Our Shifting Baseline Syndrome Sustains the Anthropocene

Legal researcher Niels Hoek explores the phenomenon of Shifting Baseline Syndrome in our experience of the ever-changing natural world, exemplifying a generational amnesia that conservation lawyers, environmentalists and creative practitioners can help combat as we navigate the Anthropocene.


1,650 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 minutes


The natural world has been on a steep decline in the past couple of decades, and most of the readers of ClimateCultures most likely can name a personal account which highlights this decline [1]. Perhaps you have witnessed how a local grassland was converted into cropland. Additionally, you may well have observed how your favourite animal was added to the IUCN Red List, removed from its original habitat, or noted first-hand how your local forest was logged extensively [2]. All these modern issues highlight the pressing need for conservation and restoration measures, both within and outside of natural areas.

However, addressing our impact on the natural world through regulation and conservation policies is a significant challenge. Whilst a duty for conservation seeks to maintain what is still present, a legal duty for restoration returns a natural habitat to a former, more complete version [3]. Be that as it may, the extent of the damage can be widespread or dated to the point where the original image is lost entirely. Whilst there are many interesting questions on nature restoration, this short blog post reflects on which starting point may be taken within (regulatory) instruments and conservation practice. A question that, at least on the surface, appears to be uncomplicated — but on closer inspection is a rather difficult issue.

The Anthropocene and the Shifting Baseline Syndrome

The starting point, or baseline, is an important concept within nature conservation law: when the state of nature deviates from the recorded status quo, it stipulates the need for conservation measures and the enforcement of nature conservation laws, such as a deterioration prohibition as found within the EU Habitats Directive [4]. Moreover, it flags the need for additional research from all disciplines and creative activism; a starting point used for comparison is vital for ecologists, lawyers, and activists. However, the recorded baseline on which we rely in our appreciation of nature can be a double-edged sword — provided we do not pay attention to the problem of the shifting baseline syndrome, sustaining the Anthropocene [5].

Shifting Baseline Syndrome - illustrated
Tweet from @BiodiversitySoS (2021) – image source unknown

In essence, the shifting baseline syndrome is quite simple and consists of two parts. First, it starts with the grave premise that each generation leaves the state of nature slightly worse for the next [6]. Species become extinct whilst invasive alien species are introduced, and natural ecosystems are altered or destroyed; one generation at a time. And secondly, it is a psychological phenomenon that people are inclined to take the state of nature as recorded within their youth as a starting point for comparison to the present. And in turn, each generation adopts a different baseline for conservation practices — a hollowed-out version compared to the previous. This means that essential parts of the natural world are not only lost but also forgotten; a term coined as generational amnesia [7].

Once aware of this issue, the state of nature deemed as ‘sufficient’ in our modern times can be seen in an entirely different light. For example, the summer field painted by Jac van Looij at the turn of the previous century is now part of the collection of the Dutch Rijksmuseum. It portrays a rich field of blue flowers, most likely lupines. This may have been a common sight for the painter at the time in the Netherlands, but wildflower meadows have become increasingly rare due to significant levels of nitrogen deposition [8]. A sight such as this, in turn, is at risk of escaping from our perceived baseline, falling prey to generational amnesia.

Shifting Baselin Syndrome - July (‘Summer Luxuriance’), by Jac van Looij
July (‘Summer Luxuriance’), Jac van Looij, c. 1890 – c. 1910 Image: The Rijksmuseum, Netherlands https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/SK-C-1645

A plethora of other examples could be noted here. Tim Flannery, in his book Europe: the first 100 million years [13] portrays a story of environmental destruction — starting as early as the time of the hunter-gatherers. In his book, he argues that Europe can be deemed an empty ecosystem, devoid of large predators such as lions or keystone species such as elephants — all of which resided, and thrived, on the European continent before overexploitation drove many of these species, which were not used to human predation, locally extinct. In this regard, credit must be given to Arie Trouwborst and Jens-Christian Svenning, who unravelled the shifting baseline and highlighted the moral and legal obligation for the restoration of megafauna on the European continent — especially when reviewing article 8(f) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) [10]. Within their article, they convincingly argue that the loss of megafauna impacts the functioning of ecosystems and the prospects of biodiversity at large, due to their vital function as ecosystem engineers. In other words, the restoration of keystone species still surviving elsewhere is a key objective ahead — which would require the shattering of our generational amnesia.

The Shifting Baseline Syndrome: embedded within legal instruments?

This brings us to the baseline currently recorded within the instruments of nature conservation law. European nature conservation law, in turn, can pose as a relevant and leading example; the Natura 2000 network reaches 18% of the continent and is the largest coordinated ecological network in the world. However, the European Natura 2000 network establishes the benchmark recorded within the year 1992 for most natural habitats, both as a baseline for its conservation measures, and for assessing which habitat types can be deemed to be in favourable conservation status.

A recent Proposal of the European Commission, which supplements the Habitats Directive, proposes restoration measures going back at least seventy years in time, which has opened the door to implement a historic approach — should the Proposal be adopted [11]. However, when reviewing the environmental destruction which occurred in the past centuries, seventy years, whilst a considerable amount of time compared to a human lifespan, merely reaches the top of an iceberg — consisting of centuries of overexploitation and land-use changes. An integrated approach to halting the decline of biodiversity loss is much-needed, as is illustrated below. [12]

Shifting Baseline Syndrome - showing how to bend the curve
‘Bending the curve’ – illustration from ‘Global biodiversity loss can still be halted’ (WUR 2022 see [12])

Looking beyond the modern state of nature

In conclusion, it is vital that society at large is aware of the limitations imposed by the Shifting Baseline Syndrome and generational amnesia. With the help of ecologists, natural historians, and lawyers, returning long-lost species back to the European continent may not be a crazed idea. As is argued by Trouwborst; how can we demand that Africans live together with megafauna when Europeans refuse to do so themselves?

