Resisting a Human Anthropocene: Diasporic African Religious Experiences in Nature

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


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


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

Human Anthropocene: commodifying human and non-human nature 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cycles of water, cycles of history

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

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

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

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

Seasons of change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Find out more

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hassaun Jones-Bey

Hassaun Jones-Bey

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

Ecoart in Action – Provocations to Creative Engagement

In their third collaborative post reviewing Ecoart in Action, artists Claire AthertonBeckie Leach, Genevieve Rudd and Nicky Saunter explore the provocations this book offers for ecoart practices and discourse — complementing their earlier discussions on the book’s activities and case studies.


2,100 words: estimated reading time = 8 minutes + optional 20-minute video


In their previous collaborative posts on this book, participatory arts practitioner Claire Atherton, teacher and storyteller Beckie Leach, environmental community arts projects leader Genevieve Rudd, and entrepreneurial thinker and practical activist Nicky Saunter reviewed the earlier sections, which provide ecoart activities and case studies from around the world. The book ends with this section — a series of provocations where contributors from the international Ecoart Network focus on theories underpinning ecoart practices, offering ideas for creativity in different learning environments and communities. As you will see in their video discussion, our four artist-reviewers found many opportunities in the wide-ranging provocations on offer.

The full set of eleven provocations is:

— Allodoxic Interventions as a Form of Ecoart
— Ecoartists as Key Educators in Eco-Transdisciplinary Learning
— A Framework for Ecosocial Art Practice: Integrating Guattari’s Ecosophy and Action Research
— The Art of Inquiry: A Learning Manifesto
— Collaboration, Complexity, and Systems Change: Interview with Newton Harrison
— Village Triangles: Complexity with and Beyond Systems Thinking
— The Role of Life-Centered Learning and Interdependency in an Interdisciplinary Curriculum
— Curating Ecoart Practices: Interview with Amy Lipton
— Scores for Climate Justice
— Organizing the Approach to Sensitive Conditions: Applying a Boolean Analysis to Trigger Point Theory as Aesthetic Activism
— A Call to Embrace Ecological Grief

Validation and realisation

Claire and Nicky both selected Hans Dieleman’s Ecoartists as Key Educators in Eco-Transdisciplinary Learning. For Claire, the piece resonated strongly: “The whole provocation to me felt like a massive validation. Yes, finally someone gets the relevance, the point of what I’m actually doing! So I just read the whole thing with a huge smile on my face.” For Nicky, this provocation had meaning because of a lack she perceives in modern education:

“I had enormous freedom as a child. I was given the ‘bones structure’ of how to do something and then sent off to play quite a lot, which children today seem to rarely get outside of Forest School. I’ve come to realise more and more that for some children the whole of school is just not a good idea … I love the fact that at some point in there, he says artists have the ’embodied and enacted knowing’, so they are key. I thought that’s interesting, that’s where I feel the connection to it. Yes, I feel that that for me is not difficult, it’s effortless — and trying to explain it to other people is so hard.”

Nicky also highlighted Newton Harrison’s Collaboration, Complexity, and Systems Change as a good example of using an interview to convey the value of collaborative approaches and as an alternative format among the more essay-like pieces: “I liked the fact that it was written as an interview; I found it easier to read than a piece of text if the text had been that long.”

And Beckie also chose this example to focus on, sharing that she was attracted to Newton and Helen Harrison’s work together as artists. “That was why I went to it because I’m really interested in how you do more collaboration around ecoart, and work with people so you can bounce off them and not do things alone. I think that’s a really important way forward for art. It’s not doing things in isolation, it’s doing things in community, and it’s working against that whole myth of the artist being this solo creative genius doing things on their own — that doesn’t work in the world in the same way anymore.”

Provocations to collaboration. Showing 'Wish jars' (2018), a collaborative performance. Photograph: Beckie Leach.
‘Wish jars’ (2018) A collaborative performance. Photograph: Beckie Leach © 2018.

