Giving Voice to the Nonhuman

Photographer and writer Joan Sullivan shares her realisation that, no longer content to simply document climate change, a more fluid, non-linear visual language can evoke the nonhuman voice and reflect our own impermanence in a rapidly warming world.


2,300 words: estimated reading time = 9 minutes


A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.
— Dorothea Lange

Earlier this year, I had the great pleasure to collaborate with a sound artist, Robin Servant, to create an interactive climate change art installation in Quebec, Canada. The result of our collaboration was ‘La voix des glaces’ (in English: ‘Ice Voices’), a multi-sensory installation that gives voice to the nonhuman: the disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence River.

Sensing the nonhuman voice: Showing a visitor touching the braille text from recent IPCC reports embossed onto photographic ice sculptures, to listen to the underwater 'ice voices' during the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES, created by Joan Sullivan and Robin Servant for the Centre d'artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer, Quebec, Canada, from 24 Feb to 31 March 2023. Photograph: Joan Sullivan © 2023
Touching the braille text from recent IPCC reports embossed onto photographic ice sculptures, Edwige Leblanc listens to the underwater ‘ice voices’ during the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES. Photograph: Joan Sullivan © 2023

This was the first time that I exhibited my photographs as tactile sculptures. I grouped 24 of my abstract photographs of the rapidly disappearing river ice into eight triangular triptychs suspended from the ceiling in the center of the gallery. Swaying in the natural air currents of the gallery, these ‘ice sculptures’ resembled floating blocks of ice in the Saint Lawrence River.

Sensing the nonhuman voice: Showing a close-up of four ice sculptures at the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES by Joan Sullivan and Robin Servant, held at the Centre d'artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer, Quebec, from 24 February to 31 March 2023. Photograph: Joan Sullivan © 2023
Close-up of four ice sculptures at the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES. Photograph: Joan Sullivan © 2023

Each photograph was embossed with braille text from recent IPCC reports. Visitors – both sighted and visually-impaired – were invited to touch the braille relief in a gesture symbolic of our collective blindness to climate change.

By touching my photographs, visitors triggered underwater audio recordings of the ice blocks as they shift and crack from friction, waves and tidal movements. Every time someone touched an image, the gallery filled with haunting, otherworldly ice voices. They destabilize us, pulling us into their evocative vortex, coaxing us to listen more intently. We find ourselves imagining what the ice is trying to tell us.

Sending the nonhuman voice: Showing a close-up of a visitor touching the braille text from recent IPCC reports during the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES by Joan Sullivan and Robin Servant, held at the Centre d'artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer, Quebec, from 24 February to 31 March 2023
Close-up of a visitor touching the braille text from recent IPCC reports during the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES. Photograph: Joan Sullivan © 2023.

Bringing back the nonhuman voice

Giving voice to the nonhuman has, since 2019, transformed my photographic practice from documentary to abstraction. This shift was triggered by two events. The first (which will likely repeat itself in 2023) was Australia’s 2019-2020 Black Summer – the catastrophic, uncontrollable wildfires that killed an estimated three billion nonhuman beings. I was traumatized by the images of blood-red skies, charred kangaroos clinging to fences, and birds falling out of the sky. I suddenly realized that I could no longer participate in documenting climate change. I felt an overpowering sense of urgency to find a more fluid, non-linear, non-narrative language with which to express my ecoanxiety.

The second event that made me question the role of photography in the Anthropocene was a 2019 interview with the author Amitav Ghosh. Responding to a question from Amy Brady, Ghosh explains:

“I think, in literary terms, the most difficult challenge a writer has in an age of climate change is determining how to give a voice to the non-human (emphasis added). And not just in terms of natural disaster – in general. It’s such a challenge. One writer who has done this very well is Richard Powers. I thought his book, The Overstory, was a huge event because it expanded the boundaries of what writers can do. Now I am asking similar questions: How do we restore nonhuman voices? How do we trace the influence of the human among the nonhuman?”

I had previously read Ghosh’s 2016 non-fiction book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. But it was his 2019 quote above that inspired me — no, pushed me! — to completely change the way I used a camera. Instead of creating images from my perspective (while hiding behind a camera), I wanted to know how the nonhuman beings in front of my camera perceived climate change, from their perspective. What do they see when they look back at us? What do they feel about our destructive behavior and disregard for nonhuman life? What advice would they offer if given the chance? I was desperate to give voice to these nonhuman beings threatened in the age of man.

