Grasping the Intangible — Our Climate Change Predicament

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.”

Exploring the idea of climate change: showing the cover of Mike Hulme's book, Climate Change (2022)
‘Climate Change’ by Mike Hulme – exploring an idea.
Cover image: Dehlia Hannah © 2022

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.

Subaltern voices and the idea of climate change: showing The Raven, a trickster figure.
Subaltern voice – Raven as Trickster, challenging the illusion of control. Image used in Mike Hulme’s ‘Climate Change’.
Artist: © Glen Rabena https://www.glenrabena.com/

“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.”

A technosocial idea of climate change: showing a screen shot of the IRI-IFRC Forecast in Context Tool
Screenshot of the IRI-IFRC Forecast in Context Tool illustrating where exceptionally heavy rainfall is expected.
Source: ‘Climate services for society: origins, institutional arrangements, and design elements for an evaluation framework’, Catherine Vaughan & Suraje Dessai (May 2014)

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.”

Climate imaginaries

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.”

An artistic idea of climate change: showing Olafur Eliasson's 2003 installation in the Tate Modern, The Weather Project.
View of Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, 2003
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2003

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.

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
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Solarpunk — Storytelling for Futures We Want to Create

Writer Mick Haining returns with tales from the Solarpunk storytelling showcase that was launched by XR Wordsmiths with the aim of imagining futures we want and need to create, and which has given both writers and readers hope.


1,920 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


As a cliché, “There’s a first time for everything” might not be the best way to begin an account of our very first Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase, as we certainly did not meet many clichés among entries that came from a variety of ages and locations across the globe. However, it was Extinction Rebellion’s first global writing competition for all ages. And, hopefully, not the last.

“It was a really awe-inspiring experience to put this idea out into the world and then to receive so much excitement and encouragement from all sorts of unexpected people and places,” said Lottie, the force behind the initiative, “we were approached by writers, artists, dramatists, web developers, magazine editors and lots of other people keen to collaborate.”

There were so many questions to resolve for our little team of XR Wordsmiths. What would we call the event for a start? After a debate, we decided on ‘Showcase’ because we didn’t want to create the sense of a competition, since that would have meant there were ‘losers’. Nevertheless (and a little paradoxically perhaps), we also felt a need to recognize merit and that meant rewards of some kind. So… what ‘prizes’ would there be, who would be the judges, what would be the criteria for success, how do we advertise it, what are the deadlines…

It’s so tempting to say that we were sailing into uncharted territory but I don’t want to irritate the multi-talented readers of this with so many clichés to stop you reading any further. However, with the indefatigable and inspiring Lottie as our captain and chief navigator, we were steered home.

Solarpunk storyteling - showing artist Dustin Jacobus's illustration for 'The Tides Rolled In'
Illustration for ‘The Tides Rolled in’
Artist: Dustin Jacobus ©2022

Futures we need to create

We used our XR Wordsmiths social media outlets and contacted as many people and organisations as we could think of and the entries began to flow in. The judges did not belong to XR Wordsmiths but were experts in one field or another — we had primary and secondary school teachers, an author, an engineer, an eco-poet, and a Green-Party politician! In small teams, they were allocated stories from the three age categories (11 and under; 12 – 18; 19 and over) and over several weeks collaborated to reach agreement on which tales should attract a ‘prize’. We decided against a single winner and opted for three per category with further ‘honourable mentions’.

Among the prizes were full scholarships to Terra.do (an online climate school), in-person eco-design workshops, magazine interviews, animal adoption kits, eco-writing mentoring sessions, magazine subscriptions, Solarpunk anthologies, wildflower seeds, and audio versions of each story. The ‘winners’ are each having their stories illustrated by a team of artists from across the world (Chile, South Korea, UK, Brazil, US, and Canada).

Illustration for ‘Gabby’s First Kiss’
Artist: Rita Fei © 2022

All entrants were sent a grateful acknowledgement for having contributed and even those who did not meet the criteria for Solarpunk were sent a positive review of their submissions.

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free,” said Michelangelo. Einstein and G.B. Shaw said something similar and who’s going to argue with them? That is the aim of Solarpunk –- to imagine a future we want and need to create for the Earth. The contributors certainly carved some moving stories out of their imaginations, creating future gardens of Eden that might seem unlikely… but talking to and watching people on the other side of the planet or getting into a machine and travelling through the air to meet them would scarcely have been believed possible in Michelangelo’s day. If readers want to check them out, they’re on our brand-new SolarPunk Storytelling site. 

Vision and imagination

Clearly, as expected, there would be novelties. These included ‘The Tides Rolled In’ with towns that not only floated but could travel, and Dahn’s hoverboard on which he floated above Gabby’s head in ‘Gabby’s First Kiss’. As the title of the latter suggests, though, people were still the same, believable beings with emotions and aspirations that should be familiar to all of us. Among the junior contributors, school was transformed into a place with floating desks and where the gym has an underwater racing track!

Illustration for ‘The Future School’
Artist: Hal Hefner © 2022

References to the past were plentiful, sometimes expressed simply and poetically, as in ‘Where Giants Will Stand’: “We are the people of fire, drought and flood”. In the stories, how humanity successfully responded to those challenges gathered together more or less everything we already know we need to do to preserve as much as we can and continue to make our Earth habitable. New rituals were envisaged to illustrate the return to an awareness we once had and that our Earth certainly needs right now — the essentiality of nature to our species. In ‘The Singer of Seeds’, the image of a seed is tattooed onto a young person following the ritual words: “The living being that will come from it shall be your companion for life. Wherever you’ll see one, you shall be protected; whenever you’ll see one, you shall protect it”.

Illustration for ‘The Singer of Seeds’
Artist: Mori © 2022

As you might imagine, picking ‘winners’ was not straightforward. We’re not all moved by the same music — just because we might like Bob Marley doesn’t mean we’ll all be fans of Beethoven. That didn’t mean that reading the submissions wasn’t a pleasure. One judge, Nicola Woodfin, wrote that “this was a reminder of how many humans there are on the planet with vision and imagination and the skills to communicate ideas about a more positive future for all living things” … “Many of the stories are still reverberating in my head long after reading them.”

