to-day chore of living tends to take priority over environmental concerns.

Showing artist Kim V. Goldsmith listening to a solar inverter with an electromagnetic microphone.
Artist, Kim V. Goldsmith listening to a solar inverter with an electromagnetic microphone.

As an artist, my interest over the past decade has largely been creative interpretations of acoustic and social ecologies — the intersection of human and more-than-human species in often fragile and vulnerable rural and regional territories. When the opportunity to be part of a project called Regional Futures came up through the NSW Regional Arts Network — funded by the State Government — I was keen to develop a series of works that would give a voice to the voiceless in our regional environments, and provide a platform for under-represented individuals in the regions to share their fears, anxieties, hopes and dreams of the future — things we are not often asked about. My project is called Vaticinor (The Augur), a reference to predicting the future by observing natural signs.

Over several months, I spoke with 18 residents of the Central West and the Mid North Coast regions of NSW, in an inland/coastal conversation about how the transition to renewable energy sources might shape net-zero regional futures.

 

Aged 15 to 70, the storytellers in this montage all believe Regional NSW is a wonderful place to live but their stories and concerns are genuine and their messages urgent.

My home region of the Central West was the first Renewable Energy Zone (REZ) to be declared in Australia because of its potential (and proximity) to contribute energy to the national electricity market through large-scale solar and wind developments. It’s being billed as a power station of the future. The NSW Government is overseeing the development of the zone, including transmission projects, and expects up to A$5 billion in private investment to the region by 2030. The intended network capacity of this zone is three gigawatts, enough to power 1.4 million homes [4].

What this looks like on the ground is kilometre after kilometre of rolling hills or cleared flat, red soil country covered in black solar panels — shiny sun-seeking faces dominating the landscape; and giant, white wind turbines, blades gracefully arcing against blue skies, spread across thousands of hectares of farmland. Some of these developments sit on farming land while other parcels of land are dedicated to the cause.

Regional Futures: Showing wind turbines near Wellington NSW, part of the Bodangora Wind Farm. Photograph: Kim V. Goldsmith
Wind turbines near Wellington NSW, part of the Bodangora Wind Farm. Photograph: Kim V. Goldsmith

Communities within the REZ are torn about the good these massive clean energy developments offer, despite the negotiation and distribution of community fund sweeteners. Some see solar panels and wind turbines as an eyesore — impacting the visual amenity some regions have come to rely on for attracting new residents and tourism; others believe it is poor use of productive agricultural land needed to feed and clothe us into the future.

The regions, particularly those inland, are doing much of the heavy lifting when it comes to energy supply in the form of food and power production. Cities and more densely populated coastal areas are facing critical land and housing shortages, with limited capacity to produce food or power for their growing populations; they will lean more heavily on the regions in years to come [5].

Investments into renewables is an opportunity for some who have fought to remain viable through droughts, floods and seasons of low productivity; solar or wind hosting arrangements are providing the financial security they need to remain on the land they love.

Karin Stark lives on a farm near Narromine — a particularly conservative rural community in the Central West, where she has driven the conversation around renewable energy in agriculture. With her credentials in environmental science and farming, she’s keen to see rural and regional communities empowered in the transition to renewables, particularly in areas where there’s large-scale development.

“It’s important that agriculture does continue to develop and adapt to different technologies, different weather events, to secure our food supplies. But I think really with energy and food we need to have a more interconnected or integrated way of thinking, so that we can do both in this region.

“There needs to be more focus on the distribution level of allowing farmers and regional communities to produce the energy themselves rather than (rely on) these massive solar and wind farms.”

Some are quietly fearful of what the future holds for rural communities despite the work being done to adapt. Fourth-generation Narromine farmer, Bruce Maynard won the prestigious National Landcare Award in 2022 for his agroecology work and advocacy, believing that broadening the on-farm biodiversity base also means broadening the productive capacity. He firmly believes people are the reason behind doing any of this.

Regional Futures: Showing Bruce Maynard, 2022 National Landcare Award winner and fourth-generation farmer at Narromine in Central West NSW. Photo by Kim V. Goldsmith.
Bruce Maynard, 2022 National Landcare Award winner and fourth-generation farmer at Narromine in Central West NSW. Photograph: Kim V. Goldsmith

“I do feel somewhat challenged and pessimistic about rural communities in Australia in particular, in that they continue to shrink. I put people first, landscape, and then business third as serving those other two main factors … for any of our efforts out here to be worthwhile, I believe it needs a thriving community.”