This shift in perspective, from the human to the nonhuman, has profoundly changed my art. Since 2020, I have been working on two series of abstract photos: ‘Je suis fleuve’ (in English: ‘Becoming River’) and ‘If I were a tree’. For both series, I have adopted a phenomenological approach in order to embody the nonhuman beings in front of my camera. It’s their story, not mine. If we humans are to survive the coming upheavals, we have no choice but to learn from our nonhuman relatives who were here millions of years before Homo sapiens sapiens first walked the earth. And many of them will likely still be here long after we have disappeared. So it would behove our self-described ‘wise’ species to absorb some of the wisdom from these ancient beings while there’s still time. But in order to do so, we must first slow down. We must learn to listen. We must learn to ‘see’ viscerally with our whole bodies, not just visually. This is embodiment.

A beauty filled with dread 

Since Australia’s Black Summer, I have become obsessed with finding non-visual ways to enhance the photographic experience, both for myself (during the creative process) and for viewers (in the gallery setting). Instead of ‘photographing the river or the trees’, I ‘become the river or the trees’ through sustained contemplation and mimicry – moving my body in sync with the flowing water or the wind blowing through the branches. I do this using the technique ICM (Intentional Camera Movement). All of my ICM images are created in-camera; nothing is Photoshopped in post. To date, all my ICM images are single exposures, usually 1-2 seconds long. Through this experimental process, I have learned to embrace chance and mistakes. Most importantly, I have learned to stop trying to control every aspect (sharpness, composition, depth of field, etc.) as I did for 25+ years as a documentary photographer.

Untitled. From the series ‘Je suis fleuve’ by Joan Sullivan © 2023

I describe my new abstract photos as fluid and fleeting. My hope is that these ephemeral images provoke reflection on our own impermanence in a rapidly warming world. An article in a French-language art magazine here in Quebec described my new abstract photos as “d’une beauté pleine d’effroi” (in English: “of a beauty filled with dread”). To me, that’s as close to a perfect description as possible, not just of my photos but also of my state of mind.

Yes, I am filled with dread. Things do not seem to be heading in the right direction; there’s no sense of urgency. But I also refuse to do nothing while we collectively watch the world burn on our cellphones. I counter this dread with a more powerful burning passion: to dedicate every second of my remaining years (15? max 20?) to helping shatter the absurd illusion that Homo sapiens sapiens is somehow separate from and superior to the one trillion other species with whom we share this planet and upon whom we depend for our own survival.

Images 1-9: Untitled. From the series ‘Je suis fleuve’ by Joan Sullivan © 2023. Click images for full size.

This is what prompted me, in part, to question the environmental impact of my own photographic practice. I started to think about all the toxic chemicals in the inks and photo papers that are used to create the photographic prints for my exhibits. Even for those photos that were never printed, a huge amount of electricity is required 24/7 to store them on my computer, in multiple external backup drives, and on my website. Social media, email, charging camera batteries, and driving to locations also require electricity and energy. Then there’s the undeniable problem of how to dispose of photographic prints (they are not recyclable), not to mention the layers of plastic and stryrofoam that protect them during shipping. I could go on and on…

But it wasn’t until November 2021, during a duo exhibit with the video artist Anna Woch, that I became aware of an even more existential dilemma for a photographer. As I looked at my photos on the wall, a wave of queasiness came over me: I felt strangely uninspired by my own work. Or, I should say, uninspired by the way they were presented: as static, two-dimensional objects hanging against a flat wall, protected behind glass to ensure that no one would damage them. After standing alone in the gallery trying to understand why I felt this way, it finally dawned on me: how absurd it was that these abstract images of the rapidly disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence River were considered untouchable, yet we humans are constantly meddling with and disturbing nature. Photographs are ephemeral, just like the disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence. Why was it so sacrosanct to protect ‘art’ for decades if the world around us was burning down? What’s the effing point? On the day that I took those photos down, I mentioned to the director of the artist-run center, Philippe Dumaine, that this would be the last time that I exhibited my photographs in the traditional manner, two-dimensionally. I had no idea what my next exhibit would look like, but I sensed that I was standing on the threshold of a new direction in my artistic practice.

