Captain Polo in Brazil – A Sneak Peek

Polo in Brazil_cover Image Alan HesseAuthor-illustrator and conservation biologist Alan J Hesse exclusively previews his latest ‘The Adventures of Captain Polo’ graphic novel, showing his creative process as this savvy climate action ambassador explores Brazil’s threatened biodiversity and climate issues and solutions there.


2,380 words: estimated reading time = 9.5 minutes


I am honoured to have been invited to submit an article for ClimateCultures featuring my artistic and cultural work promoting climate literacy. I have chosen to do this by contributing a ‘sneak peek’ into the next book in the Adventures of Captain Polo, an ongoing series of educational graphic novels about climate change. This article refers to the fifth book, titled Polo in Brazil, a work in progress of which I will be sharing a few preliminary page extracts.

Showing the cover of 'Polo in Brazil' Image by Alan J Hesse © 2024
‘Polo in Brazil’ Image by Alan J Hesse © 2024

Educational storytelling: finding the edutainment sweet spot

Contrary to the earliest Polo books, much of the content in Book 5 is purely there for fun, to make the story compelling and a good read. At the end of the day, I want the book to sell. It has to have commercial value beyond classrooms and special donations to schools and climate education projects. After all, the more people ‘outside the choir’, so to speak, who learn something useful about climate change, the better.

If Captain Polo were all work and no play, reading his books would in fact be too much like hard work: fewer people would read them, and this would be an opportunity lost. The need to give Captain Polo commercial value, in this case through fun and funny madcap graphic storytelling thus aligns to the mission of the Captain Polo Academy, which is to “help all those working on biodiversity conservation, climate change and education achieve greater impact”.

When writing a climate road (sea) trip story that includes a stopover in Brazil the obvious content that comes to mind is the Amazon. This region is famous all over the world as a place of high biodiversity that is also highly threatened. This fragile balance is important to portray at length, which is the main reason why I decided to make Book 5 all about Brazil, rather than pursue my original plan to have Captain Polo and Penguin merely pass through on their way to the Antarctic.

The story goes to some length to show the major issues threatening not only Amazon biodiversity and ecosystems but also the well-being and integrity of its indigenous people, who are notoriously abused in Brazil by powerful and usually criminal groups bent upon seizing land to develop yet more agroindustry and mining operations (p. 8).

Climate heroes & villains — character development

Every writer knows that one of the pillars of good storytelling is character development. A good character is seldom static. There are exceptions – Tintin and Asterix come to mind (both major influences of mine I have to add), but a character with a mission does need to evolve to at least discover and own that mission.

Although Cap’n Polo will never be too serious in his adventures, he is a bear on a mission. Ever since through his own travels (see books 1 – 3) it eventually dawned on him that his tangible melting ice problem in the Arctic was actually also the problem of a lot of people and other animals around the world, he has to deliver on his promise to educate his readers about the critical issue of climate change.

Polo’s mission is really the chief force that transforms the original ‘Polo the bear’ trying to get back home to hunt a walrus (if he can) into Captain Polo the seasoned globe trotter and savvy climate action ambassador, honoured guest of governments around the world (championed by the prestigious likes of President Barack Obama, a badly drawn Leonardo DiCaprio and a better drawn Ed Norton – see Book 3, Polo in East Africa) and a celebrity in his own right.

To be honest I’m not sure how to make Polo evolve any further, which partly explains the growing presence of supporting cast characters such as Penguin along with villains Conor O’Connor and Tex Greedyman.

These two archetypal villains first appear as such in ‘Pole to Pole’, the fourth book in the series. Every good story needs a villain of course, but Tex and Conor are actually very different from each other. Whereas Conor is portrayed as a bumbling idiot, a permanent liability to himself and others (largely inspired by Loony Tunes characters Wile E. Coyote, and to some degree Samity Sam), Tex Greedyman as his name indicates is of quite a different ilk. Tex of course personifies oil and gas, the fortress of the fossil fuel industry. He is stereotypically and delightfully Texan, Republican, brash, overweight, bejeweled, hairy-chested, and filthily wealthy.

The eastern Amazon holds bountiful oil reserves, providing a good way to insert Tex into the Amazon-related plot (p.26).

However, even the likes of Tex Greedyman are not beyond redemption, which is another theme I aim to develop further in this series in the spirit of portraying a positive outlook for climate action rather than too much doom and gloom. Readers of Book 5 will see the beginnings of a transformation as Tex, marooned on an island after a helicopter crash, is set up to experience a future epiphany: with nothing to eat or drink but coconuts, this credit card-toting, Havana cigar-smoking, Scotch-drinking oil and gas tycoon begins to reconsider his priorities in life (p.28-29). My plan is to portray a full transformation of Tex in the next book, turning him into a reformed man who uses his wealth and power to promote renewable energy over fossil fuels! The caveat of this plan of course is that I will be left without a proper villain (poor Conor doesn’t really count). But more about this in a future article.

The involvement of criminal groups in illegal logging and land-grabbing devastating the Amazon provided me with a perfect opportunity to have some fun with caricatural ‘baddies’, who both Polo and Penguin get to beat up. Conor being Conor blunders into these characters, an extra opportunity for fun and humour, hopefully making this whole section of the comic come to life (p.16). But Polo’s human encounters in the Amazon are not limited to stereotypical bad guys: he and Penguin also meet and learn from Carla the conservationist and an unnamed indigenous shaman, both strong female characters that allow me to address the crucial role of women in leading climate solutions. 

