The Rise of Climate Fiction #1: Beyond Dystopia and Utopia

In our latest Members’ Post, author David Thorpe gives an overview of the development of fictional works addressing climate change. This was a talk he gave to a recent workshop on Popular Narratives of Environmental Risk – part of a series called Fate, Luck and Fortune – and I’m delighted he is sharing this with ClimateCultures. In this first of two parts, David starts with his own discovery of the term ‘Clif-fi’ when he published his novel, Stormteller – and how its rise reveals the tension between our twin fascinations with utopian and dystopian visions.

I hadn’t heard of Cli-fi until my novel Stormteller came out in 2014. It’s a novel for young adults, set where I used to live in Borth, north Wales, a beautiful part of the country. Climate activist and writer George Marshall read it and told me I’d written a cli-fi novel. I said, what’s that? And he put me in touch with Dan Bloom, who’d coined the term in 2007. Bloom is not an academic but a self-styled journalist and campaigner, he likes being an outsider. An ex-pat American, he lives in Taiwan, blogging and tweeting as the self-appointed guardian of all things cli-fi.

Cli-fi is fiction about climate change. I’d written a novel which was about climate change, set ten years in the future, when a storm surge means Tomos’ house is destroyed and he has to live with his sworn enemy, Bryn. But Bryn’s smallholding is raided by people from Birmingham, desperate for food as the supermarkets are empty. This sets in motion a deeply upsetting series of events. So I marketed Stormteller as cli-fi.

Stormteller, by David Thorpe
Artist: Elaine Franks © 2014
http://www.elainefranksartwork.co.uk

On the back of that we got the Hay Festival to agree to hold its first panel session on cli-fi, which I invited George to sit on as a way of returning the favour, and I brought in a couple of other cli-fi writers, like Saci Lloyd. Saci is the author of The Carbon Diaries 2015 (written in 2007) and 2017 (written the following year). These are written for teenage girls in particular.

Saci discussed how she had been working on climate change with kids in schools and youth groups, using the book to stimulate conversations. “Compared to superheroes or music, climate change is a pretty dull subject but I’ve learned that the best way to get my message across is to be passionate, completely committed. Gradually they move from being apathetic to ‘What? Why didn’t we know any of this!'”

That, for me, is what cli-fi is for. That’s the measure of its success. To wake people up. The panel at Hay was asked by the public there why we feel the need to talk about climate change in books. Well, basically, because it’s hardly taught in schools. “If you do geography or science, then you might touch on it,” said Saci. “But it’s not a core subject, so it’s quite possible to go right through school and come out the other not knowing anything about climate change.” There you go. Amazing. The most pressing subject facing the planet and we pretend it isn’t happening.

So I heard myself defending this: “There’s nothing wrong with using fiction to talk about serious subjects. Children’s writers have been doing this since Charles Kingsley wrote The Water Babies about child chimney sweeps.” Yet there was a young Telegraph journalist sitting on the front row. She took what I said and turned into a headline in the following day’s printed version of the paper, which read: “Climate activists say: ‘We must infect children’s minds'”. Infect children’s minds. As if they’re not infected anyway by advertising and junk food and social media.

So, with the predictable inevitability of the internet, this was soon picked up by nutters and climate sceptics. And the next thing I knew I was being accused of corruption of minors, child molestation and even, in one tweet from a fundamentalist Jewish organisation, of being Hitler. Which just goes to show the truth of Godwin’s Law, that any internet argument will inevitably lead to somebody being accused of being a Nazi.

Defining cli-fi

So what else is cli-fi? If you read the Wikipedia entry it cites Jules Verne’s 1889 novel The Purchase of the North Pole as an early harbinger, which imagines climate change due to tilting of Earth’s axis. His Paris in the Twentieth Century, written in 1883 and set during the 1960s, has Paris have a sudden drop in temperature which lasts for three years. Wikipedia lists J. G. Ballard’s climate extremism novels from the early ’60s; then, as knowledge of climate change increased, fiction about it really started coming out, one of the earliest being Susan M. Gaines’s Carbon Dreams.

Jules Verne’s The Purchase of the North Pole First English edition, 1891

Michael Crichton’s State of Fear (2004) is a techno-thriller that portrays climate change as “a vast pseudo-scientific hoax”. And Margaret Atwood is always referenced in articles about cli-fi because of her dystopian trilogy Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013). Oryx and Crake envisages a world where “social inequality, genetic technology and catastrophic climate change, has finally culminated in some apocalyptic event”. You’ve got corporate compounds, gated communities and “unsafe, populous and polluted” urban areas where the plebs live. Yep, standard dystopic stuff.

Which gets me thinking. Do the stories we tell influence the future we will live in? Or are we just speaking to the converted?

Do the stories we tell influence the future we will live in?

I know from my own introspection that fear is a massive motivator for negative behaviour… In Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine, fear of being a victim of crime is given as a prominent reason for the huge disparity between homicide rates in Canada and the USA, many other factors being equal. But what fuels the fear? The daily dosage of crime reportage meted out to the American public in the media, says Moore. This drives gun ownership and an obsession with security, a perception that crime rates are much worse than they really are and a consequent perceived need to arm oneself and shoot first.

In other words, he says, the moral, social and political fabric of American society is being skewed by the distorted picture of the world being drip fed into the American psyche. In this feedback loop, each random mass shooting and each deliberate homicide reinforces the feeling of threat and the conviction that possession of loaded firearms is the best form of personal security, a feeling that is precisely opposite to the reality. For – as Moore’s documentary portrays – in Canada, where levels of gun ownership are approximately equal to the USA and the population is also racially mixed, many people do not even bother to lock their doors and murder rates are extremely low. News media and politicians there do not fuel the inevitability of violence as a means of solving problems, instead focusing on the need for mediation, negotiation and compromise.

Similarly, how else can we explain the fact that it’s only really in America that climate scepticism reaches epic, violent proportions, where political polarity fuelled by fake news paid for – literally, as documented by Greenpeace and others – by fossil fuel companies convinces scientifically illiterate people that they know better than 97% of the world’s climate scientists?

