Super Wicked Problem – or, the Crisis Formerly Known as Climate

Farmer and author Paul Feather seeks the meaning of our planetary crisis, and names that can reflect its super wicked nature, in local spaces of resistance that serve as the wombs from which deeper understanding will be born.


2,000 words: approx reading time = 8 minutes


When we name our planetary crisis, it’s something like a birth. The problem is born into our dialogue and its umbilical cord is cut off from the organism that created it in the first place. When we name it the Climate Crisis, our dialogue is constrained by that name, and we respond to that crisis differently from a crisis named Runaway Capitalism or Mass Extinction. Even if we acknowledge that these other framings are relevant, naming the problem centers a particular way of thinking.

People have thrown names at the planetary crisis like it’s an indecisive couple’s new baby. We could call it the Anthropocene. And then there’s Patriarchy. How about Settler Colonialism, or maybe something with Justice in it? — so we sound woke. Sometimes I prefer broad, sweeping names like Polycrisis or Ontological Failure, but at the end of the day, we should probably admit we don’t really know what’s going on.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a science person. There’s a lot of carbon in the atmosphere; and while we can debate about where exactly to put the lines between species — there are about to be a lot fewer of them. These are things we can measure. But in between and all around the measurements there’s this thing that we’re all going through, and it’s hard to say exactly what it is.

So what shall we call this thing we have made together?

Super wicked problems - a more-then-climate crisis. Showing tree signs in Atlanta forest,Georgia, USA.
“Forest defense is self-defense.” Atlanta forest, Georgia, USA. Photograph: public domain.

Super wicked

In social planning, a wicked problem is one that defies solution because it is closely intertwined with other problems, and solutions are constrained by different stakeholders with different worldviews and values.1 Beginning in about 2007, people began to talk about the climate crisis as a ‘super wicked’ problem, because it had all these wicked traits of complexity and social divisiveness, and also additional difficulties presented by an urgent timeframe and by social injustice wherein the nations who have the most responsibility for climate change and the most power to affect it also have the least incentive to do so.2

There’s actually an added bit of complexity that this framework leaves out, because while it acknowledges that the legacies of colonialism and slavery have shaped the power structures that now make climate change ‘super wicked’, these scholars typically don’t question whether these power structures are the most useful tool for addressing the crisis.3 This is a social planning and social engineering approach: it’s easy to assume that something so big as climate change would have to be addressed by the multinational corporations and governments who hold the levers of power in our society.

In this respect, the wicked problem framework fails to address added epistemological and ontological legacies of colonialism (i.e. colonization of the mind) that have been explored by at least forty years of Western scholarship4 — and a far longer Indigenous awareness of that legacy — that implicate this rational, engineering-centered onto-epistemology with the origins and development of the global crisis.5 This added level of complexity questions the whole framing of the crisis as a problem in need of solutions, but fortunately rather than leaving us with ultra-wicked problems, it’s more like some of the variables cancel out, and things actually get simpler.

Baby gets a new name

If we acknowledge that social engineering is not really a viable approach — that not only do the complexity of the problem and unjust power relations (i.e. its super wicked nature) doom that strategy to failure, but that the whole engineering paradigm is built on colonial notions of power and control that further implicate us with the crisis — then the framing of the crisis changes. We are no longer invested in designing complex international legal interventions to bring down CO2 emissions, nor even controlling the power structures that would presumably do this. It’s not even clear that we’re still centering CO2, because coloniality of power and knowledge are now part of the dialogue. This new framing follows the umbilical cord of the climate crisis to better integrate the origins of that crisis: the baby gets a new name.

When we stop trying to engineer our way out of wicked problems, and when we frame the crisis to include coloniality of power and knowledge, we become participants in the crisis rather than the detached observers that engineers must always be. We are no longer debating how to optimize the behavior of billions of (other) people to soften ecological collapse; but rather asking, how do I personally respond to a crisis formerly known as climate change that increasingly defines the human experience?

This does not mean that our response is a solo act unconstrained by social norms and arising purely from personal experience. On the contrary, there is a great deal of meaning to be found by interacting with communities that are already establishing social norms that oppose the systems of power that continually enact the ongoing crisis.

Communities of resistance

Showing a sign in Atlanta forest, Georgia: "You are now leaving the USA."
Atlanta forest, Georgia – “You are now leaving the USA.” Photograph: Paul Feather © 2022

My personal experience is that communities who actively challenge the dominant systems of power and knowledge arise from local resistance movements. In my own search for meaning, I have found the most clarity of purpose when participating in defense of specific places and people from equally specific governments and corporations. I believe that these spaces of resistance are the wombs from which a deeper understanding — even potentially a name — for our crisis will be born.

I have most recently spent time in the Atlanta forest, where a community of forest defenders has been enacting an abolitionist society without police for over a year. This community implicitly rejects a socially engineered response to the more-than-climate crisis, because individual autonomy is a central value. This is both a strategy to ensure group security in a community that is consistently under attack, but also an anarchist conflation of ends and means wherein the resistance community is structured to reflect the values of the society we aspire to create.6 Nonetheless, even in such a community there are obvious social norms and expectations that constrain individual action — and, for me, development and understanding of those norms is arguably as important as defending the forest: they are one and the same. This experiment in abolitionist society has been consistently attacked: at this writing about twenty people have been arrested and charged with domestic terrorism, and one forest defender has been killed by police. The violent suppression of this movement is an unfortunate testament to its success and potential.