Ecoart creativity for grief and love

Genevieve chose Ruth Wallen’s A Call to Embrace Ecological Grief, having also looked at  Ecoartists as Key Educators in Eco-Transdisciplinary Learning. Whereas the latter offered a boost, speaking to the value of the practice, the provocation on ecological grief “spoke to something deeper in me. … It made me think of the work of ONCA and the Remembrance of Lost Species Day and that sense of ritual practice.

“And this feels like it’s coming from a very different direction, really facing that pain, that difficulty, and the total avoidance of that that happens a lot. This feels like the real guts of it … It’s hard and it’s scary. And I think the framing of this as the last piece in the book felt really powerful. … This is our real lived experience, loss. There it is, at the end of the book, before the bibliography, the closing of the book. The quiet power of that.”

This sparked a very interesting series of reflections between all four on our approaches to death — of people, of habitats and species — and how art might have a role in dealing with these endings. Might ecoartists create rituals for loss, for example, maybe taking provocations from the book as a way into using or developing some of its earlier activities and case studies? Beckie reflected that “This is why a lot of us do it. It’s at the heart of why most of us are here. And I feel like there’s this incredibly fine line between grief and love, where they’re always intertwined. How do you get into the heart of that when it’s culturally avoided? … Drawing that out with some compassion and some humour is a very tricky but potentially beautiful thing.”

 

From provocations back to activities

Reflecting on this section as a whole, Claire said that although the text of some of the provocations might seem wordy and “you do have to sit in a quiet space with a cup of tea where no one’s going to interrupt you … once you get into that it kind of takes you somewhere, I think: it is a provocation, like a space where you enter … It feels different to the other two sections in the sense that I think I could have just sat there with a notepad and pen and made loads of mind maps…”

Provocations to creativity. Showing land art on the beach, created by a workshop group in 'Coasters' (a project by Genevieve Rudd). Photograph by Claire Atherton.
Land art on the beach – created by a workshop group in ‘Coasters’ (a project by Genevieve Rudd). Photograph: Claire Atherton © 2022

And delving into the final section of a book like this does naturally invite reflections on the book as a whole and on this shared experience of it, as Beckie, Claire, Genevieve and Nicky did in the final part of their time together. This was also an opportunity to think about how the book might be updated or adapted in ways that fellow artists might find even more valuable.

Nicky: “I think it’s a really, really good resource, and I know that over time I will go back and look up some more of the people and the ideas. I really enjoyed, last time [the case studies] going in more deeply and looking them up to see these people speaking about their work and to see examples. That’s been an absolute joy. I wondered if it would be nice with each case study, if it would be possible, to have a short interviewy bit with the person who’d written it, just to find out what drives them.”

Beckie: “I think I love this book. And really I love the process of doing this together as well. I feel like I’ve got so much out of the different bits we’ve all chosen and the different ways we’ve gone into it and interpreted it. I would like a map for this book. I think I find it a bit overwhelming, that it is so big and so full of text and I don’t know where to start. And when you’ve pulled back the layers, it’s so deep and it’s so rich and there are so many gems in there — but I don’t see it when I flick through. And I have a tendency to read books backwards, so sometimes I want pictures and I want a map, something to just grab me a little bit and pull me into a page. There’s so many amazing ideas in here and I’m excited to read more of them, and I’m just thinking about the best way to dip into it for me, as well.”

Genevieve: “A book like this usually takes me years to read. I am a slow reader. Doing it all together has really brought it alive and I really love the process. This would be perfect as a ‘book club’ book. Trying out the different workshop sessions on each other — that could be another way that other audiences could connect with it. It is a lot, but it feels like something I want to keep going back to.”

Claire: “I am a visual learner so the fact there are so few pictures. … Something to help guide you through, because it is so huge… I do think the accessibility of it for people who are dyslexic or neurodiverse or come at things from a different perspective and maybe aren’t able to sit and read loads and loads of text, that could be a barrier that I do think we need to acknowledge. So, some keys or some guides or maps.”