Another, Lovis Geier, on her YouTube blog described her pleasure at reading stories from younger contributors. She was “flabbergasted” by “the level of knowledge these kids have about climate change” and added that if “an 8-year-old can write a story about how to fix it, then I think there is hope for us yet.” As a writer herself, her experience of the stories was such that it has decided her to write eco-fiction for that age range – “I am riding the wave of positive inspiration from this writing,” she said.

Lovis’s later YouTube interview with one of the teenage winners, 17-year-old Aël from near Paris — writing in his second language! — allowed him to describe some of the thinking behind his entry, ‘The Old Man and the Bird’. He pinpointed a cause of our current global plight by writing from the perspective of the bird who understood what the old man was saying but the latter could not understand the bird’s language… In other words, we have grown out of touch with nature although nature still understands us. “We don’t share a common language,” said Aël, “but I believe communication is still possible.”

Illustration for ‘The Old Man and the Bird’
Artist: Dustin Jacobus © 2022

My own favourite was ‘The Tides Rolled In’, whose central character, Afton, is a 13-year-old girl nervously preparing to address the governing adult assembly about crucial research she has carried out which “discovered an unintended consequence of their fishing practices on the marine ecosystem”. This is a young girl who had “never walked on sidewalks so steady it was said you couldn’t even feel the rocking of the waves”. In one sentence, the author has created an image of future life radically changed from ours and, from our present perspective as we read it, we know that all the world’s ice has now melted. There’s a touch of the Greta Thunbergs about Afton but, in this case, the author is again pointing at a huge societal change — a 13-year-old girl can advise Government scientists, be taken seriously and yet it doesn’t seem like an unusual event for that imagined future.

Solarpunk storytelling — building hope

That story is one of several being explored through online interactive drama sessions arranged by a group of German socio-dramatists, Dandelion Spaces. This is just one more way in which stories submitted to the Showcase will be given another opportunity to be explored and enjoyed.

I have taken part in a couple of those sessions and, indeed, facilitated one myself. It was a novel experience for me as a participant and leader of sessions through the magic of Zoom. As a teacher of drama in secondary schools, I had been used to a room full of adolescents who would not necessarily have chosen to be there. Yes, there are obvious limitations in the Zoom room — participants are mostly confined to their seats and the opportunities for physical interaction don’t exist. Nevertheless, a good story will draw an audience into it whatever the medium and I was pleased to see how willingly and effectively participants became characters in the stories being explored.

I was also glad to be able to devote a session to my favourite of the stories, ‘The Tides Rolled In’. I had the help of the author, Chris Muscato from Colorado, who read specific sections to stimulate imaginative responses and of my daughter, Florence, who took on the role of the central character, Afton. Following Chris’s readings, for example, participants swayed gently in their seats as if onboard the Floating Village, mimed their work in the seaborne community and reacted to their first sight of the capital city. Once accustomed to being inhabitants of the Floating Village, I took on a role myself as someone vehemently opposed to the idea of 13-year-old proposing essential changes to our world in order to provoke a heated debate. Shades of Greta…

Illustration for ‘Where Giants Will Stand’
Artist: Nico Lob © 2022

There will be lessons to be learned from the whole experience, which will inform our organisation of the next Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase and we will be looking at those soon because we’re keen to do it again. Captain Lottie pointed out that not one of us at XR Wordsmiths had been familiar with the Solarpunk genre — that has certainly been changed. She said that “it was amazing to hear from our entrants how the Showcase gave them hope again, in some way or another”. Reading them gave us a bit of hope, too, and, said Lovis: “Kids think that their stories have power if they’re writing them”. Hope and power … those two together create fuel for action or, as Carl Sagan, put it: “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”

The imagination is out there. Let’s get carving angels.


Find out more

You can read all the stories — and enjoy the illustrations — at the Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase from XR Wordsmiths: “a band/collective of writers who are deeply concerned with the climate and ecological emergency facing us all.” Part of Extinction Rebellion, they champion writing as “one way we battle against this emergency — we hope it spurs curiosity, concern, inspiration, reflection, love, rage, and also action.” XR Wordsmiths’ Lottie Dodd has also written about the Solarpunk storytelling at their blog. And you can read Mick’s previous ClimateCultures post introducing the initiative: Solarpunk — Stories for Change, where you will also find links to other resources on the genre.

Dandelion Spaces is a group that creates “transformative and regenerative spaces for people shaping transformation. Spaces that are like dandelions. … Dandelions will fly and multiply.”

Mick Haining

Mick Haining

A retired drama teacher and writer of short stories, plays and haiku on nature -- and 'rebel haiku' on post-it notes left in significant sites, usually
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Queer River and Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place

Artist James Aldridge shares insights from Iain Biggs’ book Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place and resonances with his own projects exploring the value of outsiders’ viewpoints and voices not often heard in discussions on the Earth Crisis.


3,000 words: estimated reading time = 12 minutes


When we both attended an online event in March featuring fellow ClimateCultures member Iain Biggs, editor Mark Goldthorpe invited me to write a post about the book Iain had co-authored — Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies. My first thought was that I wasn’t the right person to write a review as I’m not an academic but an artist who uses their arts practice to carry out research into the role of art within place-based learning, largely (though not exclusively) outside of academia.

It was when Mark reassured me that he wasn’t looking for a traditional book review, that this piece of writing evolved, an exploration of how my practice as an artist working with human and non-human communities of life relates to and could be informed by the themes of the book.

Cover of Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place, by Mary Modeen and Iain Biggs

Interestingly, once I began I realised that, despite first appearances, Mary and Iain didn’t specifically intend their book to be read by academics:

“Although our professional experience is within the arts and academic research, we hope to encourage you, whatever your background, to understand your skills and knowledge through this book within larger intra-related ensembles of practices and endeavours.”