Previous conflicts have illuminated connections between power, policing, and climate: as for instance in the brutally repressed resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline,7 or Enbridge Line Three.8 In the Atlanta forest, these connections between hegemonic power and the more-than-climate crisis are particularly transparent. The forest is a key safeguard against climate instability for local communities, and the underlying conflict threatening the forest is the city’s agenda to expand policing with an immense new training center. This unique pairing of threats (climate and policing) explicitly connects climate agendas with abolitionist narratives that some scholars are already integrating into mainstream environmental justice dialogues.9 Finally, the movement’s centering of the site’s history and removal of the Creek/Muskogee Nation in the 1800s followed by forced labor on the Old Atlanta Prison Farm explicitly synthesizes decolonial, abolitionist, and mainstream environmental justice narratives. This ‘perfect storm’ of issues, place, and history situates Defend Atlanta Forest to make unique and lasting contributions to our mutual understanding of power, coloniality, and crisis.

Showing Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, who was killed while opposing the Atlanta forest police training facility.
Manuel Esteban Paez Terán was killed while opposing the Atlanta forest police training facility. Photograph: public domain.

The climate crisis is real, but it is exceedingly abstract. It does not feel easy for individual humans to find a meaningful response to this super wicked global problem. It lives in the atmosphere or in tiny molecules of CO2. It does not have a place. It is not a useful concept for orienting ourselves or making individual decisions — and in that sense it is almost meaningless.

Places like the Atlanta forest are the crucibles where people and movements spill over into each other and where new movements and new meanings are born.10 We participate in this process — and to some extent we do shape it — but our understanding and language is equally shaped by the places themselves as they are uniquely situated in history and space. If we will find our way through these confusing times, we will need simple answers to wicked problems; and we will find them in the trees, in the deserts, on city streets. We will find them where other seekers have gathered to fight for something meaningful together and in doing so to create a community bound by something that no amount of policing can destroy.


References

  1. Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973) Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155–169.
  2. Levin, K., Cashore, B., Bernstein, S., & Auld, G. (2007) Playing it forward: Path dependency, progressive incrementalism, and the ‘‘super wicked’’ problem of global climate change. Paper presented at International studies association convention, Chicago, Il, February 28th–March 3.
  3. For example, see Lazarus, R. J. (2008) Super wicked problems and climate change: Restraining the present to liberate the future. Cornell L. Rev., 94, 1153. Although Sun, J., & Yang, K. (2016) The wicked problem of climate change: A new approach based on social mess and fragmentation. Sustainability, 8(12), 1312 does make some gestures toward less engineering-oriented approaches.
  4. e.g. counting from Wa Thiong’o, N. (1986) Decolonising the mind: The politics of language in African literature (republished 1991 East African Publishers). See also a decent literature review in Clement, V. (2019), Beyond the sham of the emancipatory Enlightenment: Rethinking the relationship of Indigenous epistemologies, knowledges, and geography through decolonizing paths. Progress in Human Geography, 43(2), 276-294.
  5. Davis, H., & Todd, Z. (2017) On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 2017, 16(4): 761-780.
  6. Land C and King D (2014) Organizing otherwise: translating anarchism in a voluntary sector organization. Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organisation 14 (4): 923-950.
  7. Burrell M, Grosse C and Mark B (2022), Resistance to petro-hegemony: A three terrains of power analysis of the Line 3 tar sands pipeline in Minnesota. Energy Research & Social Science 91
  8. Mittal P (2021) Extraction, Indigenous Dispossession and State Power: Lessons from Standing Rock and Wet’suwet’en Resistance. The Arbutus Review 12(1): 121-141.
  9. Pellow D N (2017) What is Critical Environmental Justice? Cambridge: Polity, and also Menton M, Larrea C, Latorre S, Martinez-Alier J, Peck M, Temper L, and Walter M (2020) Environmental justice and the SDGs: from synergies to gaps and contradictions. Sustainability Science 15: 1621–1636
  10. Perkins T (2021) The multiple people of color origins of the US environmental justice movement: social movement spillover and regional racial projects in California. Environmental Sociology 7(2):147-59.

Find out more

Defend Atlanta Forest, or Stop Cop City, is a decentralised social movement in Atlanta, Georgia, United States — where people occupying trees are being charged with terrorism. In Property ≠ Life, a recent piece he wrote for Resilience.org, Paul discusses the nature of violence and non-violence; “Stop Cop City is explicitly contesting the nature of violence, and this is profound for a society that is based on the violent exploitation of others: a society that doesn’t seem to know who it is without that violence, and whose customary language doesn’t differentiate destruction of life from destruction of property (or when it does seems to value the latter).”

In January 2023, The Guardian’s report, ‘Assassinated in cold blood’: activist killed protesting Georgia’s ‘Cop City’, covered the killing of Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, who opposed the police training facility, while The Intercept reported that The Crackdown on Cop City Protesters Is So Brutal Because of the Movement’s Success. Atlanta Community Press Collective provides A brief history of the Atlanta City Prison Farm.

In thinking about spaces of resistance, you could explore the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice, which documents and catalogues social conflict around environmental issues.