Nicky: “They do have the themes that they’ve pulled out, but don’t give you the ability to look through by themes. On an online book you could do that: you could use them as tags and look back. You could colour code those. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the cover is so colourful and the book is so uncolourful?”

Beckie: “It’s not a comment on the quality of the book, because there’s so much in it: it’s like an addition.”

All four saw the book as a starting point, a help when thinking through future activities, but also a great support in terms of offering contexts for their practices and evidence of the great heritage that the work of ecoartists offers internationally — as well as a stimulus for rich conversations such as these in the shared review process. In a sense perhaps, the book acts as one of its own provocations: a collaborative practice that has brought together a mix of approaches in theories and examples that offer valuable insight and stimulus.

As Nicky observes: “Art is part of our shared culture and at all levels it contributes to the ongoing conversation by reaching parts that other methods just don’t permeate. We believe because we feel, and art helps us to communicate and sense emotions. Ecoart is providing a vital bridge between us and the rest of nature. We seem unable to stop our destructive behaviour through factual knowledge alone; we need to feel it in our bones.”

Provocations to Joy. Showing a collage created by Nicky Saunter during covid lockdown.
JOY. Collage produced during lockdown. Nicky Saunter © 2021

***

Completing this phase of what promises to be an ongoing conversation between them, our four artist-reviewers came up with a provocation of their own to share. Beckie, Claire, Genevieve and Nicky hope that you will find in this a way to recognise, reflect and move on with experiences of ecological loss in your own neighbourhood and the grief this entails.

Make space to notice and connect with ecological loss. Where is this happening in your local patch? In gardens, public spaces, high streets or developed land, for example.

Create a simple ritual to honour the moment — such as a sipping on a foraged tea, creating a ‘gathered material’ mandala, walking barefoot or scattering (native, environment-appropriate) seeds. The ‘right’ ritual will emerge as you spend time in the space of loss. Remember to take good care — of yourself, of others, of the place you are in — as you embark on this discovery.

And, when your ritual encounter with this loss has settled in the moment, look also for something that offers you hope. Something nearby, on the ground or water, among plants or trees, or in the sky. Whether ‘human’ or ‘natural’, mark this sign of ecological hope amidst grief.

Provocations to hope. Showing a rainbow over the North Sea and eroding cliffs in Suffolk". Photograph by Genevieve Rudd.
“A rainbow, for hope, over the North Sea and eroding cliffs at Corton, Suffolk” (March 2023). Photograph: Genevieve Rudd © 2023

Find out more

Ecoart in Action: Activities, Case Studies, and Provocations for Classrooms and Communities, edited by Amara Geffen, Ann Rosenthal, Chris Fremantle, and Aviva Rahmani (2022) is published by New Village Press (outside the USA, published here). It is compiled from 67 members of the Ecoart Network, a group of more than 200 internationally established practitioners. The book is also available as an ebook, which may be an easier format to navigate between the various themes for some users. The Ecoart website includes discussion on the book and its ideas, with recordings from various events with various contributors and other Ecoart members.

In Ecoart Activities – Working With Place & People, Beckie, Claire, Genevieve and Nicky review the book’s first section, which offers 25 different ecoart activities.

In Ecoart Case Studies – Theory into Practice, they share their responses to Section 2, which offers 26 case studies.

You can find out more about Remembrance Day for Lost Species (30th November) and the work that ONCA, amongst others, does to mark this day of art and activism.

Claire Atherton

Claire Atherton

An artist inspired by nature and using paint, clay, fabric and natural materials to explore how we intuitively respond to nature and the environment around us.

Beckie Leach

Beckie Leach

An artist, teacher and storyteller creating experiences for participation with the natural environment, and training as a facilitator in deep listening and the work that reconnects.

Genevieve Rudd

Genevieve Rudd

An artist exploring time and seasons using Cyanotype and Anthotype photographic techniques and leading heritage and environmental community arts projects through drawing, textiles and found materials

Nicky Saunter

Nicky Saunter

An entrepreneurial thinker, practical activist and campaigner, and creative artist who is driven by what we can do rather than what we cannot change.

