One of the great benefits of working with TippingPoint on its final set of events over the past couple of years was meeting such a number and diversity of great people, all working in their different ways on the creative challenges of environmental and climate change. This is a theme which James Murray-White picks up in this joint Members' Post by him, Lola Perrin and Paul Allen.
In their video, James and Lola discuss with Paul his experiences at the COP23 climate change conference in Bonn - which also featured in his recent ClimateCultures post, where he looked ahead to COP24 in 2018. As Lola says here, "it’s vital to know what happened at COP23 so we can make our strategies on how to work towards making COP24 a success;" and this three-way discussion - with others' questions posed via Facebook - is a valuable insight for those of us who couldn't be there in person.
One weekend in November, film maker James Murray-White and composer Lola Perrin travelled to the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales and met with Paul Allen, Project Director for CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain research. With live questions from a Facebook audience, the three discussed the highs and lows of COP23 and what is possible in the transformation to a post-carbon world. This is the short video of their conversation.
“I followed COP23 quite closely on Twitter, watching live video events, and reading blogs and Facebook posts from attendees. What could be possibly be missing from this list… Mainstream media? You’re right. Despite the very survival of our civilisation being at risk, mainstream media seemed not to care very much about COP23 during the whole two weeks of the event, with very little coverage of the work going on in Bonn. Yet it’s vital to know what happened at COP23 so we can make our strategies on how to work towards making COP24 a success.
“Holding a Facebook live Q&A with Paul was a good opportunity to find out more about what went on in Bonn and share that conversation with others. Before the interview started, we made the decision to keep it short. Although we could have spoken for an hour or more, by keeping the film to fifteen or twenty minutes, we felt more people would watch the whole of it, and perhaps we would take care not to be repetitive. This was a good decision; on listening back I think the conversation is concise and to the point. People sent in questions in advance or also during the live video feed.
“And as a bonus, we sat in my favourite room at CAT – although it was cold it didn’t matter much; there was an aroma of wood in the air, and gorgeous views of slate on one side and forest on the other – an inspiring environment for sharp, hopefully positive, thinking.”
“I’m delighted that Doing Nothing is Not an Option – TippingPoint’s 2016 conference at Warwick Arts Centre – gave me the opportunity to meet inspiring creative activists. This recent weekend is just one example of a positive outcome from that gathering: travelling to Wales with Lola to interview Paul at the awesome Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth, and then hosting the video of that here on ClimateCultures – created by Mark, who was such a key part of DNNO’s organisation.
“The issue of climate change is tough and throws up daily challenges – in seeing its effects, trying to communicate ways to respond, and simply by carrying around the knowledge of human impact upon planet Earth. But here is a small example of a few folk coming together to discuss, dissect and communicate, and then using this platform to put our efforts into the world and explore practical, creative and positive opportunities rather than spreading doom and gloom. I’m grateful for it, and for the warm, committed people who I’m proud to call my friends in this shared effort.”
COP ClimateCultures Callout
Were you at COP23 or related events here in your community? Do you have experiences, arts ideas or creative suggestions about what we can take from COP23 - or what was missing - and could help make COP24 what we need it to be? Use the Contact Form to send in comments or contributions for more COP-related posts and content here at ClimateCultures. And check out our 'Questioning the COPs' creative challenge with Paul's recent post, The Beating Heart of COP24.
ClimateCultures welcomes a new voice to the blog, with Paul Allen sharing his reflections after taking part in the COP23 talks in Bonn - and looking ahead to the cultural challenges for COP24 next year. Paul is Project Director of the Centre for Alternative Terchnology's Zero Carbon Britain programme.
We humans live by our values, shaped through, communities, experiences and culture. Our communities and our experiences are increasingly compelled to engage with climate change, but can our culture also grasp it?
At the next year’s UN climate summit, we will have reached a point in the negotiations where all nations must raise their ambition if we are to deliver on the Paris Agreement. As we prepare, it is vital we recognise the influence of culture; in helping us grasp exactly where we are in the world and the scale and speed of the actions we must take. The arts and creative community, in many ways the beating heart of culture, has a powerful role to play in this.
