The Rise of Climate Fiction #1: Beyond Dystopia and Utopia

In our latest Members' Post, author David Thorpe gives an overview of the development of fictional works addressing climate change. This was a talk he gave to a recent workshop on Popular Narratives of Environmental Risk - part of a series called Fate, Luck and Fortune - and I'm delighted he is sharing this with ClimateCultures. In this first of two parts, David starts with his own discovery of the term 'Clif-fi' when he published his novel, Stormteller - and how its rise reveals the tension between our twin fascinations with utopian and dystopian visions.

I hadn’t heard of Cli-fi until my novel Stormteller came out in 2014. It’s a novel for young adults, set where I used to live in Borth, north Wales, a beautiful part of the country. Climate activist and writer George Marshall read it and told me I’d written a cli-fi novel. I said, what’s that? And he put me in touch with Dan Bloom, who’d coined the term in 2007. Bloom is not an academic but a self-styled journalist and campaigner, he likes being an outsider. An ex-pat American, he lives in Taiwan, blogging and tweeting as the self-appointed guardian of all things cli-fi.

Cli-fi is fiction about climate change. I’d written a novel which was about climate change, set ten years in the future, when a storm surge means Tomos’ house is destroyed and he has to live with his sworn enemy, Bryn. But Bryn’s smallholding is raided by people from Birmingham, desperate for food as the supermarkets are empty. This sets in motion a deeply upsetting series of events. So I marketed Stormteller as cli-fi.

Stormteller, by David Thorpe
Artist: Elaine Franks © 2014
http://www.elainefranksartwork.co.uk

On the back of that we got the Hay Festival to agree to hold its first panel session on cli-fi, which I invited George to sit on as a way of returning the favour, and I brought in a couple of other cli-fi writers, like Saci Lloyd. Saci is the author of The Carbon Diaries 2015 (written in 2007) and 2017 (written the following year). These are written for teenage girls in particular.

Saci discussed how she had been working on climate change with kids in schools and youth groups, using the book to stimulate conversations. “Compared to superheroes or music, climate change is a pretty dull subject but I’ve learned that the best way to get my message across is to be passionate, completely committed. Gradually they move from being apathetic to ‘What? Why didn’t we know any of this!'”

That, for me, is what cli-fi is for. That’s the measure of its success. To wake people up. The panel at Hay was asked by the public there why we feel the need to talk about climate change in books. Well, basically, because it’s hardly taught in schools. “If you do geography or science, then you might touch on it,” said Saci. “But it’s not a core subject, so it’s quite possible to go right through school and come out the other not knowing anything about climate change.” There you go. Amazing. The most pressing subject facing the planet and we pretend it isn’t happening.

So I heard myself defending this: “There’s nothing wrong with using fiction to talk about serious subjects. Children’s writers have been doing this since Charles Kingsley wrote The Water Babies about child chimney sweeps.” Yet there was a young Telegraph journalist sitting on the front row. She took what I said and turned into a headline in the following day’s printed version of the paper, which read: “Climate activists say: ‘We must infect children’s minds'”. Infect children’s minds. As if they’re not infected anyway by advertising and junk food and social media.

So, with the predictable inevitability of the internet, this was soon picked up by nutters and climate sceptics. And the next thing I knew I was being accused of corruption of minors, child molestation and even, in one tweet from a fundamentalist Jewish organisation, of being Hitler. Which just goes to show the truth of Godwin’s Law, that any internet argument will inevitably lead to somebody being accused of being a Nazi.

Defining cli-fi

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

Jules Verne’s The Purchase of the North Pole First English edition, 1891

Michael Crichton’s State of Fear (2004) is a techno-thriller that portrays climate change as “a vast pseudo-scientific hoax”. And Margaret Atwood is always referenced in articles about cli-fi because of her dystopian trilogy Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013). Oryx and Crake envisages a world where “social inequality, genetic technology and catastrophic climate change, has finally culminated in some apocalyptic event”. You’ve got corporate compounds, gated communities and “unsafe, populous and polluted” urban areas where the plebs live. Yep, standard dystopic stuff.

Which gets me thinking. Do the stories we tell influence the future we will live in? Or are we just speaking to the converted?

Do the stories we tell influence the future we will live in?

I know from my own introspection that fear is a massive motivator for negative behaviour… In Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine, fear of being a victim of crime is given as a prominent reason for the huge disparity between homicide rates in Canada and the USA, many other factors being equal. But what fuels the fear? The daily dosage of crime reportage meted out to the American public in the media, says Moore. This drives gun ownership and an obsession with security, a perception that crime rates are much worse than they really are and a consequent perceived need to arm oneself and shoot first.

In other words, he says, the moral, social and political fabric of American society is being skewed by the distorted picture of the world being drip fed into the American psyche. In this feedback loop, each random mass shooting and each deliberate homicide reinforces the feeling of threat and the conviction that possession of loaded firearms is the best form of personal security, a feeling that is precisely opposite to the reality. For – as Moore’s documentary portrays – in Canada, where levels of gun ownership are approximately equal to the USA and the population is also racially mixed, many people do not even bother to lock their doors and murder rates are extremely low. News media and politicians there do not fuel the inevitability of violence as a means of solving problems, instead focusing on the need for mediation, negotiation and compromise.