In this regard, a recorded baseline codified within a legal instrument is not an inherently bad tool. However, a modern baseline can be deemed an Achilles heel for restoration practice. Environmentalists, therefore, must be aware of the shifting baseline, so that the wildflower meadows from van Looij may not be forgotten in a hundred years’ time. And, more crucially, for nature restoration laws to be effective, a historic baseline that can still reach parts of the Holocene may be desirable going forward — both from the perspective of good (biodiversity) governance, as well as our personal understanding and appreciation of the natural world.


References

[1] Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services  (IPBES secretariat, 2022)

[2] The IUCN Red List Of Threatened Species (IUCN, 2022) 

[3] Verschuuren J, ‘Restoration Of Protected Lakes Under Climate Change: What Legal Measures Are Needed To Help Biodiversity Adapt To The Changing Climate? The Case of Lake Ijssel, Netherlands’ [2019] SSRN Electronic Journal; Hoek N, ‘The Habitats Directive And Heath: The Strain of Climate Change and N Deposition’ (2022) 31 European Energy and Environmental Law Review.

[4] Schoukens H, ‘Non-Regression Clauses in Times of Ecological Restoration Law: Article 6(2) of the EU Habitats Directive as an Unusual Ally to Restore Natura 2000?’ (2017) 13 Utrecht Law Review.

[5] Caro T & others, Conservation in the Anthropocene – chapter in Keeping the Wild, ed. George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist, Tom Butler (2014: Island Press, Washington, DC)

[6] Europe: The First 100 Million Years, Tim Flannery (2014: Penguin, UK)

[7] Jones L & others, ‘Investigating the Implications of Shifting Baseline Syndrome on Conservation‘ (2020) People and Nature, Volume 2 Issue 4.

[8] Nitrogen (Wageninen University & Research, 2022)

[9] as [6]

[10] Trouwborst A, and Svenning J, Megafauna restoration as a legal obligation: International biodiversity law and the rehabilitation of large mammals in Europe, (2022) Review of European, Comparative & International Environmental Law, Volume 31, Issue 2; Megafauna Restoration is a Legal Obligation‘ (Rewilding Europe, 2022) 

[11] Green Deal: pioneering proposals to restore Europe’s nature by 2050 and halve pesticide use by 2030‘ (European Commission, 2022)

[12] ‘Global biodiversity loss can still be halted’ (Wageninen University & Research, 2020)


Find out more

You can explore the background to the problem in Are You Suffering From Shifting Baseline Syndrome? by Reagan Pearce for Earth.Org (19 June 2020): “Coined by Daniel Pauly in 1995, while speaking of increasing tolerance to fish stock declines over generations, SBS also has roots in psychology, where it is referred to as ‘environmental generational amnesia’. Simply put, Shifting Baseline Syndrome is ‘a gradual change in the accepted norms for the condition of the natural environment due to a lack of experience, memory and/or knowledge of its past condition’. In this sense, what we consider to be a healthy environment now, past generations would consider to be degraded, and what we judge to be degraded now, the next generation will consider to be healthy or ‘normal’.” There is an interview with Daniel Pauly for Mission Blue (March 2012) here, following his TED Talk on the Ocean’s Shifting Baseline.

In Spot the difference: shifting baseline syndrome in our own backyard for ZSL (24 July 2018), PhD student Lizzie Jones looks at the phenomenon of shifting baseline syndrome with “a rare example of a positive shifted baseline, in which we have not noticed positive change” — the growing population of Red Kite in the UK after successful reintroduction projects.

And Shifting Baseline Syndrome is one of the terms explored in the book Anticipatory history (2011), edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor and Colin Sackett (Uniform Books) – reviewed for ClimateCultures by Mark Goldthorpe here.

Niels Hoek

Niels Hoek

A legal researcher in EU and international environmental law whose PhD addresses regulation of light pollution, interested in synergies between environmental law, creative practice and sciences.
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Assembling the Raven’s Nest

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


1,860 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


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

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

The raven’s nest — an improvisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dependence and interdependence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The stories we need now

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

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

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

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


Find out more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Fremantle

Chris Fremantle

A researcher and producer working across health and environments / ecologies, and creator of ecoartscotland.
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Deconstructing our Dominion Stories in a Time of Unravelling

Photographer and writer Joan Sullivan reviews a pair of books – non-fiction, fiction – that embrace the unknown, helping us navigate our collective uncertainty and explore what it means to be human in a time of Anthropocene unravelling.


2,460 words: estimated reading time = 10 minutes


And so, on a most inauspicious date — 24th June 2022 — the day when millions of women lost control of their own bodies, I sit down to write my first book review ever. I stare blankly at the screen; come back tomorrow, it tells me. But the numbness would continue for several more days, as the US “supreme” court went on a week-long rampage, bludgeoning Indigenous sovereignty and our fundamental rights to a livable planet.

I am thinking of Ursula Le Guin. Four years before her death in 2018, she said “I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society… We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries – the realists of a larger reality.”

Unravelling: showing one of Joan Sullivan's photos in the series "Becoming River", 2021
Joan Sullivan: Untitled, from the series ‘Becoming River’ © 2021
“An abstract photo from the ongoing series ‘Becoming River’ that explores, in a phenomenological way, my eco-anxiety about the rapidly disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence River in eastern Quebec, Canada.”

This is a review of two very different books by two very different writers, both of whom are currently co-directors of the Dark Mountain Project. Charlotte Du Cann has pulled together some of her finest essays into one volume; Nick Hunt presents his début collection of short fiction. A daunting challenge for my first attempt at writing a book review. But nothing as daunting as learning how to embrace the humility of the unknown, which for me is the luminous thread that connects these two important works.

Both writers explore the existential question of what it means to be human in a time of unravelling. Both writers propose transformative journeys in time and space that, if we remain open, have the potential to radically shift our perception of this living, breathing planet and — most essentially — our shared space within it.

Finding transformation in the underworld

“I am not sure I can take you there with words,” writes Du Cann towards the end of her book. “I can show you the stones. I can dance. Everything else you walk yourself.”

