Geographer Martin Mahony introduces work with students using object-based learning to explore the material and intellectual challenges of thinking about human-environment relationships in our new planetary era — and launches a new ClimateCultures feature: Museum of the Anthropocene.
1,450 words: estimated reading time = 6 minutes
When I was first appointed to my teaching post in UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to develop a 3rd–year module on a topic of my own choosing. The only restrictions were that it needed to appeal to the School’s new and growing cohort of geography students, and broadly fit within the School’s long tradition of research-led and problem-oriented interdisciplinary teaching.
Given the groundswell of interest within geography and beyond in the notion of the Anthropocene, and the platform the concept has created for critical cross-disciplinary dialogue about the causes and consequences of global environmental change, I opted to build a module around this new way of thinking about human-environment relationships. I opted too to use the module to introduce students to three vibrant sub-disciplines which, in their different ways, have engaged with the material and intellectual challenges of the Anthropocene, and might be transformed by it: historical, political and cultural geography.
Object-based learning — making the abstract concrete
But even with that disciplinary scaffolding, I still faced the challenge of finding something for the students to grab onto; something around which they could focus their intellectual energies, which could situate the usually abstract debate about the Anthropocene in particular places, times and contexts. I hit upon the idea of collaboratively building a Museum of the Anthropocene, into which students would submit an object which they took to be particularly eloquent of the historical, political and cultural transformations which define this proposed new slice of geological time.
That lead me to read into the world of object-based learning (OBL)1, which has grown in popularity as a novel pedagogic practice of putting material objects, rather than texts, at the heart of the learning experience. For many of its proponents, it can transform student engagement with a topic by ‘grounding’ abstract knowledge and theory, and by awakening a wider curiosity about a topic.
Object-based discourse has risen to wider cultural prominence too – witness the preponderance of books and documentaries on a ‘History of X in 100 Objects’. In an Anthropocene context, objects can be a powerful way of grounding and situating an otherwise abstract and universalising discourse, of stressing the intertwining of matter and culture in human-environmental relations, and of helping audiences and students to cut a path through a thicket of historical and political complexity. The ClimateCultures series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects is a wonderful illustration of how objects can help in tracing the connections between the personal and the planetary, and was an early influence on my teaching practice.
My module, ‘Human Geography in the Anthropocene’, runs over 12 weeks. Students are invited to start thinking about an object in week 3, to confirm their choice by week 6, and to be ready to submit their object and some accompanying text by week 9 or 10. We then stage the Museum as a sort of pop-up exhibition, inviting other members of the School to come and interact with the students and their exhibits. Students then have around three weeks to turn their public-facing text into a formal academic essay about what their object tells us about the historical, political and cultural geographies of the Anthropocene.
Thinking our way creatively into the Anthropocene
While object selection is hard, and developing connections and insights into complex academic debates is difficult, students have generally responded really positively to the challenge. It gives them a freedom to explore something that is important to them. Sometimes that comes in the form of a family heirloom – a grandfather’s mining lamp, or a bank note from a Burmese PoW camp – or a person, social movement or work of art that allows students from groups that have been under-represented in Anthropocene discourse to explore the causes and consequences of environmental transformation from a deeply embodied viewpoint.
Other students get interested in the lives and afterlives of certain materials, like plastics, and how – in the form of ‘plastiglomerates’, for example – they represent the literal fusing of humanity with the stratigraphic record. Others home in on the material politics of oil and petroculture, or opt for new or emerging technologies around which new, more sustainable lifeworlds might be built.
I try to encourage students to think and write creatively; to explore the ‘scalar derangements’2 of the Anthropocene that take, for example, the banality3 of the suburb or the strip mall and redefines it as part of the ‘terraforming assemblages’4 that are remaking the planet with troubling consequences for human and nonhuman life. Sometimes the exploration of those connections and derangements can be deeply troubling, but throughout we emphasise – by leaning heavily on Bonneuil and Fressoz’s excellent The Shock of the Anthropocene5 – that the environmental crisis is not an accident. Nor is it the result of ‘human nature’ or even some inalienable nature of capitalism. The Anthropocene was not the inevitable outcome of human ‘development’, but was rather a product of political choices, made by people and collectives in particular places and times. We explore the politics of historical responsibility and blame6, but the overall point is the historical contingency, the non-inevitability, of the Anthropocene.
