Disciplinary Agnosticism and Engaging with Ecologies of Place

Artist and researcher Iain Biggs discusses Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place, his new co-authored book about the possibilities of creative work, ensemble practices and disciplinary agnosticism in seeking alternative and inclusive ways of belonging to this world.


2,250 words: estimated reading time = 9 minutes 


In December 2020, and after a great many years of work, Mary Modeen’s and my book Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies finally appeared. This post aims to give some idea of what sort of book this is, along with some idea of how, and why, it has the content it does.

Calling for disciplinary agnosticism
Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place, by Mary Modeen & Iain Biggs

As we make clear from the start, and despite the sixty-eight colour images of works we referred to, it’s not really an ‘art book’, at least in the usual sense. Instead, it’s a book about the possibilities of ‘ensemble practices’, creative work viewed as drawing on concerns found in art, education, issues of place and what Felix Guattari calls ecosophy. Nor is it a book of theory, although it deals with a wide range of ideas from many different disciplines. Our central aim is to encourage readers, whatever their background, to understand their particular skills and knowledge in larger, intra-related contexts so as to contribute to the ‘joined-up’ thinking and action necessary to face the global changes now taking place. We’re not interested in providing an argument based on a set of specialist practices or a particular form of disciplinary or interdisciplinary thinking. Instead, like Donna Haraway, we want to encourage readers to find practical, creative ways to ‘stay with the trouble’ in all its many dimensions.        

Towards ‘placed-ness’

So, a brief outline of the book’s contents. Chapter One outlines the basis of our position and, in particular, considers the importance of three geo-poetic thinkers to our concerns — Gary Snyder, Kenneth White, and Robert Frodeman. This also allows us to distinguish their approaches from our own. Chapter Two goes back to fundamentals by considering how we take in the world through our senses. It takes the reader on an imagined walk so as to explore the relationship between embodiment and place, the visible and the invisible, the phenomenological and the numinous. Chapter Three then sets out what we mean by slow residency and explains why we don’t offer a single definition of deep mapping. It then outlines a possible pre-history of deep mapping and gives examples of current practice.

Disciplinary agnosticism
‘Queen Bee and Mobile Hive performance’, Buzz Lab interns, Plains Art Museum, Fargo, North Dakota, 2017.
Photo: Christine Baeumler

Chapter Four is based on a long interview about her work with Christine Baeumler, an artist, environmental educator, community activist, and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Art at the University of Minnesota. Her collaborative work with both her local community and Dakota people living in Minneapolis St Paul resulted in a number of land reclamation projects, including transforming an abandoned railway marshalling-yard into what is now the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. Her recent Buzz Lab project with young people employed as paid interns created a pollinator garden and developed strategies to highlight the socio-environmental value of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. Chapter Five investigates the values inherent in perception, and especially as this is central to the ways in which place is perceived. In it, the processes by which the threads of cultural value relating to a particular site generate understanding are unpicked.

Chapter Six looks at questions around collaboration. It includes a look at the gap between the idea of ‘interdisciplinary research’ and the way interdisciplinary collaborations tend to work out in practice. Here we’re concerned with the ways the presuppositions of the knowledge industry distort collaboration to maintain the status quo. As an alternative, we discuss what we call ‘creative communities of practice’. Importantly, it includes a shortened version of the South African artist, environmental researcher, and writer Hanien Conradie’s text The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River, which provides a compelling example of collaboration with the more-than-human.

Chapter Seven consists of eleven examples of practices that offer inclusive and open creative approaches to a range of current concerns. Approaches that, for example, embrace the complexities of living in a world that has become inexorably multicultural, while also respecting and valuing the local, the specific, and the idiosyncratic. Chapter Eight is based on exchanges with the Australian designer, landscape researcher, curator, and educator Gini Lee. Her Stony Rises deep mapping work is representative of an inclusive, relational approach to issues of place and environment that has informed her numerous collaborations, enabling her to explore possibilities across a wide variety of conventionally disparate roles.

Chapter Nine draws on extensive conversations between Mary Modeen and  Alexander and Susan Maris, who live and work at Kinlock Rannoch in the Scottish Highlands. We see their work as enacting the vital materialism proposed by Jane Bennett, Karen Barad, and others; an inclusive approach that makes possible what Donna Haraway calls ‘tentacular thinking’. Chapter Ten, ‘Fieldwork Reconsidered, is a plea for more holistic and grounded approaches to creative learning in its fullest sense. For a shift away from what Geraldine Finn calls “high altitude thinking” towards direct experience and awareness of our placed-ness. Towards a better understanding of knowledge as embodied, enacted, and always subject to the contingencies of human and more-than-human worlds. And towards a more open awareness that attends to multiple voices in different registers and differently placed. A fieldwork, then, that’s enacted in and through our active awareness of the porosity of the human and more-than-human, of place and time, of self and community.

Disciplinary agnosticism

Now for the ‘how’ and ‘why’. The Czech poet and immunologist Miroslav Holub pointed out in 1990 that we have an unrealistic view of the work of both scientists and artists. Work that, in both cases, is actually located within a small, subtle, largely confined — if at times pervasive — domain with regard to society as a whole. Furthermore, both scientists and artists are, for much of their times, actually engaged in a whole variety of other, more mundane and everyday roles and activities. Against the assumption that the artistic or scientific mentality is a singular, exceptional and all-consuming role, Holub suggests an alternative view. Rather than the current overemphasis on the different practices and methodologies of scientists and artists, he focuses on their need to acknowledge that these differences are insignificant compared to their common obligations. ‘Obligation’ Mary and I paraphase as the need to obtain, and act on the basis of, an informed understanding of the distinct but intra-related ecologies of selfhood, the social, and the environmental. Recognising that common obligation is a key element of the inclusivity of ensemble practices.

However, developing an ensemble practice requires an agnostic attitude towards the realpolitik that underwrites the authority that disciplines and professions claim in relation to the production and circulation of knowledge. An agnosticism that allows us to separate the ‘use value’ of specialist knowledge from the intellectual and social power of categorisation and exclusion derived from it. Disciplinary agnosticism is basically a strategy to by-pass what sociologists of knowledge see as the way in which dominant forms of knowledge production are able to insist that all other knowledge claims be judged according to the dominant set of criteria. In extreme cases, this means that nothing recognisable as knowledge can be produced outside of the socially dominant form. Put briefly, disciplinary agnosticism insists on what Isabelle Stengers and other thinkers call a “decolonization of thought”. So how did we arrive at this position?

A carrier bag theory of ensemble praxis

Disciplinary agnosticism - Listening at the Borders
Iain Biggs Hidden War (with and for Anna Biggs) from Iain Biggs ‘”Listening at the Borders” introduction, acknowledgements (and an intervention) in Iain Biggs, ed. Debatable Lands Vol. 2. These Debatable Lands (Bristol, Wild Conversations Press, 2009).
Photo Iain Biggs

The archaeologist and anthropologist Barbara Bender’s work, like that of her friend the political geographer Doreen Massey, show that:

“landscapes refuse to be disciplined. They make a mockery of the oppositions that we create between time [History] and space [Geography], or between nature [Science] and culture [Social Anthropology]”
(quoted in Doreen Massey 2006: ’Landscape as a Provocation: Reactions on Moving Mountains’. Journal of Material Culture. 11(33), p. 33).