In After Ithaca: Journeys in Deep Time, Du Cann peels back the layers – in characteristically non-chronological order — of her decades-long descent to re-entangle herself with a sentient Earth. She reveals the doubts, the joys, the humility, the rapture, the patience, and the dogged discipline required to un-civilize oneself in our fossil-fueled, frequent-flyer, fast-fashion societies. It is “a grinding process in which you lose or die to your tough conditioned husk and discover the germ within.”

‘After Ithaca’ – cover art: ‘On the Edge of This Immensity’, Meryl McMaster © 2022 merylmcmaster.com/

The faint of heart need not apply. “The rebirth we seek does not happen without our descent… Venus, the embodiment of love, beauty and a fair fight, steps into the arena to bring new life. She doesn’t do that by chanting a new mantra or changing her shopping habits, she does that by grabbing you by the throat and pulling you towards everything you have so far refused to see or hear.”

Boom! This is Du Cann at her very best, a moment of dazzling clarity: she hands us the mirror, asking the hard questions, shaking us out of our collective sleepwalk. To guide those of us who have not yet begun the “hard, hard task” of relinquishing the “self-obsessed material life we grasp and cling to,” Du Cann shares examples from her own non-linear passage of transformation through the prism of Psyche’s four initiation tasks – assigned by the goddess Venus, the jealous mother of Psyche’s divine lover, Eros. To earn back the love of the “winged boy she has lost”, the mortal Psyche must undergo radical change by embarking upon a perilous journey to the Underworld, without a script or roadmap or even a guarantee that she will ever find her way back. But she does, in spades, thanks to the unexpected help she receives from — and this is key — the most unassuming of allies: an army of ants, some river reeds, an eagle. As Du Cann explains, pivotal transformation can only take place in the Underworld “because change needs to happen at a deep inner level to make any kind of effective change on the outside.”

One of my many ‘Aha!’ moments reading Du Cann’s After Ithaca came from this passage: “Change is not something you tell governments or other people to do; you have to undergo change [yourself] to make space for the world to enter.” She expounds:

We wield great terms above our heads like axes – social justice, transformation, shift of consciousness, power of community – ready to split enemy heads apart with their force… but we are still asleep, reacting, neglecting… we lament deforestation whilst sitting on teak chairs…

As a species we appear to be as stupid, cruel and greedy as ever. Our technology has evolved but we are less vigorous, less alive, more timid, more pursued by ghosts and the trauma of history through generations, at a standstill where we feel responsible for everything and nothing at all;

Nothing transforms if we are the same people inside… if we haven’t found a way to dismantle the belief systems that keep us trapped in the cycles of history. If we haven’t dealt with our insatiable desire for power and attention…

We need a rigorous practice that will break us open. A shock that will push us in another direction.

Rebirth.

After Ithaca humbly suggests a path forward. This brutally honest book is all about transformation and resurrection: undergoing collective change; “reforging ourselves” in alchemical spaces of conversation and gathering; making ourselves more vulnerable by honouring the great mystery. It’s time to deconstruct the dominion stories we’ve inherited — and embraced — throughout the millennia about the self-anointed privileges of one species among many. The arrogance of naming itself ‘wise’! It’s time to question the bright shiny lie that sapiens alone can bend nature to its will without consequences.

Unravelling: showing one of Joan Sullivan's photos in the series "Becoming River", 2022
Joan Sullivan: Untitled, from the series ‘Becoming River’ © 2022
“Temperature anomaly: an historically hot month of May followed by an historically cold month of June caused havoc for farmers in this rural region of Quebec along the banks of the Saint Lawrence River.”

We are standing at the threshold between what was and what’s next, between despair and hope. Deep in our bones, we acknowledge that we’ve painted ourselves into a corner, and there is only one way out: transform, or die. Our task: to develop a collective consciousness to enmesh ourselves, once again, with our more-than-human kin.

Facing the unravelling

Nick Hunt’s collection of short fiction, Loss Soup and Other Stories, explores the same themes of time, despair and collective uncertainty as Du Cann’s After Ithaca. But while Du Cann employs a more-or-less traditional narrative arc as we follow her real-life transformational journey, Hunt creates disorienting storyscapes with nebulous beginnings and unfinished endings. We feel seasick, suspended in time somewhere between 16th century Mexico and a dystopic future that appears, disconcertingly, to have already arrived.

Loss Soup – cover art: ‘Herd (not seen)’, detail. Daro Montag © 2022

Each of the 14 stories in this slender volume explores what it means to bear witness to collapse. Hunt’s characters are fragile, vulnerable, unsure of which way to turn or whom to believe. There is very little dialogue between them, a reflection of social unravelling.

Loss Soup is not just about loss, but unimaginable loss: of memory, of words, of identity, of places saturated with meaning. Of species, both real and mythic. One nameless character chooses to lose himself in the middle of a vast ocean, drifting aimlessly in a plastic vortex: “He came here to go nowhere.” In the not-too-distant future, both he and his yacht will be subsumed by the great Pacific garbage patch, “a convenient vanishing zone for lost, unwanted things.” His well-stocked coffers of wine, crisps and Cadbury will not last forever.

Welcome to the Anthropocene. Nick Hunt’s fiction brings us as close as we can possibly get — viscerally, phenomenologically — to grasping the ambiguity of this liminal moment, in ways that non-fiction never could. “I try to think of what I’ve forgotten, but there’s no way to catch hold of it. Just a feeling of unease, somewhere between guilt and loss, that contracts and expands when I breathe, pushing up against me.”

Several of these stories left me feeling squeamish. I squirmed in my chair, looking around for an easy way out. But Hunt holds us skillfully in these uncomfortable landscapes, coaxing us to linger a bit longer with the ambivalence. Our instinct is to flee, to return to the soma of our Instagram-perfect world. But something deep inside has already shifted: we choose to stay, to face the unravelling. Such is the power of fiction, to reveal the cracks in the veneer, the hidden spaces with multiple layers of meaning. This is the well from which we must draw.