As such, to explore the agency of objects is to explore human agency too. To examine, for example, how a technology as seemingly simple as an oil barrel has helped shape economic markets, political movements, and even democracy itself7, is also to examine how our socio-material world has been put together, and how it might be remade. So while our Museum of the Anthropocene can sometimes resemble the wreckage growing skyward at the feet of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Angel of History’8, we emphasise throughout that the Anthropocene could always have been otherwise, and therefore that it still could be otherwise. To break the Anthropocene down into some of its constituent and material parts, we can begin to imagine how it might be put back together differently.
Philospher Walter Benjamin’s concept of the ‘Angel of History’ was a response to the artist Paul Klee’s 1920 painting ‘Angelus Novus’, which Benjamin referred to in section IX of his 1940 essay Theses on the Philosophy of History. The image is used with Benjamin’s full text here.
ClimateCultures is delighted to be working with Martin to bring a selection of his students’ work to our site. Visit our new Museum of the Anthropocene section for further information on the project and an introductory selection of objects from previous students on UEA’s ‘Human Geography in the Anthropocene’ module. We will be adding new objects from the current students very soon. And for Anthropocene objects suggested by our members, visit A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects series.
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. Read More
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Climate Change, Mike Hulme’s book exploring how the idea of climate change is shaped and used in different ways and how its meanings help us navigate climate change as predicament rather than problem.
2,900 words: estimated reading time = 11.5 minutes
“Climate change is an idea of such size, scope, and imaginative power that it escapes the capacity of any one person to grasp and for political institutions to resolve.”
The very first words in Mike Hulme’s climate book are “Not another climate book!” We’ve all read (or read about) so many different works, from the IPCC’s periodic reviews of the state of our scientific knowledge through to the polemical treatises for one solution or another. Contextualising his own book alongside some of these — the popular guides “developed for specific audiences —‘dummies’, children, planners, or environmental lawyers — and innumerable ‘short introductions’,” Hulme doesn’t neglect the work of creative writers, mentioning both the increasing volume of literary and genre fiction and its academic coverage. So-called Cli-Fi has rapidly become so well established that by 2018 it already needed a volume called Cli-Fi: A Companion.
So Hulme rightly asks “What more possibly is there to add?”, and his response convincingly adds up to: ‘quite a lot’. Or, maybe, ‘everything’, because we’ll never run out of things to say about the subject. “Climate change is not ‘over’,” he reminds us: neither in the science that underpins our knowledge, nor in coming to terms with what it means for us and our current cohabitants on the planet and its future travellers; and not in the sense of being encompassed or contained within any one field of knowledge. “There is a ‘further beyond’,” he tells us: “Plus Ultra, the epigraph engraved by Spanish grandees on the Pillars of Hercules at the Straits of Gibraltar at the turn of the sixteenth century.” By analogy, collectively we’re all in the straits now, at the beginning of a new age of human experiences of what the world is becoming and what it means to be human within it. And so there will always be a need for new guides and their challenges to the multiple ways we have of grasping, and failing to grasp, these questions.
Climate change is best regarded not as a problem needing a solution but as a predicament. In contrast to problems, predicaments “can neither be solved through engineering nor resolved through politics. A predicament just won’t go away. What predicaments need,” Hulme suggests, “are stories. Interpretive stories — what some may call guiding myths — through which to understand the predicament and to come to terms with it.” Which doesn’t mean just accepting it, standing still. The stories we tell about our predicaments are ways to find our way through a shifting landscape, in ways that seek, sustain and generate hope. “To live with it — but also to move on.”
“It is possible to use the idea of climate change creatively to bring about desirable change in the world without remaining hostage to the impossible dream of subjecting the condition of global climate to human will.”
