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.

Niels Hoek

Niels Hoek

A legal researcher in EU and international environmental law whose PhD addresses regulation of light pollution, interested in synergies between environmental law, creative practice and sciences.
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The End of the World? Let’s Be Honest

Writer Philip Webb Gregg embraces our Environmental Keywords theme on Transitions with an urgent call to abandon our language of endings for one of beginnings, where we embrace the deepest change: a radical transition to more honest stories.


1,720 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 minutes


Alright, I have a confession, and I’m aware this is an uncool thing to say, but I no longer believe in the end of the world. 
 
Shocking, I know. Especially coming from me. I’m exactly the kind of person you’d expect would think the apocalypse was just around the corner. After all, I’m a second-generation activist (my mother baked bread at Greenham Common). I’ve done all the usual things; camped at the capital, given out endless leaflets, hurled abuse at the gates of Parliament with the best of them. Moreover, I’m a white, straight(ish) man with long hair, stick-and-poke tattoos on my forearms and a steady yoga practice. Of course I should believe in the imminent end of the world. Except I don’t. Not anymore. 
 
I used to. I grew up in an alternative anarchist community on the southernmost tip of Europe. In some ways, it was a happy and unremarkable childhood, but in others I have learned it was quite unique. For instance, we took for granted that the world was ending. It didn’t matter how. Could be nuclear, could be another world war. The point was, I and all my friends — and all our parents — were basically futureless. 
 
We made no five-year goals. There was never a whisper of career paths or pension plans, or even what we’d do next week. Instead, we had fun. We used the minimum effort possible to make us as happy as possible for as long as possible, until it all fell inevitably apart. In some ways, this is good for the soul. It has certainly given me an appreciation for the honesty of the present moment –- more on that later. But it also means I grew up in a world and a community that had doom on its lips. 
 
The end of the world, as we know it

So believe me when I say I understand what so many of us are going through. Call it apocalypse-anxiety, or climate-anxiety, what it amounts to is fear, dread; the empty, heavy feeling in your stomach when you see the world changing around you. When you read the science, watch the news, walk across the dead grass.
 
I have spent three decades speaking with the language of endings. But it’s only recently that I’ve come to understand that there are other tongues out there. It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand that the end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world [1]. There is a language of beginnings and a language for whatever comes in between.

Honest stories; Showing Philip Webb Gregg with a burning flower
Also a beginning… Photograph: Philip Webb Gregg © 2022

It is too easy to be seduced into the ‘last days of Rome’ metaphor. That we are Troy before the horse, Atlantis before the flood, Pompeii before the fire; living on a cliff edge with hyper-luxury behind us and the apocalypse ahead. All of this is very poetic and compelling, but ultimately inaccurate and unhelpful. 

Because, like it or not, tomorrow is coming. And it will not be the end of the world. It will just be a day, in many ways much like any other. 
 
As I write this, I can hear the voices of my family and friends gesturing frantically to their browser screens, their Facebook shares, the dry heat in the stale air. Yes, mass-disaster, societal collapse and global meltdown are already happening. Riots and starvation and power-outage are very likely in many parts of the world very soon. In other parts, they are already underway. And they are awful and inhuman and entirely avoidable. But these are symptoms of drastic (and reversible) change, not the apocalypse. And that knowledge changes everything.
 
The point of all of the above is simply this: believing the end is nigh is a forgivable form of cowardice. It excuses you from the hard work of tomorrow in favour of the pleasure, or the despair, of today. Instead I have a radical proposition worthy of the anarchist roots that bred me. I propose we embrace change, on all fronts and at all costs. 
 
Because despite everything I have said, we are in the deepest trouble, and we need the deepest change. 

An honest change

Some of this change may involve stepping forward, into what feels like an abyss. Some of it will likely feel like a step back into the past — the way things were in the ‘good ol’ days’. Most of it, I hope, will be more of a step sideways. Neither demonising the future, nor glorifying the past, but simply being more present, honest now.  Why do I use the word ‘honest’? Because I think that’s at the root of the change we need.
 
Imagine, for a moment, that you were alive a thousand, or two thousand years ago. I think it is unlikely that you cared about ‘the planet’. Almost certainly you cared about the weather. And the soil. And, in some form, the wild. Most likely you spent your days hacking away at it, fencing it, herding it, milking it, eating it, and your nights hoping it wouldn’t eat you or your loved ones. 

Give or take, that’s been the case for all of human existence. Throughout our entire collective evolutionary journey, we have not had to worry about overwhelming or choking our ecosystem in the way we do now (this is one of the reasons it is so goddamn hard to get your head around the idea of the Anthropocene). But there is another staggering change that goes hand in hand with that transition. That of honesty. Truthiness. Verisimilitude. Call it what you like, we’ve lost it. 

Sometime in the last few millennia, I believe we have learned to lie to ourselves about nature, and the nature of ourselves. Perhaps it happened the moment we overstepped our place in the food chain; began looking at the natural world as a thing separate, and beneath us. Maybe it started with the invention of fiction — that most essential and deadly of human tools — and the creation of the written word. Who knows?

