The Next Dawn of Everything — Stories of Human Cultures

Writer and researcher Jules Pretty explores stories that reveal how human cultures don’t converge on one ‘advanced’ model, as our current views of history assume, finding in The Dawn of Everything rich accounts of diversity, freedom and hope.


2,750 words: estimated reading time = 11 minutes


These days, we find ourselves in the midst of world-spanning crises of climate, nature and social inequality. All three have the same proximate causes: a type of economy that promotes too much material consumption and a dangerous reliance on fossil fuels. Something is about to change. Yet we have never been here before. We are in the dark forest, at our darkest hour, and we are not sure if we can choose a new path.

We often don’t know what to do when great moments of transformation in life appear: the rites of passage from small to big school, a first date, your first day in a new job, a baby in the family, a friend’s death, your own advancing mortality. We have no plan for what happens next. There is no rehearsal – apart from stories that tell how others have crossed their own thresholds. We are going to need ways to open up the world ahead, where fear could still be one of our greatest emotions.
Most of life is inconceivable. Living without fossil fuels seems so, for many people. Living without air pollution from cars, also seems inconceivable.

The Red Queen said to Alice, “Why sometimes I’ve believed, as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
– Lewis Carrol, Through the Looking Glass (1872)

Should we think of a new diet, perhaps less meat and more oat milk; should we buy an electric car now or later, fly less and cycle more; insulate our home or install solar panels, listen to the birds, have coffee with a friend? Well, one of these, then maybe another one, soon after.

The point is this: we have choices. We just may not realise this yet.

There emerges a need for new forms of story-telling, combined with a language of kindness and generosity. Kindness is both our common state and best response to threat. It is selfishness that is the outlier.

What kinds of language and values might we use to find our ways out of these deep woods? Berthold Brecht wrote in 1939:

“In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.”

We find ourselves now in need of stories with hope, and then to explore how to use these to create more effective agency to address the great crises of these times. Fast transitions, regime shifts and positive tipping points are beginning to occur, showing that new ways of living can be just and fair.

Calling time on ideas of linear evolution of human cultures

This is where a brilliant, clear, refreshing and fabulous synthesis of a book comes in. It is called The Dawn of Everything, and draws on recent archaeological evidence and anthropological insight to say highly salient things about human history.

The authors, David Graeber and David Wengrow, say: most accounts of pre-modern human history “simply aren’t true, they have dire political implications, and make the past dull.”

This is interesting, not least because this book is also about the future.

Storie of human cultures: Showing the cover of 'The New Dawn of Everything', by David Graeber and David Wengrow.

The authors are willing to call out many contemporary commentators who believe in linear evolution of human ideas and cultures (the ecological determinists and evolutionary psychologists, for example), and who say that modern life must be superior to all that has gone before. Graeber and Wengrow call these “dismal conclusions”, and “prejudices dressed up as facts.”

For this book is about freedoms, not the “weird arguments” made by many in support of modern and high-consumption ways of living and organizing. We are neither at the top nor the end of a process of betterment. What has gone before was more diverse, egalitarian and astonishing than many would think.

Human cultures of the past have always diverged; they have not converged on one model perceived as more advanced or even perfect.

This book also overturns ideas about the assumed superiority of agriculture over foraging-hunting-gathering, and of city civilisations over agrarian. It also suggests that large-scale public engagement leads to innovative and diverse futures. People have always valued the things they do and places they live as extensions of identity, and so have often and explicitly refused to adopt practices and ideas from other people and places.

This cultural refusal is a key finding (it is not rejection on the grounds of being better; it is about something just being for other people and not for us).

Cultures can also get stuck, becoming less innovative. Many cultures and cities were abandoned after hundreds of years of continuity when people just walked away. They got stuck, and decided to seek something new. They sought the next dawn of everything.

Story-tellers for ‘stuck’ times

Stories of human cultures: showing Mayan masks from Guatemala
Mayan masks from Guatemala. Photograph © Jules Pretty

There are numerous valuable findings from this wonderful book.

First, humans are not inevitably nasty and selfish. More often than not, cultures and cities have been egalitarian.

Human cultures are projects of self- and co-creation. They emerge from engagement, participation, story and sense-making.

Human cultures do not converge on one model, and one model does not follow another (e.g. agriculture after foraging). All cultures diverge in space and over time. Wherever and whenever we look, there is endless human diversity. No single system is preferred, and evolutionary stages do not exist, where one model of life inevitably follows another.

Evidence from all the world over shows the enormous long-distance interactions between people and cultures. We have always lived in a small world politically and culturally connected. People travelled and journeyed to see and learn from other places. Recent DNA testing of skeletons shows much higher rates of interaction. Human cultures have never been isolated or biologically “pure.”

At times, cultures do get stuck, thinking they know or have it all. The modern era of neoliberalism and planetary nature and climate crises is an example of being stuck. We are living now in the latest of “stuck times.”

All human cultures engage in refusal. They know what others are doing, but in order to remain true to their own identities, they commonly refuse to adopt certain other technologies and ideas. Some foragers lived alongside agriculture for 3,000 years, and refused to adopt it. Some city states knew all about metal and the wheel, and again refused to use them.

Of course, non-conformists exist in every culture. What differs is how each culture reacts to them. Many cultures in history valued non-conformists (such as tricksters, jesters, story-tellers, shamans, and the physically and mentally diverse), seeing them contributing to diversity and divergence.

Agriculturalists and forager-hunter-gatherers lived side-by-side for thousands of years. In many places, cultures used different modes of living during different seasons; some foraged and took up agriculture; some farmed for hundreds of years and adopted foraging.

Foragers-hunters-gatherers established many cities and monumental cultures, and engaged in small-scale gardening and domestication of what we now call weedy species.

There was also oscillation within years and across seasons: within years some people foraged-hunted-gathered for certain seasons, and then farmed in others; some peoples developed different social structures and even personal names in different seasons of the year (a ruler in one season, people’s assemblies in another). Seasonality of values and identity is still with us – we behave differently during Christmas and Ramadan, during long holidays (the French grand vacances). People set aside work, for a bit, and affirm values in community, family, giving and resting.