The conclusion I draw from this is that the stories we are told about the world out there define the way we prepare ourselves to face it. And, as Dan Bloom has it, fiction has the power to reach parts of the human psyche inaccessible to politicians and scientists. We writers like to believe we can change minds.

Or are we just speaking to the converted?

Let’s look at it from the writer’s point of view. Some of us are thinking: what kind of world do we want to live in? What kind of future will our children inhabit? What is the best future we can imagine? But others aren’t. From Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis and Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times, through George Orwell’s 1948 book Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Lucas’ 1971 film THX 1138, Mega-City One from Judge Dredd, conceived in 1977, to Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, they have all set the template for many other stories and films, such that in the popular imagination the sprawling mega-cities of the future will largely be over-populated, polluted, broken places, featuring dark towers, high levels of surveillance and crime, their citizens treated little better than battery-reared animals, and no room for nature.

If that’s the popular image, does this mean that this makes the dystopic metropolis a self-fulfilling prophecy, subconsciously if not consciously reinforcing the mindsets of planners and architects? Does it soften up the public, preparing them to acquiesce in the face of grim and unimaginative design, polluted air, poor policing and service levels, corrupt or inefficient governance, long commute times, constant noise, high levels of personal danger?

Where would you rather live: Utopia or dystopia?

William Gibson, in his 1979 cyberpunk thriller Neuromancer, describes Night City, a fictional city located between Los Angeles and San Francisco on the west coast of the United States as being “like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button.” Dystopian par excellence, it has inspired a roleplay game, Cyberpunk 2020, and a detailed guide book – not bad for a fictional city. Night City is an arcology – a portmanteau of “architecture” and “ecology” – a design concept for very densely populated habitats, coined and popularized by architect Paolo Soleri. But it turns out that he and other architects have conceived highly sustainable and desirable arcologies. Soleri’s concept appears as early as 1969 in his Arcology: City in the Image of Man (MIT Press, 1969). Attempts have even been made to build them.

Soleri intended his Babel IIB arcology as “an anti-consumptive force and a city form that is the only choice compared to pathological sprawl and environmental destruction”. It was designed for a population of 520,000, at a height of 1,050 meters. Besides residential spaces it includes gardens and waste processing plants, everything you need: parks, food factories, etc.

Paulo Soleri’s ‘Arcology: The City in the Iage of Man’

Funny that Gibson took the idea and then reverted it to pathological sprawl and environmental destruction. Just goes to show that the devil gets the best tunes. Which, I submit, is part of our problem as we collectively, culturally, try to imagine the future.

Why are there more dystopias than utopias? Partly the answer is obvious – in dystopias there is more conflict and this means more drama. In a utopia, less so, so they are intrinsically boring. But, I submit, we need the examples of pleasant potential societies to aspire to. Or is that the province of religion?

Some cli-fi novels contain solutions. The Sea and Summer by George Turner (1987) ends with the protagonists being taken from a hellish part of the world ruled by misguided religious nutters to a sanely governed one. But we don’t get to see much of it.

Ben Parzybok, author of Sherwood Nation (2014) did it in Portland, Ohio, where he lives. He imagined it being wrecked by prolonged water shortages and part of the city forming an autonomous zone. In an interview I did with him he said:

“Since I live in the center of the temporary autonomous zone in Sherwood Nation, it was a joy to bike through it and imagine where a wall would go, or guard posts, or how the micro-nation might implement a trade route — or even how I might destroy a friend’s house. Also, the Occupy movement was setting up TAZs in many cities, and so I extrapolated that to a full-fledged alternative government.”

But he doesn’t think it’s a utopia, just a grass-roots way of organising society. And it gets destroyed, easily, by the authorities. He said:

“I would love to try to write a utopia, especially because these visions are subjective, though I’m guessing it would be more challenging. Story is dull without conflict or tension, and so the author would need to find a means of adding that into a utopia without sacrificing the utopic nature of it. A book with a character who wanders between a dystopia and utopia, I would read / write.”


In the second part of this post, David discusses the importance of fiction that explores the emotional ramifications of climate change in the daily realities of the lives of its characters – and of ourselves.

Find out more:

David’s novel Stormteller is published by Cambria Books in paperback and e-book. And you can see more of his fiction and non-fiction at his website.

You can find out more about the series of workshops Fate, Luck and Fortune, which were organised by Nottingham University’s Department of Classics as part of an AHRC-funded research project into how do we talk about the risks of our environment?

The Stories We Live By

I’ve been taking a new online course on ecolinguistics and it’s been fascinating to delve into how we structure and receive our various discourses – texts, dialogues, advertising and news reports – in ways that shape our attitudes and beliefs on environmental, social and economic issues. And maybe some of the learning here is helping me get past a barrier in my thinking about climate change…

The Stories We Live By is a free online course in ecolinguistics, created by Arran Stibbe at the University of Gloucestershire and a team of volunteers from the International Ecolinguistics Association. A programme that you can study at your own pace, with an optional online forum, it looks at how language structures our environmental relationships: stories as “structures in the minds of individuals … or across the minds of multiple individuals in society.”

“Ecolinguistics analyses language to reveal the stories we live by, judges those stories from an ecological perspective, resists damaging stories, and contributes to the search for new stories to live by.” – Arran Stibbe, course notes

There are many ways of viewing the environmental challenges we face – from the bright ‘can do’ optimism of ecomodernism to the darker ecology realms of ‘uncivilisation’ and beyond. But what they have in common is a recognition that the stories we’ve told ourselves to get to this situation – stories we’ve told ourselves into – have created an urgent for us need to find new ones, better aligned with environmental imperatives.

Those old stories include those our Book Club is discussing, in Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics: myths of the unquestioned need for endless economic “growth”, narrow indicators of “healthy” GDP figures, “free markets” steering us clear of the “tragedy of the commons”. But the ideological limitations of stories can also be seen in environmental world views that shape competing planet-saving blueprints – an area also discussed in Mike Hulme’s book Why We Disagree About Climate Change.

I’m about half way through, and enjoying the very clear notes, exercises and further reading on offer with each module: moving easily but with much thought through discussions on ideologies, framings and metaphors, with fascinating examples and questions. The course will also take me through how we use stories to evaluate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the world, the identities we hold as individuals and groups, our convictions about the way the world is, and how language makes some issues invisible.