A month later, I was sitting at the kitchen table of the sound artist Robin Servant, whom I had heard through the grapevine was collecting underwater recordings of the river ice with his hydrophones. In our early discussions, I had not yet developed a vision for the tactile three-dimensional photo sculptures; that would come much later thanks to the input of several artist friends. But when I first proposed this project to Robin, I already knew that I wanted to incorporate braille text into my photos in response to the rhetorical question “Are we not collectively blind to the impact of climate change?” After many iterations over the next 14 months and in collaboration with the local chapter of People Living with Visual Handicaps, we presented ‘La voix des glaces’ in February-March 2023 at the Centre d’artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer in eastern Quebec. Funding for ‘La voix des glaces’ was provided by the Canada Council for the Arts.

Images 10-13 from the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES. Photographs: Joan Sullivan © 2023. 10 A partial view of the installation, made up of eight triangular abstract photo sculptures representing the disappearing ice on Quebec’s Saint Lawrence River. 11 A visitor touches the braille text on one of the eight photographic ice sculptures. 12 A group from the Gaspesie chapter of the Association of Persons with Visual Handicaps visits the installation. 13 Gaëtan Banville, who is blind and a member of the Lower Saint Lawrence chapter of the Association of Persons with Visual Handicaps, reads the braille text from recent IPCC reports embossed onto the eight photographic ice sculptures. Click images for full size.

The response to this multisensory interactive installation, in which visitors were able to experience embodiment of the disappearing river ice by using three of their five senses — sight, touch and hearing — was phenomenal. According to the Centre’s director, attendance at our installation broke all recent records. Especially among the youth. The secondary school students in particular were most captivated by ‘La voix des glaces’. One of their art teachers showed me some of the artwork that her students created after visiting our installation — such incredible abstract paintings, full of energy, movement, and emotion. And yes, rage. It gave me goosebumps knowing that some part of my work resonated with and was internalized by these young people. This gives me hope. We can live with beauty and sadness at the same time.

Showing a publicity poster for the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES at the Centre d'artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer, Quebec.
A publicity poster for the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES at the Centre d’artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer, Quebec.

I’m currently working on the conception for a new exhibit in 2024 or 2025 — my most audacious to date — that incorporates elements of ‘La voix des glaces’ but goes one step further. I’ll write about this in a future post.

Hope you enjoyed reading.

P.S. If anyone out there knows Amitav Ghosh, please thank him for inspiring me to experiment using my camera in new ways that give voice to the nonhuman.


Find out more

‘La voix des glaces’ — created by Joan Sullivan and Robin Servant — was exhibited at Vaste et Vague artists’ centre in Carleton-sur-Mer (Quebec) from 24th February to 31st March 2023. It was supported by The Canada Council for the Arts. 

Les artistes remercient le Conseil des arts du Canada de son soutien financier, et tous ses partneraires pour l’appui précieux : Centre d’artistes Vaste et Vague, Centre VU, Engramme et La Chambre Blanche. / The artists thank the Canada Council for the Arts for its financial support, and all its partners for their valuable support: Center d’artistes Vaste et Vague, Center VU, Engramme and La Chambre Blanche.

Le Devoir, Quebec’s largest independent French-language newspaper, published Faire parler les glaces pour montrer que le climat s’effrite, a review of ‘La voix des glaces’, in February 2023. The Vie des arts magazine article that described Joan’s abstract images as “d’une beauté pleine d’effroi” (“of a beauty filled with dread”) is Un vent du fleuve : expositions au Centre d’art de Kamouraska (A wind from the river: exhibitions at the Kamouraska Art Center: 19th September 2020).

You can see more of Joan’s series ‘Je suis fleuve’/’Becoming River’ and ‘If I were a tree’ at her website. 

You can read Joan’s previous ClimateCultures post, Deconstructing our Dominion Stories in a Time of Unravelling, a joint review of After Ithaca: Journeys in Deep Time, by Charlotte Du Cann (2022) and Loss Soup and Other Stories, by Nick Hunt (2022).

The 2019-20 Black Summer in Australia was covered by Reuters in Australia, scarred by bushfires, on high alert for dangerous summer (19th September 2023) and by the Guardian in The black summer bushfires killed 3 billion animals. They are our relatives; they deserve to be mourned (31st March 2023).

Amy Brady interviewed Amitav Ghosh for the Chicago Review of Books: The Uncanniness of Climate Change (18th September 2019). Ghosh’s 2016 book, The Great Derangement: Climate change and the unthinkable was published by University of Chicago Books.

