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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Solarpunk — Storytelling for Futures We Want to Create

Writer Mick Haining returns with tales from the Solarpunk storytelling showcase that was launched by XR Wordsmiths with the aim of imagining futures we want and need to create, and which has given both writers and readers hope.


1,920 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


As a cliché, “There’s a first time for everything” might not be the best way to begin an account of our very first Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase, as we certainly did not meet many clichés among entries that came from a variety of ages and locations across the globe. However, it was Extinction Rebellion’s first global writing competition for all ages. And, hopefully, not the last.

“It was a really awe-inspiring experience to put this idea out into the world and then to receive so much excitement and encouragement from all sorts of unexpected people and places,” said Lottie, the force behind the initiative, “we were approached by writers, artists, dramatists, web developers, magazine editors and lots of other people keen to collaborate.”

There were so many questions to resolve for our little team of XR Wordsmiths. What would we call the event for a start? After a debate, we decided on ‘Showcase’ because we didn’t want to create the sense of a competition, since that would have meant there were ‘losers’. Nevertheless (and a little paradoxically perhaps), we also felt a need to recognize merit and that meant rewards of some kind. So… what ‘prizes’ would there be, who would be the judges, what would be the criteria for success, how do we advertise it, what are the deadlines…

It’s so tempting to say that we were sailing into uncharted territory but I don’t want to irritate the multi-talented readers of this with so many clichés to stop you reading any further. However, with the indefatigable and inspiring Lottie as our captain and chief navigator, we were steered home.

Solarpunk storyteling - showing artist Dustin Jacobus's illustration for 'The Tides Rolled In'
Illustration for ‘The Tides Rolled in’
Artist: Dustin Jacobus ©2022

Futures we need to create

We used our XR Wordsmiths social media outlets and contacted as many people and organisations as we could think of and the entries began to flow in. The judges did not belong to XR Wordsmiths but were experts in one field or another — we had primary and secondary school teachers, an author, an engineer, an eco-poet, and a Green-Party politician! In small teams, they were allocated stories from the three age categories (11 and under; 12 – 18; 19 and over) and over several weeks collaborated to reach agreement on which tales should attract a ‘prize’. We decided against a single winner and opted for three per category with further ‘honourable mentions’.

Among the prizes were full scholarships to Terra.do (an online climate school), in-person eco-design workshops, magazine interviews, animal adoption kits, eco-writing mentoring sessions, magazine subscriptions, Solarpunk anthologies, wildflower seeds, and audio versions of each story. The ‘winners’ are each having their stories illustrated by a team of artists from across the world (Chile, South Korea, UK, Brazil, US, and Canada).

Illustration for ‘Gabby’s First Kiss’
Artist: Rita Fei © 2022

All entrants were sent a grateful acknowledgement for having contributed and even those who did not meet the criteria for Solarpunk were sent a positive review of their submissions.

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free,” said Michelangelo. Einstein and G.B. Shaw said something similar and who’s going to argue with them? That is the aim of Solarpunk –- to imagine a future we want and need to create for the Earth. The contributors certainly carved some moving stories out of their imaginations, creating future gardens of Eden that might seem unlikely… but talking to and watching people on the other side of the planet or getting into a machine and travelling through the air to meet them would scarcely have been believed possible in Michelangelo’s day. If readers want to check them out, they’re on our brand-new SolarPunk Storytelling site. 

Vision and imagination

Clearly, as expected, there would be novelties. These included ‘The Tides Rolled In’ with towns that not only floated but could travel, and Dahn’s hoverboard on which he floated above Gabby’s head in ‘Gabby’s First Kiss’. As the title of the latter suggests, though, people were still the same, believable beings with emotions and aspirations that should be familiar to all of us. Among the junior contributors, school was transformed into a place with floating desks and where the gym has an underwater racing track!

Illustration for ‘The Future School’
Artist: Hal Hefner © 2022

References to the past were plentiful, sometimes expressed simply and poetically, as in ‘Where Giants Will Stand’: “We are the people of fire, drought and flood”. In the stories, how humanity successfully responded to those challenges gathered together more or less everything we already know we need to do to preserve as much as we can and continue to make our Earth habitable. New rituals were envisaged to illustrate the return to an awareness we once had and that our Earth certainly needs right now — the essentiality of nature to our species. In ‘The Singer of Seeds’, the image of a seed is tattooed onto a young person following the ritual words: “The living being that will come from it shall be your companion for life. Wherever you’ll see one, you shall be protected; whenever you’ll see one, you shall protect it”.

