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.

Our Shifting Baseline Syndrome Sustains the Anthropocene

Legal researcher Niels Hoek explores the phenomenon of Shifting Baseline Syndrome in our experience of the ever-changing natural world, exemplifying a generational amnesia that conservation lawyers, environmentalists and creative practitioners can help combat as we navigate the Anthropocene.


1,650 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 minutes


The natural world has been on a steep decline in the past couple of decades, and most of the readers of ClimateCultures most likely can name a personal account which highlights this decline [1]. Perhaps you have witnessed how a local grassland was converted into cropland. Additionally, you may well have observed how your favourite animal was added to the IUCN Red List, removed from its original habitat, or noted first-hand how your local forest was logged extensively [2]. All these modern issues highlight the pressing need for conservation and restoration measures, both within and outside of natural areas.

However, addressing our impact on the natural world through regulation and conservation policies is a significant challenge. Whilst a duty for conservation seeks to maintain what is still present, a legal duty for restoration returns a natural habitat to a former, more complete version [3]. Be that as it may, the extent of the damage can be widespread or dated to the point where the original image is lost entirely. Whilst there are many interesting questions on nature restoration, this short blog post reflects on which starting point may be taken within (regulatory) instruments and conservation practice. A question that, at least on the surface, appears to be uncomplicated — but on closer inspection is a rather difficult issue.

The Anthropocene and the Shifting Baseline Syndrome

The starting point, or baseline, is an important concept within nature conservation law: when the state of nature deviates from the recorded status quo, it stipulates the need for conservation measures and the enforcement of nature conservation laws, such as a deterioration prohibition as found within the EU Habitats Directive [4]. Moreover, it flags the need for additional research from all disciplines and creative activism; a starting point used for comparison is vital for ecologists, lawyers, and activists. However, the recorded baseline on which we rely in our appreciation of nature can be a double-edged sword — provided we do not pay attention to the problem of the shifting baseline syndrome, sustaining the Anthropocene [5].

Shifting Baseline Syndrome - illustrated
Tweet from @BiodiversitySoS (2021) – image source unknown

In essence, the shifting baseline syndrome is quite simple and consists of two parts. First, it starts with the grave premise that each generation leaves the state of nature slightly worse for the next [6]. Species become extinct whilst invasive alien species are introduced, and natural ecosystems are altered or destroyed; one generation at a time. And secondly, it is a psychological phenomenon that people are inclined to take the state of nature as recorded within their youth as a starting point for comparison to the present. And in turn, each generation adopts a different baseline for conservation practices — a hollowed-out version compared to the previous. This means that essential parts of the natural world are not only lost but also forgotten; a term coined as generational amnesia [7].

Once aware of this issue, the state of nature deemed as ‘sufficient’ in our modern times can be seen in an entirely different light. For example, the summer field painted by Jac van Looij at the turn of the previous century is now part of the collection of the Dutch Rijksmuseum. It portrays a rich field of blue flowers, most likely lupines. This may have been a common sight for the painter at the time in the Netherlands, but wildflower meadows have become increasingly rare due to significant levels of nitrogen deposition [8]. A sight such as this, in turn, is at risk of escaping from our perceived baseline, falling prey to generational amnesia.

Shifting Baselin Syndrome - July (‘Summer Luxuriance’), by Jac van Looij
July (‘Summer Luxuriance’), Jac van Looij, c. 1890 – c. 1910 Image: The Rijksmuseum, Netherlands https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/SK-C-1645

A plethora of other examples could be noted here. Tim Flannery, in his book Europe: the first 100 million years [13] portrays a story of environmental destruction — starting as early as the time of the hunter-gatherers. In his book, he argues that Europe can be deemed an empty ecosystem, devoid of large predators such as lions or keystone species such as elephants — all of which resided, and thrived, on the European continent before overexploitation drove many of these species, which were not used to human predation, locally extinct. In this regard, credit must be given to Arie Trouwborst and Jens-Christian Svenning, who unravelled the shifting baseline and highlighted the moral and legal obligation for the restoration of megafauna on the European continent — especially when reviewing article 8(f) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) [10]. Within their article, they convincingly argue that the loss of megafauna impacts the functioning of ecosystems and the prospects of biodiversity at large, due to their vital function as ecosystem engineers. In other words, the restoration of keystone species still surviving elsewhere is a key objective ahead — which would require the shattering of our generational amnesia.