You can explore wicked problems in some previous content here on ClimateCultures, for example our About page on Ecological & Climate Predicaments, and Culturing Climate Change. For a discussion on super wicked problems, you can download the paper by Richard Lazarus that Paul cites above: Super Wicked Problems and Climate Change: Restraining the Present to Liberate the Future.


Paul Feather is an animist farmer and author whose artistic interests include the courtship of landscapes for food and seed and translating animist thought into the language of physics.

 

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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The End of the World? Let’s Be Honest

Writer Philip Webb Gregg embraces our Environmental Keywords theme on Transitions with an urgent call to abandon our language of endings for one of beginnings, where we embrace the deepest change: a radical transition to more honest stories.


1,720 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 minutes


Alright, I have a confession, and I’m aware this is an uncool thing to say, but I no longer believe in the end of the world. 
 
Shocking, I know. Especially coming from me. I’m exactly the kind of person you’d expect would think the apocalypse was just around the corner. After all, I’m a second-generation activist (my mother baked bread at Greenham Common). I’ve done all the usual things; camped at the capital, given out endless leaflets, hurled abuse at the gates of Parliament with the best of them. Moreover, I’m a white, straight(ish) man with long hair, stick-and-poke tattoos on my forearms and a steady yoga practice. Of course I should believe in the imminent end of the world. Except I don’t. Not anymore. 
 
I used to. I grew up in an alternative anarchist community on the southernmost tip of Europe. In some ways, it was a happy and unremarkable childhood, but in others I have learned it was quite unique. For instance, we took for granted that the world was ending. It didn’t matter how. Could be nuclear, could be another world war. The point was, I and all my friends — and all our parents — were basically futureless. 
 
We made no five-year goals. There was never a whisper of career paths or pension plans, or even what we’d do next week. Instead, we had fun. We used the minimum effort possible to make us as happy as possible for as long as possible, until it all fell inevitably apart. In some ways, this is good for the soul. It has certainly given me an appreciation for the honesty of the present moment –- more on that later. But it also means I grew up in a world and a community that had doom on its lips. 
 
The end of the world, as we know it

So believe me when I say I understand what so many of us are going through. Call it apocalypse-anxiety, or climate-anxiety, what it amounts to is fear, dread; the empty, heavy feeling in your stomach when you see the world changing around you. When you read the science, watch the news, walk across the dead grass.
 
I have spent three decades speaking with the language of endings. But it’s only recently that I’ve come to understand that there are other tongues out there. It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand that the end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world [1]. There is a language of beginnings and a language for whatever comes in between.

Honest stories; Showing Philip Webb Gregg with a burning flower
Also a beginning… Photograph: Philip Webb Gregg © 2022

It is too easy to be seduced into the ‘last days of Rome’ metaphor. That we are Troy before the horse, Atlantis before the flood, Pompeii before the fire; living on a cliff edge with hyper-luxury behind us and the apocalypse ahead. All of this is very poetic and compelling, but ultimately inaccurate and unhelpful. 

Because, like it or not, tomorrow is coming. And it will not be the end of the world. It will just be a day, in many ways much like any other. 
 
As I write this, I can hear the voices of my family and friends gesturing frantically to their browser screens, their Facebook shares, the dry heat in the stale air. Yes, mass-disaster, societal collapse and global meltdown are already happening. Riots and starvation and power-outage are very likely in many parts of the world very soon. In other parts, they are already underway. And they are awful and inhuman and entirely avoidable. But these are symptoms of drastic (and reversible) change, not the apocalypse. And that knowledge changes everything.
 
The point of all of the above is simply this: believing the end is nigh is a forgivable form of cowardice. It excuses you from the hard work of tomorrow in favour of the pleasure, or the despair, of today. Instead I have a radical proposition worthy of the anarchist roots that bred me. I propose we embrace change, on all fronts and at all costs. 
 
Because despite everything I have said, we are in the deepest trouble, and we need the deepest change. 

An honest change

Some of this change may involve stepping forward, into what feels like an abyss. Some of it will likely feel like a step back into the past — the way things were in the ‘good ol’ days’. Most of it, I hope, will be more of a step sideways. Neither demonising the future, nor glorifying the past, but simply being more present, honest now.  Why do I use the word ‘honest’? Because I think that’s at the root of the change we need.
 
Imagine, for a moment, that you were alive a thousand, or two thousand years ago. I think it is unlikely that you cared about ‘the planet’. Almost certainly you cared about the weather. And the soil. And, in some form, the wild. Most likely you spent your days hacking away at it, fencing it, herding it, milking it, eating it, and your nights hoping it wouldn’t eat you or your loved ones. 

Give or take, that’s been the case for all of human existence. Throughout our entire collective evolutionary journey, we have not had to worry about overwhelming or choking our ecosystem in the way we do now (this is one of the reasons it is so goddamn hard to get your head around the idea of the Anthropocene). But there is another staggering change that goes hand in hand with that transition. That of honesty. Truthiness. Verisimilitude. Call it what you like, we’ve lost it. 

Sometime in the last few millennia, I believe we have learned to lie to ourselves about nature, and the nature of ourselves. Perhaps it happened the moment we overstepped our place in the food chain; began looking at the natural world as a thing separate, and beneath us. Maybe it started with the invention of fiction — that most essential and deadly of human tools — and the creation of the written word. Who knows?