All I know is that these days I see it everywhere. And the reason that these times — our times — feel like the ‘end-times’ is because they are the apex of this dishonesty. 

For me this is the core of the crisis we face, and the hinge on which our change must turn. I do not point to technology or colonialism or capitalism, though those are certainly factors, I point instead to the myths we tell ourselves. The stories, if you like, that we have built our lives upon; our cities, our skyscrapers. Stories of eternal progress, of the singularity and the isolation of the individual. We have grown so accustomed to deception we no longer see the bullshit we swim through every day. These things take us away from what we are, and have become the cause, either directly or indirectly, of the climate and ecological crisis we are facing today. 

Honest stories: showing a man holding a burning newspaper
Photo by akın akdağ from Pexels: https://www.pexels.com/photo/close-up-shot-of-a-person-holding-a-burning-newspaper-10176291/

Because really, that’s all that nature is: an honest thing. Nature is not flowers, rivers and butterflies. Sure, those things are an aspect of the natural world, but so are carnivores, rotting flesh and landslides. My point is the natural world is not a pretty or easy thing — most of it is uncomfortable, harsh and dangerous. The very opposite of our lives now. But it doesn’t lie to you. It cannot; it simply is. 

And really, so are we. When we strip away all the lies we clothe ourselves with, we are still the same scrabbling figures we were two thousand years ago, except that now the weather and the soil and the wild are all going missing and we’re left wondering what on earth is next.

Well, truthfully, I have no idea. But that’s what we’re here to find out.

If the gift of my upbringing taught me anything, it’s how to call bullshit on a world that just wants you to shut up and buy stuff. I think we need to stop being passive members of a society that’s actively slipping into chaos. We must make an effort to step away from the language of disasters and step instead toward the language of new beginnings. 

I think we need to speak, and speak honestly, and tell new stories, honest stories; not just to each other, but to ourselves. And yes, in some non-hippy way, to the world as well.


Find out more

[1] The phrase Philip uses, “the end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world”, is an adapted quote from The Dark Mountain Manifesto (2009), written by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine: “The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.” For its founders, the manifesto “marked a first attempt to put into words the ideas and feelings which led to Dark Mountain. Think of it as a flag raised so that we can find one another. A point of departure, rather than a party line. An invitation to a larger conversation that continues to take us down unexpected paths.”

Philip is an editor for the Dark Mountain Project, working on several of its volumes — including the forthcoming Issue 22: ARK, which is published this October.

You can read Deconstructing our Dominion Stories in a Time of Unravelling, the recent review by Joan Sullivan of two new books by the current co-editors of the Dark Mountain project, Nick Hunt and Charlotte Du Cann, and the project’s themes have also come up in several other posts, for example Conversations with Work That Connects, featuring six ClimateCultures members in wide-ranging conversations on their creativity in dark times.

Philip’s previous ClimateCultures posts include Rewilding – Slantways: an original poem exploring rewilding as a sideways step into a stranger world, resisting simplifications of ‘progress’ and the gains and losses of our current model, even as we seek to change it.

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Philip Webb Gregg
Philip Webb Gregg
A writer of ephemeral things for beautiful places, exploring the disconnect between human nature and nature nature, and grappling with themes of faith, folklore and narratology.
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Assembling the Raven’s Nest

Researcher Chris Fremantle reviews The Raven’s Nest. This ecological memoir by Sarah Thomas addresses love and loss and coming to belong in the Westfjords peninsular of Iceland, evoking human and more-than-human relationships to draw out stories of interdependence.


1,860 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


In The Raven’s Nest Sarah Thomas tells us a story of falling in love, moving to another culture and learning its ways. Many things have agency in the book, including all sorts of other living things as well as landscapes and even buildings. Daylight too is an actor. Nested within the book is a photo essay, a visual journey parallel to and intersecting with the words.

Showing the cover of the book, 'The Raven's Nest' by Sarah Thomas
The Raven’s Nest. Cover art: Carmen R. Balit, based on a photograph by Sarah Thomas

The raven’s nest — an improvisation

The raven’s nest itself, which provides the title, is found in a first-floor natural history museum above shops in Bolungarvík, a fishing village on the Westfjords peninsula in the very west of Iceland: it is an icon for a process of assemblage.

A cluster of sticks in a cubic glass case catches my eye. It is both chaotic and coherent. I stroll over and look at it from above – a circular nest perhaps a metre in diameter. The perimeter, which makes up most of it, is a rough entanglement of twigs, driftwood, mussel shells, a strip of yellowing plastic container, a sheep’s shoulder blade, a wooden knife handle, a TV aerial, and the rusted head of a rake with four missing tines. It is perfect for its purpose – a hotchpotch of plant, human-made and animal detritus holding it together, weighing it down against the high winds. There are no big trees here for a large bird to nest in: the nest must be resilient alone on a cliff. Its centre is a small, intimate hemisphere – less than a third of the whole: a bed of intricately woven fine grasses and frayed blue plastic rope threads, lined with down. Inside this centre lie four small eggs, almost lost in the flotsam. The label reads: Raven’s Nest. The nest is ‘safe’ now, sealed in this moment against the high winds. It is safe, though these eggs will never hatch. How might it live again, contain life, out in the unknowable wilds of the future?

