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

School Strike For Baby Hope

Writer David Thorpe introduces his forthcoming climate fiction collection, School Strike For Baby Hope, and explores how our imagined futures must include the costs and dilemmas of better pathways, even where we avoid the worst of climate change.


1,440 words: estimated reading time = 5.5 minutes


ClimateCultures is seven years old this month! David was one of our first authors back in 2017. Throughout this year we’re delighted to celebrate our anniversary with new posts from some of those inaugural contributors, alongside other returning — and new — ClimateCultures authors.

***

In November, just in time for Christmas, my new collection of climate fiction short stories will be published by Android Press. The ten stories have been published elsewhere, often in obscure places. For example, the title story, School Strike For Baby Hope, was published by Extinction Rebellion on one of their websites.

Cautionary tales and possible futures

If a citizen living in pre-20th century Britain were to be told that in the future they would be able to travel anywhere in the world in a few hours, to buy any food from anywhere in the world at a local shop throughout the year, have free healthcare, most likely live until their 90s, and hold a device in their hands which could give them any kind of knowledge they asked and permitted them to talk to anyone in the world, and to see their faces, they would think the future was some kind of paradise. Well, we live in that age and we know different. We have threatened ourselves with the end of life on Earth — including our own end — in order to have these unnatural luxuries. We know the cost.

It seems to me that in imagining a future free from climate change we must be careful to imagine what kind of costs that might have. Every decision presents a dilemma. The purpose of governance is damage limitation; minimising the negative consequences of any decision. Unintentional consequences must be thought through. Climate fiction consciously does this.

Some of these stories are about the unintended consequences of action on climate change, so they serve as cautionary tales. These stories – At the Crux and For the Greater Good – reflect my interest in ‘one planet’ thinking – the ecological footprint as a measure of sustainability. I asked myself: if the country set itself the same task as one planet development in Wales – of satisfying the needs of inhabitants within the confines of a global fair and equal distribution of environmental impact – what could be the implications for the population? Living like this would demand monitoring of the entire ecological impact of the country and dividing it by the population each year.

School Strike for Baby Hope and Beacon arose from my experience of being in my local Extinction Rebellion group. We had many successful actions in Swansea and joined the national demonstrations in London. School Strike For Baby Hope appeared in Teens Of Tomorrow: Stories of Near and Far-Flung Futures, which explored possible futures through the stories of twelve courageous teens.

Showing the cover of 'Teens of Tomorrow' - published by Odd Voice Out Press © 2021 - featuring David's story 'School Strike for Baby Hope'
Teens of Tomorrow – published by Odd Voice Out Press © 2021 – featuring David’s story ‘School Strike for Baby Hope’

What else is cli-fi? If you read the Wikipedia entry it cites Jules Verne’s 1889 novel The Purchase of the North Pole as an early harbinger, which imagines a climate change due to tilting of Earth’s axis. His Paris in the Twentieth Century, written in 1883 and set during the 1960s, has Paris have a sudden drop in temperature, which lasts for three years. Wikipiedia lists J. G. Ballard’s climate extremism novels from the early ’60s and then, as knowledge of climate change increased, says fiction about it really started coming out, one of the earliest being Susan M. Gaines’s Carbon Dreams.

Should we always go with our imagination?

Imaginative works can be used to reinforce people’s prejudices, too, such as Michael Crichton’s State of Fear (2004), which was pounced upon by climate sceptics for reinforcing their view that climate change was some kind of conspiracy.

Then we encounter lots of dystopic films. From Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis and Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 Modern Times, through George Orwell’s 1948 book Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Lucas’ 1971 film THX 1138, Mega-City One from Judge Dredd, conceived in 1977, to Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, and The Day After Tomorrow (2004). They have all set the template for many other stories and films, such that in the popular imagination the sprawling mega-cities of the future will largely be over-populated, polluted, broken places, featuring dark towers, high levels of surveillance and crime, their citizens treated little better than battery-reared animals, and no room for nature.