Much of my current work takes place as part of Queer River, a research project I set up in 2020, which explores the values of queer perspectives on rivers and other wetlands, to inform what they need from us in a future affected by climate breakdown. As such my research is exploring the value of an outsider’s viewpoint, of voices and experiences that aren’t often heard within discussions on the Earth Crisis.

Queer River gives me the freedom to set up opportunities that I don’t find available elsewhere, to consider how my experiences inform my understanding of ‘ecologies of place’ and how my arts practice (my creative engagement with these places) can offer ways of seeing and being with them that I don’t often see reflected within mainstream discourse.

Ecologies of place: showing Queer River - Boat and Body, an art work by James Aldridge
Queer River – Boat and Body. Museum of English Rural Life, Reading
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

So far I’ve been invited to work with staff and students from Ashridge College and Glasgow University, have exhibited with other rurally-based queer artists at Reading University’s Museum of English Rural Life, and presented in a range of arts and community settings.

In the introduction to the book Mary and Iain write: “…we would be the first to advocate that readers reflect carefully on the socio-political implications of this text on the basis of your own experience.”

For me this was a promising start, an acknowledgement by the authors that the writing included in the book, although they may be speaking from ‘a privileged position’, is an attempt to “…move thinking away from the sovereign self and its hyper-individualism so as to stress ‘mutual, dialogical, participatory and horizontal relations’”.

One thing that I particularly value about the way that Mary and Iain write is the sense that the reader is being invited in and welcomed. The introduction in particular is sprinkled with phrases that invite the reader to take the concepts explored within it and to make them their own.

So does this exploration then include me after all? Are we all in it together or am I still reading it from the position of an outsider, looking in, whether as a non-academic or queer person? I decided to try and leave that question to one side, rather than risk putting up barriers unnecessarily, accept the authors’ invitation, and continue reading.

Although the book contains several in-depth explorations of artists’ practices, in this piece of writing I’ve concentrated on how/whether it speaks to my own.

Disciplinary agnosticism, Geopoetics & queer perspectives

One key thing I wanted to explore is what the key phrases used in the subtitle actually mean, and whether/how the concepts they represent relate to my work; Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies.

The authors write that they prefer “to identify our concerns with the field of geopoetics seen through the lens of mutual accompaniment rather than… replicate the presuppositions of possessive individualism”. They continue “The dominant social order (‘the master’s house’) that has been built on possessive individualism has become… so toxic, that it is destroying not only the fabric of human society but the ecologies upon which all things depend.” They go on to explain how the division and categorisation of knowledge and practices leads to a fragmentation “which has immense personal, social and environmental implications,” which “in turn makes it too easy for individuals to disregard the consequences of their actions.”

At this point I feel that we are acting from a very similar position. In Queer River, and my wider practice, I start from the viewpoint that we have become unable to experience ourselves as continuous with the rest of what we call ‘Nature’, or to recognise the harm that we are carrying out as a result, and that through walking, talking and making with (human and non-human) others, we can start to glimpse our true interconnected nature.

Mary and Iain describe their approach as ‘disciplinary agnosticism’ which allows them to work with and hear from a range of people, including those that they describe as having knowledge and experiences that “sit outside of disciplinary thinking”. In Queer River my own methodology is to walk, talk and make with others (archaeologists, botanists, writers etc) allowing our perspectives to interweave and find their own balance, in a similar way to disciplinary agnosticism’s “…multiple aspects of understanding that overlay and inter-combine”.

Ecologies of place: showing Vale of Pewsey walking pages, an art work by James Aldridge
Vale of Pewsey Walking Pages
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

Queer River gives me the freedom to follow the work wherever it wants to go, and to come to know a place with the river and its human/non-human inhabitants. Although I set up the project, the work isn’t ‘done’ by me alone, it arises through dialogue, and depends on an openness, a shared commitment to not knowing where we are heading.

Similarly, the authors quote Kenneth White in his description of Geopoetics as being “more than poetry concerned with the environment… Geopoetics is concerned fundamentally with a relationship to the earth and with the opening of a world… a place where all kinds of specific disciplines can converge. Once they are ready to leave over-restricted frameworks and enter into global (cosmological, cosmological, cosmopoetic) space.”

In exploring and sharing how the book informs my understanding of my Queer River research, it’s useful to look at some of my writing on Queer perspectives.

In A Queer Path to Wellbeing, a previous piece for ClimateCultures, I wrote:

“Not fitting in can be hard, being excluded when you want to belong. But when you realise that what you are excluded from are the very structures that are denying people the opportunity to experience the reality of the world of which they are a part, it can become a privileged position, a bird’s eye view of the divided terrain.”

If you’ve not grown up fitting in then you don’t necessarily accept or become constrained by some of the divisions and boundaries that Mary and Iain describe. For me, queer perspectives come with the potential for an ability to blur binaries and see beyond culturally constructed barriers. When you don’t fit the categories that a culture provides for you, you can be left with a kind of a superpower of seeing through the walls of categorisation.

As I wrote in A Queer Path to Wellbeing:

“My experience of exclusion from mainstream society was traumatic, and has left me hyper-aware of other’s actions, of the danger of being open about my sexuality in certain situations. Yet these experiences have also given me a chance to experience kinship with the more than human world, in ways that I might not otherwise have accessed, should I have slotted more easily into the role set out for me.”

I’m not able to go into a huge amount of depth on all aspects of Mary and Iain’s book, as it touches on a range of rich, creative practices, so I’m concentrating on what strikes me first and most deeply, the relationship between the disciplinary agnosticism that they describe the need for, and the opportunities that queer perspectives provide.

Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies

When thinking and reading about Deep Mapping, I started with the idea that this was the more natural fit for my practice. I’ve always been fascinated by maps and mapping. All my work is concerned with the way that art can facilitate coming to know a place and oneself through relationship, a reciprocity that arises out of reaching out to touch and being touched in return, of experiencing continuity with what is generally externalised as Nature.

Ecologies of place: showing Mapping Connections, an art work by James Aldridge
Mapping Connections – Drawing with Alder Cone Ink
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

As part of this work, I make drawings and rubbings, I write and collect, to document and process my experiences. The art objects are evidence of our interwoven nature, they map what is beyond my everyday awareness, what I don’t know consciously. But is this all deep mapping?

Last week I took Queer River to Glasgow at the invitation of Glasgow University as part of The Dear Green Bothy, “an open space where researchers, artists and communities can gather to respond creatively and critically to the challenges of the ecological crisis”. I spent time collaborating with local rivers, artists and others for the Queer River, Wet Land Project. In my walking, talking and making with others, I aim to set up a space for dialogue, between us (both rivers and people) and within ourselves. Our bodies, emotions and intellect come together, drawing from in-the-moment experiences and past encounters.

On each walk, there is a framework there to support us: a planned route along the river, a set of resources, a time to meet and to end, and an invitation to share a description of our work beforehand; but there is also a commitment to letting go of that planning when it serves the group, and a deliberate amount of space left for not knowing. Not knowing what we are going to say, what the weather will be like, what we will notice on the day, and how/whether we will choose to record what we notice.

Ecologies of place: showing collaborators on the Queer River, Wet Land project
Queer River Wet Land collaborators, Glasgow: Minty Donald, Cecilia Tortajada, Ingrid Shearer and Rachel Clive
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

Mary and Iain write that “in imagination and dreams, deep maps must always exceed our ability to realise them.” I take this to refer to the importance of being in a state of not knowing. The documentation produced on Queer River walks maps what happens as it happens, with a chance to reflect on and make sense of it retrospectively; otherwise we are limited to what we already know, and what we have been taught to see/experience.

They continue “..deep mapping projects may have little in common beyond a sense of their being an open-ended creative process deployed over an extended period.”

Recently in Queer River, I wonder whether the documentation is always necessary. Sometimes it is key to my understanding, sometimes it facilitates the dialogue, but occasionally it feels like I’m doing it to show that it is an art project, that there is something concrete to show for it, when actually the process of walking, talking and noticing is enough. In that case, where does the art exist? Without the documentation, the art object, what kind of art is it — a performance?

“Whether or not we wish to call what emerges from this process a ‘map’ (or the process itself ‘mapping’) seems to me less important than the fact that it is taking place at all… deep mapping can be looked upon as an embodied and reflexive immersion in a life that is lived and performed spatially.”
— Les Roberts, quoted in Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place.

After my time in Glasgow, and particularly my conversations with artist Minty Donald, Professor of Contemporary Performance Practice, I’m starting to understand that my practice has always prioritised process over product, and to wonder whether describing elements of it as performance could actually liberate it even further.

As for the concept of a Slow Residency, although Mary and Iain don’t expect the slowness to be taken literally, I see it connecting with my own exploration of the need to slow down and to notice, using art and embodied experience to listen to what the world needs us to hear, rather than parachuting in to project our own ideas of what a place is or needs onto it.

In this time of ecological collapse and climate breakdown, it is tempting to charge about ‘taking action’, but there are many kinds of action that are needed. Perhaps counterintuitively, when individuals and organisations around us are declaring an emergency, we need opportunities to slow down and to notice the reality of the situation we are living in, taking time to learn from human and non-human others with whom we share our locality. For me, that is what my arts practice, and Queer River specifically, is for.

Space beyond binaries in ecologies of place

I’m still working my way through Mary and Iain’s book. I’m enjoying reading a chunk and letting it settle, before dipping back in again. Iain has kindly donated a copy to the Climate Museum UK library (I’m an Associate Artist with CMUK), as he’s keen that the book reaches more people, via libraries and other organisations. So we will be able to use it as part of CMUK’s work, engaging with a range of cultural, educational and community-based organisations, sparking conversations around the Earth Crisis, art and interdisciplinarity.

As a consequence of my time in Glasgow with Minty and our fellow collaborators, we will be working on Queer River, Wet Land Part 2, putting together a performance score that people will be able to download and use to inform explorations of their own local rivers, before coming together to share reflections at an online event this Autumn, linked to COP26.

Queer River, Wet Land – Glasgow
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

As I take Queer River forward, I’ll carry questions with me as a legacy of reading the book and writing this piece, considering further the relevance of deep mapping, geopoetics and slow residencies. Returning to the question that I posed earlier — ‘So does this exploration then include me after all? Are we all in it together or am I still reading it from the position of an outsider, looking in, whether as a non-academic or queer person?’ — I find myself remembering that Queer Theory and quantum physics (which offers much in the way of inspiration around dialogue and multiplicity) offer me a space within which I can claim both positions; the right to exist both inside and outside of academia, outside and inside of the mainstream. A space within which my lived reality has room to grow, in a way that fits both my personal experience and the underlying ecological reality:

“The queer methodology attempts to combine methods that are often cast as being at odds with each other, and it refuses the academic compulsion toward disciplinary coherence.”
— Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity.

“What is essential here is the presence of the spirit of dialogue, which is in short, the ability to hold many points of view in suspension, along with a primary interest in the creation of common meaning.“
— David Bohm, On Dialogue.

Perhaps that’s not so far away from Iain and Mary’s disciplinary agnosticism after all.


Find out more

The online event with Iain Biggs that James attended in March 2021, Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place, was part of a series from the Intercultural Research Centre at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.

Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies by Mary Modeen and Iain Biggs is published by Routledge (2021); you can preview the introduction and several of the book’s chapters at their site. Iain has written about his motivations for co-authoring the book, with a brief outline of the chapters, in his ClimateCultures post, Disciplinary Agnosticism and Engaging with Ecologies of Place. You can also read recent posts on his own blog, such as After Disciplinarity? Mutual accompaniment, ensemble practices, and the climate emergency, where he shares the text of a talk he gave to Breaking Boundaries, a postgraduate student conference at Cardiff University. 