Conversations with discomfort and hope

Transitions to new ways of being and thinking don’t come without discomfort and a strong sense of inequity. For those not privileged enough to buy into the renewables revolution or who are simply more concerned about their personal safety and putting food on the table, the conversation about climate change and what that means is still abstract.

Having recently moved to the Central West for a job following tertiary study, 25-year-old Bageshri still has close ties to India.

“There are people I have grown up with that have way more complex issues to deal with, just regarding their safety or the place that they live.

“I definitely think people who can make change are people in positions of power, people with money, people with influence. We just need to really look at who we’re voting for, and elect people who actually think about the future.”

Stephen Callaghan moved to Dubbo in Central West NSW about six years ago, to an area of the city he describes as a low socio-economic area. To offset rising power costs, his family used a small inheritance to invest in a solar battery system. It’s something they felt they couldn’t afford not to do.

“I honestly don’t know, looking at our electricity bill, how some of our neighbours are coping. 

“I can see a future where it’s not going to be survival of the fittest, but it’s definitely going to be the haves and have-nots, and it’s going to be related around power and energy.”

Net-zero targets by 2050 were described by 16-year-old high school student, Madelyn Leggett as being like a homework assignment. She has a very strong sense of her place in the world and is itching for the day she can exercise her vote.

“People procrastinate and procrastinate, and nothing gets done and then we reach December 2049, and we go ‘Oh! Nothing’s happened!’ We still haven’t changed enough, and there still hasn’t been enough policy or legislation passed to make an effective change or impact on the environment.

“I think the political push for a net zero world is there. And I think it does affect people’s outlook on how we see the future and I think it affects the way that people consider not just consumerism but voting and democracy, and how they consider their political actions.”

Regional Futures: showing High school student, Madelyn Leggett, from Wellington NSW. Photograph by Kim V. Goldsmith
High school student, Madelyn Leggett, from Wellington NSW. Photograph: Kim V. Goldsmith

As parents of young children and living off-the-grid in a coastal forest on the Mid North Coast, Aliya Aamot and her partner are passionate about guiding their children through a more ‘self-efficient’ way of life.

“These children that grow up in the bush, with parents who are teaching them life skills, this is what the planet needs for the future.

“It’s very important for us, especially kids in cities to know this process of where the food comes from, how it’s been grown… There’s just so much nature will teach the children just by letting the children be in nature.”

Collaborative, more-than-human regional futures

It’s very easy to put humans at the centre of this conversation — we do it all the time. However, there’s a growing awareness that our future hinges on a more collaborative approach, where more-than-human species gain more rights [6] and a greater voice. This is what has really underpinned my interest in the Regional Futures project and the works I developed through Vaticinor.

I’ve observed the discord at the intersection of the human and more-than-human species across rural and regional territories, yet to be resolved. The multi-track soundscape composition, Humi, I created for the Regional Futures exhibition brings the sounds of the more-than-human together with the built structures and technologies we’ve created for our convenience, including renewables, weaving together a story around this uncertain period of transition between our past and our future. The work is accompanied by a haptic experience, reducing the soundscape to vibrations through 3D-printed hands, reminding us we are one with the sonic world whether we hear it or not.

Showing Humi Haptic Hands co-designed by Kim V. Goldsmith and Brian McNamara, which reduce the Humi soundscape to four frequencies experienced as vibrations through 3D printed hands. Photo by Kim V. Goldsmith.
Humi Haptic Hands co-designed by Kim V. Goldsmith and Brian McNamara, reduce the Humi soundscape to four frequencies experienced as vibrations through 3D printed hands. Photograph: Kim V. Goldsmith

The signs of what potentially lies ahead have been there for some time now, but as Stoknes suggests, ignoring them may have been a way of dealing with the discomfort. The cocoons we’ve woven around our lives in rural and regional Australia and beyond are unravelling in the face of extreme weather events, or as James Bridle puts it in Ways of Being: Beyond Human Intelligence: “…tiny moments of turbulent activity through which we can barely grasp an unseen, unknowable totality.”