Joan Sullivan

Joan Sullivan

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

The Start of Something Going Wrong

Ecopoet Helen Moore reviews Her Whereabouts, a new collection from fellow poet Joanna Guthrie, whose accumulated acts of noticing and subtle inferences weave her mother’s debilitating strokes with ecological loss in the climate crisis into a poetic memoir.


1,130 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes


In a striking second collection, Joanna Guthrie’s often filmic work forms a poetic memoir, chronicling the aftermath of two debilitating strokes suffered by her mother. In Her Whereabouts, there is a steady accumulation of precise acts of noticing, with images created as handholds to chart a terrain of deep uncertainty, as the poet comes to terms with the severe injuries sustained to her mother’s brain. This imagery frequently connects with the natural world, and through this a thread of concern about the climate crisis is woven.

In ‘The start of something going wrong’, the second poem in the book, we read of an occurrence which reminds us of the moments prior to the onset of a tsunami:

It rained fish. This was the herald.
They thumped down on the hillside like silver blades
or loose tongues sliding whole from heads.

Guthrie also fuses the language of storms, particularly of lightning strokes, with the “dry heat that was a whole new season / day out day in by your shrill bed” (‘Indian Summer’). Inside and outside become merged in a new location, where the family’s focus is the mother, who occupies the centre of a labyrinth in which husband and children struggle to orientate themselves. And to process the emotional fall-out.

Acts of noticing: showing the cover of 'Her Whereabouts' by Joanne Guthrie
Photograph: Joanna Guthrie © 2023

Loss — the personal and the planetary

In ‘Gibbous, waning’ the moon is compared to “a wounded boat – / or else a balloon as it deflates”, which the poet comes to see as a mirror of her own experience: “it’s me who’s punctured, is the vessel on her side / the shrunk balloon.” Avoiding self-pity, Guthrie’s attention to detail delivers entirely unsentimental poems, which are nonetheless full of pathos. Her prose poem, ‘Synapse as muscle’, focuses on the habitual mothering patterns in her brain-damaged mother. While in the poem entitled ‘What aphasia said’, we read a series of non-sequiturs and neologisms, which result from ‘aphasia’, the language disorder caused by the strokes.

Her mother’s loss of language leads the poet to contemplate the role of the brain, which is brilliantly evoked as “a mothership / that grew itself in the dark”, and

A pinwheel emerging out of space
   sprouting a tail
its grey tunnels knitted by you only
   the cortex an intricate skullcap.
(‘Questions after the fact’) 

Ultimately, this inspires a new sense of her mother’s presence, which is found primarily in her eyes. But in searching for ‘her whereabouts’, Guthrie touches into Buddhist philosophy through the concept of ‘pativedha’ — “seeing a thing in its true nature, without name and label” — which moves her contemplation into the realm of quantum physics, as she sees her mother as “a loose collection / of nature in flux.” And herself “unscrewed”, “part of myself this balloon / tethered to a roof.” (‘Tiramisu’)

Despite existing in states of flux and radical uncertainty, there is nevertheless a commitment born of love to walk the labyrinth with her mother, and to surrender to the process of being alongside all that’s unfolding. Inevitably, there are moments of despair, (‘Isn’t this the end’) and dissolution (‘Arctic ice wakes up as liquid’). These poems voice both personal and planetary dimensions, and through them a sense of the ecological self emerges, as the poet’s voice becomes one with the fragmenting ‘I’ voice of the Arctic ice:

I am leaving   a
        am whole chunk of a

        was whole chunk of a

Acts of noticing – learning from the more-than-human

Prolonged periods of uncertainty and waiting also yield heightened states of communion with the more-than-human world. Rooks. A stuffed Victorian Baboon. Cuckoo. Deer. A Chestnut tree for whom love is tenderly expressed. Amidst these touching poems, the title poem ‘Her whereabouts’ may be read as both a charting of the loss of her mother and the poet’s grief at ecological loss.

The loss shoots right down
to the feet, through some central shaft
like a flare descends a well, illuminating
mossy sides …

The named storms, which offer titles to poems (‘Irma’, ‘Dennis’), indicate the extreme weather events resulting from the climate crisis. These Guthrie evokes as simultaneously relating to the family’s experience of a missing member:

soon a mouth will grin with
                                             missing teeth, its gap our gap

and on she rails, no home
             to go to, wired, pulling out
                                           posts    like    pins from a new hem.
(‘Irma’) 

The dream image of a house on fire but “burning so slowly there was time / to rescue every cup” additionally suggests both the personal and planetary, while a poem entitled ‘The emergency’ touches specifically on the poet’s experience as a climate activist, and the collective struggle to find adequate words to express what’s occurring. Here the image of a Brushtail Possum waving a burnt paw to a camera, “like it was showing its passport / or like, Look what you did!” becomes the most poignant way to communicate what the reader assumes to be the catastrophic Australian bushfires that occurred between 2019-20, and in which I was personally caught up.