Many city states and cultures had no kings, queens or rulers, no palaces or temples. People governed through assemblies, councils (as often women-led as by men). Some cities built public baths, others huge social housing projects. Many created co-housing units larger than for single families (long-houses). The traditions of long-houses for co-living continued to Norse-Icelandic culture, the Pacific North-West, and in rainforest forager cultures worldwide.

After a time, many cultures simply hit a wall. They stop. They are abandoned. It seems people in them choose to go and create something different. Most were not conquered or beaten by war.

Active choices and human futures

Showing wheat from Suffolk.
Wheat from Suffolk. Photograph © Jules Pretty

Catalhöyük was long thought of as one of the first agricultural sites and cities. But the people are now known to have preferred and celebrated wild aurochs over domesticated cattle. They knew about the latter for 1,000 years, yet never used them. Elsewhere in Mesopotamia, there are many examples of refusal: cities that knew about agriculture for 3,000 years, yet never adopted it. Such refusals were not irrational or silly: they were on the grounds of choices about practices that defined others who were not them. People want to stay as themselves.

The first organised city cultures in the world were not in Mesopotamia, but at the mega-sites and mammoth houses of current Ukraine-Moldova (4100-3300 BCE), each with huge central assembly places for exchange, sharing and decision-making. Individual cities were 300 hectares in size, contained co-living houses, and reached populations of 10,000 people.

In today’s California, the dozens of cultures and language groups centred on only foraging-hunting-gathering are sometimes described as existing because agriculture failed to reach them. Yet there was interaction with agricultural communities of the greater south-west. They also knew about agriculture, and refused to use it.

Poverty Point in Louisiana of today contains some of the largest mounds in the Americas. These cities were built around 1400 BCE by forager-hunter-gatherers. In Japan, the Jomon culture comprised 14,000 years of (pre-rice) forager culture, producing cycles of settlement, craft, storage, and traditions of building things and breaking them down again (traditions that continue to today in Shinto and Buddhist culture).

Teotihuacan in central America was a city culture on eight square miles of land. It had no central ruler, nor did it adopt the ball courts, kings and palaces of nearby Tikal and Calikmal. Teotihuacan was egalitarian, with stone social housing containing plumbing and sanitation, each finely decorated with art and images (much psychedelic). After 500 years, Teotihuacan was abandoned. Again, we today do not know exactly why.

The largest city culture in the Americas before modern times was Cahokia (in current Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi). The city had a population of 15,000, and flourished for 300 years between 1050-1350 CE. The people were forager-hunter-gatherers, supplemented with gardens with domesticated sumpweed, goosefoot, knotweed and mayweed. Cahokia and all the surrounding river valleys were depopulated at the same time, creating a long-lasting “empty quarter” that no other peoples entered.

There was public engagement and assembly for culture-making, where individual and collective agency leads to divergence of choice.

There was refusal of what appear to be more efficient or productive options. Identity was more important.

There was explicit adoption of egalitarian structures and social support.

Showing prayer flags, Tuva.
Prayer flags, Tuva. Photograph © Jules Pretty

Cultures have lived alongside other differing cultures for thousands of years. They knew about other ways of living, and decided not to adopt. There was no perfect economic system of living waiting to be revealed.

There was long-distance travel, journeying and staying, leading to biological mixing inside stable cultures.

There was sudden abandonment of modes of living, when people decided they had become stuck and needed to do something different.

We know that fossil fuels will have to be almost entirely eliminated from all economies worldwide (excepting perhaps communities living at high latitudes that are dark and cold for long periods of the year), and thus the spread of adoption of renewable energy generation is central to preventing climate catastrophe. The overarching aim is to electrify everything, with a particular focus on wind, water, solar and battery storage.

Most countries are now committed to 100% renewables for their electricity supply at some time in the future. Some have made dramatic advances in implementation, others have been slow (see Table 1).

Many poorer countries are predicted to save money by these investments, as many spent up to half of national export earnings on importing oil, and now increasingly have the resources to invest in other social priorities. Countries highly dependent on the income from oil will find transitions hardest, even though some have large sovereign wealth funds. Qatar styles itself a “hydrocarbon-enabled economy.” It has the highest carbon emissions worldwide at 55 tonnes C per year per person, and to date has effectively zero contribution from renewables for its electricity supply.


Table 1. Proportion of domestic electricity supplied by renewables (solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, biomass), 2022

Proportion of domestic electricity consumption supplied by renewables Countries
98%-100% Albania, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Iceland, Norway, Paraguay, Uruguay
90%-95% Ethiopia, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Lesotho, Namibia, Zambia, Tajikistan
60%-80% Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, New Zealand, Portugal, Sweden
40%-50% Ireland, Spain, UK
20% China, India, Japan, Morocco, USA
Less than 0.2% Bahrain, Brunei, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia

Note: World 28%; Europe 35%; Low-income countries 66%; Upper-income countries 30%. Some of these high percentages are in countries with low total energy consumption and low access to affordable electricity. They will need to consume more to escape poverty, and there will be a need to generate more renewable energy than today. Sources: International Energy Agency (2023) (www.iea.org); Our World in Data (www.ourworldindata.org).


Choices by governments matter. In the UK in 2023, the government chose to invest in a new nuclear plant (to produce 3 GW per year); in Denmark, the government has chosen wind power on two new energy islands in the North and Baltic Seas (total of 6 GW capacity). These islands will be the largest infrastructure in Denmark’s history, and will be generating electricity by 2030. Nuclear in the UK will take 10-15 years longer to be commissioned, costs will be twice as great, and there will still be a need to pay for costly nuclear waste disposal. Such nuclear developments will therefore be delivered too late to influence the meeting of 2050 net zero targets. China and South Korea are planning 1-6 GW of floating offshore wind parks for installation in 2025-2030.