From the bubble of forgetting where we are …
From shifting seasons to wild weather, communities across the UK now experience both the large and small effects of climate change in their own back yards. On top of this, as we watch the global news, we see increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as forest fires, floods, hurricanes and droughts, hitting communities in other parts of the globe. But then, as the news ends, and normal TV returns, the characters in our films, soaps, dramas and reality TV series simply never discuss this. They never take any of the actions we know we must all take; they never discuss any of the changes we know we are seeing. This creates a bubble in which we have forgotten where we actually are in the world, where we can ignore what we know we need to do, and where we never witness the positive co-benefits that rising to our challenge could offer.
To make matters worse, every time contemporary culture tells a story of human interactions set a decade or two into the future, we paint it against a background of ecological collapse and zombie-ridden dystopia. Turning us into zombies works well to dehumanise society in ‘collapse’ scenarios, so making the mass-extinction narratives more palatable. Be it a novel, theatre, film, a TV or the gaming world, any future setting is dark – and a whole new generation is now growing up within this, transforming the way we think. We have shifted from that exciting 1960s vision of progress and anticipation, to a dark, uncertain and fearful future; which makes us easier to manage. If we only tell future stories set against chaos, collapse and devastation, no one can imagine positive solutions, so nothing happens.
So, as we move towards COP24, with its urgent need for ambition, it’s time to re-think the future. Evidence-based art, firmly rooted in the reality of where we are and what we must achieve, can bring to life exciting new stories. In stories of a future where humanity has delivered on Paris, and is enjoying the co-benefits – what would change and what would remain? What would we be doing, wearing or eating? How would we get around? Where and how would we spend our holidays or leisure time? What will drive our happiness in this new chapter of our story?
To visualising a climate safe future
A decade of Zero Carbon Britain research from the Centre for Alternative Technology has clearly demonstrated that we have all the tools and technologies we require. Powerful research is now emerging from across the globe at an accelerating rate, offering the hard data and confidence required to visualise what a climate safe future might actually be like. Rather than an unresolved technical challenge, it is increasingly accepted that what we actually face, is a mix of political and cultural barriers.
In the run-up to this year’s COP23 climate negotiations in Bonn, I was heartened to see Julie’s Bicycle working in collaboration with the UNFCCC to offer a weekly spotlight on arts and cultural responses to climate. It is now time to build way beyond the scale of arts engagement achieved at COP21 in Paris. As we prepare for COP24, our cultural community needs to engage deeper with this process. This does not necessarily mean being on-site during the negotiations; ongoing engagement connecting local and community actions with the global process is every bit as important.
Since the Paris Agreement, mainstream UK media has barely engaged with the COP process, so few are able to connect with what goes on. Surely progress in providing a safe niche for future generations is every bit as important as the latest X Factor or Bake Off? So, to help explore new approaches, in the run up to COP24 I am seeking collaborations across the creative community to build on our Zero Carbon Britain work, and have pulled together a short film to offer a glimpse into my engagement with COP23 in Bonn in November this year.
You can see more images such as Pedro Mazorati’s from the Art4Climate series at the UNFCC Climate Action pages.
Questioning the COPs? Space for creative thinking...Bali, Berlin, Bonn, Buenos Aires, Cancun, Copenhagen, Doha, Durban, Geneva, The Hague, Kyoto, Lima, Marrakech, Milan, Montreal, Nairobi, New Delhi, Paris, Poznan, Warsaw... We've had 23 'Conferences of the Parties', with next year's in Katowice, Poland. Where, when and how would you hold the COP where the world celebrates delivering on 'Paris 2015'? Why there? Sketch out a 'creative timeline', mapping out how you think we might get there...
Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link!
In part 1 of Doggerland Rising, Justina Hart introduced her poem, which was commissioned following the 2016 Weatherfronts conference. Drawing on advice from experts at Durham University, she investigated the prehistory of Doggerland, the lowland plains inhabited by mesolithic people before sea level rise created the North Sea. In this concluding part, Justina completes the story of her research and reveals how the poem's characters emerged and what she has learned from the process.
Click on the map to read Doggerland Rising #1: Walking Across the North Sea.
Reading academic papers – a new vocabulary
Following the day at Durham University spent meeting with palaeo-scientists to discuss all things Doggerland, they emailed me numerous papers to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. With six weeks to go till the commission deadline, I focused on reading and journaling to help the ideas bubble up.