As we come to terms with that totality, the challenge will be creating equity for all in the transition to a fossil-fuel-free world at the same time as developing a more connected and entangled life with those other species we share the planet with — those who remain mostly voiceless. We need to listen better to each other, to ourselves, and to more-than-human worlds. In the meantime, we shall continue to sit with the discomfort of our choices.

 

The Humi soundscape composition is a story of the discordant interdependence of human and more-than-human species against a backdrop of pressing time. Weaving their way through the composition are sounds of species not often heard by the naked human ear or those given little thought to in our daily busyness — earthworms, bats, fish, individual birds in choruses of birdsong reverberating through remnant forests on the edges or urban development and cleared farmland. Meanwhile, manmade structures click and thrum, boom and hum — solar arrays, wind turbines, dam walls, motorboats, and fossil-fuelled vehicles — designed for our convenience and enjoyment, creating around-the-clock noise within worlds we do not hear or see.


References

[1] Australian Bureau of Meteorology: Previous Droughts.

[2] NSW Department of Planning and Environment: Understanding the effects of the 2019-20 fires.

[3] Australian Electoral Commission: Results from the 2022 Australian Government election at which the Australian Labor Party won (last in power in 2013).

[4] NSW Government: Central-West Orana Renewable Energy Zone.

[5] Greater Cities Commission: Past, present and future.

[6] The Brooks McCormick Jr. Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School: One Rights: Human and Animal Rights in the Anthropocene (3/1/23).

Find out more

Kim V. Goldsmith was commissioned by Dubbo Regional Council in partnership with Orana Arts to be part of the Regional Futures project. For more information about the Vaticinor project and resulting artwork, see Vaticinor.

The first Soundcloud audio piece in Kim’s post is a 39-minute montage of 18 storytellers sharing their thoughts about the future, presented for exhibition as part of the ‘Regional Futures’ series of exhibitions in NSW Australia, in a vintage suitcase, upholstered in custom-printed fabric, with postcards of links and invitations to audiences to share their story. 

The second Soundcloud audio piece is ‘Humi’ (in/on/to the ground), a 15-minute composition of field recordings, transitional tones and chords melding sounds of the Mid North Coast, Manning Valley and Central West of NSW into one story; a story of the discordant interdependence of human and more-than-human species against a backdrop of pressing time. 

The sound and text works of Vaticinor will be shown in Sydney from 24th June – 24th September 2023 in Regional Futures: Artists in a Volatile Landscape, at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Western Sydney.

You can read Kim’s previous post for ClimateCultures, co-authored with Andrew Howe: Mosses and Marshes: Creative Engagement with Wetlands.

The books Kim quotes from are:

Kim V. Goldsmith

Kim V. Goldsmith

An artist exploring layers of nuance, complexity and hidden elements to present rural, regional and remote landscapes and communities in ways that make the familiar, unfamiliar.

Our Shifting Baseline Syndrome Sustains the Anthropocene

Legal researcher Niels Hoek explores the phenomenon of Shifting Baseline Syndrome in our experience of the ever-changing natural world, exemplifying a generational amnesia that conservation lawyers, environmentalists and creative practitioners can help combat as we navigate the Anthropocene.


1,650 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 minutes


The natural world has been on a steep decline in the past couple of decades, and most of the readers of ClimateCultures most likely can name a personal account which highlights this decline [1]. Perhaps you have witnessed how a local grassland was converted into cropland. Additionally, you may well have observed how your favourite animal was added to the IUCN Red List, removed from its original habitat, or noted first-hand how your local forest was logged extensively [2]. All these modern issues highlight the pressing need for conservation and restoration measures, both within and outside of natural areas.

However, addressing our impact on the natural world through regulation and conservation policies is a significant challenge. Whilst a duty for conservation seeks to maintain what is still present, a legal duty for restoration returns a natural habitat to a former, more complete version [3]. Be that as it may, the extent of the damage can be widespread or dated to the point where the original image is lost entirely. Whilst there are many interesting questions on nature restoration, this short blog post reflects on which starting point may be taken within (regulatory) instruments and conservation practice. A question that, at least on the surface, appears to be uncomplicated — but on closer inspection is a rather difficult issue.