Globally, the International Energy Agency believes strong growth in clean energy means the world can deliver fossil fuel emission cuts of 35% by 2030. The IEA also say we have the tools to go much faster, and that there is now a need for “a fierce urgency of the now.”

These advances towards 100% renewables are the start of a new dawn of everything. It is instructive to see which countries are taking the lead, and how cost benefits nationally will accrue.

Cultural connections for transformations

Showing plastic from Iceland Arctic Sea beach.
Plastic from Iceland Arctic Sea beach. Photograph © Jules Pretty

In my 2022 book, Sea Sagas of the North, I visited and wrote about 160 ports, villages and coastal places culturally facing inward to the North Sea and eastern North Atlantic (in Iceland, Norway, Finland, England, Scotland and the Faroe Isles). I talked to an 80-year-old famed skipper of the trawlers and drifters, and he said, “You know we were more tolerant and kind in the days of fishing, when we travelled to other places and came back with gifts and stories.” Fisher communities on the coast of the east of England felt greater closeness and affinity with people 1,100 miles away in Iceland and Norway than communities 10 miles inland.

The ecological collapse of fisheries led directly to social and cultural change on the coasts, and people lost their friendships with others across the North Sea and eastern North Atlantic.

For my 2014 book, The Edge of Extinction, I visited and stayed with place-based and indigenous cultures in Aotearoa, Australia, Tuva, Finland, Labrador, Louisiana and California. A Finish ice-fisherman friend stood up in the audience at a conference at the American Museum of Natural History, and demanded: “Where is the escape route for our culture and people to leave your modern world? Will you give us one?” The title’s play on words was intended to suggest it was modern societies and economies that were on the edge of extinction, not indigenous ones. The book should probably have been called ‘The Edge of Our Extinction’.

My 2023 book, The Low-Carbon Good Life, centres on the diverse ways of living and public engagement we need to create to solve the nature, climate and social inequality crises facing the planet. We will be needing divergence of practice, choice and behaviours rather than convergence.

Above all, we will need good stories that lead to agency and transformation.


Find out more

Jules Pretty’s new series The Climate Chronicles is posted at his website, where you can also find details of his books, including The Low-Carbon Good Life (2023) and Sea Sagas of the North (2022). Jules is part of the project team behind the Hope Tales events and chapbooks, with fellow ClimateCultures member Nicky Saunter. See Nicky’s post, Hope Tales — Stories for Change.

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow (2022) is published by Penguin.

Jules Pretty

Jules Pretty

A researcher and writer on environment and society, including 'The Climate Chronicles', and host of the Louder Than Words podcast and Brighter Futures films

Talking to the Crisis

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reflects on a follow-up conversation between interviewer Julia Marques, performer Daniel Bye, creative producer Tessa Gordziejko, artist Jennifer Leach and geographer Matt Law on experiences of darkness, attitudes to uncertainty and opportunities for creativity.


2,660 words: estimated reading time 11 minutes + audio


In January, Julia Marques spoke with five fellow ClimateCultures members to explore what art and environmentalism bring to each other, and how they combine the two in their work.

We published Julia’s full-length interviews with Daniel Bye, Andrea Carr, Tessa Gordziejko, Matt Law and Jennifer Leach alongside her own reflections on the exchanges here. Her post also featured short clips from each interview, touching on topics such as: how art can galvanize environmental action or thinking, or simply help us to face the mounting sense of crisis; how collaboration with others in artistic practices can be part of our making sense of climate and ecological crisis, and how an appreciation of the ‘everyday ecology’ of our lives and surroundings — which art can celebrate — serves to shift our consciousness beyond simply the facts and news stories. And, as the interviews also revealed, an artistic mindset rewards attention to those usually very generalized words ‘collaboration’, ‘sustainability’, ‘optimism’ and even ‘creativity’ itself in ways that inform particular approaches to the processes, materials and practices of bringing environmental awareness into the heart of everything we do; and celebrating the small acts and experiences of creativity every bit as valuable as making and marking the large, public works.

Together, those five recordings offer rich insights into the work of different artists and researchers that — although the interviews draw mostly on theatre for their examples and ideas — have value for creative practices in all fields and across many disciplines. And, as Julia said, discussions such as these are part of the much bigger conversation that we’re engaged in and need to expand and develop further. If you haven’t already done so, do take a look at her post and the interviews.

Deepening the dialogue

It was therefore a natural development of those first one-to-one conversations — one that Julia and I discussed early on — that we try and bring together as many of the participants as possible, to see if they could develop some of those individual ideas further. So I was delighted when Tessa, Jennifer, Dan and Matt were able to join Julia in a Zoom call one evening and see where the conversation might take them. We’ve presented this here as three shorter audio clips.

In the first session, Julia, Tessa, Jennifer, Dan and Matt catch up with each other’s work since the initial interviews six months ago, and how these projects and new activities continue to explore the themes they discussed. We find out about recent work, much of which has a shared focus or experience of land: land access and edgelands in song and film; art on the land and creating green woods for future generations; moving into a new personal landscape, listening and waiting to see what comes as work that has to be real and not just noise; engaging with the end of our way of living; working with new artists.

The second session then picks up on a couple of those themes, teasing out some convergences and divergences around ideas and language around darkness and light in our experiences of the world, and around useful distinctions between uncertainty and ambiguity.

Finally, there’s a short discussion around whether we can see the climate and ecological crisis as an opportunity for creativity.

As with all such dialogue — in these times especially — provocations and reflections such as these do not offer definitive responses or an end to the questioning and the circling back to previous ideas and exchanges. Instead, they are a process, feeding off and into all our explorations, sparking new connections and possibilities. In that spirit, we hope these will prompt further conversation, on these pages and beyond.