Studying an area where knowledge is expanding rapidly I found to be exciting and addictive. Although the Doggerland concept had emerged in the early twentieth century, it didn’t take off until the late 1990s when Professor Bryony Coles at the University of Exeter examined and wrote about the archaeology of Doggerland; and until researchers at Birmingham University (Vince Gaffney among them) in the 2000s used data from oil and gas drilling maps to chart the submerged landscape of the Southern North Sea.
I started a Doggerland journal in my writing program, Scrivener, jotting down salient points and ideas every day. Early on in reading the academic papers, one thing that struck me was the intriguing sounds of many of the scientific words and terms used to describe investigation into the North Sea. Here are a few:
The mysterious half-understood (to me) quality of these words sparked my first draft for part I of my six-part poem. Scientific exploration provides an entry point both into the writing and into the Doggerland landscape:
Wade in with palaeogeographers,archaeologists, palaeogeologists,cartographers who swiminto the past for a living, who disturb and reconfigure depths.
Later on, I realised that these palaeo-scientist characters were part of the poem’s scaffolding that could be removed. The start of the finished part I of the poem now addresses the reader directly as scientist-investigator and everyman. He dips a hand into the North Sea and comes face-to-face with one of his Mesolithic ancestors:
A man hallooing as if to himselfpaddles through shallow waters. He looks ahead, squinting;he can almost see you, you him.
Letting go of research and sinking into the sea
Having immersed myself in the research, the next step was to let go of it – taking whatever I’d absorbed with me – and allow myself to sink into a place from which the poems might flow. That was the idea anyway. It felt risky: the research was a safety raft without which I could end up all at sea.
Giving myself the gift of this time to sink or swim was – as a jobbing writer/editor where paid tasks must take priority – the privilege of having a commission. What joy to be given licence to write and research poetry in prime client time. I unplugged from the internet for consecutive mornings and, in silence, held the idea of the sequence lightly in my mind, listening for what might surface.
I used others’ writing, music, photographs, and my own visits to natural landscapes to tickle the poetic synapses. Early on I found a jazz song that I took as a soundtrack for my project, Mi Negra Ave María, by Roberto Fonseca. Soaring and anthemic, it includes the lyrics:
And Atlantis can once again Rise from the ocean And the musical, beautiful sound will resound And shake in every tree …
I read poetry with watery and icy themes (the polar wilderness gave a useful sense of remoteness and strangeness).
I wanted to make a research trip to Druridge Bay on the Northumberland coast as recommended by the Durham scientists, but it was too far afield. Instead, with help from my partner as driver, I went on a long madcap jaunt from Staffordshire down the M1 and M25 to one of my old stomping grounds on the Kent estuaries to photograph mudflats. I also took pictures of trees in bogs in Osmaston, Derbyshire. These landscapes became the stage set for the inundated Dogger Island.
Here is a note from my journal:
5 November 2016 – research trip to northern Kent: Visited the Medway, got excited on seeing marshes, then just beyond the sea at Allhallows and took pictures as the sun was going down. Landscape very flat and I was bitter around theears, although it would have been 2-3 degrees warmer then [i.e. in the Mesolithic].
After a time, interesting things started cropping up in my journal. Here’s a piece of stream-of-consciousness writing:
The voices [in the poem] are strong. They are alive. They are speaking to us but also tothemselves as though there’s this thin film of water called time between us … They talk tothemselves and the meaning trickles to us across this film. They can kind of see us throughthis film too, and not.
The first character emerges – let’s call him Shaman
One day as I was writing my journal a character emerged urging ‘Follow me, follow me, follow me’. So I did, trusting his voice more as time went on. At first he acted as a guide, taking me back in time to the Mesolithic; later he made his way into the poem. It felt exciting channelling a Mesolithic character, as if I was bringing someone back from the dead whose bones lay under the North Sea. He seemed to relish the chance to live again.
This man, aged twenty-five or thirty, becomes the character we meet in section I, and who we follow through the poem. If he or someone like him did exist, perhaps he was a Mesolithic shaman because of his time-travelling and piloting abilities. Archaeologists know that such roles existed in tribal groups because they have unearthed objects such as deer skulls used as masks in spiritual ceremonies; they’ve also found standing stones or menhirs beneath the waves.