Showing a raven's nest in the natural history museum, Bolungarvík. Photograph by Sarah Thomas
Raven’s Nest, natural history museum, Bolungarvík. Photograph © Sarah Thomas

We know from the outset that a failing relationship is central, but we don’t know why. Much of the book is concerned with the process of becoming an inhabitant, someone who understands the habitat and is part of it. This process is episodic in life: understanding comes in moments and in our reflections on moments. This opens up the meaning of improvisation — making do with the materials at hand — both literally and as a practice.

This is beautifully captured in an exchange between the author and her partner:

In the distance, Hekla stands crisp and clear as a cardboard cut-out, the colour of a bruise. She is majestic.

‘So, we’ll be living beneath a volcano that is overdue to erupt?’

‘We can make sure the van’s always got enough petrol for an escape.’

Problem. Solution. Why is life in England so complicated? So full of prohibitions and protocols which do not allow for the cultivation of sense…

That the relationship between freedom and constraint is fundamental to improvisation is beautifully articulated, though the lurking challenge of coping with this becomes clearer as the book goes on. Whilst the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 does feature, it is everyday human and more-than-human ‘making do’ which is the central issue. Human improvisation is in the moment, but it can have longer-term ramifications.

'Raven valley', a photograph of Iceland by Sarah Thomas from her book The Raven's Nest.
‘Raven valley’. Photograph © Sarah Thomas

Dependence and interdependence

Behind this book is a PhD, another text, which discusses what it means to be writing in the Anthropocene and unpacks a critical literature on writing. In the PhD Sarah quotes Donna Haraway (who in turn is referencing Marilyn Strathern): “It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories.”

Stories create worlds. Stories are nested in stories. Icelanders live in a story — by way of an aside to illuminate this, the artists Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison say, “Every place is the story of its own becoming.”

Sarah Thomas’ story of becoming Icelandic is a story within stories of places becoming. Many relationships between humans and other living things are evoked in The Raven’s Nest. The narrative focuses on and draws out dependencies. Some are the result of human carelessness in the past. Some are ongoing and continuous since humans settled on Iceland. The former is exemplified by the experience of providing a temporary fish shop on the edge of a lake for the short summer season. Humans introduced Arctic Char into the lakes. The people who facilitate Sarah getting enmeshed in Iceland run the temporary fish shop. Walkers on holiday gravitate to the fish shop for fresh Arctic Char. The abundance of the invasive species is mitigated by the human visitors enjoying eating freshly caught fish. A new set of dependencies is invented.

Another ongoing dependency relates to sheep. The family Sarah becomes part of farms sheep, amongst other things. The sense is they have ‘always’ farmed sheep. Another, long-term, dependency is articulated in the annual slaughter, hanging the carcasses, the smoking of meat, the long winters.

But even the position of Iceland on the planet makes for dependencies:

My experience of the light’s absence has been less intense, but more protracted, than the total darkness I anticipated. I wish I had it in me to keep a record of the times of sunrise and sunset; there is poetry in such accuracy. But this being my life, I feel it as a whole reality, not a set of data to be recorded and analysed.

Interdependence has become a focus of the environmental humanities, but it is also critical to understand dependence. Isabelle Stengers articulates the relationship between the two, saying in her essay for the Critical Zones exhibition catalogue: “Nor should the intertwining interdependencies be confused with a network of interlinking dependencies. It is easy to understand why, without water or light, a plant dies. This fits the definition of ‘dependence’. But interdependence implies a way of being sensitive that is a form of venture.”

The Raven’s Nest sensitises us to difference and the process of becoming, moving in and out of difference. Her attention to difference, her own patterns and expectations, and the patterns and assumptions characteristic of Iceland, generates new sensitivities.

Showing 'Cold blushing', a photograph of Iceland by Sarah Thomas in her book The Raven's Nest
‘Cold blushing’. Photograph © Sarah Thomas

The stories we need now

It is a book about love, loss and also mental health. The PhD dissertation is its twin. Being asked to review The Raven’s Nest and being a practice-led researcher led me inevitably to reading sections of Sarah’s practice-based PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies. The latter talks about the Anthropocene in ways that are a current riff in the environmental humanities. She cites Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement because he asks the important question: do the arts need to question themselves in the extinction crisis? Yes, the arts are vital to the change of consciousness required, but the arts are part of the consciousness that produced the Anthropocene. Later she takes up Ursula Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction to deepen the point, questioning not only the form of the modern novel and its focus on everyday subjectivities, but to go further and question all stories with heroes. The question is, what might be the arts that we need now?

