Living (and Composing) in the Anthropocene

Composer Stanley Grill shares his Music for the Earth project and how his feelings about climate change have a way of turning into music evoking connections with the natural world and our obligation to be caretakers, not destroyers.


1,880 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes 


By nature, I’m a loner and a contemplative – not an activist. By practice, I’m a composer – and music has, since childhood, been a source of solace and a world more real to me than the world of people and all of their strange beliefs that strike me, by and large, as entirely unhinged from reality. I am not a religious person, but inclined to believe that most of the stories people tell themselves to explain the world are fantastical illusions.

The view of mankind as a unique species somehow granted dominion over the Earth, a view held by many of the world’s dominant religions, seems evidently false – an example of humanity’s limitless hubris and nothing more. It seems to me that for the entirety of our existence on Earth, we have told ourselves such stories in order to silence the sheer terror that comes with an awareness of our insignificance. Perhaps Rainer Maria Rilke said it best and most poignantly when he wrote, in the opening lines of the first of his Duino Elegies, “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angels’ Orders? And even if one of them pressed me suddenly to his heart: I’d be consumed in his more potent being. For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we can still barely endure, and while we stand in wonder it coolly disdains to destroy us. Every Angel is terrifying.”

Music for the Anthropocene
Angel, Cemetery Marseille, Provence, France
(www.flickr.com/photos/x1klima/28040991569 CC BY-ND 2.0)

Dating back to the very beginnings of human civilizations, our primary driver seems to have been the desire to subdue the terrors of that great Angel, the Earth, with its (incomprehensible in their vastness) forests, deserts, mountains, oceans, storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, and wild beasts. As our skills with technology grew, we walled ourselves in, we paved over the ground, we burned or hacked away at forest and jungle, we wantonly destroyed creatures we feared, and worst of all, abandoned our elemental connection to the Earth and its bounties, perceiving ourselves as somehow separate and apart from (and superior to) the myriad living creatures with whom we share the planet.

Our exact trajectory along that path is largely unrecorded and lost. What role did we play in the destruction of many long-extinct species as our species spread across the globe? How many once flourishing habitats did we transform into barren desert? Wreaking environmental havoc is not something new for us – it is a very ancient habit. Our relatively recent recognition of our role in climate change – and the fact that we’ve coined a new name for it – doesn’t change our past. We’ve always done this, even if the full extent of our impact on the planet is far from understood, remaining, perhaps forever, unknowably lost to time. The Anthropocene started a very long time ago.

The connectedness of everything

While our need to tinker with the world without comprehending the consequences and ripple effects of our actions has been in our DNA from the start, the speed of those ripples has grown exponentially in the past century, exacerbated by vast increases in our numbers and our technological capabilities. It was only recently that I learned about the disappearance of the Aral Sea, one of all too many examples of overly confident people setting out, perhaps with good intent, to change one thing, without having a clue as to the consequences. The connectedness of everything was understood, to some extent, by at least a minority of people since the beginning of time, but lost time and again. And occasionally rediscovered.

While his books may now collect dust in libraries, Alexander von Humboldt discovered it for himself in the late 18th century, writing that “in this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation,” becoming perhaps the first explorer with a modern scientific outlook to acknowledge and document human-induced climate change. Those who tinkered with the Aral Sea would, one wants to hope, have thought better of their plans if they had read some of Humboldt’s books describing the impacts of deforestation he witnessed during his journey through South America. But, perhaps not, especially if profit is the driving motivation.

As I write this, struggling to frame out my thoughts, trying to piece together into a coherent whole the bits and pieces I’ve picked up without any organized study over the years, I always wind up face to face with the reality that, as bleak as our prospects may look from today’s vantage point, I am entirely powerless to do anything about it. For sure, all of this was beyond my ken as I was growing up. The inventions of our age all seemed so exciting and the future so filled with promise. Looking back, the repercussions of our actions seem evident, but then, we are all far more ignorant and stupid than we ever think we are. But, one fact stands out – the planet and the life on it is all one interconnected web and we tug and pull or tear any strand of it at our peril.

“Endangered World: Life Wall” by Xavier Cortada (CC BY 2.0)

Music for the Earth

Which brings me around to where I started. Whatever my feelings and thoughts are about this subject don’t really matter much. I can do little or nothing about it. But I am a composer – and while notes and ideas have little intrinsic connection, my feelings about climate change and the bleak future we’re careening towards at an ever more rapid pace do have a way of turning into music. We humans have always told ourselves stories to explain what we don’t understand or can’t control – and, guilty as charged, I tell myself stories for the same reasons.

I started a Music for the Earth series a few years ago, with the idea that perhaps, through music, I could have some small influence on any who heard it. Putting small black dots on paper that transform into vibrations in the air might serve to evoke in others a feeling of connection with the natural world and of our obligation to be caretakers, rather than destroyers, of the life that everywhere surrounds us. A story I tell myself…

Over the past several years, the series has grown – and more recently, I’ve started to get the music recorded. And I’ve created videos, either on my own or in collaboration with others, with music from Music for the Earth. These include Canciones de la Tierra, settings for mezzo soprano and viola of seven bucolic poems by Federico Garcia Lorca about the Andalusian landscapes that so inspired him. I find myself repeatedly drawn to Lorca’s poetry in connection with my thoughts about climate change and, more particularly, with my conviction that a corollary to our disconnectedness from the natural world is the ease with which we accept environmental catastrophe and human-caused mass extinctions without feeling a deep sense of shame and loss.

