Writer Indiana Rivers shares a short story exploring one person’s sense of purpose. Evoking ideas of conversation with the universe to illuminate times of zoonotic pandemic and climate crisis, Indiana reflects on the presence of signals from within.
1,300 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes
Indiana’s post is the third in our series Signals from the Edge, which sets the challenge of creating a small artistic expression of the more-than-human in the form of a new signal for humanity. Is it a message — whether meant for our species or for another kind, which we overhear by chance? An artefact of some other consciousness? Or an abstraction of the material world? Something in any case that brings some meaning for us to discover or to make, here and now, as we begin to address the Anthropocene in all its noise. A small piece of sense — common or alien — amidst the confusion of human being.
I am purpose
We are the universe.
We have chosen to present ourselves to you as language because we feel it is the simplest and easiest way to communicate with you.
We have heard whispers from the minds of you. It is of the assumption that we have caused humanity’s current state of … Isolation. Destruction. Vulnerability.
Of course, humans love to cast blame. Even when that blame cannot reach time or form or space.
We can only observe. Humanity is in control of its own fate. Where did the first infection begin?
This is a rhetorical question.
Digestion of a diseased animal.
Humanity’s consumption of non-human animals. Ah, yes, the origin is confirmed.
What you call ‘zoonotic’ is the isolation between the human and the animal. But what you cease to understand is the thread between every living being. A hum. A heartbeat.
Weaves us together in a tangle of chaotic uncertainty.
We have not the capacity to scribble you out. What a crisis permits is the human spirit to blaze until it burns the light —
“Sorry, hi, sorry to interrupt but why are you telling me? Am I supposed to do something with this?” The voice is coarse, dry, awkward.
That is for you to decide.
“But, why me? You could have picked anyone.”
We did not pick you, as you call it. You were randomly chosen.
A pout. “Oh, okay, well, thanks, I guess.”
Don’t thank us. We do not require praise.
“Then what do you require?”
A pause. Then a whisper. “You’re a barrel of laughs.”
Your attempt at sarcasm has not succeeded.
“Hey! Excuse me, you may be the almighty bloody universe but there is still such a thing as … as respect. Even from a formless … being, such as yourself. Selves. Sorry. Pronouns.”
We admire your strength.
But we do not require anything. We are communicating with you to offer you a purpose.
An echo of a voice. High-pitched and loud. “Saph, dinner’s ready!”
“Alright, Mum, be down in a sec.”
Do you consume animals, as those who were first infected?
“No. I used to but then realised it was stupid of me to think I had the right to eat them just because they’re a different species. And don’t even get me started on how eating animals is destroying the planet –”
But you’re going to tell us, we presume?
“Yes. I can be selfish sometimes but I don’t want to be a god. I’m not even sure I believe gods should exist. But it seems we’re acting as if we’re gods. Unpredictable weather patterns. Increase in carbon dioxide levels. The planet is roasting like a potato. And all you ever see on the news is the football results and lengthy discussions on what the Queen is wearing.”
You are wise, child.
Gurgles. “Wha? Really? I couldn’t even get a C on my GCSE maths exam.”
Yet you were able to see what so many of your kind cannot. The purpose we offer you is something you already recognise. A hum. A heartbeat. Made of stardust. You feel it within yourself but can never quite reach it.
“This sounds … familiar. And it’s kind of freaking me out.”
As it should.
The high-pitched and loud voice returns. “Saph! It will get cold. It’s your favourite.”
“Yes, coming, sorry. Just talking to my … girlfriend. Be right down!”
Listen to the hum of us. The vibration of us. Of you. There, you will learn of your purpose.
“I think I already know it.”
Then you have won.
I am purpose — context
I decided to focus on connectedness because being an optimist I find focusing on the positives of any situation is the most beneficial way to learn and develop.
I had the idea to write a conversation between the universe and a teenager because I wanted to draw upon the relationship we have with each other and how collectives of union are forming because of this crisis.
More so, I wished to look at the origins of the virus and question our consumption of animals. Even though I was primarily focused on the consequence of viruses being passed from animal to human because of this consumption, I also wanted to bring attention to how climate change has been influenced by animal agriculture.
I decided a teenager would be a comedic and authentic partner to the universe character because it is a time in our lives where I believe we are truly ourselves. On the verge between child and adult. That balance is what makes us who we are, I believe. And what is the universe if not us? We are its stardust.
At first, I didn’t know how the conversation would go. I knew the Signals from the Edge series focused on signals and messages. I thought a signal from the universe, in this context: sending a human being a message that they can be offered a purpose. In reality, by telling someone they have a purpose means they already know it. They just need to recognise it.
The piece also made me think about how I interpret the word ‘edge’. Before writing this, I had always seen the word as an ending, something that reaches a wall where there is nothing left. Now, I am accustomed to seeing the word as a place unknown. Somewhere that holds knowledge and a beingness we believe we cannot reach.
I also wanted to keep the reader guessing as to whether this is a dream sequence or some form of reality. Of course, the universe could never have a voice that we could understand but humans do and we are biologically part of the universe so … paradox? Essentially, I wanted this conversation to highlight the signals found within us and how we can access them during times of unprecedented events. I hope Saph can bring hope to anyone of any age and teach us that the messages we send ourselves can guide us to the light.
Four writers of fiction and nonfiction (all members of Bristol Climate Writers and ClimateCultures) share the ‘Desert Island Books’ they discussed at a recent library event on climate change: Nick Hunt, Caroline New, Peter Reason, and Deborah Tomkins.
3,000 words — approximate reading time 12 minutes
At a time of enormous cuts to library funding all over the UK, Bristol is not an exception — in 2017, seventeen of its 27 libraries were under threat of closure, including Redland Library, the second most used library in the city. The Friends of Redland Library — which campaigns to keep libraries open all over Bristol, initiated a series of evenings — Desert Island Books, in which “a panel of interesting people” discuss a particular topic through books.