The Shifting Baseline Syndrome: embedded within legal instruments?

This brings us to the baseline currently recorded within the instruments of nature conservation law. European nature conservation law, in turn, can pose as a relevant and leading example; the Natura 2000 network reaches 18% of the continent and is the largest coordinated ecological network in the world. However, the European Natura 2000 network establishes the benchmark recorded within the year 1992 for most natural habitats, both as a baseline for its conservation measures, and for assessing which habitat types can be deemed to be in favourable conservation status.

A recent Proposal of the European Commission, which supplements the Habitats Directive, proposes restoration measures going back at least seventy years in time, which has opened the door to implement a historic approach — should the Proposal be adopted [11]. However, when reviewing the environmental destruction which occurred in the past centuries, seventy years, whilst a considerable amount of time compared to a human lifespan, merely reaches the top of an iceberg — consisting of centuries of overexploitation and land-use changes. An integrated approach to halting the decline of biodiversity loss is much-needed, as is illustrated below. [12]

Shifting Baseline Syndrome - showing how to bend the curve
‘Bending the curve’ – illustration from ‘Global biodiversity loss can still be halted’ (WUR 2022 see [12])

Looking beyond the modern state of nature

In conclusion, it is vital that society at large is aware of the limitations imposed by the Shifting Baseline Syndrome and generational amnesia. With the help of ecologists, natural historians, and lawyers, returning long-lost species back to the European continent may not be a crazed idea. As is argued by Trouwborst; how can we demand that Africans live together with megafauna when Europeans refuse to do so themselves?

In this regard, a recorded baseline codified within a legal instrument is not an inherently bad tool. However, a modern baseline can be deemed an Achilles heel for restoration practice. Environmentalists, therefore, must be aware of the shifting baseline, so that the wildflower meadows from van Looij may not be forgotten in a hundred years’ time. And, more crucially, for nature restoration laws to be effective, a historic baseline that can still reach parts of the Holocene may be desirable going forward — both from the perspective of good (biodiversity) governance, as well as our personal understanding and appreciation of the natural world.


References

[1] Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services  (IPBES secretariat, 2022)

[2] The IUCN Red List Of Threatened Species (IUCN, 2022) 

[3] Verschuuren J, ‘Restoration Of Protected Lakes Under Climate Change: What Legal Measures Are Needed To Help Biodiversity Adapt To The Changing Climate? The Case of Lake Ijssel, Netherlands’ [2019] SSRN Electronic Journal; Hoek N, ‘The Habitats Directive And Heath: The Strain of Climate Change and N Deposition’ (2022) 31 European Energy and Environmental Law Review.

[4] Schoukens H, ‘Non-Regression Clauses in Times of Ecological Restoration Law: Article 6(2) of the EU Habitats Directive as an Unusual Ally to Restore Natura 2000?’ (2017) 13 Utrecht Law Review.

[5] Caro T & others, Conservation in the Anthropocene – chapter in Keeping the Wild, ed. George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist, Tom Butler (2014: Island Press, Washington, DC)

[6] Europe: The First 100 Million Years, Tim Flannery (2014: Penguin, UK)

[7] Jones L & others, ‘Investigating the Implications of Shifting Baseline Syndrome on Conservation‘ (2020) People and Nature, Volume 2 Issue 4.