Illustration for ‘The Singer of Seeds’
Artist: Mori © 2022

As you might imagine, picking ‘winners’ was not straightforward. We’re not all moved by the same music — just because we might like Bob Marley doesn’t mean we’ll all be fans of Beethoven. That didn’t mean that reading the submissions wasn’t a pleasure. One judge, Nicola Woodfin, wrote that “this was a reminder of how many humans there are on the planet with vision and imagination and the skills to communicate ideas about a more positive future for all living things” … “Many of the stories are still reverberating in my head long after reading them.”

Another, Lovis Geier, on her YouTube blog described her pleasure at reading stories from younger contributors. She was “flabbergasted” by “the level of knowledge these kids have about climate change” and added that if “an 8-year-old can write a story about how to fix it, then I think there is hope for us yet.” As a writer herself, her experience of the stories was such that it has decided her to write eco-fiction for that age range – “I am riding the wave of positive inspiration from this writing,” she said.

Lovis’s later YouTube interview with one of the teenage winners, 17-year-old Aël from near Paris — writing in his second language! — allowed him to describe some of the thinking behind his entry, ‘The Old Man and the Bird’. He pinpointed a cause of our current global plight by writing from the perspective of the bird who understood what the old man was saying but the latter could not understand the bird’s language… In other words, we have grown out of touch with nature although nature still understands us. “We don’t share a common language,” said Aël, “but I believe communication is still possible.”

Illustration for ‘The Old Man and the Bird’
Artist: Dustin Jacobus © 2022

My own favourite was ‘The Tides Rolled In’, whose central character, Afton, is a 13-year-old girl nervously preparing to address the governing adult assembly about crucial research she has carried out which “discovered an unintended consequence of their fishing practices on the marine ecosystem”. This is a young girl who had “never walked on sidewalks so steady it was said you couldn’t even feel the rocking of the waves”. In one sentence, the author has created an image of future life radically changed from ours and, from our present perspective as we read it, we know that all the world’s ice has now melted. There’s a touch of the Greta Thunbergs about Afton but, in this case, the author is again pointing at a huge societal change — a 13-year-old girl can advise Government scientists, be taken seriously and yet it doesn’t seem like an unusual event for that imagined future.

Solarpunk storytelling — building hope

That story is one of several being explored through online interactive drama sessions arranged by a group of German socio-dramatists, Dandelion Spaces. This is just one more way in which stories submitted to the Showcase will be given another opportunity to be explored and enjoyed.

I have taken part in a couple of those sessions and, indeed, facilitated one myself. It was a novel experience for me as a participant and leader of sessions through the magic of Zoom. As a teacher of drama in secondary schools, I had been used to a room full of adolescents who would not necessarily have chosen to be there. Yes, there are obvious limitations in the Zoom room — participants are mostly confined to their seats and the opportunities for physical interaction don’t exist. Nevertheless, a good story will draw an audience into it whatever the medium and I was pleased to see how willingly and effectively participants became characters in the stories being explored.

I was also glad to be able to devote a session to my favourite of the stories, ‘The Tides Rolled In’. I had the help of the author, Chris Muscato from Colorado, who read specific sections to stimulate imaginative responses and of my daughter, Florence, who took on the role of the central character, Afton. Following Chris’s readings, for example, participants swayed gently in their seats as if onboard the Floating Village, mimed their work in the seaborne community and reacted to their first sight of the capital city. Once accustomed to being inhabitants of the Floating Village, I took on a role myself as someone vehemently opposed to the idea of 13-year-old proposing essential changes to our world in order to provoke a heated debate. Shades of Greta…

Illustration for ‘Where Giants Will Stand’
Artist: Nico Lob © 2022

There will be lessons to be learned from the whole experience, which will inform our organisation of the next Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase and we will be looking at those soon because we’re keen to do it again. Captain Lottie pointed out that not one of us at XR Wordsmiths had been familiar with the Solarpunk genre — that has certainly been changed. She said that “it was amazing to hear from our entrants how the Showcase gave them hope again, in some way or another”. Reading them gave us a bit of hope, too, and, said Lovis: “Kids think that their stories have power if they’re writing them”. Hope and power … those two together create fuel for action or, as Carl Sagan, put it: “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”

The imagination is out there. Let’s get carving angels.