‘Words from a Glossary’ #1, Image: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017  Glossary: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk

Ecolinguistics and our stories

This could all be quite heavy, freighted with all sorts of academic terminology (‘ecolinguistics’ itself, for example). Fortunately, the notes and exercises have a light touch, using clear everyday language in between the necessary (and interesting) smattering of technical stuff (a helpful glossary covers all those new words and phrases). The course is not about finding the “correct” way of talking about the natural world and our relationships with it; there is no single, “right’ story. Yes, ecolinguistics invites us to judge the stories we receive from media, government, businesses and campaign groups, use in our professional and personal lives, or tell ourselves. But “judging a story from an ecological perspective involves comparing it with [our] own ecological philosophy, or ecosophy” – and recognising in the process that ours is one of many; our judgements are always relative to that personal perspective. 

So what does ecolinguistics involve?

  • It focuses on discourses that help shape how we act towards human and other beings and ecosystems.
  • It looks for how linguistic features form our cultural codes: the values and norms that reflect our ‘common sense’ view of the world.
  • It reveals our own ‘ecosophy’ and how different discourses align with or contradict this.
  • It raises awareness of the role of language in ecological protection or destruction, through policy, education, news and entertainment.

Early on, ‘the Ecosophy Quiz” asks us to assess our own ecological philosophy, accepting or rejecting a number of statements on a spectrum from cornucopianism, sustainable development, social ecology, ecofeminism, deep ecology, transition movement, dark mountain project, deep green resistance, voluntary human extinction movement and beyond. Interestingly, there were no overtly religious or spiritual statements to dis/agree with, which seems a lack given the central position of faith in cultures, countries and personal lives around the world.

‘Words from a Glossary’ #2, Image: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017 Glossary: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk

The problem with problems

I’ll focus more on specific aspects of the course in another post, but one early point for me has been to get me to revisit my own position, that climate change is not a problem – in the sense that it’s not something with a ‘solution’. That perspective unsettled rather than shocked me when I first heard Mike Hulme suggest several years ago. It did shock many others in the room – a gathering of people with clear ideas of what the solutions are, and a drive to get them adopted. I came to agree with Hulme’s point pretty quickly, as it spoke to my growing unease with our failure to really get to grips with … the problem. His book gave strong pointers as to why framing climate change as ‘a problem’ is a problem – at least if you want to solve it. But what I’ve struggled with since is finding an approach that really improves on ‘problem’. ‘Wicked Problems’ is a good way to conceive the messy entanglements of cause–effect–side-effect–cause, but wicked problems still seem to trigger a ‘solutions’ mindset. I looked into that with my first post, where I picked up on ‘clumsy solutions’ as a way to address ‘wicked problems’, but I could see that something was missing; proposing the idea of ‘wicked cultures’ offered part of an answer.

Hulme had also looked at ‘clumsy solutions’ in his book, “as a way of escaping from the idea that, when faced with contradictory definitions of problems and solutions, only one definition must be chosen and all others rejected … Clumsiness suggests that we construct our problems in such a way as to make them fit our capabilities for solution-making …” But he accepted that even clumsy solutions won’t ‘solve’ climate change; they will be partial and contradictory in what they deliver, not just in their methods.

“We must recognise the ‘wickedness’ of climate change and we must appreciate that while clumsiness – with all its contrariness and messiness – is perhaps the limit of our human ability to respond, it will not deliver the outcomes we seek.” – Mike Hulme.

As he points out, the idea of climate change is changing how we understand and live in the world as much as the physical phenomena we call ‘climate change’. The idea works for us – doing different work for people with different world views. In identifying some common myths behind our world views, Hulme comes back to stories: myths that embody fundamental truths, “powerful shared narratives which may bind together otherwise quite different perspectives and people.” These myths might be lamenting the loss of our ‘natural’ climate and environment; or presaging the coming apocalypse as we crash through all our tipping points; or saving ourselves through our geoengineering/GM/nuclear/nanotech mastery; or a call for and celebration of justice for the dispossessed, exploited and marginalised. He ties these neatly to Judaeo-Christian Biblical myths of Fall, Armageddon, Babel and Jubilee; others are available, of course, and these are not mutually exclusive.

Landing on “climate change as idea” rather than “climate change as problem”‘ is perhaps in danger of leaving us high and dry with grand narratives similar to those that got us in here (and have so far failed to get us out again). I’ve been looking for something more … down to earth, more pedestrian. Less likely to appeal to our messianic tendencies.

‘Words from a Glossary’ #3, Image: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017 Glossary: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk

The predicaments we live with

The Stories We Live By is not an examination of the language of climate change; its scope is the full range of ecological issues. But it does explore different framings of climate change – for example, as ‘security threat’, as ‘violence’, as ‘business’, as ‘problem’, or as ‘predicament’:

Climate change framed as a security threat: “Instead of treating the climate crisis as an environmental issue, to be dealt with by environment and energy departments alone, we need to reframe it as the overwhelming threat to national and global security which it is.” (Caroline Lucas, Green Party)

Climate change framed as violence: “Call climate change what it is: violence. Climate change is global-scale violence, against places and species as well as against human beings.” (Rebecca Solnit, writer, historian and activist)

Climate change framed as business: “Let’s reframe sustainability as the biggest and boldest supply chain challenge yet, to give the 9 billion people we expect to see on the planet quality and sustainable lives. Business is good at giving customers what they want, so let’s get on with it.” (Alan Knight, Virgin)

Climate change framed as problem: “The best solution, nearly all scientists agree, would be the simplest: stop burning fossil fuels, which would reduce the amount of carbon we dump into the atmosphere.” (Michael Specter, science journalist)

Climate change framed as predicament: “It has been revealed that humankind’s activities giving rise to our present global warming and climate change predicament occurred during that extremely short 57 year period.” (Bob Robertson, author)

To my mind, the first three of these are usually examples of, rather than alternatives to, ‘problem thinking’,  reducing the overall complex mix of issues to a single dimension and expectations that a solution is at hand. But each could also be cast as ‘predicament thinking’. The course explains the distinction:

“Many things we’ve conceptualized as problems are actually predicaments. The difference is that a problem calls for a solution; the only question is whether one can be found and made to work, and once this is done, the problem is solved. A predicament, by contrast, has no solution. Faced with a predicament, people come up with responses.” – John Michael Greer

Solutions make problems disappear; responses keep predicaments in view. Solutions promise completion; responses offer coping. Guess which sounds sexier; admit which is more honest. So, if one response is to adapt to a climate that continues changing even when all the remaining oil is left in the ground (because the atmosphere and oceans respond slowly to past greenhouse gas emissions) then these stronger, adaptive communities will still have to deal with the impacts of a changing climate. And surely we know that ‘security,’ ‘violence’ and ‘economics’, which we also treat as problems, are more like predicaments which no ‘solutions’ are likely to make disappear? Better responses might help minimise the impacts and live more safely, justly and prosperously.