All I know is that these days I see it everywhere. And the reason that these times — our times — feel like the ‘end-times’ is because they are the apex of this dishonesty. 

For me this is the core of the crisis we face, and the hinge on which our change must turn. I do not point to technology or colonialism or capitalism, though those are certainly factors, I point instead to the myths we tell ourselves. The stories, if you like, that we have built our lives upon; our cities, our skyscrapers. Stories of eternal progress, of the singularity and the isolation of the individual. We have grown so accustomed to deception we no longer see the bullshit we swim through every day. These things take us away from what we are, and have become the cause, either directly or indirectly, of the climate and ecological crisis we are facing today. 

Honest stories: showing a man holding a burning newspaper
Photo by akın akdağ from Pexels: https://www.pexels.com/photo/close-up-shot-of-a-person-holding-a-burning-newspaper-10176291/

Because really, that’s all that nature is: an honest thing. Nature is not flowers, rivers and butterflies. Sure, those things are an aspect of the natural world, but so are carnivores, rotting flesh and landslides. My point is the natural world is not a pretty or easy thing — most of it is uncomfortable, harsh and dangerous. The very opposite of our lives now. But it doesn’t lie to you. It cannot; it simply is. 

And really, so are we. When we strip away all the lies we clothe ourselves with, we are still the same scrabbling figures we were two thousand years ago, except that now the weather and the soil and the wild are all going missing and we’re left wondering what on earth is next.

Well, truthfully, I have no idea. But that’s what we’re here to find out.

If the gift of my upbringing taught me anything, it’s how to call bullshit on a world that just wants you to shut up and buy stuff. I think we need to stop being passive members of a society that’s actively slipping into chaos. We must make an effort to step away from the language of disasters and step instead toward the language of new beginnings. 

I think we need to speak, and speak honestly, and tell new stories, honest stories; not just to each other, but to ourselves. And yes, in some non-hippy way, to the world as well.


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[1] The phrase Philip uses, “the end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world”, is an adapted quote from The Dark Mountain Manifesto (2009), written by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine: “The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.” For its founders, the manifesto “marked a first attempt to put into words the ideas and feelings which led to Dark Mountain. Think of it as a flag raised so that we can find one another. A point of departure, rather than a party line. An invitation to a larger conversation that continues to take us down unexpected paths.”

Philip is an editor for the Dark Mountain Project, working on several of its volumes — including the forthcoming Issue 22: ARK, which is published this October.

You can read Deconstructing our Dominion Stories in a Time of Unravelling, the recent review by Joan Sullivan of two new books by the current co-editors of the Dark Mountain project, Nick Hunt and Charlotte Du Cann, and the project’s themes have also come up in several other posts, for example Conversations with Work That Connects, featuring six ClimateCultures members in wide-ranging conversations on their creativity in dark times.

Philip’s previous ClimateCultures posts include Rewilding – Slantways: an original poem exploring rewilding as a sideways step into a stranger world, resisting simplifications of ‘progress’ and the gains and losses of our current model, even as we seek to change it.

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Philip Webb Gregg
Philip Webb Gregg
A writer of ephemeral things for beautiful places, exploring the disconnect between human nature and nature nature, and grappling with themes of faith, folklore and narratology.
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Assembling the Raven’s Nest

Researcher Chris Fremantle reviews The Raven’s Nest. This ecological memoir by Sarah Thomas addresses love and loss and coming to belong in the Westfjords peninsular of Iceland, evoking human and more-than-human relationships to draw out stories of interdependence.


1,860 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


In The Raven’s Nest Sarah Thomas tells us a story of falling in love, moving to another culture and learning its ways. Many things have agency in the book, including all sorts of other living things as well as landscapes and even buildings. Daylight too is an actor. Nested within the book is a photo essay, a visual journey parallel to and intersecting with the words.

Showing the cover of the book, 'The Raven's Nest' by Sarah Thomas
The Raven’s Nest. Cover art: Carmen R. Balit, based on a photograph by Sarah Thomas

The raven’s nest — an improvisation

The raven’s nest itself, which provides the title, is found in a first-floor natural history museum above shops in Bolungarvík, a fishing village on the Westfjords peninsula in the very west of Iceland: it is an icon for a process of assemblage.

A cluster of sticks in a cubic glass case catches my eye. It is both chaotic and coherent. I stroll over and look at it from above – a circular nest perhaps a metre in diameter. The perimeter, which makes up most of it, is a rough entanglement of twigs, driftwood, mussel shells, a strip of yellowing plastic container, a sheep’s shoulder blade, a wooden knife handle, a TV aerial, and the rusted head of a rake with four missing tines. It is perfect for its purpose – a hotchpotch of plant, human-made and animal detritus holding it together, weighing it down against the high winds. There are no big trees here for a large bird to nest in: the nest must be resilient alone on a cliff. Its centre is a small, intimate hemisphere – less than a third of the whole: a bed of intricately woven fine grasses and frayed blue plastic rope threads, lined with down. Inside this centre lie four small eggs, almost lost in the flotsam. The label reads: Raven’s Nest. The nest is ‘safe’ now, sealed in this moment against the high winds. It is safe, though these eggs will never hatch. How might it live again, contain life, out in the unknowable wilds of the future?