Might I have understood this without my direct experience? Impossible to say. But subtle inference is certainly a hallmark of this collection, the power of which is cumulatively built. As the book draws to a close, there is unsurprisingly no resolution — just an ongoing state of precarity, “teetering / like a bone china jug on a ledge” (‘The lintel’). With this, however, come fearless love and compassion, along with a willingness to help. In the penultimate poem, ‘Human, standing’ — the title itself a poignant image of survival — there is also a sense of learning from the more-than-human world, as the soil is evoked as “a sacred, slow master.”

Note: In writing my review of Joanna’s book, I have wanted to stay true to my own ecopoetic practice of giving capital letters to the names of more-than-human Beings.


Find out more

Her Whereabouts by Joanna Guthrie is published by Pindrop Press. You can read two of the collection’s poems — ‘The emergency’ and ‘Her whereabouts’ — on the poems page of Joanna’s website.

Helen Moore is a British ecopoet, socially engaged artist, writer, and Nature connector who lives in North Dorset. She offers an online mentoring programme, Wild Ways to Writing, and you can read about the inspiration and creative process behind her wild writing and the embodied awareness and resilience it nurtures in her post Wild Writing: Embracing Our Humanimal Nature. And she contributed a video performance of her poem ‘Earth Justice’ — inspired by attending a mock ecocide trial at the Supreme Court, London in 2011, and featuring collages of transcript material from the court proceedings — for the Environmental Justice thread in our series on Environmental Keywords.

Helen Moore

Helen Moore

An ecopoet, author, socially engaged artist and nature educator who offers an online mentoring programme, Wild Ways to Writing, and collaborates in ecologically oriented community-wide projects.

Resisting a Human Anthropocene: Diasporic African Religious Experiences in Nature

Writer Hassaun Jones-Bey introduces a human Anthropocene as corollary for our planet’s new geological era. The commodification of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the US shows human nature resisting the same commodification that’s visited upon non-human nature.


3,050 words: estimated reading time = approximately 12 minutes


My artistic process is both intuitive and backwards. If I were a painter, I would describe it as throwing all of the paint up on the canvas, then subtracting some things, moving other things around, and also adding some back until it seems to work. It might be described as putting together a puzzle in which it is okay to change the shape and appearance of the pieces, to throw some pieces away, to go out and find totally new pieces, and to even change the size and shape of the entire puzzle. Part of this comes from a couple of decades of creating ‘word pictures’ on the professional side of my life as a science journalist, while also ‘painting with light’ as an amateur landscape photographer.

Human Anthropocene: commodifying human and non-human nature 

The puzzle I’m completing right now suggests that the commodification of non-human nature over the past 500 years has a corollary in the commodification of human nature during the same period. I think of it as a human corollary for the geological Anthropocene. I focus specifically on the commodification of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas, particularly in the US. The evolution of musical expression among these people seems to offer a record of human nature resisting the same commodification that has been visited upon non-human nature.

What I’ve essentially done is draft an essay that asks questions based upon my research (which is actually an interpretive analysis of what others have written rather than original field research). My online essay crunches tens of thousands of academic words down into seven or eight 1,000-word blog posts. I tell it like a story and illustrate it with embedded videos to provide the actual pieces of my puzzle. The idea I was hoping to develop further in connecting with ClimateCultures was that paying more attention to the resistance of human nature might provide useful perspectives concerning the escalating crises that human nature continues to aggravate in non-human nature. My interpretation of C. Eric Lincoln’s concept of ‘Black Religion’ — based on a common experience that crosses the various doctrinal and denominational lines in Western religion — plays a central role in this storytelling, because of the Blackamerican need to reconnect societal religion with actual religious experience.

The story narrative grows out of a musically expressed West African river proverb. Its wisdom seems to have traveled to America with enslaved Africans by traversing the environmental water cycle as rivers do. It refers to the Creator in the terms of religious experience of human and non-human nature, as opposed to what modern Western culture would describe as a ‘religion’. The original essay was based on my own interpretation (once again) of a lyrically told Akan proverb about the crossing of a river and a path. The river is described as ‘elder’ because the river comes from the creator.