But is the dystopic metropolis a self-fulfilling prophecy, subconsciously, if not consciously, reinforcing the mindsets of planners and architects? Does it soften up the public, preparing them to acquiesce in the face of grim and unimaginative design, polluted air, poor policing and service levels, corrupt or inefficient governance, long commute times, constant noise, high levels of personal danger?

Is this the reason why people do nothing despite being bombarded by the truth about the future and climate?

I think we need comedies about climate change and the future. For this reason, I have included The Chernobyl Effect and The Last Laugh in the collection. These are stories from my body of work about the character Doc Chaos, a darkly satirical character in the tradition of William Burrough’s Doctor Benway and Alfred Jarry’s Doctor Faustroll. This is dark comedy, exaggeration for comedic effect. Making people laugh is a way of slipping things under their radar.

Showing the cover for The Chernobyl Effect & The Last Laugh - stories of David's Doc Chaos character
The Chernobyl Effect & The Last Laugh – stories of David’s Doc Chaos character

The End

These days I spend all day in a wheelchair because of cervical myelopathy. I have become unable to feed myself or use both my phone and computer. The only way I can write this article is to dictate it, as a friend is kindly typing it for me. I have written elsewhere that my stroke in August 2021 was caused by high blood pressure and a result of climate change stress.

I now think that my present condition, and the fact that I see no hope in my future again, is a mirror of the present and the future of the planet as a whole. I wish it were not so, but I can’t believe anything else. For example, as the average temperature of the planet has risen, so has the myelopathy of my spine, and just as we find tipping points such as the melting of the ice caps in climate change, there are tipping points in my body when the nerves in my spine become trapped and suddenly I find I can no longer do something, like feed myself, that I could do yesterday. Then I think to myself “What will happen before it ends?”. And I’m glad I won’t be around to see the world shrivelling up as it gets too hot. Unfortunately, my sons will.

Look after yourselves and find something you love and stick with it.


Find out more 

School Strike For Baby Hope will be published by Android Press in November 2024. As well as other fiction — including novels Stormteller and Hybrids — David has written several books on sustainability, including One Planet Cities: Sustaining Humanity within Planetary Limits and The One Planet Life: A Blueprint for Low Impact Development. Find out more at his website. And you can read David’s blog on Substack.

The Fifth Estate published A personal story about climate anxiety and illness from our UK writer David Thorpe in August 2021: a “personal account of his illness and its connection to his absolute commitment to avoiding the worst of climate change. It’s a sobering and very worthwhile read”, where David talks about the link between climate stress and the stroke he had recently suffered. That article also links to his story Don’t Follow Leaders, which David wrote for the publication.

In previous posts for ClimateCultures, The Rise of Climate Fiction Part 1 and Part 2, David explores how the term ‘Cli-fi’ reveals the tension between our twin fascinations with utopian and dystopian visions, how fiction engages readers with human stories within the climate change one, and writers’ responsibilities — given that “stories are fundamentally how humans understand and spread wisdom as well as entertain themselves.” David also contributed a piece for our Environmental Keywords theme on Environmental Justice.

In 2017, David was one of our inaugural authors at ClimateCultures. He was one of the short story writers, poets and non-fiction writers commissioned to produce new writing at Weatherfronts climate change conferences for writers — two TippingPoint events that also inspired the creation of ClimateCultures. In Utopia and Its Discontents, he explores the thinking that went into his winning story, For the Greater Good, which was included in the free Weatherfonts ebook anthology published by Cambria Books.

We Saw It All Happen

Poet Julian Bishop uses his collection We Saw It All Happen to witness signs of the climate crisis with the immediacy of news coverage of war and conflict, and to find hope in nature’s ability to hang on.


 

1,880 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


Back in the days when I was a cub reporter on the South Wales Echo I thought words could change the world. And to an extent they did. I’d write a piece about a family with a damp flat and as if by magic the landlord would quickly fix it, shamed by a Page Five lead.

Later I was made the BBC’s first environment reporter in Wales, at a time when climate change was barely on the news agenda. I seem to remember the position was prompted by a series of terrible floods in North and West Wales. And because they were “great pictures”, I often had the top story in bulletins. When the weather was ok, I used to cover any rural issue. Once I reported on a new pesto factory opening in Powys.