Conversation is creative

Although I was not part of any of the sessions, on listening to the recordings I certainly felt myself to be in conversation with the ideas and the examples flowing between the participants. One of the joys of sitting in the background of ClimateCultures is receiving the materials that members send in for our blog; whether I experience them initially as offers of ideas, or as first drafts for discussion or as complete pieces, there’s always a point early on where what’s coming to me as fresh perspectives from a creative mind spark off my own associations, questions and conversations — with myself and what I thought I knew beforehand, and with the contributor. Each post is a prompt for to me to think afresh on the issues we’re facing and the ways that I choose to perceive and to act on them. I hope that’s the way they’re received and responded to by others. Creativity is a conversation and conversation is creative, and both open up the world and our place within it.

Listening in on talk of the darkness, of the different ways of understanding what it is and what it offers and requires of us, I was struck by my sympathy both with Dan’s opening response to Julia’s prompt on how we respond to darkness and ending:

“It’s hard isn’t it? There is so much darkness, it’s hard to know which bit to try not to look at! Hard to know where to bring the light. And I think especially this past year, so much of it has been about getting through to the next day with the people nearest.”

and Jennifer’s plea, as “a great fan and protector of the darkness”, that we not always fall into its characterisation as supposedly negative:

“There’s something about that insistent light, that insistent need for the light that I think is part of the reason that we are really at this point of existential crisis. Because, the darkness … there’s great beauty in it, great restfulness in it, there’s a chance for restoration, there’s a chance for quietness, for peace. It’s the fundamental part of regeneration … Without the seeds going underground you wouldn’t get the harvest, and without death in life you wouldn’t have life.”

life in conversation: showing 'bud' by Jennifer Leach
Bud – mixed media on paper
Image: Jennifer Leach © 2021

Tessa reflected on the fact that Julia’s original interviews occurred in the middle of winter and now this conversation was unfolding as the longest day of the year approached, and on the different relationships with darkness that these two midpoints offer:

“I quite enjoy the winter darkness, and wintering as an idea …closing down a bit and being underground… Now we are nearly at the longest day of the year … and a different kind of darkness occurs then. It’s a very short darkness and quite a magical darkness, and it’s late coming … And there’s a different sense of the darkness we are facing as our human narrative, which is nonetheless there but — there can be something quite joyful about it.”

Conversation with the season: Showing a Solstice Firewalk, by Tess Gordziejko
Solstice Firewalk
Photograph: Tessa Gordziejko © 2021

To me, what lies between these personal responses to questions of what the darkness and endings mean, and what it means to live with them, is not so much a disagreement as a web of complementary insights into the complexity of human experience, and — as Matt picked up on from Jennifer’s point on life going underground — the shared cycles of nature that we’re part of and are part of us:

“There’s a really nice image of going from the biosphere, the world of the living, into the lithosphere, the world of the rock, and then back out — what springs out of that again. … If we are thinking about anxiety about an environmentally changed future, and we have this idea of participatory mourning or solastalgia, maybe focusing on these minutiae — well look at the regeneration that comes, the sense that nature finds a way.”

Tending our patch

While one reading of ‘darkness’ feeds into the sense of endings and of loss and of ‘end times’ — feelings that we’ve all experienced or witnessed with great force during these times of global pandemic as much as with the continuing slide into ecological catastrophes around the world — other readings can also bring an appreciation that we can sometimes choose to approach endings, even loss, in more positive ways. For one thing, there can be joy in the beauty that has been experienced and generated along the way, and that is still there or yet to be created. And there’s the opportunity to imagine, anticipate and therefore work to bring about the better ways of surviving the worst and thriving beyond that.

Sometimes the response to changes that can feel overwhelming is to focus on the nearby, the achievable — towards, as Dan puts it, a move where

“people have turned towards tending their own patch of grass … trying to make the practices in the areas over which they have control good practice … That feels to me like an understandable response to a perceived inability to be heard or to make a difference … and a good example to others who might have the wherewithal to do so.”

It’s a metaphor he returns to, suggesting that the arts, while often termed an ‘industry’ is not a monolith but “an ecology. It’s a lot of people’s separate patches of grass which happen to overlap and share root systems and share weather, and that actually tending your own patch well and in an exemplary fashion can be part of effecting systemic change.”

In convreation with the land: showing a still from the film These Hills Are Ours by Bevis Bowden
These Hills Are Ours, by Daniel Bye & Boff Whalley
Film by Bevis Bowden © 2020

The more such patches there are the better the ecology, as Tessa points out, and “art off grid” is part of the way forward. And Jennifer picks up this theme of personal patches of creativity and the possibilities of intimate connection as a place of feasibility, and embracing the home-made — meaning the creative work by the hearth rather than in the public arena — “without losing the sense of quality” may be needed now more than ever: “So, not to feel that what we are doing is a waste of time, not to feel that we need to lose it, but there are ways of making it very real in a very different way.”

This sense of nurturing a personal creativity and embracing that small-scale engagement is perhaps reflected at a larger scale in Tessa’s observation that the word humility has its roots in humus, the living soil, and that maybe seeking a more humble approach is a species-level response too. “We are going to be humbled anyway so maybe a conscious and deliberate humbling of ourselves in the way that we envisage the way we live and the way that we learn…”

The act of leaving that thought hanging in the air is perhaps in its own way a tentative bridge between the personal and the global dimensions, a recognition of the enormous scale of action and consciousness that’s being asked of all of us alongside the creative responses that any one of us might feel able to develop. As later discussion suggested, looking to all this for a creative ‘opportunity’ is perhaps off the mark. Climate change and ecological depletion are what we are immersed in, and while some might choose to continue to not hear the alarm bell — and it’s certainly not possible to listen to it at full volume all the time — the crisis is nevertheless “an insistence rather than an opportunity,” as Dan puts it.

“It’s present in everything I do,” Tessa admits, “whether it’s explicit or implicit. … It’s much more immersive for me. Although not everything I make is about the climate crisis, everything happens in that framework.”