But Brazil of course is more than just the famous Amazon. There is so much to say about this wonderful country that I couldn’t possibly fit it all in, so I opted to continue the logical geographical progress of our heroes trying to get to Antarctica by having them drop in on the fabled Rio de Janeiro and its Atlantic Forest to later make a final stop in Rio Grande do Sul, where there is an interesting and controversial initiative in place to grow ‘climate friendly cattle’. Many have warned me to stay away from this tricky subject, but I disagree. One of the principles of the Captain Polo adventures is precisely to explore such controversies in order to let my readers make up their own minds. As Captain Polo will find out, there is an argument (that not everyone agrees with) supporting the case that natural grasslands maintaining free range and well managed cattle is actually positive for biodiversity and the climate. I haven’t got to drawing that part yet so it will have to be for a future article.

Storytelling and political messages

At this point I ran into a hitch: it has taken me so long to work on this book that a couple of years have passed since writing the plot, and in that time Brazil’s political landscape has happily changed. The current government is by all accounts making strides in reversing deforestation and many other threats in the Brazilian Amazon.

My original plan was to have Polo beat some sense into the previous president, notorious for promoting the interests of agroindustry, fossil fuel giants and even the thinly veiled criminality in the Amazon and being single-handedly accountable for a devastating return to massive deforestation rates. Given the huge improvements in this regard I had to slightly tweak the plot. Of course, it’s never a good idea to date a book like this, so I have opted to not get Polo too closely involved with any Brazilian government or political figure in particular. He now makes his way to the Sugar Loaf Mountain in Rio to have a chat with the current president, who will happen to be there (unrealistically, I grant you), to “discuss Amazon matters”, without necessarily throwing the president off the cliff (as was the original plan).

This leads us back to an important storytelling element omnipresent in my books: the use of stereotype.

The Rio de Janeiro scenes include quite a few stereotypes. One of these is the cable car fight on the way up to the iconic Sugar Loaf Mountain, where Polo is hoping to have a chat with the President of Brazil. The cable car scene tellingly divulges my age: it is of course inspired by James Bond’s rooftop struggles with bad guy Jaws in Moonraker, starring Roger Moore. However, it also provides a good way of weaving in a bit of extra information about the extent to which indigenous groups get embroiled in the notorious exploitation of the Amazon and its inhabitants. I was surprised to find out from my research that not all indigenous groups are quite as innocent as world media like to make out, and in the interest of providing my readers with truthful food for thought I wanted to include this (p.35).

The other stereotype in Rio is with the beach football game in which Penguin, wearing a No.10 Brazil shirt no less (he must have nicked it), manages to become top goal scorer and is celebrated amid much Samba dancing and carnivalesque merriment. Anyone who knows their football history may also notice a subtle nod to recently departed Pelé in the form of the shoeshine boy on page 38 (Pelé famously started his football career after himself having been a shoeshine boy living in poverty). Penguin benevolently bestows both his shirt and trophy upon this Pelé reincarnation and this was also a neat ploy to quickly get rid of both items as soon as possible (I couldn’t keep drawing Penguin in a Brazil football shirt lugging a massive trophy around!).

What is definitely not a stereotype but in fact quite the opposite is the sequence of events in one of Rio’s infamous favelas, or shanty towns. These cover much of the Rio heights and are still the nest of armed drug-related criminals and street gangs who make Rio a very dangerous city. However, I discovered a paper about a very different story in one particular favela with a wonderful community spirit that includes actual climate actions (p.37 – note the words in blue. This is a system I use to refer the reader to a technical section at the back of the book where the words in blue are explained in a sort of annotated glossary). I wanted to celebrate this in the book, largely to counteract the mostly negative technical content in the Amazon, and this was a perfect opportunity to do so. As so often in Captain Polo’s dialogues, there is also a quick reference to climate justice when Polo’s new friend explains how it is the poorest areas of Río de Janeiro that suffer the worst effects of climate change. Polo’s visit to the favela provides a natural progression to the next few scenes — as yet undrawn — that celebrate more positive news: the stellar work of Brazilian NGOs and conservationists restoring the heavily fragmented and yet biodiverse Atlantic Forest. I recently completed a consultancy with BirdLife International that involved writing a communications article about this work, and this provided me with handy technical information to throw into the comic.

Where next for Captain Polo?

So, what’s next? I aim to publish Polo in Brazil sometime this year, and like Books 1 to 4 it will be available from all major book retailers online. Those wishing to make a pre-order will be able to do so, and I will be posting about this on social media in due course.

This fifth book in the series is taking so long to finish I find it hard to think of its sequel, technically the final book in the second trilogy. However, this book will exist, and it will see our friends Captain Polo and Penguin finally reach the Antarctic, probably stopping over in Argentina. No idea how I will end that story, but you may be sure Tex and his epiphany will be involved, Conor will somehow reappear after a long and life-changing experience being lost in South America, and there will be lots of ice. Oh yes, and probably a new villain.


Find more

Alan is an award-wnning author, with ten children’s books: most of them graphic novels and comics, including the growing and highly acclaimed Adventures of Captain Polo series about climate change. Polo books 1, 2, 3 and 4 have all won awards (the Literary Titan Gold Award for the first three), and Alan’s graphic novel Charles Darwin and the Theory of Natural Selection has won two awards. 

The Captain Polo character is the inspiration behind the Captain Polo Academy as a global brand promoting environmental and climate literacy, helping people and institutions who work on biodiversity conservation, climate change and education achieve greater positive impact.

You can sample more of Captain Polo’s adventures in Pole to Pole, a short feature in our Creative Showcase. And Alan contributed a short piece on Environmental Justice as part of our Environmental Keywords series.

Alan J. Hesse

Alan J. Hesse

An author-illustrator, educator and conservation biologist inspired by nature's majesty and fragility and the need to protect it and who believes that education should be fun.

Sharing the Fire — Hope Tales Event & Chapbook

Practical activist and artist Nicky Saunter revisits the Hope Tales project, with its fourth event and chapbook exploring ‘Fire’ themes in the Celtic winter Samhain festival, shared learning from other cultures and creatures, live music, poems and stories.