Create the Future – Creatives in Residence for Climate Change

Actor, director and cultural entrepreneur, Giovanni Enrico Morassutti shared case studies of creatives in residence, of climate theatre and community engagement with an international conference, exploring strategies for encouraging cross-disciplinary projects to address the biodiversity and climate crisis.


1,800 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes


In November 2022 I was invited to give a presentation to ‘Create the Future’, the international conference on opportunities in the arts organised by the TransCultural Exchange at Boston’s Colleges of the Fenway, Massachusetts USA. I focused on Environmental, Climate Change, and Sustainable Art Practices.

I was invited to the conference by artist and curator Mary Sherman and my presentation was sponsored by the TransCultural Exchange’s Betsy Carpenter Foundation and the Rudi Punzo Memorial Fund.

Being part of the conference as a panelist along with American artist and curator Janeil Engelstad, cultural innovator Gordon Knox, and Ute Meta Bauer, director of the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Singapore, enriched my understanding of artistic practices dealing with ecological and climate-related topics. During the panel, we focused on how creative residencies can provide artists with direct access to understanding climate change.

Art Aia – Creatives In Residence

I presented strategies for encouraging activities and opportunities for cross-disciplinary projects incorporating art, theatre, science, environmentalism, and business. I described a few case studies such as the ATE Residency in Sustainable Practice, a residency programme sponsored by the Center for Sustainable Practices in the Arts, and a think tank for sustainability in the arts and culture. I curated and organised this programme in 2018 together with Gudrun Filipska from the Arts Territory Exchange, a nonprofit organisation in the arts that is creating vast global opportunities for artists. Two international artists (Kelly Leonard and Beatrice Lopez) got the opportunity to stay at Art Aia – Creatives In Residence, exploring their ecological art practices by sharing, after a year’s correspondence, their perspectives on sustainability.

Showing the setting for Art Aia - Creatives In Residence, a cultural centre and creative residency, in the Friulian countryside in the province of Pordenone, Italy. Photograph: Stefano Padovan
Art Aia – Creatives In Residence. Photograph: Stefano Padovan

Art Aia – Creatives In Residence (AACIR) is a cultural centre, a creative residency, located within an agricultural centre situated in the Friulian countryside near the town of Sesto al Reghena in the province of Pordenone, Italy. Its aims are artistic research and experimentation in the area, information, and promotion of art and culture locally and internationally, promoting exchanges and collaborations between individual artists and groups of various nationalities and backgrounds. I founded Art Aia – Creatives In Residence to create a place for artistic production and research that focuses on the creative process and facilitates cultural exchange across borders. The main focus of our programmes is climate change art and theatre and sustainable art practices. I am glad to perform a leading role in the organisation, and this work represents my contribution to the Climate Justice movement.

AACIR also intends to raise awareness and call for action on issues related to global warming, climate change, and the risks that biodiversity is facing. During the ATE Residency in Sustainable Practice, for instance, Kelly and Beatrice also met Prince Guecello di Porcia, among other eco-entrepreneurs, and discussed the intertwining of sustainable business and art practices. Guecello is the owner of Cantina Principi di Porcia, a sustainable farm and vineyard that limits the use of environmental resources thanks to technological innovation.

While visiting his farm, the artists walked with a large filtering fabric in front of a large deposit of processed soy to emphasise the necessity of filtering and recycling. The fabric was then hung up in one of the art spaces of Art Aia – Creatives In Residence, along with the residue of processed soy from the winery as a symbol of a sustainable future, creating the artwork ‘Filter’. The ATE Residency in Sustainable Practice has been an opportunity to create connections between people coming from different fields, creating a dialogue and opening up strategies for interdisciplinary sustainable practices.