Where the opportunity lies, Matt suggests, is for art

“to sculpt a vision of something to be hopeful about, and also to connect people with stories that when they read about them in the news they don’t relate to at all because it’s happening to people who live on the other side of the planet or who will live 50 years from now. And that’s a really important opportunity.”

in conversation with the past: showing Matthew Law coring for evidence of past environmental change
Matthew Law coring for evidence of past environmental change in Hertfordshire
Photograph: Alice Short

And that space of opportunity is also shaped by our grasp of ambiguity, which Dan identifies as “something being both the case and not the case at the same time” and as “the root of metaphor and faith in whatever, in anything.” As Tessa says, creativity works with ambiguity all the time, not seeking to pin everything down. For Matt, “within scientific process there is a world of uncertainty. A lot of my work is rooted in archaeology and there is so far you can take the evidence before you have to make an inferential leap…”

That sense of grasping both the ‘is’ and the ‘is not’ and not always striving to resolve that ambiguity is also a leap, an imaginative one. And it offers a creative resistance to the urgency that, although very real, can drown out the value of diversity in all we do in the face of existential crisis; a generosity towards diversity, even when it maybe looks like an unwelcome dilution of the singular effort, the struggle to get everyone on board with ‘the answer’. As Jennifer expresses it:

“All of these things are important, all of our ways are important, the fighting is really important, the resistance is really important, the refusal to lie down and just accept it — and the opposite is also true: the people who embrace it, accept it, who move through it in peace and centredness without resisting it, that’s also important. It’s going to be messy and there are no clear answers, there never are. There’s going to be tatters round the edges. That’s life and evolution and who are we to resist it, in a way?”

The interplay of light and dark, of ambiguity and understanding, of ambivalence and ideas of decline and regeneration, and of the small, patchwork acts and the large, singular ones — these make up part of the rich soil in which art, research and all creative work thrive and can inform our activism. There is this and much more in the conversations that Julia, Dan, Tessa, Matt and Jennifer have shared with us here. I hope you enjoy listening in and maybe exploring where their conversation sits with and talks with your own experiences, ideas and work. As Matt observes at one point, there’s an interesting thread through their conversation that’s not the one he thought they’d be talking about at all, and you might find your own threads there too and want to pick at the discussion in different ways…

It’s something we’d like to do more of. ClimateCultures — an initiative that, as Julia expresses it, “brings different worlds together” — welcomes your voice too. If you want to share your own reflections and responses to the conversations, do get leave a comment, and members can get in touch with their own post for the blog.


Find out more

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.

You can watch Julia’s earlier interviews with Dan, Tessa, Jennifer, Matt and Andrea in her post Conversations with Work That Connects.

In this new conversation, Tessa mentions that she’s been listening to the podcast The Great Humbling, where futurist Ed Gillespie and writer and co-founder of A School Called HOME Dougald Hine ask “How will they look in hindsight, these strange times we are living through? Is this a midlife crisis on humanity’s road to the Star Trek future – or the point at which that story of the future unravelled and we came to see how much it had left out?” In a series of conversations, they explore whether “our current crises are neither an obstacle to be overcome, nor the end of the world, but a necessary humbling?”

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #13

Interdisciplinary artist Andrew Howe shares three objects that chart material flows in time. Slipware pottery, an acorn and a bitumen spill offer fragmentary stories entwined with present experience and imaginings of past and future in the same moment.


1,310 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes


The challenge: the Anthropocene — the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated — has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions at A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

The recording of history is a collective narrative of personal memories and subjective interpretations of objective data. And memories are the internal stories we create from fragments which become entwined with present experience and our imaginings of the future, always in the same moment. As I thought about identifying objects from the past, present and future, I could only see them as materials on a journey flowing through time. This flow need not be considered as a linear process but as a cycle, perhaps a little like the river cycle, in that all time can co-exist simultaneously but in different locations.

Based on my recent experiences out walking, objects that represent the Anthropocene in the present time, perhaps more than any other, are the proliferating numbers of discarded face masks and discarded dog shit bags (DDSBs) lying on pavements, spilling out from litter bins or festooned from trees and bushes. But I wished no connection with these objects, whereas each of the three objects I selected have specific resonances for me with the past, present and future.

Washed downstream

My first object is a fragment of brown slipware pottery, one of a handful I gathered last year while mud-larking on a pebble bank at the edge of the River Severn, downstream of Shrewsbury town centre.

Slipware pottery fragment from the River Severn
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

An informed acquaintance suggested to me that the brown and amber pieces were most likely 17th or 18th Century combed slipware. I was intrigued by its unknowable journey from formation of the clay, very likely a result of glaciation, and extraction for making into a pot. It was then used in someone’s house in Shrewsbury, maybe even one of the Tudor timbered mansions that still stand in the town centre. At some point it was lost and broken and found its way into the river. Over the years, it has been washed downstream, gradually rounding off the edges until I picked it up. How will my intervention change its course of flow?

Ruptured nature in peatbog and bitumen

I encountered the second object whilst researching a project at the Fenn’s, Whixall & Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve, the UK’s third-largest raised peatbog. Within the wetland nature reserve, there was a car breaker’s yard that operated for many years until the site was taken over by the Shropshire Wildlife Trust. The stark juxtaposition of the scrapyard against the remote wetland landscape had fascinated me for some time.

Artefacts 6×6
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020
Tyre mountain
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020
Artefact 26
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

Shortly after many of the crushed cars had been removed from the site, I made a visit to observe the mountains of remaining tyres and thousands of mangled fragments of plastic and metal car parts. I collected these like archaeological finds. Then entering a thicket between the scrapyard and peatbog, I saw a large bitumen tanker part-suspended in amongst the trees, as if it had been driven in at speed and simply left.

Showing a bitumen tanker dumped in woods
Tanker in the wood
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

When I returned a few months later, the tanker had been separated from its cab and moved, as part of the ongoing clean-up process, to a position on the concrete hardstanding in the main scrapyard, which was being cleared for restoration by covering with topsoil. In the warmer weather, the bitumen leaked from ruptures in the rusted steel carcass and spread out in mesmerising black pools, its ‘skin’ intricately marked and rippled.