If ‘security’, ‘violence’ and ‘business’ framings (and many other ways of simplifying the idea of climate change) can be deployed in either ‘problem-solution’ or ‘predicament-response’ ways, then perhaps there is another level to our stories. But whether that is so, or ‘problem’ and ‘predicament’ are simply two framings among others, The Stories We Live By has already given me something I’ve been looking for: the extra step beyond my earlier journey from ‘problem’ to ‘wicked problem’ to ‘clumsy solutions’, but without leaving me in the slightly nebulous territory of ‘idea.’ Predicaments are what humans do, after all.

It’s refreshing to take a course that invites me to acknowledge my subjectivity, my own set of values and attitudes, and informs them with some new thinking on ecosophies, framings and, in particular, predicaments. The Stories We Live By asks me to acknowledge that this subjectivity is where I build my judgements of others’ views and actions as protecting or damaging to the environment. That stories, and not unquestionable facts, live in our heads and shape how we think, speak and act is not a new thought for me or for many people, but it’s one we need to come back to if we’re to avoid our own judgements taking on the same ‘natural’ force that the dominant narratives have assumed. Knowing our stories as stories can help us keep open the space we need for creative conversations.

Find out more

You can view and download all the notes and exercises for the course at The Stories We Live By. And if you register, you can also access the forum, additional reading and volunteer tutors. Everything is free and available to enjoy at your own pace.

The course draws from Arran Stibbe‘s book, Ecolinguistics: Language, Ecology and the Stories We Live By

The original essay from which the John Michael Greer quote above is taken can be found here, in the Archdruid Report archive. I am currently reading his book, Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush, which includes essays from that site.

Mike Hulme‘s book Why We Disagree About Climate Change, from which his quotes are taken, has been a key influence in setting up ClimateCultures, and there is more at his site.

Questioning Problems & Predicaments? Space for creative thinking...  

"For you, is climate change a problem or a predicament? How would your creative response change if you swapped these frames? How would you talk differently about it with others?"

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The Art of Noise

A lively, loud gathering of scientists, musicians, journalists, sound artists and social scientists can be both fun and thought-provoking. But my biggest impression from the creativity that unfolded at Climate Symphony Lab was the sheer noise. Physical noise echoing in the studio, and the overhwhelm of data placed in front of us as raw material for our creative thinking. Later, unexpectedly, I found Hilary Mantel helping me make sense of my impressions. ‘History is not the past’, ‘the map is not the territory’ – and the review is not the performance. These are merely my highly partial impressions and reflections on a day making music with the Anthropocene.

Climate Symphony Lab, Arts Admin 2017
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

In her BBC Reith Lectures for Radio 4, Hilary Mantel said “my concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims.” As a historical novelist, Mantel’s dead are from the past, but always present:

“St Augustine says ‘the dead are invisible, they are not absent’. I don’t claim we can hear the past or see it. But I say we can listen and look.” – Hilary Mantel

But the dead can be other things too. Things we’ve made invisible by not looking can become dead to our thoughts, our concerns and actions.

Of historical fiction, Mantel claims: “Done properly, it doesn’t say ‘Believe this’ but ‘Consider this.’” We need history and science to reveal the facts that are out there in the world – and art to explore the truths within it.

On a hot June Saturday, I joined the Climate Symphony Lab hosted by Arts Admin’s 2 Degrees Festival of art and climate change. It was one of a series of workshops organised by Disobedient, Forma and composer Jamie Perera to explore how turning data into sound can bring fresh engagement with climate change. Soundscapes can spark understanding in ways that tables, graphs and spreadsheets rarely can; sonification is a lively counterpart to the more familiar visualisation through pie charts, Venn diagrams, timelines and other infographics.

Why use sound? We’re so used to privileging our visual skills and understanding (‘seeing is believing’) that switching to other modes can reset and enhance our perception. Sound has a deep, ‘felt’ presence in our bodies. As a way of detecting and working with patterns, it can be both effective and affective.

But, like any representation, sonification presents dilemmas, risks misrepresentation. The workshop was centred on just such questions: Where does the desire to engage people end? Do we sacrifice accuracy for ‘accessibility’? What stories are we telling – and not telling? What makes a good story and who decides? How does this inform the type of data we use? Is this art, or journalism?

With these thorny issues in mind, Climate Symphony Lab offered an additional twist to the sonification process: participation. What happens when you bring scientists, journalists, composers, musicians, sound technologists and others into the same space, not just to discuss but to do?

To frame the possibilities and ground our experiment, we heard from a climate scientist, a design researcher, a political geographer and sound artist, and a researcher working at the intersection of music, computing and biology. From the mundane realities of collecting climate data (sometimes literally dragging it up from the sea in buckets), through ‘dark data’, ‘data wash’ and problems of scale, to the soundscape as diagnostic tool, the talks presented rich stories. But it was sound itself – specifically, noise – that made the event disturbingly meaningful for me.

The echo chamber

A strong memory from my TippingPoint experiences was early on day one of the first Weatherfronts event in 2014 – also a hot June day. 90 writers and researchers were standing quietly in two large concentric circles. Inner and outer rings of strangers faced each other close up, waiting for the instruction to stop listening to the facilitator and start talking to each other, one to one. The hall was full, right up to the limit. With its hard floor, high ceiling and walls of glass and stone, at the word ‘Go!’, the noise levels instantly rocketed from ground zero, echoing somewhere up beyond maximum. The sort of sonic environment I usually hate, but the shock of it had undeniable energy, a bodily force. The decibels just rolled on as one circle shifted inside the other, bringing new pairings into conversation. The image that came immediately to me was as if I’d opened a heavy door into a packed turkey shed and it had closed again with me inside. A surreal, animalian moment. I wish I had a recording of it.