This understanding is complemented by the polymath Cliff McLucas, a key figure in the development of deep mapping, who writes in There are ten things I can say about these deep maps that deep maps should: “bring together the amateur and the professional, the artist and the scientist, the official and the unofficial, the national and the local”. In her chapter ‘The Politics of Spirituality. The Spirituality of Politics’ in Why Althusser Killed His Wife: Essays on Discourse and Violence, 1996, the feminist philosopher Geraldine Finn identifies the tension between that shared obligation and a form of reason preoccupied with categorisation. She states that:

“…the contingent and changing concrete world always exceeds the ideal categories of thought within which we attempt to express and contain it. And the same is true of people. We are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us.”

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman points to the profoundly negative social consequences of over-emphasis on the categorical; it’s encouraging and enabling ‘othering’ by promoting an ethically neutral ‘objective detachment’. One that erodes what Hannah Arendt calls the animal pity by which all normal persons are affected in the presence of physical suffering and, in addition, has estranged us from all other-than-human life.

Lastly, Bruno Latour supports the link between disciplinary agnosticism and the ability of ensemble practices to help renegotiate the relationship between local and global when he writes:

“What counts is not knowing whether you are for or against globalisation, for or against the local; all that counts is understanding whether you are managing to register, to maintain, to cherish, a maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world”.
(Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime 2018 pp. 15-16).

Both disciplinary agnosticism and ensemble practices assume a particular sense of self that’s constituted in and through relationships, attachments, and connections. Our understanding here draws on the psychoanalytic thinking of Gemma Corradi Fiumara and Felix Guattari, the post-Jungians James Hillman and Mary Watkins, the artist-turned-anthropologist A. David Napier, and the sociologists of religion Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead. I don’t have the space to enlarge on this here but, if you want the detail, it’s set out in a chapter on ‘Ensemble Practices’ in the recently published Routledge Companion to Art in the Public Realm.

So, finally, who is this book written for? When we were writing, I had in mind the  various very different individuals I’d helped navigate creative Masters and Doctoral projects. Individuals who, while they share a desire to understand and transform some aspect of the material world, have surprisingly little else in common. Drawing on Ursula K Le Guin’s recently republished essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, I’d like to hope that we’ve assembled the beginnings of a ‘carrier bag theory of ensemble praxis’, one that will be able to hasten the end of the deeply problematic story that, to borrow from Le Guin again, might be called ‘The Ascent of Man as Hero’. I hope that, instead, we can encourage readers to engage with another, less toxic and more inclusive, story. The one about how we can each best learn to register, maintain, and cherish as many alternative and inclusive ways of belonging to this Terrestrial world as possible.


Find out more

Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies, by Mary Modeen & Iain Biggs is published by Routledge (2021). 

Iain’s coauthor, Mary Modeen, is Professor of Contemporary Art Practice at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design. She is an artist/academic whose research links creative practice with interdisciplinary academic studies in the humanities, particularly philosophy, literature, feminist and indigenous studies. Her work usually combines creative art practice and writing.

Five Notes on Thinking Through ‘Ensemble Practices’, Iain’s previous post for ClimateCultures, introduces ideas of ensemble creative practices to describe how the work of Christine Baeumler incorporates a multiplicity of roles and skills, illustrating “an individual’s mycelial entanglement in multiple, interconnected tasks, connectivities and interdependences, all of which will, to a greater or lesser extent, involve creativity understood inclusively.” Iain’s chapter on ‘Ensemble Practices’ appears in the Routledge Companion to Art in the Public Realm, edited by Cameron Cartiere & Leon Tan (Routledge, 2021).

Iain mentions the work of fellow ClimateCultures member Hanien Conradie, a fine artist concerned with place and belonging, informed by the cosmology of African animism within the complex human and other-than-human networks that encompass a landscape. Her ClimateCultures post Writing on Water shares a collaborative film of her ritual encounter with the River Dart in Devon and her work with places where nothing seemingly remains of their ancient knowledge — including The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River, which Iain refers to.

Iain also mentions Ursula Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. Fellow ClimateCultures member Philip Webb Gregg also discusses this essay — where “Le Guin explores the idea of the bag being the oldest human tool. In doing so, she is able to show how the stories we’ve been told our entire lives have deceived and misled us.” — in A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #12, his contribution to our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

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

Iain Biggs
Iain Biggs
An independent artist, teacher and researcher interested in place seen through the lens of Felix Guattari's ecosophy, working extensively on ‘deep mapping’, other projects and publications.
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Conversations with Work That Connects

Climate change dramatist and activist Julia Marques introduces a series of lively and engaging conversations she has recorded with fellow members. Artists and researchers explore their experiences with wide-ranging topics which inform the creative work that ClimateCultures celebrates.


2,970 words: estimated reading time 12 minutes + videos


The inspiration for this journey into podcasting came from the imposed self-isolation that we are all currently facing because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and that we have faced (on and off) for nearly a year now. As a fairly extroverted human, I miss connecting. I miss collaborating. I miss conversing in 3D; the whole-body language that cannot be translated through a flat screen, no matter how hard we try. As a human being, there is also a need to create. So, working within the current limitations, I decided to set about creating a podcast for ClimateCultures members to become more acquainted with each other. I started with a small pilot group of five members all linked to theatre practice in some way: Daniel Bye, Tessa Gordziejko, Matt Law, Jennifer Leach and Andrea Carr.

I am myself a theatre maker, mainly with amateur groups at a community level, and I discovered the melding of the two worlds of theatre and environmentalism during my climate change studies at King’s College in London a few years ago. I also directed and produced The Children by Lucy Kirkwood in 2019 with my local theatre group. Having worked in the environmental NGO sector for a bit, I decided to foray into the business startup world last year and set up a business with a team-mate that aimed to connect media professionals with environmental community stories.

As well as being interested in why people have joined ClimateCultures, when they first decided to combine art and environmentalism and what they are working on now, our conversations explored what art and environmentalism bring to each other – and more along the way.

I’ve included a short clip from each conversation, with links to the full interviews in the notes and in their ClimateCultures member profiles.

“Galvanising the faithful”

‘Preaching to the choir’ is a common criticism in environmental circles. However, writer and performer Daniel Bye doesn’t think this is a problem because even among the broadly like-minded each person brings their own interpretation of a situation and how to take it from here to there. As Dan points out, there would never be another rally or march if all you were trying to do each time was convert people who don’t share your views. There is power in gathering with like-minded people who are also individuals nonetheless and carry their own life history and views and opinions with them. Everyone can bring something to the table.

Daniel Bye on ‘galvanising the faithful’

I think there is a lot still to be learnt from faith communities and religion – often overlooked in the climate change discussion. For many years they have successfully galvanised the faithful and ‘preached to the choir’ to great effect. The ‘guardians of the Earth’ narrative is one that many people will identify with — we have been given this wonderful planet by a higher power and we need to take care of it.

Dan spoke to me about How to Occupy an Oil Rig, and his more recent piece These Hills Are Ours made with Boff Whalley of the band Chumbawamba. The first is more overtly political and has very clear links to climate change. The second is more subtle about the subject matter, but it is very much linked to our connection with the natural world — walking the path between urban and country with different groups of singers.

How to Occupy an Oil Rig
Photograph: Reed Ingram Weir © 2013

There is something about walking that has magical properties; we step on the ground in order to walk — “that patch of ground upon which you tread to go to the local shops” as writer, performer and storyteller Jennifer Leach put it in our discussion. Walking is our constant connection to the physical earth that we live on. We also walk on marches — to have our voices heard. We walk to get us somewhere, but also as a leisure activity. Walking slows us down, we have time to appreciate what’s around us. With no other means of transport, we walk. There is huge potential in walking too, as initiatives like Slow Ways are showing – walking connects us.

