The Next Dawn of Everything — Stories of Human Cultures

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


2,750 words: estimated reading time = 11 minutes


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calling time on ideas of linear evolution of human cultures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story-tellers for ‘stuck’ times

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

There are numerous valuable findings from this wonderful book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Active choices and human futures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was explicit adoption of egalitarian structures and social support.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Cultural connections for transformations

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

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

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

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

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

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


Find out more

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

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

Jules Pretty

Jules Pretty

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

Dystopian Farming: An Inquiry

For animist farmer and author Paul Feather, 2024 brings a creative inquiry into ‘dystopian farming’ as resistance as well as sustenance, and a search for joy and meaning that makes our dire times tolerable: the potential for liberation.


1,100 words: estimated reading time = 4 minutes


I have been farming for twenty years, and I’ve had some success in growing food. Enough success that people ask me lots of questions about it, and that I have several hundred pounds of sweet potatoes, yacón, pumpkins, and potatoes stacked in crates in the cellar alongside shelves full of canned tomatoes, pears, and pickled everything. Enough that I don’t feel overworked in producing all of this. I have been farming for twenty years, yet I still don’t feel like I know how to do it — even less do I know how to talk about it or how to answer your questions about farming.

Farming dystopia. Showing Full Life Farm in the lower piedmont of the Appalachian mountains.
Farming dystopia: Full Life Farm in the lower piedmont of the Appalachian mountains. Photograph: Terra Currie © 2023

Whether I have answers or not, people continue to ask how my farm works. So, in pursuit of these answers that I don’t yet have, in 2024 I will make an inquiry into what I do. I shall call it ‘Farming Dystopia’, because I feel that dystopia best describes our cultural and ecological context. I resonate with the words of Potawatomi scholar Kyle Powys Whyte who points out that “some indigenous peoples already inhabit what [their] ancestors would have likely characterized as a dystopian future” in which settler colonialism has so drastically altered people’s environment that it is harder to obtain the traditional foods and materials that they have relied on for millennia. He emphasizes that in spite of this unfortunate reality, “we do not give up by dwelling in a nostalgic past even though we live in our ancestors’ dystopia.”1

This dystopia does not only affect Indigenous people (even if it does affect them most severely). We all live in a world of façade and confusion, where every practice, including farming, requires some not-quite-tolerable measure of exploitation half perceived, but partly veiled by the cognitive dissonance that makes it possible to get through the day. The present dystopia is a soul-numbing experience for anyone, at best; and a terrifying and dangerous one for far too many.

Farming for liberation

If I would honestly describe my farming methodology, acknowledgment of our dystopian context would have to be the jumping-off point. I am farming within a dystopian context. I am inside The Matrix. It is Nineteen Eighty-Four, and this is a Brave New World. Dystopian farming is a means of sustenance and also resistance. It is a frank admission of our dire context, but also — maybe even primarily — a search for the joy and meaning that makes that context tolerable.

This inquiry originates as an attempt to answer questions about my farming methods, and so its initial structure will be blog-like: if I can’t ‘explain’ my methods, perhaps I can narrate them every week or so. However, I would also like to de-center my own methods, because farming is extremely context-dependent. I have no real way to know whether my particular methods will be helpful for people with different access to land, different body types, different social and family structures, different climates … different everything. In the dystopian context, the value of a method is in its potential for liberation, and I don’t know how much my methods can liberate others, especially people with less privilege than I have enjoyed. I would like to be able to answer that question.

If my inquiry is to be successful, it will also have to include other voices, other platforms, and other knowledge. Perhaps it will evolve away from a personal blog to become more like a book, a zine, or a journal article. If there is dialogue, we could even borrow the format of a podcast.

For now, I will inquire and write. My initial reflections have been about the curious mix of liberation and obligation that goats bring into my life. As I make small daily movements in preparation for spring seeding, I will snap pictures and share thoughts about how to coax another round from the dirt. What do I owe the dirt for this?

Dystopian farming in dialogue

As I hope to include others in this inquiry, I think it is helpful to situate dystopian farming in a broad dialogue about global agriculture. Without making prescriptions about what people should or shouldn’t be doing in contexts that I haven’t experienced, I hope I can narrow the scope of the inquiry in a way that invites the participation I am looking for.