Similarly, how else can we explain the fact that it’s only really in America that climate scepticism reaches epic, violent proportions, where political polarity fuelled by fake news paid for – literally, as documented by Greenpeace and others – by fossil fuel companies convinces scientifically illiterate people that they know better than 97% of the world’s climate scientists?

The conclusion I draw from this is that the stories we are told about the world out there define the way we prepare ourselves to face it. And, as Dan Bloom has it, fiction has the power to reach parts of the human psyche inaccessible to politicians and scientists. We writers like to believe we can change minds.

Or are we just speaking to the converted?

Let’s look at it from the writer’s point of view. Some of us are thinking: what kind of world do we want to live in? What kind of future will our children inhabit? What is the best future we can imagine? But others aren’t. From Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis and Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times, through George Orwell’s 1948 book Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Lucas’ 1971 film THX 1138, Mega-City One from Judge Dredd, conceived in 1977, to Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, they have all set the template for many other stories and films, such that in the popular imagination the sprawling mega-cities of the future will largely be over-populated, polluted, broken places, featuring dark towers, high levels of surveillance and crime, their citizens treated little better than battery-reared animals, and no room for nature.

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

Where would you rather live: Utopia or dystopia?

William Gibson, in his 1979 cyberpunk thriller Neuromancer, describes Night City, a fictional city located between Los Angeles and San Francisco on the west coast of the United States as being “like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button.” Dystopian par excellence, it has inspired a roleplay game, Cyberpunk 2020, and a detailed guide book – not bad for a fictional city. Night City is an arcology – a portmanteau of “architecture” and “ecology” – a design concept for very densely populated habitats, coined and popularized by architect Paolo Soleri. But it turns out that he and other architects have conceived highly sustainable and desirable arcologies. Soleri’s concept appears as early as 1969 in his Arcology: City in the Image of Man (MIT Press, 1969). Attempts have even been made to build them.

Soleri intended his Babel IIB arcology as “an anti-consumptive force and a city form that is the only choice compared to pathological sprawl and environmental destruction”. It was designed for a population of 520,000, at a height of 1,050 meters. Besides residential spaces it includes gardens and waste processing plants, everything you need: parks, food factories, etc.

Paulo Soleri’s ‘Arcology: The City in the Iage of Man’

Funny that Gibson took the idea and then reverted it to pathological sprawl and environmental destruction. Just goes to show that the devil gets the best tunes. Which, I submit, is part of our problem as we collectively, culturally, try to imagine the future.

Why are there more dystopias than utopias? Partly the answer is obvious – in dystopias there is more conflict and this means more drama. In a utopia, less so, so they are intrinsically boring. But, I submit, we need the examples of pleasant potential societies to aspire to. Or is that the province of religion?

Some cli-fi novels contain solutions. The Sea and Summer by George Turner (1987) ends with the protagonists being taken from a hellish part of the world ruled by misguided religious nutters to a sanely governed one. But we don’t get to see much of it.

Ben Parzybok, author of Sherwood Nation (2014) did it in Portland, Ohio, where he lives. He imagined it being wrecked by prolonged water shortages and part of the city forming an autonomous zone. In an interview I did with him he said:

“Since I live in the center of the temporary autonomous zone in Sherwood Nation, it was a joy to bike through it and imagine where a wall would go, or guard posts, or how the micro-nation might implement a trade route — or even how I might destroy a friend’s house. Also, the Occupy movement was setting up TAZs in many cities, and so I extrapolated that to a full-fledged alternative government.”

But he doesn’t think it’s a utopia, just a grass-roots way of organising society. And it gets destroyed, easily, by the authorities. He said:

“I would love to try to write a utopia, especially because these visions are subjective, though I’m guessing it would be more challenging. Story is dull without conflict or tension, and so the author would need to find a means of adding that into a utopia without sacrificing the utopic nature of it. A book with a character who wanders between a dystopia and utopia, I would read / write.”


In Part 2 of the Rise of Climate Fiction: The Emotional Key, which you can read here, David discusses the importance of fiction that explores the emotional ramifications of climate change in the daily realities of the lives of its characters - and of ourselves.

Find out more:

David’s novel Stormteller is published by Cambria Books in paperback and e-book. And you can see more of his fiction and non-fiction at his website.

You can find out more about the series of workshops Fate, Luck and Fortune, which were organised by Nottingham University’s Department of Classics as part of an AHRC-funded research project into how do we talk about the risks of our environment?

The Words That Make Our Stories…

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

approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes 


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

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

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

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

Erosion

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

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

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

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

– Phil Dyke, Erosion

Managed realignment

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

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

– Tim Dee, Managed realignment

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

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

– Stephen Trudgill, You can’t resist the sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Elizabeth Reddy, Stability

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

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

Story-radar

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Gareth Hoskins, Story-radar

Aspic

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

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

– Caitlin Desilvey, Aspic

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

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

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

– Jenny Odell, Tralfamidorification

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

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


Find out more

The words

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

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

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

The other texts

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

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

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

Questioning old senses? Space for creative thinking...  