60 people in a studio can also stage a pretty good turkey shed sound effect. When we split into two large teams and started grappling with what we’d been asked to accomplish, our conversations couldn’t help fragmenting into groups of twos and threes, each struggling to make headway under the cacophony of the whole. That, I imagine, was not part of the design here any more than at Weatherfronts, but it reminded me to look at spaces with cautious respect for what they can achieve through the obstacles they throw up as much as what we hope our plans for them will deliver.

So, what was being asked of us? For each team to take a selection of data on offer – mostly already visualised for us as graphs – and select the four datasets we thought might have a shared story to tell. Play with a simple visual musical scale, overlaying transparencies of a mini piano keyboard along the vertical axis of each graph, to decide how we wanted the changing data to ‘sound’. And have the workshop gurus do the technical bit of making that happen, using either our choice of ‘instruments’, other digital effects, or sounds we’d recorded ourselves.

Simple. Even someone unmusical like me could grasp the principles with no knowledge of what making music actually involves or how to go from paper (lots of paper) to performance in two hours. No problem.

Taking instructions
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

The animal in the room

No, other than the sheer noise, I was worried about something else entirely. We were all up for being creative in the face of the climate problem, but seemed unintentionally to be reproducing a big part of the problem. As one of the speakers had said, “To frame is to exclude,” and it turned out that the living non-human world had been framed out of our climate concerns.

It might just have been the noise levels jarring my sensibilities, but I was feeling uneasy that our data had nothing to say about more-than-human experience. It was all either physical (carbon, ice, sea levels …) or human (waste, migration, air quality …). And there was a lot of it – a stack of printouts showing this growing or that shrinking, and sometimes going all over the place in the process. Why had so much story already been cut out: species extinctions and marginalisations, habitat erasures and domestications? Where was the wild? This wasn’t a criticism of the process we were trying out, but a live critique of how we habitually see and shape only what we choose. The world is always bigger than that, messier, hopelessly entangled. Understandably, we exclude so much, needing to simplify what remains in our field of vision so we have something we can think with. But this demands self-awareness and questioning: that we lift ourselves out of our echo chambers.

I wasn’t the only one trying to make sense of the creative challenge and its limitations. Everyone brought their own interests, their own take on the ground rules, and a different plea for another view on what was meaningful. And the noise continued, seeming to swamp any signals….

Trawling data
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

And yet. Somewhere in all that, I gradually found that the noise became my signal. Something meaningful emerged, slow and uncertain. The process: messy, seemingly chaotic, definitely confusing. The data, even our small sample: overwhelming. The choices: full of conflict. The time constraints: ridiculous. It was all pushing us to compromise so as not to fail. We’d fail anyway, but you have to act. Sound familiar? We had become our own representation of the global ‘problem’.

Yes, all data attempts to ‘represent’ messy and complex realities that can’t be fully captured: constructing usable human-shaped containers for a world that’s always overflowing our efforts to order it; hiding our choices even as we make them, rendering some things invisible to highlight others. In our attempts to isolate a signal and reveal meaningful patterns of change, the excluded seeps back in as noise, distorting the filters. This east London studio, this mass of graphs and files, this intention to make music, were our own container, choice and filter. And for one afternoon at least, the world was going to work through these artefacts and be creatively distorted into something playful, representing and misrepresenting it all at once. Fun!

Dissonance and disciplines 

In one group, we tore up sheets of paper at the studio mic – the shreds snowing to the floor – to call up the spirit of London’s waste accumulating at our feet. Later, another group’s feet came marching towards the mic, bodies shuffling and gasping to channel the migrant Others from ‘there’ seeking refuge ‘here’. Whispered breaths became a questionable air quality. ‘Proper’ instruments became rising carbon dioxide levels or ocean acidity, or the projected scenarios of warming futures.

The shred
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

Then, sitting quietly again, listening to the final pieces our teams had thrown together, we heard for the first – and only – time what ‘our’ data had become, what we’d made of the world outside the studio.

I’d wondered whether to push for one of our team’s tracks to be silence: a missing voice for all the species we’d locked out of the room, the habitats slipping away under a wake of data-churning human activity. Or maybe we could have their silences cut across the other soundstreams, polluting and disrupting our human-centredness… In the end, listening to our dissonant but surprisingly beautiful collage, I found my worries allayed. Maybe it was only my imagination – anxiety made artistic – but somehow the wild had its voice in the growling, creaking sounds I couldn’t identify. Was that the asthmatic air quality of civilised London somehow calling back others that had been here before and might be again, after? And the final, faint whisper from the last ripped corner of paper being torn down to its end, was that an insectoid rustling from the corners of the room? In my hearing at least, the excluded were back in: over the fence, regardless of us. Their refusal to be ruled out maybe points to a space for undisciplinary, not just multidisciplinary, working.

Early on, one of the workshop leaders had asked us to wonder if “we can or should make something beautiful out of tragedy?” And the answer is “Yes, somehow.” The tragedy remains, but picked out in a sharp relief that maybe helps us see how we should attend to it, care for it. I think everyone shared a sense that we’d organised enough of the chaos to make something ephemeral but with impact, for us at least. Whether that is art-representing-data-representing-reality or, more simply, science-informing-artists-making-art is a perennial question. And, somehow, misses the point.

“History,” Hilary Mantel continued in her lectures, “is not the past. It is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record.” We can and should have better debates about what we can ensure is left on the record of changing climates, so that this can inform our understanding of the different culpabilities, vulnerabilities, responsibilities. But however much we measure and analyse, we’re always bound into our own ignorance and will continually recreate it; so the urge and the need to organise ignorance through our art as much as our science and our history are urgent and hopeful.