This is the kind of thing my nameless shamanic character whispered to me. It made its way into the poem in section II:
‘Look in the water. Look in the pool I’m looking at. The pool that is brackish, filled with saltwater, the river’s still. Giant oaks are asleep in it. I leave something there for you, a clueabout me. I take off my necklace and cast it in, it’s like casting a spell – that one day we will come this way again.’
Drafting the whole sequence was like walking a tightrope over the North Sea. I had never written such a long poem in different voices before and did not know that I could complete each section until I had its first draft down.
So I navigated my imaginative North Sea – and the poem – by degrees: first I was a quarter of the way across, then a half, then three-quarters … Since each section had to come from deep down, as if from my own internal sea, each time it was a case of listening, having faith, holding my breath until at last I was rewarded with each poem’s content, form and language. All the sections had to tie together and tell a story as well, of course.
After writing the first four poems (out of the total six), I attended a small poetry festival in London, Second Light’s The Song of the Earth. I found the workshops by poets such as Jemma Borg and Hannah Lowe very helpful for renewing my inspiration, and the festival provided a much-needed break from my own company. I came back and wrote the last two sections.
Sharing the poem – feedback and editing
Had the poem succeeded? It felt to me that the commission had moved my poetry on, but the proof’s in the pudding. I sent the finished draft to fellow West Midlands poet, Sarah James, who generously read it, suggested tweaks and commented, “It all reads beautifully and feels very crafted and finished”. I was over the moon. The poet Myra Schneider kindly read and fed back in detail before I submitted the final version. “It’s a real achievement – a step forward,” she said. I am indebted to these poets and other readers.
Myra pointed out that the poem needed some linguistic fine-tuning to get it ‘as close to Anglo-Saxon as possible’, as this would be more in keeping with the prehistoric setting. So before filing, I spent a few hours scouring the poem for Renaissance and post-Renaissance words and concepts. I scrapped ‘lurid’ (mid-seventeenth century), replacing it with ‘violent pinks, blues, greens’. ‘Sulking’ (late eighteenth century) became ‘turned sour’, ‘unnavigable’ (early sixteenth century) became ‘where evil spirits hide’, and ‘foraminifera’ (mid-nineteenth century) was changed to ‘tiny sea animals’. A whole passage like:
Here I come: pushed from the delta’s mouthinto blue – blue is my element and green –the sea’s body slows me, to breathe …
was transformed with simpler, more concrete language into:
Here I come: pushed from the river’s veinsinto blue – blue is my dwelling place –the sea’s body slows me, to breathe …
Myra also spotted an anachronistic use of the country names, ‘Germany, Holland, France’, in a refrain in part IV of the poem, which is voiced by the tribe’s ancestors. This started life as:
Yet once we were kings who strolled throughparadise to Germany, Holland, France.
Few readers might have noticed – and the rhythm worked well – but having put so much work in, it was important to get all the details right. I turned to Dr Jim Innes for help. ‘How might our Mesolithic ancestors have referred to these lands?’ I asked.
‘They would have had names for these areas I suppose, but we can’t know. I would perhaps have said something like ‘the eastern high ground beyond the plain’ and the same for Britain, only ‘western’. That doesn’t tell the reader exactly where though, so maybe … ‘theuplands beyond the eastern plain’ or similar.’
Here’s the final refrain:
Yet once we were kings who strolled through plains rich as paradise to the uplands beyond.
I sent the finished draft to the Durham scientists for fact checking and so they could see what I’d made of the research. All good except Jim spotted I’d used the phrase ‘heading inland’ in section VI, when people would have had to cross water to get to Britain. Jim also checked the date in which I’d set the poem:
‘The dates look fine. Our main radiocarbon date from Dogger peat at -27 metres depth is8140 radiocarbon years ago, which comes out when calibrated as 9300-9000 calendaryears ago. Other dates suggest that the Dogger island was finally fully submerged by about 8000 calendar years ago, or a little before.’
Personal insights – leaving the Mesolithic
The Weatherfronts commission was the first time that I’d ever been paid to write poetry. Symbolically this was deeply important to me as I was being remunerated for writing something I love, and this made a real difference to my craft. Previously, I always fitted my fiction and poetry around the freelance writing and editing I do for commercial clients; now, for the first time, creativity could take centre stage.