Showing bitumen spill from a tanker
Tanker
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020
Showing a black pools of bitumen, its 'skin' intricately marked and rippled.
Bitumen
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

Bitumen can be found naturally or produced via the fractional distillation of petroleum. This natural hydrocarbon seemed to be reaching out, as if trying to recombine with the peat below and complete a cycle interrupted by human processing. The sculptural tanker is a powerful artwork in itself, symbolic of the human exploitation of petroleum and car manufacture.

In my early discussions with the Shropshire Wildlife Trust, there was general agreement that we, as a society, should take responsibility and acknowledge the legacy of human impact on the environment, perhaps by leaving some of the dereliction in place. However, while bitumen is widely used as a construction material, it has some chronic toxicity, it is a potential carcinogen and the tanker was regarded as a hazardous waste. The metal structure was also regarded as unsafe, so the decision was regretfully made to retain the tanker on the concrete and cover it with soil as protection.

Acorn to oak, and uncertain futures

The final object is an acorn. This particular acorn came into my possession during a heritage project where I was trying to locate trees more than 200 years old in Telford; trees that could have been witness to the battle of Cinderloo, an industrial dispute in 1821. Around 3,000 miners marched in protest against savage wage cuts and they shut down ironworks before coming into conflict with the Shropshire Yeomanry, resulting in two fatalities and nine arrests, with one man hanged for felonious riot.

Acorn
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

There are many woodlands in Telford, growing over the ruins of industries that date back to the start of the Industrial Revolution. Only a few of the trees are as old as 200 years though, so the acorn I collected from one old oak in Coalbrookdale provided me with the potential to create a special connection. By planting the acorn, it may grow and live on beyond a normal human lifetime to make a connection spanning between the origins of the Anthropocene and an uncertain future.

The centuries-old relationship between the English and oak woods is at the heart of national identity; once integral to peasant livelihoods, Royal hunting forests and naval shipbuilding. Oak has abundant uses as a strong and durable construction timber, as fuel, as animal fodder, for the tanning of leather and in production of ink, but its value is increasingly recognised for sequestering carbon and sustaining biodiverse flora and fauna in its branches and in its root systems. Humans will need to rebalance the values of oak between a commodity and as a living guardian, if we are to begin regaining some harmony with the more-than-human for our own survival.

Witness, Coalbrookdale Oak: oak gall ink on paper
Image: Andrew Howe © 2020

Find out more

You can explore Fenn’s, Whixall & Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve, and the Marches Mosses of which it is a part, at The Meres and Mosses site. And you can find out more about Andrew’s own work with the Mosses and Marshes project at Of the Mosses. including an introduction to the site: Tracing Human history across the Moss.

Bitumen, a sticky, black, highly viscous liquid or semi-solid form of petroleum, is also known as asphalt, and is mainly used in road and other construction, although its natural form was historically used for waterproofing and as an adhesive as far back as 5,000 BCE. Runoff from roads can cause water pollution from bitumen and, as this article from MedicineNet explains, Hot asphalt causes a lot of air pollution. “As it heats up, asphalt releases chemical compounds that contribute to air pollution … Sunlight plays a key role in these asphalt emissions, with even moderate levels of sunshine tripling the release of air pollutants.”

You can learn more about the history of the Cinderloo Uprising in Dawley, Telford and the heritage project led by community group Cinderloo 1821

Andrew Howe

Andrew Howe

An interdisciplinary artist and project manager using walking and mapping to explore how people interact with places, drawing attention to human entanglements within a multi-species environment.

Conversations with Work That Connects

Climate change dramatist and activist Julia Marques introduces a series of lively and engaging conversations she has recorded with fellow members. Artists and researchers explore their experiences with wide-ranging topics which inform the creative work that ClimateCultures celebrates.


2,970 words: estimated reading time 12 minutes + videos


The inspiration for this journey into podcasting came from the imposed self-isolation that we are all currently facing because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and that we have faced (on and off) for nearly a year now. As a fairly extroverted human, I miss connecting. I miss collaborating. I miss conversing in 3D; the whole-body language that cannot be translated through a flat screen, no matter how hard we try. As a human being, there is also a need to create. So, working within the current limitations, I decided to set about creating a podcast for ClimateCultures members to become more acquainted with each other. I started with a small pilot group of five members all linked to theatre practice in some way: Daniel Bye, Tessa Gordziejko, Matt Law, Jennifer Leach and Andrea Carr.

I am myself a theatre maker, mainly with amateur groups at a community level, and I discovered the melding of the two worlds of theatre and environmentalism during my climate change studies at King’s College in London a few years ago. I also directed and produced The Children by Lucy Kirkwood in 2019 with my local theatre group. Having worked in the environmental NGO sector for a bit, I decided to foray into the business startup world last year and set up a business with a team-mate that aimed to connect media professionals with environmental community stories.

As well as being interested in why people have joined ClimateCultures, when they first decided to combine art and environmentalism and what they are working on now, our conversations explored what art and environmentalism bring to each other – and more along the way.

I’ve included a short clip from each conversation, with links to the full interviews in the notes and in their ClimateCultures member profiles.

“Galvanising the faithful”

‘Preaching to the choir’ is a common criticism in environmental circles. However, writer and performer Daniel Bye doesn’t think this is a problem because even among the broadly like-minded each person brings their own interpretation of a situation and how to take it from here to there. As Dan points out, there would never be another rally or march if all you were trying to do each time was convert people who don’t share your views. There is power in gathering with like-minded people who are also individuals nonetheless and carry their own life history and views and opinions with them. Everyone can bring something to the table.

Daniel Bye on ‘galvanising the faithful’

I think there is a lot still to be learnt from faith communities and religion – often overlooked in the climate change discussion. For many years they have successfully galvanised the faithful and ‘preached to the choir’ to great effect. The ‘guardians of the Earth’ narrative is one that many people will identify with — we have been given this wonderful planet by a higher power and we need to take care of it.