I think that dystopian farming should be agroecological and radically holistic. Agroecology is a broad framework that includes dimensions of science, social movement, and practice.2 It is true that like many frameworks, the concept of agroecology is partially coopted by institutions3, so for this inquiry we retain the multidimensionality of agroecology and emphasize its roots in peasant social movements such as La Via Campesina.4 We also use it as a framework that addresses multiple scales: from the ecology of a single farm plot all the way to the global food system as a whole.

This inquiry will naturally interact with dialogue about permaculture — which along with ‘regenerative farming’ seems to have captured much of the imagination of the ecological farming movement — but we should critique these frameworks for their extraction of Indigenous farming practices while failing to integrate Indigenous critiques of modernity. Permaculture and regenerative agriculture have also failed to credit Indigenous people for their intellectual foundation or adequately address the legacies of settler colonialism. This is not something I will critique on the basis of morals or ideology, but because the approach I describe as dystopian farming is radically holistic and acknowledges that failure to integrate these critiques makes our farming practice more damaging to the land, weakens our social movements, and undermines our scientific foundation.

Showing Full Life Farm logo
Full Life Farm. Design: Terra Currie

Finally, dystopian farming is pragmatic. There is room for abstract discussion — and possibly even fiction — but in the end we must have sweet potatoes and a cellar to put them in. Obviously my initial inquiry is personal and fundamentally anecdote, and perhaps that is all it will ever be. But this is also an invitation — or maybe it’s a manifesto to co-create something far more interesting than anecdote or my personal critique of a farming ethos that fails to address the deeper crises of our modern dystopia.


References

[1] Whyte, Kyle Powys, “Our Ancestors’ Dystopia Now: Indigenous Conservation and the Anthropocene”, in The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities (2021, Routledge).

[2] Steve Gliessman (2018) Defining Agroecology, Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 42:6, 599-600.

[3] Omar Felipe Giraldo & Peter M. Rosset (2017) Agroecology as a territory in dispute: between institutionality and social movements, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 45:3, 545-564.

[4] Val, V., Rosset, P. M., Zamora Lomelí, C., Giraldo, O. F., & Rocheleau, D. (2019). Agroecology and La Via Campesina I. The symbolic and material construction of agroecology through the dispositive of “peasant-to-peasant” processes. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 43(7-8), 872-894; Rosset, P., Val, V., Barbosa, L. P., & McCune, N. (2019). Agroecology and La Via Campesina II. Peasant agroecology schools and the formation of a sociohistorical and political subject. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 43(7-8), 895-914.

Find out more

You can find Paul’s Farming Dystopia blog at his website with Terra Currie, where they discuss Full Life Farm — the ecological experiment they established in 2007 on five acres in the lower piedmont of the Appalachian mountains – as well as present their art and writing and health and education work.

Paul Feather

Paul Feather

An animist farmer and author whose artistic interests include the courtship of landscapes for food and seed and translating animist thought into the language of physics.

“Where Have All The Birds Gone?”

Artist Michael Gresalfi shares an artwork that uses repurposed materials dating from before our mass communications ‘information age’ to witness the extensive decline of bird species and populations in his local area and the loss of natural spectacle.


820 words: estimated reading time = 3 minutes


My wife and I have lived here in our home, located in Boyds, Maryland, USA for more than 32 years. Our backyard is adjacent to a 2,500-acre regional park. Black Hill Regional Park is comprised of fields, forests, streams, ponds, and a large lake.

Over the past decade, we have noticed the precipitous loss of so many species that we previously observed, including native bees, butterflies, beetles, salamanders, frogs, toads, turtles, and birds.

Not only have we lost a number of bird species, the quantity of remaining bird populations has drastically diminished. In the past, during both the Spring and Fall migratory seasons, we would watch in awe as deep and dark ribbons of migrating birds flew overhead, oftentimes extending for many miles and for half an hour or more.

Over the past years, this substantial loss of both species diversity and populations has influenced the direction my art has taken. I find myself responding to this human-induced global environmental onslaught with an increasing focus on creating climate change focused art, and where possible relying upon recycled and repurposed materials when making my art.

If you have not watched my narrated art and science integrated slide show ‘Our Changing Planet’ please do so. My large installation “What Man Has Wrought” likewise is also available here on the ClimateCultures website.