Not surprisingly, focusing on my poetic craft during the best, most productive hours of the day meant that my poetry improved. I began to value my work as a poet more and started seeing it as on an equal footing with my client writing. I was able to set and rise to a more difficult poetic challenge than I’d otherwise have attempted. I had not felt such joy in any paid work I’ve done in years, and loved the luxury of the reading and generative time.
Collaborating with the Durham palaeo-scientists was another revelation and joy. The only careers advice I recall receiving at university was ‘Don’t go into academia’, and yet the researchers seemed to thoroughly enjoy their working lives. Thanks to Weatherfronts, I now know that I’d welcome the chance to do other collaborative projects with researchers and universities in the future.
The collaboration completely changed the nature of my Doggerland poem. If I had attempted to write it without talking in-depth to the scientists, I believe that it would have looked very different. Gradual if dramatic climate change (coastal erosion, low-lying island nations at risk of submergence) and migration are more akin to what our Mesolithic ancestors were experiencing, and more akin to what we’re experiencing in the twenty-first century. The scientists helped me and the poem to take this focus.
By the end of the project, I began to envy our Middle Stone Age ancestors for the simpler rhythm of their lives, their multi-skilled resourcefulness, and even (medical advances aside), their quality of life. Pulling out of ancient time and leaping forward to the present day came as a wrench.
Find out more
You can read the full lyrics to Roberto Fonseca’s Mi Negra Ave MarÍa and play the track.
Explore the poets who gave Justina feedback: Sarah James and Myra Schneider. and Dr Jim Innes‘ research into human palaeoecology, particularly in relation to Mesolithic communities and their impact upon the environment.
There is more about Justina’s writing – poems, short stories, non-fiction, novels – at her website. Doggerland Rising and all the poems, short stories and non-fiction that were commissioned from both the 2014 and 2016 Weatherfronts competitions are included in the free ebook available from Cambria Books.
Questioning what lies beneath? Space for creative thinking...
"When you walk across a field or through woods, or travel on the sea, do you think about what, and who, might have been there before you? When you pause to listen, what do you hear from those who are still there, beneath?"
Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link!
In what I hope will be the start of a new 'Conversations' strand within ClimateCultures, environmental artist Linda Gordon responds to my review of the book Anticipatory history. Linda reflects on personal memories and intimations of change, and offers a recent example of her ephemeral art.
You can read my original review of Anticipatory historyhere. And you can download the book's introductory essay from the publisher's link on that page.
Are we, as Anticipatory history suggests, largely not culturally equipped to respond thoughtfully to environmental change, or to imagine our own futures?
The trouble is that places and the objects within them (natural or manufactured) seep into our consciousness and become part of our personal inner world, complete with its private collection of received stories.
Looking at Mark’s reference from the book, “Many of these changes… will register as subtle (or not so subtle) alterations in familiar landscapes…”, I remembered that many years ago, when I was living in East Sussex, someone living a few miles inland from the Seven Sisters cliffs demolished a World War II pillbox (a concrete machine gun emplacement) that was sited in their garden, in order to make his garden more pleasant. This was followed by a vociferous outcry from local people, and at first, I thought: “It’s his garden, and he can do what he wants!” Then I realised those people probably saw his act as part of their world being destroyed, and therefore threatening their sense of identity.
Not far from where I live now, is one of my favourite trees. Nothing particularly outstanding about it – but it is special to me because I return to it again and again in times of trouble. If it keeled over tomorrow in a gale, and died – I would feel a few moments sadness, and then accept it as a natural part of life’s processes. But if someone deliberately and illegally killed it, say, in order to cram in an extra housing unit for pure profit, I should find it extremely difficult not to react with outrage!
It is my view that people’s wellbeing and felt experience should be respected and fully taken into account during times of change, and when planning ahead. (The same goes for other lifeforms too). However, I don’t currently believe that looking to history and story-telling, in itself, will do very much to help us to cope with “changing landscapes, and to changes in the wildlife and plant populations they support”. I tend to think it is more a matter of paying close attention to the present moment.
I like how the authors are taking an exploratory approach to this whole question, rather than attempting to formulate any rigid conclusions, and definitely think it is important to keep living with the question, and allow the intelligence of life itself to inform and guide our actions.