Find out more

You can read all the stories — and enjoy the illustrations — at the Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase from XR Wordsmiths: “a band/collective of writers who are deeply concerned with the climate and ecological emergency facing us all.” Part of Extinction Rebellion, they champion writing as “one way we battle against this emergency — we hope it spurs curiosity, concern, inspiration, reflection, love, rage, and also action.” XR Wordsmiths’ Lottie Dodd has also written about the Solarpunk storytelling at their blog. And you can read Mick’s previous ClimateCultures post introducing the initiative: Solarpunk — Stories for Change, where you will also find links to other resources on the genre.

Dandelion Spaces is a group that creates “transformative and regenerative spaces for people shaping transformation. Spaces that are like dandelions. … Dandelions will fly and multiply.”

Mick Haining

Mick Haining

A retired drama teacher and writer of short stories, plays and haiku on nature -- and 'rebel haiku' on post-it notes left in significant sites, usually
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Permeability: On Green Frogs, Imagination & Reparations

Responding to our Environmental Keywords post on ‘Justice’, writer Brit Griffin shares reflections on permeability — in the natural membranes of the living world, in our binary concepts and in our imaginations — as reaching towards the more-than-human.


1,500 words: estimated reading time = 6 minutes


A tiny smushed head/body and long, extended legs, splayed out, stuck to the bottom of the ditch. I wasn’t even sure what I was seeing — a partially eaten frog, a deformed one? And how to think about it — can I mourn this creature in the particular, as an individual, when we are so accustomed to thinking in terms of populations, relating to creatures at a species-level? And if I can realign my perspective to see this one frog, how then to mourn, and is mourning enough, are reparations owing? I have no idea, but this seeing-imagining-reparations is what I am trying to explore in my thinking and writing.

Showing Green Frog on ditch bottom.
Green Frog on ditch bottom
Photograph: Brit Griffin © 2022

I think best when I am walking, following the same path daily, sometimes twice a day. I live just outside a worn-out mining town in northern Ontario, the scars of homo extractus are everywhere1. It is surely a place of hard takings.

So, the morning walk: past the towering cement ruins of the mine mill, along patches of Baltic Rush (remarkably arsenic tolerant), down a small hill flanked by historical tailings dumps with their arsenic, cobalt, and mercury. The ditches that run between the bottom of this hill and the road rarely hold much water, but if there is enough rain it will pool in these shallow troughs, gathering just enough water to attract frogs.

On that morning, the oddly distorted frog caught my eye, warranted a closer look. There were others, small Green Frogs (Lithobates clamitans melanota) seemingly inert: were they dead? The disfigured one, yes, dead. And the one floating on the surface, belly up and coated in Oomycetea, a gelatinous water mold, he or she was also dead2.

Permeability: Showing Frog coated with water mold, photo by Brit Griffin
Frog coated with water mold.
Photograph: Brit Griffin ©2022

The permeability of the frog

But what of the ones I startled, that hopped into the water and settled on pond bottom? There they became immobile, appeared to be mud-sunk dead. Have to say it’s a pretty good party trick — they can safely rest down there because they have no air in their lungs. They do, however, still need oxygen when they are under water — so, clever creatures that they are, they breathe it in through their skin. This interests me. This permeability of the frog.

A frog’s skin is composed of a thin, membranous tissue that can bring oxygen directly into its blood vessels. The porous membrane can also act as a sponge, soaking up scarce water from pond bottom or even dew. Such a fine line, then, between the outside and the inside of the frog. What seems like a hard and defined distinction, inside/outside, is suddenly in jeopardy, even in flux, what with those gases diffusing in and spreading out. Nothing to stop them. That is the strand I want to follow.

Permeability is a brilliant adaption that is key to frog survival. But when you factor in homo extractus, well, it’s a whole other ballgame.

For their magic skin to work, it needs to stay wet. Right there, a red flag. Hotter summers, drought — climate change won’t be too kind to frogs. But it gets worse. A warming climate not only stresses creatures but seems to increase the toxicity of environmental contaminants.

In my region, agriculture and forestry now dominate the landscape. Both are promiscuous with the use of glyphosate-based herbicides that are delivered mostly through aerial spraying during the late summer. The toxicity of glyphosate is made worse by the surfactant (POEA) that is added to the mix to make the herbicide stick to, and penetrate, the plants more effectively. I guess it is not surprising that something called polyoxyethylene tallow amine does damage to frogs — it increases the permeability of their skin3, letting in more poison.