Finding paths through collective uncertainty 

Loss Soup reminds us that there have always been and will always be periods of radical uncertainty and impermanence. “Time does not flow in a straight line but turns inside repeating wheels, so that everything that has happened is still happening. Nothing has ever stopped. It never will.” If sapiens are as wise as we think we are, we will turn to the past for clues about navigating crisis, dysfunction, collapse. When seen through the lens of liminality, these recurring cataclysmic periods can be interpreted, in retrospect, as transformative: everything that gets swept up in the chaos will be transported and changed. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

The dawn of the Anthropocene is yet another liminal moment, a bridge between two possible worlds, two ways of being. Destination unknown. While the outcome indeed looks bleak, it has yet to be written. “We will be wanting the voices of writers,” prophesized Le Guin, “who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society.” The voices of writers Nick Hunt and Charlotte Du Cann bring much-needed clarity and insight to this existential moment.

If sapiens manages to save itself – along with millions of other species with whom we share this blue planet – it will be because of a profound shift in collective consciousness, not scientific facts or statistics. We could start by shifting our thinking about the Anthropocene as an opportunity to expand our ideas of what is possible, to embody it as an unquenchable thirst to break free from the chains of fossilized ways of thinking.

Unravelling: showing one of Joan Sullivan's photos in the series "Becoming River", 2022
Joan Sullivan: Untitled, from the series “Becoming River” © 2021
“An abstract photo from the ongoing series ‘Becoming River’ that explores, in a phenomenological way, my eco-anxiety about the rapidly disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence River in eastern Quebec, Canada.”

Throughout After Ithaca, Du Cann refers frequently to her favorite metaphor: the metamorphosis of the butterfly, which emerges only after the caterpillar has dissolved. Life begins anew out of death and darkness, as it always has and always will. Navigating the apocalypse may feel like the end of the world. But the dark is where everything is born.


Find out more

After Ithaca: Journeys in Deep Time, by Charlotte Du Cann (2022) and Loss Soup and Other Stories, by Nick Hunt (2022) are both published by Greenbank Books, an imprint of Sumeru, and are available from the Dark Mountain shop.

The Dark Mountain Project is many things and has taken many forms, including the original manifesto written amidst the global financial catastrophe of 2008 and the ongoing ecological crisis. “Faced with this unravelling, the manifesto calls us to question the stories our societies like to tell about the world and our place within it: the myth of progress, the myth of human separation from nature, the myth of civilisation. And it claims a particular role for storytellers and culturemakers in a time when the stories we live by have become untenable.”

Charlotte Du Cann and Nick Hunt are co-directors of the Dark Mountain Project. After working as a journalist, Charlotte spent a decade travelling, mostly in the Americas, before settling in Suffolk to write a series of books about mythos and reconnecting with the Earth, starting with 52 Flowers That Shook My WorldNick’s books include Walking the Woods and the Water, Where the Wild Winds Are, The Parakeeting of London: An Adventure in Gonzo Ornithology, and Outlandish. You can see Charlotte and Nick discuss the role of writing in times of unravelling and loss in this May 2022 Earth Talk event (in it, Nick describes the process that artist Daro Montag used to make the sculptures shown in the cover of Loss Soup). You can read excerpts from Where the Wild Winds Are in a series of Nick’s posts here at ClimateCultures.

The three photographs of Joan’s we’ve used in this post are from her series ‘Becoming River’. Joan explains that “all images in this series were created ‘in-camera’ using ICM (Intentional Camera Movement), with minor adjustments to contrast and clarity in Lightroom. No images were manipulated in Photoshop.” Of the middle photograph, on temperature anomaly, Joan adds: “I use ICM to express my eco-anxiety about our collective indifference to the climate crisis.”

You can learn about Joan’s life and work in photography on the climate crisis and energy transition in The liminal space between what was and what’s next (January 2022), episode 96 in the Conscient podcast series from Claude Schryer. And she writes regular posts for the Artists & Climate Change blog.

Watch Ursula Le Guin’s short acceptance speech when she received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards on November 19, 2014.

Read Australian climate scientist Joëlle Gergis on ecological loss from climate breakdown in The great unravelling: ‘I never thought I’d live to see the horror of planetary collapse’. In this wide-ranging article for The Guardian (14/1//20), she says: “As we live through this growing instability, it’s becoming harder to maintain a sense of professional detachment from the work that I do. Given that humanity is facing an existential threat of planetary proportions, surely it is rational to react with despair, anger, grief and frustration. To fail to emotionally respond to a level of destruction that will be felt throughout the ages feels like sociopathic disregard for all life on Earth.
Perhaps part of the answer lies in TS Eliot’s observation that ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’. To shy away from difficult emotions is a very natural part of the human condition. We are afraid to have the tough conversations that connect us with the darker shades of human emotion.”

Joan Sullivan

Joan Sullivan

A self-taught photographer who seeks moments of grace and beauty in order to inspire others to visualize - to imagine - what our post-carbon world will
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Mosses and Marshes: Creative Engagement with Wetlands

Artists Andrew Howe and Kim V Goldsmith share the story of their collaborative Mosses and Marshes project, which investigates connections between fragile wetlands and their communities in England and Australia, seeking new interpretations, multiple perspectives and less-heard voices.


2,900 words: estimated reading time = 11.5 minutes


Reimagining the future of fragile wetlands through new contexts and fresh perspectives, while still allowing site specificities and shared commonalities to assert themselves, was the challenge we set ourselves as artists on opposite sides of the globe.

The connection between these landscapes — a lowland peat bog on the border between Wales and North Shropshire in the UK and a seasonally inundated marshland at the tail end of the Macquarie River in central north-west New South Wales, Australia — was made through our collaboration that began when we were paired together in 2018 under the Arts Territory Exchange remote exchange programme initiated by artist/curator Gudrun Filipska in the UK.