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

Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form

Anticipatory History

Writer Mark Goldthorpe reviews Anticipatory history, a book that explores the possibilities for ‘looking back’ at histories of environmental change in places to help us ‘look forward’ to what futures might be in store, and we might shape.


approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes  


A copy of Anticipatory history goes to Jennifer Leach for her contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. 

***

This 2011 book grew from the experiences of the Anticipatory History Research Network, a one year project within AHRC’s Landscape and Environment Programme. Led by Caitlin DeSilvey and Simon Naylor at Exeter University, the network brought together fellow scholars in humanities, social, natural and physical sciences, writers and artists, and environmental practitioners in wildlife, coastal, landscape and heritage management. I had the good fortune to be doing my MA Climate Change at Exeter at the time. So, although my involvement was at the latter stages of their research, I was able to contribute some work locally with the National Trust — on ‘Storying adaptation’ — to the network’s final symposium. 

Here, I want to introduce Anticipatory history the book — as a process, a product and a provocation. It’s a slim volume but written in many voices, offering rewarding encounters on different levels.

Process

Publication often seems the natural endpoint of research activity, but the group assembled around this network’s central question — what roles do “history and story-telling play in helping us to apprehend and respond to changing landscapes, and to changes to the wildlife and plant populations they support?” — found themselves creating this book almost as a byproduct of their discussions. Something that I’ve encountered when researching how large, multi-partner climate change projects successfully incorporate very different academic fields and societal stakeholders is that the new interdisciplinary teams very often spend 18 months — typically up to half the project lifetime — coming to terms with each other’s vocabulary and ways of seeing the world. They have to find ways to achieve that in parallel with ‘doing the job’. Often an ad hoc and iterative process, this frequently catalyses creative approaches to ‘getting to know each other’. One large network developed their own glossary for terms that engineers, sociologists, modellers and planners might have ‘in common’ but which had different meanings and usages for each ‘tribe’. 

It seems that Anticipatory history developed in a similar way:  

“Over the course of four meetings a number of people participated in an extended discussion about the meaning and efficacy of anticipatory history as a concept and a mode of engagement with the past. As we followed debates we noted down key terms on index cards – words or phrases that have a bearing on aspects of environmental change over time and in place, and our responses to these changes. We then went through a process of culling entries and drafting collective definitions. Lastly, participants were asked to adopt particular key terms and to produce entries. This book is then a work of many hands and can in no way claim to be the product of a single vision. It was never our intention to provide a definitive statement on the means and ends of anticipatory history, even if that was possible to do.”

At what point that exercise crystallised into a book for a wider readership, I don’t know, but it has been offered as a glossary or work of reference for those wanting to know more about … Well, what is ‘anticipatory history’?

"Looking to pasts and futures" - redundant lighthouse lenses at Orford Ness, Suffolk coast. Photograph by Mark Goldthorpe
“Looking to pasts and futures” – redundant lighthouse lenses at Orford Ness, Suffolk coast
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2012

The introductory essay that includes the passage above starts by noting that while reports of climate and environmental change are “the daily fare of a twenty-first century media diet” our ability to take in and respond personally to the implications or lived experiences of change’s impacts often disconnects from scientific data.

“Many of these changes … will register as subtle (or not so subtle) alterations in familiar landscapes: a lost section of coastal path, a favourite flower vanished, dwindling populations of waterbirds in a local saltmarsh, the removal of a customary fishing quay. But the range of available responses to these changes is limited – usually cast in terms of loss and guilt – and we often do not have the cultural resources to respond thoughtfully, to imagine our own futures in a tangibly altered world.”

As a clutch of the book’s entries explain, our personal sense of time and the ‘natural’ state of things is shaped by our generational timeframes: what one entry (Shifting baseline syndrome) calls “’generational amnesia’, due to relatively short life spans and memories” and another (Tempocentrism) describes as “the tendency to take for granted the premises, expectations and values of one’s own timeframe.” We struggle to acknowledge unwelcome changes in our environment (either locally or in places with treasured memories) — or, if acknowledged, to accept what is often the naturalness of processes we cannot halt. A third entry (Presentism) raises the risks of extending these mental frames into how we imagine the past, where we inevitably filter, select and assemble our own data on what that famously ‘foreign country’ was really like; “We make our stories about the past; we don’t find them fully formed … Do we have any chance of transcending our present point of view when we approach the making of history, and should we be pretending to?”

Our relationship with past and future, caught as we always are in the interval of uncertainty between the two, can be emotionally and culturally complex and unsettling. Anticipatory history offers ways to interrogate our uncertainties; the example of Orford Ness lighthouse suggests how impermanent features in our landscape can become stabilised in our imagination, and natural processes then threaten both the physical and cultural permanence which seems so natural to our tempocentric selves. The lighthouse, already at risk of erosion of the Orford Ness shingle bank, was also deemed redundant as coastal wayfinder: a combination which undermines the future of this 220-year-old Suffolk landmark. Indeed, the lighthouse has now been decommissioned and the sea continues its advance on the brick building. What was once an aid to navigation in space might slip into a new, symbolic role as navigational aid between past and future; there was a time with no lighthouse on the shingle, and this seems likely again. ‘Anticipatory history’, as conceptual framework, explores how looking back in a place might help us look ahead to its plausible futures. Highlighting the potential for Palliative curation as one approach to this predicament, Anticipatory history suggests an end-of-life ethic of care and attention, taking our leave of loved but transient features. 

