Space for Thought

In her second Members’ Post, Julia Marques reflects on her research for an MA in Climate Change: Culture, History, Society, and the role that theatre can play in opening up space for us to take in climate change’s meanings.

 

“The sources of our disagreement about climate change lie deep within us, in our values and in our sense of identity and purpose.” – Mike Hulme, Why We Disagree About Climate Change (2009)

Throughout the past year, when I tell people that I’ve been studying climate change, there have been some responses that have prevailed over others.

  1. “What’s the conclusion – is climate change real?”
  2. “What’s the solution?”
  3. “Are you going to save the world?”

And, inevitably, certain world leaders also crop up fairly regularly. (On this point, I would like to quote Mike Hulme, who rightly states that “One man does not control the world’s climate”).

I want to discuss why these responses are difficult to give a simple and straightforward answer to, and also how they reflect why climate change is a complex concept that is more than just extreme weather.

Greenland, directed by Bijan Sheibani production images for the National Theatre, Jan 2011
Photograph: Helen Warner © 2011

Truth and values

First of all, the fact that people are still asking this (Question  #1) – in spite of the fact that the majority of scientists agree that it is – indicates that there is more going on here than merely deciding on which side to support. People form beliefs according to their cultural values, and if an idea threatens those values, then people are, understandably, wary of it. Therefore, even if you trot out the mountains of evidence for climate change, this does not automatically result in a change in view on the matter. This is frustrating, of course, but, as Dan Kahan points out, more focus needs to be placed on how we communicate the science that will appeal to people from diverse cultures. Once this has been cracked, then we can better understand why people feel and react differently to climate change instead of simply rejecting those who do not agree with us.

“The prevailing approach is still simply to flood the public with as much sound data as possible on the assumption that the truth is bound, eventually, to drown out its competitors. If, however, the truth carries implications that threaten people’s cultural values, then holding their heads underwater is likely to harden their resistance and increase their willingness to support alternative arguments, no matter how lacking in evidence” – Dan Kahan, Fixing the Communications Failure (2010)

Making meanings

Secondly, is climate change really a “problem” that needs “solving” (Question #2)? Framed in this way, it is easy to talk of solutions to climate change, and to declare war on it as if it were a sentient being which had chosen to attack human beings in particular. This discourse of war appears to pervade into every sphere of life; the war on terror, the war on drugs, the war on poverty – to name but a few. For some reason, humans love declaring war on things. Especially large-scale hard-to-comprehend things.

Mike Hulme proposes climate change to be an idea, and, in this light, it certainly does not require any “solutions”. This somewhat relieves the pressure that climate change exerts whenever we see extreme weather events and melting ice as only more evidence of the destruction we are wreaking on the world. This is not to say that we can sit back and do nothing but, for me, constantly searching for a quick-fix solution is not helpful when it comes to climate change. 

What we need is space to consider our options and what climate change means for us individually. Yes, we know about the stronger storms, the higher sea levels, the increasingly severe droughts, the mass migration, etc. But what does this mean to me, to you, to the person sitting next to you on the train, to the couple with the baby you passed in the park, to the old lady you saw at the bus stop? What meaning do all of these people give to climate change?

This ties in with my evolved focus of my research. In it, I ask myself if theatre can be an alternative site of meaning-making around climate change that allows people to have space to think about the idea of it that is being re-presented in the performance space. I want to get away from a didactic version of theatre, which is oh-so-easy to fall into when considering concepts as huge as climate change. I want to give people the option to decide, to make up their own mind about it, rather than offer solutions to it. We need to give ourselves space to think. I argue that both the plays I am using as empirical examples in my research create this space in different ways – whether through staging, lighting, sound, dialogue or action. This is the beauty of theatre – it offers the flexibility of its various techniques to be used in a multiplicity of ways to create manifold effects.

The two plays that I studied for empirical examples of this space were Greenland (2011) by Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne and Earthquakes in London (2010) by Mike Bartlett. Both plays did create space, but with differing techniques. As can be seen from the Greenland photos, the stage was a vacuous darkened space most of the time, thus creating physical space. Earthquakes, by contrast, is a chaotic play with little physical space, but pause in dialogue was the source of space for thought on climate change instead.

In a city like London, space is at a premium, and I’m sure most people would appreciate having a little more of it. We are constantly bombarded with information, advertising, people and sound. How can theatre be a place of respite from this, to focus our thoughts on one particular aspect of our intricate lives and allow us then to mull it over without the pressure to make an immediate decision on it?