On 9th January 2020, four of the Bristol Climate Writers took part in a climate change Desert Island Books event at Redland Library. We were each invited to bring a book to discuss, and also a ‘wild card’, a book which could be on another subject completely, although only one of us took that option, with persuasive reasoning. This was followed by Q&A.
Members of the panel were Nick Hunt (travel writer, freelance journalist and editor of Dark Mountain), Caroline New (fiction writer and Green Party Campaigns co-ordinator), Peter Reason (writer and Emeritus Professor, Bath University), and Deborah Tomkins (fiction writer and founder of the Bristol Climate Writers network).
Climate change — a background hum
Nick Hunt's choice:
- Always Coming Home, by Ursula Le Guin- Culture and Climate Change: Narratives, edited by Robert Butler, Joe Smith and Renata Tyszczuk
Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home is not really a novel. It’s a collection of stories, anecdotes, folklore, songs, rituals and even recipes describing the Kesh, a people “who might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California”. Le Guin herself described it as an ‘archaeology of the future’.
Post-apocalyptic fables mostly fall into two categories: eco-utopias where everyone lives in harmony with nature, and dystopian nightmares prowled by murderous, looting gangs. One is invariably misanthropic, highlighting the savagery into which humans plunge as soon as the veneer of civilisation is stripped away, while the other is often extremely dull (perfection always is). Always Coming Home belongs in the utopian category — although, beyond the valley of the Kesh, there are signs that other societies are falling back into hierarchy, expansionism and misogyny — but there are several qualities that make this book different.
Le Guin’s exceptional skill as a writer is the first. She builds her world so delicately that only halfway through the book does it become apparent that this quasi-Native American society of hunter-gatherers has access to a technology that resembles a god-like internet, which permeates their lives so thoroughly that, like the wind or the rain, it is hardly even mentioned. Another quality is what I can only describe as her honesty, which seems a strange thing to say in relation to a sci-fi/fantasy book.
The daughter of anthropologists, Le Guin does not present herself as the writer or creator, but simply as an archivist whose role it is to record information and pass it to the reader.
In one Kesh folktale, a man steps through a hole in the air to find himself ‘outside the world’, a duplicate version of his own valley that is filled with roads and houses as far as he can see. This shadow-place is populated by monstrous backwards-headed people who smoke tobacco ceaselessly, eat food that is poison and can only say the words “Kill people, kill people, kill people”. The story is a shamanic voyage: the backwards-headed people are us, glimpsed with nightmare clarity by a culture to whom pollution and war are practically incomprehensible. It is an invitation to see ourselves, and the violence of our civilisation, as indigenous cultures might have seen us at first point of contact, or even as non-human creatures might regard us now.
“Stories about climate change don’t need to be about climate change”, writes critic Robert Butler in an essay in the anthology Culture and Climate Change: Narratives. “Stories written before people knew about human-made climate change — Faust, Galileo, King Lear — may now resonate in ways that hadn’t been seen before. Even if climate change is not the subject matter, or the principal theme, its presence may still be detectable. It could be, in Ian McEwan’s evocative phrase, ‘the background hum’.”
Always Coming Home is not a story about climate change, or not directly anyway (an unspecified cataclysmic upheaval is buried so deep in time that the Kesh retain no knowledge whatsoever about its cause). But a ‘background hum’ runs through the book, permeating it as thoroughly as the digital intelligence that invisibly fills Le Guin’s world; not a note of anxiety or despair but of trust in human kindness, and a celebration of our place not at the top of a hierarchy but as one small part of a living, breathing universe. Above all, it is a book about hope… even if that hope lies 20,000 years in the future.
Navigating unbearable things
Caroline New's choice:- The Turning Tide, by Catriona McPherson
- The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell
I broke the mould in our team presentation of climate fiction by talking about the witty, escapist detective stories by Catriona McPherson, the excellent Dandy Gilver series, rightly called ‘preposterous’ by one reviewer. As a climate activist I read new and terrifying information every day. I don’t go to bed with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I go to bed with Dandy Gilver and her ilk. I need to sleep. Maybe the human mind needs a little denial as it needs chocolate.
Set in the 1930s, their upper-class female detective protagonist shares the classism of the period, modified by humour and compassion, but prevails against sexism. She notices poverty, or we could not like her, but the resilience and humour of the poor stop poverty threatening the benign nature of reality. We readers know what is coming, but we let ourselves be rocked along with Dandy in the comforting hammock of interwar privilege. This is high-class denial for the intelligentsia.
As a writer of climate fiction myself, I have to ask: ‘Why would anyone want to read about unbearable things?’ And yet they do. Fiction about the Holocaust, violence and war, the slave trade and other atrocities pulls us straight into the terrifying opposite of love. What makes it readable? I can think of two obvious ways.
Firstly, when the horror is interwoven with stories of love and courage the relief of this truth about human beings lets healing emotions soften the rigid horror of the trauma.
Secondly, fiction can counter the bland numbness of privilege, which can be a relief. By saying ‘This is real! This happened!’ it can afford us the catharsis of grief. Or it may amount to the cry ‘Stop!’ One way or another, these works forbid denial, which in theory should bring us closer to action. If, that is, we have the faintest idea of what to do.
Climate change is perhaps different from the other sorts of unbearable things I have mentioned. The enemies are structures, although worked by human minds. We are all deeply implicated. We all did this. This unpleasant fact may be what made climate fiction slow to take off.
The Ship is actually about denial, but not of climate change. It is metaphorical but entirely to the point, and in that sense more realistic than the US survivalist post-apocalyptic genre where women in cross-gartered trousers peer irresistibly from wattle-and-daub shelters and take aim at small game with home-made crossbows. The Ship is set in an unspecified time when there are no apples left, only ersatz apple juice and wax replicas. Most of the eco-systems that support human life have already broken down, and the government’s only solution is to allow the weakest to die so as to protect a surviving elite. The horrors are mostly off-stage, which makes it possible to contemplate them out of the corner of an eye.