When watching the videos of the walks that the choirs were able to do with Dan and Boff, you get a sense of something powerful in a group of people all singing together on top of a hill. Voices into the wind, feet planted on the ground, nothing else around but grass and stones. They have made a journey, and this journey has brought them here — but the journey is not yet finished. The art is in the process, not the product. They hope to make more performative journeys later this year.

“Just enough beauty to stay with the darkness”

As you watch the singers trudge up the hills with Dan, you can see the hardship that must be gone through before they reach the peak and sing for joy. You must go through the darkness to reach the light — there cannot be light without darkness. Jennifer and writer, performer and creative producer Tessa Gordziejko are sure of this. If we cannot stay with the darkness then we will forever be chasing the light. Tessa quotes Dougald Hine, co-founder of The Dark Mountain Project: “Art can give us just enough beauty to stay with the darkness, rather than flee or shut down.” This reminds me of Donna Harraway’s Staying with the Trouble and the work of Joanna Macy — climate work very much rooted in psychology. Tessa is in fact connected to the Climate Psychology Alliance and has started to weave tapestries using social dreaming — untethering what is sitting on the bottom of our lakes of consciousness and letting it ‘bob to the surface’.

Tessa Gordziejko on ‘Facing the darkness’:

Tessa also likes to weave music into her work; she says it helps to immerse people in the work so they feel part of it. There is also an element of dance – she misses dancing with people – as a way of connecting when words run out, and of circus performance via her collaborations with circus artist Mish Weaver. Dancing, music, song — these elements run throughout Tessa’s work, and Dan’s too.

Breath[e]LESS – a blend of spoken word, soundscape, projection and dance music on environmental themes that Tessa Gordzjieko collaborated on.

“You learn as much as you teach”

We all go into situations with preconceived ideas of how things will be. What art does is make it okay for us to be uncomfortable with the way things actually turn out — as we figure out what’s really going on. Art embraces uncertainty, as does science. The not knowing is what drives both pursuits. And for both, the process is as important as the results. It would make sense then that the two join forces so that we can all welcome the unknown with open arms.

As a geographer, Matt Law has been introduced to the power of art as connector. He is crossing disciplinary borders within Bath Spa University and has co-created a piece of theatre with the drama department that addresses environmental issues. The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul) is the result; a piece very much focussed on the community level of climate change and how incremental changes can unravel but also eventually strengthen a tightly-knit group. Plans to tour it have been put on hold but will hopefully go ahead later this year.

The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul)
Photograph: Matt Law © 2020

Being an educator, Matt really feels as though the process of using art to communicate science has been as much of a learning process for him as it has been for any of the students he has taught. His work on the project Future Animals with Professor Jaqui Mulville from the archaeology department at Cardiff University was the spark that ignited his interest in merging art and geography to make sense of climate change.

Matt Law on ‘You learn as you teach’:

“Ecology begins on your doorstep”

Jennifer Leach looks out of her window at a holly tree and tells me that if everyone could see this tree then there would be no need for words to explain the beauty of the natural world in which we live. The beauty lies in the ordinariness of the thing. The everyday ecology.

I really think this is crucial for that all-important shift in consciousness from understanding something with our heads to really feeling it with our hearts. Big, lofty ideas are not going to get us far — ordinary, everyday things are what will change hearts and minds. And art has a way of celebrating the ordinary, of holding it up to the light so that we can really see it for the beautiful thing that it is. Jennifer identifies this in the work of American visual artist Joan Jonas who celebrates the ordinary, albeit in a thorough and intentional way.

Jennifer Leach on ‘Ecology on your doorstep’:

Jennifer herself has made canvasses out of plastic bags used in an art exhibition and organised the Festival of the Dark, where people were encouraged to re-embrace the seasonal cycles of dark and light. As she puts it:

“It’s only by being still, by being quiet and by completely embracing the fact that death and decay – endings – are part of our cycle that you learn to live in harmony with everything else that lives within the seasons of nature. We are the only species that don’t.”

Showing the gathering for The Night Breathes Us In, part of Festival of the Dark, . Photograph by Georgia Wingfield-Hayes
The Night Breathes Us In – part of Festival of the Dark, March 2017
Photograph: Georgia Wingfield-Hayes © 2017 georgiawingfieldhayes.org

She’s currently working on Duende with fellow ClimateCultures member Andrea Carr — a project that came to life through one of those preciously ordinary things that we now crave; a chance meeting on a staircase, and a conversation about Federico Garcia Lorca at a TippingPoint gathering. The unnamed catastrophe in Duende has forced two insects to hide underground — a strange portent of what became reality in 2020 for many of us. This piece is still a work in progress, and Jennifer and Andrea are looking to collaborate with others who appear in connection with this project. However, as Jennifer says, “what’s become super clear to me now is that my work is not about product, it is about process”, so you could say that the art has already been created.

“Our new brief”

So, what is the way forward for environmental theatre? For designer and scenographer Andrea Carr, it is the vision that all artistic practice will hold the environment at the centre of all it does — so the prefix ‘eco’ will no longer be needed. She has pioneered this approach to making theatre, and now she has joined forces with other scenographers and created Eco-stage, a soon-to-relaunch platform which will serve as a library of eco-theatre work and a space for dialogue on the topic.

Orlando after Virginia Woolf
Photograph: Andrea Carr © 2019

Andrea has her own set of values which she has defined on her own terms, and she encourages others to really think about what these highly generalised words mean to them as well:

Creativity – “cultivating curiosity”
Sustainability – “where the dreamer … the idealist and the pragmatist will work together”
Collaboration – “active listening”, “developing openness”, “pooling expertise”, “welcoming and honouring diversity”
Radical optimism – “celebrating and noticing what works and doing more of it”

She also speaks of honouring the materials that we use to create art — these things that we regard as single-use but have a life that extends far beyond our imagination.

Andrea presents us with our new brief: to place the ‘eco’ at the heart of everything we do.

Andrea Carr on ‘Our new brief’

One thing that really inspired me in my conversations with these five people was that each was proud of all of their work, large and small, and no one was afraid of making something that may or may not fly. All creative work is valid. Having spent a year in the business incubator world where you are constantly asked how ‘scalable’ your idea is, it was really nice to be reminded that ‘small and quiet’ is also worth something and this is where change starts — at the local, smaller, community level. This has inspired me to pursue more of my own environmental community theatre work, to put something out there and see where it goes. After all, if we don’t act now, then when will we?

I would like to thank Dan, Tessa, Matt, Jennifer and Andrea for their time and their great insights into making environmental art, and life more generally! The videos of my conversations with them are all available below, and in their profiles in the ClimateCultures Directory.

Conversations such as these are part of the bigger conversation on art and climate change and how to make sense of the world we live in. The idea is also that they will become part of a spiderweb of conversations starting with the ClimateCultures community, reaching further and further out until they include all members and eventually beyond. So I’m hoping this first set will also spark more conversations and collaborations within our community. If you’d like to be part of future discussions – just let me or Mark know!


Find out more

Julia Marques
Julia Marques
A climate change dramatist and activist in social and cultural aspects of climate change who has worked in the nonprofit sector and combines arts and environmentalism.
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You can read about Julia’s production of Lucy Kirkwood’s play in her post Directing The Children.

Do watch Julia’s full conversations with Dan, Tessa, Matt, Jennifer and Andrea below. This post and our brief summaries here give just a flavour of what they discussed!