[8] Nitrogen (Wageninen University & Research, 2022)

[9] as [6]

[10] Trouwborst A, and Svenning J, Megafauna restoration as a legal obligation: International biodiversity law and the rehabilitation of large mammals in Europe, (2022) Review of European, Comparative & International Environmental Law, Volume 31, Issue 2; Megafauna Restoration is a Legal Obligation‘ (Rewilding Europe, 2022) 

[11] Green Deal: pioneering proposals to restore Europe’s nature by 2050 and halve pesticide use by 2030‘ (European Commission, 2022)

[12] ‘Global biodiversity loss can still be halted’ (Wageninen University & Research, 2020)


Find out more

You can explore the background to the problem in Are You Suffering From Shifting Baseline Syndrome? by Reagan Pearce for Earth.Org (19 June 2020): “Coined by Daniel Pauly in 1995, while speaking of increasing tolerance to fish stock declines over generations, SBS also has roots in psychology, where it is referred to as ‘environmental generational amnesia’. Simply put, Shifting Baseline Syndrome is ‘a gradual change in the accepted norms for the condition of the natural environment due to a lack of experience, memory and/or knowledge of its past condition’. In this sense, what we consider to be a healthy environment now, past generations would consider to be degraded, and what we judge to be degraded now, the next generation will consider to be healthy or ‘normal’.” There is an interview with Daniel Pauly for Mission Blue (March 2012) here, following his TED Talk on the Ocean’s Shifting Baseline.

In Spot the difference: shifting baseline syndrome in our own backyard for ZSL (24 July 2018), PhD student Lizzie Jones looks at the phenomenon of shifting baseline syndrome with “a rare example of a positive shifted baseline, in which we have not noticed positive change” — the growing population of Red Kite in the UK after successful reintroduction projects.

And Shifting Baseline Syndrome is one of the terms explored in the book Anticipatory history (2011), edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor and Colin Sackett (Uniform Books) – reviewed for ClimateCultures by Mark Goldthorpe here.

Update January 2023: Thanks to the comment posted below by ClimateCultures visitor Peter Collins, we became aware of the work of Escaping Agharta, and Avery Dart’s track Shifting Baseline Syndrome in particular. “The goal of Escaping Aghartha is to educate people about specific examples of ongoing destruction in the biological world, using extreme music as an educational tool. Avery, a biologist, started Escaping Aghartha as an experimental solo project. Now Escaping Aghartha has started to feature skilled musicians on some releases.”

Niels Hoek

Niels Hoek

A legal researcher specialising in EU Environmental Law, whose PhD project addresses how the EU ‘governs’ light pollution and who mobilizes for this to change.

Deconstructing our Dominion Stories in a Time of Unravelling

Photographer and writer Joan Sullivan reviews a pair of books – non-fiction, fiction – that embrace the unknown, helping us navigate our collective uncertainty and explore what it means to be human in a time of Anthropocene unravelling.


2,460 words: estimated reading time = 10 minutes


And so, on a most inauspicious date — 24th June 2022 — the day when millions of women lost control of their own bodies, I sit down to write my first book review ever. I stare blankly at the screen; come back tomorrow, it tells me. But the numbness would continue for several more days, as the US “supreme” court went on a week-long rampage, bludgeoning Indigenous sovereignty and our fundamental rights to a livable planet.

I am thinking of Ursula Le Guin. Four years before her death in 2018, she said “I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society… We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries – the realists of a larger reality.”

Unravelling: showing one of Joan Sullivan's photos in the series "Becoming River", 2021
Joan Sullivan: Untitled, from the series ‘Becoming River’ © 2021
“An abstract photo from the ongoing series ‘Becoming River’ that explores, in a phenomenological way, my eco-anxiety about the rapidly disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence River in eastern Quebec, Canada.”