The Ship itself is the ultimate middle-class solution; a floating gated community which tries to create its own truth. In reality it is going nowhere, forever. The on-board leadership (the heroine’s own father) parrots the message of many dictatorships: forget the past, erase it: it never happened and only traitors make us look at it. The teenage heroine has to grow up in the face of this thick denial, and the book charts her adventures up to the point that she sees the clear outlines of her moral dilemma and takes steps to end it.
Closing the species gap
Peter Reason's choice:- Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis, by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky- The Overstory, by Richard Powers
Learning to Die, by poet/philosophers Bringhurst and Zwicky, is a tiny book of essays, but it explores a huge theme: How should we die at the end of times?
The first essay, by Bringhurst, considers the nature of the wild Earth, “living life to its full… self-directed, self-sustaining, self-repairing, with no need for anything from us”. Humans are, of course, part of this, but we are ‘liminal creatures’, on the margins of the wild, sometimes tempted to believe the ‘witch tale’ that we can live entirely outside it. The wild world has been pushed by humans beyond its limits, bringing about mass extinction of life on Earth, one that may well include humans. If anything survives, “it will again be the wild… that is responsible for the healing”.
Bringhurst is demanding we look reality in the face, challenging us with the realities of death: “You, your species, your entire evolutionary family, and your planet will die tomorrow. How do you want to spend today?”
Jan Zwicky picks up this essentially moral question: “What constitutes virtue in such circumstances?” The answer, she tells us, is surprisingly straightforward: it is “what has constituted virtue all along. We should approach the coming cataclysm as we ought to have approached life”. Harking back to Socrates, she explores six core virtues:
Awareness coupled with humility regarding what one knows.
Courage: physical, civic, and moral.
Self-control: knowing when enough is enough
Justice as ‘the order of the soul’.
Contemplative practice: attending to the beauty of brokenness
And this must all be approached with a sense of humour, a lightness of touch that comes from not taking one’s self too seriously. “We will sense it as a smile: the absence of fear and the refusal to despair. Even in the face of death.”
In contrast, Richard Powers’ The Overstory is a novel that sets out to close the gap between people and other living things, and in particular, trees. It challenges human exceptionalism, so, while there are nine human characters, key protagonists are the trees themselves.
This may sound over-serious and philosophical for a novel, but it is also a gripping read. The lives of the human protagonists become intertwined with each other in the so-called Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest of the 1980s, when activists attempted to stop the logging of the last virgin forests. The narrative builds to a series of thrilling climaxes as the protestors blockade logging machinery, occupy trees, battle with police, and eventually engage in illegal direct action with appalling consequences.
The great achievement of this novel is that it draws the reader into a different worldview in which we know — really know, not just as scientific abstraction — that trees communicate with each other; that forests are not collections of individual trees but living, collaborating organisms; that they can, in their own way, communicate with us. How does this change our attitude toward them and to the plant world in general? It is often said we will not solve the ecological crisis through facts and figures but through good stories that engage our imagination in alternative ways of living. The Overstory is such a story.
Climate change in a realist tradition
Deborah Tomkins' choice:- Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver - Don’t Even Think About it: Why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall - What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, by Per Espen Stoknes
Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour is a quieter book than what some may imagine climate fiction (or ‘cli-fi’) to be, with little overt drama, and in the realist tradition. In other words, it’s not shelved in fantasy or science fiction, nor is it a thriller.
I chose this book because I tend to write realist climate fiction, and know therefore just how hard it is to do without breaking into dystopia (current or future), or upping the stakes with some kind of environmental disaster. But I have also written a speculative cli-fi novella, and found it a good deal easier. There is something freeing about putting your story on a different planet or several hundred years in the future.
Flight Behaviour is set in the Appalachian Mountains, in a dirt-poor community, an area that Barbara Kingsolver knows well and writes compassionately about. The people are ill-educated and never travel beyond the nearest town. Climate change means nothing to them in their struggle for existence — except they’ve noticed the weather doesn’t behave as it used to, and constant rain and flooding threatens their farms and livelihoods.
The main character, Dellarobia, has her life upturned when she spots ‘fire’ in the woods — in reality, millions of monarch butterflies which have somehow gone astray from their usual migration route. If they all die in the Appalachian winter, the whole species will become extinct. The local community sees it as a sign from God not to fell the trees — tree-felling is likely to be the only source of income that winter for Dellarobia’s family — and Dellarobia appears on TV, to her dismay, as some kind of mystic figure (the portrayal of the manipulative TV reporter is a joy). Into this confused mix comes Ovid Byron, a black professor of entomology who is passionate about the monarchs; and Dellarobia, bright but uneducated, begins to learn about ecology and climate change.
Flight Behaviour isn’t perfect — it’s a little wordy, and the story could have been told in perhaps half the length, but it’s one of the very few novels that address climate and ecological issues in the realist tradition. It’s worth noting that Kingsolver has been writing fiction exploring these themes for several decades.
I chose two wild cards, both non-fiction, similar but different: George Marshall’s Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, and Per Espen Stoknes’ What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming.
They both look at the psychology of denial, all the mental tricks people play on themselves in order not to deal with the reality of climate change. Both are engaging and easy to read, drawing on research. Marshall is a communicator, and approaches the issue from the point of why climate communication so often misses the mark; Stoknes is a psychologist. Of course, none of this is simple, and there are many and multifarious reasons, some overlapping, some wildly incompatible. Both books offer useful insights about how to “retell the story of climate change and embrace strategies that are social, positive and simple” (Stoknes).
I have found both books of immense value, both for my writing and in my campaigning, as I have learned (and am still learning) about how to communicate with people who don’t want to hear. Perhaps the tide has turned in the past two years, with the Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough effect, but we still have a long way to go, and I recommend these two books for insights into communicating effectively.
The Desert Island Books evening — one of torrential rain and floods, incidentally — ended with questions from the audience, who had turned out in good numbers, despite the weather, and the animated discussion showed how much people enjoyed the session.