Post-it board – sixteen reasons for bird species losses

Bird species in decline. Showing "Where Have All The Birds Gone?" Artwork by Michael Gresalfi
“Where Have All The Birds Gone?” Artwork by Michael Gresalfi © 2023

This repurposed work originated with my purchase of a 1970s-era post-it board, which I then transformed into a climate change focused work of art.

I began with a 19.5″ x 27.5″ canvas framed and unpainted machine-stamped post-it board that included the outlines of birds sitting along attached twine, along with one-inch-sized clothes pins.

Prior to the introduction of the ‘Information Age’ and the advent of personal computers and particularly smartphones, people kept track of upcoming events on paper calendars and notepads and through the use in their homes of post-it boards.

I found this post-it board, equipped with the eight intact strings and a few miniature wooden clothes pins at my local Goodwill store. The canvas was untouched, no gesso, no paint. The birds were simple outlines, and not colored. The price tag on the back indicates it was sold in the ‘pre-barcode era’.

I purchased it for US $5.00 and proceeded to paint both the background and the birds with various acrylic paints. I then used vintage filing folder plastic file tabs and associated cardboard name tags, along with purchased colorful one-inch clothes pins to create this climate change focused work.

The twenty short post-it notes posted on this repurposed board (in order) are as follows:

*Where Have All The Birds Gone?

*In the past 50 years 30% lost in N. America

*2.4 Billion have disappeared since 1970

*MANY CAUSES MAN INDUCED

*CLIMATE CHANGE

*HABITAT LOSS

*CO2 INCREASING

*SEED BEARING PLANTS DISAPPEAR

*INSECT LOSS

*PESTICIDES

*HERBICIDES

*FERTILIZERS

*MONOCULTURES

*DEFORESTATION

*POLLUTION

*CATS

*TOO DRY

*TOO WET

*TOO HOT

*TOO MUCH!

My future goal is to broaden my focus on the many other diminishing and lost species that I have observed here in my backyard and within the adjacent regional park.

I haven’t seen a salamander egg mass in the ponds in more than a decade. The mating songs of the Spring Peepers, a tiny chorus frog found in the pond directly behind our yard, is nowadays a mere whisper.

Along with Box Turtles, Bull Frogs, Possums, and Monarch Butterflies, all are prime candidates for my future works.


Find out more

You can see Michael’s video ‘Our Changing Planet’ and his large installation “What Man Has Wrought” in our Creative Showcase feature — along with more than 25 examples of other ClimateCultures members’ work.

“If you were alive in the year 1970, more than one in four birds in the U.S. and Canada has disappeared within your lifetime” — so begins Vanishing: More Than 1 In 4 Birds Has Disappeared In The Last 50 Years, an article by Gustave Axelson
(September 19, 2019) for All About Birds. The article summarises recent research led by
Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which quantified for the first time the total decline in bird populations in the continental U.S. and Canada, a loss of 2.9 billion breeding adult birds. Conservation scientist Ken Rosenberg, who led the study, is quoted: “These bird losses are a strong signal that our human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife. And that is an indicator of a coming collapse of the overall environment.”

Globally, the 2022 edition of State of the World’s Birds from BirdLife International “paints the most concerning picture for nature yet. Nearly half of the world’s bird species are now in decline, with only six percent having increasing populations. One in eight species (or 1,409 species in total) are now threatened with extinction.”

Michael Gresalfi

Michael Gresalfi

An artist who seeks to incorporate art with climate change data, and whose work in encaustic medium, glass paint, oils and acrylics includes 'Our Changing Planet'.

Planet Local — Community and Connection

Writer and filmmaker James Murray-White visited the Planet Local Summit, finding in its examples of urgent work around the world to foster being and acting locally a cultural turning towards nature as antidote to climate and ecological breakdown.


1,800 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes


Once in a while I’m fortunate to attend a gathering — truly in this case an in-gathering of a community — that is so warm and focused that my intuitive heart knows that this is a real crystallisation of the worldwide urgent work going on, and that this will be a big impetus for it to flourish, broaden and deepen.