Showing a raven's nest in the natural history museum, Bolungarvík. Photograph by Sarah Thomas
Raven’s Nest, natural history museum, Bolungarvík. Photograph © Sarah Thomas

We know from the outset that a failing relationship is central, but we don’t know why. Much of the book is concerned with the process of becoming an inhabitant, someone who understands the habitat and is part of it. This process is episodic in life: understanding comes in moments and in our reflections on moments. This opens up the meaning of improvisation — making do with the materials at hand — both literally and as a practice.

This is beautifully captured in an exchange between the author and her partner:

In the distance, Hekla stands crisp and clear as a cardboard cut-out, the colour of a bruise. She is majestic.

‘So, we’ll be living beneath a volcano that is overdue to erupt?’

‘We can make sure the van’s always got enough petrol for an escape.’

Problem. Solution. Why is life in England so complicated? So full of prohibitions and protocols which do not allow for the cultivation of sense…

That the relationship between freedom and constraint is fundamental to improvisation is beautifully articulated, though the lurking challenge of coping with this becomes clearer as the book goes on. Whilst the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 does feature, it is everyday human and more-than-human ‘making do’ which is the central issue. Human improvisation is in the moment, but it can have longer-term ramifications.

'Raven valley', a photograph of Iceland by Sarah Thomas from her book The Raven's Nest.
‘Raven valley’. Photograph © Sarah Thomas

Dependence and interdependence

Behind this book is a PhD, another text, which discusses what it means to be writing in the Anthropocene and unpacks a critical literature on writing. In the PhD Sarah quotes Donna Haraway (who in turn is referencing Marilyn Strathern): “It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories.”

Stories create worlds. Stories are nested in stories. Icelanders live in a story — by way of an aside to illuminate this, the artists Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison say, “Every place is the story of its own becoming.”

Sarah Thomas’ story of becoming Icelandic is a story within stories of places becoming. Many relationships between humans and other living things are evoked in The Raven’s Nest. The narrative focuses on and draws out dependencies. Some are the result of human carelessness in the past. Some are ongoing and continuous since humans settled on Iceland. The former is exemplified by the experience of providing a temporary fish shop on the edge of a lake for the short summer season. Humans introduced Arctic Char into the lakes. The people who facilitate Sarah getting enmeshed in Iceland run the temporary fish shop. Walkers on holiday gravitate to the fish shop for fresh Arctic Char. The abundance of the invasive species is mitigated by the human visitors enjoying eating freshly caught fish. A new set of dependencies is invented.

Another ongoing dependency relates to sheep. The family Sarah becomes part of farms sheep, amongst other things. The sense is they have ‘always’ farmed sheep. Another, long-term, dependency is articulated in the annual slaughter, hanging the carcasses, the smoking of meat, the long winters.

But even the position of Iceland on the planet makes for dependencies:

My experience of the light’s absence has been less intense, but more protracted, than the total darkness I anticipated. I wish I had it in me to keep a record of the times of sunrise and sunset; there is poetry in such accuracy. But this being my life, I feel it as a whole reality, not a set of data to be recorded and analysed.

Interdependence has become a focus of the environmental humanities, but it is also critical to understand dependence. Isabelle Stengers articulates the relationship between the two, saying in her essay for the Critical Zones exhibition catalogue: “Nor should the intertwining interdependencies be confused with a network of interlinking dependencies. It is easy to understand why, without water or light, a plant dies. This fits the definition of ‘dependence’. But interdependence implies a way of being sensitive that is a form of venture.”

The Raven’s Nest sensitises us to difference and the process of becoming, moving in and out of difference. Her attention to difference, her own patterns and expectations, and the patterns and assumptions characteristic of Iceland, generates new sensitivities.

Showing 'Cold blushing', a photograph of Iceland by Sarah Thomas in her book The Raven's Nest
‘Cold blushing’. Photograph © Sarah Thomas

The stories we need now

It is a book about love, loss and also mental health. The PhD dissertation is its twin. Being asked to review The Raven’s Nest and being a practice-led researcher led me inevitably to reading sections of Sarah’s practice-based PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies. The latter talks about the Anthropocene in ways that are a current riff in the environmental humanities. She cites Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement because he asks the important question: do the arts need to question themselves in the extinction crisis? Yes, the arts are vital to the change of consciousness required, but the arts are part of the consciousness that produced the Anthropocene. Later she takes up Ursula Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction to deepen the point, questioning not only the form of the modern novel and its focus on everyday subjectivities, but to go further and question all stories with heroes. The question is, what might be the arts that we need now?

'Floating house', a photograph by G. Kristinsdóttir, in The Raven's Nest by Sarah Thomas
‘A Floating house’. Photograph © G. Kristinsdóttir

Reading her PhD enables me to understand the judgements she is making, the sensitivities she is alert to, in relation to the process of writing. It represents another layer of sensitizing. However, the PhD is not a substitute for The Raven’s Nest — reflections on the process of making stories is not a substitute for stories. The artwork is the artwork. The sensitivities and complexities evoked affect us. Early on Sarah talks about one of the key differences manifest in language:

I enjoy that these nouns I live alongside have a gender, even when Icelanders are speaking English. ‘It’ is easier to commodify, but ‘he’ and ‘she’ become beings I must acknowledge a relationship with.