1,010 words: estimated reading time = 4 minutes


When I first studied applied photography and monochrome printing under the eccentric, brilliant West Country teacher Ron Frampton, I was puzzled by his warning “beware the new” each time we gathered to view our work from the previous week. Wise words indeed; each new image laid on the table for viewing brought “ooh”s and “aahh”s, apparently better than what we had already done. Yet this happened each week and we weren’t improving that quickly! There was something in the very newness of each image being seen for the first time; it was exciting, thrilling — and faded quickly.

I always think it is strange that funders prefer to put their money into new, riskier initiatives rather than supporting things that already work well. Perhaps the draw of the new is inevitable for us humans; shiny new tech, something different to wear, a book still to read — we draw excitement from anticipation itself. Perhaps this is why our project Hope Tales still retains the thrill, excitement and ability to surprise. Even calling it a project seems falsely formal because this series of happenings has been remarkably organic, changing each time to reflect its location and participants, repeating a tried and tested pattern, and yet being new each time.

Hope Tales events — the magic of the mix

The concept is simple: gather a bunch of creative people in a room for a couple of hours and ask them to share something on a theme with the rest of the room. Supply some food and drink, some fairy lights and some music. Gather up the songs, poems, bits of writing and drawings afterwards and make them into a pocket book. Repeat. And it is never the same.

Hope Tales - showing chapbook 4: Fire

In my first piece about Hope Tales for ClimateCultures, I wrote about our first three events, which were held in London, Somerset and Essex on the themes of Air, Land and Water respectively. Last autumn on a drizzly dark Hallowe’en (or All Souls’ Night), we held Hope Tales event number four on the theme of Fire at the wonderful Margate School by the sea. The magic happened again, with pieces about learning from other cultures and creatures, the Celtic winter festival of Samhain, and live music from the Swedish folk band Tree Oh! We welcomed Henry Coleman and Eva Badola for the first time.

Hope Tales event: showing Eva Badola talking about sustainable tourism.
Eva Badola talking about sustainable tourism. Photograph: Nicky Saunter © 2023

Our hosts for the night was an independent not-for-profit postgraduate liberal arts school right in the heart of Margate, run by artist and educator Uwe Derksen, whose giant crow you can see below. What a presence to have looking over our shoulders as we performed!

Margate School with Uwe Derksen’s giant crow figure. Photograph: Nicky Saunter © 2023

The Margate School is based in a former Woolworths building that had stood empty since 2008 and has played an influential part in the story of Margate’s regeneration. We had help from local sound technicians to ensure the music worked, because Tree Oh! were performing songs specially written in collaboration with poet-economist, Andrew Simms, to celebrate London’s green spaces. They have since launched an EP.

Hope Tales event: showing Swedish folk bank Tree Oh! performing songs about London’s green spaces.
The Swedish folk bank Tree Oh! performing songs about London’s green spaces Photograph: Nicky Saunter © 2023

Hope Tales chapbooks — a hopeful light

The Fire chapbook we made from the contributions on this night is now available to download, along with the previous chapbooks. And our next Hope Tales event — the last in this series — will be at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill, London on 30th May from 7-9pm, so please do get in touch if you would like to be a contributor. The theme is Love (in a hopeful light), which seems apt as it feels like we could particularly do with some more love in the world at the moment.

Surely there is nothing new to say about love, I hear you say. And yet I know that once again people will gather, share what has come into and then out of their individual creative minds and by collaborating will make together something much bigger than the sum of its parts.

Excerpt from Hope Tales IV – Fire: Poem by Nicky Saunter © 2023

The Hope Tales project has been a joy to participate in, maybe because it has been so light touch and unconstrained. A perfectly timed piece of funding from the University of Essex provided the fuel for us to maintain our campfire, and our team of collaborators have come together each time with enthusiasm, creativity and laughter. It is of course endlessly expandable — and was designed to be so. A Hope Tales event could be put on in any place with any group of creative people. It could be done on a very small budget or none at all, so do get in touch if you are interested in doing one yourself.

Working in the field of sustainability can be a grim slog at times and this way of approaching the unknown through hope and fundamental themes has proven uplifting. The role of hope, imagination and story in facing climate change is a slim but strong lifeline into the future.


Find out more

You can read Nicky’s previous post on the Hope Tales project from the Rapid Transition Alliance, the Centre for Public and Policy Engagement at the University of Essex and the New Weather Institute, Hope Tales – Stories for Change. And all four chapbooks are available to download from the Rapid Transition Alliance. To find out about the Hope Tales: Love event at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill, London on 30th May, contact nicky@newweather.org

You can hear Tree Oh!‘s EP Our Urban Nature, songs with Andrew Simms here.

The Margate School, where the Hope Tales: Fire event took place, is an independent not-for-profit postgraduate liberal arts school and creative community hub inspired by making a positive difference to our communities and environment.

Nicky Saunter

Nicky Saunter

An entrepreneurial thinker, practical activist and campaigner, and creative artist who is driven by what we can do rather than what we cannot change.

Starting to See Waste as Art and Heritage

Curator and writer Veronica Sekules introduces her special essay for our Longer feature, using GroundWork Gallery’s recent exhibition to explore artists’ roles in helping change how we value what we discard, viewing our waste as art and heritage.


1,570 words: estimate reading time = 6 minutes


Longer is the place for works that don’t fit within the normal ‘short reads’ format of our blog. Longer is for essays, fiction or other forms that haven’t appeared online elsewhere and explore in more detail the creative responses to our ecological and climate crisis. With each new Longer piece, the author introduces it here with an original post, where they can reflect on the motivation or inspiration behind the work or the process of creating it.