'Floating house', a photograph by G. Kristinsdóttir, in The Raven's Nest by Sarah Thomas
‘A Floating house’. Photograph © G. Kristinsdóttir

Reading her PhD enables me to understand the judgements she is making, the sensitivities she is alert to, in relation to the process of writing. It represents another layer of sensitizing. However, the PhD is not a substitute for The Raven’s Nest — reflections on the process of making stories is not a substitute for stories. The artwork is the artwork. The sensitivities and complexities evoked affect us. Early on Sarah talks about one of the key differences manifest in language:

I enjoy that these nouns I live alongside have a gender, even when Icelanders are speaking English. ‘It’ is easier to commodify, but ‘he’ and ‘she’ become beings I must acknowledge a relationship with.


Find out more

Chris Fremantle is a researcher and lecturer at Gray’s School of Art. He established ecoartscotland in 2010 as a platform for research and practice, a node in the network of ecoarts. He writes, mostly in collaboration: most recently, Ecoart in Action: Activities, Case Studies and Provocations for Classrooms and Communities (New Village Press, 2022).

Sarah Thomas is a writer and documentary maker with a background in anthropology. See more at her website. Here on ClimateCultures, you can read her post with fellow member Jon Randall, Óshlið: River Mouth \\ Slope — where they share a conversation about the ideas, stories and creative processes behind their film exploring an abandoned road in Iceland, accompanied by a slideshow of their images from this changing place.

The Raven’s Nest (2022) is published in hardback and ebook by Atlantic Books and is available as an audiobook from Audible. Robert Macfarlane has described it as “A deeply thoughtful, vivid, enquiring, genre-traversing book, closely attentive to the people and the landscapes with which it dwells. It asks hard questions – and offers no easy answers – about what it means to belong to a place, and to live well upon a part of the earth. Sarah’s writing – crisp in its details, patient in its rhythms – draws its readers northwards and inwards upon a fascinating journey.”

Sarah was interviewed for Iceland Monitor on the book’s publication, and the piece – Hnífsdalur made her an author – includes interesting insights into her approach to the book: “I was trained in making movies in the way that the filmmaker is invisible, like a fly on a wall. But when trying to convey the experience of being a foreigner trying to adjust to a different culture, it somehow doesn’t make sense to pretend to be invisible. … Writing the book was a new way to re-take the movie. When writing you can position the camera elsewhere, or go back in time and reminisce. So I feel like I have made a movie with words.”

Chris mentions Ursula Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction — a work that features in other ClimateCultures posts, including Philip Webb Gregg‘s A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #12, On a Writer’s Imaginarium by Sarah Hymas, and Disciplinary Agnosticism and Engaging with Ecologies of Place by Iain Biggs. Iain has also discussed Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement in his post Five Notes on Thinking Through ‘Ensemble Practices’.

“It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories,” is from Donna Haraway’s Staying with the trouble: making kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016).

Artists Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’s suggestion that “Every place is the story of its own becoming” is a central metaphor in their ‘Future Gardens’ work, as explored in this Artist Statement

The quote from Isabelle Stengers on interdependencies comes from Critical Zones: the Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (MIT University Press, 2020).

Chris Fremantle

Chris Fremantle

A researcher and producer working across health and environments / ecologies, and creator of ecoartscotland.
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Deconstructing our Dominion Stories in a Time of Unravelling

Photographer and writer Joan Sullivan reviews a pair of books – non-fiction, fiction – that embrace the unknown, helping us navigate our collective uncertainty and explore what it means to be human in a time of Anthropocene unravelling.


2,460 words: estimated reading time = 10 minutes


And so, on a most inauspicious date — 24th June 2022 — the day when millions of women lost control of their own bodies, I sit down to write my first book review ever. I stare blankly at the screen; come back tomorrow, it tells me. But the numbness would continue for several more days, as the US “supreme” court went on a week-long rampage, bludgeoning Indigenous sovereignty and our fundamental rights to a livable planet.

I am thinking of Ursula Le Guin. Four years before her death in 2018, she said “I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society… We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries – the realists of a larger reality.”

Unravelling: showing one of Joan Sullivan's photos in the series "Becoming River", 2021
Joan Sullivan: Untitled, from the series ‘Becoming River’ © 2021
“An abstract photo from the ongoing series ‘Becoming River’ that explores, in a phenomenological way, my eco-anxiety about the rapidly disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence River in eastern Quebec, Canada.”

This is a review of two very different books by two very different writers, both of whom are currently co-directors of the Dark Mountain Project. Charlotte Du Cann has pulled together some of her finest essays into one volume; Nick Hunt presents his début collection of short fiction. A daunting challenge for my first attempt at writing a book review. But nothing as daunting as learning how to embrace the humility of the unknown, which for me is the luminous thread that connects these two important works.

Both writers explore the existential question of what it means to be human in a time of unravelling. Both writers propose transformative journeys in time and space that, if we remain open, have the potential to radically shift our perception of this living, breathing planet and — most essentially — our shared space within it.