With these subjective, limited perceptions and judgements in mind, it can be tempting to see scientific and technical expertise as the prized location for all useable knowledge about historical and future change, the only reliable base for our policies. That, time and again, it still surprises us when this fails to deliver everything we expected is not an argument against expertise or evidence, but for a broadening of what we mean by these, and what counts. Picking up the book’s introduction again,

“History and storytelling … might seem a surprising place to begin an investigation into the potential consequences of environmental change … However, our argument is that the humanities have much to contribute to these debates. [Some forms of history,] guided by a concern for the future, [look] to the past to find intellectual, emotional, and spiritual resources to help us direct this concern towards sustaining specific communities – both human and ecological.”

‘Anticipatory history’ borrows that future orientation from the notion of ‘anticipatory adaptation’ to prospective changes rather than ‘reactive adaptation’ after the fact. Looking back can inform a more experimental gaze forward, exploring our imaginations and stories of environmental change, our different versions of ‘here and ‘now’ as well as ‘there and then’. The authors quote two historians:

“Our ability to project ourselves into the future, imagining alternative lives that lead us to set new goals and work toward new ends, is merely the forward expression of the experience of change we have learned from reflecting on the past.” – William Cronon

“We study the past not in order to find out what really happened there or to provide a genealogy of and thereby a legitimacy for the present, but to find out what it takes to face a future we should like to inherit rather than one that we have been forced to endure.” – Hayden White

Product

Anticipatory history book cover. Photograph by Shaun Pimlott / Colin Sackett / Uniform Books
Book cover
Photograph: Shaun Pimlott / Colin Sackett / Uniform Books © 2011
http://www.colinsackett.co.uk/anticipatoryhistory.php

The book’s different authors were therefore engaging with the past(s) not out of nostalgia but out of a desire to see how “the stories we tell about ecological and landscape histories shape our perception of what we might call future ‘plausabilities’”, complementing the scientific study of climate change probabilities. As such, anticipatory approaches to history might “intersect with other areas of concern – including the communication of science, the pragmatics of land management and the practice of art.” Relying solely on any one of these approaches — or even a naïve combination of all three — in situations of contention, controversy and conflict over threats to valued wildlife, landscapes, heritage or livelihoods can be a damaging experience. When a partnership of agencies culled the ‘invasive’ rats on Lundy island in order to restore breeding populations of birds, they acted solely on scientific grounds and without public consultation. Recounting the outcry from animal welfare protestors wanting to “save the Lundy rats” , the book exposes the moral judgements that scientific justifications rested upon: “that introduced species should be removed to support indigenous species; that less charismatic animals should make way for more popular ones; and that people’s emotional responses to the killing of the rats were not relevant to the decision-making process.”

“Terms like ‘slaughter’ were used to describe the cull. The risk to other animals from possible ingestion of the poisons was highlighted. Protesters also noted that the rats had been on the island for over 400 years, and in doing so questioned the implication that the rats were recent interlopers – unwanted immigrants that disrupted a settled indigenous nature on the island.”

How different interests, communities and individuals “know the past in place” is as crucial and meaningful as the professional expertise informing our decisions on how we respond to change.

“Anticipatory history may be capable of tapping into these meanings, in that it does not attempt to construct a singular, authoritative historical narrative. As an approach, it leaves room for expressing the ‘small stories’ and ‘lay knowledges’ that are layered in place, and then linking these to a hoped-for future.”

Provocation

So, back to the glossary. The 50 terms explored in this book range from the technical-sounding (Acclimatisation, Coastal squeeze, Entropy, Equilibrium, Managed realignment, Monitoring) to the deceptively simple (Birds, Ebb and flood, Living landscapes, Memory, Museum, Place, Rhododendron, Tides, Woods) via the playful or provocative (Besanded, Dream-map, Liminal zone, Palliative curation, Rewilding, Story-radar, Unfarming, Zone of exclusion).

When to let go? Coastguard cottages at Birling Gap, Seven Sisters, East Sussex. Photograph by National Trust Images / John Miller
When to let go? Coastguard cottages at Birling Gap, Seven Sisters, East Sussex
Photograph: © National Trust Images / John Miller
https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/birling-gap-and-the-seven-sisters/

You can move between these personal explorations guided simply by your curiosity, the convenience of the alphabetical ordering, the threads of different authors’ reappearances, an index map that ties each entry to a place in the British Isles — or by the handy signposting under each entry, pointing you to: (Erosion) “See: Art, Coastal squeeze, Cycle of erosion”, or (Equilibrium) “Do not see: Entropy. See: Shifting baseline syndrome”; (Entropy) “Do not see: Equilibrium. See: Aspic, Discontinuity”, and so on. It’s a book that calls you to explore, revisit and share.