We had both worked outside our practices in natural resources and environment sectors for decades, and quickly identified a shared interest in how water and land are managed, in particular in our local but internationally significant wetlands, the Fenns, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve (UK) and Macquarie Marshes (Australia). Both sites are rare habitats vital for combating climate change and supporting biodiversity.

Mosses and Marshes - showing Macquarie Marshes landscape: Lagoon on Burrima, covered in Azolla
Macquarie Marshes landscape: Lagoon on Burrima, covered in Azolla.
Photograph: Kim V. Goldsmith © 2021

The two photos below were taken in 2020 before water arrived in the Marshes after drought (click on images for full size).

Over the next three years, we conducted research and field visits at each site while maintaining an ongoing dialogue, almost entirely by email and digital file-sharing. This informed a series of individual and collaborative artworks. The initial question of what is it that connects us formed an ongoing theme throughout the project, from which sprang many other questions. Taking a holistic approach, we sought new interpretations, multiple perspectives, and less-heard voices in our investigation of these landscapes and how they are valued.

Partnerships and consultation

As the Mosses and Marshes project took shape, we developed partnerships with land managers, environmental scientists, other artists, and local communities. We each secured funding from various sources in Australia and the UK, including a project grant from Arts Council England in 2021 that allowed us to develop a series of arts events, site interventions, community engagement, talks and discussions.

Our aims were to use art to encourage people to build connections with the natural environment, think about human relationships with wetlands, and take part in conversations about the values of wetlands in addressing climate change, biodiversity, water management, as well as some of the less tangible ways, such as cultural and aesthetic values.

In the UK, Andrew partnered with Natural England and Shropshire Wildlife Trust (SWT). Natural England leads the BogLIFE project with Natural Resources Wales and SWT. This six-year project, funded by grants from the EU and The National Lottery Heritage Fund, ends in 2022 with the aim to restore 660 ha of degraded peatland and surrounding peat edge (‘lagg’) back to a functioning, healthy ecosystem. As a separately funded exercise, a derelict former scrapyard on Whixall Moss was purchased by SWT to be cleared and remediated. Over 100 truckloads of waste metals and hazardous materials and around 50,000 tyres were removed from the site.

Mosses and Marshes - showing Whixall Moss, Shropshire UK
Whixall Moss, Shropshire UK
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2021

On first visit, it can appear that the Mosses are a natural wilderness with few obvious signs of human activity, yet it is the long history of underlying human impact that resonated with both artists as one of the key themes of enquiry in our respective landscapes.

Recognising the importance of past economic and industrial practices, both negatively and positively, needs to sit uncomfortably with our modern aspiration to live in accommodation with Earth’s systems. Providing visual clues of what went on in these wetland places before their reconfigurement is critical in order to remind us of what the Global North is responsible for, what humanity has gained and lost and what more we could lose without more entrenched responses in support of sustainability. 


English Wetlands: Spaces of Nature, Culture, Imagination, Mary Geary et al.

Kim’s partnerships took place in less formal ways, engaging local landholders and community members with connections to the Marshes through gathering and mapping audio stories about those connections, contacting scientists and academics to provide background information to issues she was exploring, and more generally connected other artists and communities in the Macquarie-Castlereagh catchment through meetings about the project and formal presentations.

Creative engagement with the mosses and marshes

Mosses and Marshes has resulted in the creation of new artworks and documentation in a range of formats for local, national, and international audiences — online and in physical exhibitions within each site’s catchment. The artworks have included sound and video installation, prints, and paintings using dyes and paper made with natural materials gathered from the landscape.

Mosses and Marshes - showing 'Territory' art by Andrew Howe (handmade paper made with bracken, reeds, purple moor grass, silver birch and heather)
‘Territory’, Andrew Howe: handmade paper made with bracken, reeds, purple moor grass, silver birch and heather
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2021

We sought to work closely with the landscape and reveal sounds and sensory experiences not ordinarily encountered by visitors. These included recordings made of sounds encountered at night time, underwater or from within trees.

At the Mosses, a new self-guided public art trail was created using locative media for an immersive sound trail with temporary sculptural waymarkers along the trail, created by artists Elizabeth Turner and Keith Ashford. The sound trail incorporates work by both of us as co-lead artists, including the collaborative I am Walking spoken soundscape, that places the participant in a walk alongside us in the Mosses, and then into the Marshes. This sound trail, and another created in the nearby town of Wem, include soundscapes based on a range of field recordings and contributions from poets and local community members.

In the UK, community engagement centred around a project with Wem Youth Club in partnership with local artists Sue Challis and Kate Johnston and Shropshire Wildlife Trust. Groups of young people took part in site visits and workshops to create new artworks including three seven-metre-long banners that have subsequently been shown in exhibitions at Wem Town Hall and Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury. This highly successful project developed a momentum of its own, with evident desire to create long-term impact by helping the young people involved continue to build confidence in, and a sense of ‘ownership’ of, the landscape.

Mosses and Marshes - showing 'Banners on the Moss', art by Wem Youth Club at the Moss
Wem Youth Club at the Moss – Banners on the Moss
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2021

Sustainability, for example, is not a law of the universe – ecosystems change, species come and go. It is instead a human construct, based on value judgements – we want to conserve some biodiversity, but not the Coronavirus. The concept only has meaning when choices are made about what timescale to define and how wide a net of interdependencies to consider. It is consequently as much a cultural matter as it is a scientific one.

Science cannot help with decisions about what meaning to give to any experience in the environment, or how to be reconciled to aspects of the natural world that may be spiritually challenging. Some of the deepest truths are expressible only by poetry or metaphor.

– Dave Pritchard, writing in the Foreword to Mosses and Marshes

The project to date has been documented in the Mosses and Marshes project book, published in October 2021. This publication has allowed us to expand on the themes of research and express thoughts that may not otherwise be evident in the artworks.