Finding transformation in the underworld

“I am not sure I can take you there with words,” writes Du Cann towards the end of her book. “I can show you the stones. I can dance. Everything else you walk yourself.”

In After Ithaca: Journeys in Deep Time, Du Cann peels back the layers – in characteristically non-chronological order — of her decades-long descent to re-entangle herself with a sentient Earth. She reveals the doubts, the joys, the humility, the rapture, the patience, and the dogged discipline required to un-civilize oneself in our fossil-fueled, frequent-flyer, fast-fashion societies. It is “a grinding process in which you lose or die to your tough conditioned husk and discover the germ within.”

‘After Ithaca’ – cover art: ‘On the Edge of This Immensity’, Meryl McMaster © 2022 merylmcmaster.com/

The faint of heart need not apply. “The rebirth we seek does not happen without our descent… Venus, the embodiment of love, beauty and a fair fight, steps into the arena to bring new life. She doesn’t do that by chanting a new mantra or changing her shopping habits, she does that by grabbing you by the throat and pulling you towards everything you have so far refused to see or hear.”

Boom! This is Du Cann at her very best, a moment of dazzling clarity: she hands us the mirror, asking the hard questions, shaking us out of our collective sleepwalk. To guide those of us who have not yet begun the “hard, hard task” of relinquishing the “self-obsessed material life we grasp and cling to,” Du Cann shares examples from her own non-linear passage of transformation through the prism of Psyche’s four initiation tasks – assigned by the goddess Venus, the jealous mother of Psyche’s divine lover, Eros. To earn back the love of the “winged boy she has lost”, the mortal Psyche must undergo radical change by embarking upon a perilous journey to the Underworld, without a script or roadmap or even a guarantee that she will ever find her way back. But she does, in spades, thanks to the unexpected help she receives from — and this is key — the most unassuming of allies: an army of ants, some river reeds, an eagle. As Du Cann explains, pivotal transformation can only take place in the Underworld “because change needs to happen at a deep inner level to make any kind of effective change on the outside.”

One of my many ‘Aha!’ moments reading Du Cann’s After Ithaca came from this passage: “Change is not something you tell governments or other people to do; you have to undergo change [yourself] to make space for the world to enter.” She expounds:

We wield great terms above our heads like axes – social justice, transformation, shift of consciousness, power of community – ready to split enemy heads apart with their force… but we are still asleep, reacting, neglecting… we lament deforestation whilst sitting on teak chairs…

As a species we appear to be as stupid, cruel and greedy as ever. Our technology has evolved but we are less vigorous, less alive, more timid, more pursued by ghosts and the trauma of history through generations, at a standstill where we feel responsible for everything and nothing at all;

Nothing transforms if we are the same people inside… if we haven’t found a way to dismantle the belief systems that keep us trapped in the cycles of history. If we haven’t dealt with our insatiable desire for power and attention…

We need a rigorous practice that will break us open. A shock that will push us in another direction.

Rebirth.

After Ithaca humbly suggests a path forward. This brutally honest book is all about transformation and resurrection: undergoing collective change; “reforging ourselves” in alchemical spaces of conversation and gathering; making ourselves more vulnerable by honouring the great mystery. It’s time to deconstruct the dominion stories we’ve inherited — and embraced — throughout the millennia about the self-anointed privileges of one species among many. The arrogance of naming itself ‘wise’! It’s time to question the bright shiny lie that sapiens alone can bend nature to its will without consequences.

Unravelling: showing one of Joan Sullivan's photos in the series "Becoming River", 2022
Joan Sullivan: Untitled, from the series ‘Becoming River’ © 2022
“Temperature anomaly: an historically hot month of May followed by an historically cold month of June caused havoc for farmers in this rural region of Quebec along the banks of the Saint Lawrence River.”

We are standing at the threshold between what was and what’s next, between despair and hope. Deep in our bones, we acknowledge that we’ve painted ourselves into a corner, and there is only one way out: transform, or die. Our task: to develop a collective consciousness to enmesh ourselves, once again, with our more-than-human kin.

Facing the unravelling

Nick Hunt’s collection of short fiction, Loss Soup and Other Stories, explores the same themes of time, despair and collective uncertainty as Du Cann’s After Ithaca. But while Du Cann employs a more-or-less traditional narrative arc as we follow her real-life transformational journey, Hunt creates disorienting storyscapes with nebulous beginnings and unfinished endings. We feel seasick, suspended in time somewhere between 16th century Mexico and a dystopic future that appears, disconcertingly, to have already arrived.

Loss Soup – cover art: ‘Herd (not seen)’, detail. Daro Montag © 2022

Each of the 14 stories in this slender volume explores what it means to bear witness to collapse. Hunt’s characters are fragile, vulnerable, unsure of which way to turn or whom to believe. There is very little dialogue between them, a reflection of social unravelling.