The variety of voices, styles, genres, directions and intents found even within the confines of an academic and professional network makes for a very partial glossary, whose cumulative effect is to hint at alternative ‘meanings’ that could have found their way into these entries via different authors, and at the ghosts of other terminologies and common words which might just as easily have featured in the discussions sparking this work. Being partial but being open about partiality and to inviting in more seems to me to be one value of an anticipatory learning from our subjective histories and imagined futures.

In a later post, I will look at some of the entries in the book and the themes these explore.


Find out more

You can read a response to this review from environmental artist Linda Gordon, illustrated with a recent example of her ephemeral art.

Anticipatory history (2011), edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor and Colin Sackett, is published by Uniform Books. All the indented passages and unattributed quotations are taken from the book’s Introduction, which you can download as a sample. There is more information on the research network activities that produced the book at the Arts and Humanities Research Network programme pages.

The quotation from William Cronon is taken from his 2000 article Why history matters, (Wisconsin Magazine of History, 84, 2-13) available at his website.

The quotation from Hayden White is taken from E Domanska (2008) A conversation with Hayden White, (Rethinking History, 12, 3-21) and might be found through a web search…

Questioning a word? Space for creative thinking... 

"One of the entries in Anticipatory history is Enclosure. What does this word mean to you, in the conext of environmental change and how we imagine and discuss pasts, places and futures?" 

Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form. 

The Stories We Live By

Writer Mark Goldthorpe explores an online ecolinguistics course, delving into how we structure and receive our various discourses — texts, dialogues, advertising, news reports, stories — in ways that shape our attitudes and beliefs on environmental, social and economic issues.


approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes  


The Stories We Live By is a free online course in ecolinguistics, created by Arran Stibbe at the University of Gloucestershire and a team of volunteers from the International Ecolinguistics Association. A programme that you can study at your own pace, with an optional online forum, it looks at how language structures our environmental relationships: stories as “structures in the minds of individuals … or across the minds of multiple individuals in society.”

“Ecolinguistics analyses language to reveal the stories we live by, judges those stories from an ecological perspective, resists damaging stories, and contributes to the search for new stories to live by.” – Arran Stibbe, course notes

There are many ways of viewing the environmental challenges we face – from the bright ‘can do’ optimism of ecomodernism to the darker ecology realms of ‘uncivilisation’ and beyond. But what they have in common is a recognition that the stories we’ve told ourselves to get to this situation – stories we’ve told ourselves into – have created an urgent for us need to find new ones, better aligned with environmental imperatives.

Those old stories include those our Book Club is discussing, in Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics: myths of the unquestioned need for endless economic “growth”, narrow indicators of “healthy” GDP figures, “free markets” steering us clear of the “tragedy of the commons”. But the ideological limitations of stories can also be seen in environmental world views that shape competing planet-saving blueprints – an area also discussed in Mike Hulme’s book Why We Disagree About Climate Change.

I’m about half way through, and enjoying the very clear notes, exercises and further reading on offer with each module: moving easily but with much thought through discussions on ideologies, framings and metaphors, with fascinating examples and questions. The course will also take me through how we use stories to evaluate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the world, the identities we hold as individuals and groups, our convictions about the way the world is, and how language makes some issues invisible.

‘Words from a Glossary’ #1, Image: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017  Glossary: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk

Ecolinguistics and our stories

This could all be quite heavy, freighted with all sorts of academic terminology (‘ecolinguistics’ itself, for example). Fortunately, the notes and exercises have a light touch, using clear everyday language in between the necessary (and interesting) smattering of technical stuff (a helpful glossary covers all those new words and phrases). The course is not about finding the “correct” way of talking about the natural world and our relationships with it; there is no single, “right’ story. Yes, ecolinguistics invites us to judge the stories we receive from media, government, businesses and campaign groups, use in our professional and personal lives, or tell ourselves. But “judging a story from an ecological perspective involves comparing it with [our] own ecological philosophy, or ecosophy” – and recognising in the process that ours is one of many; our judgements are always relative to that personal perspective. 

So what does ecolinguistics involve?

  • It focuses on discourses that help shape how we act towards human and other beings and ecosystems.
  • It looks for how linguistic features form our cultural codes: the values and norms that reflect our ‘common sense’ view of the world.
  • It reveals our own ‘ecosophy’ and how different discourses align with or contradict this.
  • It raises awareness of the role of language in ecological protection or destruction, through policy, education, news and entertainment.

Early on, ‘the Ecosophy Quiz” asks us to assess our own ecological philosophy, accepting or rejecting a number of statements on a spectrum from cornucopianism, sustainable development, social ecology, ecofeminism, deep ecology, transition movement, dark mountain project, deep green resistance, voluntary human extinction movement and beyond. Interestingly, there were no overtly religious or spiritual statements to dis/agree with, which seems a lack given the central position of faith in cultures, countries and personal lives around the world.