Akan proverb, translated in Michael Bakan’s ‘World Music: Traditions and Transformations 2nd Edition’ & featured in Hassaun Jones-Bey’s ‘A Blues Gospel of Anthropocene?’

My initial interpretation of this proverb, in accordance with the textbook in which I encountered it, involved visualizing the intersection like a two-dimensional Cartesian plot or essentially a cross, with the river as the vertical axis and the path as the horizontal axis. My thought was that the exchange of commodities upon the path (which is created by human technologies that kill or at least limit life) need to serve the life that comes from the Creator (in the form of rivers for instance), and not the other way around. I write in the essay:

Paths are technologies as opposed to ecologies. So in this context, the proverb of the river and the path seems to suggest that the Creator gives life through complex environmental cycles and ecologies that essentially embody the Creator’s sacred ego, which might be thought of as the essence of life itself.

Equating the path with the river—or even more so exalting the technology above the ecology—would seem to miss this point. It imagines a human ego that is equal to or even above that of the Creator because of the human capacity to kill. This appears to be the fundamental point of what Lincoln referred to as Black religion. Enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas found themselves ensnared in a “white” colonial ego that attempted to commodify them as its tools or technologies. As a result, Black religion arose to reassert the light of the Creator over the darkness of colonial ego.

To apply the wisdom of the West African proverb to the passage of time and events in the Americas, I translate it into a metaphor of light that also plays a prominent role in scriptures of Western religion. The water cycle metaphor seems to naturally give way to a metaphor of changing light over the course of four annual seasons. All of this seems to be represented for both light and water — the biospheric water cycle and the daily cycle of the sun as observed from the earth — in a puzzle piece that I stumbled upon a decade ago. It is a symbol that was evidently found in one form or another among the artifacts of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas, and has been described as representing the ‘four movements’ of the sun. The structure also seems applicable to periodic cycles of religious and cultural experience and expression that have been and still are observed in human communities throughout the world. The cross in this symbol is intersected by a closed circle or ellipse that I imagine as illustrating an environmental life cycle or ecology, as perhaps the inner meaning of the entire symbol.

Human Anthropocene: showing River and Path with environmental life cycle. An image by Hassaun Jones-Bey.
‘River and Path’ representation with environmental life cycle. Image: Hassaun Jones-Bey © 2023.

The horizontal bar still represents the path. I think of it now as human technology that embodies a human ego — particularly in a context of modern Western religion that seems to separate the Creator from nature and to place humanity in between. To my mind, this is the modern Western separation of religion from religious experience that necessitated the development of Black religion. It also seems to be fundamental to what I refer to as the human Anthropocene. For me the intersecting environmental cycle is what brings everything and everyone back together. It represents resistance to commodification by both human and non-human nature.

In the process of writing this blog post, I also happened upon a hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) and Dolores Huerta (still living) in the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park in Berkeley, CA. The memorial (as illustrated and described in the images below) conveys a religious experience of non-human nature as understood through Chavez’ and Huerta’s Andean culture, which — the memorial literature states — was also expressed through the Virgen de Guadalupe in the Catholicism of many Mexican and Native American people. The structure of the memorial conveys a religious experience of the changing angle of sunlight as it cycles through four annual seasons to powerfully illustrate a narrative of farmworkers’ struggle against commodification in the Americas.

Human anthropocene: 3 images showing a hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, McLaughlin Eastshore State Park - Berkeley, CA. Photographs by Hassau Jones-Bey.
3 images: hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, McLaughlin Eastshore State Park – Berkeley, CA. Photographs: Hassaun Jones-Bey © 2023.

As it turns out, this memorial was threatened by commodification as well. A year ago a newspaper commentary article, ‘Berkeley Marina Plan would destroy Cesar Chavez Park,’ argued that changes proposed in a city plan for the Berkeley Marina “would transform the park from a place of relief from urban stress into a high-pressure commercial amusement park.”

I initially learned about this from a local resident who shared memories of participating in successful community opposition to the original plan. According to a news article published last month in another city paper, ‘New Master Plan for Berkeley Waterfront Park,’ a new plan for the waterfront area has scrapped a proposed ferry terminal from the initial plan and will instead fill in a portion of the bay to create a potentially much more lucrative ‘container terminal’ for international shipping.