Ambition took me to ITN’s News At Ten in London where I switched to more of a production role, eventually being in charge of deciding the running order of news stories. I frequently elevated environmental stories only to have them knocked down to the bottom of the list. Those were the days of ‘climate change’ rather than ‘climate crisis’ but, even so, I’ve noticed that most TV news programmes only lead on it when there are “great pictures” — the recent US wildfires come to mind.

And here’s the problem — war and famine are huge human catastrophes with an immediacy that the climate crisis doesn’t have, except when it manifests itself (increasingly) in fire or flood.

Showing the cover of Julian Bishop's poetry collection, We Saw It All Happen (Fly on the Wall Press, 2023)

Visualising five degrees

Which is where my idea for We Saw It All Happen came in. Is it enough to bear witness to such events and move on or do we have a greater responsibility than that? Is the media necessarily underplaying climate change because of huge unfolding disasters like the conflict in Gaza? There’s a separate blog to be written about the climate factor in this conflict, although probably for another day.

For me, the attack on our natural world is also a form of warfare but one that isn’t on our TV screens daily, if you discount Sir David Attenborough’s increasingly outspoken Planet series. Don’t forget such programmes fall under the general tag of ‘entertainment’ at the BBC.

That said, I wanted to create something engaging to read but that also made a forceful point. For inspiration, I reached back to some of the now hugely out-of-fashion Augustan poets of the 18th Century, for example Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. Generally thought of as satirists, they were also masters of poetic form, another approach I was keen to adopt. So my book contains many sonnets, a specular, sestina, Golden Shovel and riffs on other forms. It’s also very political. I learnt about many of these forms during a year-long poetry course at City Lit in London, an adult education centre just off Covent Garden.

I wrote the ‘anchor poem’ for the book, Five Degrees, after reading a report from scientists at Stanford University which looked at the impact of each extra degree of warming on the planet. I remember I was on the Eurostar going to Brussels for some media event and it made me wonder whether dull-sounding data might somehow be translated into poetry, especially given that many poetic forms depend on various numbers of lines or syllables. ‘Five’ immediately suggested a villanelle, a tricky form with five three-line stanzas and a final quatrain, with the first and third lines of the first stanza repeating alternately in the following stanzas. I knew instantly that the refrain had to be: “too late”. And then with not a little poetic licence I began to fill in the detail, tethering each degree to one of the scientific findings in the Stanford paper.

This is what it looked like:

Five Degrees

Take one – another atoll gone, droughts, faster rate
of ice melt. Sweltering taxis. A few mortuaries fail 
to cope in The Pyrenees. Chin up, it’s not too late. 

Two degrees - forget the Med. Instead, investigate
Aberystwyth for a tan. Gozo is a no-go. You can sail
across London in a skiff! Maybe Donald’s heart-rate

skips a beat. Three degrees. Now the floodgates
open. Holland (and the coral) gone. A large-scale
exodus from Africa. Geo-engineers arrive too late.

Work hard for a degree at Oxford-by-the-Sea, wait 
for a Balliol boat. Bail out - Cambridge is a folktale.
At four, methane leaks from the sea floor, the rate

accelerates. Mangrove swamps, sapodillas recreate
the tropics in Paris. Bananas on a boulevard; so shale
had an upside after all! Take the fifth – way too late

to keep the lid on oceanic gas explosions so great 
Hiroshima is but a flicker. Then the final coffin nail:
supercharged fireballs banging into cities at a rate 
of knots. The lid lowers by degrees. Sorry: too late.

Five Degrees was eventually printed by Magma Poetry magazine in their Schools issue — after Trump lost the election, so “Donald” was changed to “the Earth” which was an extremely satisfying edit! Sadly the poem is proving horribly prophetic…

I say it was an anchor poem because I wanted a central section of the book to deal with current affairs, seen through a poetic eye. I divided the poems into Starters, Mains and Afters, not least because after trying to order the poems I noticed food was a pervasive presence (weird, because I’m skinny, although I do love cooking).