I think of frog: that wet membrane, the coolness of the shade, tucked in under a leafy overhang. Then what? The scorching of the defoliant, home laid bare, skin burning?

We have little idea as to how a frog might process the experience of being sprayed with herbicide, but we have some idea of what it does: mouth deformities, eye abnormalities, impairment of their breathing ability and predator avoidance response, decrease and damage to the tail length of tadpoles, affecting their burst swim speed. Lethal and sub-lethal impacts.

Breaking down the boundaries

You know, it is odd, but sometimes when scientists conduct their studies on the impact of herbicides on frogs, they spray them with it, observe the impacts, measure, and record. I have no useful way of thinking about this except to say that it disturbs me. And that I think even when we are trying to be better, more careful, we still don’t quite get to the right place: that it isn’t frogs, habitats, populations. It is this particular frog, it is a home, a community. But between the science and the empathy lie hard and often unyielding binaries and boundaries: human/non-human, civilization/wild, emotional/rational. Until we break these down it is unlikely that we will know frog well enough to see what justice for frogs could even look like and what form of reparations would get us there.

Perhaps we need to turn to the frog and permeability for insight. To consider permeability as a means of soaking in otherness – as an aspect of imagination, a pathway to perhaps dissolving, or at least thinning, the binary that currently rules our thinking about animal/human realities.

Showing Green Frog in ditch, photo by Brit Griffin
Frog in ditch
Photograph Brit Griffin © 2022

The writer Jean MacNeil, discussing a writer’s ability to enter into animal consciousness, describes listening to lions in the night, writing that their calls to one another “… took up a splintered space inside me like the other slashes of perception that ripped through there – sunset, sunrise, the wind, the chocolate earth, the olive green of the desert after rain.” This is the outside moving inside, the permeability of the artist’s imagination, as McNeil felt herself “…ebbing away from the world of the human…” so she could pay attention to what she could “… absorb of an animal’s state of mind, the energy they cast around them …”4

So yes, the ebbing away, the moving from actor to receptor. Opening oneself up to another’s suffering is often a natural path towards acts of solidarity. Such acts could include things like habitat restoration and preservation, committing to less lethal lifestyles (limiting both waste and extraction, developing creature-friendly practices) and achieving a radical redistribution of the world’s wealth.

But what happens as the ‘ebbing away’ continues, if the boundaries keep weakening, thinning? When we move from managing for to living with, when Green Frog goes from a vulnerable amphibian to simply my neighbour? What will that relationship look like?

That is as much a question for art as for science, this shift to a relational way of being. This way of being is a dream, a vision that needs to be created from old wisdom and new insights. Quiet and still on the bottom of our imaginariums, seemingly inert, we can consider the weight of damage done, let the burden of it all crack open those silos of thinking, and then we too become permeable, able to absorb and be absorbed by the thrum and the tangle, within and without. Then perhaps we could be living the dream with our fellow traveller, Green Frog.


Find out more 

Brit offered the following notes with her post:

  1. My home sits on the traditional territory of the Timiskaming First Nation. An Algonquin community, the Saugeen Anishabeg have never signed a treaty with the Crown – their traditional territory remains unceded. The need for reparations and a just resolution to this hard taking (and for all Indigenous communities dispossessed of the land) is inseparable from the creation of a liveable, alternative future for any and all of us.
  2. A local mining company doing remediation work in the area came by and took the frog corpses and some water samples for testing. Cause of death? Unknown, probably roadwork; also, the gelatinous coating on the frog was a water mold.
  3. Norman Wagner et al. Questions concerning the potential impact of glyphosate-based herbicides on amphibians, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry Vol. 32, No. 8 (2013): 1688–1700, 
  4. Jean McNeil, Them and Us: animal consciousness in fiction, jeanmcneil’s blog, 2021

Brit offered her piece in response to the first in our series of Environmental Keywords posts, Walking With the Word ‘Justice’, which offers reflections on that keyword from participants at a recent workshop at the University of Bristol. A short extract of Brit’s piece has also been included in a new page in our Environmental Keywords section, along with further creative explorations of ‘environmental justice’. Environmental Keywords is part of a short project led by Dr Paul Merchant of the University of Bristol’s Centre for Environmental Humanities.

Brit Griffin
Brit Griffin
Author of three near-future cli-fi novels and a writer of poetic/story musings, whose interests lay in reconciling with non-humans and exploring the human/creature boundaries.
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