Queer River is the practice-led research project where James Aldridge collaborates with human and non-human others to explore the relationship between: diverse experiences of rivers and other wetland environments, including those of people from the LGBT+ community; Queer perspectives on Climate Justice; the impact of the climate and ecological crisis on river ecosystems and communities; and wetland regeneration and rewilding.

In the Queer River, Wet Land project, James is walking, talking and making with Glasgow-based artist Minty Donald, Professor of Contemporary Performance Practice at Glasgow University, and others to document their experiences of the River Clyde and Molendinar Burn. The project focuses on the interrelationship between the water and the land, in an exchange of practices that draws on work with their local rivers, and the substrates that they flow through/over. The collaboration is part of the Dear Green Bothy — a programme of free public events and activities marking Glasgow’s hosting of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November 2021, and demonstrating the vital role played by the arts and humanities in understanding and addressing climate emergency.

James mentions his exploration of the need to slow down and to notice, and you can read more about his approach in Slowing Down, Going Deeper on his blog. James is an Associate Artist with Climate Museum UK which was founded by independent researcher and creative Bridget McKenzie.

You can explore ideas and examples of geopoetics through the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics and its journal Stravaig — where ClimateCultures member James Murray-White is one of the editors.

James Aldridge
James Aldridge
A visual artist working with people and places, whose individual and participatory practices generate practice-led research into the value of artful, embodied and place-based learning ...
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Seeing the Flint Water Crisis

In our first accompaniment to Longer, a new ClimateCultures in-depth feature, arts researcher Jemma Jacobs introduces her recent study of the Flint Water Crisis and environmental racism as seen through one photographer’s work to make visible hidden perspectives.


1,830 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


Longer is the new ClimateCultures offering of works that don’t fit within the normal ‘short reads’ format of our blog: essays, fiction or other forms that haven’t appeared online elsewhere and explore in more detail the creative responses to our ecological and climate crisis. With each new Longer piece, the author introduces them here with an original post, where they can reflect on the motivation or inspiration behind the work or the process of creating it. Jemma’s essay for Longer is The Visuality of the Flint Water Crisis.

***

Environmental violence is racially discriminative; this is something I have always known, and my recent research provides mounting evidence to support it. When my Master’s course provided me with more opportunities to build on this knowledge — and add to the academic field in some way — I thought it would be dismissive to ignore the patterns of racial discrimination that I have recognised within the Anthropocene discourse.

At Goldsmiths University, I am completing a Master’s in Contemporary Art Theory. I have found that the Visual Culture department gives me the scope to explore topics utilising various schools of thought. With sustainability, environmental justice and art being three of my major interests, my course has given me the space to explore their intersections. Within the course I have explored Black Aesthetic Theory with regard to black music and poetry and the intersection between ecology and art theory, along with notions of power and subjectivity. Having completed my undergraduate degree in History of Art, my interest in visual culture remains strong. My move to Goldsmiths supported my growing curiosity in theory and environmental issues while allowing me to base my explorations within the visual. So, when given the chance to expand on my knowledge on the Anthropocene and its intersection with racial narratives, I decided to explore the Flint Water Crisis through the photographic lens of LaToya Ruby Frazier. My essay The Visuality of the Flint Water Crisis is published today on ClimateCultures.

The Flint Water Crisis & the Black Anthropocene

Beginning in 2014, with its effects predicted to last for many more years to come, the Flint Water Crisis saw the water of a community in Michigan become toxic. The health of adults and children was put in danger. Residents of Flint experienced a range of impacts, from hair loss to miscarriages and disease. Children’s brains were affected, showing damage to their learning, behaviour, hearing and speaking skills. The issue sits deep within a history of environmental racism, particularly when understood with these facts: the crisis was caused by the distinct ignorance and mishandling of those with power, in a city where over half are black or African American and over one third in poverty. The catastrophe highlights racial power imbalances that can be recognised globally. It therefore proves the need to expand on the idea of the Anthropocene – humanity as a whole is not the cause of the changing climate which we see today. Rather, the western powers of white supremacy. Kathryn Yusoff’s concept of the ‘Black Anthropocene’ recognises the inextricable link between the history of racial and environmental violence — arguing that one cannot exist without the other. Ultimately, environmental neglect has its roots in colonial ideas of power and possession.

Flint Water Crisis - showing Flint Water Plant
The Flint Water Crisis Is Ongoing
Photograph: George Thomas CC 2016 Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/hz536n/27805760502

Exploring the discriminatory aspects of the Flint Water Crisis through photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier provides a perspective that is otherwise left invisible. She gives visibility to the black community, emphasising their strength and perseverance within such a catastrophic moment. The title of her photographic series alone, Flint is Family (2016-2021), readdresses the imbalance of power underscored by the crisis. Frazier is an incredible American artist who draws off her own childhood in late 20th century Braddock, Pennsylvania. There, she experienced a declining economy and city. Frazier’s 2001-2014 series The Notion of Family captures the ‘ghost-town’ in a documentary way that sets up her style for later works. Expanding on the neglect she experienced herself, Frazier’s perspective on the Flint Water Crisis is extremely valuable in underlining the American experience, while demanding justice.

Living in the wake

In preparation for my body of work, I read many texts that gave me a theoretical understanding of the black experience. This work is imperative but does not override how I am part of the western white bias that is caught in the colonial modes of thinking that my work seeks to dissect. Making myself open to black authorship was not only important but essential prior to any exploration. Doing so allowed me to approach Frazier’s images with deeper consideration of historical patterns of injustice. Essential contemporary works, such as Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic and Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, grounded my study of the Flint Water Crisis in a history of racial injustice. Sharpe, specifically, allowed me to explore the existence of colonial attitudes within contemporary society as black communities live ‘in the wake’ of slavery. Her work permitted an investigation into the term ‘wake’ and its various denotations: such as the wake of a ship, referencing slavery but also its everlasting impacts in society today; and the act of being awake.