Greenland, directed by Bijan Sheibani production images for the National Theatre, Jan 2011
Photograph: Helen Warner © 2011

Practical imagining

To conclude, “saving the world” is a rather grand and complex task (Question #3). My MA course was not, as I had hoped, a series of classes on how to stop environmental degradation and limit our carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, it presented me with far more questions than answers. Climate change tends to be a rather gloomy subject, I have found, but it also highlights the potential of what can be done. 

As George Monbiot says, “What appear to be hopeless situations actually are not hopeless at all. All you need to do is to imagine a better future and then put that imagination into practice”. My aim is not quite to save the world, but to give it a chance to stop, take a breath and ponder what can be done. And then go out and do it.

“I know two days is just a blip but . . . that’s what it is, a pause, a breath, where we can look at it. Bear witness, my boss says – where we can really think, is this the future that we want?” (Lisa – student/activist – Greenland)

Find out more

Mike Hulme‘s book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity (2009) is published by Cambridge University PressAnd Julia refers to MIke’s blog post (7/6/17) One Man Does Not Control the World’s Climate

Dan Kahan‘s paper, Fixing the Communications Failure (2010, Nature 463, 296-297) is also available at Climate Access.

You can see George Monbiot talking about how “What appear to be hopeless situations actually are not hopeless at all” in his video on YouTube, which is well worth watching despite its unimaginative title, This is Why Donald Trump Can’t be Human.

Questioning immediacy? Space for creative thinking...  

"How do you find or create space to help you or others to resist the 'pressure to make an immediate decision' on difficult questions? How would bring a predicament like 'climate change' into this space?" 

Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form or write a response on your own blog and send a link!

Walking the Winds: Helm

Between 2015 and 2016, writer Nick Hunt spent six months walking the invisible pathways of four of Europe’s named winds to discover how they affect the landscapes, people and cultures through which they blow. His new book, ‘Where the Wild Winds Are’, tells the story of these wind-walks through the continent. In the second of five excerpts for ClimateCultures, Nick describes his walk across England’s Northern Pennines on the trail of the Helm, which blows from desolate Cross Fell to wreak havoc in the Eden Valley. 

The view resembled a different country to the one I’d seen the morning before. There was no sodden cloud, no murk; the land was bright and loud again, the weather vane of the topmost pines twitching to the west. I made coffee in a pan, cowboy style – a mouthful of grits and a mule-kick to the heart – and as I was thinking of going out, the door banged open.

It was a cheerful pink woman who had hiked up from Kirkland. ‘You can hear the Helm up there,’ she announced breathlessly. ‘It’s horrible, howling and moaning and groaning. I was too scared to go up.’ I was already pulling on my boots, fumbling with the laces. ‘You know why it’s called Cross Fell?’ she continued, taking out her sandwiches. ‘It used to be called Fiends Fell. People thought that demons lived there, so they sent a holy man to bless it. He exorcised the evil spirits, built a cross to drive them away. But I don’t think it worked. It still sounds like it’s cursed.’ I was halfway through the door. I didn’t want to miss them.

The Helm Bar, over Cross Fell
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2017
http://nickhuntscrutiny.com/

It certainly looked like the home of fiends, despite the bright sunshine. Dramatic events were occurring above, in the fathomless workings of the clouds; it seemed that opposing weather systems were engaged in epic warfare. To the north and west a ragged mass scoured the lower slopes of the fell – Grey Scar, Black Doors, Man at Edge, said the place-names on my map – hazing the air with a smudge of rain, leaving shreds of itself behind. Autonomous mists of water vapour travelled in long vertical trails high above the Eden Valley, and grandiose crepuscular rays poured down on the mountains of the Northern Lakes, where Ullswater distantly shone as bright as a mirror. The Helm Bar was not in place, but developments were moving so rapidly it seemed that anything might happen. Scattering Swaledale ewes I hurried on the Pennine Way, up the long, deceptive rise that led towards the summit.

Who was this mysterious holy man? I wondered as I climbed. Unsurprisingly, research suggests that no one really knows; some say a bishop, some say a saint, some say a wandering monk. A local clergyman, the Reverend Robinson of Ousby, wrote in 1709 of the

evil Spirits which are said in former Times to have haunted the Top of this Mountain; and continued their Haunts and Nocturnal Vagaries upon it, until St. Austin, as is said, erected a Cross and built an Altar upon it, whereon he offered the Holy Eucharist, by which he countercharm’d those Hellish Fiends, and broke their Haunts. Since that time it has had the Name of Cross-Fell, and to this day there is a heap of stones which goes by the name of the Altar upon Cross-Fell.