Lorca’s poetic and passionate essay The Theory and Play of Duende often comes to my mind when composing music. “The duende … Where is the duende? Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odour of a child’s saliva, crushed grass, and medusa’s veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.”

We cannot really feel unless we are elementally connected to the life of the Earth. And, the corollary to this is that we will be unable to change our relationship with the Earth and all of the life on it unless we understand and feel duende. For Lorca, the spirit of duende was to be found in the Andalusian countryside, and so I turned to his poems of Andalusia for Canciones de la Tierra.

“Remember, you are this universe…”

Remember is a video collaboration with dancer/choreographer Mariko Endo (previously showcased on ClimateCultures) with music for viola and piano, intermezzi with themes inspired by poems of the Earth. The music in this video comes from the fifth and final intermezzo in my composition Remember – which is based on a song from my The Whirr of Wings composition – to a poem of the same title by poet laureate Joy Harjo: “Remember, you are this universe and this universe is you.”

Sea & Sky, for two violas, is a collaboration with violist Brett Deubner, the music inspired by and composed on walks along Cape Cod bay.

And, for the future, time and resource availability permitting, will be recordings of Gaia’s Lament for violin & orchestra, Gaia’s Song for piano and orchestra, Ode to Thea and Sulla Natura for string quartet, The Whirr of Wings for chorus, flute, viola and cello, and A Single Thorn for soprano, French horns and string orchestra, setting poems by Canadian poet Meg Freer.

Best wishes for a greener planet. 

And for any reading this, musicians or not, if curious about the Music for the Earth project, do browse through my website and, even better, if any others active in ClimateCultures want to collaborate on a project, please reach out. We can tell that story together.


Find out more

You can explore more of Stanley’s Music for the Earth and other projects at his site and his YouTube channel, and two of his works have featured in the ClimateCultures Creative Showcase: Remember, mentioned above, and Ahimsa.

You can find out more about Prussian naturalist, explorer, and geographer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) in this piece by Maria Popova at The Marginalian, Alexander von Humboldt and the Invention of Nature: How One of the Last True Polymaths Pioneered the Cosmos of Connections – a review of the book The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf.

And you can read about the disappearance of the Aral Sea in this 2021 piece on The Meaning of Water site, The Aral Sea — More Than a Lake Is Disappearing…

To explore the poems that Stanley has quoted from and which have inspired his work, visit:

The image “Endangered World: Life Wall” shows the work created by artist Xavier Cortada. “Cortada created “Endangered World: Life Wall” using 360 red bricks along with stones deposited in the Netherlands by glacial forces during the last ice age. The work is a 2.1m x 8.5m wall created near the nation’s largest neolithic gravesite at the Hunebed Center in Borger. The 360 bricks represent 360 animals struggling for survival across 360 degrees. On each brick, Cortada painted the longitude where each animal lives. When a species dies out, the number is painted black. The animals are part of an interconnected web that includes humans. How many bricks can be removed before the wall of life comes tumbling down?” You can explore Cortada’s work at cortada.com.

Stanley Grill

Stanley Grill

A composer of music that attempts to translate something about the nature of the physical world or promote world peace, sparking positive thoughts and inspiring change.
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Grasping the Intangible — Our Climate Change Predicament

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Climate Change, Mike Hulme’s book exploring how the idea of climate change is shaped and used in different ways and how its meanings help us navigate climate change as predicament rather than problem.


2,900 words: estimated reading time = 11.5 minutes


“Climate change is an idea of such size, scope, and imaginative power that it escapes the capacity of any one person to grasp and for political institutions to resolve.”

The very first words in Mike Hulme’s climate book are “Not another climate book!” We’ve all read (or read about) so many different works, from the IPCC’s periodic reviews of the state of our scientific knowledge through to the polemical treatises for one solution or another. Contextualising his own book alongside some of these — the popular guides “developed for specific audiences —  ‘dummies’, children, planners, or environmental lawyers — and innumerable ‘short introductions’,” Hulme doesn’t neglect the work of creative writers, mentioning both the increasing volume of literary and genre fiction and its academic coverage. So-called Cli-Fi has rapidly become so well established that by 2018 it already needed a volume called Cli-Fi: A Companion.

So Hulme rightly asks “What more possibly is there to add?”, and his response convincingly adds up to: ‘quite a lot’. Or, maybe, ‘everything’, because we’ll never run out of things to say about the subject. “Climate change is not ‘over’,” he reminds us: neither in the science that underpins our knowledge, nor in coming to terms with what it means for us and our current cohabitants on the planet and its future travellers; and not in the sense of being encompassed or contained within any one field of knowledge. “There is a ‘further beyond’,” he tells us: “Plus Ultra, the epigraph engraved by Spanish grandees on the Pillars of Hercules at the Straits of Gibraltar at the turn of the sixteenth century.” By analogy, collectively we’re all in the straits now, at the beginning of a new age of human experiences of what the world is becoming and what it means to be human within it. And so there will always be a need for new guides and their challenges to the multiple ways we have of grasping, and failing to grasp, these questions.