***

In my essay, The Art and Heritage of Waste, I hope to counter the prevailing culture of extractivism by looking at how mobilising the creativity of artists can help us to rehabilitate waste as a transformative resource.

From March to July 2023, GroundWork Gallery’s exhibition The Art of Waste] featured the work of eight artists, all of whom were in different ways [bringing creative responses to waste that point to solutions, albeit on a tiny scale.

GroundWork Gallery — which I opened in 2016 — is situated in King’s Lynn, in Norfolk, UK, on the confluence of the River Purfleet with the Great Ouse. It lives in a converted little 1930s warehouse, a building we saved from waste, as the planners and heritage officials at first wanted it demolished “for something more suitable”. The gallery is dedicated to the environment and to the role of art and artists in helping us to rethink aspects of it, and to understand and treat it better, vitally urgent now in our times of crisis. I believe art can carry a powerful message or ‘voice’ to a much wider world than the narrow confines of the conventional art world, if only its audiences respond actively to it and communicate its innovative messages to wider publics, other disciplines and contingent professions. That is how we begin to achieve change — through bursts of inspiration, sudden insights, and above all through widening influence.

Still from Henry/Bragg film, The Surrey Hills: a film about a landfill site incongruously situated in the Surrey Hills. © 2012

Environmentalists hate waste. This is the starting point for all the work I discuss in the essay, as artists hate waste too, and many of them are trying to find creative solutions to the way we think about it and literally view it. However, I’m proposing that we rethink the category of waste to include formally its relationship with art and with heritage, and think about the potential status of waste as both. The re-categorising and the status change involved will play a part in counteracting the extractivism which has contributed so significantly to the effects of climate change.

Artists working with waste for positive impact

Each of the artists in The Art of Waste used waste materials as creative resources, making use of surplus materials, implementing circular economies, being very economical in leaving nothing behind. As well as inventive practical strategies, the artists excelled in changing the status of waste, from that of detritus and ephemera, to be something precious and valued.

Jeremy Butler creates minutely detailed relief-assemblages which involve items that the artist has carefully crammed together to make complex formal architectures that hover somewhere between order and disorder. 

Liz Elton makes large-scale draped fabric-like installations using compostable cornstarch, a material used in food waste recycling bags, which she colours with vegetable dyes made from her own kitchen waste, intercepted on its way to compost.

Caroline Hyde Brown makes work mainly in textile and paper, and is part of a bio-based collaborative group who are recreating textiles from Neolithic legumes, such as grass pea and more recently green manure crops such as Buckwheat and lentils.

Lizzie Kimbley works with woven textiles, natural dyes and basketry techniques, using principles of circular design to consider material sustainably in regard to its whole life cycle. 

Kai Lossgott is a writer, filmmaker, visual and performance artist, and waste in his work has its own agency and is as much a metaphor as a physical phenomenon.

Eugene Macki is a sculptor whose work makes resourceful use of waste materials, often including food, and can be playful in making the most of the multiple meanings that result.

Jan Eric Visser creates sculptures from his inorganic household garbage, experimenting with new forms new materials, consistent with his own saying: ‘Form Follows Garbage’. 

Rain Wu, whose conceptually driven work materialises in different forms and scales, works with waste and perishable materials to instigate discussions around our manifold relationships with nature.

The immediate impact of The Art of Waste was measurable to a degree from the visitor book comments. Responding to the exhibition, many visitors remarked that it was “inspiring, relevant and thought-provoking”. However, it was also “unsettling”, “bringing new perspectives on waste”. Some were moved to more action: “Interesting ideas, we need to reach out to everyone”, “WE NEED TO DO MORE”, “much needed”, “love being eco”, “we waste so much”, “educational and makes us aware of our industry and pollution”, “who knew waste could be so useful – makes you think”, “feels very dystopian”, “compulsory viewing for all politicians and their influencers”. One of the youngest visitors wrote: “Makes you think about waste. Awe inspiring”.

This positive impact was gratifying but just a beginning. It showed to an extent the desire of people to be receptive to new creative ideas and how these can stimulate our societal needs to change. However, beyond the specificity of the timescale and place of the exhibition, there needs to be a whole lot more thinking about how we can mobilise the creativity of artists and these kinds of responses to it. Where does it get us and where can it lead? What does that kind of power enable and what and whom can it both connect with and lead to?

Revaluing waste as heritage

As I explore in the essay, recent thought on waste has proposed various paradigm shifts that involve changes in consumer habits, moving away from a throw-away economy of short-term use and of things ‘becoming useless’, to one of waste as asset creation. Some argue that waste as an entity ought to be entirely avoidable, or even non-existent, providing that materials, foods and resources are used by people with greater economy and efficiency. Within the framework of Discard Studies, the entire concept of waste is open to interrogation from all points of view. In sympathy with that interrogative framework, I suggest that a paradigm shift in the way waste is categorised will help us all to prioritise what and how and why we save the stuff of the earth. Increasingly, students of waste, entrepreneurs repurposing it and artists creating with it are recognising that waste needs to be rehabilitated as a transformative resource, not stuck with the shifting values of random commerce or the vilification applied to detritus.

In setting the framework for further discussion, I hope my essay raises in outline some of the issues in the definition of heritage and of the potential for waste as heritage. It touches on some of the enormous complexities of the subject of waste, such as how and where is waste accumulated and what are the problems of distribution. I touch on the subject of who the various categories of ‘we’ are who are creating the problems. Then, taking a lead from a series of artists’ projects, I take a look at two specific contentious waste subjects in more detail: landfill sites and plastics, and how they might be faced afresh. The ways these subjects have been tackled by artists, writers and archaeologists hold the key to the category shifts we need, from dumps and surpluses to treasure, from waste and trash to art and heritage.