The Anthropocene and the Shifting Baseline Syndrome

The starting point, or baseline, is an important concept within nature conservation law: when the state of nature deviates from the recorded status quo, it stipulates the need for conservation measures and the enforcement of nature conservation laws, such as a deterioration prohibition as found within the EU Habitats Directive [4]. Moreover, it flags the need for additional research from all disciplines and creative activism; a starting point used for comparison is vital for ecologists, lawyers, and activists. However, the recorded baseline on which we rely in our appreciation of nature can be a double-edged sword — provided we do not pay attention to the problem of the shifting baseline syndrome, sustaining the Anthropocene [5].

Shifting Baseline Syndrome - illustrated
Tweet from @BiodiversitySoS (2021) – image source unknown

In essence, the shifting baseline syndrome is quite simple and consists of two parts. First, it starts with the grave premise that each generation leaves the state of nature slightly worse for the next [6]. Species become extinct whilst invasive alien species are introduced, and natural ecosystems are altered or destroyed; one generation at a time. And secondly, it is a psychological phenomenon that people are inclined to take the state of nature as recorded within their youth as a starting point for comparison to the present. And in turn, each generation adopts a different baseline for conservation practices — a hollowed-out version compared to the previous. This means that essential parts of the natural world are not only lost but also forgotten; a term coined as generational amnesia [7].

Once aware of this issue, the state of nature deemed as ‘sufficient’ in our modern times can be seen in an entirely different light. For example, the summer field painted by Jac van Looij at the turn of the previous century is now part of the collection of the Dutch Rijksmuseum. It portrays a rich field of blue flowers, most likely lupines. This may have been a common sight for the painter at the time in the Netherlands, but wildflower meadows have become increasingly rare due to significant levels of nitrogen deposition [8]. A sight such as this, in turn, is at risk of escaping from our perceived baseline, falling prey to generational amnesia.

Shifting Baselin Syndrome - July (‘Summer Luxuriance’), by Jac van Looij
July (‘Summer Luxuriance’), Jac van Looij, c. 1890 – c. 1910 Image: The Rijksmuseum, Netherlands https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/SK-C-1645

A plethora of other examples could be noted here. Tim Flannery, in his book Europe: the first 100 million years [13] portrays a story of environmental destruction — starting as early as the time of the hunter-gatherers. In his book, he argues that Europe can be deemed an empty ecosystem, devoid of large predators such as lions or keystone species such as elephants — all of which resided, and thrived, on the European continent before overexploitation drove many of these species, which were not used to human predation, locally extinct. In this regard, credit must be given to Arie Trouwborst and Jens-Christian Svenning, who unravelled the shifting baseline and highlighted the moral and legal obligation for the restoration of megafauna on the European continent — especially when reviewing article 8(f) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) [10]. Within their article, they convincingly argue that the loss of megafauna impacts the functioning of ecosystems and the prospects of biodiversity at large, due to their vital function as ecosystem engineers. In other words, the restoration of keystone species still surviving elsewhere is a key objective ahead — which would require the shattering of our generational amnesia.

The Shifting Baseline Syndrome: embedded within legal instruments?

This brings us to the baseline currently recorded within the instruments of nature conservation law. European nature conservation law, in turn, can pose as a relevant and leading example; the Natura 2000 network reaches 18% of the continent and is the largest coordinated ecological network in the world. However, the European Natura 2000 network establishes the benchmark recorded within the year 1992 for most natural habitats, both as a baseline for its conservation measures, and for assessing which habitat types can be deemed to be in favourable conservation status.

A recent Proposal of the European Commission, which supplements the Habitats Directive, proposes restoration measures going back at least seventy years in time, which has opened the door to implement a historic approach — should the Proposal be adopted [11]. However, when reviewing the environmental destruction which occurred in the past centuries, seventy years, whilst a considerable amount of time compared to a human lifespan, merely reaches the top of an iceberg — consisting of centuries of overexploitation and land-use changes. An integrated approach to halting the decline of biodiversity loss is much-needed, as is illustrated below. [12]

Shifting Baseline Syndrome - showing how to bend the curve
‘Bending the curve’ – illustration from ‘Global biodiversity loss can still be halted’ (WUR 2022 see [12])

Looking beyond the modern state of nature

In conclusion, it is vital that society at large is aware of the limitations imposed by the Shifting Baseline Syndrome and generational amnesia. With the help of ecologists, natural historians, and lawyers, returning long-lost species back to the European continent may not be a crazed idea. As is argued by Trouwborst; how can we demand that Africans live together with megafauna when Europeans refuse to do so themselves?