Dan spoke to me about How to Occupy an Oil Rig, and his more recent piece These Hills Are Ours made with Boff Whalley of the band Chumbawamba. The first is more overtly political and has very clear links to climate change. The second is more subtle about the subject matter, but it is very much linked to our connection with the natural world — walking the path between urban and country with different groups of singers.

How to Occupy an Oil Rig
Photograph: Reed Ingram Weir © 2013

There is something about walking that has magical properties; we step on the ground in order to walk — “that patch of ground upon which you tread to go to the local shops” as writer, performer and storyteller Jennifer Leach put it in our discussion. Walking is our constant connection to the physical earth that we live on. We also walk on marches — to have our voices heard. We walk to get us somewhere, but also as a leisure activity. Walking slows us down, we have time to appreciate what’s around us. With no other means of transport, we walk. There is huge potential in walking too, as initiatives like Slow Ways are showing – walking connects us.

When watching the videos of the walks that the choirs were able to do with Dan and Boff, you get a sense of something powerful in a group of people all singing together on top of a hill. Voices into the wind, feet planted on the ground, nothing else around but grass and stones. They have made a journey, and this journey has brought them here — but the journey is not yet finished. The art is in the process, not the product. They hope to make more performative journeys later this year.

“Just enough beauty to stay with the darkness”

As you watch the singers trudge up the hills with Dan, you can see the hardship that must be gone through before they reach the peak and sing for joy. You must go through the darkness to reach the light — there cannot be light without darkness. Jennifer and writer, performer and creative producer Tessa Gordziejko are sure of this. If we cannot stay with the darkness then we will forever be chasing the light. Tessa quotes Dougald Hine, co-founder of The Dark Mountain Project: “Art can give us just enough beauty to stay with the darkness, rather than flee or shut down.” This reminds me of Donna Harraway’s Staying with the Trouble and the work of Joanna Macy — climate work very much rooted in psychology. Tessa is in fact connected to the Climate Psychology Alliance and has started to weave tapestries using social dreaming — untethering what is sitting on the bottom of our lakes of consciousness and letting it ‘bob to the surface’.

Tessa Gordziejko on ‘Facing the darkness’:

Tessa also likes to weave music into her work; she says it helps to immerse people in the work so they feel part of it. There is also an element of dance – she misses dancing with people – as a way of connecting when words run out, and of circus performance via her collaborations with circus artist Mish Weaver. Dancing, music, song — these elements run throughout Tessa’s work, and Dan’s too.

Breath[e]LESS – a blend of spoken word, soundscape, projection and dance music on environmental themes that Tessa Gordzjieko collaborated on.

“You learn as much as you teach”

We all go into situations with preconceived ideas of how things will be. What art does is make it okay for us to be uncomfortable with the way things actually turn out — as we figure out what’s really going on. Art embraces uncertainty, as does science. The not knowing is what drives both pursuits. And for both, the process is as important as the results. It would make sense then that the two join forces so that we can all welcome the unknown with open arms.

As a geographer, Matt Law has been introduced to the power of art as connector. He is crossing disciplinary borders within Bath Spa University and has co-created a piece of theatre with the drama department that addresses environmental issues. The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul) is the result; a piece very much focussed on the community level of climate change and how incremental changes can unravel but also eventually strengthen a tightly-knit group. Plans to tour it have been put on hold but will hopefully go ahead later this year.

The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul)
Photograph: Matt Law © 2020

Being an educator, Matt really feels as though the process of using art to communicate science has been as much of a learning process for him as it has been for any of the students he has taught. His work on the project Future Animals with Professor Jaqui Mulville from the archaeology department at Cardiff University was the spark that ignited his interest in merging art and geography to make sense of climate change.

Matt Law on ‘You learn as you teach’:

“Ecology begins on your doorstep”

Jennifer Leach looks out of her window at a holly tree and tells me that if everyone could see this tree then there would be no need for words to explain the beauty of the natural world in which we live. The beauty lies in the ordinariness of the thing. The everyday ecology.

I really think this is crucial for that all-important shift in consciousness from understanding something with our heads to really feeling it with our hearts. Big, lofty ideas are not going to get us far — ordinary, everyday things are what will change hearts and minds. And art has a way of celebrating the ordinary, of holding it up to the light so that we can really see it for the beautiful thing that it is. Jennifer identifies this in the work of American visual artist Joan Jonas who celebrates the ordinary, albeit in a thorough and intentional way.

Jennifer Leach on ‘Ecology on your doorstep’:

Jennifer herself has made canvasses out of plastic bags used in an art exhibition and organised the Festival of the Dark, where people were encouraged to re-embrace the seasonal cycles of dark and light. As she puts it:

“It’s only by being still, by being quiet and by completely embracing the fact that death and decay – endings – are part of our cycle that you learn to live in harmony with everything else that lives within the seasons of nature. We are the only species that don’t.”

Showing the gathering for The Night Breathes Us In, part of Festival of the Dark, . Photograph by Georgia Wingfield-Hayes
The Night Breathes Us In – part of Festival of the Dark, March 2017
Photograph: Georgia Wingfield-Hayes © 2017 georgiawingfieldhayes.org

She’s currently working on Duende with fellow ClimateCultures member Andrea Carr — a project that came to life through one of those preciously ordinary things that we now crave; a chance meeting on a staircase, and a conversation about Federico Garcia Lorca at a TippingPoint gathering. The unnamed catastrophe in Duende has forced two insects to hide underground — a strange portent of what became reality in 2020 for many of us. This piece is still a work in progress, and Jennifer and Andrea are looking to collaborate with others who appear in connection with this project. However, as Jennifer says, “what’s become super clear to me now is that my work is not about product, it is about process”, so you could say that the art has already been created.

“Our new brief”

So, what is the way forward for environmental theatre? For designer and scenographer Andrea Carr, it is the vision that all artistic practice will hold the environment at the centre of all it does — so the prefix ‘eco’ will no longer be needed. She has pioneered this approach to making theatre, and now she has joined forces with other scenographers and created Eco-stage, a soon-to-relaunch platform which will serve as a library of eco-theatre work and a space for dialogue on the topic.