Waste Heritage: showing Jeremy Butler's Landskip 1 at GroundWork Gallery in 2023
Jeremy Butler’s Landskip 1 at GroundWork Gallery © 2023

The innovative ways in which artists are using waste materials can lead the way to a shift in values, potentially turning what is currently a burden into a heritage asset. Categories of definition matter and both art and heritage are relevant. Waste’s role as heritage, specifically, needs to be brought into focus more, in order that we give greater value and the right kind of longevity to all the earth’s material and how we are using it. Shifting values affect attitudes. Applied at scale, that is one way the idea of waste as bulk mess and detritus can end. Instead, if surpluses, leftovers and spent materials are sorted not only by reuse potential, but as categories of art and heritage, this re-categorising can turn a negative into a positive asset and environmental benefits and economic consequences can follow.


Find out more

Veronica’s full essay, The Art and Heritage of Waste, is the third piece in our Longer feature, where members share original works, or ones that haven’t appeared online elsewhere, and which don’t fit easily into the regular ClimateCultures blog; Longer provides space to explore in more detail creative and critical responses to our ecological and climate crisis.

GroundWork Gallery in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, UK, is dedicated to art and environment. It shows the work of contemporary artists who care about how we see the world. Exhibitions and creative programmes explore how art can enable us to respond to the changing environment and imagine how we can shape its future. The Art of Waste ran from 18th March to 15th July 2023.

Veronica Sekules
Veronica Sekules
An art curator, educator and writer with a background in the environmental movement, who has created GroundWork Gallery to showcase art and campaign for the environment.

Hope Tales – Stories for Change

Entrepreneurial thinker, practical activist and artist Nicky Saunter shares the Hope Tales project she’s working on to find creative ways to make sustainable futures and talk about the role of hope, imagination and story in facing climate change.


1,170 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes approximately


My work with the Rapid Transition Alliance is frequently a strange mix of dreadful fear and awe-inspiring hope. Our field is bang in the middle of climate change and therefore features a daily stream of reports, commentary, data and science on how poorly we tiny humans are doing in curbing our overconsumption and weening ourselves off our drug of choice that is fossil fuels. It is a veritable tsunami that threatens to overwhelm us every day: as wide as it is deep and moving faster every day. It can seem too large to approach with any purpose or clarity. Feelings of panic and hopelessness start to flutter in our bellies — you are probably feeling this already. What is more, climate change is now part of a ‘polycrisis’ — a perfect storm of catastrophic issues, from social division and isolation to pandemics and ecological breakdown.

Grim stuff indeed. But then suddenly in comes a story about yet another person or group who get together — often without much money to start with but a big idea — and do something that is simply brilliant and gives us hope for the future. And I can take a breath again.

Creativity for building change

The significance of this maybe lies less in the actual idea and the ‘fix’ that is being applied to a particular part of this vast issue. Instead, it lies in the inspiring way that single humans continue to work together in the face of impossible odds to cooperate, create and heal — often with surprising success. Despite what pundits would have us think Darwin said about the survival of the fittest and the drive for ruthless competition, we are excellent at cooperating and skillful at creative thinking. We are also capable of fast, practical action. The bit we find hardest is to stop either scaring ourselves witless or putting our fingers in our ears and waiting for all the horrible stuff to go away. How do we open our eyes, follow the science and use our creativity to design and build a new future together on this beautiful planet?

Our Hope Tales project focuses specifically on this feeling; looking at creative ways to make a sustainable future, and talking about the role of hope, imagination and story in facing climate change. Hope Tales is a collaboration between the Rapid Transition Alliance, the Centre for Public and Policy Engagement at the University of Essex and the New Weather Institute, using the power of story to investigate real hope for our future. The Rapid Transition Alliance is known for its research and publications on “evidence-based hope” — stories from the near and distant past that illustrate how real rapid change might be made. But the Hope Tales work has pushed further into the field of creativity, using fiction, poetry and art to stimulate both thought and action on potential new ways of living on Earth.

Showing 'Hope Tales' Chapbook 1: Air

Air, Land, Water – Hope Tales in place

The concept is simple: to gather a group of people in a specific place for a few hours to share short performances of their work on a given topic. The overarching theme is Hope and each event looks through the lens of a further elemental subject. So far, we have looked at Air in a beautifully appointed vintage cinema in Crystal Palace, considered the Land in earthy Somerset in an old woollen mill, and felt the pull of Water in ancient Colchester as part of the Essex book festival. We have held a pinecone on our palm while telling the story of a tree planted by suffragettes, we have woven local plants into plaits in thanks, we have watched oysters clean river water of our filth, and we have listened to the tale of two plaice swimming the seas of Eastern England. We have met a lot of new people, shared spaces and tea and mince pies with them, laughed and gasped in equal share, wondering at the ideas of others and the beauty of their self-expression.

Showing Oysters cleaning polluted river water
Oysters cleaning polluted river water
Hope tales: Showing Weaving plants into plaits
Weaving plants into plaits
Hope Tales: Showing a collaborative poem on earth
Collaborative poem on earth

Photos above by: Nicky Saunter, Andrew Simms and Jules Pretty © 2023

Once the event is over, the content prepared for this one-off performance is then compiled into a small and beautiful book, called a ‘chapbook’. Chapbooks were small, cheaply produced books widely sold and highly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sold by a ‘chapman’, they were used to publish popular or folk literature, almanacks, children’s stories, folk tales, ballads, political prospectuses, poetry and religious tracts. Our own chapbooks follow this tradition of broad subject matter, bite-sized pieces for easy reading and made to be shared and passed on. 