This is a review of two very different books by two very different writers, both of whom are currently co-directors of the Dark Mountain Project. Charlotte Du Cann has pulled together some of her finest essays into one volume; Nick Hunt presents his début collection of short fiction. A daunting challenge for my first attempt at writing a book review. But nothing as daunting as learning how to embrace the humility of the unknown, which for me is the luminous thread that connects these two important works.

Both writers explore the existential question of what it means to be human in a time of unravelling. Both writers propose transformative journeys in time and space that, if we remain open, have the potential to radically shift our perception of this living, breathing planet and — most essentially — our shared space within it.

Finding transformation in the underworld

“I am not sure I can take you there with words,” writes Du Cann towards the end of her book. “I can show you the stones. I can dance. Everything else you walk yourself.”

In After Ithaca: Journeys in Deep Time, Du Cann peels back the layers – in characteristically non-chronological order — of her decades-long descent to re-entangle herself with a sentient Earth. She reveals the doubts, the joys, the humility, the rapture, the patience, and the dogged discipline required to un-civilize oneself in our fossil-fueled, frequent-flyer, fast-fashion societies. It is “a grinding process in which you lose or die to your tough conditioned husk and discover the germ within.”

‘After Ithaca’ – cover art: ‘On the Edge of This Immensity’, Meryl McMaster © 2022 merylmcmaster.com/

The faint of heart need not apply. “The rebirth we seek does not happen without our descent… Venus, the embodiment of love, beauty and a fair fight, steps into the arena to bring new life. She doesn’t do that by chanting a new mantra or changing her shopping habits, she does that by grabbing you by the throat and pulling you towards everything you have so far refused to see or hear.”

Boom! This is Du Cann at her very best, a moment of dazzling clarity: she hands us the mirror, asking the hard questions, shaking us out of our collective sleepwalk. To guide those of us who have not yet begun the “hard, hard task” of relinquishing the “self-obsessed material life we grasp and cling to,” Du Cann shares examples from her own non-linear passage of transformation through the prism of Psyche’s four initiation tasks – assigned by the goddess Venus, the jealous mother of Psyche’s divine lover, Eros. To earn back the love of the “winged boy she has lost”, the mortal Psyche must undergo radical change by embarking upon a perilous journey to the Underworld, without a script or roadmap or even a guarantee that she will ever find her way back. But she does, in spades, thanks to the unexpected help she receives from — and this is key — the most unassuming of allies: an army of ants, some river reeds, an eagle. As Du Cann explains, pivotal transformation can only take place in the Underworld “because change needs to happen at a deep inner level to make any kind of effective change on the outside.”

One of my many ‘Aha!’ moments reading Du Cann’s After Ithaca came from this passage: “Change is not something you tell governments or other people to do; you have to undergo change [yourself] to make space for the world to enter.” She expounds:

We wield great terms above our heads like axes – social justice, transformation, shift of consciousness, power of community – ready to split enemy heads apart with their force… but we are still asleep, reacting, neglecting… we lament deforestation whilst sitting on teak chairs…

As a species we appear to be as stupid, cruel and greedy as ever. Our technology has evolved but we are less vigorous, less alive, more timid, more pursued by ghosts and the trauma of history through generations, at a standstill where we feel responsible for everything and nothing at all;

Nothing transforms if we are the same people inside… if we haven’t found a way to dismantle the belief systems that keep us trapped in the cycles of history. If we haven’t dealt with our insatiable desire for power and attention…

We need a rigorous practice that will break us open. A shock that will push us in another direction.

Rebirth.

After Ithaca humbly suggests a path forward. This brutally honest book is all about transformation and resurrection: undergoing collective change; “reforging ourselves” in alchemical spaces of conversation and gathering; making ourselves more vulnerable by honouring the great mystery. It’s time to deconstruct the dominion stories we’ve inherited — and embraced — throughout the millennia about the self-anointed privileges of one species among many. The arrogance of naming itself ‘wise’! It’s time to question the bright shiny lie that sapiens alone can bend nature to its will without consequences.