Geography — Mike Hulme’s own field of knowledge — is a useful discipline from which to start out, taking in its own traditions of both physical and human sciences and offering space to incorporate and adapt insights from many other disciplines. Both in the main text and in many informative and illustrative vignettes throughout, this book draws on what science historians, social anthropologists, environmental economists, political ecologists, indigenous activists, geohumanities and literary scholars, sociologists, and a range of sub-disciplinary and interdisciplinary geographers have to say about climate change. At the same time, Hulme admits this is a very different book to any that researchers from any of those disciplines might offer, or even other geographers from other cultures. It’s the partial and provisional nature of our knowledge that he emphasises. Knowledge, made through scientific or other practices, occurs in particular settings, from where “it moves between people and travels between places.”
“Climate change has today become a synecdoche – it ‘stands in’ – for the status and prospects of people’s changing material, social, and cultural worlds. And these worlds are always in the making … the meaning of climate change is never fixed, nor can it ever be exhausted.”
This book has as its focus our ideas of climate change, and how those ideas have been expressed in different times and cultures, shifting and mutating as they move between them, never settling forever. Climate change “becomes an idea used to different ends.”
The earlier sections provide historical-geographical perspectives through lenses of culture and science — especially cultures of science practised by empires, superpowers and global institutions that have constructed, expanded but also contained our understanding — to become a focus of public concern, debate and mobilisation. The relationships between public and expert understandings are critical to how debates, media coverage and shaping of policy all play out and affect each other. In the middle sections, Hulme sets out different positions within two broad camps, ‘science-based’ approaches on the one hand and ‘more-than-science’ ones on the other. A crude distinction, but “a helpful device for exposing how the idea of climate change becomes imbued with multiple meanings across diverse social formations”. Finally, he discusses the future: the ways it’s being imagined now and how different understandings of climate change are trying to direct our attention to making the ‘right’ future happen. We all have positions to take and world views at stake as we try to steer the planet into one future and away from others. What ideas of climate change will come to dominate?
Between facts and meanings
What does climate change mean? Hulme suggests that broadly ‘science-based’ meanings are espoused in ‘reformed modernism’, ‘sceptical contrarianism’ and ‘transformative radicalism’. Respectively, these seek to assimilate climate change into projects of progressive technological and political development; to contest the nature or significance of climate change as a ‘thing’; or to mobilise it as a vehicle for profound social change. And in the equally expansive territories of ‘more-than-science’ positions are ‘subaltern voices’, ‘artistic creativities’ and ‘religious engagements’. These seek to supplant or speak back to the dominant scientised narrative, to reimagine it, or transcend it. One of many ‘subaltern voices’ he references is the ‘trickster’ figure — for example, represented in North Pacific cultures in Raven — that “acts as a mirror for humanity by reflecting people’s relations with the environment. Raven challenges the illusion of control that is promised by scientific knowledge and geoengineering technologies.”
Whether “getting the science right’ is the fundamental prerequisite to policy, as each of the first three otherwise differing positions assert, or we hold that science alone cannot define our knowledge and we can foreground other forms of lived or derived environmental knowledge, the meanings these six positions enact are continually constructed, sustained and deployed in our various discourses. As Hulme points out, “actions are not determined by the facts in themselves”; our choices are guided by interpretations of facts. This is why understanding the different meanings we and others attribute to our changing climate is an important early step, although not an easy one.
“How do people make sense of something that on the one hand is both physically and discursively unavoidable in the contemporary world, but that – at the same time – exceeds human ease and the imagination? Earth system scientists and literary critics alike grasp at the intangibility of climate change.”
They grasp in different ways, and each is important. Exploring creative approaches and listening to marginalised voices can offer ways to make the abstract particular where scientific knowledge-making, of necessity, strives to derive global, abstract truths from the overabundance of specifics that the natural world presents us with. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a project like ClimateCultures, the second half of Hulme’s book resonates most strongly, for all the value of the earlier, clear accounts of dominant (although fiercely competing) ‘science-based’ positions on climate change. We need to go ‘further beyond’, while maintaining a commitment to data building, knowledge construction and world modelling, if we are to grasp the many meanings of climate change and the responses we can best enact. At the very least, we need to see that scientific knowledge itself travels and translates as it moves among different places, people and processes of making sense of change.