As mentioned before, Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None grounded this within a more environmental framework. Alongside this, Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything exposed me to the notion of the ‘sacrifice zone’ — “whole subsets of humanity categorized as less than fully human, which made their poisoning in the name of progress somehow acceptable.” This allowed me to see the city of Flint in a way that those in power at the time did: as geographically disposable.

Flint Water Crisis
Protestors march demanding clean water outside of Flint City Hall in Flint, Michigan.
Photograph: Flint Journal © 2015

My research confirmed and extended my knowledge of the need to recognise power disparities within our changing climate and how they are intimately tied to modes of governing. Seeking a recognition of this, my paper views Frazier’s photographs as making visible the invisible. The community of Flint were ignored, their health left to decline as those in power denied the state of their water system. Frazier’s series sheds light onto those communities and shouts their significance.

Visual culture as a positive force

In a world where our environment is being neglected, abused and exploited, black communities are disproportionately impacted. The mistreatment exhibited in the Flint Water Crisis is symptomatic of the greater black American experience at large. In my paper, I explore how contemporary inequities can be traced to the colonial period, how the importance of water is symbolically linked to such concepts. I explore how the visuals of photography reveal the climate crisis as compounding injustices that have been present for many years.

While it is important to be critical of those with power, especially those who use it in discriminatory ways, Frazier provides an alternative approach, one which should be focused on more: how it may be more productive to shed light on those vulnerable to that force. Lifting up communities who are at a disadvantage, especially when they’re portrayed as active agents and not simply passive victims, can work to bring equity to societal relations. Frazier undoubtedly produces a positive force. Her use of the ‘deadpan’ aesthetic arouses curiosity and emphasises the normalcy of racial discrimination. In her documentary photographic style, Frazier provides an intimate insight into the crisis — an understanding that photojournalism within the media is unable to fully render.

Flint Water Crisis - LaToya Ruby Frazer TED Talk, November 2019
Photographer LaToya Ruby Frazer TED Talk, November 2019 https://www.ted.com/talks/latoya_ruby_frazier_a_creative_solution_for_the_water_crisis_in_flint_michigan

Environmental violence can manifest in a variety of ways. The Flint Water Crisis acts as a prime example of its unjust and discriminatory pattern. Frazier’s photographs work brilliantly as a counter, productively expanding and flipping the narrative. My exploration of this in my paper helps to magnify links between past and present inequalities, while simultaneously adding to the discussion of visual arts and its contribution to historical understanding.


Find out more

You can read Jemma’s full essay The Visuality of the Flint Water Crisis, with a full bibliography. Visit our new Longer feature for more pieces from our members.

Unfortunately, we are not able to share LaToya Ruby Frazier’s images here but you can see her series (and video) Flint is Family, and other works, at her website. “In various interconnected bodies of work, Frazier uses collaborative storytelling with the people who appear in her artwork to address topics of industrialism, Rust Belt revitalization, environmental justice, access to healthcare, access to clean water, Workers’ Rights, Human Rights, family, and communal history. This builds on her commitment to the legacy of 1930s social documentary work and 1960s and ’70s conceptual photography that address urgent social and political issues of everyday life.” You can watch A creative solution to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the TED Talk Frazier gave on the Flint Water Crisis, her Flint is Family project and the work with communities in Flint that the project has helped to fund.

You can find out more about the Flint Water Crisis in The Flint water crisis: how citizen scientists exposed poisonous politics a Nature (2018) review of two books on the issues (The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy and What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City), and a series of articles published by The Guardian over several years.

Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993) is published by Harvard University Press. In The last humanist: how Paul Gilroy became the most vital guide to our age of crisis, The Guardian profiles Gilroy and his work. You can also explore Tate’s use of the term Black Atlantic and work by artists inspired by his book.

Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake (2016) is published by Duke University Press. On the violent language of the refugee crisis, published by Literary Hub (11/11/16), is an excerpt from the book. It is among the books that Ashlie Sandoval writes about in the “Books I Teach” series from Black Agenda report (19/2/20). 

Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2018) is published by University of Minnesota Press. Yusoff examines how the grammar of geology is foundational to establishing the extractive economies of subjective life and the earth under colonialism and slavery. You can read a review published by New Frame (28/8/19), a not-for-profit, social justice publication with “a pro-poor, pro-working class focus that aims to report faithfully and informatively about the lives and struggles of ordinary people.”

Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything (2015) is published by Simon & Schuster, where you can read an excerpt. You can explore more at the This Changes Everything website.

You can read about the use of the ‘deadpan aesthetic’ in photography in So what exactly is deadpan photography? from New York Film Academy (2014).

Finally, you can find out more about MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths University of London.

Jemma Jacobs

Jemma Jacobs

A researcher and curator of activist art, personally specialising in climate communication within the Anthropocene to draw attention to those suffering disproportionately from climate change impacts.
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The Art of Reimagining Managed Retreat

Artist Yky shares ideas and artworks he presented to an international conference addressing scientific, social, and governance issues around ‘managed retreat’ — and how artists need to engage with pedagogy to contextualize and reimagine responses to climate change.


2,440 words: estimated reading time = 10 minutes


In June 2021, Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York City organised a four-day conference addressing scientific, social, and governance issues around the theme of ‘managed retreat’. This conference covered a broad spectrum of topics, but all of them were meant to discuss resilience, relocation, and climate justice when facing the consequences of flooding. I was invited to discuss how art could address the challenges of climate-caused relocation.