‘Words from a Glossary’ #2, Image: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017 Glossary: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk

The problem with problems

I’ll focus more on specific aspects of the course in another post, but one early point for me has been to get me to revisit my own position, that climate change is not a problem – in the sense that it’s not something with a ‘solution’. That perspective unsettled rather than shocked me when I first heard Mike Hulme suggest several years ago. It did shock many others in the room – a gathering of people with clear ideas of what the solutions are, and a drive to get them adopted. I came to agree with Hulme’s point pretty quickly, as it spoke to my growing unease with our failure to really get to grips with … the problem. His book gave strong pointers as to why framing climate change as ‘a problem’ is a problem – at least if you want to solve it. But what I’ve struggled with since is finding an approach that really improves on ‘problem’. ‘Wicked Problems’ is a good way to conceive the messy entanglements of cause–effect–side-effect–cause, but wicked problems still seem to trigger a ‘solutions’ mindset. I looked into that with my first post, where I picked up on ‘clumsy solutions’ as a way to address ‘wicked problems’, but I could see that something was missing; proposing the idea of ‘wicked cultures’ offered part of an answer.

Hulme had also looked at ‘clumsy solutions’ in his book, “as a way of escaping from the idea that, when faced with contradictory definitions of problems and solutions, only one definition must be chosen and all others rejected … Clumsiness suggests that we construct our problems in such a way as to make them fit our capabilities for solution-making …” But he accepted that even clumsy solutions won’t ‘solve’ climate change; they will be partial and contradictory in what they deliver, not just in their methods:

“We must recognise the ‘wickedness’ of climate change and we must appreciate that while clumsiness – with all its contrariness and messiness – is perhaps the limit of our human ability to respond, it will not deliver the outcomes we seek.” 

As he points out, the idea of climate change is changing how we understand and live in the world as much as the physical phenomena we call ‘climate change’. The idea works for us – doing different work for people with different world views. In identifying some common myths behind our world views, Hulme comes back to stories: myths that embody fundamental truths, “powerful shared narratives which may bind together otherwise quite different perspectives and people.” These myths might be lamenting the loss of our ‘natural’ climate and environment; or presaging the coming apocalypse as we crash through all our tipping points; or saving ourselves through our geoengineering/GM/nuclear/nanotech mastery; or a call for and celebration of justice for the dispossessed, exploited and marginalised. He ties these neatly to Judaeo-Christian Biblical myths of Fall, Armageddon, Babel and Jubilee; others are available, of course, and these are not mutually exclusive.

Landing on “climate change as idea” rather than “climate change as problem”‘ is perhaps in danger of leaving us high and dry with grand narratives similar to those that got us in here (and have so far failed to get us out again). I’ve been looking for something more … down to earth, more pedestrian. Less likely to appeal to our messianic tendencies.

‘Words from a Glossary’ #3, Image: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017 Glossary: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk

The predicaments we live with

The Stories We Live By is not an examination of the language of climate change; its scope is the full range of ecological issues. But it does explore different framings of climate change – for example, as ‘security threat’, as ‘violence’, as ‘business’, as ‘problem’, or as ‘predicament’:

Climate change framed as a security threat: “Instead of treating the climate crisis as an environmental issue, to be dealt with by environment and energy departments alone, we need to reframe it as the overwhelming threat to national and global security which it is.” (Caroline Lucas, Green Party)

Climate change framed as violence: “Call climate change what it is: violence. Climate change is global-scale violence, against places and species as well as against human beings.” (Rebecca Solnit, writer, historian and activist)

Climate change framed as business: “Let’s reframe sustainability as the biggest and boldest supply chain challenge yet, to give the 9 billion people we expect to see on the planet quality and sustainable lives. Business is good at giving customers what they want, so let’s get on with it.” (Alan Knight, Virgin)

Climate change framed as problem: “The best solution, nearly all scientists agree, would be the simplest: stop burning fossil fuels, which would reduce the amount of carbon we dump into the atmosphere.” (Michael Specter, science journalist)

Climate change framed as predicament: “It has been revealed that humankind’s activities giving rise to our present global warming and climate change predicament occurred during that extremely short 57 year period.” (Bob Robertson, author)

To my mind, the first three of these are usually examples of, rather than alternatives to, ‘problem thinking’,  reducing the overall complex mix of issues to a single dimension and expectations that a solution is at hand. But each could also be cast as ‘predicament thinking’. The course explains the distinction:

“Many things we’ve conceptualized as problems are actually predicaments. The difference is that a problem calls for a solution; the only question is whether one can be found and made to work, and once this is done, the problem is solved. A predicament, by contrast, has no solution. Faced with a predicament, people come up with responses.” — John Michael Greer

Solutions make problems disappear; responses keep predicaments in view. Solutions promise completion; responses offer coping. Guess which sounds sexier; admit which is more honest. So, if one response is to adapt to a climate that continues changing even when all the remaining oil is left in the ground (because the atmosphere and oceans respond slowly to past greenhouse gas emissions) then these stronger, adaptive communities will still have to deal with the impacts of a changing climate. And surely we know that ‘security,’ ‘violence’ and ‘economics’, which we also treat as problems, are more like predicaments which no ‘solutions’ are likely to make disappear? Better responses might help minimise the impacts and live more safely, justly and prosperously.