Loss Soup is not just about loss, but unimaginable loss: of memory, of words, of identity, of places saturated with meaning. Of species, both real and mythic. One nameless character chooses to lose himself in the middle of a vast ocean, drifting aimlessly in a plastic vortex: “He came here to go nowhere.” In the not-too-distant future, both he and his yacht will be subsumed by the great Pacific garbage patch, “a convenient vanishing zone for lost, unwanted things.” His well-stocked coffers of wine, crisps and Cadbury will not last forever.

Welcome to the Anthropocene. Nick Hunt’s fiction brings us as close as we can possibly get — viscerally, phenomenologically — to grasping the ambiguity of this liminal moment, in ways that non-fiction never could. “I try to think of what I’ve forgotten, but there’s no way to catch hold of it. Just a feeling of unease, somewhere between guilt and loss, that contracts and expands when I breathe, pushing up against me.”

Several of these stories left me feeling squeamish. I squirmed in my chair, looking around for an easy way out. But Hunt holds us skillfully in these uncomfortable landscapes, coaxing us to linger a bit longer with the ambivalence. Our instinct is to flee, to return to the soma of our Instagram-perfect world. But something deep inside has already shifted: we choose to stay, to face the unravelling. Such is the power of fiction, to reveal the cracks in the veneer, the hidden spaces with multiple layers of meaning. This is the well from which we must draw.

Finding paths through collective uncertainty 

Loss Soup reminds us that there have always been and will always be periods of radical uncertainty and impermanence. “Time does not flow in a straight line but turns inside repeating wheels, so that everything that has happened is still happening. Nothing has ever stopped. It never will.” If sapiens are as wise as we think we are, we will turn to the past for clues about navigating crisis, dysfunction, collapse. When seen through the lens of liminality, these recurring cataclysmic periods can be interpreted, in retrospect, as transformative: everything that gets swept up in the chaos will be transported and changed. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

The dawn of the Anthropocene is yet another liminal moment, a bridge between two possible worlds, two ways of being. Destination unknown. While the outcome indeed looks bleak, it has yet to be written. “We will be wanting the voices of writers,” prophesized Le Guin, “who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society.” The voices of writers Nick Hunt and Charlotte Du Cann bring much-needed clarity and insight to this existential moment.

If sapiens manages to save itself – along with millions of other species with whom we share this blue planet – it will be because of a profound shift in collective consciousness, not scientific facts or statistics. We could start by shifting our thinking about the Anthropocene as an opportunity to expand our ideas of what is possible, to embody it as an unquenchable thirst to break free from the chains of fossilized ways of thinking.

Unravelling: showing one of Joan Sullivan's photos in the series "Becoming River", 2022
Joan Sullivan: Untitled, from the series “Becoming River” © 2021
“An abstract photo from the ongoing series ‘Becoming River’ that explores, in a phenomenological way, my eco-anxiety about the rapidly disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence River in eastern Quebec, Canada.”

Throughout After Ithaca, Du Cann refers frequently to her favorite metaphor: the metamorphosis of the butterfly, which emerges only after the caterpillar has dissolved. Life begins anew out of death and darkness, as it always has and always will. Navigating the apocalypse may feel like the end of the world. But the dark is where everything is born.


Find out more

After Ithaca: Journeys in Deep Time, by Charlotte Du Cann (2022) and Loss Soup and Other Stories, by Nick Hunt (2022) are both published by Greenbank Books, an imprint of Sumeru, and are available from the Dark Mountain shop.

The Dark Mountain Project is many things and has taken many forms, including the original manifesto written amidst the global financial catastrophe of 2008 and the ongoing ecological crisis. “Faced with this unravelling, the manifesto calls us to question the stories our societies like to tell about the world and our place within it: the myth of progress, the myth of human separation from nature, the myth of civilisation. And it claims a particular role for storytellers and culturemakers in a time when the stories we live by have become untenable.”

Charlotte Du Cann and Nick Hunt are co-directors of the Dark Mountain Project. After working as a journalist, Charlotte spent a decade travelling, mostly in the Americas, before settling in Suffolk to write a series of books about mythos and reconnecting with the Earth, starting with 52 Flowers That Shook My WorldNick’s books include Walking the Woods and the Water, Where the Wild Winds Are, The Parakeeting of London: An Adventure in Gonzo Ornithology, and Outlandish. You can see Charlotte and Nick discuss the role of writing in times of unravelling and loss in this May 2022 Earth Talk event (in it, Nick describes the process that artist Daro Montag used to make the sculptures shown in the cover of Loss Soup). You can read excerpts from Where the Wild Winds Are in a series of Nick’s posts here at ClimateCultures.

The three photographs of Joan’s we’ve used in this post are from her series ‘Becoming River’. Joan explains that “all images in this series were created ‘in-camera’ using ICM (Intentional Camera Movement), with minor adjustments to contrast and clarity in Lightroom. No images were manipulated in Photoshop.” Of the middle photograph, on temperature anomaly, Joan adds: “I use ICM to express my eco-anxiety about our collective indifference to the climate crisis.”