Find out more
Bristol Climate Writers was founded in 2017 to provide a network for writers in the Bristol area who are writing in any genre about climate change. We consist of fiction writers, poets, science writers, travel writers, journalists, memoirists and more. We meet monthly for discussion, and also provide occasional public workshops. The Desert Island Books event is one of a number of public events Bristol Climate Writers has engaged with.
The Friends of Redland Libraryspun out of the 2015 campaign to save Redland Library from being closed. It must have worked, as only one of Bristol’s 28 Libraries was closed but some other cuts were made. In 2017 there was a new move to close seventeen of the city’s now 27 Libraries. FORL became more active, organising one or two events a month. This included the Desert Island Books format, where a panel of speakers nominated books on the event theme plus a ‘wild card’. The main driver is that the audience wanted intelligent discussion on serious subjects. The city’s libraries now look safe until March 2021.
Always Coming Home, by Ursula Le Guin, is published by Gateway (Orion, 2016; originally published 1985).
A mother, grandmother, activist, environmentalist and writer, currently editing 'Blank Times' - a humorous fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic neo-fascist regime run according to Ten 'Planetary Principles'. Read More
A writer linking the tradition of nature writing with the ecological crisis of our times, drawing on scientific, ecological, philosophical and spiritual sources and participatory perspectives. Read More
In this piece — commissioned by artists Hayley Harrison and Pamela Schilderman for their exhibition, Fool’s Gold — editor Mark Goldthorpe explores notions of value and care through our experience of objects as works of nature, culture and transformation.
How are we to value things? The objects we make, consume, keep, curate or discard? The natural world around us? The art that explores nature and culture? Artists Hayley Harrison and Pamela Schilderman ask questions of value with Fool’s Gold, their new two-person exhibition. And, as their title suggests, simple answers — or those that appear simple and we find so attractive on the surface — are deceptive. With time, objects of convenience, of instant desire, of proven utility can become inconvenient, spent desires, markers of futility. Creations of modernity in relationship with ancient nature: things of the now and of deep time. The everyday and the deferred tomorrow.
Transforming human being and thinghood
Matter isn’t just inert, empty until given human meaning. As philosopher Jane Bennett points out, it’s vibrant and vital, making a world where “human being and thinghood overlap … the us and the it slip-slide into each other.”
Two artists, with three pieces each, together create an imaginary and immersive landscape that speaks of our transformation of the material world. Harrison’s cairns and Schilderman’s wishing well, Schilderman’s broken glass castle and Harrison’s array of quadrats, Harrison’s winter blues and Schilderman’s spiral wall speak to each other, allow us to look through and at them and encourage us to see, and to ask… What will we leave behind us? What can we repurpose to better ends?
Transformation is a common thread. Hayley Harrison finds her materials by foraging the waste she encounters in city and countryside: nature transformed and discarded is her natural resource. Pamela Schilderman’s own exploratory mode takes everyday objects and reveals through them another purpose, a new and unexpected expression.
Fool’s Gold: precautionary tales
There’s a fairy tale character to this new landscape, reframing our mundane perception of the world beyond the gallery and prompting us to see things differently. An artists’ landscape, it’s still the one that we inhabit and recreate daily through our countless choices and the compromises and constraints we live under. But the reuse and reshaping these six pieces bring about refashions the whole into something like a cautionary tale for our times. Or perhaps what academic and artist Renata Tyszczuk calls precautionary tales, which “might work with an imagination of the future based on the ethic of care and paying attention … caring as both a practice and an attitude: an attainment and responsiveness of an altered Earth and a new, strange reality.”
Signs of humanity’s alteration of the natural world are all around. They are much argued over, but with no room now for outright denial that there’s a problem with the planet. The conspiracy peddlers are still out there, of course, somewhere between a flat Earth and a moon that never was touched by human bootprints. Leave them in their delusional orbits, and let us talk. We can do so without feeling we have to agree, that there’s an argument we need to win, or we must at once put the world to rights.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic? When you think of the future, do you see something that’s already happened and we must decide how best to live with, or something as yet unrealised that we must make? Either way, we have choices to make. We might choose differently, but let’s agree there’s much to care about — to care for — and that we need to be creative in how we approach this.
Artist Tania Kovats says “I’m not naive; I don’t think art can stop the climate crisis, but I think it can give us new ways to think about it … Both in very conscious ways and in very unconscious ways, because our relationship with this crisis has entered our imaginations as much as it has entered our consciousnesses.” Art helps us engage imaginatively with possibilities — within ourselves and within the world.
A large part of what we know personally about the world is built on what we see. But our perceptions are flawed and incomplete. There’s just no way we can take the whole world in: it exceeds us. Imagination helps us plug perception’s gaps, to bridge the distance between us and other. But much of the time, imagination — fed in new and dazzling ways — leads us astray. Rather than connection with reality — real reality, the mineral, microbial and growing, breathing one that sits beneath and beyond our shiny, distracting world of artefacts — it brings a widening disconnect. We’re in nature — that photosynthesising, mutating, proliferating web of beings and bedrock that’s sedimenting, accreting, eroding and circulating to long beats of time that underpin our daily lives — but increasingly we believe we’re operating apart from it. We hold it in reserve: something separate and special and, when we come up against it on screens or adventures, sometimes something truly awesome. But our imaginations, day to day, become a bit dulled to what the world really is: how long it persists, how quickly it shifts, the scale of our rising billions’ impact upon it. So our imaginations need a reset from time to time, and art can transform our perceptions of the taken-for-granted.