What had the woman from Kirkland meant, talking about howling and moaning? Alone in that empty place I soon found out. Something must have shifted in the air, for the aural landscape suddenly changed: above the buffeting blows of gusts that banged recurrently on my ears, flatlining like microphone distortion, rose an unearthly whispering like dozens of tiny voices. It was a mischievous chattering accompanied by a hissing that suggested branches and spirals, complex patterns being woven in the air, and under it all a low moan, like an animal in distress.


Next week, Nick shares his experience of the Bora, walking the Adriatic coast from north-east Italy through Slovenia and Croatia.

Find out more

Where the Wild Winds Are is published by Nicholas Brealey. It’s available from the publisher, from Amazon , or – much more preferably – from all good bookshops.

Nick works as an editor for the Dark Mountain Project.

You can find more of his writing – fiction, non-fiction, audio – and reviews of Where the Wild Winds Are at nickhuntscrutiny.com

Necessity and Urgency – Summer of Learning

In our latest Members’ Post, film-maker James Murray-White captures the energy and inspiration of a busy summer, with his passion for learning, engaging others, and sharing their stories.

“I pondered all these things, and how people fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other people have to fight for what they meant under another name…..” — William Morris, A Dream of John Ball, 1888

I’m writing after a stimulating Masterclass on Climate Visuals, run at the Thomson Reuters HQ in London by the Oxford-based climate NGO, Climate Outreach.

Visual language & regenerative activism

The event was titled ‘Catalysing a new visual language of climate change’, which is no small task, and by the day’s end the 30 or so participants had run the gamut of emotions examining a wide range of images, discussing them in small group exercises, and hearing from climate photographers and editors about finding and choosing stories and images.

I principally work with moving images these days, though my first creative medium was photography, and this masterclass again brought it home to me the importance of analysing images for human/non-human content, and how a story is told through the visual image.

Telling the story of climate change, with its impact upon the world and its tragic impact upon humans, often the world’s poorest and most vulnerable of society, needs to be done sensitively and with compassion; and the day kept coming back to both the ethics of featuring people caught up in the effects of climate change, and to the importance of understanding how the image and possible caption and accompanying article can find an audience. As journalists and creatives working to create change, we can ofttimes never know how an article, an image, a film or a play will land in the audience’s imagination, or what it may trigger.

“Women learning how to use a solar cooker. Solar cookers can help to reduce deforestation and carbon production bringing cleaner air locally as well as lower carbon globally.”
Photograph: UN Development Programme 2009 – Creative Commons
Source & text: Climate Outreach Climate Visuals Portal http://climateoutreach.org/climatevisuals/

Climate Outreach’s Research Director, Adam Corner, opened the day by setting the scene and mapping the landscape, through a diagram of the ecosystem of imagery: its generators and users. The NGO has excelled in its research in this area, outlined in a set of seven principles for climate change communication, from showing ‘real people’, through to ‘understanding your audience’. An ongoing debate, which continued with a colleague on the train home, was the use of polar bears in early and current images to represent the alienating effect through habitat destruction of climate change. 

In any day-long course, or masterclass, there is always so much knowledge to share and stories to hear, and this was no exception. Climate Outreach and its dynamic team have been engaging deeply with this medium of knowledge transfer and change and, crucially, are creating the network to shape the future through careful and deliberate image choice and placement to sway opinions and support crucial debate and journalism.

At the other end of a spectrum of group dynamics, I was fortunate to attend a week-long retreat on Dartmoor in July titled ‘Regenerative Activism’, run by a team from the Buddhist Ecodharma centre in Spain. 

This was a powerful group-learning experience – we were taken on a deep ride through our experiences as activists of all kinds and given powerful tools to support ourselves, understanding power in our groups and those we may stand against: burnout, privilege, inner criticism and everything that may stand in our way.

The week was at times challenging, but a crucial, urgent, regeneration. I was privileged to be in a group that included climate activists who have risked their lives and gone the extra mile for action and laws on climate change worldwide. Tried and tested exercises gave us all the chance to see and reflect upon our work and the passion that drives activism, testing this from many sides to see and feel both the flaws and the glorious altruism that drive our need for change, whether from hurt, weakness, or something else within. I’d highly recommend the work of the Ecodharma team – they are deeply engaged individuals who use the buddhadharma to enhance and enrich lives where they can. 

The retreat was managed and hosted by a wonderful group of skilled meditators who offer retreats ‘freely’ to enable anyone to grow.

Back to my work, motivations and the place I work within, and the City of Cambridge remains a sphere of education, growth, and a catalyst of climate and social justice knowledge. 