Pandemic learning in action

There is something about the forming and sharing of creative work in an intimate space for a one-off performance that generates excitement, concentrated listening and a keen enjoyment of what others bring. It also reminds us how such interactive and collaborative forms of entertainment are so much more fulfilling to all than the treadmill of consumption we so often ride.

Part of the inspiration for this work came from the global pandemic, during which a flourishing of creative, homemade entertainment was shared and enjoyed worldwide without huge investment or any financial purchases being required. The Rapid Transition Alliance documented this flowering of generosity and creativity in a series of short reports that looked at examples of positive stories. Remember how nature returned and deer wandered through empty shopping malls? How ballerinas unable to dance on stage took to their kitchens and balconies for impromptu performances watched by millions stuck at home? How people of all skill levels took up pencils, paints and brushes, tried sculpture, made their own clothes, sewed and crocheted for each other? How we mended our old stuff, swapped it with others, cooked for those who couldn’t and planted seeds once again?

Hope Tales is taking the pandemic learning and putting it into action with a real focus on place. We try to choose towns that are not big, wealthy or famous for anything in particular. We are showing the diversity of the ordinary and the stories that lie around us in droves, just waiting to be heard and acted on.

Showing Hope Tales Chapbook II: Land


Find out more

The first two Hope Tales chapbooks can be found here: The Hope Tales series. Check the Margate School events listings for the Hope Tales event on 31st October.

You can explore the work of the Rapid Transition Alliance to share inspiring and varied examples of rapid transition and show what kind of changes are possible, how people can help to shape them, and what conditions can make them happen.

The New Weather Institute is a co-op and a think-tank, created to accelerate the rapid transition to a fair economy that thrives within planetary boundaries. The Centre for Public and Policy Engagement at the University of Essex supports academic communities build partnerships with policymakers and the public so that research and education at the University of Essex can improve people’s lives.

Nicky Saunter

Nicky Saunter

An entrepreneurial thinker, practical activist and campaigner, and creative artist who is driven by what we can do rather than what we cannot change.

Resisting a Human Anthropocene: Diasporic African Religious Experiences in Nature

Writer Hassaun Jones-Bey introduces a human Anthropocene as corollary for our planet’s new geological era. The commodification of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the US shows human nature resisting the same commodification that’s visited upon non-human nature.


3,050 words: estimated reading time = approximately 12 minutes


My artistic process is both intuitive and backwards. If I were a painter, I would describe it as throwing all of the paint up on the canvas, then subtracting some things, moving other things around, and also adding some back until it seems to work. It might be described as putting together a puzzle in which it is okay to change the shape and appearance of the pieces, to throw some pieces away, to go out and find totally new pieces, and to even change the size and shape of the entire puzzle. Part of this comes from a couple of decades of creating ‘word pictures’ on the professional side of my life as a science journalist, while also ‘painting with light’ as an amateur landscape photographer.

Human Anthropocene: commodifying human and non-human nature 

The puzzle I’m completing right now suggests that the commodification of non-human nature over the past 500 years has a corollary in the commodification of human nature during the same period. I think of it as a human corollary for the geological Anthropocene. I focus specifically on the commodification of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas, particularly in the US. The evolution of musical expression among these people seems to offer a record of human nature resisting the same commodification that has been visited upon non-human nature.

What I’ve essentially done is draft an essay that asks questions based upon my research (which is actually an interpretive analysis of what others have written rather than original field research). My online essay crunches tens of thousands of academic words down into seven or eight 1,000-word blog posts. I tell it like a story and illustrate it with embedded videos to provide the actual pieces of my puzzle. The idea I was hoping to develop further in connecting with ClimateCultures was that paying more attention to the resistance of human nature might provide useful perspectives concerning the escalating crises that human nature continues to aggravate in non-human nature. My interpretation of C. Eric Lincoln’s concept of ‘Black Religion’ — based on a common experience that crosses the various doctrinal and denominational lines in Western religion — plays a central role in this storytelling, because of the Blackamerican need to reconnect societal religion with actual religious experience.

The story narrative grows out of a musically expressed West African river proverb. Its wisdom seems to have traveled to America with enslaved Africans by traversing the environmental water cycle as rivers do. It refers to the Creator in the terms of religious experience of human and non-human nature, as opposed to what modern Western culture would describe as a ‘religion’. The original essay was based on my own interpretation (once again) of a lyrically told Akan proverb about the crossing of a river and a path. The river is described as ‘elder’ because the river comes from the creator.

Akan proverb, translated in Michael Bakan’s ‘World Music: Traditions and Transformations 2nd Edition’ & featured in Hassaun Jones-Bey’s ‘A Blues Gospel of Anthropocene?’

My initial interpretation of this proverb, in accordance with the textbook in which I encountered it, involved visualizing the intersection like a two-dimensional Cartesian plot or essentially a cross, with the river as the vertical axis and the path as the horizontal axis. My thought was that the exchange of commodities upon the path (which is created by human technologies that kill or at least limit life) need to serve the life that comes from the Creator (in the form of rivers for instance), and not the other way around. I write in the essay:

Paths are technologies as opposed to ecologies. So in this context, the proverb of the river and the path seems to suggest that the Creator gives life through complex environmental cycles and ecologies that essentially embody the Creator’s sacred ego, which might be thought of as the essence of life itself.

Equating the path with the river—or even more so exalting the technology above the ecology—would seem to miss this point. It imagines a human ego that is equal to or even above that of the Creator because of the human capacity to kill. This appears to be the fundamental point of what Lincoln referred to as Black religion. Enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas found themselves ensnared in a “white” colonial ego that attempted to commodify them as its tools or technologies. As a result, Black religion arose to reassert the light of the Creator over the darkness of colonial ego.