“What climate change means locally is not simply the result of downscaling global kinds of knowledge” for, as global climate science rubs up against local subjectivities, the multiple resists becoming singular. The three broad approaches Hulme outlines as ‘more-than-science’ have much to offer as we come to terms with, celebrate and harness the “mobility and the mutability of the idea of climate change.” And these multiple voices and ways of knowing merit being listened to on their own terms, rather than merely as an attempt to ‘improve’ data and modelling.
“If science is de-centred from accounts of climate change … then different possibilities open up for identifying the underlying causes, challenges, responses, and solutions to climate change. Resisting the assumption, instinctively made by scientists, that climate change is all about molecules of carbon dioxide, global carbon budgets, modelled predictions of future climate impacts, or even about local weather extremes, makes it possible to supplant the idea of climate change using very different assumptions.”
Governing the idea of climate change
As we move into the latest global negotiations at COP27 and reflect back on the milestones (or fractions of miles) of the previous COPs, it’s worth reflecting on the concluding section of Hulme’s book, Climate change to come. The first chapter here addresses the thorny question of governing the climate and the proliferation of actors involved. For 1988’s UN General Assembly resolution, which led the way for the Framework Convention at the 1992 Earth Summit, and thus the 2007 Kyoto Protocol and 2015’s Paris Agreement, climate change was “to be regarded as a pathological condition of modernity that threatened ‘the heritage of mankind’.”
As the global regime has developed, so too the regional, national and sectoral interests that translate, advocate for and supervise what and how policies are implemented. The “agents of climate governance” now reach well beyond formal, global institutions, taking in “building inspectors, venture capitalists, media producers, trades unionists, monks, aviation authorities, professional sports clubs, farming extension officers, public celebrities, and national energy regulators.” Every kind of human activity affects the climate, and is affected by ideas of climate change. And so the annual COP attracts more and more participants, observers and influencers.
It’s not the climate itself that’s being governed here, of course, but the regulation of human technologies, behaviours and mechanisms to mitigate the causes of climate change and adapt to its unavoidable impacts. Hulme investigates and summarises these approaches to governance, including state-centric and polycentric models: the use of standards and certification, carbon markets, citizens’ assemblies, judicial courts and ‘climate services’ such as the ‘Forecast in Context Map Room’ tool developed by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies for decision-making in disasters.
“[G]lobal temperature is not an entity that is directly tractable to intentional human action. Governing temperature therefore requires governing the full range of human activities and technologies … and the imaginations that give rise to them… Governing global climate therefore becomes an exercise in governing the collective of human societies but where the power to do so exists in no central or identifiable location.”
Given climate governance’s “totalising reach”, as Hulme identifies it, paradoxically perhaps it’s a profound relief as well as an insurmountable obstacle that no human institutions can ever have the global power to understand, decide and dictate the scale and scope of response that’s needed. There is no governing ‘matrix’. As Hulme says, “far from … vision[s] of a coordinated and intelligent Earth System Governance framework, a more plausible metaphor for climate governance is that of a clumsy multilayered meshwork of overlapping and competing competences and interests.”
Hulme finally moves to the realm of realist and speculative imaginaries of the climate to come and how “events that have not yet happened in reality, happen in the imagination.” As such, now as in history, “future climate imaginaries wield extraordinary power over the present.” He reminds us of the totalitarian party diktat in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four — “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past” — and suggests that with respect to climate change, Orwell’s aphorism might come full circle: “Who controls the future, controls the present”. In this light, the “hopeful imagery offered up in the Paris Agreement”, of a global future climate to be kept under 1.5o to 2.0oC above pre-industrial levels is an especially powerful future narrative attempting to motivate and constrain human behaviour to a global pathway. But as such it “does not necessarily trump all other climate imaginaries … [and]prompts the obvious question: Whose imaginaries count most?”