We Saw It All Happen – hope and trauma

My plan was to try and release the strongest poems in a pamphlet and then focus later on a full collection. I sent off a selection to a pamphlet competition run by a small press in Manchester called Fly On The Wall, who caught my eye as one of the few publishers to claim everything they do is with the environment in mind and actually mean it. To my shock, Isabelle Kenyon, who runs the press, asked if I’d like to go ahead with a full collection straight away. Of course the answer was yes!

Then began the terrible process of sifting through several years of poems to work out which ones fitted my chosen framework. I soon realised they were quite a gloomy bunch — and who wants to read a book of poems about the climate emergency without a few notes of hope?

This led to some research on efforts being made to save endangered species from extinction and the birth of poems such as Little Whirlpool Ramshorn Snail, one of a sequence of poems inspired by the Back From The Brink project, a collaboration between several different UK wildlife agencies to save some 20 species from extinction. The poem was also published in an issue of Magma Poetry:

Little Whirlpool Ramshorn Snail

A name twenty times its length, curled
on a page indexing threatened species -
smaller even than a waterboatman's oar
pushed out to the fringes of extinction.

These water specks, scaled-down ammonites, 
translucent on the edge of a British ditch,
crawl among the marginals, dodging carp
to clamp onto reeds they still call home.

Despite the incursion, the plucky Ramshorns
cling on, skim ditches for scraps of algae, 
flattened whorls spiralling ever further down 
through the ferny fringes of a marshy nook.

Small coils that spin in a run-down clock,
man's hands have been moving against them,
conchologists wading in to their rescue,
trying to wind the miniature cogs back.

And I needed a title poem for the book. I eventually decided to re-work a draft of a poem I’d called ‘That Scene With The Walruses’ which was about watching an episode of David Attenborough’s Netflix documentary series Our Planet where walruses appeared to be climbing cliffs in search of food only to throw themselves off. It now appears they may have been fleeing from polar bears but whatever the reason, I found the film extremely traumatic and wrote the poem straight after watching the programme.

So it seemed most fitting to re-title the poem We Saw It All Happen, given that an important function of the book was to examine the role of the media — for better or worse — in how we formulate perceptions about the climate emergency.

Rather gratifyingly, some poems have taken on a life beyond the book. One called Lobster was runner-up in the international Ginkgo Prize, a major international award for ecopoetry, in 2018, where the prize was a week’s residency at a retreat near Ballinskelligs in southern Ireland. I used the time to put together a first draft for the book and the residency inspired a few new poems as well. But the poem was picked up by several other publications, most recently an anthology of poetry and short stories from Guts Publishing called The Transformative Power Of Tattoo. In case you’re wondering what the connection is, here’s the poem:

'Lobster', one of Julian Bishop's poems in his 2-23 collection, We Saw It All Happen

Relating to the natural world

We Saw It All Happen has been out nearly a year now and I’ve been concentrating on promoting it. Most bizarrely, I was asked to give a talk to a group of City types with offices near The Gherkin in London. They’re a firm of environmental consultants and I tried to convince them that maybe there’s a place for poetry in corporate boardrooms or at least as part of a distinctive pitch. I’m not sure how the message landed but I managed to sell quite a few books.

Julian Bishop reading at a Magma launch, London 2023

And of course I’m planning a possible follow-up, this time with more of a focus on plants and trees and how humans relate to them. I’ve been greatly inspired by Canadian scientist Suzanne Simard and her book Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest, (Penguin, 2022). Her work explores the symbiosis between fungi and trees and how trees use fungi to communicate with one another.

Another mini project has been what I’m calling Shakespeare Shovels – using lines about the natural world from Shakespeare plays as the basis for climate-related poems. I’m convinced that if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be a climate protester!

To finish with, here’s a sneak preview based on a quote from Macbeth Act II, Scene 3 (“some say the Earth was fev’rous and did shake”):


Find out more

We Saw It All Happen is available from Fly on the Wall Press (2023).