At what point managed retreat? Columbia Climate School conference 2021

It was no surprise to me that, amongst key issues, it was recognised that most practitioners facing climate change and resilience challenges had no adequate professional preparation in terms of communication. Scientists are often blamed for not being able to see the value of unconventional narratives. But artists also have their share of responsibility. During this conference, it appeared that the meaning we give to the words ‘managed retreat’ and how to bring pedagogy into the process were two essential issues. To give more insights on the way art should address the question of communication improvement, I presented five of my works that question how vulnerabilities may turn natural hazards in disasters.

‘Managed retreat’ — advancing in a different direction?

Art provides powerful narratives, enabling us to bridge the gap between scientists and non-expert citizens. It gives a better understanding of the world. Its vision of reality enriches the collective debate, enabling a significant change by shifting the perspective to more open-minded views. It gives the opportunity to understand reality differently, either using our sense of understanding or our sense of emotions, or both. Facing disasters, be it due to climate change or others hazards, artists will use their skills to convey the message they find appropriate. Most often, the vulnerabilities that shape such disasters translate into a scope of artistic representations which are direct, realistic, emotional, strong, and visually meaningful.

But, seen from the artistic point of view, translating into a piece of art the meaning of ‘managed retreat’, though terribly actual, is much more challenging. During my presentation, one of the questions sent through the Q & A session asked “is the word ‘retreat’ appropriate to discuss the topics of the conference?” I think this was one of the most interesting questions, as indeed, the word ‘retreat’ can have a negative perception. It is linked to this idea that you have been defeated and that there is no other alternative than withdrawing and leaving the field to the ‘enemy’. Flooding-caused displacement cannot ignore our attachments to a community or a place. It needs to address social and environmental justice issues as integral parts of the retreat management. But at the same time, it is ambiguous. What do fairness or justice mean when dealing with the unavoidable tradeoffs linked to forced evictions, when prioritising access to retreat resources, when ignoring the fact that indigenous communities have tribal rights that are too often ignored by our post-colonialist behaviours?

But what about understanding retreat as ‘advancing in a different direction’? Could we think of retreat as being a way to reimagine, reinvent, redefine processes to give the environment its full place, promoting visions radically different from massive human movements? Undoubtedly, the creativity and imagination required to propose new scenarios, even ones seen as utopian, are the privilege of artists. But how can we describe the complexity of urban space from the artistic perspective? How could artists translate into their works the unpredictability of our future as described by Carl Folke of the Stockholm Resilience Centre?

There is a need for all artists to better understand some concepts. ‘Resilience’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘risk management’ are not interchangeable words. When sustainability calls for more efficiency, resilience is more focused on redundancy. Both need to be linked, and the conditions providing a synergistic effect between the two concepts are key when looking for the path to reimagine ‘managed retreat’. Artists don’t need to be experts, but they need to know how to address through their skills the issues related to climate disasters. Empathy is not enough; there is a need to better engage with scientists, to better contextualize the concepts so that such concepts, through an artistic expression, help non-expert citizens to understand how and why retreating from flooding-prone areas and moving to safer ground can also meet their needs.

Bringing pedagogy into the process

The scientific community may understand complex concepts but without appropriate storytelling it will fail to engage people, for a simple reason: facts are not enough. We also need the right narrative and, in this respect, art can help.

There are many examples of associations, like Art of Change in France, Artseverywhere in Canada, or Julie’s Bicycle in the UK, with talented artists who are committed towards climate change. And some of them bring artists and experts together to imagine and propose answers and ideas for adaptation and transformation. But few are engaged together in a pedagogical process. However, artists need to recognise their social responsibility and be involved in an artistic approach consistent with the objectives we are trying to reach. Some of them may find it difficult to leave their comfort zone: going beyond a natural sensitivity finding its expression in a painting, in a sculpture or in a poem is not easy, and sometimes not feasible. But artists can also engage in improving our well-being and well-living, using their skills to increase our collective awareness, through a designed pedagogical approach together with scientists in a co-working exercise.

Ultimately, the threats and challenges we all face are so high that being committed towards non-expert citizens becomes a duty. A pedagogical approach is not needed simply to make non-expert citizens aware of the challenges they face; but it is definitely a requirement if artists want to play a role in explaining the systemic nature of socio-ecological threats shaping our vulnerabilities.

Pedagogy cannot be decreed; it needs to be learned. And in the specific case of hazards and related disasters, teaching is cognitively challenging. When both experts and artists decide to join their skills, Paulo Freire can be very helpful. Freire was a Brazilian educator and sociologist who dedicated most of his work to vulnerable communities. His work — most of it can be found online — was about how knowledge should be transferred from teacher to learner, and the core was based on the idea that unequal social relations build the path to a “culture of silence” which is created to oppress. To this extent, it leads to questioning the systemic nature of inequalities in our society, shaping the vulnerabilities that lead to disasters. ‘Teachers’ following Freire’s principles, will need to develop the critical consciousness of ‘learners’, aiming to build a “cultural action for freedom”.

Managed retreat: the art of critical thinking

Redefining ‘managed retreat’ in such a way that the focus moves from disruption in human occupancy to promoting new visions incorporating issues of gender, race and equity questions the nature of artistic approaches. How can they be consistent with the duty to (re)educate communities about conceptual processes which themselves had their share of responsibility in creating inequalities? In line with Freire’s approach to giving more importance to questions than to answers, artworks should prioritise such issues. By doing so, art will engage in this ‘critical thinking’, seen as the cornerstone that enables us to reconsider what has been taken for granted when this is needed.

In the five works I showed during the conference, and seen below, the property of argentic paper to darken when exposed to light should be seen as an allegory of ephemerality, questioning the value of what lasts in time. Each is a diptych of two photographs illustrating a given urban space impacted by a natural hazard. While the first one is stable in time, the second image darkens — with some parts disappearing as the argentic emulsion turns black. It is the comparison between the two photographs that will lead the viewer to question the resilience level of the urban space. Being ephemeral, this work can be seen as having no value, unless its value lies in the questions it raises.