Another key factor the local resident shared with me was the rising cost of real estate and just plain living was driving long-term residents out of the area (all-too-often a factor in the history of Blackamerican community experience), which is currently true of the San Francisco Bay Area in general. The relationship between people and land seems key here.

Modern Western culture seems more likely to describe the water in the river as a natural resource and the talent of a drummer as an entertainment resource. Resources (including the “human resources” currently measured in “man-hours”) may be used wisely or even reverently, but they are still resources to be used rather than ecologies of which we are composed and in which we participate.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries throughout the Americas, a combination of ‘Jim Crow’ religion, ‘scientific racism,’ ‘social Darwinism,’ and emerging global markets pushed formerly enslaved ‘black’ people and culture to the margins of society and often to the margins of existence. Reading about this makes me think of the homelessness and despair one sees in the midst of soaring affluence today but on a much grander scale. Since all of these folks and their communities were actually human and not just commodities, this also seems like a massive demolition of human community consciousness — particularly in terms of the Black religious experience that C. Eric Lincoln described as Black religion.

Cycles of water, cycles of history

The process of working back through this with climate crises in mind and connecting it directly to the commodification of non-human nature led to a good bit of revising in my online essay. It also provided a great deal of focusing, clarity, and brevity (significantly increasing the ratio of music videos to words), which I am quite pleased with and grateful for.

As mentioned above, it is helping me to understand and articulate one of the intuitive pieces that just kind of showed up to become an essential piece of the puzzle, which I mentioned briefly above. An environmental water cycle characterizes each of the century-long quadrants in the religious history that I tell. Such a cycle also works for the larger historical cycle that arises from putting the four quadrants together into a single US history. I still describe it that way at the outset, as follows:

The narrative begins with an “apocalypse” that stripped diverse African people of lands, identity, and dignity to create “black” disposable commodities for colonizing an entire hemisphere where the sacred ecology consciousness of indigenous civilizations was also being marginalized and exterminated. The narrative continues into a rainstorm “genesis” of enslaved Africans and their descendants creating “Blackamerican” identity, evidenced in Negro Spirituals.

After emancipation, headwaters of “blues people” flowed in “exodus” from Jim Crow persecution. This Great (rural-to-urban) Migration became a blues river that overflowed its banks. It burst the Jim Crow dam with a global “gospel” of social change. The freshwater river emptied into a saltwater ocean of “New Jim Crow” massive incarceration, from which hip-hop arose in a “pentecost” of storm clouds spreading globally with post-modern “tongues of fire.

Seasons of change

When I am actually telling the story I used the water cycle to create, however, the narrative seems to flow much more smoothly when I use a metaphor of natural light as it changes during the course of four annual seasons. So in the essay, after introducing the concept of human community ecology and its emigration to the Americas in the first two chapters, I then proceed through a “winter solstice darkness of colonial ego” in the third chapter; a “spring equinox light of Blackamerican genesis and ring shout spirituals” in the fourth chapter; a “summer solstice light of Blackamerican exodus and Blues-matrix Gospel” in the fifth chapter; and an “autumnal equinox light of Blackamerican Pentecost and Hip Hop hybridity” in the sixth chapter. Each of these chapters covers one of my four quadrants, covering the past 500 years of US history. The seventh chapter asks four questions that suggest a problem-solving hypothesis based on my suggested correlation of an Anthropocene in non-human nature to an Anthropocene in human nature.

Originally, I attempted to avoid the potential confusion of a mixed metaphor by going back and changing the water metaphor in each quadrant to a light metaphor. After doing so and reflecting on it, however, it seemed both strained and ineffective. Obfuscating words seemed to overwhelm the visual, audible, and tactile imagery. Simply returning to the mix of metaphors, however, appeared to intuitively translate the embodied religious ecology that seems to flow so naturally in indigenous stories into a religious, scientific, and cosmological imagery of light within the more conceptual and less embodied languages of modern Western literature. 

In any event, after struggling through all of this analysis, I encountered a musical video on YouTube by Afro-Cuban pianist, composer and bandleader Omar Sosa that brought the two metaphors together so seamlessly that I embedded it in my online essay. I’ve also included it here below.