Showing 'Filtering' and other artworks at Art Aia - Creatives In Residence. Photograph: Beatrice Lopez
‘Filtering’ and other artworks at Art Aia – Creatives In Residence. Photograph: Beatrice Lopez

I was pleased by what Guecello said referring to Art Aia – Creatives In Residence during the Circular Economy forum in Milan in 2020, that its initiatives offer opportunities to discover a territory almost completely unknown to tourists from a unique perspective. He was very impressed by the work of Beatrice and Kelly, especially by their capacity to express the concept of sustainability through their artworks. About the local environment, Kelly Leonard was affected by the verdancy of the area surrounding AACIR. She said: “I found the area of Italy to be too green, too rich, too comfortable…”

Showing hay bales in the countryside near Art Aia - Creatives in Residence, Italy. Photograph: Clara Filipelli
Hay bales in the countryside. Photograph: Clara Filipelli

Climate Change Theatre Action

The other case study I dispensed in Boston was based on climate change theatre. I participated in Climate Change Theatre Action 2021, a worldwide series of readings and performances of short climate change plays presented biennially to coincide with the United Nations climate change COP meetings.

I contacted the prominent Italian environmental association Legambiente to collaborate on the production of an event near the Tagliamento river, which is considered the last morphologically intact river in the Alps. I decided on such a location in respect of its authenticity. Its canals and water make me feel connected to nature and life. I think it is crucial to create occasions to share the delicate balance of Planet Earth that we have drastically violated in the last 50 years. In Friuli Venezia Giulia, the region where my art residency is located, Climate Change Theatre Action involved different partners, both public and private. The Regional Environmental Protection Agency sent one of their scientists to illustrate climate changes at local and global levels, reconnecting what is happening in the territory to phenomena on a global scale: their causes, effects, and possible actions to limit and cope with climate change. The municipality of Morsano al Tagliamento hosted part of the conference in the historical landmark of an old furnace.

To produce the event, I launched grassroots fundraising to connect with the region and foster community involvement. The first part of the event had the character of an informational meeting for citizens. Several local artists took part, such as Silvia Braida. And Edoardo Marcon, owner of the company La Casa del Sole, explained how photovoltaic panels work and provided a solar power station to give clean energy during the event.

For Climate Change Theatre Action sul Tagliamento, as a theater director, I presented the play When, written by playwright Wren Brian. We rehearsed the play at AACIR, where actresses Viviana Piccolo and Clelia DelPonte could focus on its environmental message. I decided to direct this play because of its universal meaning to reconnect with nature, to re-establish a connection with Mother Earth.

In the production, I also added some recordings of memorable speeches delivered by young activists including Greta Thunberg and Severn Cullis-Suzuki — also known as “The Little Girl Who Silenced the World for 5 Minutes” when she addressed the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. I was moved by their courage and spontaneity and I thought that such recordings could express a sense of urgency and be a good addition to the composition of the play. I discussed my creative choice with Wren Brian, and not only did she like the idea but, as a Canadian living in Treaty 1 territory, the ancestral and traditional homeland of Anishinaabe people, she also suggested I do some research on Autumn Peltier, an Anishinaabe Indigenous rights advocate from the Wikwemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada. I was impressed by Autumn Peltier’s activism on the issue of water protection, and since the play was staged by the river, I decided to include part of her speech as well.

Showing the Climate Ribbon in Friuli Venezia Giulia, for Climate Change Theatre 2021 at Art Aia - Creatives in Residence. Photograph: Francesco Simoni
The Climate Ribbon in Friuli Venezia Giulia. Photograph: Francesco Simoni

Our team installed a climate ribbon — inspired by The Climate Ribbon project that started in New York City at the 2014 People’s Climate March — which featured a large tree where anyone who wished to do so was able to express, by writing on a ribbon, their thoughts on what they love and what they fear losing due to climate change. Also, in Friuli, by hanging ribbons on the tree, each participant expressed their solidarity and will to fight against climate chaos.