Orlando after Virginia Woolf
Photograph: Andrea Carr © 2019

Andrea has her own set of values which she has defined on her own terms, and she encourages others to really think about what these highly generalised words mean to them as well:

Creativity – “cultivating curiosity”
Sustainability – “where the dreamer … the idealist and the pragmatist will work together”
Collaboration – “active listening”, “developing openness”, “pooling expertise”, “welcoming and honouring diversity”
Radical optimism – “celebrating and noticing what works and doing more of it”

She also speaks of honouring the materials that we use to create art — these things that we regard as single-use but have a life that extends far beyond our imagination.

Andrea presents us with our new brief: to place the ‘eco’ at the heart of everything we do.

Andrea Carr on ‘Our new brief’

One thing that really inspired me in my conversations with these five people was that each was proud of all of their work, large and small, and no one was afraid of making something that may or may not fly. All creative work is valid. Having spent a year in the business incubator world where you are constantly asked how ‘scalable’ your idea is, it was really nice to be reminded that ‘small and quiet’ is also worth something and this is where change starts — at the local, smaller, community level. This has inspired me to pursue more of my own environmental community theatre work, to put something out there and see where it goes. After all, if we don’t act now, then when will we?

I would like to thank Dan, Tessa, Matt, Jennifer and Andrea for their time and their great insights into making environmental art, and life more generally! The videos of my conversations with them are all available below, and in their profiles in the ClimateCultures Directory.

Conversations such as these are part of the bigger conversation on art and climate change and how to make sense of the world we live in. The idea is also that they will become part of a spiderweb of conversations starting with the ClimateCultures community, reaching further and further out until they include all members and eventually beyond. So I’m hoping this first set will also spark more conversations and collaborations within our community. If you’d like to be part of future discussions – just let me or Mark know!


Find out more

Julia Marques
Julia Marques
A climate change dramatist, activist and communicator specialising in social and cultural aspects of climate change who has worked in the nonprofit and media sector.

You can read about Julia’s production of Lucy Kirkwood’s play in her post Directing The Children.

Do watch Julia’s full conversations with Dan, Tessa, Matt, Jennifer and Andrea below. This post and our brief summaries here give just a flavour of what they discussed!

Theatre writer and performer Daniel Bye discusses the value of dialogue with the community of other makers, and shares his experience of creating work (including How to Occupy an Oil Rig and, more recently, These Hills Are Ours) as starting points to bring people together, galvanise those with existing environmental awareness, reach new audiences and have impact beyond the performance, expanding the opportunity for activism.

Writer, performer, creative producer and activist Tessa Gordziejko discusses her involvement with the Climate Psychology Alliance and Dark Mountain Project as inspirations for work such as Breath[e]:LESS and The Divided and explorations of ‘social dreaming’ as ways to address our emotional responses to climate crisis. Tessa also shares plans for a deep adaptation project working with the land and conversations around the campfire.

Environmental change and sustainability researcher Matt Law shares his experience of crossing academic boundaries, coming to climate theatre as a geographer and bringing arts and geography students together for The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul). He also discusses art, music and performance as ways to explore ways of engaging people with environmental histories and futures, and being connected to a community.
   

Artist, writer, performer and storyteller Jennifer Leach shares her environmental passion as a creator of projects such as The Festival of the Dark, reconnecting with nature’s cycles of life and death, and learning how the process is as important as the product. She shares ideas behind Duende, her new collaborative project with Andrea Carr, and the importance of finding what feeds you rather than what drains you.

Designer and scenographer Andrea Carr shares her childhood model for environmental action, developing her core values through works such as Orlando after Virginia Woolf, Stuck and The Chairs, working on eco-scenography with other designers to directly incorporate ecological thinking into theatre and make activism visible. She also discusses Duende, her new collaborative project with Jennifer Leach as hybrid encounters with times of ecological uncertainty through stories, song, imagery and myth.

As well as exploring these members’ activities via their ClimateCultures profiles, you can explore the following links for film and other materials from some of their theatrical works mentioned in the post: Daniel Bye — How to Occupy an Oil Rig and  These Hills Are Ours; Tessa Gordziejko — Breath[e]:LESS; Matt Law — The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul); and Andrea Carr — Stuck. And you can read about Jennifer Leach’s journey from a ‘sharing of darkness’ at a climate conference for artists and scientists, and the year-long festival she created in its honour, to her recent book in her post Dancing with Darkness.

Slow Ways is a project to create a network of walking routes that connect all of Great Britain’s towns and cities as well as thousands of villages. 

The Dark Mountain Project is making art that doesn’t take the centrality of humans for granted, tracing the deep cultural roots of the mess the world is in, and looking for stories that can help us make sense of a time of disruption and uncertainty. 

In Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016) Donna Harraway offers provocative new ways to reconfigure our relations to the earth and all its inhabitants. 

Joanna Macy is the root teacher of The Work That Reconnects, a framework for personal and social change, as well as a powerful workshop methodology for its application.  

The Climate Psychology Alliance is a network focusing on climate change not as a scientific problem waiting for a technical solution, but as a systemic problem that engenders fear, denial and despair, forces uncomfortable dilemmas about justice, nature and equality into consciousness and challenges all of us in modern societies both personally and politically. 

The Future Animals project on art, Darwin and archaeology included artist Paul Evans, Ciara Charnley from the National Museum, Wales and bioarchaeologist Jacqui Mulville from Cardiff University. 

Eco-stage is a public commitment and positive declaration to work ecologically in the performing arts sector. It includes a set of intersecting values, objectives and provocations for engaging with ecological practice. The pledge is envisioned as a conversation starter to help bring an ecological ethic to performance production and as a tool for motivating action. 

A Cosmology of Conservation: Ancient Maya Environmentalism

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


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


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

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

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

A cosmology for sustainability

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

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

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

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

Adapting to a changing world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find out more

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

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

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

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

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

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