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Chris Fremantle is a researcher and lecturer at Gray’s School of Art. He established ecoartscotland in 2010 as a platform for research and practice, a node in the network of ecoarts. He writes, mostly in collaboration: most recently, Ecoart in Action: Activities, Case Studies and Provocations for Classrooms and Communities (New Village Press, 2022).

Sarah Thomas is a writer and documentary maker with a background in anthropology. See more at her website. Here on ClimateCultures, you can read her post with fellow member Jon Randall, Óshlið: River Mouth \\ Slope — where they share a conversation about the ideas, stories and creative processes behind their film exploring an abandoned road in Iceland, accompanied by a slideshow of their images from this changing place.

The Raven’s Nest (2022) is published in hardback and ebook by Atlantic Books and is available as an audiobook from Audible. Robert Macfarlane has described it as “A deeply thoughtful, vivid, enquiring, genre-traversing book, closely attentive to the people and the landscapes with which it dwells. It asks hard questions – and offers no easy answers – about what it means to belong to a place, and to live well upon a part of the earth. Sarah’s writing – crisp in its details, patient in its rhythms – draws its readers northwards and inwards upon a fascinating journey.”

Sarah was interviewed for Iceland Monitor on the book’s publication, and the piece – Hnífsdalur made her an author – includes interesting insights into her approach to the book: “I was trained in making movies in the way that the filmmaker is invisible, like a fly on a wall. But when trying to convey the experience of being a foreigner trying to adjust to a different culture, it somehow doesn’t make sense to pretend to be invisible. … Writing the book was a new way to re-take the movie. When writing you can position the camera elsewhere, or go back in time and reminisce. So I feel like I have made a movie with words.”

Chris mentions Ursula Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction — a work that features in other ClimateCultures posts, including Philip Webb Gregg‘s A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #12, On a Writer’s Imaginarium by Sarah Hymas, and Disciplinary Agnosticism and Engaging with Ecologies of Place by Iain Biggs. Iain has also discussed Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement in his post Five Notes on Thinking Through ‘Ensemble Practices’.

“It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories,” is from Donna Haraway’s Staying with the trouble: making kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016).

Artists Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’s suggestion that “Every place is the story of its own becoming” is a central metaphor in their ‘Future Gardens’ work, as explored in this Artist Statement

The quote from Isabelle Stengers on interdependencies comes from Critical Zones: the Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (MIT University Press, 2020).

Chris Fremantle

Chris Fremantle

A researcher and producer working across health and environments / ecologies, and creator of ecoartscotland.
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Walking With the Word ‘Justice’

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reflects on some of the participants’ insights from a workshop exploring the word ‘Justice’. This was the first in the short Environmental Keywords series from the University of Bristol during February and March 2022.


2,900 words: estimated reading time = 11.5 minutes


It was during an online Creative Environments workshop from the University of Bristol last September, led by Dr Paul Merchant, that I first came across his work with the Centre for Environmental Humanities there, and he mentioned the idea of looking at keywords associated with the forthcoming COP26 conference in Glasgow. Later, he brought together a group of interested people inside and beyond the university for an informal exploration and we offered to support the idea of a project. We quickly settled on a short investigation into three words that have complex meanings and usages in different disciplines and contexts and where there is an ever-present risk of groups talking past each other as we grapple with the urgencies and nuances of our climate and biodiversity predicaments. 

Paul and facilitator Anna Haydock-Wilson devised a series of workshops and, while I can’t be at the workshops myself, we agreed I should follow up each one with short discussions — by email or Zoom — with the researchers, community group members and creative practitioners who take part. My aim is to explore their insights from the events and their experiences of the different keywords.

As such, this post is not an account or evaluation of the ‘Justice’ workshop or an ‘objective’ overview of that word and its meanings — even less, an attempt at a definition. I hope it’s a fair reflection of some of the things participants have shared with me once they’ve had some distance from the workshop. And that it offers one way in to further conversations on justice, how we talk about it, and its role in helping us navigate our climate and environmental futures. I encourage all ClimateCultures members and other visitors to our site to offer their own insights and responses, ideas and examples.

Fresh encounters

This group’s exploration of the word ‘Justice’ began with a ‘Walk and Talk’ in the Easton area of Bristol. Participants — as local residents, community project workers and activists, writers and artists and researchers — met, shared ideas of justice and made personal notes as they walked, about what this means for them in an environmental context. Everyone then gathered back at the local community centre to share their perspectives on the walk and their own work or involvement with the issues, and split into two groups for a role-playing game. In that session, each group made a ‘justice map’ of the local area to help bring their ideas into focus, before a final discussion together at the end.

Sharing the word 'Justice' - showing the workshop group on its local walk
Easton Walk & Talk
Photograph: Anna Haydock-Wilson © 2022

One of the community participants said of the session as a whole: “It was a great group of people, and I found it really interesting to have representatives from both academic and non-academic backgrounds in the same room and to hear about the different types of work people are doing linked to climate. I would love to find more ways to translate some of the research and work being done into projects we’re doing locally at a very grassroots level. I’m really glad these workshops have begun, and I think there’s a lot of work for us to be doing to make sure the spaces where words like justice are discussed are shaped by people who have traditionally been on the receiving end of injustice.”

Another said: “I really loved that there were people from very different backgrounds there — both cultural and from the work they did and the experiences they had, on all those fronts.”