The photo is of an ephemeral work I made in Bucks Valley Woods, North Devon, at the end of September, at the time when all the sweet chestnut fruits were falling. The title is Time to Let Go.
Creative conversations for the Anthropocene
Want to share your response to my original review or to Linda's thoughts? Send in a mini-post of your own - and why not complement it with a piece of your own work or someone else's, as Linda has done? Or use the Contact Form to suggest a topic for ClimateCultures to explore as a conversation.
In the first part of The Rise of Climate Fiction, David looked at some of the early works to address the topic, and the definition of this not-quite-so-new strand of writing as 'Cli-fi'. In the concluding part of the talk he gave at a workshop on Popular Narratives of Environmental Risk, he considers approaches that engage readers with the human story within the climate change one, and how writers might use their responsibility to convey climate change, given that "stories are fundamentally how humans understand and spread wisdom as well as entertain themselves."
You can read Part 1 of the Rise of Climate Fiction: Beyond Dystopia and Utopia here.
I’ve interviewed a few cli-fi writers about their work. Tony White, author of Shackleton’s Man Goes South, was appointed writer in residence at the Science Museum in London. He found, in the bowels of the building, a lost Edwardian science fiction story. But this one was written in Antarctica in 1911 by George Clarke Simpson, Captain Scott’s meteorologist. He says:
“Simpson’s short story is not a great work of literature but it is a very revealing document, revealing about the time when it was written, while on its own terms it is a story from a fictional far future in which climate change has melted the Antarctic ice and destroyed all human life. What was also immediately intriguing was that nobody seemed to have noticed it. For a century this strange text had been more or less overlooked, absent from the commentary yet hiding in plain sight in the South Polar Times, a kind of scrap book newspaper founded by Sir Ernest Shackleton on an earlier expedition.
Finding a science fiction story about climate change – which uses those two words, in that order: ‘climate change’ – yet which had been written in 1911, was quite a bombshell. While researching Simpson’s life and reading his other publications, and the private journals that are held in the Met Office archive down in Exeter, I discovered that he had continued to research climate change for most of his career – though he had never written another short story about it! – and that he had even been the longest standing director of the Met Office in the UK.”
Tony’s novel incorporates this story plus a reversal of the Shackleton myth: ‘the world turned upside down’, with people fleeing to Antarctica instead of from it, in a hot world instead of a cold one.
Psychologically there are many aspects to people’s reluctance to engage with the profound implications of climate change and other aspects of sustainability in a way that’s appropriate and proportionate. George Marshall’s brilliant research, in Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, documents many of these. It’s not just the jargon, it’s peer pressure, near-sightedness, fear, ignorance, vested interests, to name a few.
Yet stories are fundamentally how humans understand and spread wisdom as well as entertain themselves. Because of this, I do think there is some responsibility not to paint self-fulfilling, disempowering dystopic futures or to preach about environmentalism to the converted, but instead to provide inspiring and realistic future visions as settings for potentially popular fictional narratives that demonstrate how humanity might successfully meet climate change’s challenges and make a better world, solving multiple challenges.
This was behind another project I became involved in: Weatherfronts, which produced new work by very different writers and poets. In his introduction to the first of two Weatherfronts collections Peter Gingold, Director of TippingPoint, quotes Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman: “I am very sorry, but I am deeply pessimistic. I really see no path to success on climate change.” The psychologist adds: “To mobilise people, this has to become an emotional issue. It has to have immediacy and salience. A distant, abstract and disputed threat just doesn’t have the necessary characteristics for seriously mobilising public opinion.
Reaching the emotions
It has to be an emotional issue. TippingPoint organised two Weatherfronts events at the Free Word Centre in London to try and reach this emotional reaction to this abstract topic – Peter Gingold calls it “a creative challenge” – and found that there seems to be no limit to the number of forms, voices, and approaches that can be used to bring new and powerful perspectives to the subject. As an example of the variety of works possible, Chris Rapley – a professor of climate science at UCL and Director of the British Antarctic Survey from 1998 to 2007 – ‘starred’ in 2071, a show co-written with Duncan Macmillan and directed by Katie Mitchell at the Royal Court Theatre.