Unravelling: showing one of Joan Sullivan's photos in the series "Becoming River", 2022
Joan Sullivan: Untitled, from the series ‘Becoming River’ © 2022
“Temperature anomaly: an historically hot month of May followed by an historically cold month of June caused havoc for farmers in this rural region of Quebec along the banks of the Saint Lawrence River.”

We are standing at the threshold between what was and what’s next, between despair and hope. Deep in our bones, we acknowledge that we’ve painted ourselves into a corner, and there is only one way out: transform, or die. Our task: to develop a collective consciousness to enmesh ourselves, once again, with our more-than-human kin.

Facing the unravelling

Nick Hunt’s collection of short fiction, Loss Soup and Other Stories, explores the same themes of time, despair and collective uncertainty as Du Cann’s After Ithaca. But while Du Cann employs a more-or-less traditional narrative arc as we follow her real-life transformational journey, Hunt creates disorienting storyscapes with nebulous beginnings and unfinished endings. We feel seasick, suspended in time somewhere between 16th century Mexico and a dystopic future that appears, disconcertingly, to have already arrived.

Loss Soup – cover art: ‘Herd (not seen)’, detail. Daro Montag © 2022

Each of the 14 stories in this slender volume explores what it means to bear witness to collapse. Hunt’s characters are fragile, vulnerable, unsure of which way to turn or whom to believe. There is very little dialogue between them, a reflection of social unravelling.

Loss Soup is not just about loss, but unimaginable loss: of memory, of words, of identity, of places saturated with meaning. Of species, both real and mythic. One nameless character chooses to lose himself in the middle of a vast ocean, drifting aimlessly in a plastic vortex: “He came here to go nowhere.” In the not-too-distant future, both he and his yacht will be subsumed by the great Pacific garbage patch, “a convenient vanishing zone for lost, unwanted things.” His well-stocked coffers of wine, crisps and Cadbury will not last forever.

Welcome to the Anthropocene. Nick Hunt’s fiction brings us as close as we can possibly get — viscerally, phenomenologically — to grasping the ambiguity of this liminal moment, in ways that non-fiction never could. “I try to think of what I’ve forgotten, but there’s no way to catch hold of it. Just a feeling of unease, somewhere between guilt and loss, that contracts and expands when I breathe, pushing up against me.”

Several of these stories left me feeling squeamish. I squirmed in my chair, looking around for an easy way out. But Hunt holds us skillfully in these uncomfortable landscapes, coaxing us to linger a bit longer with the ambivalence. Our instinct is to flee, to return to the soma of our Instagram-perfect world. But something deep inside has already shifted: we choose to stay, to face the unravelling. Such is the power of fiction, to reveal the cracks in the veneer, the hidden spaces with multiple layers of meaning. This is the well from which we must draw.

Finding paths through collective uncertainty 

Loss Soup reminds us that there have always been and will always be periods of radical uncertainty and impermanence. “Time does not flow in a straight line but turns inside repeating wheels, so that everything that has happened is still happening. Nothing has ever stopped. It never will.” If sapiens are as wise as we think we are, we will turn to the past for clues about navigating crisis, dysfunction, collapse. When seen through the lens of liminality, these recurring cataclysmic periods can be interpreted, in retrospect, as transformative: everything that gets swept up in the chaos will be transported and changed. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

The dawn of the Anthropocene is yet another liminal moment, a bridge between two possible worlds, two ways of being. Destination unknown. While the outcome indeed looks bleak, it has yet to be written. “We will be wanting the voices of writers,” prophesized Le Guin, “who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society.” The voices of writers Nick Hunt and Charlotte Du Cann bring much-needed clarity and insight to this existential moment.

If sapiens manages to save itself – along with millions of other species with whom we share this blue planet – it will be because of a profound shift in collective consciousness, not scientific facts or statistics. We could start by shifting our thinking about the Anthropocene as an opportunity to expand our ideas of what is possible, to embody it as an unquenchable thirst to break free from the chains of fossilized ways of thinking.