Climate change is best regarded not as a problem needing a solution but as a predicament. In contrast to problems, predicaments “can neither be solved through engineering nor resolved through politics. A predicament just won’t go away. What predicaments need,” Hulme suggests, “are stories. Interpretive stories — what some may call guiding myths — through which to understand the predicament and to come to terms with it.” Which doesn’t mean just accepting it, standing still. The stories we tell about our predicaments are ways to find our way through a shifting landscape, in ways that seek, sustain and generate hope. “To live with it — but also to move on.” 

“It is possible to use the idea of climate change creatively to bring about desirable change in the world without remaining hostage to the impossible dream of subjecting the condition of global climate to human will.”

Exploring the idea of climate change: showing the cover of Mike Hulme's book, Climate Change (2022)
‘Climate Change’ by Mike Hulme – exploring an idea.
Cover image: Dehlia Hannah © 2022

Geography — Mike Hulme’s own field of knowledge — is a useful discipline from which to start out, taking in its own traditions of both physical and human sciences and offering space to incorporate and adapt insights from many other disciplines. Both in the main text and in many informative and illustrative vignettes throughout, this book draws on what science historians, social anthropologists, environmental economists, political ecologists, indigenous activists, geohumanities and literary scholars, sociologists, and a range of sub-disciplinary and interdisciplinary geographers have to say about climate change. At the same time, Hulme admits this is a very different book to any that researchers from any of those disciplines might offer, or even other geographers from other cultures. It’s the partial and provisional nature of our knowledge that he emphasises. Knowledge, made through scientific or other practices, occurs in particular settings, from where “it moves between people and travels between places.”

“Climate change has today become a synecdoche – it ‘stands in’ – for the status and prospects of people’s changing material, social, and cultural worlds. And these worlds are always in the making … the meaning of climate change is never fixed, nor can it ever be exhausted.”

This book has as its focus our ideas of climate change, and how those ideas have been expressed in different times and cultures, shifting and mutating as they move between them, never settling forever. Climate change “becomes an idea used to different ends.”

The earlier sections provide historical-geographical perspectives through lenses of culture and science — especially cultures of science practised by empires, superpowers and global institutions that have constructed, expanded but also contained our understanding — to become a focus of public concern, debate and mobilisation. The relationships between public and expert understandings are critical to how debates, media coverage and shaping of policy all play out and affect each other. In the middle sections, Hulme sets out different positions within two broad camps, ‘science-based’ approaches on the one hand and ‘more-than-science’ ones on the other. A crude distinction, but “a helpful device for exposing how the idea of climate change becomes imbued with multiple meanings across diverse social formations”. Finally, he discusses the future: the ways it’s being imagined now and how different understandings of climate change are trying to direct our attention to making the ‘right’ future happen. We all have positions to take and world views at stake as we try to steer the planet into one future and away from others. What ideas of climate change will come to dominate?

Between facts and meanings

What does climate change mean? Hulme suggests that broadly ‘science-based’ meanings are espoused in ‘reformed modernism’, ‘sceptical contrarianism’ and ‘transformative radicalism’. Respectively, these seek to assimilate climate change into projects of progressive technological and political development; to contest the nature or significance of climate change as a ‘thing’; or to mobilise it as a vehicle for profound social change. And in the equally expansive territories of ‘more-than-science’ positions are ‘subaltern voices’, ‘artistic creativities’ and ‘religious engagements’. These seek to supplant or speak back to the dominant scientised narrative, to reimagine it, or transcend it. One of many ‘subaltern voices’ he references is the ‘trickster’ figure — for example, represented in North Pacific cultures in Raven — that “acts as a mirror for humanity by reflecting people’s relations with the environment. Raven challenges the illusion of control that is promised by scientific knowledge and geoengineering technologies.”

Whether “getting the science right’ is the fundamental prerequisite to policy, as each of the first three otherwise differing positions assert, or we hold that science alone cannot define our knowledge and we can foreground other forms of lived or derived environmental knowledge, the meanings these six positions enact are continually constructed, sustained and deployed in our various discourses. As Hulme points out, “actions are not determined by the facts in themselves”; our choices are guided by interpretations of facts. This is why understanding the different meanings we and others attribute to our changing climate is an important early step, although not an easy one.

“How do people make sense of something that on the one hand is both physically and discursively unavoidable in the contemporary world, but that – at the same time – exceeds human ease and the imagination? Earth system scientists and literary critics alike grasp at the intangibility of climate change.”

They grasp in different ways, and each is important. Exploring creative approaches and listening to marginalised voices can offer ways to make the abstract particular where scientific knowledge-making, of necessity, strives to derive global, abstract truths from the overabundance of specifics that the natural world presents us with. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a project like ClimateCultures, the second half of Hulme’s book resonates most strongly, for all the value of the earlier, clear accounts of dominant (although fiercely competing) ‘science-based’ positions on climate change. We need to go ‘further beyond’, while maintaining a commitment to data building, knowledge construction and world modelling, if we are to grasp the many meanings of climate change and the responses we can best enact. At the very least, we need to see that scientific knowledge itself travels and translates as it moves among different places, people and processes of making sense of change.