Planet Local - promotion for the summit in Bristol, October 2023

Helena Norberg-Hodge, inspirational founder of Local Futures, the organising NGO, spoke in her opening address of the Planet Local Summit of all attendees being part of the ‘bacterial mycelia’ seeding the crucialness of acknowledging our local belonging. This felt a deep truth and, as I write and reflect, still feels the best take-home gift. I left Bristol feeling energised to return home (currently Cambridge) with many gifts, new and old connections made and refreshed, and a strong motivation to keep working at a local level. I returned specifically to co-host a public engagement event called Dear River, of which more later.

Planet Local - showing speaker Dolma Tsering with Helena Norberg-Hodge at Planet Local.
Speaker Dolma Tsering with Helena Norberg-Hodge at Planet Local. Photograph: James Murray-White © 2023

Planet Local – our need for connection

Helena set the term ‘localisation’ as the antidote to the twin threats of climate and ecological breakdown, happening at speed now in every corner and continent of our planet, and the death march of the industrial/economic system that capitalism has wrought upon the human world. By acknowledging, being and acting locally — in terms of fostering community, emphasising well-being, local food growing, and community care — including finance staying within our local systems, Local Futures describes localisation through these actions as “a cultural turning towards nature” and “an expression of our need for connection — both to others and to all living beings.”

This was the first post-pandemic gathering for me that I felt called to, due to both the high-profile speakers in-person and the sessions sharing case studies of specific local actions and issues. From Helena, Bayo Akomolafe, Morag Gamble, Iain McGilchrist and Charles Eisenstein to many other brilliant engagers, thinkers and philosophers, pragmatists, growers and weavers, the hall at St George’s, associated spin-off rooms — including the cafe/bar, and various rooms at the nearby Folk House venue, and The Tobacco Factory arts centre to which the summit relocated on day three — were all humming with conversations and ideas brewing and being dissected and unpicked.

The big evening conversation on the Friday, a much-hyped conversation between XR co-founder Roger Hallam and ex-Government Minister Zac Goldsmith felt almost a dampening of the enthusiasm during the day: neither seemed to absorb the energy of the gathering, and while they found a kind of middle ground around failures of policy, and the potential of coming bloody revolutions (and the history of previous ones), neither could really offer any threads to hold hope upon.

The community-building that XR and Just Stop Oil has created is hugely commendable and needs anchors and deep seeding across all levels of our societies. I recently heard about an elderly couple who watched Chris Packham’s incisive and timely documentary struggling with his conscience about being arrested for activism and using his powerful voice; and they are now inspired to act, in whatever local way they are able.

On the other hand, Goldsmith’s tale of woe and pressure from lobbyists, including in one notable case the National Farmers Union, against plans for environmental support he was proposing is simply insane, and needs calling out. This is the industrial death machine of chemicals, vested interest, power; the insecurity of the human mind, tragically, that has created this huge schism in a world with so much staggering beauty, potential, and constant flux and change. The next day, Charles Eisenstein’s words — “The idea that the change can happen with the right person in charge is inherently wrong” — reminded me of Goldsmith and Hallam, and also the pedestals and stages we create for leaders to stand on (and fall or get kicked off, because we’re fallible humans!).

Belonging in the human and the natural

Bayo Akomalafe and Iain McGilchrist. Photograph: James Murray-White © 2023

It was a joy to hear philosopher Iain McGilchrist reflect upon the theme, both alone and in conversation with Bayo Akomalafe and then Helena. I’m struck by his phrase:

“We are here to respond to the values of the universe, both in belonging ourselves and as part of the human community; to develop and expand our relationship to the natural world, and, partly as a result of these two practices, to live within divinity.”

A one-to-one conversation with Iain became a beautiful engagement around the theme of grace, which is an enduring talisman for me to hold. I recommend Iain’s The Master & His Emissary for an erudite scientific dissection of the schism in our body-brain and how this permeates across human history.

Food and farming, and the systems that support them, was a key theme of the Summit. With another hat on, I’m a member of the team making Six Inches Of Soil, a new documentary on regenerative agriculture and new entrant farmers, which will be premiered at the Oxford Real Farming Conference early in 2024, so I’ve an interest here, as I hope we all have. It’s increasingly clear that knowing our local farmers and buying direct or from local farmers’ markets, with local supply chains, is vital to planetary health and soil-human survival and potential thriving.