Unravelling: showing one of Joan Sullivan's photos in the series "Becoming River", 2022
Joan Sullivan: Untitled, from the series “Becoming River” © 2021
“An abstract photo from the ongoing series ‘Becoming River’ that explores, in a phenomenological way, my eco-anxiety about the rapidly disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence River in eastern Quebec, Canada.”

Throughout After Ithaca, Du Cann refers frequently to her favorite metaphor: the metamorphosis of the butterfly, which emerges only after the caterpillar has dissolved. Life begins anew out of death and darkness, as it always has and always will. Navigating the apocalypse may feel like the end of the world. But the dark is where everything is born.


Find out more

After Ithaca: Journeys in Deep Time, by Charlotte Du Cann (2022) and Loss Soup and Other Stories, by Nick Hunt (2022) are both published by Greenbank Books, an imprint of Sumeru, and are available from the Dark Mountain shop.

The Dark Mountain Project is many things and has taken many forms, including the original manifesto written amidst the global financial catastrophe of 2008 and the ongoing ecological crisis. “Faced with this unravelling, the manifesto calls us to question the stories our societies like to tell about the world and our place within it: the myth of progress, the myth of human separation from nature, the myth of civilisation. And it claims a particular role for storytellers and culturemakers in a time when the stories we live by have become untenable.”

Charlotte Du Cann and Nick Hunt are co-directors of the Dark Mountain Project. After working as a journalist, Charlotte spent a decade travelling, mostly in the Americas, before settling in Suffolk to write a series of books about mythos and reconnecting with the Earth, starting with 52 Flowers That Shook My WorldNick’s books include Walking the Woods and the Water, Where the Wild Winds Are, The Parakeeting of London: An Adventure in Gonzo Ornithology, and Outlandish. You can see Charlotte and Nick discuss the role of writing in times of unravelling and loss in this May 2022 Earth Talk event (in it, Nick describes the process that artist Daro Montag used to make the sculptures shown in the cover of Loss Soup). You can read excerpts from Where the Wild Winds Are in a series of Nick’s posts here at ClimateCultures.

The three photographs of Joan’s we’ve used in this post are from her series ‘Becoming River’. Joan explains that “all images in this series were created ‘in-camera’ using ICM (Intentional Camera Movement), with minor adjustments to contrast and clarity in Lightroom. No images were manipulated in Photoshop.” Of the middle photograph, on temperature anomaly, Joan adds: “I use ICM to express my eco-anxiety about our collective indifference to the climate crisis.”

You can learn about Joan’s life and work in photography on the climate crisis and energy transition in The liminal space between what was and what’s next (January 2022), episode 96 in the Conscient podcast series from Claude Schryer. And she writes regular posts for the Artists & Climate Change blog.

Watch Ursula Le Guin’s short acceptance speech when she received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards on November 19, 2014.

Read Australian climate scientist Joëlle Gergis on ecological loss from climate breakdown in The great unravelling: ‘I never thought I’d live to see the horror of planetary collapse’. In this wide-ranging article for The Guardian (14/1//20), she says: “As we live through this growing instability, it’s becoming harder to maintain a sense of professional detachment from the work that I do. Given that humanity is facing an existential threat of planetary proportions, surely it is rational to react with despair, anger, grief and frustration. To fail to emotionally respond to a level of destruction that will be felt throughout the ages feels like sociopathic disregard for all life on Earth.
Perhaps part of the answer lies in TS Eliot’s observation that ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’. To shy away from difficult emotions is a very natural part of the human condition. We are afraid to have the tough conversations that connect us with the darker shades of human emotion.”

Joan Sullivan

Joan Sullivan

A photographer, writer and farmer who focuses on climate change and whose abstract, phenomenological approach to photography expresses her ecoanxiety and gives voice to the nonhuman.