Evoking beauty, provoking care
Beauty is perhaps something else we take for granted. Do you look for it in a gallery but not in your waste bin or on the littered margins of our public spaces? Does it reside only in perfection — in pristine nature, in a particular industrial design? Or is it also in the flaws and fractures, the failed experiments, the detritus and ruins of past success? And what of beauty that passes, and the beauty in passing as we let go of artefacts, ideas or habits whose time is up? Cultural geographer Caitlin DeSilvey describes a possible ethic of ‘palliative curation’ in a world where all nature is marked by the human. This anticipatory marking of transience “suggests another way of approaching this interval of uncertainty — creating opportunities to say ‘goodbye’” to loved landmarks and objects. We might observe their “stages of unmaking” through “rituals of leave-taking that help us bridge the gap between ‘there’ and ‘gone’.”
Sociologist of science Sherry Turkle says “Evocative objects bring philosophy down to earth. When we focus on objects, physicians and philosophers, psychologists and designers, artists and engineers are able to find common ground in everyday experience.” Let us focus on objects then and, in sharing a space for conversations about ecological and climate predicaments, let’s each of us pay attention to and expand the scope of those things that are, as poet Alun Lewis expressed it, “within the parish of my care”. If it’s right that human being and thinghood overlap in a vital material world, then proper care for our objects is also care for our selves, and for the non-human selves we share the world with and seem bent on crowding out.
Discarded crisp packets turned inside out, plastic bags pulled into string to be wound and stretched, structures made from broken glass and imperfect salt crystals: frames and lenses through which to look again and see the familiar (always a deception) as new, strange, inviting. Full of potential once more, and offering containers for our hopes and for memories of nature we’d pushed down, unmarked and forgotten beneath the everyday. Build yourself a shiny cairn to honour and re-present those things of value that we’ve discarded, or now need to bid farewell. Make yourself a wishing well to express the better things we might bring about, the value we can now create. Fashion your own frame for the world and invite others to the view. Together, make a new path through the woods. And take care.
Click on image and expand for full size slideshow with captions.
Find out more
This piece arose as a commission from Hayley Harrison and Pamela Schilderman as part of their project. Mark met with Hayley and Pamela at the British Library in November 2019, ahead of the completion of their pieces for the exhibition.
Fool’s Gold runs at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum until 14th March. It invites visitors to engage in conversations around the climate crisis and our use of materials. The exhibition is accompanied by workshops, talks, an animation and a live installation. There will be an In Conversation artist talk on Tuesday 6th March at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum at 6 pm (tickets £6). This project is funded by Arts Council England and Rugby Council, and supported by Practical Action, an innovative international development organisation based in Rugby and putting ingenious ideas to work so people in poverty can change their world.
Hayley Harrison is an artist whose work examines our disconnection with ‘nature’ and each other — via discarded materials, text, performance and video.
Pamela Schilderman is an artist whose practice is strongly influenced by science exploring notions of identity and individuality through repetition, often juxtaposing microcosm and macrocosm as though adjusting the lens of a microscope.
Independent curator and writer Rob La Frenais interviews fellow ClimateCultures member and ClimateKeys founder Lola Perrin about her ground-breaking global initiative to ‘help groups of people tell the truth to each other’ about the ecological and climate emergency.
2,300 words: estimated reading time 9 minutes
Before you founded ClimateKeys you had a long career as a contemporary classical composer and musician. Could you tell me something about the kind of music that you compose and play?
I compose almost exclusively for solo and multiple piano and my sound relates to Debussy and Ravel, but it touches on jazz harmony and also has some kind of processing within it that you get in minimalist composers like Steve Reich. When I was launching myself as a composer I was asked to categorise my sound so I described it as ‘Rave Music for Butterflies’ — that to me was a good description in that it’s imaginative music. I usually seek specific triggers for my works, paintings for example, or correspondence. For example, my sixth suite was composed from emails with a neuroscientist about the speed of thought in the brain — this to me was so interesting, how thought travels at around 200 miles an hour and jumps across spaces between the nerve cells as electrical charges.
So, slowly in the last decade, mentions of references to the coming climate emergency and global heating started to emerge in your titles and content of your work. Can you tell me something about how this took place?
My children were very young and I was becoming aware of something called climate change but I was really too scared of it to look into it much. As they got older I became braver and I started to read a little bit and understand that we were in a very, very serious problem. This was in 2005. I began to wake up to the problem. So gradually, from that point on, I found I was unable to just carry on writing music as if all this great threat wasn’t just all going on around us. Increasingly I was unable to detach my compositional life from the emergency, as we now call it.
Nowhere to talk about Climate Emergency
Can you give me some examples of some of the titles of the work that started being affected by the climate emergency?
One title is quite long, it goes like this. We are playing with fire, a reckless mode of behaviour we are likely to come to regret unless we get a grip on ourselves. This is a quote from Chris Rapley, a senior scientist in the climate world. I’ve used other Rapley quotes — We are the crew of a large spaceship for 9 billion. If we were on a smaller spacecraft it would be unthinkable to interfere with the systems that provide us with air, water, food and climate. Another title is Imagine better, create — which relates to that well-known saying in climate activism, ‘If we don’t imagine a better world, we won’t create it.’ The title Collective Compulsion was drawn from writing by Paul Allen — it’s about our over-consumption causing our problem. If you look at a map of where the emissions are coming from, they come from the areas of massive consumption, i.e. the rich economies of the world.
And then your feelings about the climate emergency started to actually affect the methodology of your concerts and out of this came this thing called ClimateKeys. Can you tell me about how that happened and how the shift between your titles and content then moved on to actually performing in a format that reflected your activism?
Actually my activism grew out of that shift, it’s not that shift came from activism. It was simply that there was such a silence everywhere. I was picking up what seemed to be just snippets about this terrible thing called climate change but there weren’t major warnings being announced or places to talk — we were all just walking around as if in a dream. I would be doing my daily life, I would be taking my kids to school, I would be going to the bank, going to the shopping centre, walking down the street, going to work, coming back, doing normal day-to-day things and there was nowhere to talk about this existential threat.