Together with the Regional Environmental Protection Agency, we also created an online questionnaire where people could reveal anonymously their fears about the climate crisis. The phrases collected online, such as “the sound of the wind blowing in the trees” or “the snow”, were transcribed on ribbons and displayed during Climate Change Theatre Action sul Tagliamento.

My effort is to strengthen the ecological component of AACIR through further cultural and artistic initiatives and through the restoration of some spaces to be repurposed for artistic practices in harmony with the natural environment of the territory. I am glad that Art Aia – Creatives In Residence is recognised abroad. Being invited as a speaker to the Transcultural Exchange Conference in Boston and tapping into their network of artists, curators, residency directors, grantmakers and international arts professionals — as well as judging the work of other artists in the portfolio of review sessions — all expanded my horizons.

I believe a multidisciplinary approach to the topic of climate change can raise awareness and increase solidarity among different partners. These projects created a kind of connection between people that led to collective civic action, political expression, community dialogue, and shared cultural experiences, seeing art as a vehicle for understanding environmental issues, and better reflecting on practical solutions to prevent the climate crisis and to foster sustainability.


Find out more

Create the Future was TransCultural Exchange’s 2022 International Conference on Opportunities in the Arts, in Boston, Massachusetts USA from 4th – 6th November 2022. TransCultural Exchange’s mission is to foster a greater understanding of world cultures. They do this through large-scale, global art projects, cultural exchanges and educational programming.

Explore the residencies and other activities of Art Aia – Creatives In Residence, an international art residency for artistic production and research that combines art, environmental sustainability and ecotherapy practices. AACIR focuses on the development of the creative process, facilitating cultural exchange across borders. It is located near the Comune of Sesto al Reghena in the north-eastern Italian region Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

You can watch the short and powerful speech that 12-year old Severn Cullis-Suzuki from British Columbia, Canada gave to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro at Before Greta, there was Severn, the B.C. girl who silenced the world in the Vancouver Sun (26/9/19). And you can read an interview with Autumn Peltier, who is the Anishinabek Nation chief water commissioner, explaining how Indigenous communities in Canada are fighting for their right to safe, clean drinking water in Autumn Peltier: a long walk for First Nations’ water rights from CIWEM, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management. 

You can read about Wren Brian’s play Whencommissioned for Climate Change Theatre 2021 and performed in six countries, including Italy — at her website, where you can also hear a short audio from a performance.

Giovanni Enrico Morassutti

Giovanni Enrico Morassutti

An actor, director, cultural entrepreneur, founder of Art Aia - Creatives In Residence, promoting environmental and biodiversity protection, inviting communities to take action on the climate emergency.

Living (and Composing) in the Anthropocene

Composer Stanley Grill shares his Music for the Earth project and how his feelings about climate change have a way of turning into music evoking connections with the natural world and our obligation to be caretakers, not destroyers.


1,880 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes 


By nature, I’m a loner and a contemplative – not an activist. By practice, I’m a composer – and music has, since childhood, been a source of solace and a world more real to me than the world of people and all of their strange beliefs that strike me, by and large, as entirely unhinged from reality. I am not a religious person, but inclined to believe that most of the stories people tell themselves to explain the world are fantastical illusions.

The view of mankind as a unique species somehow granted dominion over the Earth, a view held by many of the world’s dominant religions, seems evidently false – an example of humanity’s limitless hubris and nothing more. It seems to me that for the entirety of our existence on Earth, we have told ourselves such stories in order to silence the sheer terror that comes with an awareness of our insignificance. Perhaps Rainer Maria Rilke said it best and most poignantly when he wrote, in the opening lines of the first of his Duino Elegies, “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angels’ Orders? And even if one of them pressed me suddenly to his heart: I’d be consumed in his more potent being. For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we can still barely endure, and while we stand in wonder it coolly disdains to destroy us. Every Angel is terrifying.”