Pivotal – life in a flat land

It is a place of tradition and growth, but we live on flat land: an entire region of this tiny island that is highly susceptible to floods. The image below is a projected map of East Anglia, with coastal erosion taking away a huge swathe of Fenland from the Wash; cutting through Kings Lynn, Downham Market, Peterborough, the area where poet John Clare explored the treasures of nature, Chatteris, and the prime agricultural lands right up to the gates of the newly-titled ‘Silicon Glen’ that is Cambridgeshire. Only from the Ivory towers of academia will we be able to look out upon this once fertile landscape.

“How East Anglia might look if sea levels continue to rise based on 2C warming,” as reported by the Norwich Evening News, 1/12/15
Image: Climate Central © 2015 http://www.climatecentral.org

In the city, Pivotal is one initiative trying to bring together town and gown to find solutions and share experiences on climate and social justice, mainly using the prism of the arts. We’ve had lots of successful events and a mini Festival to find ways of engagement.

Pivotal is teaming up with many of the NGOs across the county who also look at issues of environment, community and sustainability, such as Transition Cambridge, Cambridge Carbon Footprint, Fulbourn Forum and other village parish councils and groups, to run a season of films, events and speakers in February 2018: ‘Films for our Future’. Watch this space for a full timetable. We’re finding that teaming up with all the expertise and crossover here, while learning from similar festivals in Totnes and Reading, brings a world of resource and energy into one concentrated space – to make change happen.

On darkness and doing

Over in Reading, I got to see Festival of the Darkness director Jennifer Leach’s performance piece Crow recently: “Whoah”, is all! This is a creation myth that hits you in the stomach; with searing sadness, and an eternity of tension between the figure of Crow and Hollow Man, I felt a personal sense of despair in looking at our humble humanness not felt since seeing a Samuel Beckett play. There are moments of beauty, and real insight: clowning; a chorus that observes, entices and engages. Crow’s mother, who sways through, brought up some grief for the loss of my mother this year, as well as a sadness at the sly dexterity that is at play amongst humans: we can love and laugh, cry and die, and can try to resolve and understand issues, though still we maraud and pillage natural resources as if we own them, and howl at the terrible consequences.

Thinking this thought further, I’m delighted to share that following our highly successful provocation at the life-changing TippingPoint Doing Nothing is Not an Option conference in Warwick last year, where so many of these connections were made and interlink across culture and activism, stage designer Andrea Carr and I have been talking about reprising our Doing Nothing is Sometimes an Option event – giving participants an opportunity to dump all their baggage at the door and enter a space of rest, mindful exploration and tuning in to sensory being. Participants at DNNO might well remember the glorious prism that showed up for us. Watch this space for more!

Lighthouse island

Happisburgh lighthouse
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2017
sky-larking.co.uk

During a filming project recently, I visited the Norfolk village of Happisburgh, which has suffered the most extreme coastal erosion of our entire island, and successive governments ‘giving up’ on their efforts to protect the land from the violent surges. After an hour of filming in the iconic lighthouse, as the volunteer warden locked the door and I packed up cameras, I asked him “So what’s your take on the erosion here?” He pointed to the field we stood beside, and angrily responded “This was entirely flooded just three years ago. The next time the sea will wash into the Broads and contaminate that. These houses won’t be here. This lighthouse will be beaming its light as an island in the sea.”

This close-up and personal engagement with the reality of change, in the midst of doing other things, reinforces for me the need to keep making connections, writing and filming these issues, finding images and creating footage to highlight all the stories of our time. I went from this conversation to the church, and met a church warden who had moved into the village some seven years ago, in full knowledge and sight of the potent destruction of the sea defences, some of the cliffs and some of the property in the community. For her, faith and church involvement sustains.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” – Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light, 1988


In the theme of spiritual inquiry and the buddhist practice of cultivating bodhicitta, I dedicate this writing to all those affected by climate change over the past few months, in the USA, India, and worldwide. May all beings find peace.

Find out more

Climate Outreach provide a ‘Climate Visuals’ portal, and you can read another blog about their Climate Visual masterclass.

Explore Ecodharma Centre and their Freely Given Retreats.

You can read a local press article on the possible scenario illustrated in the map above: How rising sea levels could change the shape of East Anglia.

And there is a Geographical article about erosion at Happisburgh, Norfolk’s disappearing village.

James is a member of the Pivotal – Cambridge Festival Of Change team and you can see some of his work on Vimeo.

James also mentions fellow ClimateCultures Members Andrea Carr and Jennifer Leach, and you can find out about their work through the links, and on the About our Members page.

Questioning what sustains? Space for creative thinking... 