If ‘security’, ‘violence’ and ‘business’ framings (and many other ways of simplifying the idea of climate change) can be deployed in either ‘problem-solution’ or ‘predicament-response’ ways, then perhaps there is another level to our stories. But whether that is so, or ‘problem’ and ‘predicament’ are simply two framings among others, The Stories We Live By has already given me something I’ve been looking for: the extra step beyond my earlier journey from ‘problem’ to ‘wicked problem’ to ‘clumsy solutions’, but without leaving me in the slightly nebulous territory of ‘idea.’ Predicaments are what humans do, after all.

It’s refreshing to take a course that invites me to acknowledge my subjectivity, my own set of values and attitudes, and informs them with some new thinking on ecosophies, framings and, in particular, predicaments. The Stories We Live By asks me to acknowledge that this subjectivity is where I build my judgements of others’ views and actions as protecting or damaging to the environment. That stories, and not unquestionable facts, live in our heads and shape how we think, speak and act is not a new thought for me or for many people, but it’s one we need to come back to if we’re to avoid our own judgements taking on the same ‘natural’ force that the dominant narratives have assumed. Knowing our stories as stories can help us keep open the space we need for creative conversations.


Find out more

You can view and download all the notes and exercises for the course at The Stories We Live By. And if you register, you can also access the forum, additional reading and volunteer tutors. Everything is free and available to enjoy at your own pace.

The course draws from Arran Stibbe‘s book, Ecolinguistics: Language, Ecology and the Stories We Live By

The original essay from which the John Michael Greer quote above is taken can be found here, in the Archdruid Report archive. I am currently reading his book, Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush, which includes essays from that site.

Mike Hulme‘s book Why We Disagree About Climate Change, from which his quotes are taken, has been a key influence in setting up ClimateCultures, and there is more at his site.

Questioning Problems & Predicaments? Space for creative thinking...  

"For you, is climate change a problem or a predicament? How would your creative response change if you swapped these frames? How would you talk differently about it with others?"

Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.

Culturing Climate Change

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe explores climate change through the lens of ‘Wicked Problems’ and what ‘culture’ — considered as a web of identities and practices that rub up against each other — means for how we might think about it.

approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes  


Climate change could almost define ‘Wicked Problems’. Unlike ordinary, ‘tame’ problems, these have multiple causes, produce a web of effects, entangle themselves in interdependencies, are riddled with complexities, uncertainties and contradictory interpretations and induce a sense of both confusion and urgency. In Dialogue Mapping, organisational collaborator Jeff Conklin talks about the “pain of fragmentation” caused by working on Wicked Problems “with thinking, tools, and methods that are useful only for simpler (‘tame’) problems … a sense of futility of expecting things to be one way and repeatedly banging into a different reality”.

More often than not, ‘tame solutions’ for Wicked Problems reveal or create more problems; their frustration then compounds our urgency, inciting either a stronger desire to act ‘at any cost’ or a lifeless apathy. A self-perpetuating anxiety, climate change’s wickedness is both a call to in/action and the cascade of in/action’s unintended consequences.

Age of anxiety

Ouroboros
Ouroboros
Artist: AnonMoos 2009
Public Domain: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ouroboros-simple.svg

Rereading Alan Watts’ 1951 The Wisdom of Insecurity, writer Megan Mayhew Bergman describes how Watts “believed that hyper-rationalising our desires creates a vicious and taxing cycle, a habitual state of tension and abstraction that is actually a mental disorder.” He saw a modern split between mind and body (“a war between … the desire for permanence and the fact of flux”). This produces a cycle of insecurity, which he likened to Ouroboros, the mythical serpent endlessly biting its own tail in a cycle of self-consumption. While it’s human nature to seek an “escape from the reality of the anxiety-producing present,” Bergman suggests that with climate change it’s the future that now seems fearful: “That sheer inevitability bewilders me … We can no longer afford the luxury of looking away.” 

Psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe has written about climate change anxiety inhabiting both the ‘reality-based’ and ‘narcissistic’ parts of our self. On one hand (or in one mind?) we face the loss of a reliable future, “our hope that we are generative … and rooted within long time” when “our sense of regularity and continuity as a species [is] threatened at such a basic level”. This depressive anxiety is compounded by our sense of dependence on global leaders and corporations to somehow overcome the short-termism threatening the planetary system. And on the other hand, the actions that we know are needed to reduce these risks threaten the part of our identity that’s tied into lifestyles that are implicated in the problems. Weintrobe suggests that “what we dread giving up is not so much particular material possessions or particular ways of life, but our way of seeing ourselves as special and as entitled, not only to our possessions but to our ‘quick fixes’ to the problems of reality.” The wickedness fills the gap between these minds.

But maybe, in an anxious, subjectivity-riddled world, the idea of wickedness at least offers a way to acknowledge this messiness, open a creative space to view it in and grapple with the extreme risk and uncertain force of the climate change we cannot look away from.