You can learn about Joan’s life and work in photography on the climate crisis and energy transition in The liminal space between what was and what’s next (January 2022), episode 96 in the Conscient podcast series from Claude Schryer. And she writes regular posts for the Artists & Climate Change blog.

Watch Ursula Le Guin’s short acceptance speech when she received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards on November 19, 2014.

Read Australian climate scientist Joëlle Gergis on ecological loss from climate breakdown in The great unravelling: ‘I never thought I’d live to see the horror of planetary collapse’. In this wide-ranging article for The Guardian (14/1//20), she says: “As we live through this growing instability, it’s becoming harder to maintain a sense of professional detachment from the work that I do. Given that humanity is facing an existential threat of planetary proportions, surely it is rational to react with despair, anger, grief and frustration. To fail to emotionally respond to a level of destruction that will be felt throughout the ages feels like sociopathic disregard for all life on Earth.
Perhaps part of the answer lies in TS Eliot’s observation that ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’. To shy away from difficult emotions is a very natural part of the human condition. We are afraid to have the tough conversations that connect us with the darker shades of human emotion.”

Joan Sullivan

Joan Sullivan

A self-taught photographer who seeks moments of grace and beauty in order to inspire others to visualize - to imagine - what our post-carbon world will
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Unfolding Stories from the Anthropocene and Beyond

Artist Ivilina Kouneva draws on her seaside walks and art-making, on tales of indigenous story sharing and experiences of others’ creativity to make imaginative links between our heritage as storytelling animals and remaking connections between past and future.


1,610 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 minutes


On the way to my art studio, I can either choose the short five-minute walk or, continue down the road till I reach the seafront, turn right, walk on the shingled beach and then up the road. I usually choose the latter.

I consider myself privileged to live by the sea, on the East Sussex Coast, for at least the past seven years. The horizontal lines and the constant changes of tidal levels, cloud formations, wind directions make me feel alive, part of a bigger picture. I usually try to focus on sounds and forms, to be fully present in the moment, but stories keep coming and going through my head. As Gregory Norminton says in his book The Ship of Fools, “every story is like a bell jar thrown into a rocky lake; it closes in its eye a roaring world, and doesn’t even know of the Universe outside; the planets spin in their orbits, stories happen without us even knowing, but still, if we turn our backs on them, they won’t stop happening.”

Water is a powerful element, loaded with meanings. The seas and oceans are the natural places for living creatures to migrate and communicate. However, they can be seen as a destructive power, a threat: tsunami, coastal erosion, flooding, the Great Flood. Water is the cradle of the world’s mythology, reservoir of stories.

We are ‘storytelling animals’. I came upon this description in Annika Arnold’s book Climate Change and Storytelling: Narrative and cultural meaning in environmental communication. What part does the storytelling play for people’s perception of the risk of climate change, related to Global Warming? When I think of climate change my first concern is for communities and the impact on their lives. Analysing my own understanding of what life stands for I realise that, for me, it is something beyond just existence and just being. It is peoples’ rituals and beliefs, often expressed and recognised through artisan objects and the process of art-making. Life, in its wholesome greatness, is full of creativity, visualisation, music, words, language. This is where nature interweaves powerfully with its rhythms and changes throughout.

In the beginning of the 2000s, I started a series of works under the title of ‘Fragile Balances’. They were born from the pure sensitivity of an artist who acknowledges the complexity of voices and narratives, the labyrinths of experiences coming from different places around the planet. At this stage I relied heavily on books and my imagination. Magic realism literature armed me with tools for mental survival and the ability to think of our world as an enormous “garden of forking paths” (Jorge Luis Borges). Unfolding a story within another story, while connecting events from the past with our current endeavours, sustains my creative practice.

Storytelling - showing Ivilina Kouneva's 'Forking Paths', paper cuts collage
‘Forking Paths’, paper cuts collage
Artist: Ivilina Kouneva © 2020

Storytelling – connection to the mystery of the unknown

I am walking along the shingled beach thinking of an event that took place during COP26 in Glasgow. My daughters, environmentally sensitive thinkers and activists, told me about the series of Minga Indigena story sharing. Before jumping to check it out and do further research online, for weeks I left myself relying only on their emotional description of kindness, openness and difference in thinking that they had witnessed. I let myself imagine it was staged in Victorian times. I saw the healer from Amazonia with spiritual drawings on his arms. I felt his natural emotional intelligence, his attempt to transcribe his beliefs and connection with nature to the bewildered audience.

I just wish I were there and could hear him saying that if we got lost in the jungle he would be there for us, but we might not recognise him as he would be the jaguar, and we should hold on to the jaguar’s tail. The immediate questions arising were: What have we done for the past 150 years? and Have we really changed? It made me think how detached and sterile our social media-obsessed world could be at moments — with the result that we find ourselves cut off from the mystery of the unknown and therefore, from all things that are not easy to articulate. However, like the stories, the unknown is out there, forming a large part of the pulsing, living systems on our planet.