Among the artistic responses to ideas of climate change Hulme references is The Weather Project. Olafur Eliasson’s 2003 installation in the Tate Modern’s cavernous Turbine Hall “reminded visitors that humans are unavoidably bound up in the making and experiencing of the weather.”
“Human activities are increasingly co-producing the vaster space of the atmosphere and the climates that it yields. Through his installation Eliasson was saying that there is no standpoint outside of the weather from which humans can stand and objectively observe, measure or manipulate the atmosphere … For humans to live culturally with climate is for climate to be inescapably altered.”
The different practices of ‘futuring’ — drawing on science, fiction, metaphor, modelling, myth, scenario-making, visualisation or other techniques — need to recognise that our futures are not reducible to climate alone but are many-sided; are produced and conditioned on different scales, not just the abstract global scale; and have geographies and histories. Also,
“imaginaries are not merely imaginaries. They are not simply inert figments of a fertile imagination. Sociotechnical imaginaries operate across the boundaries of the perceptual and the material. They can bring real worlds into being, for example carbon capture technologies, driverless vehicles, intelligent robots, or space tourism.”
Although discussed as a separate way of futuring the climate, along with models and scenarios for example, metaphor is perhaps something so intrinsic to human imagination and our faculty for language that it underpins the others as much as it stands out for investigation in its own right. As Hulme says, “metaphors help us grasp something new or unfamiliar by associating it with something more familiar and everyday.” Think of the ‘greenhouse effect’ or ‘carbon budgets’. Not intended to be taken literally, metaphors “help explain an idea, enable a comparison, or provoke a line of thought.” And metaphors are perhaps especially helpful in thinking through non-linear aspects of the complex and unpredictable world around us. Think ‘tipping points’, ‘planetary boundaries’, ‘runaway climate change’ — metaphors that Hulme picks up as phrases emanating from Earth Systems scientists. Or think ‘global thermostat’, ‘sunscreen’, or ‘insurance policy’ — metaphors deployed in the world of geoengineering. ‘Geoengineering’ is itself a metaphor, of course, one that projects as a solid science the risky business of presuming to tinker with the planet at its own scale. As Hulme says “metaphors can be hard to spot and can act as political Trojan horses” (and there goes another one), so it’s worth being on the lookout for them. Metaphors can also point in different directions, as he suggests with ‘The Anthropocene’.
“Is the Anthropocene a way of drawing attention to the awesome – but unequal – powers and responsibilities people now have for shaping the climatic future? Does it provoke a questioning of the character and wisdom of the Anthropos – the human – who has given rise to this epoch and its unequal power relations? Or does the Anthropocene metaphor dissolve the old binaries of modernity that separate nature from culture and so recognises that climate is no longer natural and never again can be?”
The overall thrust of this book is how — given the diversity of human imagination and experience, and the ever-changing state of our knowledge of the world — there can be no single narrative of climate change. Certainly, no singular strategic narrative directing what ‘we’ must do or what ‘climate’ we must end up with. There are many present experiences and understandings of what a climate is and what climate change means; and therefore many futures at stake, and many practices for reaching out to them and making use of them today. But who, in the end, can resist a convincing and pithily stated narrative?
“An indefinite future of a physically changing climate, now brought about largely by human hands, has to be confronted. But also to be grasped is the fact that the idea of an unsettled climate is with us forever.”
Find out more
Climate Change by Mike Hulme (2022) is published by Routledge. You can read about Mike’s work and thinking on climate change over many years at his website.
Some of Mike Hulme’s ideas have helped shape previous ClimateCultures blog posts, including The Stories We Live By, where Mark discusses metaphor and other aspects of our discourses and narratives on our relationships with the rest of the natural world, as explored in a free online ecolinguistics course created by ClimateCultures member Professor Arran Stibbe and volunteers from the International Ecolinguistics Association.