Showing the Mosses and Marshes book
‘Mosses and Marshes’ book
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2021

Edited by Dr Liz Charpleix, with a foreword by Dave Pritchard (Ramsar Culture Network, and fellow ClimateCultures member), the Mosses and Marshes book contains contributions from curators Gudrun Filipska (UK) and Jamie-Lea Trindall (Australia), ecological, environmental and cultural writings by Tim Hosking (NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment), First Nations educators and artists Fleur and Laurance Magick Denis of Milan Dhiiyaan and Sooty Welsh (Wayilwan Elder/artist), Cathie Sleigh (Shropshire Wildlife Trust), Robert Duff (Natural England), and many other project partners and people from the communities around the Mosses and Marshes. The book cover features an overlay by Sooty Welsh, titled Walking through Country.

This book is beautifully written and presented, with the clever use of QR codes, that allows the reader to experience through sound and vision this beauty. It encouraged me to further explore the effects of colonisation on this diverse landscape, to the present-day challenges of climate change. Positively thought-provoking and beautiful.

– Natalie Cutler, an interested reader with historical family connections to the Marshes, Sydney Australia

New voices, new stories

The cultural exchange came to a significant meeting point in November 2021, through an international online panel discussion on the topic of ‘Alternative ways of understanding and valuing special environments to help shape their future’. The event brought together a group of natural resource managers, scientists, academics, and cultural consultants from Australia and the UK, all with a wealth of experience in land and natural resource management issues. Facilitated by Jessica Moore of Dubbo Regional Council, the panellists included Tim Hosking, Kate Mildner, Fleur and Laurance Magick Dennis of Milan Dhiiyaan from Australia, and Dave Pritchard, Dr Tim Acott, and Robert Duff from the UK, who discussed six questions put to them as pre-recorded videos by provocateurs from both countries — all of whom had connections to the wetlands.

From the panel event, it was evident the Mosses and Marshes may be separated by over 10 thousand miles, but many of the issues impacting them are not so different. Land ownership, access to land, and the legacy of Enclosure Acts and colonialism have been lenses through which we’ve been able to look at how the sites have been used for extracting financial value from agriculture and or peat.

Mosses and Marshes - showing artist Kim V. Goldsmith recording underwater video on “Burrima” near the North Marsh, Macquarie Marshes.
Kim V. Goldsmith recording underwater video on “Burrima” near the North Marsh, Macquarie Marshes, May 2020.

It also created an opportunity for under-represented voices to be heard. The stories of Aboriginal access to the wetlands, shared by Fleur and Laurance Magick Dennis of Milan Dhiiyaan, were so important. Speaking powerfully, with an emotional depth that could only come from an intimate, authentic connection with the land and its people, Fleur and Laurance referenced missing sounds in the landscape, the urgent need for resources to gather legitimate community representation, and a fundamental lack of access to Country. It was uncomfortable, but necessary, listening.

What they had to say aligned with other indigenous cultures across the globe around honouring what the Earth provides, taking only what is needed and acknowledging that we are all custodians and not owners of the land.

These basic sustainable principles are in direct opposition to prevailing systems for exploiting land and resources in most parts of the world. It seems like an impossible seismic shift is needed to change attitudes towards these basic principles in a river system with so many competing interests like the Marshes. Maybe in the interim, it’s about accepting that scientific and evidence-based languages aren’t the only way of knowing and doing, particularly if we accept that language often shapes behaviours.

Mosses and Marshes - showing art by Andrew Howe, 'Fenns Old Works' (former peat processing works at Fenn’s Moss).
‘Fenns Old Works’ (former peat processing works at Fenn’s Moss),
Andrew Howe: linocut peat ink © 2021

Complex issues require long-term thinking

The environmental issues of each site do not always present clear-cut solutions, with issues being more nuanced than they first appear. It is also questionable as to whether pragmatic solutions, allowing for as many concerns as possible to be considered, is ultimately best.

On the regulated Macquarie River of New South Wales, there are many competing interests impacting the Macquarie Marshes further downstream. River water supports towns, livestock and domestic users, industry, irrigated agriculture, the environment and recreational users. Taking a pragmatic, top-down approach using one set of established values could result in some wetland areas of the wider Marsh landscape being allowed to become too degraded to conserve. But as Laurance Magick Dennis said during the panel event: “If you’re a family and you’re walking in the bush and some of the family can’t make the walk and it’s up to you to look after those individuals, what are you going to do? Are you going to leave them behind to suffer, to starve, to die of thirst? That’s exactly what will happen to our river systems and the ecosystems around our wetlands. If we don’t look after those, they’ll be gone forever.” His point was that the parts form a whole – a family. Like a functional family or community, we’re all needed in the decision-making.

Through our work on the project, we came to understand that wilding is not necessarily a solution on its own without careful human guidance and management, and for that it is vital that local communities have an awareness of the issues, to understand where compromise might be acceptable, in addition to having access and opportunities to develop or regain a sense of ‘ownership’ in the landscape.

At the Mosses, for example, as part of their ongoing work towards restoring the peat bog, Natural England and partners are re-establishing the waterlogged, low nutrient conditions necessary for Sphagnum moss to flourish. However, it is acknowledged that some means of site management may need to continue beyond the BogLIFE project to control the growth of purple moor-grass which rapidly covers the bog surface and inhibits the Sphagnum moss. This is occurring more vigorously due to the increase in air-borne ammoniacal nutrients arising from nearby farms.

From several perspectives, we have identified how the landscapes must be considered in relation to deep time — both in terms of their prehistory and from the viewpoint of future generations. The video developed by Kim for the project’s exhibitions, An Ancient Land: a history of the wetland in chapters, references how Australia’s landscape formed over millions of years came to be explored, surveyed, staked, mapped, named, carved up and farmed by those with the sense and sensibilities of strangers in a foreign land.

Natural England knows that the work they are doing today may not come fully into effect for many centuries to come. So, how can people be encouraged to consider these timescales when the issues of today seem so urgent?