Unexpectedly, Hilary Mantel has helped me think through my own impressions of an intriguing experience that required a bit of distance to make better sense of. So I leave the final thought to her, knowing her concern for the past also speaks of the future:

“When we imagine a lost world, we must first re-arrange our senses – listen and look, before judging. But we do rush to judgement, and our judgement swings about – at one moment we find the past frightening and alien, and the next moment we are giving way to nostalgia.” – Hilary Mantel

Find out more

You can read about Climate Symphony in this recent article by Alexandra Simon-Lewis in Wired. She talks to Disobedient’s Leah Borromeo, who highlights the importance of both peer-reviewed science and first person perspective, and transparency of process: “Opening things from the start so all the bones and blood of the thing are on display is important.” From the Wired article, you can also listen to Soundcloud tracks from Climate Symphony and from a previous Lab workshop at ONCA in Brighton.

If you’re quick, there just might be time to experience Climate Symphony at the East End Film Festival in London on Sunday 25th June. And there is another Climate Symphony Lab on 8th July, in Newcastle.

Hilary Mantel’s 2017 Reith Lectures are available at the BBC website.

Disobedient Films – “established by artist-filmmakers Katharine Round and Leah Borromeo to disrupt traditional documentary form and extract new angles and emotions around factual narratives” – has much more work for you to discover. Artists of Our Natural World includes a section on artists, Dan Harvey and Heather Ackroyd, who create a photographic photosynthesis work in response to the planned exploratory oil drilling on Leith Hill, Surrey. “By manipulating the natural processes that fuel life itself, these British artists blur the line between science, nature and art, all while drawing attention to climate change.”

This short clip from BBC World Service’s programme Click features Clare Malrieux talking about her climate sound artwork, Climat Général.

And there is also plenty to explore on up-to-date visualisation of climate change data, including animations by climate scientist Ed Hawkins on global temperatures, sea ice and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at Climate Lab Book. Ed was one of the speakers at the Climate Change Lab.

Questioning Representation? Space for creative thinking...  

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A People of the Fall

Rediscovering William Golding’s novel, The Inheritors, in an Oxfam bookshop not only provided the first ‘book prize’ offered for a Members’ Post on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects (see Julien Masson’s excellent contribution: Three Objects #2), but an opportunity to reread this classic a couple of decades after I first discovered it. Here is my review of this essential reimagining of a key transition in the story of humanity.

In his 1955 classic, The Inheritors, William Golding famously reimagined the lost world of the Neanderthals at the moment when the very last of them were losing it. His family of hominids – the People – encounter the incoming Homo sapiens – the New People – and only bitter, unprecedented experience can tell them what this will mean.

Almost the entire novel is experienced through the eyes and other senses of Lok, one of the family group making the seasonal journey inland from their winter coastal grounds to the forested uplands. Here, they shelter in a rocky gap in the forest: an ancestral cave, barely more than a recess in the cliff terrace overlooking a glacier-fed river, with its mystery-giving ice field above and deadly waterfall below.

Cover illustration to The Inheritors
Artist: Neil Gower © 2011
Source: http://www.neilgower.com/william-golding/

Golding worried that his portrayal of Neanderthals wouldn’t stand up to expert scrutiny. “I haven’t done any research for the book at all,” he warned his editor, “just brooded over what I know myself.” His editor replied that any expert’s suggestions “would be the wrong sort” and published the book as it stood. A later essay by Golding’s daughter Judy – marking the 60th anniversary of the novel – cast light on just what it was that the author had been brooding over:

‘Some of the book’s preoccupations are understandable. It was barely nine years since the end of the second world war. Postwar austerity and rationing had restricted life to a degree hard to convey now. Housing was desperately lacking. Food was not plentiful, and even scarcity could not make it interesting. Small wonder then that hunger is one of the dominant themes of The Inheritors – an aching hunger that slows you down and makes you less able to move but also to think. Providing food is the main concern both of the Neanderthals (“the people”) and the group of Homo sapiens (“the New People”). It is hunger that produces the darkest event in the book, and the deepest sense of guilt. I believe this guilt is in some ways an expression of the complex remorse my father felt for the war.’

Judy Golding claims that her father’s sense of guilt – “not only over the people he himself had killed … but also for the role of his species in creating the whole machinery of war” was also a kind of hunger, one that consumes humanity.

Rereading The Inheritors after 25 years, I was surprised at first by the extent to which it makes for quite hard reading. It’s beautifully written, as I remember with all his novels I’d read in my twenties; but I’d forgotten just how Golding used the restrictions of language to convey the world through the thought-images of our distant cousins – distant in time, and also in consciousness. Through the eyes of Lok, his people’s social and natural world (with no distinction possible between these aspects of being and belonging) is rendered as timelessly familiar to him and his family, while unfamiliar to us. The People’s lives are practically tool-free – every need of a sick elder for a drink means a trip by someone down to the river to fetch water that has to be cupped in their hands all the way back up to the cave. Every step and act is dictated by the need to eat, drink, shelter and avoid the predatory hyenas and cats. Our reading of their life is difficult, as we struggle at times to make out what it is that Lok and the others are seeing. When Lok spies the New People drinking water as if it is being given to them by “a wobbly animal” that one of them holds under her arm, and which goes flat and empty when she accidentally drops it on the ground, he doesn’t grasp that they’ve used an animal skin as a container, and we don’t see at first that this is what he has witnessed.

Darkness visible

Much of what Lok witnesses makes sense to us (and, too late, to him) in retrospect, and also through the reactions of his mate, Fa. She seems to grasp more about these strange new arrivals – of their darker side, especially. When Lok persists in not understanding what has become of their daughter, Fa cannot explain (or bring herself to) but her dumbfounded reactions to his ignorance are moments of heart-breaking tragedy, as we come to apprehend something that is never shown, stated or explained. This truth about the New People – us – is not explicable, because it is not comprehensible. Golding hides “the darkest event in the book” from us, just as Fa hides it from Lok as they huddle together in a treetop looking down on the drunken, violent rituals of the famished humans after their unsuccessful hunting trip.

Golding gave his Neanderthals basic language, which they use sparingly, but a rich sensory and imaginal understanding of their world. Much of their communication takes place in the sharing of pictures, a form of telepathy that occasionally helps to transfer novel ideas from person to person. Lacking a strong sense of past or future, their eternal present is a tragic illusion for the People; only we know what is coming and what the changes will mean – for them, and for us.