Theatre writer and performer Daniel Bye discusses the value of dialogue with the community of other makers, and shares his experience of creating work (including How to Occupy an Oil Rig and, more recently, These Hills Are Ours) as starting points to bring people together, galvanise those with existing environmental awareness, reach new audiences and have impact beyond the performance, expanding the opportunity for activism.

Writer, performer, creative producer and activist Tessa Gordziejko discusses her involvement with the Climate Psychology Alliance and Dark Mountain Project as inspirations for work such as Breath[e]:LESS and The Divided and explorations of ‘social dreaming’ as ways to address our emotional responses to climate crisis. Tessa also shares plans for a deep adaptation project working with the land and conversations around the campfire.

Environmental change and sustainability researcher Matt Law shares his experience of crossing academic boundaries, coming to climate theatre as a geographer and bringing arts and geography students together for The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul). He also discusses art, music and performance as ways to explore ways of engaging people with environmental histories and futures, and being connected to a community.
   

Artist, writer, performer and storyteller Jennifer Leach shares her environmental passion as a creator of projects such as The Festival of the Dark, reconnecting with nature’s cycles of life and death, and learning how the process is as important as the product. She shares ideas behind Duende, her new collaborative project with Andrea Carr, and the importance of finding what feeds you rather than what drains you.

Designer and scenographer Andrea Carr shares her childhood model for environmental action, developing her core values through works such as Orlando after Virginia Woolf, Stuck and The Chairs, working on eco-scenography with other designers to directly incorporate ecological thinking into theatre and make activism visible. She also discusses Duende, her new collaborative project with Jennifer Leach as hybrid encounters with times of ecological uncertainty through stories, song, imagery and myth.

As well as exploring these members’ activities via their ClimateCultures profiles, you can explore the following links for film and other materials from some of their theatrical works mentioned in the post: Daniel Bye — How to Occupy an Oil Rig and  These Hills Are Ours; Tessa Gordziejko — Breath[e]:LESS; Matt Law — The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul); and Andrea Carr — Stuck. And you can read about Jennifer Leach’s journey from a ‘sharing of darkness’ at a climate conference for artists and scientists, and the year-long festival she created in its honour, to her recent book in her post Dancing with Darkness.

Slow Ways is a project to create a network of walking routes that connect all of Great Britain’s towns and cities as well as thousands of villages. 

The Dark Mountain Project is making art that doesn’t take the centrality of humans for granted, tracing the deep cultural roots of the mess the world is in, and looking for stories that can help us make sense of a time of disruption and uncertainty. 

In Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016) Donna Harraway offers provocative new ways to reconfigure our relations to the earth and all its inhabitants. 

Joanna Macy is the root teacher of The Work That Reconnects, a framework for personal and social change, as well as a powerful workshop methodology for its application.  

The Climate Psychology Alliance is a network focusing on climate change not as a scientific problem waiting for a technical solution, but as a systemic problem that engenders fear, denial and despair, forces uncomfortable dilemmas about justice, nature and equality into consciousness and challenges all of us in modern societies both personally and politically. 

The Future Animals project on art, Darwin and archaeology included artist Paul Evans, Ciara Charnley from the National Museum, Wales and bioarchaeologist Jacqui Mulville from Cardiff University. 

Eco-stage is a public commitment and positive declaration to work ecologically in the performing arts sector. It includes a set of intersecting values, objectives and provocations for engaging with ecological practice. The pledge is envisioned as a conversation starter to help bring an ecological ethic to performance production and as a tool for motivating action. 

Urban Resilience? Art, the Missing Link

Citizen Artist Yky explores urban resilience and the importance of building joint commitments by experts and artists to improve our understanding of this concept in ‘citizen science’ and other approaches to empower citizens in planning for the future.

 

2,600 words: estimated reading time 10.5 minutes


Recently, three publications pointed out the difficulty for most people to understand the deep changes in our environment. At first sight, those publications have very little in common. But ultimately, the three converge towards the same conclusion: a link is missing in how to empower urban citizens as full stakeholders in the process of mitigation/adaptation that should improve their well-living and well-being.

The first — To Survive Climate Change, We’ll Need a Better Story — was an article about the Viable Cities programme, the largest research and innovation initiative taken in Sweden in the field of sustainable cities. Their conclusion is beyond dispute: the scientific community may understand the complex concepts of the Anthropocene, but without an appropriate storytelling it will fail to engage people for a simple reason: facts are not enough; we need the right narrative.

The second — How climate-related tipping points can trigger mass migration and social chaos — was written by François Gemenne, director of the Hugo Observatory at the University of Liège, Belgium. He points out that facts and perceptions are independent tipping points, in particular when assessing the social consequences of climate change. Commonly, a tipping point is a tiny perturbation that may alter the whole stability of a system. The theory of tipping points has been recently used to refer to climate change, but as explained by the author, it often overlooks the role of inequalities, perceptions, governance, solidarity networks, and cultural values in their evaluation of the future social impacts of climate change.

The third event was the emergence of The Freaks, a collective representing 68 French artists and prominent representatives of the cultural scene committed to 42 steps to ‘save the planet’. Some of them did reconsider our current consumption paradigm, others did not and, except for one, all of them were individual recommendations. No need to say that this initiative is welcome; but the legitimate question is whether it might better impact community awareness of climate change than the continuous warnings of climate experts’?

Citizen Science for urban resilience

Paradoxically, experts recognize the importance of including civil society as stakeholders, as shown by the emergence of ‘Citizen Science’. Though laudable, this approach is most of the time ‘thought by experts for experts’ with no obvious operational application at the citizen’s level. Some independent initiatives gathering either experts or artists have been shown to play an active role in developing community awareness on matters related to urban resilience. But few have brought experts and artists together. This post argues in favour of a joint commitment between artists and experts to improve understanding of urban resilience.

Déjeuner, by artist Yky, shows two people eating lunch facing a wall at Les Grandes Voisins, a former hospital. Yky has used the wall to show text on Urban Resilience, from sources that inspire his work.
Déjeuner
Artist: Yky © 2019 https://www.resi-city.com

The first question coming to anyone’s mind will be the definition of urban resilience. It seems that there is a huge ambiguity on this point. In 2015, Sara Meerow and colleagues from the University of Michigan found 25 different definitions, all of them published by editors of recognized journals. None of them appeared satisfactory. In Defining urban resilience: a review, Meerow gave the 26th. This shows the difficulty in translating a concept into operations across many threats and challenges faced by urban citizens. However, as explained below, it is possible to elaborate upon a simple definition: an urban space is resilient when it can integrate the occurrence of hazards without compromising its operations. Let’s also recall that a definition is not a description. A definition sets limits, while a description opens the limits. Perhaps forgetting this distinction, many of the expert definitions of urban resilience will appear too complex to be understood by non-expert citizens, and this will not create the desirable conditions for a pedagogical process.

Art as a pedagogic tool

Using art as a pedagogic tool to enable experts and artists to describe urban resilience, and better explain the complexity of this concept, requires some guidelines.

The first one is to understand the paradigm of cognitive apprenticeship. A lot of publications are available online and can help us acquire the basic knowledge needed to engage in a learning process. They will be helpful for learning how and why we need to give a simple definition of the concept while, at a further stage, being able to brainstorm on the limits of the definition.