The Ginkgo Prize is a major international award for ecopoetry, funded by the Edward Goldsmith Foundation and organised by the Poetry School. You can download each year’s anthology of winners and runners up — including the 2018 anthology featuring Julian’s poem, Lobster

Suzanne Simard’s book Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest is published by Penguin (2022).

Julian Bishop
Julian Bishop
A former journalist, environment reporter and tv news editor who writes poetry about eco issues and was runner-up in the 2018 Ginkgo Poetry Prize.

“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'.

Centrifugal Stories in the Anthropocene

Geographer Martin Mahony introduces a second collection of objects from his ‘Human Geography in the Anthropocene’ students, and how our Museum of the Anthropocene’s ‘centrifugal’ stories resist casting all of humanity together as progenitors of our new planetary age.


1,200 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes


It was a great pleasure to work again with a really engaged, intelligent and creative group of students on this year’s run of my course ‘Human Geography in the Anthropocene’. As usual, the course was organised around students selecting an object which they thought told us something important about the history, politics and culture of this proposed new geological epoch. Mark and I are delighted now to share a sample of the submissions to this year’s on-campus Museum of the Anthropocene, in our first expansion of its online sibling. 

Centrifugal stories of a planetary age

In his essay The Anthropocene: The Promise and Pitfalls of an Epochal Idea environmental scholar Rob Nixon argues that we need to “counter the centripetal force of the dominant Anthropocene species story” — i.e. the idea that it was the actions of all of humanity, the anthropos, which led us into this new epoch — “with centrifugal stories that acknowledge the immense inequalities of planet-altering powers”.

Scholars and practitioners in the arts, humanities and social sciences have been prominent proponents of such centrifugal stories. Often trading under alternative monikers for this new epoch, such as the Capitalocene, Manthropocene or Plantationocene, these stories identify very specific social groups or systems as being responsible for the violences and upheavals of planetary change. As such, they are stories with very different moral and political lessons.

This new selection of museum submissions offers a range of centrifugal stories which, in very different ways, help us to reckon with the unequal geographies of the Anthropocene. In this centrifuge we encounter turbulent relationships between humans and a range of nonhuman plants and animals, which together paint a powerful picture not just of domination and exploitation, but also of resistance, kinship, and hope.

Cultivating our Anthropocenes: flora of domination and resistance

Centrifugal stories of the Anthropocene: showing 'Stanford Torus interior': lawns in outer space. Image: NASA/Donald Davis - NASA Ames Research Center
‘Stanford Torus interior’. Image: NASA/Donald Davis – NASA Ames Research Center

Reece Page’s analysis of the suburban lawn-scape connects the expansion of these green deserts to earlier expressions of ‘white rule’ over colonised natures and peoples. The projection of lawn aesthetics into imagined extra-planetary futures invites us to consider how visions of environmental futures can transplant past violences into an increasingly unequal present.

Showing Sweetgrass: wiingaashk (Ojibwe) hierochloe odorata (Latin)
Sweetgrass wiingaashk (Ojibwe) hierochloe odorata (Latin)

Anna Wyeth draws on Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work as a fitting counterpoint, showing how the interdependence between North American indigenous communities and the sweetgrass plant has much to teach us about dismantling colonial ecologies and structures of thought, and “nurturing reciprocity” in their place. 

Centrifugal stories of the Anthropocene: Showing an Illustration of a slave house and surrounding gardens. Artist: Unknown
Illustration of a slave house and surrounding gardens. Artist: Unknown

A similar dialectic of domination and resistance is present in Max Drabwell-Mcilwaine’s exploration of plantation gardens. These small plots of land in the margins of historical monocrop plantations saw slaves and indentured labourers cultivate very different socio-ecological realities to the regime of domination that defined plantation agriculture in the past, and which continues in different forms today.