"James' post ends with an image of a stranded lighthouse and a note on faith. For you, what sustains your engagement with 'the reality of change, in the midst of doing other things'?"

Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form or write a response on your own blog and send a link!

 

Walking the Winds: Blown Away

Nick Hunt has walked and written across much of Europe. His first book, ‘Walking the Woods and the Water’ (2014) was a finalist for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year. Between 2015 and 2016, Nick spent six months walking the invisible pathways of four of Europe’s named winds – the Helm, the Bora, the Foehn and the Mistral – to discover how they affect the landscapes, people and cultures through which they blow. To coincide with the launch of his book telling the story of these wind-walks through the continent, ‘Where the Wild Winds Are’, I’m delighted to begin a special set of weekly posts: five extracts he has hand-picked for ClimateCultures. This first piece is from the book’s introduction.

Where the Wild Winds Are – cover
Artist: Ed Kluz © 2017 https://www.edkluz.co.uk

The wind almost blew me away for the first time in 1987, when the Great Storm hit the British Isles. I was six years old. It was on the mountainside of Ynys Enlli, the holy island off the coast of North Wales, where my mother took me every year to volunteer for the local trust and hear the seals sing at night. Now the storm had stranded us there, for the weekly boat was cancelled. There was no shop on the island, and food supplies were running low; one of my most vivid memories is my mother, by the glow of a paraffin lamp, inexpertly skinning a rabbit the farmer had shot for stew. I remember hugging the cottage wall on trips to the outhouse in the yard, and my fear of slates zipping off the roof to brain me if I ventured far. But what I remember above all else is standing on the mountainside and the wind filling the coat I was wearing – many sizes too large for me – and my feet actually leaving the ground before my mother grabbed my legs and dragged me back to earth. We laughed about it afterwards. It became one of those stories. Could it have actually blown me away, across the foam-flecked Irish Sea? I’m not sure, but for years part of me secretly wished it had, and I imagined being borne through the sky to Ireland, France, America, Iceland, the Arctic Circle or any of the other wonderful places waiting in the world. I’d only travelled a foot off the ground. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling slightly blessed.

Despite being moved by the wind in this way I did not grow up to be a glider pilot, a windsurfer, a paraglider or a wind turbine engineer. My attempts with kites mostly ended in dismal tangles of string. I did not become a meteorologist, one who understands weather as a science, as I’m sure this book will make only too clear. What I did become, however, was someone with an urge to travel, and especially to travel by walking, which allows you to follow paths not dictated by road or rail, paths not marked on any map, or to follow no path at all; to wander and to wonder as freely as your feet can take you. But every journey has a logic, even if it’s an invisible one. All travelling, I came to understand, is an act of following something, whether a coastline, an ancient migration, a trade route, a border or someone else’s footsteps. Scanning the travel section of a bookshop, it appeared that everything had been followed that it was possible to follow. There seemed to be no trails left that hadn’t been traversed.

And then one day I saw a map with paths I hadn’t seen before. It was a map of Europe transfigured by coloured lines, marauding arrows like troop advances that ploughed across borders, over land and sea, connecting regions and cultures that seemed quite separate in my mind: Latin with Slavic, continental with coastal, North African with southern European. These mysterious corridors had names every bit as tantalising as the Silk Road or the Camino de Santiago: the Mistral, the Tramontana, the Foehn, the Sirocco, the Bora. There was even one in the north of England, more brusquely named the Helm. The map showed the routes of local winds, which blow with tremendous force at specific times of year – normally at the transitions between seasons, such as when winter turns to spring – and, I was intrigued to discover, they were said to influence everything from architecture to psychology. The fact these invisible powers had names, rather than simply compass directions that described where they were from, gave them a sense of majesty, even of personality. They sounded like characters I could meet. Those swooping, plunging arrows suggested routes I might follow, trails that had not been walked before. As soon as I saw that map I knew: I would follow the winds.


Next week, Nick describes his encounter with the Helm, England’s wild wind, in the landscape of the North Pennines.

Find out more

Where the Wild Winds Are is published by Nicholas Brealey. It’s available from the publisher, from Amazon , or – much more preferably – from all good bookshops.

Nick works as an editor for the Dark Mountain Project.

You can find more of his writing – fiction, non-fiction, audio – and reviews of Where the Wild Winds Are at nickhuntscrutiny.com

 

The Words That Make Our Stories…

The second in a series on ideas explored in ‘Anticipatory history’, this post looks at four of the entries in the book, and other illustrations of how language reveals and shapes the way we understand and respond to environmental and climate change: ‘The Stories We Live By’.