Subaltern voices and the idea of climate change: showing The Raven, a trickster figure.
Subaltern voice – Raven as Trickster, challenging the illusion of control. Image used in Mike Hulme’s ‘Climate Change’.
Artist: © Glen Rabena https://www.glenrabena.com/

“What climate change means locally is not simply the result of downscaling global kinds of knowledge” for, as global climate science rubs up against local subjectivities, the multiple resists becoming singular. The three broad approaches Hulme outlines as ‘more-than-science’ have much to offer as we come to terms with, celebrate and harness the “mobility and the mutability of the idea of climate change.” And these multiple voices and ways of knowing merit being listened to on their own terms, rather than merely as an attempt to ‘improve’ data and modelling.

“If science is de-centred from accounts of climate change … then different possibilities open up for identifying the underlying causes, challenges, responses, and solutions to climate change. Resisting the assumption, instinctively made by scientists, that climate change is all about molecules of carbon dioxide, global carbon budgets, modelled predictions of future climate impacts, or even about local weather extremes, makes it possible to supplant the idea of climate change using very different assumptions.”

Governing the idea of climate change

As we move into the latest global negotiations at COP27 and reflect back on the milestones (or fractions of miles) of the previous COPs, it’s worth reflecting on the concluding section of Hulme’s book, Climate change to come. The first chapter here addresses the thorny question of governing the climate and the proliferation of actors involved. For 1988’s UN General Assembly resolution, which led the way for the Framework Convention at the 1992 Earth Summit, and thus the 2007 Kyoto Protocol and 2015’s Paris Agreement, climate change was “to be regarded as a pathological condition of modernity that threatened ‘the heritage of mankind’.”

As the global regime has developed, so too the regional, national and sectoral interests that translate, advocate for and supervise what and how policies are implemented. The “agents of climate governance” now reach well beyond formal, global institutions, taking in “building inspectors, venture capitalists, media producers, trades unionists, monks, aviation authorities, professional sports clubs, farming extension officers, public celebrities, and national energy regulators.” Every kind of human activity affects the climate, and is affected by ideas of climate change. And so the annual COP attracts more and more participants, observers and influencers.

It’s not the climate itself that’s being governed here, of course, but the regulation of human technologies, behaviours and mechanisms to mitigate the causes of climate change and adapt to its unavoidable impacts. Hulme investigates and summarises these approaches to governance, including state-centric and polycentric models: the use of standards and certification, carbon markets, citizens’ assemblies, judicial courts and ‘climate services’ such as the ‘Forecast in Context Map Room’ tool developed by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies for decision-making in disasters.

“[G]lobal temperature is not an entity that is directly tractable to intentional human action. Governing temperature therefore requires governing the full range of human activities and technologies … and the imaginations that give rise to them… Governing global climate therefore becomes an exercise in governing the collective of human societies but where the power to do so exists in no central or identifiable location.”

A technosocial idea of climate change: showing a screen shot of the IRI-IFRC Forecast in Context Tool
Screenshot of the IRI-IFRC Forecast in Context Tool illustrating where exceptionally heavy rainfall is expected.
Source: ‘Climate services for society: origins, institutional arrangements, and design elements for an evaluation framework’, Catherine Vaughan & Suraje Dessai (May 2014)

Given climate governance’s “totalising reach”, as Hulme identifies it, paradoxically perhaps it’s a profound relief as well as an insurmountable obstacle that no human institutions can ever have the global power to understand, decide and dictate the scale and scope of response that’s needed. There is no governing ‘matrix’. As Hulme says, “far from … vision[s] of a coordinated and intelligent Earth System Governance framework, a more plausible metaphor for climate governance is that of a clumsy multilayered meshwork of overlapping and competing competences and interests.”

Climate imaginaries

Hulme finally moves to the realm of realist and speculative imaginaries of the climate to come and how “events that have not yet happened in reality, happen in the imagination.” As such, now as in history, “future climate imaginaries wield extraordinary power over the present.” He reminds us of the totalitarian party diktat in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four — “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past” — and suggests that with respect to climate change, Orwell’s aphorism might come full circle: “Who controls the future, controls the present”. In this light, the “hopeful imagery offered up in the Paris Agreement”, of a global future climate to be kept under 1.5o to 2.0oC above pre-industrial levels is an especially powerful future narrative attempting to motivate and constrain human behaviour to a global pathway. But as such it “does not necessarily trump all other climate imaginaries … [and]  prompts the obvious question: Whose imaginaries count most?”

Among the artistic responses to ideas of climate change Hulme references is The Weather Project. Olafur Eliasson’s 2003 installation in the Tate Modern’s cavernous Turbine Hall “reminded visitors that humans are unavoidably bound up in the making and experiencing of the weather.”

“Human activities are increasingly co-producing the vaster space of the atmosphere and the climates that it yields. Through his installation Eliasson was saying that there is no standpoint outside of the weather from which humans can stand and objectively observe, measure or manipulate the atmosphere … For humans to live culturally with climate is for climate to be inescapably altered.”