The second guideline is to share a common language between artists and experts. This is needed to build a joint productive activity and will help artists to translate their message and emotions and engage in a dialogical process with citizens. With no clear understanding, there is no possible empowerment; and the stakes are too high for us to conceptualize urban resilience without actually bringing operational results, considering the current threats of hazards and their related disasters. In this regard, the open access Disaster Science Vocabulary provided by Ilan Kelman in his paper Lost for words amongst Disaster Risk Science vocabulary? is a valuable source of information.

The third requirement is selecting the appropriate artistic approach. The needs of citizens should be at the core of the process. When there is a requirement for a local community in the southern hemisphere, asking for the contribution of an artist coming from the northern hemisphere with a global approach is risky and potentially off-topic. Priority should be given to local artists conveying a message that could make sense for local citizens.

From theory to practice

Recalling that mental pictures precede spoken language, sociologists have described how virtuality and reality interact with each other and ultimately lead to a new perception of the world. Fictional narratives help to transform our own representation of reality. Representing the reality of the world becomes a virtual act and the reality of this virtuality plays a fundamental role in the sense we give to our actions. Fictional narratives are therefore a powerful way to build the required tripartite relationship ‘virtuality-reality-action’ between artists, experts and citizens. The scenario needs to be built beforehand in such a way that all matters relevant to the hazard (potentially) impacting citizens have been thoroughly discussed between the expert and the artist. The fictional example below makes use of one of my photographic works, Shakes, selected by the World Bank in Washington DC for the Art of Resilience exhibition.

Shakes, a diptych by artist Yky, explores urban resilience by presenting two images. The first one illustrates the hazard (here, the earthquake), the second the impact on a non-resilient city.
Shakes, a diptych: D0 and D+ (click for larger image)
Artist: Yky © 2018 https://www.resi-city.com

This work questions the challenge of implementing an urban resilience strategy after a widespread seismic destruction. With architectural symbols, broken reflections, and linear designs that at once feel as much like an earthquake monitor as they do a heart monitor, it talks about an irrational fear: the destruction of our matrix. The approach is here described as a ‘theatrical scenette’ with a teaching process that will need to encompass the following:

  • the sociological causes of so-called ‘natural disasters’ (recognizing that there is no such thing as a natural disaster, only natural hazards, while at the same time recalling the consequences of human activity on nature in the Anthropocene).
  • the relation between resilience and vulnerability;
  • the question of bouncing back (to business as usual) vs bouncing forward;
  • a comparison with Japan and their risk management approach in case of earthquakes;
  • a general conclusion on the meaning of urban resilience for the group of citizens;
  • a plan of actions.

The fiction of Shakes

Citizen 1 to Yky: Your work is really frightening. There is broken glass everywhere. Obviously, everyone is dead in this landscape.

Citizen 2 to Yky: How can you speak about Urban Resilience when everything looks destroyed?

Yky to citizens: Yes, quakes are frightening. When I started this work, I was wondering: “How is it possible that people can ever adapt to a seismic environment? I still wonder. Are we less vulnerable in case of flooding?”

Expert to citizens: At first glance, this work does not look very encouraging. But before concluding that nothing can be done in case of quakes, we should ask ourselves a first question: What has caused such a mess, as shown in the picture?

Yky to expert: Mother Nature obviously.

Expert to citizens: Yky‘s answer makes sense. What do you think?

Citizen 1: Hold on. What about the infrastructures? Did they comply with seismic norms?

Expert to citizen 1: Probably not …

Citizen 2 to Yky: And what about people? We see nobody in your work. Are they all dead?

Yky to Citizen 2: Oh, no. They are neither dead nor alive. They are not here. I did not know how to show a sign of human activity. I wanted to underline the question of vulnerability.

Citizen 2 to Yky: What do you mean?

Expert to citizens: I think I understand what Yky wants to say. The work does not say anything about the social positions of the inhabitants. A high income person can be less vulnerable than a low income person. Can you figure how?

All citizens together: For sure! The rich one had his private jet and could leave quickly after the first quake. And the poor one, as always, had no other place to go …

Expert to citizens: This seems to be a general rule. Low income people are always the most vulnerable. Some of you may have higher income than others. So knowing we all live in a seismic zone, what should we do to prepare ourselves before and after the quake? And then, let’s see with Yky if another approach of his work is conceivable.

Citizen 3 to expert: Excuse me. I do not want to spoil your teaching process. But I am sure you are going to show us nice examples of what other threatened communities do. And this is OK with me. But what worries me more are the decisions that local authorities will take in terms of going back as quickly as possible to the situation that prevailed before the quake. What I see in Yky’s work is not very optimistic.

Yky’s answer: Well, it depends on how you will consider it. You may see only a broken path filled with pieces of glass. But this path may also lead to a new way of living together, should it help to become aware of our fragility. Why is it that we are so vulnerable and what could we do about it?

Expert’s answer: If we sum up what we have discussed, I see three points on which I propose to elaborate: 1- What do we mean by (so-called) ‘natural disasters’ and are they comparable to each other? 2- What do we mean by ‘vulnerability’? 3- When we say that we want to come back to a ‘normal’ situation, what does this mean? Let’s try to answer those questions before answering the final one: What should be done to be prepared and to anticipate a quake?

In Shakes as in my other works, my photographic technique makes use of a well-known property of argentic paper, which is to darken when exposed to light. This will produce a diptych of two images. The first one illustrates the hazard (here, the earthquake) while the second one darkens in time. The comparison between both images will highlight the related disaster and the questioning which will be used to support the pedagogic work with the expert. By doing so, my works contribute to engaging citizens in considering the most appropriate way to operationalize resilience.

It goes without saying that all form of art can use such an approach, as long as the cognitive apprenticeship has been finalized with the expert.


Find out more 

The World Bank’s The Art of Resilience exhibition of artworks from around the world includes three of Yky’s photographic works: The Japanese Paradox; Shakes; La Seine. You can read more on the issues explored Shakes in Yky’s blog post Can urban resilience cope with earthquakes? (9/7/18), and explore his technique in other photographic works on his site.

To Survive Climate Change, We’ll Need a Better Story, by Feargus O’Sullivan and published by CityLab (11/11/19), features Per Grankvist, chief storyteller for Sweden’s Viable Cities programme. Grankvist’s job is to communicate the realities of day-to-day living in a carbon-neutral world.  

How climate-related tipping points can trigger mass migration and social chaos, by François Gemenne, director of the Hugo Observatory at the University of Liège, was published by Perry World House, the University of Pennsylvania’s hub for global engagement, for a regular column for Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (8/11/19).  

The Freaks is a collective of artists and personalities who are committed to adopting new behaviours to fight against over-consumption, pollution, global warming and protect biodiversity. 

Citizen Science is defined by National Geographic as “the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge. Through citizen science, people share and contribute to data monitoring and collection programs.” It is explored in this paper by Susanne Hecker et al (2/12/19) in Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, 4(1): How Does Policy Conceptualise Citizen Science? A Qualitative Content Analysis of International Policy Documents. To recognize how citizen science is perceived to foster joint working at the science-society-policy interface, a mutual understanding of the term ‘citizen science’ is required. Here, we assess the conceptualisation and strategic use of the term ‘citizen science’ in policy through a qualitative content analysis of 43 international policy documents edited by governments and authorities … Interestingly, documents largely fail to address the benefits and challenges of citizen science as a tool for policy development, i.e., citizen science is mainly perceived as only a science tool.”