In my introductory review I described Anticipatory history as a “very partial glossary”, both in the sense of exploring only some of the many words or phrases that might appear in any conversation on environmental and landscape change and in the more important one that the different professionals, academics, artists, politicians or other people engaged in such a discussion would produce a different account of each particular term’s ‘meaning’. The book contains 50 short entries drafted by 19 members of the Anticipatory History Research Network. It could have contained another 50 or more, from many other voices. This acknowledged partiality is part of the value of such a book.

Words – both everyday language and technical vocabulary – have power to reassure or disturb, confirm our beliefs or unsettle them, bringing a reinforcement or a shift in perspective. I recently took part in an environmental humanities Summer School at Bath Spa University, organised by the Association of Commonwealth Universities. It was an excellent programme of talks, group work and site visits, with 45 researchers and students from 11 countries, as well as a team of academics from Bath Spa itself. On our first full day together, and in wonderful summer weather, we gathered on the Newton Park Campus for a guided tour of this historic site, which the university leases from the Duchy of Cornwall: an 18th century listed country house with the remains of a 14th century castle, set in acres landscaped by Capability Brown. It was as beautiful as you would expect from an aristocratic estate now owned by royalty and cared for by a higher education institution rightly proud of their location and heritage. Both beautiful and, as our guide explained in his opening remarks, “a highly polluted post-industrial landscape.”

Bath Spa University, Newton Park campus
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

Without rehearsing the full history of the overgrazed monoculture grassland, agricultural runoff-silted lake and introduced non-native woodland species-rich habitat that we were introduced in this idyllic landscape, it’s fair to say that everyone’s perception of what we were walking through was radically transformed by these remarks. It was at the same time attractive, peaceful and pristine in an archetypical English way, and the product of feudal clearance, colonial adventurism and agri-industrial overexploitation. It set the tone for the week ahead and our trips to Avebury, Avalon Marshes and the Roman Baths in the city.

Erosion

In Erosion, one of the entries in Anticipatory history, Phil Dyke (the National Trust’s Coast and Marine Advisor) talks about the physical consequences of wave energy on soft coasts. Salt marshes, sand dunes, cliffs and shingle all retreat at different rates depending on geology and the power of waves and currents which sweep away materials, often depositing them on another stretch of coast. This erosion accelerates as wave energy increases, as in the more intense storms and higher seas of a warming climate. But erosion can be cultural too, and not all wearing away is a loss. An unexpected turn of phrase, transporting familiar expressions such as ‘polluted’ or ‘post-industrial’ from their familiar settings (wastelands and urban dereliction) to ones we’ve never associated them with before (elegant parks) can enhance our understanding of both environmental and cultural processes, creating new meaning by the very act of destabilising the old one. “We talk often of values being eroded,” Dyke reminds us, “but as with physical erosion, is it always loss? Or do we really mean change? A change of attitude, a change in our view of the world.”

Wavecut platform caused by the sea’s erosion of cliffs at Southerndown, Bridgend, South Wales.
Photograph: Yummifruitbat © 2006
Source: Wikipedia ‘Erosion’
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erosion

Physical and cultural change go hand in hand – or foot in footstep – collapsing and expanding different scales of time and space in a dialogue where experience and imagination inform each other:

Erosion and retreating shorelines reveal features from the historic environment. There is a greater emphasis now being placed on recording these features and understanding the stories these glimpses of the past can tell before they are lost to the sea. Archaeologists are increasingly comfortable with this approach. Erosion may cause the loss of significant features in the historic environment but it can also reveal new significance like the Formby footprints … revealed by the eroding sand dunes and enabling us to see human footprints captured in soft sediments some 4,500 years ago before the dunes were deposited on top.

– Phil Dyke, Erosion

Managed realignment

Writer and sound recordist Tim Dee also addresses both the physical and mental in relation to how we see and respond to change. In Managed realignment he shifts the foreground, taking his cue from the technology of optical magnification; “If you read Ted Hughes’ bird poems you can tell he used binoculars. His thrushes are terrifying partly because he has been able to watch them close up.” He considers the technology of accommodating changes on our coast, of moving or removing barriers against the sea.

It will alter how things seem as well as how they are, how they live in the mind as well as how they are felt underfoot … The dynamism of silt and the energy of water are great and humbling teachers. The terminology might stink – letting go, the nonce term for sacking, is a near neighbour – but the possibilities of life without barricades is revolutionary.