An artistic idea of climate change: showing Olafur Eliasson's 2003 installation in the Tate Modern, The Weather Project.
View of Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, 2003
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2003

The different practices of ‘futuring’ — drawing on science, fiction, metaphor, modelling, myth, scenario-making, visualisation or other techniques — need to recognise that our futures are not reducible to climate alone but are many-sided; are produced and conditioned on different scales, not just the abstract global scale; and have geographies and histories. Also,

“imaginaries are not merely imaginaries. They are not simply inert figments of a fertile imagination. Sociotechnical imaginaries operate across the boundaries of the perceptual and the material. They can bring real worlds into being, for example carbon capture technologies, driverless vehicles, intelligent robots, or space tourism.”

Although discussed as a separate way of futuring the climate, along with models and scenarios for example, metaphor is perhaps something so intrinsic to human imagination and our faculty for language that it underpins the others as much as it stands out for investigation in its own right. As Hulme says, “metaphors help us grasp something new or unfamiliar by associating it with something more familiar and everyday.” Think of the ‘greenhouse effect’ or ‘carbon budgets’. Not intended to be taken literally, metaphors “help explain an idea, enable a comparison, or provoke a line of thought.” And metaphors are perhaps especially helpful in thinking through non-linear aspects of the complex and unpredictable world around us. Think ‘tipping points’, ‘planetary boundaries’, ‘runaway climate change’ — metaphors that Hulme picks up as phrases emanating from Earth Systems scientists. Or think ‘global thermostat’, ‘sunscreen’, or ‘insurance policy’ — metaphors deployed in the world of geoengineering. ‘Geoengineering’ is itself a metaphor, of course, one that projects as a solid science the risky business of presuming to tinker with the planet at its own scale. As Hulme says “metaphors can be hard to spot and can act as political Trojan horses” (and there goes another one), so it’s worth being on the lookout for them. Metaphors can also point in different directions, as he suggests with ‘The Anthropocene’.

“Is the Anthropocene a way of drawing attention to the awesome – but unequal – powers and responsibilities people now have for shaping the climatic future? Does it provoke a questioning of the character and wisdom of the Anthropos – the human – who has given rise to this epoch and its unequal power relations? Or does the Anthropocene metaphor dissolve the old binaries of modernity that separate nature from culture and so recognises that climate is no longer natural and never again can be?”

The overall thrust of this book is how — given the diversity of human imagination and experience, and the ever-changing state of our knowledge of the world — there can be no single narrative of climate change. Certainly, no singular strategic narrative directing what ‘we’ must do or what ‘climate’ we must end up with. There are many present experiences and understandings of what a climate is and what climate change means; and therefore many futures at stake, and many practices for reaching out to them and making use of them today. But who, in the end, can resist a convincing and pithily stated narrative?

“An indefinite future of a physically changing climate, now brought about largely by human hands, has to be confronted. But also to be grasped is the fact that the idea of an unsettled climate is with us forever.”


Find out more

Climate Change by Mike Hulme (2022) is published by Routledge. You can read about Mike’s work and thinking on climate change over many years at his website.

Some of Mike Hulme’s ideas have helped shape previous ClimateCultures blog posts, including The Stories We Live By, where Mark discusses metaphor and other aspects of our discourses and narratives on our relationships with the rest of the natural world, as explored in a free online ecolinguistics course created by ClimateCultures member Professor Arran Stibbe and volunteers from the International Ecolinguistics Association.

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
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Deconstructing our Dominion Stories in a Time of Unravelling

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


2,460 words: estimated reading time = 10 minutes


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

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

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

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

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

Finding transformation in the underworld

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebirth.

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

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

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

Facing the unravelling

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding paths through collective uncertainty 

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

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

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

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

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


Find out more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joan Sullivan

Joan Sullivan

A self-taught photographer who seeks moments of grace and beauty in order to inspire others to visualize - to imagine - what our post-carbon world will
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Where Waters and Fictions Meet

Writer and curator Mary Woodbury shares eight novels about water where fact and fiction mingle, tied by imagination, to reveal important truths about our shifting relationships with this vital and lively agent in an era of climate crisis.


1,700 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes


According to UN Water, an organization of international parties working on water issues, water is the primary medium through which we will face the effects of climate change. Warming temperatures in oceans means that species not capable of adapting will migrate or die out, which harshly affects ocean ecosystems. Water has become more scarce globally. Meanwhile, extreme weather patterns that cause droughts, floods, wildfires, increase in air temperatures, and other conditions point to low-income communities being affected the worst by health and food insecurity, political instability, the increase of changing disease environments, and altered snow and ice patterns—things that are already happening all around the world.

While facts are something we can and should pay attention to as we follow scientific integrity, models, and reports, another mode of telling the story about water has been alive forever: churned, spoken, and written by authors who dream up fictional stories related to our past, present, and future world. Where fact and fiction mingle like this is an area of reflection and speculation, tied by imagination. These tales of water ripple out once the pebble sinks in. The intersectionality of diverse water fiction results in reader empathy, learning, inspiration, and shared commonalities around the world. Local dignity comes alive against a backdrop of planetary crises.

Here are eight such stories.

Land-Water-Sky (Ndè-Tı-Yat’a) by Katłıà

About water: cover of Land-Water-Sky novelA debut novel by Dene author Katłıà, this story imagines the very beginnings of water, land, and sky—from time immemorial—and is set in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The author draws upon legendary characters, including spirits, beasts, a shapeshifter known as Nąą́hgą, and humans who have heard and passed down the narratives.