A third person told me how: “It has motivated me and confirmed a value for what I do. It was good to have different perspectives in a room coming from different backgrounds or professions. I also really enjoyed the game Anna devised with the role-playing — thought that worked well.” 

One member of the group shared a couple of strong and, it seems to me, complementary memories from the introductory walk — of “the river Frome overflooding under a motorway bridge” and of “how easily conversation flowed with everybody.” Another explained how “I see the environment as a key factor to enable or disable people being exposed to it. On our walk, we had lots of opportunities to explore this and how this might contribute to environmental justice.” Someone else told me how in “an interesting conversation I remember … I noticed that much of her thoughts surrounded the ‘why’, which I felt was powerful.” 

As a prelude to shared conversation within the usual ‘workshop’ environment of a closed room — such as the community centre offered later on — a walk allows for a more open-ended mix of private thought, personal encounter with the local environs and chance conversations with different people one-to-one. In a way, it’s a little like an extended version of that experience when we first arrive at a venue for an event: the bumping into new people at the initial pre-conference tea or coffee, but with the added fuel of fresh air, new perspectives gained out-of-doors and the ever-changing location brought by physical movement. After all, we don’t normally expect to be walking around for a meeting.

The fact that the walk preceded the formal part of the workshop — was actually integral to its design — was clearly appreciated. For one participant, this spoke to a core aspect of our own nature. “Through being active and interacting with the world, particularly walking around, we have a chance to develop new neurons. And our brain, as with other parts of our body, is changing depending on the environment and our interactions. … The physical and the mental go hand in hand and the environment is crucial as it provides the stimulation you need, both on the physical and the mental side.” In this sense, our personal environment — and therefore our shared environment, as social animals — is embodied within us; the boundary between ourselves and the ‘external’ world, where our body stops and the world begins, is not fixed in the ways we commonly think.

“In fact, where our body starts is an interaction between our brain, our environment and our body and the way our senses work to define what is actually around us. We do this all the time. We have to combine what we see, what we hear, what we feel to be able to know what ‘belongs’ to an object, to us, to someone else.”

Photograph: Anna Haydock-Wilson © 2022

Here, then, justice starts to have a very direct relationship with personal experience and with being in and moving around a place. But — like an urban river — that relationship can be submerged, can sink out of our conscious mind until a new context brings it to our attention. As one person fed back to me: “The walk made me notice things which I sometimes take for granted, or you just accept them as they are. Like poor, not thought out architecture in this instance. The grotesque wheelchair access at the train station; the motorway. So if an area has been poorly designed, what are our rights to change anything? Things feel so set in stone sometimes, we don’t know we actually have a voice to change things.” Another pointed out how “We have this idea when we talk about disability or inclusiveness, this tendency to restrict it to someone in a wheelchair or who is blind. But that’s more or less it. Anybody else, with all the sensory variability that is out there and all the consequences that has, is not at all considered.” 

Our urban and others spaces can design in forms of injustice, as illustrated above: embedded in the ways we become accustomed to think about what should even be part of that design process. While this can be addressed through greater care in new design codes, attention will always be needed to what lies outside the efforts to improve these. You cannot code everything. Standards cannot capture all the ways that our dynamic natural environment and we as diverse humans interact. Like a river, the human and the more-than-human break out and exceed the boundaries and order we try to impose.

A testing ground for conversations

While in some places, some people and communities do find voice and agency — their own ways to make change happen — in too many places many cannot: “I considered the active involvement in a neighbourhood — guerilla gardening in a small patch close to the Bristol-Bath trainline — vs no involvement in the garden/play space square in a concreted-over sad excuse for a playground in a social housing complex.” This participant had spoken with another “about the will or capacity of people to do such things to a space outside their own house boundaries” — capacities that can be bound up with different, perhaps overlapping identities.

“We spoke about cultural differences, about new residents from other countries not wanting to stand out, or draw attention to themselves. I have noticed behaviours before with poor recycling rates, with the problem being the visible bins — where residents did not want their neighbours to see what they consume. There is a social status which needs to be upheld. This is the same for people participating in the flea market as traders of second-hand goods. New residents i.e. first-generation arrivals from other countries, need to prove themselves to others from their own cultures that they are being successful.”

Someone else shared how in the group session another member of the group had “mentioned the word justice terrifies some people. It never occurred to me to think that, but made me make the connexion with my fear of the police. I will be very careful to define what it means to me when engaging in conversation with others. From now on I will make sure that when I talk, ‘Justice’ and ‘Environment’ are together.” A point echoed by another person, who said to me: “It was really useful to connect the word and concept of justice as a focus to the environment. It anchored the importance of the issues for me.”   

The word 'Justice' - showing a flooded road under a local bridge
Photograph: Anna Haydock-Wilson © 2022

Another comment gets to the heart of the matter, sharing how in their work with local communities: “a common theme that has come up when speaking with people is how disempowering the language used around climate can be and the negative impact it can have on people feeling that they don’t belong in ‘green’ spaces. Based on that feedback, I’d been thinking about ways we could start working together within our community to build more shared understanding of what the words often used in climate action and decision-making mean, so that more people can use them and the power they hold. When Paul got in touch about the workshop on justice, I was keen to get involved, seeing it as something of a testing ground of how we might begin having these conversations.”