Showing a cotton t-shirt. Image by jeff burroughs from Pixabay
cotton t-shirt. Image by jeff burroughs from Pixabay

The signal crop of the slave-plantation economy, and the one that helped push the British economy towards industrialisation in the 18th and 19th centuries, was cotton. Jake Kiddell explores the centrality of the plantation system to the industrialism which many have identified as the start of the Anthropocene. He draws a direct line from that to the more recent phenomenon of ‘fast-fashion’, and how planned obsolescence in the textiles industry allocates harms and benefits unevenly across the commodity chain. 

Companion stories — the kinship of fauna

Centrifugal stories of the Anthropocene: Showing a Canary bird. Image by Danuta Piotrowska from Pixabay.
Canary bird. Image: Danuta Piotrowska from Pixabay.

Amelia Weatherall looks at another key substance of the industrial revolution — coal — but does so through the history and metaphorical power of the ‘canary in the coal mine’. She shows how the use of canaries as gas detectors has been reprised in the use of bird behaviour as an early-warning system for the climatic changes brought on by the burning of coal and other fossil fuels. And she makes the case for attending closely to the fate of coal mining communities themselves during the transition to new energy sources and industries, as ‘canaries in the coal mine’ of an uncertain socioeconomic future.

 

Showing a Pigeon. Photograph: George Hodan, Public Domain
Pigeon. Photograph: George Hodan, Public Domain

Finally, Josh Fowler explores another feathered companion species, the pigeon. Tracing a bracing history of violent extinction, wartime interdependence, and urban antagonism, Josh offers the evolving human-pigeon relationship as a powerful parable of human-nature relationships in the Anthropocene. 

Together, I think these short, centrifugal texts provide a powerful argument that the ‘immense inequalities’ of the Anthropocene are played out not just through relations between groups of powerful and marginalised people, but through a web of relations with a range of nonhuman others: relations of domination and exploitation, but also mutuality, reciprocity, and kinship.


Find out more

Step Inside the Museum to view all six of the new objects submitted to the Museum of the Anthropocene, alongside the contributions from previous students on the third-year Human Geography in the Anthropocene undergraduate course at the University of East Anglia. And the main Museum of the Anthropocene page provides introductory reflections and is where we bring together Martin’s post, including the one for our inaugural collection in 2022; Object-based Learning in the Anthropocene sets out the practice of “putting material objects, rather than texts, at the heart of the learning experience” as a means to “transform student engagement with a topic by ‘grounding’ abstract knowledge and theory, and by awakening a wider curiosity about a topic.”

Martin quotes from Rob Nixon’s 2014 Edge Effects essay The Anthropocene: The Promise and Pitfalls of an Epochal Idea, which provides an invaluable, concise and insightful introduction to the interdisciplinary appeals and political controversies of ‘the Anthropocene’ as a concept (or range of concepts). Nixon cites an earlier project to curate an object-based exploration of these concepts – the ‘Anthropocene Cabinet of Curiosities Slam’, which later generated the book Future Remains (edited by Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero and Robert S Emmett and reviewed for ClimateCultures in our post, The Mirrored Ones. His words there also stand as a further signal of the value of Martin’s work with his students and our expanding Museum of the Anthropocene: 

To give the Anthropocene a public resonance involves choosing objects, images, and stories that will make visceral those tumultuous geologic processes that now happen on human time scales. With this in mind, the Anthropocene Cabinet of Curiosities Slam has assembled a lively array of object-driven stories. The work on display here seeks to give immense biomorphic and geomorphic changes a granular intimacy. Collectively, these Anthropocene stories have the power to disturb and to surprise, hopefully goading us toward new ways of thinking and feeling about the planet we have inherited and the planet we will bequeath.

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass: indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants (Milkweed Editions, 2015) discusses how the awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world.

On the theme of companion species, see Donna Haraway’s book about the implosion of nature and culture in the joint lives of dogs and people, who are bonded in ‘significant otherness’: The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003). Finally, of course, you can sample a range of object-based explorations of what the Anthropocene means to artists, curators and researcher members of ClimateCultures, in our A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

Martin Mahony

Martin Mahony

A human geographer interested in the contemporary politics of climate change, how future atmospheres are imagined, constructed, represented and contested and historical geographies of environmental knowledge-making.