Defining urban resilience: a review, by Sara Meerow, Joshua Newell & Melissa Stults, was published in Landscape and Urban Planning 147 (2016) 3. It “concludes that the term has not been well defined. Existing definitions are inconsistent and underdeveloped with respect to incorporation of crucial concepts found in both resilience theory and urban theory”; and identifies “six conceptual tensions fundamental to urban resilience: (1) definition of ‘urban’; (2) understanding of system equilibrium; (3) positive vs. neutral (or negative) conceptualizations of resilience; (4) mechanisms for system change; (5) adaptation versus general adaptability; and (6) timescale of action. To advance this burgeoning field, more conceptual clarity is needed. This paper, therefore, proposes a new definition of urban resilience. This definition takes explicit positions on these tensions, but remains inclusive and flexible enough to enable uptake by,
and collaboration among, varying disciplines. The paper concludes with a discussion of how the definition might serve as a boundary object, with the acknowledgement that applying resilience in different contexts requires answering: Resilience for whom and to what? When? Where? And why?”

Lost for words amongst Disaster Risk Science vocabulary? by Ilan Kelman was published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Science (2018) 9:281–291: “Like other subjects, disaster risk science has developed its own vocabulary with glossaries. Some keywords, such as resilience, have an extensive literature on definitions, meanings, and interpretations. Other terms have been less explored. This article investigates core disaster risk science vocabulary that has not received extensive attention [and] draws out understandings of disasters and disaster risk science, which the glossaries do not fully provide in depth, especially vulnerability and disasters as processes.”

You can find articles on the virtual and the real, in French, in these discussions of the 2009 book Le Réel et le virtuel (in which “sociologist André Petitat examines the relationship between action and representation, exploring notions of interpretive plurality and underlining how fictional imagination contributes to the construction of real action.”): Grand résumé de Le Réel et le virtuel. Genèse de la compréhension, genèse de l’action by André Petitat and Comment l’imaginaire construit le réel by Francis Farrugia.

For another read on resilience and vulnerability, you could read Mark Goldthorpe’s post Rising — endsickness and adaptive thinking, a review of Elizabeth Rush’s book Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore: a contemplation of transience, connection and the possibilities of resilience, demonstrating the power of story to highlight opportunities to attend and adapt to a changing world.

Yky
Yky
A citizen artist exploring urban resilience whose photographic works use argentic paper's response to light to highlight the challenges raised by climate hazards in urban spaces.
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Waters of the World – Stories in the History of Climate Science

Writer and historian Sarah Dry shares some of her thinking and the process for her new book, Waters of the World, a history of climate science through the individuals who unravelled the mysteries of seas, glaciers, and atmosphere.


2,400 words: estimated reading time 9.5 minutes 


Waters of the World: the story of the scientists who unravelled the mysteries of our seas, glaciers, and atmosphere — and made the planet whole is published today in the UK by Scribe UK and by The University of Chicago Press in the USA later this month.

I often work best when I have multiple projects on-going. It sometimes happens that one of the projects ends up being finished and the other does not. That is the case with Waters of the World, which became an idea, and then a finished work thanks to a book that remains unfinished. That book is a novel about the physicist John Tyndall. Tyndall was a celebrated, controversial, and ultimately tragic figure of mid-19th century Britain with whom I have been fascinated for a long time. Like love, fascination is hard to parse, but I can try. It has something to do with the way in which Tyndall gives voice — in his copious letters, diaries and published writings — to an internal struggle between his commitment to materialism and the intense feelings that ‘mere’ molecules arouse in him. Tyndall is always living the paradox between believing that the world can be understood on purely physical terms, as the interactions of moving bits of matter, and the mysterious fact of consciousness, which he feels must arise from those molecules but which produces emotions which seem independent of and qualitatively different than them.

To put this in a more general way, what interests me about Tyndall is how clearly his experience of life is both a function of his scientific perspective and an influence on it. In classic Victorian fashion, Tyndall saw himself as an engine, overflowing with energy and subject to abrupt breakdowns caused by over-exertion. His descriptions of his daily activities, full of socializing, work and exercise and a detailed description of his intake of food and drink, are tiring just to read. As sensitive as he was to his own energetic fluxes, he was just as attuned to the flux of energy in the natural world. And the medium in which he most readily witnessed energy moving through nature was water in all its myriad forms. This insight into the transformation of water, via heat, in the atmosphere, oceans and glaciers of the planet, provides the direct inspiration for my book on the pre-history of climate science.

History of climate science - John Tyndall
John Tyndall. Photograph by Lock & Whitfield. Source: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Tyndall’s perception of what he called the continuity of nature seems to have been automatic — he couldn’t help seeing the transformation of one form of energy into another. And he was seemingly just as reflexively driven to share that insight with others. The communicative spirit that animated him and made him such a passionate and successful speaker and popularizer of scientific concepts was, in this sense, a further manifestation of his obsession with connections and transformations.

So it is Tyndall to whom I owe the inspiration for this book. His book, The Forms of Water in Clouds & Rivers, Ice & Glaciers, is a model of the way a writer can use one topic to unite a variety of themes or subtopics, and a model of science communication. As I write in my introduction, I was not interested in reproducing Tyndall’s popular work on physics for a general audience. In Waters of the World, “water traces not the flow of energy but the flow of human activity and thought.” I’ve substituted people and their ideas for the different forms of water in which Tyndall was interested. My big story is not the story of water, per se, but of changing understandings of the dynamic aspects of the Earth’s atmosphere, ocean and ice sheets which eventually combined in the post-war period to generate a concept and a science of the global climate.

The Forms of Water... published by John Tyndall in 1872
The Forms of Water… published by John Tyndall in 1872

A multidisciplinary science

I’ve tried to avoid making this history too focused on the present and to convey instead something of the strange and alien quality of the past. At the same time, I have tried to knit these individuals together in a larger fabric of history that can illuminate our present moment. The question I’ve wanted to ask is: how have individual lives mattered in the history of our understanding of global climate? It seems to me that we expect too much (and sometimes too little) of our science and our scientists. We want them to give us certainty and accurate predictions when that may not be reasonable. We want them to be dispassionate in their findings but absolutely committed to their work. We want them to specialize in their subdisciplines, mastering a specific set of techniques, but we want them to produce knowledge (or data) which we can all use. My hope is that by better understanding the situatedness — in both time and place — of the work done by individual scientists, we can better understand the basis of our knowledge today.

This will not weaken the status of science in society but strengthen it by clarifying what kinds of knowledge it can produce and therefore what kinds of answers it can — and cannot — provide.

I began this book with the sense that we have lost an awareness of the multi-disciplinary nature of contemporary climate science. Instead, climate science is often represented as if it were a singular discipline dominated by computer modelling. I wanted to know more about what goes on and into climate science today. As an historian, my natural inclination was to go back into the past to explore ways of knowing with histories that extend before the important watershed of World War II. I wanted to better understand the relationship between observation and theorizing in the past when it came to what can loosely be called the Earth sciences. And I wanted to try to link those longer histories with more recent, post-war episodes to show the continuities as well as the changes that have occurred. Though I mention these figures, I deliberately chose not to re-tell the story of the discovery of global warming as a series of milestone discoveries (often largely unremarked upon by contemporaries) by men such as Joseph Fourier, John Tyndall, Svante Arrhenius and George Callendar, culminating in the work of men like Charles Keeling, Roger Revelle, Wallace Broecker and James Hansen.

What would another history look like, I wondered, one in which the drive for insight into the dynamics of the Earth’s atmosphere, ice and oceans came first and only later became joined with the more specific but existentially vital question of the impact on the Earth’s climate of rising CO2 emissions as a result of human activity? For that is, in fact, what happened. The history of the discovery of global warming is only a small part of a larger and longer history of our understanding of the planet using the changing tools of what can only broadly and carefully be referred to as physics.