This troubled me so, so much, I couldn’t figure out where I could have the conversations I felt we all needed urgently to be having as part of our daily lives. So I thought, OK, I will put this conversation into my own concerts. I will create a piece of music and there will be a space within the music for a climate change expert to give a talk so we could all learn more, and then for the audience to have a conversation. At least I can put the conversation there. So what happened was I started doing these concerts, inviting amazing speakers to join me — economists, futurists, scientists — and then I started to tell other musicians what I was doing.
Several other musicians put their hands up and said they wanted to do the same thing, so I created a format for helping other musicians around the world who also wanted to engage their own audiences in dialogue about action: what we can actually do about our heating world. I realised this was becoming an initiative so I gave it a name — ClimateKeys — and made a website.
An intimate space for deep discussion
The climate emergency is a really serious topic but are ClimateKeys concerts enjoyable?
Yes, it’s serious and a very, very scary subject and it’s really still quite a taboo subject. The majority of the population may now be aware of it and concerned about it, but the majority is still not engaged. Day-to-day life as usual continues. I believe if you use the arts you can draw people into engaging in this emergency through appealing to their emotions. But if you just hold a public meeting or a political meeting no one’s going to come; it’s going to be boring and it’s also going to be quite alienating and quite scary.
But if you have a concert that’s been carefully thought through it eases people into this sort of sense of being together, listening deeply to music that’s been specially chosen by the musician because of how it connects with climate issues. That sense of intimate sharing that the musician has set up extends into the way the audience has its conversation. People talk on an intimate level, it feels non-threatening despite the threatening subject matter. So you make a particular atmosphere that makes facing our threats head-on a little easier and you have a deep discussion — all together. The concerts end with final music as well, symbolic, to show that discussion and action on the emergency need to be at the centre of whatever we do. So, to answer your question, the concerts are emotional, yes — some of that emotion is enjoyment!
So we’ve heard a lot about popular music getting involved in the climate emergency and people like Radiohead or other groups such as Fatboy Slim mixing the lyrics from Greta Thunberg’s speeches, but it’s a bit unusual to find classical musicians getting involved in this. Are you the only one?
I’m definitely not the only one but we are few and far between. We’re not joined up as one movement. I don’t know of any other global initiatives like the one that I’ve established which has triggered literally thousands of new conversations about action. I know of musicians who are definitely as worried as everybody else but I don’t know how many are actually drawing their audiences into these conversations about action and about the climate emergency.
It’s now not just about people protesting is it? It’s people like Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, and Christine Lagarde, the CEO of the International Monetary Fund, who are all making these statements, because the economy is going to be profoundly affected by extreme global heating and climate change. So can you comment a little bit about how ClimateKeys can help those in industry who are concerned about this?
I just find it incredible that 11,000 scientists can make a statement like the one that was made in November 2019 saying that we are in a global emergency and we need widespread change to happen to help protect ourselves from the worst threats and then everybody carries on going to work the next day as if this statement hasn’t been made. There have to be devices in place so that we can tell the truth about what’s happening.
What ClimateKeys can do is help groups of people tell the truth to each other, whether it’s a random concert audience or an entire business — help tell the truth about these very disturbing issues. Because yes, the economy, is definitely going to suffer; surely it already is with the massive fires, droughts, floods and wars related to heating. The form of economy we have now has brought us to this place; we have an extractive economy and this has led us to this place of danger. To me, evidently what we need to do, all of us, is to remove the divisions between activism and business and just see us as the same level playing field. And all of us, whatever we do, need to work out how to live within the planetary boundaries.
How can businesses change so that their operations are living within planetary boundaries? How can you persuade these businesses whose bottom line is essentially to make money for their investors that indeed some of the activities that those industries are participating in are actually causing global heating? For example the fossil fuel companies? How can you persuade them that they’re not going to be shooting themselves in the foot if they take on these issues?
We need massive change. Intrinsic within that is the ending of the fossil fuel economy, Urgently. Either we self-elect to enact these changes as a matter of life or death, or collapse will force this change upon us. And collapse means exactly that — collapse of all we know, including the economy. How is that going to happen without a culture of getting people together much, much more regularly — I would say daily — to face all of this head-on?
Because it’s very clear from the science that the changes that elected policymakers think they’re going to bring in are going to be way too late to avoid catastrophic warming. It’s now down to people to gather together, from small community groups right up to major businesses to have these in-house discussions right across the country. The whole world needs to be fully informed and engaged. In ClimateKeys concerts we’ve recently started splitting audiences into small groups after the guest speaker’s talk — and then pulling the strongest ideas from each group together for a group discussion later on. It’s proving to be an immensely powerful sequence of conversation, because agreements and actions are produced and decided upon. A transformation occurs; a couple hours earlier people were less engaged and by the end, they’ve become armed with information and increased agency. What we’re doing is helping to normalise a long-overdue culture of engagement with the emergency that, quite frankly, we just need to get on with dealing with.
Lola Perrin is a ClimateCultures member, and in her first post for us, A Razor-sharp Fragility, she discussed a tension between isolation and creative responses to climate change: to create, we need to be alone (physically or mentally) and this can be an unpleasant process, and yet we carry on creating because suppressing that creativity is even more unpleasant.
You can follow the new programme of activities from ClimateKeys — which exists to “help normalise telling the truth about the planetary emergency” — and access its archive of synopses of talks from a great range of guest speakers at previous concerts. Poet and climate activist Tessa Gordziejko (pictured above) spoke at a 2019 ClimateKeys concert and has published the text on her own site: Why on Earth make art about climate change? You can also find out more about Lola’s work as composer, performer and climate activist at lolaperrin.com.
You can find the full statement signed by 11,000 scientists — World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency — published in the journal BioScience on 5th November 2019. It begins: “Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to ‘tell it like it is.’ On the basis of this obligation and the graphical indicators presented below, we declare, with more than 11,000 scientist signatories from around the world, clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.”
An independent contemporary art curator, working internationally and creatively with artists entirely on original commissions, directly engaged with the artist’s working process as far as possible. Read More
Citizen Artist Yky explores urban resilience and the importance of building joint commitments by experts and artists to improve our understanding of this concept in ‘citizen science’ and other approaches to empower citizens in planning for the future.