– Tim Dee, Managed realignment

As an island nation, it’s perhaps unsurprising that our relationship with coastal change is one arena for conflicting views and – appropriately – warlike language of ‘defence’, ‘attack’, ‘retreat’. Geographer Stephen Trudgill charts some of the phrases in local and media discussions of how to respond to the erosion of the shingle bank – and the road it carries – at Slapton in Devon:

In letters to the local press, such terms as ‘damage’ were used, and the sea was described as ‘a powerful enemy’ … The scientific arguments were relatively simple: beaches do move and erode. However, the ‘letting nature take its course’ stance provoked further anger. ‘Environmentalists’ … were represented as ‘Let the sea win’ (Herald Express, 5 February 2001). The South Hams Gazette ran a letters page (16 February 2001) where ‘managed retreat’ was reviled as ‘ludicrous’, ‘straight out of the Polytechnic guidebook’ and ‘political claptrap’ … Initially, there emerged a very clear local view of what might be called ‘mastery over nature’.

– Stephen Trudgill, You can’t resist the sea

Such language reveals the evaluations that people make, which the online ecolinguistics course The Stories We Live By defines “to mean stories in people’s minds about whether a particular area of life is good or bad.” Our personal evaluations can involve weighing up evidence for and against a course of action – whether to ‘defend against’ or ‘work with’ change – as well as personal associations in our memories, for example, of family holidays on a favourite beach now threatened by rapid alteration.

When these stories are widespread across a culture then they are cultural evaluations – stories about what is good or bad that have become conventional … Once cultural evaluations become established there is a danger that the reason why certain things are considered positive and others negative is forgotten. It becomes habitual … [However,] although cultural evaluations are pervasive, they are not universal, and are constantly in a struggle with alternative evaluations.

– Arran Stibbe, The Stories We Live By, Part 5: Evaluations

Language, associations, perspectives and positions – all can shift, eroding and accreting like soft coastlines, carried between people and communities through the processes of discourse. Both Anticipatory history and The Stories We Live By offer insights into how these cultural shifts can operate and are facilitated or resisted over different timescales and in different settings. On one scale – our own – we might tend to see permanence; or if it’s no longer there to be seen, to imagine and desire it. On other scales, the natural world reveals transience and cycles.

The Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen is an online project which also brings voices and vocabularies to bear on the predicaments of global change and local experience. Cultural anthropologist Elizabeth Reddy produced the entry on Stability – the other side of the coin from erosion, at least within certain arbitrary timescales. Rather than coastal change in Britain, she’s drawing on earthquakes in the middle of the United States far from its most famous active faults”: the tremors caused by fracking for fossil fuels – the Anthropocene localised and globalised.

The Anthropocene and its urgent, frightening changes, like the quakes of increasing size and frequency shaking Oklahoma, become particularly clear when contrasted with stability. Stability can be used to bound and define new upheavals. Stability, in this sense, is a matter of conditions, previously reliable, against which new and dangerous ones might be contrasted. But marking these changes and communicating about them are not neutral acts, particularly when evidence, tools, and expertise needed to do so are subject to public, legal, and academic contests and unstable in their own ways.

– Elizabeth Reddy, Stability

Over longer timescales – industrial as well as geological – Oklahoma’s geology has been far from stable: which is not an argument for introducing and compounding anthropogenic instabilities, but does suggest the value of expanding what we understand by ‘stability’ and ‘erosion’, ‘defence’ and ‘managed realignment.’ As Reddy continues:

Anthropogenic or otherwise, earthquakes are always already part of the earth’s thermodynamic system. In a very immediate way, imagining them as part of a stable ecology, once in balance and now out of whack, both is and is not accurate. As with many complex systems, the sheer scale on which seismicity unfolds can limit our ability to characterize recent changes or describe them clearly, and the ways that we conceptualize them and address their urgency have histories and politics.

Story-radar

Writer George Monbiot recently called for help in finding new words to describe what we mean when we say ‘environment’, which is “an empty word that creates no pictures in the mind.” Reminding me of the managed realignment of my view of Newton Park, he says:

I still see ecologists referring to “improved” pasture, meaning land from which all life has been erased other than a couple of plant species favoured for grazing or silage. We need a new vocabulary … Wild animals and plants are described as “resources” or “stocks”, as if they belong to us and their role is to serve us: a notion disastrously extended by the term ‘ecosystem services’ … By framing the living world in this way, we bury the issues that money cannot measure. In England and Wales, according to a parliamentary report, the loss of soil “costs around £1bn per year”. When we read such statements, we absorb the implicit suggestion that this loss could be redeemed by money. But the aggregate of £1bn lost this year, £1bn lost next year and so on is not a certain number of billions. It is the end of civilisation.