It may be unhelpful to fixate on the People as Neanderthals – and therefore to worry about the accuracy of Golding’s portrayal of them. Clearly, the story acts as a recasting of the Biblical Fall. A central symbol in the novel is the waterfall. Always present as an image of force and danger for the forest dwellers, it plays a literal role in their ending. But it’s also a source of realisation for Lok in its new role as metaphor, when he starts to see things through that novel form of understanding: one thing in the guise of another. It’s this transition from proto- to fully human – from imagining to rationalising, inhabiting to remaking – that marks our self-exile from the Eden of a world that lives around and inside us, the inheritors.

Darkness Visible: H sapiens enters the Long Barrow, West Kennet
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2016

Nothing stands against them

Fa goes missing after a clash with the incomers and, for the first time in his life – and in his picture of the life of his people – Lok is alone in the forest. He can hear the sounds and shouts of the New People in the distance, as they cut their way through the trees to travel uphill with the hollow logs they have used to cross the river and which they are taking with them into the interior. The noise diminishes:

‘He could hear no more than the voice of the old man when it rose in command or fury. Down here where the forest changed to marsh and the sky opened over bushes, straggling willow and water, there was no other sign of their passage. The woodpigeons talked, preoccupied with their mating; nothing was changed … All things profited and thrived in a warm windlessness.’

But Lok is now able to contemplate this seemingly unchanged scene with “a new head”, knowing now that appearances are deceptive; in fact everything has changed, thanks to the newcomers’ violent nature. His own change includes the ability to see likenesses he’s never been conscious of before.

‘The new head knew that certain things were gone and done with like a wave of the sea. It knew that the misery must be embraced painfully as a man might hug thorns to him and it sought to comprehend the new people from whom all the changes came … He had used likeness all his life without being aware of it … Now, in a convulsion of the understanding Lok found himself using likeness as a tool as surely as ever he had used a stone to hack at sticks or meat. Likeness could grasp the white-faced hunters with a hand, could put them into the world where they were thinkable and not a random and unrelated irruption … they had emptied the gap of its people with little more than a turn of their hands.

“They are like the river and the fall, they are a people of the fall; nothing stands against them.”‘

Whatever the author’s intention in casting the pre-Fall people as simple, loving and unaggressive scavenger-gatherers (they never kill animals for food but do take kills discarded by predators, for which “there is no blame”), inseparable from their environment, while the New People hunt with weapons, fight among themselves and walk in fear through the forest, Golding also showed their common humanity. Both groups’ lives are centred on family, emotional understanding of their community and a need for security. This tension between commonality and ‘Othering’ must have had great resonance in a world torn open by total war, death camp genocides, forced retreat from imperial self-delusions of ‘manifest destiny’ and mounting Cold War fears of apocalypse. The resonance should be even greater for us, in the Anthropocene – a new age for the new people – where these collective insanities shapeshift and accelerate into even greater forms.

Perhaps the old people here are more a mark of our lost connection with the more-than-human world than of the origins of our species’ apparent drive to exterminate (merely) its own competing sub-cultures. With their red hair and mode of walking bent forward, Golding’s ‘Neanderthals’ perhaps seem more like orangutans (“people of the forest” in Malay); their gentleness and too-late understanding of what the New People are capable of chimes with a picture of how far Homo sapiens is prepared to go to cut itself out of the web of life by cutting down the web itself.

Malay Archipelago Orang-Utan attacked by Dyaks
Woodcut by Joseph Wolf, 1869
Source: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File%3AMalay_Archipelago_Orang-Utan_attacked_by_Dyaks.jpg

Fa listens patiently to Lok’s assertion that their daughter is still with her kidnappers, carried off with the canoes now being rolled uphill on felled tree trunks:

‘Fa looked mournfully at his face. She pointed to a smear on the smoothed earth that had been a slug.

They have gone over us like a hollow log. They are like a winter.”‘

The inheritors upstream

Once the novel is done with the story of the people of the forest, the final chapter is for the inheritors, and we see the world through their eyes. They are paddling upstream, free of the forest that they feared for its natural perils and its red-haired devils. The protagonist now is Tuami, a hunter and a rival of the old man who leads them as shaman. Also with them in their boats, alongside their passions, superstitions and cleverness with thoughts and tools, lies a baby – another captive from the forest people. The red-haired devil-boy, looked on with mixed amusement and repulsion by the inheritors, is protected by the dominant but childless woman of the group. Tuami watches the comical play of the adoptive mother and infant and feels the inspiration he has been lacking for the ivory knife handle he is shaping.

‘The sun shone on the [woman’s] head and the [baby’s] rump and quite suddenly everything was all right again and the sands had sunk back to the bottom of the pool. The rump and the head fitted each other and made a shape you could feel with your hands. They were waiting in the rough ivory of the knife-haft that was so much more important than the blade. They were an answer, the frightened, angry love of the woman and the ridiculous, intimidating rump that was wagging at her head, they were a password.’

A password to where? To a distant future where part of our inheritance is the result of an interbreeding between one branch of humanity and another – between two aspects of humanity – and maybe some hope for a tempering of the fearful and violent separation of culture from nature?

Find out more

Judy Golding’s article in the Guardian marking the 60th anniversary of the book’s publication offers many insights into the writing of her father’s novel, and the inspiration he took from his own family in portraying the family of forest people.

Novelist Penelope Lively’s rereading of the novel makes the connection between the book and the then recent discovery of the prehistoric art of the Lascaux cave painting which inspired the novel’s original cover. “The dustjacket has that leaping stag figure from the walls of the Lascaux cave – half human, half animal – which places it fair and square within the context of its inspiration. It is hard to realise now the effect that the discovery of the Lascaux paintings had in the post-war period: those images haunted the imagination of a generation. For some, like Golding, it was the implications of the images and their setting; for others, it was the extraordinary sophistication and perception of the paintings themselves.” (You can read more about Lascaux, its discovery and art, in this entry by Emma Groeneveld in the Ancient History Encyclopedia).