This also produced a kind of surprise result that didn’t show up in my academic research. As mentioned previously, the original research arranges the past half-millennium of history into four cycles, which I ultimately arrange as four quadrants of one large cycle at the conclusion. Upon doing so, the upcoming global climate crisis seems as if it might be accompanied or perhaps even preceded by a potentially much more catastrophic repeat of the human ‘climate crisis’ that modern Western culture visited upon the global hemisphere that started to become the Americas 500 years ago. The previous human climate crisis seems to have been caused in large part by abuse of emerging technologies, and revolutionary changes seem to be taking place in those same technologies now. The most important technology to refocus in addressing the Anthropocene, however, showed up as multi-national corporations, which I imagine as pseudo-religious community technologies focused on individual economic prosperity rather than on human community ecology embodying the Creator’s ego.

The hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta seemed to speak to me during this process with a confirming perspective that was indigenous to the  Americas. I’ve inserted a couple of landscape views that I took with my phone from that area after a recent rainstorm.

3 images: lands, sea, air, light – northern California. Photographs: Hassaun Jones-Bey © 2023

As I write this post, my online essay consists of an introduction and seven chapters. A major goal has been to make the whole thing flow like the river cycle that it flows from. There are two additional blog-length items as well. One is the story of a 400-year-old European song that emigrated to America during the antebellum period to eventually become a political rock song and jazz ballad. The other is a lyrical poem of Black religious experience, ‘Ms. Tubman’s Soldiers,’ that inspired the visual design of the homepage. I posted both of them previously and moved them around to try and make them fit. I ended up taking them down, however, upon realizing that they are not really part of the river I’m attempting to depict. Once the river is complete, I will probably put them back up separately, and also start reposting a lot of music that was just random stuff previously, but now has a meaningful context.

All of that said, I’m not really sure how or to what degree all of this really belongs in the ClimateCultures orbit. I am still thankful for the editorial feedback and stimulus to create a much better piece than I could have otherwise. I would also appreciate any such feedback from the broader community as well.


Find out more

You can read Hassaun’s online essay A Blues Gospel of Anthropocene? at his site, Peace Jungle, where hyperlinks throughout the essay text point to sources of additional information.

The newspaper articles about Chavez Park that Hassaun mentions are: Berkeley Marina Plan would destroy Cesar Chavez Park (Berkleyside, 24/4/22); and New Master Plan for Berkeley Waterfront Park (Berkeley Daily Planet, 1/4/23).

The book from which the English translation of the Akan proverb is taken is Michael Bakan’s World Music: Traditions and Transformations (McGraw Hill – now available in a 4th edition, 2024).

Hassaun’s suggestion of the human Anthropocene ties in with the crisis he describes as visited by modern Western culture upon the global hemisphere that started to become the Americas 500 years ago. Geography professors Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis have suggested that the Anthropocene began with European colonisation and mass slavery, with the death of 56 million indigenous people across the Americas in just 100 years of Christopher Columbus setting foot on the Bahamas: “deadly diseases hitched a ride on new shipping routes, as did many other plants and animals. This reconnecting of the continents and ocean basins for the first time in 200 million years has set Earth on a new developmental trajectory. The ongoing mixing and re-ordering of life on Earth will be seen in future rocks millions of years in the future. The drop in carbon dioxide at 1610 provides a first marker in a geological sediment associated with this new global, more homogeneous, ecology, and so provides a sensible start date for the new Anthropocene epoch.”

Hassaun adds some additional sources: “Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 (1999, Simon & Schuster) by W.E.B. Du Bois (the first modern American sociologist) provides well-documented and particularly valuable perspectives on the post-emancipation marginalization of ‘black’ humanity in the US. And Afro-Latin America, 1800-2000 (2004, Oxford University Press) by George Reid Andrews devotes an entire chapter to the simultaneous ‘whitening’ throughout the rest of the Americas. B.W. Higman has also written a number of fascinating articles on “The Sugar Revolution” as what I tend to imagine as the commodifying engine that drove modern Western culture’s initial expansion throughout the global Western Hemisphere.”

ClimateCultures explores many aspects of the human Anthropocene and its more-than-human aspects in our members’ series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects and our new series with Martin Mahony and his students on the University of East Anglia’s Geography and Environmental Sciences course: Museum of the Anthropocene.

Hassaun Jones-Bey

Hassaun Jones-Bey

A retired engineer, science journalist and founder of Peace Jungle, which began as a musical storytelling project when online discourse associated 'apocalypse' with the impending twenty-first century.

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: Public domain

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

Paul Feather

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.