I attended the second Weatherfronts event, with 65 other writers and 20 climate experts – an intensive exploration of the scientific facts, the politics, the creative possibilities and more. Many submitted excellent proposals for new work, from which a panel chose five, including mine, for commissioning and publication. My story is set in 2092, comparing the UK’s and Barcelona’s responses to climate change in the tale of a young mother’s dilemma. Should she stay in flooded, chaotic Barcelona – a city over-run with climate refugees from Africa – with her husband and child? Or leave them to go back to England, which is run by algorithms that balance the amount of available food and energy with the population level, on the principles of ecological footprinting, to achieve a ‘one planet’ country? A dilemma as gut-wrenching as this – stay with your child and husband or leave them – is a good way of bringing home the realities of climate change already being faced by some people, say in Pacific islands being lost to rising sea levels.
There were two events, two sets of commissions, separated by two years. As Peter Gingold says in the introduction to the second Weatherfronts collection:
“One thing we have seen very clearly is that over the 12 years of TippingPoint’s life, writers’ and indeed all artists’ responses to the subject have grown far more sophisticated and, both miraculously but also unsurprisingly, increased in their range and scope. The work in this collection amply illustrates that … If there is a common theme to these five powerful pieces of writing it is that their scale is domestic. This most grandiose and abstract subject is experienced at a very personal level, making its demands on the way we live with partners – or with friends, neighbours and communities. This must be fruitful.”
The creative response
It’s no longer ‘we need to persuade people climate change exists’; it’s ‘what are the emotional ramifications of climate change?’ This is a good point to bring in my friend Emily. A poet, Emily Hinshelwood is also a climate activist. We’re going to run a course on writing cli-fi together next year. She wrote a poem based on conversations she had about climate change with ordinary people. This was her creative response to feeling swamped by data and statistics on the issue. She told me:
“I needed to talk to people who aren’t normally asked about climate change. I decided to walk through Wales, along the Heart of Wales route, and everyone I met I’d ask three questions. I fully expected to get told to fuck off. They were: What images come to mind when you think of climate change? How often does it come up in your conversation? Is there anything you think you can do about climate change?”
She interviewed 250 people, and wasn’t told to fuck off once. In fact, everyone answered the questions, even one who threatened to shoot her for walking on his footpath on his land. She said:
“In some cases people were relieved to talk because they’d never before had an outlet to say what they thought about it. I was heartened by that. The majority were concerned and didn’t know what to do other than recycling. The dominant image was the earth shrivelling up.”
I think this is really interesting. In Weatherfronts, there’s a true story about the widow of the one man to die in the climate-change related floods in Cumbria in the winter of 2015. There’s a poem cycle about families living on Doggerland in the North Sea 5,000 years ago, when it was above sea level, being forced to leave because of rising seas. There’s an affectionate family tale from the ’70s in which the dad is putting solar water heating panels on his roof and growing organic vegetables – to the concern of his neighbours.
These are the daily realities of lives – yes, domestic, but hardly undramatic.
A theme, not a genre
There is now a burgeoning number of cli-fi novels. There are always going to be genre-led ones, like Paolo Bacigulpa’s The Water Knife. This is a thriller about corruption in the control of water supplies in the south western United States. Thrillers sell well, and perhaps get people thinking about climate change. All kinds of people read genre novels, like sci-fi, horror, thrillers. So I don’t think cli-fi is a genre. It’s not, as some think, a sub-genre of sci-fi. I think it’s a theme. Genres have distinguishing tropes. Climate fiction relates to the subject matter, not the type of story.
University departments now run courses studying them. They attempt official definitions. Here’s one from an MA thesis:
“In contrast to earlier science fiction (and other genres) that depict earth as ‘climatically changed’ by ‘natural causes’ climate-change fictions specifically deal with narratives relating to ‘anthropogenic ecological change’. Professor Jenny Bavidge, of Cambridge University, states Cli-fi is used to describe novels ‘which all touch on, or are concerned with, the context of climate change’. Dr Gregers Andersen, University of Copenhagen, defines Cli-fi as: narratives that employ the ‘scientific paradigm of anthropogenic global warming’. Presently, various universities around the world, including the University of Cambridge UK and Temple University in Philadelphia US, offer literature courses in Cli-fi. Nonetheless, while some academics are openly employing the ‘Cli-fi’ terminology others prefer to use ‘Climate change fiction’ as well as ‘climate fiction’ and/or ‘eco-fiction’. Ultimately they are all directly exploring narratives of the ‘Anthropocene’.”