A biographical history of climate science

As challenging as it is to write a rip-roaring read about the history of the physical sciences, writing a novel turned out to be harder still. Taking a biographical approach to the history of climate science has allowed me to practice some of the techniques of fiction within the bounds of history. I have not fabricated anything. What I have done is tried to convey something of the inner world of each of the people I have written about, and to capture what made them tick in the textured way we expect from novels.

There are plenty of pitfalls to doing history via biography. The charge of over-simplification, of hero-worship and of neglecting the role of broad social or political factors (such as the Cold War) which may limit or even dwarf the potential for individuals to be agents of their own destiny — all these can be fairly leveled at this sort of history. It is important to always remember the restrictions on individual action, and of our ability to understand history through this lens. Nevertheless, there is a very good reason to try to write history this way. It is almost always more engaging to read about individuals with whom we can identify than institutions or ideas that remain abstract. If biography would seem to reduce the scope for some kinds of historical analysis, it increases the potential for including other forms of nuance. These include a sensitivity to ambiguity or self-contradiction and to change over time — the novelist’s tools. It’s also important, I think, to find a way to understand the past in which human agency remains central. We can appreciate the changing scales of the institutions and practices of science and still seek to understand how it is that individual humans act within these scales.

My answer to how to square the circle of good history and good reading was to choose six important individuals whose lives would enable me to explore how the personal and the scientific were linked. I tried my best to find people who did work that was considered important at the time, even (and perhaps especially) if it has been neglected or forgotten since then. I also looked for people who I could bring to life — who had left rich and interesting enough traces that I could explore their private as well as their public lives. Finally, I wanted to create a coherent overall narrative arc that would make sense of more than 150 years of science and add up to more than six mini-biographies. This was the biggest challenge and the thing I worried the most about.

We often have better evidence for what scientists felt in the 19th than in the 20th centuries. Despite the large amounts of archival material that some 20th-century scientists have left, their published and even their private correspondence do not often portray or convey their emotional lives as richly as the letters and diaries and even the public writings of men like Tyndall and Piazzi Smyth. Joanne Simpson, the sole woman in my group, made a point of preserving some extremely personal journals in the archive she carefully prepared for deposit at the Schlesinger Library. These give great insight into a passionate love affair that was obviously of great personal significance to her. That it was with a colleague who shared with her the experience of flying through clouds in order to study them tells us something about the kind of life she led. This kind of documentation is, in my experience, a rarity in 20th-century physical sciences. And Simpson’s archive itself, despite the evident care with which she prepared it, is far from complete. It contains almost no correspondence, for example, and few pictures from her early married life as a result of tumultuous moves.

History of climate science - Joanne Simpson examining images of clouds
Joanne Simpson examining images of clouds that she filmed during long flights between islands in the tropical Pacific. Source: The Schlesinger Library / NASA Earth Observatory

In other cases, I had very little with which to reconstruct the inner life of an individual but did the best I could. Gilbert Walker, whose statistical researches on meteorology would seem to be as far from the physical world as possible — reducing weather and climate to a realm of pure number — had a tantalizing episode of ‘breakdown’ in his past, requiring recuperation in Switzerland. It was frustrating not to find more in the record than a few euphemistic references to this episode. But I felt that was enough to suggest the tension that accompanied this sort of work and to imply the toll it could take on a person.

The history of climate science has become very important today. If we are to make good decisions as a society about how to act on imperfect knowledge in the face of dramatic climate change, we need to have as good an understanding as possible of the nature of the knowledge we do have. The history of our understanding of the planet is important both because it shows the length of our investigations into the planet and the extent to which they are reliable or robust. Personal knowledge is, ultimately, the foundation of all the knowledge we have. The great assemblages of technology and people that generate so much climate science today can all too readily obscure the fact that individuals — and individual judgments — ultimately provide the foundation of our knowledge. History of science is important because it can reveal how we came to value the predictive power of a certain kind of physics as much as we do today. Our attraction to climate models that promise to foretell the future has a history that it is important to understand as we address the challenges of climate change. If by writing about individuals I manage to entice more readers to become familiar with the history of this knowledge and the ways in which it is both robust and limited, I think I will have done Tyndall — a man who joyfully embraced complexity even as he searched for order — proud.

Waters of the World, by Sarah Dry: a history of the scientists who unravelled the mysteries of our seas, glaciers, and atmosphere
Waters of the World, by Sarah Dry – published by Scribe UK.

Find out more 

Sarah’s book, Waters of the World: the story of the scientists who unravelled the mysteries of our seas, glaciers, and atmosphere — and made the planet whole, is published in the UK by Scribe UK and by The University of Chicago Press in the USA. It is described by science writer Philip Ball as “not only timely but also one of the most beautifully written books on science that I have seen in a long time.”

In her previous post for ClimateCultures, as part of our series on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, Sarah discusses Charles Piazzi Smyth — who also features in Waters of the World. Piazzi Smyth travelled the world studying the heavens and the earthly atmosphere that so often blocked his view. An obsessive who spent long hours perfecting his observing technique with the telescope, the spectroscope and the camera, he took 144 photographs of clouds from the window of his Yorkshire home and printed a handmade book, Cloud Forms that Have Been To the Glory of their creator and the wonderment of learned men.

Sarah Dry
Sarah Dry
A writer and historian of science interested in how narrative can create a bridge between people who hold different values about climate change.
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Directing The Children

Climate change dramatist Julia Marques looks to her recent experience directing a play about environmental crisis to ask how community and other positive features of amateur dramatics groups might offer us routes into addressing the climate emergency itself.


2,060 words: estimated reading time 8 minutes 


“We need a director for our spring production. Julia, why don’t you direct an environmental play?”

And, as quickly as that, I was in charge of the next production of my local amateur dramatics group, the Beaufort Players in Ealing, West London.

I’m not sure I fully understood the task at hand when I accepted the job, as I have only ever directed one other production (which was not a full-length play) in a previous amateur arts society. It turns out that directing requires high levels of multi-tasking, including the ability to create posters, choose set colours, help source props, secure a sound and lighting team, write a piece for the programme and ensure your cast have adequate costumes and makeup. This is in addition to the stereotypical, but fairly accurate, job of telling actors where to go and how to deliver lines on stage.

Building community

I found the experience thrilling, stressful and rewarding in equal measure. You have the power and the responsibility to shape the play in whatever way you want, to interpret it how you see fit and to focus on what you want the audience to get from it. But, as the famous quotation says, “with great power comes great responsibility”, and directing is no exception. Everything is riding on your leadership and the decisions you make — the buck stops with you. However, it is also thrilling to have a whole team of people standing by you every step of the way, and I wholeheartedly believe that this is what amateur theatre groups do best — community. I have come to the realisation through this process of directing that I do truly think that amateur dramatics societies could be used as a model for community-building that could indeed help with the environmental situation we find ourselves in today.

Play - showing Hazel & Robin. Photograph byThomas Cobb
Hazel: “Robin makes wine. Elderberry. Gooseberry. If he offers you the parsnip it means he wants to get you drunk, it’s absolute filth.”
Photograph: Thomas Cobb © 2019

A sense of community is a glorious thing; you feel supported and safe. You have people you can talk to (in this case, about where to find fake blood and whether we can emulate a flood on stage or not), people who share your sense of purpose and are with you till the bitter end! They share your vision and work with you to make it a reality — simply wonderful. Can you imagine if we used this dynamic to work towards a more Earth-centred way of living where we all supported each other through the transition and reached our goals together? What would that world look like?