I was sent a link to locally-led research demonstrating how resilient blue spaces are connected to higher quality of life, from which this participant concluded: “so the quality of more greenery around rivers, which we consider good for our wellbeing, would be rather seen in spaces with less deprivation. The justice of the river itself — so majestic round Snuff Mills [a park in the Stapleton area of north Bristol], and in flood it is a powerful beast — to then be turned into a drainpipe and hidden away under concrete for the last bits of its journey into the city. … You feel differently as you follow the river, depending on where it is.”

This also starts to point me to a wider or expanded sense of justice. If environment, body and mind are in relationship within and around each of us and ‘social justice’ contains something of that relationship then — just as where our body ends and the world starts is less fixed than we suppose — justice must encompass something of the wider natural world as well as ‘society’. Something in that phrase, ‘The justice of the river itself’ — a river that has its own life in itself, a powerful beast, and yet is forced into concrete, underground, away from us — speaks to injustice on a more-than-human scale.

Seeing the word 'Justice' - showing a local window with a poster, 'Stop fly-tipping'
Photograph: Anna Haydock-Wilson © 2022

A noun, a verb? In a word, Justice

When asked how they felt about the word ‘Justice’ now, whether this was different since the workshop, one participant said “It feels a lot closer to the bone,” while I’ve already quoted another: “From now on I will make sure that when I talk ‘Justice’ and ‘Environment’ are together.” A third person shared that “I would say that justice used in this climate conversation felt very complex. Already all intertwined, decision-making done with consideration to every living being and their livelihoods is ‘Justice’.”

A further response suggests that a process such as this walk-and-workshop itself is an enactment of what we are seeking: “That’s for me ‘justice’: the listening, the learning and the working together.” And what flows from that might be something that retains a diversity, that “we would start to think of whether we can develop what we call almost a shared mental model … where we know which angle we are coming from but we have an understanding of where they might all fit together. And then instead of having a fixed outcome, rather think of it as a theory of change; how can we change these things and move together to something that is more just, more resilient?”

To appreciate the ‘angle we are coming from’ and how others’ paths intersect, converge, overlap our own, is an expansion of our own map, our mental model, into something larger and shared, although always incomplete. Two conversations gave me different impressions of an area I’ve never visited but can imagine from my encounters with other places I’ve lived or worked. Different but, importantly, not necessarily conflicting — and both speaking of injustice.

One was an email where a few lines provided almost a prose poem: “the trainline with lots of freight trains, high pollution in a local neighbourhood; the architecture at the train station; graffiti and street art; River Frome, DIY skatepark; the lack of green in neighbourhoods, pocket parks; then finally the council estate with a concreted over play park. Had a few trees, but I was surprised and shocked actually at such a loss of opportunity.” 

The other came during a Zoom call, reflecting on the same scene as “On one hand a very sad space but on the other almost an amazing space, when you think about the way the youth make it their own. The dumped sofas, the building rubbish and rubble and whatever, integrated as obstacles into the skatepark; the graffiti going over them as if they are becoming part of the landscape; the ceiling of the M32 with an enormous graffiti, it’s the skeleton of an animal, which brings in almost the life and the change of all these things. The River Frome then going over its edges, going onto the car park, where it can come out and starts to become a river again. So all that is to see how nevertheless life takes over. The walk to the train station there, the little path where the flowers break out to try to get their own space. That’s actually really nice. And I think that by gentrifying that area that community would lose a lot. That’s where justice comes in again: how do you approach such things without destroying what the community creates to survive? That was one of the things where I hadn’t appreciated just how much they’re making that space liveable for them and useable.”

I also saw something of this possibly creative tension between different ways of living in, of seeing, the same ‘environment’ in what another person shared as one of their strongest memories of the event: “the feeling that some areas, particularly those with lots of graffiti, gave a harsh feeling to the area. As graffiti is a huge part of Bristol’s character it’s not a question about removing it but more about offsetting it in the areas it’s the most prominent by revitalising playgrounds and greenspaces.”

Fencing in the word Justice: showing a graffiti area behind a barrier
Photograph by a workshop participant © 2022

Maybe a vision of justice might be something fluid, able to move with people and environment and the others we share it with. And part of that flow might be to recognise not just that justice must include the many and the diversity that we are and share, but the seemingly conflicting forms and appreciations of what is ‘good’.

What does the word ‘Justice’ mean to you?


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See below for comments on this post – and contribute your own to be part of the conversation!

Environmental Keywords is a short interdisciplinary project at the University of Bristol, investigating three keywords — ‘Justice’, ‘Resilience’ and ‘Transitions’ — that are common in the environmental discourses that shape how we think of, talk about and act on the ecological and climate predicaments facing us.

With funding from the Natural Environment Research Council, the project is led by Dr Paul Merchant, Co-Director of the University’s Centre for Environmental Humanities, and involves colleagues from different departments and disciplines, as well as local community groups, ClimateCultures members and other creative practitioners.

The project focuses on three workshops in Bristol, facilitated by Anna Haydock-Wilson complemented by online content here at ClimateCultures:

‘Justice’ — Wednesday 16th February 2022
‘Resilience’ — Wednesday 9th March 2022
‘Transitions’ – Thursday 24th March 2022

You can find out more at our new Environmental Keywords section, including the suggestion to explore an ‘undisciplined glossary of our three keywords: do let us have your thoughts, questions suggestions and examples via the Leave a Reply box on this post or via our Contact page. 

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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