Unfinished work

The Mosses and Marshes project has broadened local, national and international recognition of these wetlands and their cultural and environmental importance. It has provided a platform from which to develop further artist residencies and projects involving the arts linked to the wetlands. We strongly believe our international exchange has created new contexts for each site that considers some of those intangible values previously overlooked, and it has started to bring fresh perspectives to the fore while recognising localised differences between our two wetlands.

New presentations of our creative work open in the Australian capital at M16 Artspace in Canberra, in April 2022, and at Outback Arts in Coonamble, New South Wales, in May. A programme of public events will continue in both the UK and Australia. The project is also entering a new phase we’ve called Values. Voices. Action., which follows up some of the key issues raised in the discussion panel. Those first tentative questions we asked ourselves back in 2018 have led to a range of actions that have given agency to a multitude of voices now invigorating this evolving project.


Find out more

The Mosses and Marshes book is available at both artists’ websites, with northern hemisphere sales handled by Andrew and southern hemisphere by Kim: Of the Mosses – Andrew Howe & EcoPULSE – Kim V. Goldsmith

The exhibition at M16 Artspace in Canberra, Australia ran to 1st May, and then at Outback Arts in Coonamble, New South Wales, until 3rd June.

Kim V. Goldsmith (in Australia) and Andrew Howe (in the UK) began working together in 2018, having been paired together through the Arts Territory Exchange remote collaboration programme. Both the artists conducted research and on-site work in their respective wetlands that informed the creation of a series of individual and collaborative artworks for exhibitions in the UK and Australia under the title Mosses and Marshes.

Kim is an environmental artist and content producer based in the Central West of NSW, Australia. She has 30 years’ experience working across rural and regional Australia in media and marketing communications. As an artist, Kim has a keen interest in the environment and sustainable regional futures that she explores through a range of digital media and writing.

Kim acknowledges and respects the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the lands on which she works and lives.

Andrew is an interdisciplinary artist and project manager, based in Shrewsbury, working solo and in collaboration with other practitioners and community groups. He uses walking and mapping to explore how people interact with places, informed by over 30 years’ experience in engineering and environmental consulting. His practice includes painting, collage, photography, printmaking, books, and digital media.

You can read Andrew’s earlier post for ClimateCultures, A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #13, where his objects include a bitumen spill from an old tanker on the former industrial land at the Fenn’s, Whixall & Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve.

English Wetlands: Spaces of Nature, Culture, Imagination, edited by Mary Gearey, Andrew Church & Neil Ravenscroft (2020) is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

You can read about the Marches Mosses BogLIFE project at Fenn’s, Whixall & Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserves and Wem Moss Nature Reserve at the Marches Mosses BogLIFE website.

Andrew Howe

Andrew Howe

An interdisciplinary artist and project manager using walking and mapping to explore how people interact with places, drawing attention to human entanglements within a multi-species environment.
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Kim Goldsmith

Kim Goldsmith

An artist exploring layers of nuance, complexity and hidden elements to present rural, regional and remote landscapes and communities in ways that make the familiar, unfamiliar.
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A Nature More Resilient

Responding to our Environmental Keywords post on ‘Resilience’, psychotherapist Susan Holliday uses a story from her book Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart to seek a more resilient nature, finding signs that collective stresses need not overwhelm us.


1,870 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


Ralph tells me he has come to therapy to learn how to be more resilient. His broad frame perches awkwardly, as though the softness of the chair threatens to emasculate him. Arms heavy with a calligraphy of tattoos — serpents, skulls, a bird of prey — every inch of his body communicates toughness. Only his eyes give him away. His look is haunted, as though a ghost stalks through the inner chambers of his being.

The record company Ralph works for operates in a competitive market. Its staff are rewarded for high-octane performance and long hours. Like his colleagues, Ralph works hard and plays hard. In recent months his sleep has been disturbed by night terrors, which can no longer be assuaged through drinking. He feels he has reached a breaking point. Ralph blames himself for not being tougher. This brings us to the heart of the matter, for Ralph is always trying to be tougher. The only alternative he can see to being tough is to give in to being weak.

“What might it look like to be more resilient?” I ask. Perplexed by the question, Ralph replies “I’d be able to take the heat, like everyone else.” I feel him bristle with irritation. He wants solutions from me, not daft questions. “How do you take the heat at the moment?” I persist. Looking me straight in the eye he replies, “I just keep going. I try harder.”

Taking the heat

Ralph is like a moon unable to turn away from the sun. It simply hasn’t occurred to him that there might be a natural limit to the amount of heat he can take. Competition in the marketplace keeps getting hotter. Everyone is stressed. They just have to deal with it. Resilience in this relentlessly ratcheted environment begins to fail. Under the skin, beneath the protective totems of toughness, Ralph is beginning to crack. His intimate anguish unfolds out of sight. The face he presents to the world is indestructible.

Ralph’s tattoos intrigue me. What might these sentinels be guarding, I wonder. What treasure might warrant this level of protection? We begin by exploring the qualities of his shield — tough, hard, impenetrable, deflecting, protecting. Then, looking for the concealed aspect, I suggest we reverse the tattoo qualities (like a negative in the darkroom). Together we begin to discern the inverse faces of his toughness — soft, tender, yielding, revealing, allowing. Risking everything, I ask Ralph if there might be something he secretly wishes to reveal, something he longs to allow, something he might want to feel. His face flushes. He looks away.

Ralph does not show up for his next session. Nor the one after that. I fear I have lost him. To my surprise, he returns the following week carrying a battered old shoe box covered in faded stickers. Opening the lid Ralph shows me a roughly packaged pile of cassette tapes. A secret hoard of songs, written and recorded when he was just fifteen. This is the first time he has opened the box in twenty years.

Ralph recalls the morning he woke to find his father missing from the breakfast table. A neatly written note explained that he had left them to be with a woman he had met the year before at a conference in Germany. Ralph’s mother said his father was ‘a lousy piece of shit’ and they were better off without him. He would get over it. In the months that followed she soldiered on, modelling a kind of stoic fortitude. Bewildered and bereft, Ralph found himself being the ‘man around the house’, looking out for his mother and three sisters. He had to be strong, for all their sakes.