2,600 words: estimated reading time 10.5 minutes
Recently, three publications pointed out the difficulty for most people to understand the deep changes in our environment. At first sight, those publications have very little in common. But ultimately, the three converge towards the same conclusion: a link is missing in how to empower urban citizens as full stakeholders in the process of mitigation/adaptation that should improve their well-living and well-being.
The first — To Survive Climate Change, We’ll Need a Better Story — was an article about the Viable Cities programme, the largest research and innovation initiative taken in Sweden in the field of sustainable cities. Their conclusion is beyond dispute: the scientific community may understand the complex concepts of the Anthropocene, but without an appropriate storytelling it will fail to engage people for a simple reason: facts are not enough; we need the right narrative.
The second — How climate-related tipping points can trigger mass migration and social chaos — was written by François Gemenne, director of the Hugo Observatory at the University of Liège, Belgium. He points out that facts and perceptions are independent tipping points, in particular when assessing the social consequences of climate change. Commonly, a tipping point is a tiny perturbation that may alter the whole stability of a system. The theory of tipping points has been recently used to refer to climate change, but as explained by the author, it often overlooks the role of inequalities, perceptions, governance, solidarity networks, and cultural values in their evaluation of the future social impacts of climate change.
The third event was the emergence of The Freaks, a collective representing 68 French artists and prominent representatives of the cultural scene committed to 42 steps to ‘save the planet’. Some of them did reconsider our current consumption paradigm, others did not and, except for one, all of them were individual recommendations. No need to say that this initiative is welcome; but the legitimate question is whether it might better impact community awareness of climate change than the continuous warnings of climate experts’?
Citizen Science for urban resilience
Paradoxically, experts recognize the importance of including civil society as stakeholders, as shown by the emergence of ‘Citizen Science’. Though laudable, this approach is most of the time ‘thought by experts for experts’ with no obvious operational application at the citizen’s level. Some independent initiatives gathering either experts or artists have been shown to play an active role in developing community awareness on matters related to urban resilience. But few have brought experts and artists together. This post argues in favour of a joint commitment between artists and experts to improve understanding of urban resilience.
The first question coming to anyone’s mind will be the definition of urban resilience. It seems that there is a huge ambiguity on this point. In 2015, Sara Meerow and colleagues from the University of Michigan found 25 different definitions, all of them published by editors of recognized journals. None of them appeared satisfactory. In Defining urban resilience: a review, Meerow gave the 26th. This shows the difficulty in translating a concept into operations across many threats and challenges faced by urban citizens. However, as explained below, it is possible to elaborate upon a simple definition: an urban space is resilient when it can integrate the occurrence of hazards without compromising its operations. Let’s also recall that a definition is not a description. A definition sets limits, while a description opens the limits. Perhaps forgetting this distinction, many of the expert definitions of urban resilience will appear too complex to be understood by non-expert citizens, and this will not create the desirable conditions for a pedagogical process.
Art as a pedagogic tool
Using art as a pedagogic tool to enable experts and artists to describe urban resilience, and better explain the complexity of this concept, requires some guidelines.
The first one is to understand the paradigm of cognitive apprenticeship. A lot of publications are available online and can help us acquire the basic knowledge needed to engage in a learning process. They will be helpful for learning how and why we need to give a simple definition of the concept while, at a further stage, being able to brainstorm on the limits of the definition.
The second guideline is to share a common language between artists and experts. This is needed to build a joint productive activity and will help artists to translate their message and emotions and engage in a dialogical process with citizens. With no clear understanding, there is no possible empowerment; and the stakes are too high for us to conceptualize urban resilience without actually bringing operational results, considering the current threats of hazards and their related disasters. In this regard, the open access Disaster Science Vocabulary provided by Ilan Kelman in his paper Lost for words amongst Disaster Risk Science vocabulary? is a valuable source of information.
The third requirement is selecting the appropriate artistic approach. The needs of citizens should be at the core of the process. When there is a requirement for a local community in the southern hemisphere, asking for the contribution of an artist coming from the northern hemisphere with a global approach is risky and potentially off-topic. Priority should be given to local artists conveying a message that could make sense for local citizens.
From theory to practice
Recalling that mental pictures precede spoken language, sociologists have described how virtuality and reality interact with each other and ultimately lead to a new perception of the world. Fictional narratives help to transform our own representation of reality. Representing the reality of the world becomes a virtual act and the reality of this virtuality plays a fundamental role in the sense we give to our actions. Fictional narratives are therefore a powerful way to build the required tripartite relationship ‘virtuality-reality-action’ between artists, experts and citizens. The scenario needs to be built beforehand in such a way that all matters relevant to the hazard (potentially) impacting citizens have been thoroughly discussed between the expert and the artist. The fictional example below makes use of one of my photographic works, Shakes, selected by the World Bank in Washington DC for the Art of Resilience exhibition.
This work questions the challenge of implementing an urban resilience strategy after a widespread seismic destruction. With architectural symbols, broken reflections, and linear designs that at once feel as much like an earthquake monitor as they do a heart monitor, it talks about an irrational fear: the destruction of our matrix. The approach is here described as a ‘theatrical scenette’ with a teaching process that will need to encompass the following:
the sociological causes of so-called ‘natural disasters’ (recognizing that there is no such thing as a natural disaster, only natural hazards, while at the same time recalling the consequences of human activity on nature in the Anthropocene).
the relation between resilience and vulnerability;
the question of bouncing back (to business as usual) vs bouncing forward;
a comparison with Japan and their risk management approach in case of earthquakes;
a general conclusion on the meaning of urban resilience for the group of citizens;
a plan of actions.
The fiction of Shakes
Citizen 1 to Yky: Your work is really frightening. There is broken glass everywhere. Obviously, everyone is dead in this landscape.
Citizen 2 to Yky: How can you speak about Urban Resilience when everything looks destroyed?