Chris Smaje, smallholder, writer and food activist, based outside Frome, and Jyoti Fernandez, farmer, activist, and co-founder of the Landworker’s Alliance, are tremendous forces for good in this sphere. Both are making change, standing strong against big farm companies and food/meat manipulation and galvanising opinion.

It was refreshing to hear from Nelson Mudzingwa, a Zimbabwean farmer who has struggled to gather seed sovereignty and organic certification across his land and the African continent. By open source seed saving, his collective is developing crop resilience to climate change in their region. Words of hope from a country known for bitter political struggle. Farmer, former head of the Soil Association and now founder of the Sustainable Food Trust, Patrick Holden chaired this session with passion and aplomb, though I found his constant allusions to connections across the CEO worlds, including Bill Gates, distracting and pretty irrelevant given the brilliance within this audience and panel.

Speaking from a new story

A day and a half in, however, I was chomping at the bit for news from really local actions, initiatives and community building from these isles. As a former Bristol resident, I know that this city is bursting with creative social enterprise and strong community efforts, particularly around peri-urban food growing and combatting poverty. It’s a gritty sprawl of communities, and I sadly heard there had been a stabbing that led to a fatality in a neighbourhood nearby on Friday.

I had expected to meet the Street Goat Project bringing their furry troupe up the steps of St George’s to engage with us all. However I found the answer in a brilliant presentation from three members of Frocal in the village of Forest Row, Sussex: in a nutshell, asking themselves “what it might be like if we all lived and acted more locally?” They gave examples of their success and failures and acknowledged that it was a work in progress, albeit a vital effort for these times. I will visit friends there and investigate shortly. Frocal feels like a really valuable and catalysing project.

Darcia Narvaez of The Evolved Nest. Photograph: James Murray-White © 2023

Other takeaways for me include the theme of colonisation of the mind as well as land and countries and continents: Vandana Shiva in her pre-recorded video highlighted this, reminding us that just 600 men created the East India Company treaty (that our monarch signed and sealed) to sail off and colonise that part of the world. Anthropologist Darcia Narvaez picked up on this with her fascinating presentation on her work on Nestedness, agreeing “we are all colonised”, and how might we respond to that knowing? Her thesis continues in the knowledge of our connectedness to, and acceptance of, our heritage.

Keynote speaker Charles Eisenstein delivered a meandering wander through his response to the topic — “ I trust the deployment of the intelligence that my gifts will be useful for” — and concurred with the broader theme that we “need to speak to people from a new story”. He brings a wisdom to our human need to really acknowledge that “technology is reaching deeper and deeper into the core of what it means to be human” and that our “common goal is to rekindle our connections”.

Planet Local.

Sadly, I had to leave after two days, and the third and final day of the summit relocated to another Bristol venue, and I suspect drilled down more into very local UK and Bristolian specifics.

What called me very strongly back to my locale was an event I co-hosted to celebrate water and river systems at this time of waking up to the sorry state most rivers are in, and specifically how they are being abstracted from, and our human sewage dumped within. Dear River was a locally-organised gift to our community, to meet the issue with creativity, grief, and space — space to gather, to listen, to respond, and to ask “what can we do?” After two days of deep stimulation at Planet Local and then this event, I suspect that asking this question is our fullest human response.


Find out more

The Planet Local Summit took place from 29th September to 1st October 2023, in Bristol, UK. You can find the full programme, find about the speakers and watch the livestream recording on the Local Futures website.

James highlights Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master & His Emissary (2009). You can find out more at Channel McGilchrist, and James shares his experiences taking part in and filming a retreat with Iain in a post for James’s Finding Blake project on William Blake: Exploring the Divided Brain.

You can read about the work of Water Sensitive Cambridge, the local organisation James has helped create and which organised the Dear River event that took him away from the final day of Planet Local, in this piece from Cambridge Independent: ‘We need to make the shift’: Water Sensitive Cambridge joins Accelerate Cambridge programme’s new cohort.

And Six Inches of Soil is the film James has been working on: “the inspiring story of British farmers standing up against the industrial food system and transforming the way they produce food — to heal the soil, benefit our health and provide for local communities.”

And here on ClimateCultures, you will find many other pieces by James, including his review of fellow member Susan Holliday’s book, Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart.

James Murray-White
James Murray-White
A writer and filmmaker linking art forms to dialogue around climate issues, whose practice stretches back to theatre-making.

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.