– The influence of the Anthropocene on creative literature Donna Thompson, University of the Sunshine Coast (USC), Australia [citations removed]
Lots of writers now think this is a bandwagon to jump on. As a result, reviewers are already starting to tire of the clichés that the theme generates. This is from a review of 2016’s The History of Bees, a Norwegian Bestseller by Maja Lunde. The review is by someone signed only as KN and published in Australia’s ‘Saturday Paper’:
“Cli-fi – climate change fiction – has become so popular it has achieved the status of a genre. That makes it more easily identifiable and more marketable, but it also comes with pitfalls. Conventions carry the risk of appearing formulaic and repetitive. They also emphasise a genre’s status as fiction. This is all a problem for cli-fi, given that its practitioners are concerned with raising awareness about very real and urgent issues.
I had these thoughts reading Maja Lunde’s cli-fi novel The History of Bees. Once again, I was confronted with a future involving global warming, famine and hardship, and a Third World War. I was in familiar territory and feeling – dare I say it – a little bored. I began speculating on the possibility that cli-fi actually performs a kind of inoculation of its readers against the potential horrors of our future.
Having said that, Lunde presents an original angle. The dystopian future she depicts hinges on the disappearance of bees from their hives. This is a real-world phenomenon, known as colony collapse disorder, diagnosed as a problem in 2006. Bees, as pollinators, are crucial to food production.
Most memorable, though, is the proposition that gradually emerges: “in order to live in nature, with nature, we must detach ourselves from the nature in ourselves”. Notably, it is the character from China – the country of the one-child policy, a universally denounced attempt at detaching people from their natural instincts – through whom this message is first presented. Here the book offers a bold provocation in the way cli-fi must if it is to have a genuine impact.”
“We must detach ourselves from the nature in ourselves” is a bold message, if that’s the only way to save the planet. But it is an emotional one, not a scientific one. It says we must change human nature. So we’re back at the start, with Saci Lloyd. Actually, if you remember, it wasn’t the book she was talking about. The book was an excuse to get into schools. It was the conversations she had with kids as a result. Similarly, Emily Hinshelwood’s poems were based on conversations. Culture is about not just artefacts, but the conversations we have about them or the conversations they make us have.
Cli-fi must be emotionally provocative to succeed. People must recognise themselves in the perilous situations the stories describe. As writers, unless we believe writing can change people’s minds, and we get it in front of people who otherwise wouldn’t come across these ideas, we might as well – like Voltaire’s Candide – retire to “cultivate our garden” instead of vainly seeking the Panglossian “best of all possible worlds”, or even a ‘just good enough’ one.
I think fiction which contains references to climate change has only just begun. I think there are many imaginative ways to approach the topic. I think great novels and films are yet to be made. And I think that, as climate change increasingly affects all of the world, then almost by definition all novels set in this world could be seen as climate novels.
Find out more
David’s novel Stormteller (2014) is published by Cambria Books in paperback and e-book. And you can see more of his fiction and non-fiction at his website.
You can read about Emily Hinshelwood’s Three questions about climate change project (and her verbatim poem from her conversations, A Moment of Your Time) at her site.
Paolo Bacigulpa’s novel The Water Knife (2016) is published by Little Brown.
George Marshall’s book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (2014) is published by Bloomsbury.
Weatherfronts: Climate change and the stories we tell (2017) – the combined anthology of new writing commissioned at both 2014 and 2016 Weatherfronts events – is published as a free e-book by Cambria Books.
Tony White’s book, Shackleton’s Man Goes South (2013) is available as a free pdf from his site, Piece of Paper Press.
Note: An earlier version of this post said that Tony White ‘won a competition to be a writer in residence at the Science Museum’ rather than, as correctly stated here, that he was appointed to that role. Apologies for the error.
Questioning genre? Space for creative thinking...David suggests that 'cli-fi' is a theme, not a genre; many genres might address climate change. What genres do you think might do this in unexpected ways - and what cliches might it either avoid or exploit to novel effect?Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link!