Because the novel starts long ago, a pristine natural landscape fills its pages, including fresh and clean water, which was abundant before the colonization of lands and people. Told in a lineage of short stories, the novel also fast-forwards to the near future, where a group of teenagers is haunted by past inter-generational trauma. Land-Water-Sky reminds us of our connection to water as well as of the dignity of Indigenous people who still uphold and respect these entities.

Oil on Water by Helon Habila

About water: cover of Oil on Water novelThe novel is set in the Niger Delta, which consists of nine states in southern Nigeria, fed by the Niger River, on the banks of the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean. This area has three major deltas (western, central, and eastern) and is home to one of the highest density-packed populations in the world, around thirty million. Oil on Water reminds of us of how water and oil do not mix. Rich oil barons settle in the delta and take what they want, ruining local people’s homes, water, land, flora, and fauna. Two journalists, Rufus and his boss Zaq, travel to the delta to report on the kidnapping of a British oil executive’s wife. The journalists try to capture the story, not just of the mystery but of the people living there. 

The author stated that the novel was based upon the Niger Delta uprisings. Because the water surrounding the delta has been traditionally so integral to the people, and then is stolen, Oil on Water is a story of tragedy and loss, so riveting as to cause heartbreak.

A Diary in the Age of Water by Nina Munteanu

About water: cover of A Diary in the Age of Water novelThe author is a Canadian ecologist and is deeply knowledgeable about water in all its forms. A Diary in the Age of Water is a lyrical polemic about the future of our water. Engaging, educational, and flowing, like water on the page, the story follows a fictional memoir about a limnologist dealing with unjust politics at work and in the world, dwindling water, her independent and headstrong daughter, her own aging, and the mystery of a strange girl.

This is the definitive novel about all things water. Each chapter starts with a fact related to water, which gets drawn out to a metaphor happening within the chapter. Written in the style of a diary, the story is personable. Munteanu communicates well as a scientist and breaks down complex ideas and information into understandable prose. By the time you’re finished, you’ll know more about water than ever before.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

About water: cover of The Water Knife novelThis novel, set in the Southwestern United States, is also fiction, but it seems inspired by actualities in a what-if-we-continued-this-way scenario. Climate change continues to produce drought and wildfires, which dangerously deplete water supplies. Set in the near future, the novel has Angel Velasquez, working for his boss Catherine Case and acting as a ‘water knife,’ a person who controls water supplies and sabotages competitors. Other characters, Lucy and Maria, join the suspenseful thriller in a desperate search for water.

This cautionary tale is a reminder that our ecological systems are at stake. Reuters recently stated that, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Southwestern US drought is the worst it’s been in a century and is linked to climate change. Yesterday’s science fiction is today’s reality.

Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

About water: cover of Memory of Water novelMemory of Water is not just about future people’s memory of a time when water was more abundant but of the memory that water has of itself. Water is a main character and shares a significant role in the novel, as meaningful, if not more, than the human characters. This is a strong trait in eco-fiction, a genre of literature that rewilds stories in a way that reminds us that we are part of an ecological web, not above or apart from it.

In the story, a young woman named Noria Kaitio feels guilty for carrying on her father’s tradition of tea master—set in the far future of the Scandinavian Union—when water is scarce enough to be rationed severely. Noria dreams of a Shangri-la type of place, where water is more than just a memory, and sets out to find it. This novel has been adapted to a movie, Veden vartija, which releases in September 2022.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

About water: cover of Fever Dream novelThis surreal, psychological novel follows a woman named Amanda in a fever dream; she has a conversation with a boy named David that, in time, breaks down the mysterious cause of deaths surrounding them. The novel was first published in 2014 and recently was adapted to film and came out on Netflix. In the novel and the film, water plays an important part of the story.

Fever Dream is an example of storytelling in which environment is key to well-being but also in which the human connection, not just to water or the wild but to other humans, is part of the ecosystem. Amanda and her neighbor, David’s mother Carla, are connected by their children; they try to figure out what has gone wrong with David. David and Amanda have a lengthy conversation about what happened to him, but David insists that she must remember all the details of the recent past to truly get it. This haunting, beautiful story takes place in Argentina.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

cover of Lagoon novelScience fiction and fantasy are modes of storytelling that remind us of our connection to the environment around us. A subgenre of African-focused science fiction, called Africanfuturism, imagines worlds set in the continent of Africa. Lagoon is set in Lagos, Nigeria.

In a recent talk that Nnedi had with Arizona State University’s Matt Bell’s creative writing class, students asked about the writing process for the novel. The author stated that she had the idea as a response to what she thought was not a good representation of Africans in the alien invasion movie District 9, set in Johannesburg. She wondered—what if aliens landed in Lagos, a city by the sea? Water is integral to Lagos and to the story of Lagoon. The ocean environment is important, and the author decided to combine a story of aliens with legendary sea creatures in order to tell a more representative story of Africa’s people, myths, culture, and future.

Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad

cover of Bangkok Wakes to Rain novelAn epic story, with a large timeline and big cast of characters, the novel is a beautifully written elegy to Bangkok’s collective memory, a fluid piece of place-writing and period pieces, magically woven together and coalescing in the city of Bangkok.