Then I found an interesting relation between the Minga Indigena event and two of my paper cuts collages created in the middle of the first lockdown. My artworks were inspired and dedicated to the communities that inhabit indigenous islands. With vibrant colours and ornaments, they were made to resemble old manuscripts, imagined groups of people engaged in their everyday activities who dwell on strips of land, narrow boats, fragile wooden supports. The artworks were selected for the virtual exhibition initiated by Sweet’Art, London – The Great Leveller. There, visual artists shared their experiences as well as hopes through the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Storytelling - showing Ivilina Kouneva's 'Paradise in Danger' paper cuts collage
‘Paradise in Danger’, paper cuts collage
Artist: Ivilina Kouneva © 2021

Rooted in stories already told

Walking along the shingled beach and listening to my steps, the stories emerge from one another, with labyrinth-like pathways and unexpected turns. In the world of constant change “safety by all circumstances is an illusion”, as British-born Mexican artist Leonora Carrington had once said. Blurred edges and uncertain boundaries, structures with multilayered contexts might be the reality of our future.

While listening to Jocelyn Pook’s Flood with its sounds of dripping water, where Balkan folklore beautifully interweaves with spiritual singing, an exhibition at Cisternerne in Copenhagen came to my mind. In March 2019 I visited Copenhagen, a place also defined by water through its ragged topography with many canals. A devoted art gallery trotter, I went to see the underground exhibition rooms at Cisternerne, a former water reservoir, where the creative trio Superflux made their massive statement about climate change.

For ‘It is Not the End of the World’ they had flooded the gloomy catacombs with knee-deep water, imagining an apocalyptic scenario when “Humanity has come to an end”. Deeply moved I then wrote: “… it is not an attractive or beautiful (in a traditional way), or a good-for-taking pictures show (and shamefully we still do it)… So put a pair of rubber boots on, and brave your way through the cold darkness of could-be-your- future.”

I have always been inspired by how creative minds through time and space may pick similar ideas and inspirations. One might imagine such minds are all a family across time, where your stories would be heard and accepted. Communication is a multi-layered phenomenon (as Annika Arnold explains in her book). It is not a linear process and it is important at all levels. The messages we get through storytelling are essential for us, beings brought up with stories. Through narratives, we better understand our lives and where we stand.

My work is rooted in the chain of stories “that somebody else has already told”, as Umberto Eco’s noted in his podcast for ‘In the Name of Rose’. My artworks expand ideas and themes from my previous projects, about a complex world in need of balance. Water has a powerful presence as well as a variety of symbols, pin-up images from our collective memory and mythology. Decades ago I discovered the Irish-born American professor of relative mythology Joseph Campbell. What I got from his works was the firm belief that traditions and rituals for all communities gravitate around similar essential values. Before these Anthropocene times, people followed the rhythm of nature and their rituals were closely connected to its changes. Through my work I look for relevance between past and present, creating links among stories and events from different time realities. I blur the edges to challenge the imagination and provoke curiosity to archetypal models and stories from the past.

At least back then the Noah family had a solution for the Great Flood – they built an Ark.

I keep walking along the beach.

Storytelling - showing Ivilina Kouneva's 'Sea Levels' oil and acrylics on canvas
‘Sea Levels’, oil and acrylics on canvas
Artist: Ivilina Kouneva © 2021

Find out more

Climate Change and Story Telling: Narrative and Cultural Meaning in Environmental Communication by Annika Arnold (2018) is published by Palgrave MacMillan.

Minga Indigena is a collective of groups, organizations and communities from indigenous nations throughout Abya Yala (the American continent). Minga is the coming together of people when there is a calling. “The leaders of Indigenous Minga come from the highest communities in the Andes, the deepest forests of the Amazon, the islands farthest away from the continents, the driest desert in the world, the northernmost territory in Alaska and the largest reserves of water in southern Patagonia. They come to help humanity remember what it is to be ‘human’ and to invite them to join the cause for climate and biocultural diversity from a new perspective.” Minga Indígena has participated in the COPs since Rio + 20 in 2012, including Paris, Cancun, Peru, Madrid and Glasgow. You can view their presentation at COP26 here.

Narrating Landscapes: How Indigenous Storytelling Can Unlock Our Environment’s Past, at Columbia ClimateSchool’s GlacierHub blog (2/9/21) relates a better understanding of indigenous knowledge can help create links that improve our understanding of our changing climate. “This method of storytelling doesn’t always conform to scientific approaches that seek to dissect and isolate information; instead, it is an integrated wealth of information that draws from years of coexisting with the landscape a tribe inhabits. Western data-gathering rendered this knowledge static, contradicting the essential living quality of storytelling.”

Ivilina Kouneva

Ivilina Kouneva

An artist using painting and cut-out compositions to deepen understanding of the fragility of life in current times, and working with communities to 'de-pollute' our minds ...
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