Music for the Anthropocene
Angel, Cemetery Marseille, Provence, France
(www.flickr.com/photos/x1klima/28040991569 CC BY-ND 2.0)

Dating back to the very beginnings of human civilizations, our primary driver seems to have been the desire to subdue the terrors of that great Angel, the Earth, with its (incomprehensible in their vastness) forests, deserts, mountains, oceans, storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, and wild beasts. As our skills with technology grew, we walled ourselves in, we paved over the ground, we burned or hacked away at forest and jungle, we wantonly destroyed creatures we feared, and worst of all, abandoned our elemental connection to the Earth and its bounties, perceiving ourselves as somehow separate and apart from (and superior to) the myriad living creatures with whom we share the planet.

Our exact trajectory along that path is largely unrecorded and lost. What role did we play in the destruction of many long-extinct species as our species spread across the globe? How many once flourishing habitats did we transform into barren desert? Wreaking environmental havoc is not something new for us – it is a very ancient habit. Our relatively recent recognition of our role in climate change – and the fact that we’ve coined a new name for it – doesn’t change our past. We’ve always done this, even if the full extent of our impact on the planet is far from understood, remaining, perhaps forever, unknowably lost to time. The Anthropocene started a very long time ago.

The connectedness of everything

While our need to tinker with the world without comprehending the consequences and ripple effects of our actions has been in our DNA from the start, the speed of those ripples has grown exponentially in the past century, exacerbated by vast increases in our numbers and our technological capabilities. It was only recently that I learned about the disappearance of the Aral Sea, one of all too many examples of overly confident people setting out, perhaps with good intent, to change one thing, without having a clue as to the consequences. The connectedness of everything was understood, to some extent, by at least a minority of people since the beginning of time, but lost time and again. And occasionally rediscovered.

While his books may now collect dust in libraries, Alexander von Humboldt discovered it for himself in the late 18th century, writing that “in this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation,” becoming perhaps the first explorer with a modern scientific outlook to acknowledge and document human-induced climate change. Those who tinkered with the Aral Sea would, one wants to hope, have thought better of their plans if they had read some of Humboldt’s books describing the impacts of deforestation he witnessed during his journey through South America. But, perhaps not, especially if profit is the driving motivation.

As I write this, struggling to frame out my thoughts, trying to piece together into a coherent whole the bits and pieces I’ve picked up without any organized study over the years, I always wind up face to face with the reality that, as bleak as our prospects may look from today’s vantage point, I am entirely powerless to do anything about it. For sure, all of this was beyond my ken as I was growing up. The inventions of our age all seemed so exciting and the future so filled with promise. Looking back, the repercussions of our actions seem evident, but then, we are all far more ignorant and stupid than we ever think we are. But, one fact stands out – the planet and the life on it is all one interconnected web and we tug and pull or tear any strand of it at our peril.

“Endangered World: Life Wall” by Xavier Cortada (CC BY 2.0)

Music for the Earth

Which brings me around to where I started. Whatever my feelings and thoughts are about this subject don’t really matter much. I can do little or nothing about it. But I am a composer – and while notes and ideas have little intrinsic connection, my feelings about climate change and the bleak future we’re careening towards at an ever more rapid pace do have a way of turning into music. We humans have always told ourselves stories to explain what we don’t understand or can’t control – and, guilty as charged, I tell myself stories for the same reasons.

I started a Music for the Earth series a few years ago, with the idea that perhaps, through music, I could have some small influence on any who heard it. Putting small black dots on paper that transform into vibrations in the air might serve to evoke in others a feeling of connection with the natural world and of our obligation to be caretakers, rather than destroyers, of the life that everywhere surrounds us. A story I tell myself…

Over the past several years, the series has grown – and more recently, I’ve started to get the music recorded. And I’ve created videos, either on my own or in collaboration with others, with music from Music for the Earth. These include Canciones de la Tierra, settings for mezzo soprano and viola of seven bucolic poems by Federico Garcia Lorca about the Andalusian landscapes that so inspired him. I find myself repeatedly drawn to Lorca’s poetry in connection with my thoughts about climate change and, more particularly, with my conviction that a corollary to our disconnectedness from the natural world is the ease with which we accept environmental catastrophe and human-caused mass extinctions without feeling a deep sense of shame and loss.