This blog by science writer James Kingsland at Plastic Brain points out some of the problems with Golding’s novel as a literal representation of the Neanderthals (but its truthfulness in the broad sweep) – and echoes a feeling that reading Lok and Fa as more distant primate relatives could be helpful.

 

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Utopia and Its Discontents

Writer David Thorpe was one of the five winners of a commission from the 2016 Weatherfronts conference. All the commissions from that and from the 2014 event have now been brought together in a combined anthology, available as a free download.

I have a story, ‘For The Greater Good’, in the new collection, Weatherfronts. Here is a tracing of my thought processes that led to me writing it.

Originating with Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia, the eponymous word literally means “no-place”, or any non-existent society ‘described in considerable detail’… as in his book. But over time it has come to mean an ideal sort of society in which everyone has what they need and there is peace and justice for all. Perhaps everyone has their own idea of what utopia would be like.

 

The Island – illustration from Utopia, 1516
Artist: Thomas More © British Library Board http://www.bl.uk/learning/images/21cc/utopia/large1678.html

Its opposite is dystopia, a term coined 352 years later in 1868 by the philosopher J.S. Mill, who used it to denounce the then government’s Irish land policy. Dystopian fictions became popular in the 20th century. Dystopian movies now seem to dominate our screens, all graphically and dramatically prophesying a dire future.

I fear that there is a danger that by populating our imaginations with pictures of a future of suffering by the masses, environmental despoliation, endless conflict and/or the dominance of machines, as in films like Metropolis and Blade Runner and novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four then we could end up creating the very world that we fear. In other words that these prophecies become self-fulfilling.

By contrast, what are the features of utopia? Should we instead be picturing this?

Are we living in Utopia but don’t realise it?

I started thinking that for people living 500 years ago, the way we live now would actually seem like a utopia.

Just think:

  • All year round we are able to eat an incredible variety and plenitude of food from all over the world.
  • If we get ill we are taken care of by doctors and nurses for free, and there is always a hospital nearby.
  • People increasingly live past 100 years of age. If no one can look after them they are looked after by carers in special homes.
  • There are no poor houses or workhouses, instead if you cannot work you are given money to make sure you have somewhere to live and can buy food.
  • If you are mentally handicapped or ill, you’re not shut away in an awful madhouse, you are given medicines or therapies to make you feel better or manage your illness.
  • People with disabilities are cared for and their special qualities understood and valued.
  • Human rights are recognised and protected in law.
  • We live in warm homes and can travel incredibly cheaply anywhere in the world in a few hours.
  • We can talk to people anywhere, watch movies, take photographs and videos, listen to music and find out almost anything we like using cheap gadgets that fit in our pockets.

This would all be considered incredible, even 100 years ago. Miraculous even. But do we think we are living in Utopia? No! We are only too aware of what is wrong with our society: injustice, environmental destruction, war, pollution, climate change, inequality….

Of the above list of benefits, the increase in life expectancy, the widespread availability of more than enough food, improved health, and the increase in wealth can all be attributed to the industrial revolution and to the widespread availability of fossil fuels. The downsides of this are climate change and pollution.

These downsides are what at the time were the unforeseen consequences of what was considered hugely beneficial.

Then what is it?

So I began to imagine: what if we created a ‘utopia’ in the UK, based upon the ideals expressed in Zero Carbon Britain and One Planet Living? What would be the unforeseen consequences?

In other words, what if we had a society which could feed everybody with food grown within the country and all energy was renewably generated? It would seem ideal to us, but what might be downsides?

First, how would it work? ‘Ecological Footprinting’ is the science of measuring the environmental impact of a society against its share of the Earth’s ‘carrying capacity’. The idea of an ecological footprint is that it is linked to laws of supply and demand. I will explore this in a later post. For now, though, on the supply side there is the availability of natural resources and the ability of the Earth to absorb the waste products and other environmental consequences from our activities. And on the demand side there is the level of population and its corresponding consumption level.

For the world to be sustainable the demand must not exceed the supply, or we are burning up the future to satisfy the present – as we are now. If the entire population of the planet lived the same lifestyle that we have adopted in the Global North, then together we would need the equivalent of at least three Earths’ worth of resources. Which we don’t have.

We are beginning to get used to the idea that sensors, meters and other monitoring equipment can measure in real time all kinds of things from energy use to traffic levels, productivity, resource use and so on. At the same time algorithms are becoming more and more sophisticated in the way that they analyse the results of all this monitoring and make use of the data processed, incorporating them in feedback loops.

If we extrapolate this tendency into the future we can imagine that a society which attempts to sustainably manage itself will use algorithms and monitoring extensively to model future supply and demand, and make corrections automatically along the way so that they’ll continue to be matched.

Where is this leading?

That was the premise for my story, ‘For The Greater Good’ in WeatherfrontsIt’s all very well being able to cater for an existing population with existing productivity levels. But what if the models forecast that a population increase and a simultaneous decrease in productivity would mean that the population would suffer?

Would we want to live in this kind of world? You’ll have to read the story to find out if my heroine does!

Weatherfronts cover design
Photograph & design: Sarah Thomas © 2017
https://journeysinbetween.wordpress.com

Find out more

You can read more about David’s fiction and non-fiction at his website and download a free ebook of the new anthology Weatherfronts from Cambria Books, featuring stories, poems and essays from twelve writers who won commissions from the two events that TippingPoint and partners held at the Free Word Centre in 2014 and 2016. There are videos of some of the authors reading their works and audio recordings of panel discussions at the events on the Free Word website: search for ‘Weatherfronts’.

On 25th May, ClimateCultures editor, Mark Goldthorpe, will be chairing a panel discussion between David Thorpe and three of the other 2016 authors – Justina Hart, Darragh Martin and Sarah Thomas – at the Hay Festival.

You can read about Zero Carbon Britain and download their new report. This article from the One Planet Council describes the work of the Welsh Government’s commitment to ecological footprinting. And The One Planet Life provides further information and resources.

For an interesting discussion of the history of Utopia and Dystopia, see this set of articles from the British LibraryAnd this article from Encyclopaedia Britannica describes ten literary dystopias (somehow managing to bypass Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four).

 

Questioning Utopia? Space for creative thinking...

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