– George Monbiot, Forget ‘the environment’: we need new words to convey life’s wonders

Weather Radar: Hurricane Abby approaching the coast of British Honduras
Image: NOAA’s National Weather Service © 1960
Source: Wikipedia, ‘Radar’
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radar

Ecolinguistics, as explored in The Stories We Live By, helps us to detect and acknowledge what geographer Gareth Hoskins, another Anticipatory history contributor, refers to as “narrative swirls”. Hoskins names this essential equipment Story-radar:

a device to detect those narrative swirls. Its cultural antennae recognise the hints, gestures, and tropes of unspoken, overarching story-lines, and make visible their hidden morals and logics … Stories contain within them a plotted sequence in which a tension is ultimately resolved. They are satisfying and attractive and compelling precisely because they make sense.”

– Gareth Hoskins, Story-radar

Aspic

Perhaps if we could adjust our sense of time at will, we’d detect the swirls in the energies shaping and reshaping the world, the flux of stability and change. Such a ‘reality-radar’ might help us combat our own tendencies to press for the preservation of our ‘now’, to present the world as if coated in a “thin glaze of aspic [as] was sometimes used to present food for display.” Geographer Caitlin DeSilvey reminds us in Aspic that foodstuffs set in this jelly, derived from gelatine from animal bones, “still decay, just more slowly”:

The words ‘conservation’ and ‘preservation’, on the face of it so neutral and straightforward … are projected over unpredictable and often unruly objects and environments, in an attempt to ‘manage’ a way to meaning. In this way, ‘conservation’ and ‘preservation’ perform a function not dissimilar to that of the aspic we began with, setting a mould (albeit a quivering, translucent one) around mutable and ephemeral material worlds.

– Caitlin Desilvey, Aspic

“Amazing eels – best not served in aspic”, Avalon Marshes, Somerset
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

The Bureau of Linguistical Reality is another online glossary – mostly offering new words sent in by participants. Possibly not the sort of language that George Monbiot is looking for, its ideas do nevertheless speak to real experiences and emotions, and also to story-radar-like abilities. Borrowing from Kurt Vonnegut’s classic anti-war, memoir-based science fiction classic Slaughterhouse Five, the entry from artist Jenny Odell suggests Tralfamidorification as the perception of the world simultaneously on all past, present and future timescales – as experienced by Vonnegut’s aliens from Tralfamadore.

Tralfamidorification is a disorientating experience where a discrete object becomes a node on a network. Those who experience tralfamidorification may walk through the world seeing a “beach towel” one moment and then experience briefly the “beach towel” opening up into a black hole of information regarding the production line for the materials, the factory they were assembled on, the human suffering in creating these objects, the resources extracted, the shipping containers they were carried to and fro in, etcetera – moments later the experiencer of tralfamidorification may feel the “black hole” close and they return to the present moment and the object or “beach towel” before them.”

– Jenny Odell, Tralfamidorification

And if not “beach towel”‘ why not “beach”? Tralfamidorification maybe approaches the reality-radar I’m imagining. As well as awakening us to the histories and futures of our own material interventions within the world, a ‘Tralfamidoriscope’ could also bring an awareness of the slow and quick flows and loops of matter and energy that make the world.

Until then, we will have to rely on language and imagination, creative glossaries and rooted experience. “So it goes,” as Vonnegut’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, constantly reminds us.

Find out more

The words

Aspic (Caitlin DeSilvey), Erosion (Phil Dyke), Managed realignment (Tim Dee) and Story-radar (Gareth Hoskins) appear in Anticipatory history (2011), edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor and Colin Sackett, published by Uniform Books.

Stability by Elizabeth Reddy appears at Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen, a project of the Society for Cultural Anthropology.

Tralfamidorification by Jenny Odell appears at the Bureau of Linguistical Reality, “a public participatory artwork by Heidi Quante and Alicia Escott focused on creating new language as an innovative way to better understand our rapidly changing world due to manmade climate change and other Anthropocenic events.”

The other texts

George Monbiot’s article Forget ‘the environment’: we need new words to convey life’s wonders appeared in the Guardian, 9/8/17

Stephen Trudgill’s paper ‘You can’t resist the sea’: evolving attitudes and responses to coastal erosion at Slapton, South Devon, was published in Geography, the Journal of the Geographical Association (Spring 2009) and is available from his Researchgate page.

You can read about the prehistoric Formby Footprints at the site created by the late Gordon Roberts.

Questioning old senses? Space for creative thinking...  

"Don't fancy donning your tralfamidoriscope headset with enhanced story-radar earbuds? What technology or ability would you invent - or do you already possess - to reveal the whirls and flows that will help us navigate the Anthropocene?"

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