In this regard, a recorded baseline codified within a legal instrument is not an inherently bad tool. However, a modern baseline can be deemed an Achilles heel for restoration practice. Environmentalists, therefore, must be aware of the shifting baseline, so that the wildflower meadows from van Looij may not be forgotten in a hundred years’ time. And, more crucially, for nature restoration laws to be effective, a historic baseline that can still reach parts of the Holocene may be desirable going forward — both from the perspective of good (biodiversity) governance, as well as our personal understanding and appreciation of the natural world.


References

[1] Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services  (IPBES secretariat, 2022)

[2] The IUCN Red List Of Threatened Species (IUCN, 2022) 

[3] Verschuuren J, ‘Restoration Of Protected Lakes Under Climate Change: What Legal Measures Are Needed To Help Biodiversity Adapt To The Changing Climate? The Case of Lake Ijssel, Netherlands’ [2019] SSRN Electronic Journal; Hoek N, ‘The Habitats Directive And Heath: The Strain of Climate Change and N Deposition’ (2022) 31 European Energy and Environmental Law Review.

[4] Schoukens H, ‘Non-Regression Clauses in Times of Ecological Restoration Law: Article 6(2) of the EU Habitats Directive as an Unusual Ally to Restore Natura 2000?’ (2017) 13 Utrecht Law Review.

[5] Caro T & others, Conservation in the Anthropocene – chapter in Keeping the Wild, ed. George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist, Tom Butler (2014: Island Press, Washington, DC)

[6] Europe: The First 100 Million Years, Tim Flannery (2014: Penguin, UK)

[7] Jones L & others, ‘Investigating the Implications of Shifting Baseline Syndrome on Conservation‘ (2020) People and Nature, Volume 2 Issue 4.

[8] Nitrogen (Wageninen University & Research, 2022)

[9] as [6]

[10] Trouwborst A, and Svenning J, Megafauna restoration as a legal obligation: International biodiversity law and the rehabilitation of large mammals in Europe, (2022) Review of European, Comparative & International Environmental Law, Volume 31, Issue 2; Megafauna Restoration is a Legal Obligation‘ (Rewilding Europe, 2022) 

[11] Green Deal: pioneering proposals to restore Europe’s nature by 2050 and halve pesticide use by 2030‘ (European Commission, 2022)

[12] ‘Global biodiversity loss can still be halted’ (Wageninen University & Research, 2020)


Find out more

You can explore the background to the problem in Are You Suffering From Shifting Baseline Syndrome? by Reagan Pearce for Earth.Org (19 June 2020): “Coined by Daniel Pauly in 1995, while speaking of increasing tolerance to fish stock declines over generations, SBS also has roots in psychology, where it is referred to as ‘environmental generational amnesia’. Simply put, Shifting Baseline Syndrome is ‘a gradual change in the accepted norms for the condition of the natural environment due to a lack of experience, memory and/or knowledge of its past condition’. In this sense, what we consider to be a healthy environment now, past generations would consider to be degraded, and what we judge to be degraded now, the next generation will consider to be healthy or ‘normal’.” There is an interview with Daniel Pauly for Mission Blue (March 2012) here, following his TED Talk on the Ocean’s Shifting Baseline.

In Spot the difference: shifting baseline syndrome in our own backyard for ZSL (24 July 2018), PhD student Lizzie Jones looks at the phenomenon of shifting baseline syndrome with “a rare example of a positive shifted baseline, in which we have not noticed positive change” — the growing population of Red Kite in the UK after successful reintroduction projects.

And Shifting Baseline Syndrome is one of the terms explored in the book Anticipatory history (2011), edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor and Colin Sackett (Uniform Books) – reviewed for ClimateCultures by Mark Goldthorpe here.

Update January 2023: Thanks to the comment posted below by ClimateCultures visitor Peter Collins, we became aware of the work of Escaping Agharta, and Avery Dart’s track Shifting Baseline Syndrome in particular. “The goal of Escaping Aghartha is to educate people about specific examples of ongoing destruction in the biological world, using extreme music as an educational tool. Avery, a biologist, started Escaping Aghartha as an experimental solo project. Now Escaping Aghartha has started to feature skilled musicians on some releases.”

Niels Hoek

Niels Hoek

A legal researcher specialising in EU Environmental Law, whose PhD project addresses how the EU ‘governs’ light pollution and who mobilizes for this to change.