To apply the wisdom of the West African proverb to the passage of time and events in the Americas, I translate it into a metaphor of light that also plays a prominent role in scriptures of Western religion. The water cycle metaphor seems to naturally give way to a metaphor of changing light over the course of four annual seasons. All of this seems to be represented for both light and water — the biospheric water cycle and the daily cycle of the sun as observed from the earth — in a puzzle piece that I stumbled upon a decade ago. It is a symbol that was evidently found in one form or another among the artifacts of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas, and has been described as representing the ‘four movements’ of the sun. The structure also seems applicable to periodic cycles of religious and cultural experience and expression that have been and still are observed in human communities throughout the world. The cross in this symbol is intersected by a closed circle or ellipse that I imagine as illustrating an environmental life cycle or ecology, as perhaps the inner meaning of the entire symbol.

Human Anthropocene: showing River and Path with environmental life cycle. An image by Hassaun Jones-Bey.
‘River and Path’ representation with environmental life cycle. Image: Hassaun Jones-Bey © 2023.

The horizontal bar still represents the path. I think of it now as human technology that embodies a human ego — particularly in a context of modern Western religion that seems to separate the Creator from nature and to place humanity in between. To my mind, this is the modern Western separation of religion from religious experience that necessitated the development of Black religion. It also seems to be fundamental to what I refer to as the human Anthropocene. For me the intersecting environmental cycle is what brings everything and everyone back together. It represents resistance to commodification by both human and non-human nature.

In the process of writing this blog post, I also happened upon a hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) and Dolores Huerta (still living) in the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park in Berkeley, CA. The memorial (as illustrated and described in the images below) conveys a religious experience of non-human nature as understood through Chavez’ and Huerta’s Andean culture, which — the memorial literature states — was also expressed through the Virgen de Guadalupe in the Catholicism of many Mexican and Native American people. The structure of the memorial conveys a religious experience of the changing angle of sunlight as it cycles through four annual seasons to powerfully illustrate a narrative of farmworkers’ struggle against commodification in the Americas.

Human anthropocene: 3 images showing a hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, McLaughlin Eastshore State Park - Berkeley, CA. Photographs by Hassau Jones-Bey.
3 images: hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, McLaughlin Eastshore State Park – Berkeley, CA. Photographs: Hassaun Jones-Bey © 2023.

As it turns out, this memorial was threatened by commodification as well. A year ago a newspaper commentary article, ‘Berkeley Marina Plan would destroy Cesar Chavez Park,’ argued that changes proposed in a city plan for the Berkeley Marina “would transform the park from a place of relief from urban stress into a high-pressure commercial amusement park.”

I initially learned about this from a local resident who shared memories of participating in successful community opposition to the original plan. According to a news article published last month in another city paper, ‘New Master Plan for Berkeley Waterfront Park,’ a new plan for the waterfront area has scrapped a proposed ferry terminal from the initial plan and will instead fill in a portion of the bay to create a potentially much more lucrative ‘container terminal’ for international shipping.

Another key factor the local resident shared with me was the rising cost of real estate and just plain living was driving long-term residents out of the area (all-too-often a factor in the history of Blackamerican community experience), which is currently true of the San Francisco Bay Area in general. The relationship between people and land seems key here.

Modern Western culture seems more likely to describe the water in the river as a natural resource and the talent of a drummer as an entertainment resource. Resources (including the “human resources” currently measured in “man-hours”) may be used wisely or even reverently, but they are still resources to be used rather than ecologies of which we are composed and in which we participate.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries throughout the Americas, a combination of ‘Jim Crow’ religion, ‘scientific racism,’ ‘social Darwinism,’ and emerging global markets pushed formerly enslaved ‘black’ people and culture to the margins of society and often to the margins of existence. Reading about this makes me think of the homelessness and despair one sees in the midst of soaring affluence today but on a much grander scale. Since all of these folks and their communities were actually human and not just commodities, this also seems like a massive demolition of human community consciousness — particularly in terms of the Black religious experience that C. Eric Lincoln described as Black religion.

Cycles of water, cycles of history

The process of working back through this with climate crises in mind and connecting it directly to the commodification of non-human nature led to a good bit of revising in my online essay. It also provided a great deal of focusing, clarity, and brevity (significantly increasing the ratio of music videos to words), which I am quite pleased with and grateful for.

As mentioned above, it is helping me to understand and articulate one of the intuitive pieces that just kind of showed up to become an essential piece of the puzzle, which I mentioned briefly above. An environmental water cycle characterizes each of the century-long quadrants in the religious history that I tell. Such a cycle also works for the larger historical cycle that arises from putting the four quadrants together into a single US history. I still describe it that way at the outset, as follows:

The narrative begins with an “apocalypse” that stripped diverse African people of lands, identity, and dignity to create “black” disposable commodities for colonizing an entire hemisphere where the sacred ecology consciousness of indigenous civilizations was also being marginalized and exterminated. The narrative continues into a rainstorm “genesis” of enslaved Africans and their descendants creating “Blackamerican” identity, evidenced in Negro Spirituals.

After emancipation, headwaters of “blues people” flowed in “exodus” from Jim Crow persecution. This Great (rural-to-urban) Migration became a blues river that overflowed its banks. It burst the Jim Crow dam with a global “gospel” of social change. The freshwater river emptied into a saltwater ocean of “New Jim Crow” massive incarceration, from which hip-hop arose in a “pentecost” of storm clouds spreading globally with post-modern “tongues of fire.