“Only the ephemeral is of lasting value.”
Eugène Ionesco (playwright, 1909-1994)

Shakes 

‘Shakes’ questions how resilience can be implemented in the case of widespread destruction by earthquakes, which are devastating at different levels. They impact the cities, the organisations and the persons. But they also talk about an irrational fear, which is the destruction of our matrix. In this diptych, the second picture darkens in time in such a way that only the broken glass path remains, referring to our fears and vulnerability, while two attributes of our cultural heritage — a Le Corbusier building and the Golden Gate Bridge — are endangered even when not destroyed

Yrban resilience: Showing Shakes, a diptych by artist Yky
Shakes, a diptych: D0 and D+
Artist: Yky © 2018

The Japanese paradox

The Japanese paradox’ is all about the difference between risk management and urban resilience. It is well-known that the Japanese culture of risk management is almost second nature. But do we really speak of urban resilience, the way we understand it, when philosophical and/or religious principles refrain from addressing the norms that sometimes need to be reconsidered? In that work, darkness in time is detrimental to the city and its inhabitants, confronting the great wave of Hokusaï, symbolising the almighty nature that no one can stop.

Managed retreat: showing 'A Japanese paradox at D0 and D+', a diptych by artist Yky
‘A Japanese paradox at D0 and D+’, a diptych
Artist: Yky © 2018

La Seine

La Seine’ was taken during the substantial flood in Paris three years ago. And this work is about the adaptation of historical cities’ urban environment. How far are we ready to go in losing our cultural heritage, and what does this mean in terms of resilience?

Managed retreat: Showing 'La Seine, a diptych at D0 and D+' by Yky
‘La Seine, a diptych at D0 and D+’
Artist Yky © 2018

NB: ‘Shakes’, ‘The Japanese paradox’, and ‘La Seine’ were showcased just before the pandemic during the Art of Resilience exhibition organised by the World Bank in Washington DC.

Do cities learn from getting burned?

This work was inspired by the Australian tragedy that we all remember but is also related to the ongoing and never-stopping fires in California. And it speaks of the moment where cities will be impacted, and not only the wild-urban interface. It also questions our inability or difficulty to learn from aboriginal traditions in terms of fire risk management.

Do cities learn from getting burned, a diptych at D0 and D+' by artist Yky
‘Do cities learn from getting burned, a diptych at D0 and D+’
Artist: Yky © 2019

Is NYC retreat inevitable?

This work refers to the different issues discussed during the conference. It was inspired by an article published last year in the online journal NewCities in which the CEO of the Star City group explained why he decided to leave the Hudson River area where he was living and why he did not believe any longer in urban resilience. This work concluded my presentation, not only because it refers directly to the conference topic, but also because not being able to explain to non-expert citizens the meaning of urban resilience should be seen as a collective failure.

'Managed retreat: Showing 'Is NYC retreat inevitable? a diptych at D0 and D+' by artist Yky
‘Is NYC retreat inevitable? a diptych at D0 and D+’
Artist: Yky © 2020

Find out more

You can explore the programme for the At What Point Managed Retreat? conference and watch videos of all the sessions. Yky explores many aspects of urban resilience in a changing climate in his Resi-city blog about his work picturing urban resilience seen from the citizen point of view: for example, Exploring spirituality in the urban frame. Some of the artworks featured in this post — including Shakes — were exhibited at Art of Resilience, organised by the World Bank in Washington, DC. In Urban Resilience? Art, the Missing Link, his earlier post for ClimateCultures, Yky offers further thoughts on art as a pedagogic tool and imagines a conversation between citizens, a scientist and the artist himself as they consider Shakes.

You can read about the language we associate with coastal change and particular responses such as managed retreat in You can’t resist the sea: Evolving attitudes and responses to coastal erosion at Slapton, South Devon, a 2009 paper by geographer Stephen Trudgill.

Yky mentions the work of Carl Folke and the Stockholm Resilience Centre. You can download and read Resilience: Now more than ever, an article co-authored by Folke for Ambio: A journal of the Human Environment in 2002 and shared as part of the journal’s 50 years celebration in 2021: “As proffered in the Ambio article, resilience is about learning from and developing with change, rather than managing against change. Resilience is about having the capacities to live with complexity, uncertainty, and change, abrupt or incremental, and continue to develop with ever changing environments. This includes both adaptation and transformation.”

Among the organisations bringing together artists’ responses to environmental and climate change, Yky mentions: Art of Change in France, which was created in Paris in 2014 ahead of COP21 and “highlights the role of artists and creativity as accelerators of the ecological transition and acts on an international scale”; Artseverywhere in Canada, “a platform for artistic experimentation and exploration of the fault lines of modern society”; and Julie’s Bicycle in the UK, “mobilising the arts and culture to take action on the climate and ecological crisis.”

The work of Brazilian educator and sociologist Paulo Freire is celebrated by the Freire Institute, an organisation for transformative community-based learning, and many other organisations around the world (which you can find listed at the Freire Institute). “Freire developed an approach to education that links the identification of issues to positive action for change and development. While Freire’s original work was in adult literacy, his approach leads us to think about how we can ‘read’ the society around us. For Freire, the educational process is never neutral. People can be passive recipients of knowledge — whatever the content — or they can engage in a ‘problem-posing’ approach in which they become active participants. As part of this approach, it is essential that people link knowledge to action so that they actively work to change their societies at a local level and beyond.” Freire wrote The Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1968, translated into English in 1970.

Yky mentions Anthony Townsend, the CEO of the Star City group, who decided to leave the Hudson River area over climate resilience concerns when the river flooded Hoboken, New Jersey: Our Inevitable Retreat is the article Townsend wrote for NewCities. “The plan I came up with was simple — move inland and uphill. To my disbelief, the housing market hadn’t skipped a beat. Once I finally pulled the trigger, my condo sold in less than a week, at a profit.” 

Yky
Yky
A citizen artist exploring urban resilience whose photographic works use argentic paper's response to light to highlight the challenges raised by climate hazards in urban spaces.
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