Yky to citizens: Yes, quakes are frightening. When I started this work, I was wondering: “How is it possible that people can ever adapt to a seismic environment? I still wonder. Are we less vulnerable in case of flooding?”
Expert to citizens: At first glance, this work does not look very encouraging. But before concluding that nothing can be done in case of quakes, we should ask ourselves a first question: What has caused such a mess, as shown in the picture?
Yky to expert: Mother Nature obviously.
Expert to citizens: Yky‘s answer makes sense. What do you think?
Citizen 1: Hold on. What about the infrastructures? Did they comply with seismic norms?
Expert to citizen 1: Probably not …
Citizen 2 to Yky: And what about people? We see nobody in your work. Are they all dead?
Yky to Citizen 2: Oh, no. They are neither dead nor alive. They are not here. I did not know how to show a sign of human activity. I wanted to underline the question of vulnerability.
Citizen 2 to Yky: What do you mean?
Expert to citizens: I think I understand what Yky wants to say. The work does not say anything about the social positions of the inhabitants. A high income person can be less vulnerable than a low income person. Can you figure how?
All citizens together: For sure! The rich one had his private jet and could leave quickly after the first quake. And the poor one, as always, had no other place to go …
Expert to citizens: This seems to be a general rule. Low income people are always the most vulnerable. Some of you may have higher income than others. So knowing we all live in a seismic zone, what should we do to prepare ourselves before and after the quake? And then, let’s see with Yky if another approach of his work is conceivable.
Citizen 3 to expert: Excuse me. I do not want to spoil your teaching process. But I am sure you are going to show us nice examples of what other threatened communities do. And this is OK with me. But what worries me more are the decisions that local authorities will take in terms of going back as quickly as possible to the situation that prevailed before the quake. What I see in Yky’s work is not very optimistic.
Yky’s answer: Well, it depends on how you will consider it. You may see only a broken path filled with pieces of glass. But this path may also lead to a new way of living together, should it help to become aware of our fragility. Why is it that we are so vulnerable and what could we do about it?
Expert’s answer: If we sum up what we have discussed, I see three points on which I propose to elaborate: 1- What do we mean by (so-called) ‘natural disasters’ and are they comparable to each other? 2- What do we mean by ‘vulnerability’? 3- When we say that we want to come back to a ‘normal’ situation, what does this mean? Let’s try to answer those questions before answering the final one: What should be done to be prepared and to anticipate a quake?
In Shakes as in my other works, my photographic technique makes use of a well-known property of argentic paper, which is to darken when exposed to light. This will produce a diptych of two images. The first one illustrates the hazard (here, the earthquake) while the second one darkens in time. The comparison between both images will highlight the related disaster and the questioning which will be used to support the pedagogic work with the expert. By doing so, my works contribute to engaging citizens in considering the most appropriate way to operationalize resilience.
It goes without saying that all form of art can use such an approach, as long as the cognitive apprenticeship has been finalized with the expert.
To Survive Climate Change, We’ll Need a Better Story, by Feargus O’Sullivan and published by CityLab (11/11/19), features Per Grankvist, chief storyteller for Sweden’s Viable Cities programme. Grankvist’s job is to communicate the realities of day-to-day living in a carbon-neutral world.
The Freaks is a collective of artists and personalities who are committed to adopting new behaviours to fight against over-consumption, pollution, global warming and protect biodiversity.
Citizen Science is defined by National Geographic as “the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge. Through citizen science, people share and contribute to data monitoring and collection programs.” It is explored in this paper by Susanne Hecker et al (2/12/19) in Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, 4(1): How Does Policy Conceptualise Citizen Science? A Qualitative Content Analysis of International Policy Documents. “To recognize how citizen science is perceived to foster joint working at the science-society-policy interface, a mutual understanding of the term ‘citizen science’ is required. Here, we assess the conceptualisation and strategic use of the term ‘citizen science’ in policy through a qualitative content analysis of 43 international policy documents edited by governments and authorities … Interestingly, documents largely fail to address the benefits and challenges of citizen science as a tool for policy development, i.e., citizen science is mainly perceived as only a science tool.”
Defining urban resilience: a review, by Sara Meerow, Joshua Newell & Melissa Stults, was published in Landscape and Urban Planning 147 (2016) 3. It “concludes that the term has not been well defined. Existing definitions are inconsistent and underdeveloped with respect to incorporation of crucial concepts found in both resilience theory and urban theory”; and identifies “six conceptual tensions fundamental to urban resilience: (1) definition of ‘urban’; (2) understanding of system equilibrium; (3) positive vs. neutral (or negative) conceptualizations of resilience; (4) mechanisms for system change; (5) adaptation versus general adaptability; and (6) timescale of action. To advance this burgeoning field, more conceptual clarity is needed. This paper, therefore, proposes a new definition of urban resilience. This definition takes explicit positions on these tensions, but remains inclusive and flexible enough to enable uptake by,
and collaboration among, varying disciplines. The paper concludes with a discussion of how the definition might serve as a boundary object, with the acknowledgement that applying resilience in different contexts requires answering: Resilience for whom and to what? When? Where? And why?”
Lost for words amongst Disaster Risk Science vocabulary? by Ilan Kelman was published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Science (2018) 9:281–291: “Like other subjects, disaster risk science has developed its own vocabulary with glossaries. Some keywords, such as resilience, have an extensive literature on definitions, meanings, and interpretations. Other terms have been less explored. This article investigates core disaster risk science vocabulary that has not received extensive attention [and] draws out understandings of disasters and disaster risk science, which the glossaries do not fully provide in depth, especially vulnerability and disasters as processes.”
For another read on resilience and vulnerability, you could read Mark Goldthorpe’s post Rising — endsickness and adaptive thinking, a review of Elizabeth Rush’s bookRising: Dispatches from the New American Shore: a contemplation of transience, connection and the possibilities of resilience, demonstrating the power of story to highlight opportunities to attend and adapt to a changing world.