Seasons of change

When I am actually telling the story I used the water cycle to create, however, the narrative seems to flow much more smoothly when I use a metaphor of natural light as it changes during the course of four annual seasons. So in the essay, after introducing the concept of human community ecology and its emigration to the Americas in the first two chapters, I then proceed through a “winter solstice darkness of colonial ego” in the third chapter; a “spring equinox light of Blackamerican genesis and ring shout spirituals” in the fourth chapter; a “summer solstice light of Blackamerican exodus and Blues-matrix Gospel” in the fifth chapter; and an “autumnal equinox light of Blackamerican Pentecost and Hip Hop hybridity” in the sixth chapter. Each of these chapters covers one of my four quadrants, covering the past 500 years of US history. The seventh chapter asks four questions that suggest a problem-solving hypothesis based on my suggested correlation of an Anthropocene in non-human nature to an Anthropocene in human nature.

Originally, I attempted to avoid the potential confusion of a mixed metaphor by going back and changing the water metaphor in each quadrant to a light metaphor. After doing so and reflecting on it, however, it seemed both strained and ineffective. Obfuscating words seemed to overwhelm the visual, audible, and tactile imagery. Simply returning to the mix of metaphors, however, appeared to intuitively translate the embodied religious ecology that seems to flow so naturally in indigenous stories into a religious, scientific, and cosmological imagery of light within the more conceptual and less embodied languages of modern Western literature. 

In any event, after struggling through all of this analysis, I encountered a musical video on YouTube by Afro-Cuban pianist, composer and bandleader Omar Sosa that brought the two metaphors together so seamlessly that I embedded it in my online essay. I’ve also included it here below.

This also produced a kind of surprise result that didn’t show up in my academic research. As mentioned previously, the original research arranges the past half-millennium of history into four cycles, which I ultimately arrange as four quadrants of one large cycle at the conclusion. Upon doing so, the upcoming global climate crisis seems as if it might be accompanied or perhaps even preceded by a potentially much more catastrophic repeat of the human ‘climate crisis’ that modern Western culture visited upon the global hemisphere that started to become the Americas 500 years ago. The previous human climate crisis seems to have been caused in large part by abuse of emerging technologies, and revolutionary changes seem to be taking place in those same technologies now. The most important technology to refocus in addressing the Anthropocene, however, showed up as multi-national corporations, which I imagine as pseudo-religious community technologies focused on individual economic prosperity rather than on human community ecology embodying the Creator’s ego.

The hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta seemed to speak to me during this process with a confirming perspective that was indigenous to the  Americas. I’ve inserted a couple of landscape views that I took with my phone from that area after a recent rainstorm.

3 images: lands, sea, air, light – northern California. Photographs: Hassaun Jones-Bey © 2023

As I write this post, my online essay consists of an introduction and seven chapters. A major goal has been to make the whole thing flow like the river cycle that it flows from. There are two additional blog-length items as well. One is the story of a 400-year-old European song that emigrated to America during the antebellum period to eventually become a political rock song and jazz ballad. The other is a lyrical poem of Black religious experience, ‘Ms. Tubman’s Soldiers,’ that inspired the visual design of the homepage. I posted both of them previously and moved them around to try and make them fit. I ended up taking them down, however, upon realizing that they are not really part of the river I’m attempting to depict. Once the river is complete, I will probably put them back up separately, and also start reposting a lot of music that was just random stuff previously, but now has a meaningful context.

All of that said, I’m not really sure how or to what degree all of this really belongs in the ClimateCultures orbit. I am still thankful for the editorial feedback and stimulus to create a much better piece than I could have otherwise. I would also appreciate any such feedback from the broader community as well.


Find out more

You can read Hassaun’s online essay A Blues Gospel of Anthropocene? at his site, Peace Jungle, where hyperlinks throughout the essay text point to sources of additional information.

The newspaper articles about Chavez Park that Hassaun mentions are: Berkeley Marina Plan would destroy Cesar Chavez Park (Berkleyside, 24/4/22); and New Master Plan for Berkeley Waterfront Park (Berkeley Daily Planet, 1/4/23).

The book from which the English translation of the Akan proverb is taken is Michael Bakan’s World Music: Traditions and Transformations (McGraw Hill – now available in a 4th edition, 2024).

Hassaun’s suggestion of the human Anthropocene ties in with the crisis he describes as visited by modern Western culture upon the global hemisphere that started to become the Americas 500 years ago. Geography professors Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis have suggested that the Anthropocene began with European colonisation and mass slavery, with the death of 56 million indigenous people across the Americas in just 100 years of Christopher Columbus setting foot on the Bahamas: “deadly diseases hitched a ride on new shipping routes, as did many other plants and animals. This reconnecting of the continents and ocean basins for the first time in 200 million years has set Earth on a new developmental trajectory. The ongoing mixing and re-ordering of life on Earth will be seen in future rocks millions of years in the future. The drop in carbon dioxide at 1610 provides a first marker in a geological sediment associated with this new global, more homogeneous, ecology, and so provides a sensible start date for the new Anthropocene epoch.”

Hassaun adds some additional sources: “Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 (1999, Simon & Schuster) by W.E.B. Du Bois (the first modern American sociologist) provides well-documented and particularly valuable perspectives on the post-emancipation marginalization of ‘black’ humanity in the US. And Afro-Latin America, 1800-2000 (2004, Oxford University Press) by George Reid Andrews devotes an entire chapter to the simultaneous ‘whitening’ throughout the rest of the Americas. B.W. Higman has also written a number of fascinating articles on “The Sugar Revolution” as what I tend to imagine as the commodifying engine that drove modern Western culture’s initial expansion throughout the global Western Hemisphere.”

ClimateCultures explores many aspects of the human Anthropocene and its more-than-human aspects in our members’ series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects and our new series with Martin Mahony and his students on the University of East Anglia’s Geography and Environmental Sciences course: Museum of the Anthropocene.

Hassaun Jones-Bey

Hassaun Jones-Bey

A retired engineer, science journalist and founder of Peace Jungle, which began as a musical storytelling project when online discourse associated 'apocalypse' with the impending twenty-first century.