Let’s look at some of the main elements of a local am dram group and how these could possibly form a community model for greater ecological sensibility.

‘The play’s the thing’

Common purpose — this is not a new idea, most societies are exactly that, a group of people with a shared interest. It’s what you do with this that counts. In an am dram group, you are a team and everyone pitches in and does a bit of everything. Very often, being in a play means not only acting but helping with the set, props, costume, hair and make-up, front of house, selling programmes and drinks, lighting, sound, prompting, directing, producing, designing and general moral support. I think the support offered in this sort of situation is invaluable. I have heard it said that members of amateur groups are often more dedicated than those in professional companies. This may be surprising as everyone is a volunteer — no one is getting paid. Perhaps this flexibility and willingness to help with whatever needs doing is the key. People are not stuck doing one job, they are actively encouraged to do as many as they can! This sense of freedom and the responsibility granted to people is empowering, and maybe that’s what we need for more environmental action. You are involved, empowered, active and purposeful. When people feel these sentiments then things really get moving.

There is a committee that meets regularly to discuss how the group is doing, made up of a chairperson, treasurer, secretary and some ordinary members. Tasks are divided up and reported on, productions discussed and minutes taken. Leadership is still needed but the group is carried by its members.

Small is beautiful — there are many am dram groups of varying sizes, but I think there is probably an optimal size for everyone to feel included in the group and to feel as though they are familiar enough with others in the group to feel comfortable there.

We work towards a production three times a year. Having an end goal motivates people, spurs them into action. You can’t underestimate that sense of achievement when the curtain opens and a fully-formed show spreads its wings to take flight. The thought, “I was part of making this happen”, is a powerful one.

In a previous post for ClimateCultures, I discussed the idea that theatre can provide us a ‘space for thought’. As part of an acting group, you have time together and time apart. This affords you both space to think and space to act. Previously, I had only focused on the audience members being afforded the space to think within the performance but this is true of those involved in the performance too. Let’s take the actor; they are given a script (much of the time) and direction but then they must also go and learn their lines by themselves and practise the actions they have rehearsed. Space to think individually and space to act communally. This space to think is important both for the audience and the cast and crew.

Could we combine these elements — common purpose, sense of inclusivity, familiarity, and working towards an end goal, being given responsibility and tasks to do, and creating both a communal and individual space for thought and action  — to form enviro-action groups to increase our ecological connections?

Moving beyond business as usual

Back to the play. The one I finally settled on is The Children by Lucy Kirkwood. It was published and first performed in 2016 at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It revolves around three retired nuclear engineers who helped set up a plant on the east coast of England which has been damaged by a tidal wave before the play begins. Two of the characters are a married couple and the third is an old friend and colleague who appears unannounced at the start of the play. The reason she has come is not revealed until the middle, and I will not spoil it for those of you who wish to read or see it, but suffice it to say that she offers them a life-defining decision to change their ways or simply continue as before (‘business as usual’, I believe is the phrase).

HAZEL: How can anybody consciously moving towards death, I mean by their own design, possibly be happy?

Showing the play poster for Beaufort Players Present The Children
Beaufort Players Present …
Poster design: Brigite Marques © 2019

This obviously echoes recent global events, and not only climate-change related ones. This is fairly insightful of Lucy Kirkwood, as she started writing the play years before it was published. It also really brings us face to face with the idea of generational responsibility, and asks us if we have the ability to consider future generations while making decisions today. This resonates with indigenous practices in which, as researcher Liz Hosken says, “indigenous leaders are also accountable to past, present and future generations”. This is an extremely difficult concept for many of us who are not part of an indigenous group to get our heads around, as we are such short-term thinkers usually. Considering anything more than simply one generation into the future is somewhat mind-blowing; what will that world even look like? We have no way of knowing for sure, but at least we can play our part in ensuring that it is a little better because we made it so.

ROSE: It’s a good thing though, isn’t it?
ROBIN: What?
ROSE: Well. Learning to live with less.
ROBIN: Well you might have to.

The opinions flowing from the audience reflected my own feelings for the play — it’s a beautiful mixture of laughter, tears, playfulness and significance. Each section is thought-provoking in its own way. The choices the characters have to make are ones we ourselves are also being faced with. The play’s overall theme for me is how you value your life and the lives of others and what you are willing to sacrifice for them; what does selflessness really mean? Woven into this, Kirkwood adds inter-generational decision-making, guilt and responsibility, all contained within the four walls of the cottage kitchen and the three corners of a love triangle!

Play - showing Robin, Hazel & Rose. Photograph byThomas Cobb
Robin: “Our age, you have to show no fear to Death, it’s like bulls, you can’t run away or they’ll charge”
Photograph: Thomas Cobb © 2019

I think it would be almost impossible at this stage not to mention Extinction Rebellion. The group — eco-activists using civil disobedience and direct action — nearly reached their goal of two weeks of disruption in London earlier this year. Their actions started shortly after we had finished our play, which was unplanned I might add! Perhaps this is a new type of community that is forming to create environmental awareness and action. They certainly made an impact and managed to disrupt some of the central parts of the city.

ROSE: I do understand now, that for the world to you know completely fall apart, that we can’t have everything we want just because we want it.

Another model of community-based action is being enacted through the Transition Towns movement. As Liz Hosken says, “social movements such as Transition Towns in the industrialised countries are the beginning of the recognition of our need to reconnect with place in order to find identity, well-being and to learn once again how to live with ecological integrity, in compliance with the laws which inherently govern our lives”. In my local borough of Ealing, our Transition group has influenced the council to declare a Climate Emergency — before the UK parliament did so. Transition groups are community-led and really do work at the local level to inspire members to move towards an environmentally-focused way of being that is beneficial to all.

ROSE: You have the power to … you have a power. You have power.

My own vision is to have more people feel they are part of something, even if that is only a gardening group or a clean air petition: to feel as though they have a community. This is what the Beaufort Players have given me, and it really does help you feel happier and more purposeful, which is what we need when it comes to the environment. There is so much doom and gloom and we must move beyond that if we are to act with passion rather than stagnate in fear.

Just as with the characters on a stage, we must find our part to play in the ensemble of life.


Find out more

Lucy Kirkwood’s play The Children is published by Nick Hern Books (2016).

You can read Julia’s previous post for ClimateCultures, Space for Thought, where she reflects on her research at that time for an MA in Climate Change: Culture, History, Society, and the role that theatre can play in opening up space for us to take in what climate change means for us. 

Liz Hosken’s Reflections on an Inter-cultural Journey into Earth Jurisprudence is published in Exploring Wild Law: The Philosophy of Earth Jurisprudence (edited by Peter Burden, 2011: Wakefield Press).

You can read more about Transition Towns — and find transition groups and activities nearest to you — at Transition Network.

Extinction Rebellion has many local groups and resources on its site, and Culture Declares Emergency lists its signatories, including Royal Court Theatre — where The Children was first performed — and many other theatre and other cultural organisations. Royal Court’s Executive Producer Lucy Davies is also a ClimateCultures Member and her post, Artists’ Climate Lab, describes a special week of creative activities she and others devised for artists working in London’s leading theatres.

Julia Marques
Julia Marques
A climate change dramatist and activist in social and cultural aspects of climate change who has worked in the nonprofit sector and combines arts and environmentalism.
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