In the concealed safety of his bedroom the tender adolescent survived — for a while. Wrapped around his guitar he wrote songs about anger and fear, about love and loss. Music stopped him dying inside. No one listened. Hollowed out with forbidden grief for his father, Ralph’s emotional world remained hidden. Shameful evidence of his ‘weakness’. Increasingly he found himself in trouble at school. He got into fights and began taking drugs. They helped block out his vulnerability, his yearning, his grief. In the years since then he has walked through life as a shadow artist, toughing it out organising gigs and record deals for musicians with half his raw talent.

Ralph asks me if I would like to hear one of his songs. He has brought an old cassette player. Slowly, tentatively, he presses the red button to ‘play’. A rough and tender voice pierces the space between us. It is shot through with the raw edge of adolescent loss. Ralph observes me intently. He sees that I’m moved. He knows then that something about his expression of vulnerability is good.

Listening to these songs together in the weeks that follow, Ralph and I begin to discern that sensitivity (not weakness) is the hidden aspect which lies on the other side of his armoured strength. In time he is able to acknowledge that he has never stopped loving his father. He misses him every day. Connected once more to the vulnerability of his heart, he is surprised to discover that love is a power. It stirs in him now with a force that feels unbreakable.

A more resilient nature

It seems that ‘toughness’ has become the exclusive aspect to which we aspire. We admire ‘nerves of steel’ and ‘rock-hard determination’. We ‘hammer out’ and ‘battle through’ our problems. We spin the promise that through therapy and mindfulness we can withstand the intolerable ratcheting up of societal stresses. This confounding of resilience with a limitless capacity to absorb pressure masks the structural problems behind so much of our suffering. It locates the cause of our distress in failures of individual resilience. Worse still perhaps, in our quest to mask our vulnerability, to override our sensitivity and ultimately to deny the inconvenient truth of human limitation, we stuff ourselves with things. Mountains of things.

This compulsive consumption is costing us the earth.

In her highly influential TED talk ‘The Power of Vulnerability’, Brené Brown challenges the way we understand our relationship to vulnerability, arguing that our sensitivity to feeling lies at the very heart of our ability to survive and to thrive: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability and authenticity. If we want greater clarity or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

Author of The Highly Sensitive Person, Elaine Aron suggests that heightened sensitivity manifests in a certain proportion of all higher species, because it is essential for the survival, expression and evolution of the whole group. As a community of beings we are in effect all aspects of one indivisible skin, which needs to be both tough enough to protect and sensitive enough to feel.

Showing bleached coral

We can see this intimate correlation between sensitivity and toughness throughout the natural world. Reef-building corals for example survive for millennia in a continual cycle of impact and renewal. The living polyps may only be a few years old, but they rely on an underlying skeleton that can live for thousands of years. These corals can adapt to withstand short periods of elevated seawater temperatures. Sensing the warming waters, they expel the microscopic marine algae that live in their tissues exposing the white exoskeleton beneath and losing their vibrant colours. This coral bleaching is a natural process combining sensitivity and strength. It enables the reef to adapt to summer months when the ocean temperatures are warmer.

In recent years sustained marine heatwaves have led to mass coral bleaching events. The Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest reef system, has already suffered five mass bleaching events since 1998. The events in 2016 and 2017 alone led to the death of 50% of the iconic reef. This unspeakable tragedy points to a condition of nature, concerning which we are increasingly in denial: Nature, including human nature, operates within limits.

Like coral reefs, we too are deformed under excessive stress. The damage begins at the more vulnerable margins, with those of us who are by nature, or through poverty, or by age or youth, more sensitive. But in the end the unbound stresses will affect us all.

Increasingly I see the people who courageously step into the therapy room as equivalents to canaries in the coalmine. Their sensitivity alerts the wider community to psychological toxins and rising temperatures in our collective environment which threaten to overwhelm the balance and limits of resilience in our human ecology as a whole. If we could begin to listen to these more tender voices, rather than medicating them into dumb silence, if we could stop urging people like Ralph to toughen up, we might recover qualities of sensitivity that makes us more resilient as a community.

Could it be that the explosion in mental health problems in people of all ages and backgrounds is not a straightforward failure of individual resilience, but a sign that collective stresses are overwhelming the inherent limits of our shared nature? Ralph’s story reminds us that the waters of our human ecology are overheating. At this point it seems we have two choices. We calcify. Through medication, consumption and addiction we numb the sentient organs of perception that feel. Or we crack, as the colour bleaches out of our lives. The people I worry most about are those who choose to calcify. They are often the ones who head up our corporate organisations and lead our nations. Shorn of their capacity to feel they become a danger to themselves and to others. Increasingly they lead us into war and to the irreparable despoiling of our planet.

A Nature More resilient: showing healthy coral

Of course, there is a third choice. We could hold the reciprocal qualities of strength and sensitivity in equal regard. We could understand that resilience depends on their intimate correlation.


Find out more

Susan Holliday’s book Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart (2021) is published by Matador. You can read fellow ClimateCultures member James Murray-White’s review for us, Seeing Nature’s Wonders in the Human Heart. Lucy Jones, author of Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild, says of the book: “A wonderful book. Reminded me of The Examined Life or Love’s Executioner, but with an added ecological perspective I’d been thirsting for.”

Susan mentions Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead (Penguin, 2015). You can view Brené’s TED talk ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ at her website.

Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person (2017) is published by Harper Collins.

Susan contributed this piece in response to an earlier post in our series on Environmental Keywords, Growing With the Word ‘Resilience’, which offers reflections on that word from participants at a recent workshop at the University of Bristol. Environmental Keywords is part of a short project led by Dr Paul Merchant of the University of Bristol’s Centre for Environmental Humanities.

Susan Holliday

Susan Holliday

A psychotherapist and writer committed to the rewilding of human nature, exploring the correlation between despoiling our natural world and the desolation of the human spirit ...
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