Culture – permission to disagree

In Keywords, cultural academic Raymond Williams introduces ‘Culture’ as “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” (and ‘Nature’ as perhaps the most complex word in the language: great news for anyone working on un/common grounds of NatureCulture). A word that’s rooted in colere (Latin: inhabit, cultivate, protect, honour with worship), fractured and evolved into cults, colony and couture, became a synonym for civilised in its antagonism with natural, and offers its own dividing line between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures, was destined to do lots of different kinds of work for different people. Culture has its own wickedness, perhaps. Can this help us with wicked climate change?

Climate change constantly draws people into different camps, each arguing passionately for one version and vehemently against the others. Can culture help us, if not to tame the untameable, then at least seize its contrariness, try out its meanings, and rehearse what cohabitation might offer us? We’re more used to diversity in culture and (in more tolerant moments) give ourselves permission to disagree; to incorporate this disagreement into culture itself. Maybe this offers a way to open discussions and imaginations to diversity in ‘climate change’.

In his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change, and in an article of the same name, geographer Mike Hulme examines it as a cultural entity, a kaleidoscopic “idea circulating anxiously in the worlds of domestic politics and international diplomacy… circulating with mobilising force in the worlds of business, of law and of international trade … circulating with potency in the worlds of knowledge and invention, of development and welfare, of religion and ethics and of public celebrity … circulating creatively in the worlds of art, of cinema, of literature, of music and of sport.” The scientific consensus on climate change is powerful and real, but we lack any comparable consensus on its meanings; it has so many that the hope for strong agreement on them is probably illusory. Hulme says:

“We need to understand the creative psychological, spiritual and ethical work that climate change can do and is doing for us. By understanding the ways climate change connects with foundational human instincts of nostalgia, fear, pride and justice we open up a way of resituating culture and the human spirit at the centre of our understanding of climate.”

On a parallel thought, literary scholar Benjamin Morgan investigates the origin and uses of the concept of extinction. Like climate change, “extinction has never been a purely scientific concept … [it] first came into being as a problem of human meaning” long before we came to identify our own species as a new driver of extinctions; the discovery of spectacular fossils in the 18th century revealed nature “possessed of the same self-destructive energy as human society.”

Science of all kinds is crucial for better understanding of environmental and climate change and the Anthropocene, but can only offer one kind of necessary enquiry: one of many routes to meaningful action. As part of the living matrix we’re eroding around us, we must also call on other aspects of our identity, other practices as well as science.

Multispecies scholar Deborah Bird Rose speaks of ‘ecological humanities’ as an interdiscipline, attempting to “build dialogical bridges between knowledge systems: between ecological sciences and the humanities, between Western and other knowledge systems.” But what is not needed, she says, is boundary crossings that aim to homogenise knowledge or “suggest that everyone has to do or think everything … Quite the opposite, we acknowledge that there are many abrasive edges between knowledge systems. We believe that rubbing those abrasive edges together enables something new to happen.” 

Identity and practice

And this is what ‘culture’ means for me when I think about climate change: a web of identities and practices that rub up against each other. It’s a rough sketch, but I start with:

  • Culture as identity: the different contexts that we inhabit and shape, and which inhabit and shape us; the forces that create, reinforce or challenge our personal and social values; an expression of and comforter for our particular world view.
  • Culture as practice: the making, sharing and responding to particular creative works and directions; visual, musical, dramatic, poetic, fictional, film and all the other artistic practices — and also research and educational practices, and the practices of collecting, editing and presenting.

Both these aspects of culture suggest that nuance and diversity are key, helping us navigate the complexities, uncertainties and interdependencies of climate change without immediately resorting to ‘tame’ solutions within hard-and-fast borders. As Morgan points out: “Drawing battle-lines is never an exercise in nuance … The avenue into these ethical and political dilemmas [of extinction] is culture, broadly conceived.”

Bergman retells Watts’ account of the response of a Chinese sage to the inevitability of human suffering: “’How shall we escape the heat?’ the sage is asked. His answer is unsettling: ‘Go right into the middle of the fire.’”

‘Wicked Cultures’ as a means at least of seeing and coming to terms with the dynamics of ‘Wicked Problems’, maybe acknowledging what might be untameable but worth living through and with?


Find out more

See the Wikipedia entries on Ouroboros and on Wicked Problems

Meeting Ones’ Madness by Meghan Mayhew Bergman’s appeared in Paris Review (15th November 2016).

Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems by Jeff Conklin was published by Wiley (2006).

Mike Hulme’s article Why We Disagree About Climate Change originally appeared in The Carbon Yearbook (2009), and his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity was published by Cambridge University Press (2009).

On the Origin of Extinction by Benjamin Morgan appeared in Public Books (9th March 2017).

The Ecological Humanities by Deborah Rose Bird appeared in Manifesto for Living in the Anthropocene, (edited by Katherine Gibson, Deborah Rose Bird and Ruth Fincher:  Punctum Books, 2015).

The Wisdom of Insecurity: A message for an Age of Anxiety by Alan Watts was republished by Penguin Random House in 2011 (originally 1951).

The Difficult Problem of Anxiety in Thinking About Climate Change by Sally Weintrobe appeared in Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives (edited by Sally Weintrobe: Routledge, 2013).

Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society by Raymond Williams’s was published by Fontana Press (revised edition, 1983).