The novel moves around characters connected to each other: including a missionary doctor, a post-WWII society woman, a jazz pianist, and more. The author has spoken of the city of Bangkok as a “low-lying amphibious capital city with extensive networks of waterways, before much of it was contorted from its nature to match humankind’s trivial ambition of capital growth.” Tie that with climate change, which brings sea rise and floods.


Find out more

This article first appeared in Italian in the journal TELLŪS 2-2021 as Otto romanzi ci ricordano del nostro legame fondamentale con l’AcquaEight Novels Remind of us Our Crucial Connection with Water.

While hundreds more fictional stories featuring water exist, these are just eight that Mary has selected to introduce readers to the idea of how fiction and water mingle. To view more such tales, check out Dragonfly.eco, which Mary created and curates and has a database of nearly 1,000 novels, short stories, and other fiction related to our evolving planet, its physical landscapes and natural wonder, and the threats that our ecosystems face. Dragonfly.eco celebrates its tenth anniversary this August.

And you can also read Mary’s previous posts for ClimateCultures, including her two-part History of Eco-fiction.

You can find out more about the eight books from the authors’ or publishers’ sites:

You can read UN Water’s summary on the impacts of climate change on the world’s water systems here.

Mary Woodbury
Mary Woodbury
A fiction writer, researcher and curator of websites exploring ecology in fiction and providing ecoliterature resources for writers.
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Moving With the Word ‘Transitions’

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe shares participants’ reflections from a workshop exploring the word ‘Transitions’ – the final Environmental Keywords discussion from the University of Bristol – and the sense that we need better words to capture our imaginations.


2,100 words: estimated reading time = 8 minutes


Although it was a smaller group that gathered in the St Philips area of Bristol than for the University’s previous two workshops in their Environmental Keywords series, it was as full of experiences and ideas. This final event followed the same format as the others, beginning with a walk around the local area so each person could place their own thoughts on the word ‘Transitions’ in the context of their encounters there and their conversations together while walking. And, as before, this process of exploring ideas through local explorations of place proved fruitful in the discussions that then took place at the workshop.

The tricky thing

One participant reflected on the difficulties in applying a word like ‘transitions’ within the social contexts of environmental issues when compared with the seemingly simpler patterns in the natural world. “Ecological transitions are something which are much easier for me to grasp. I can see seasons progressing and [on the walk] I took images of the flowers and the blossom coming out. I know that species are migrating and then migrating to different parts [e.g. with climate change], but that’s a more gradual transition. For me, transitions become really difficult as soon as humans are involved. Humans are just so complicated.” 

It’s a complexity that often seems to get reduced to quick fixes, to a reliance on technology and its promises to shift us away from a problematic state and towards a desired, improved one. But “it’s not just about these technological solutions. It’s about the really tricky thing. It’s about demand, right? And how much energy we’re using. And you can’t just magic a problem away through net zero, right? Or through electric cars.”

Indeed, one contribution suggested that “to achieve net zero targets, we need to transition to a lower energy-consuming society using about 20% of the fossil fuels we use currently and 50% of the total energy. The hope that we can transition to 100% renewable energy under the current energy demand just doesn’t add up. Also, the net zero scenarios considered by policymakers include technologies that are not ready for deployment and they may never be. So, things like green hydrogen and carbon capture and storage.” 

In fact, of course, transitions — in technologies, economics, business and consumer behaviour — are also what drive our current direction deeper into ecological and climate predicaments. Seemingly small and gradual shifts ramp up our resource use. One person illustrated this, asking “are we missing out on observing some changes that are happening and then waking up and thinking ‘Oh, no. Something changed. And I haven’t noticed that transition process’? … So for example, you know, thirty years ago you would have a weekly bath and now you have a daily shower and we know norms of convenience and hygiene change because of the materials around you, and so on.”

As someone else commented, this failure to grasp the scale of the issue and the nature of the required response can quickly lead to frustration with ‘official’ models of transitions. “When people use the word, it feels like they’re just tinkering around the edges when what we need is something much more fundamental. And the tinkering around the edges of things gets quite irritating. I don’t mean the small-scale, say, small communities who make something work and then how does that scale up? I mean the imposed transitions.”

Transitions - showing broken windows in an abandoned building
Photograph: Workshop participant © 2022

But another participant offered a more nuanced view of how transitions can take shape in the more autonomous cultural sphere, beyond policy and technological supply and demand, for example in how refugee and immigrant families respond to new surroundings and circumstances. “So I think that transition is countries, languages, cultures. I see it firsthand and it’s fascinating to me how and what rules are bent, where tradition is pulling and where, you know, modernity is pulling and just the meshing of culture and language and all that.”

Empathetic transitions

Holding each of these three workshops in different areas of the city has given the series a strong identification with the challenges and the opportunities involved in negotiating social responses to environmental change, and how change often cannot be imposed from above. “So I naively believe that you can’t implement any change if you don’t take the people who live there on board. … I think otherwise it’s like colonialism. You’re coming, you’re plonking your view onto the world on it and you’re thinking that that’s what’s wanted.” Another expanded on this: “The only way to do that is really to spend a huge amount of time talking to people and to find out how people want to use the space, how they depend on that space, how they perceive ownership of that space, and what are they willing to give up to protect that space. And those discussions are usually not happening.” Of course, these conversations are also not simple things to hold open and to engage every voice in.