Lorca’s poetic and passionate essay The Theory and Play of Duende often comes to my mind when composing music. “The duende … Where is the duende? Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odour of a child’s saliva, crushed grass, and medusa’s veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.”

We cannot really feel unless we are elementally connected to the life of the Earth. And, the corollary to this is that we will be unable to change our relationship with the Earth and all of the life on it unless we understand and feel duende. For Lorca, the spirit of duende was to be found in the Andalusian countryside, and so I turned to his poems of Andalusia for Canciones de la Tierra.

“Remember, you are this universe…”

Remember is a video collaboration with dancer/choreographer Mariko Endo (previously showcased on ClimateCultures) with music for viola and piano, intermezzi with themes inspired by poems of the Earth. The music in this video comes from the fifth and final intermezzo in my composition Remember – which is based on a song from my The Whirr of Wings composition – to a poem of the same title by poet laureate Joy Harjo: “Remember, you are this universe and this universe is you.”

Sea & Sky, for two violas, is a collaboration with violist Brett Deubner, the music inspired by and composed on walks along Cape Cod bay.

And, for the future, time and resource availability permitting, will be recordings of Gaia’s Lament for violin & orchestra, Gaia’s Song for piano and orchestra, Ode to Thea and Sulla Natura for string quartet, The Whirr of Wings for chorus, flute, viola and cello, and A Single Thorn for soprano, French horns and string orchestra, setting poems by Canadian poet Meg Freer.

Best wishes for a greener planet. 

And for any reading this, musicians or not, if curious about the Music for the Earth project, do browse through my website and, even better, if any others active in ClimateCultures want to collaborate on a project, please reach out. We can tell that story together.


Find out more

You can explore more of Stanley’s Music for the Earth and other projects at his site and his YouTube channel, and two of his works have featured in the ClimateCultures Creative Showcase: Remember, mentioned above, and Ahimsa.

You can find out more about Prussian naturalist, explorer, and geographer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) in this piece by Maria Popova at The Marginalian, Alexander von Humboldt and the Invention of Nature: How One of the Last True Polymaths Pioneered the Cosmos of Connections – a review of the book The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf.

And you can read about the disappearance of the Aral Sea in this 2021 piece on The Meaning of Water site, The Aral Sea — More Than a Lake Is Disappearing…

To explore the poems that Stanley has quoted from and which have inspired his work, visit:

The image “Endangered World: Life Wall” shows the work created by artist Xavier Cortada. “Cortada created “Endangered World: Life Wall” using 360 red bricks along with stones deposited in the Netherlands by glacial forces during the last ice age. The work is a 2.1m x 8.5m wall created near the nation’s largest neolithic gravesite at the Hunebed Center in Borger. The 360 bricks represent 360 animals struggling for survival across 360 degrees. On each brick, Cortada painted the longitude where each animal lives. When a species dies out, the number is painted black. The animals are part of an interconnected web that includes humans. How many bricks can be removed before the wall of life comes tumbling down?” You can explore Cortada’s work at cortada.com.

Stanley Grill

Stanley Grill

A composer of music that attempts to translate something about the nature of the physical world or promote world peace, sparking positive thoughts and inspiring change.

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.

Update January 2023: Thanks to the comment posted below by ClimateCultures visitor Peter Collins, we became aware of the work of Escaping Agharta, and Avery Dart’s track Shifting Baseline Syndrome in particular. “The goal of Escaping Aghartha is to educate people about specific examples of ongoing destruction in the biological world, using extreme music as an educational tool. Avery, a biologist, started Escaping Aghartha as an experimental solo project. Now Escaping Aghartha has started to feature skilled musicians on some releases.”

Niels Hoek

Niels Hoek

A legal researcher specialising in EU Environmental Law, whose PhD project addresses how the EU ‘governs’ light pollution and who mobilizes for this to change.