Transitions - "If you want to know more about moving to Bristol ask a Bristolian."
Ask a Bristolian
Photograph: Workshop participant © 2022

Picking up on the nature of conversations and what they offer — even short explorations such as this series of half-day events — another participant observed, “You can’t just expect transitions or transformations or change to be easy. Like there will be that conflict always. And people have their own priorities and their own interests. So it’s crucial to really understand other people’s worlds, really put yourself in someone else’s shoes. That’s why we like this sort of exercise, you know, because you don’t have to agree with someone else’s interest, but it makes you realise that we could all be more than a single issue person. … That’s why I like these sort of empathetic activities.”

We begin to see here, of course, the links between ideas of ‘Transitions’ with those of ‘Justice’ and even ‘Resilience’ — how these work with or against each other, and that would be a fascinating area of future exploration. One person offered an example from South America, of changes as a nation continues to emerge from a long heritage of dictatorship and how its constitution now “recognises explicitly the different indigenous relations to the ocean. …. So there’s a change here where this has been written into a constitutional framework. Now what that then looks like in terms of how does that become concrete actions, we don’t know. But there’s a high-level political change here.” 

Often, the space between formal, top-down approaches to transition and more local, autonomous change is experienced as a gap, where change fails to take shape or lead to the desired outcomes. “The risk is you end up with the gap in the middle between the small scale community initiatives and the kind of discourse, the well-meaning discourse, from the top.” 

Reaching to transformation

Maybe it’s also where it’s hardest to visualise the difference that can make the difference. As one participant put it:  “So if you look at climate change and transitions, people are talking about energy, people are talking about food, people are talking about cities and with some of those I could imagine transitions, but in some of them it’s so complex that I can’t envisage what a city of the future might look like where we have had a transition. … And I find that is my intellectual challenge. I just can’t imagine. I just lack the creativity to think about how crazy this could be. … Is it that I’m just so embedded in this society where I have found my space, my niche … that I can’t see transitions.” 

Another person offered an almost rueful observation: “I’m just wondering whether transition has become such a gentle word and maybe we need a less gentle word?” And a point that came up more than once was how an early experience of the Covid pandemic was the sense that change was not just inevitable — a dramatic ‘push’ on how we live — but that change is also always possible, and can be turned into something positive; but there is also always the risk of it being lost, of it fading into a return to ‘business as usual’. “It is something which forces us. But we’ve had a global pandemic, that is a pretty big push. And what we’re coming to is back to living the way it was before, with variations — we might not go into the office every day, but ultimately, it is still very much the society it was before. So if that doesn’t push us, what will make us live differently?“

As one person put it, a word like ‘Transitions’ seems to speak of a smooth process and something that’s maybe linear and inevitable: something people must move with. “You’re either going forwards or backwards. It’s either a yes or no, and it doesn’t do justice to that range of different experiences that we end up thinking about in these activities. And I do really worry because there are signs now that some of the arguments about transition, and net zero as it is so often framed, are becoming really polarised.” 

Another contribution emphasises the ‘real world’ nature of change that lies behind a simple word like ‘Transitions’.  “In the whole engagement debate, there is not enough being taught about how conflict arises and how you can’t make everyone happy. And especially for environmental transition, the expectation that there are some standards of living which we cannot continue: how do you have that conversation …. You won’t have a low traffic neighbourhood that will satisfy everyone because it involves some sacrifices. It involves making roads one way from two ways, taking some parking space. The new cycle lane is seen as someone else taking parking space and there are the trade-offs and everything.” 

Transitions - showing a car lane becoming a cycle lane
St Philips Causeway approach
Photograph: Workshop participant © 2022

Ultimately then, the conversation returns us to the adequacy of the words we use. One person summed it up by saying that ‘Transition’ is probably not the right word. “And I feel like that this exercise has really reinforced that, I think, precisely because it is so embedded in the language of the kind of top-down government initiatives. … So I think we need another word. What word would that be? I don’t know. ‘Transformation’? …. Because I think there’s stuff already happening that we can draw on and it captures a bit more of a sense of human agency. It’s actually a bit more hopeful. …. And I think ‘transition’ sounds a bit like ‘transition is happening whether you like it or not’. The word ‘transformation’, for me, means that it sounds like more of an opportunity, a kind of intention.” 

One participant shared with me that they didn’t have strong feelings about the word, as “I don’t use it much in my own work, my own life.” And maybe that is part of the issue, that it has little everyday purchase.

And another contributor offered a further alternative: “So should we be talking about transitions or should we be talking about revolution?” 


Find out more

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

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

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

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

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

Anna has created this short film from the series, with contributions from Paul and the different participants who joined the conversations.

We have four previous posts in the Environmental Keyword series. ‘Justice’: Walking With the Word ‘Justice’ by Mark Goldthorpe and Permeability: On Green Frogs, Imagination & Reparations, a response from writer Brit Griffin. ‘Resilience’: Growing With the Word ‘Resilience’ by Mark Goldthorpe and A Nature More Resilient, a response by psychotherapist Susan HollidayAnd the main Environmental Keywords section has pages with other creative responses to these words from a number of ClimateCultures members. Look out for the ‘Transitions’ page, coming soon!

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