A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #12

Writer Philip Webb Gregg explores being human in the Anthropocene, using three objects that offer to carry, fuel or guide our search for experience and meaning, but whose less subtle qualities have great power to lead us astray.


1,670 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 minutes


The challenge: the Anthropocene — the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated — has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions aA History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

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Necessary baggage

A sling made from dry grass. A basket, woven from cut saplings. A sack, sewn from the skin of a caught animal. A pair of cupped hands. A leaf a shell a gourd a pot. A womb. A story.

Showing a basket as a universal carrier
Universal carrier
Photograph: เอกลักษณ์ มะลิซ้อน  (Pixabay)

In her essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin explores the idea of the bag being the oldest human tool. In doing so, she is able to show how the stories we’ve been told our entire lives have deceived and misled us.

You know the stories I mean, the ones stuffed end-to-end with guns, knives, sharp-hard-phallic things and blood. The ones that sell well in the box-office. The ones with a handsome hero and an ugly, linear plot. Begin at point A, then proceed straight and with maximum force to point B. WHAM. Somewhere in there there will be conflict, and inevitably, death. But what if there was another way? What if we could cradle our narratives? Not slashing or throwing, but holding.

Le Guin writes that “before the weapon, a late, luxurious, superfluous tool; long before the useful knife and axe; right along with the indispensable whacker, grinder, and digger (…) with or before we made the tool that forces energy outward, we made a tool to bring energy home.” That ‘bringing home’ is something I’m intensely interested in, both from a storytelling and a human sapiens perspective. I find myself coming back, again and again, to the idea of necessary baggage.

Bags surround and shape our lives and society. Without them we would be a very different species, for better or worse. They have carried us, both physically and metaphorically, out of the empty-handed dark and into the world we now inhabit. A world of boxes within boxes. And sometimes these boxes look like progress and sometimes they just look like a cage.

Recently I was moving house. And part-way through I became increasingly aware of the things I was moving. With arms full of bags — full of books — I reflected that books were just bags full of words, and words were just further containers for narrative. And that perhaps the ideas and lessons held within these narratives were just another kind of vessel for holding perspectives on an existence that is too huge to ever be properly perceived from any angle? And would we be better without any bags at all? Maybe the spirit is the only thing that can never be bagged? But then, what is the body if not a bag full guts and bones, possibly accompanied by a soul?

My point, I think, is that necessary baggage is something we need to accept and embrace if we wish to remain human and sane. Whether it’s pent-up ideology, miss-spent emotion or simply too many possessions, we must all learn the subtle art of holding.

Perfect coffee pettiness

It began with goats — so the story goes — who ate the little red cherries and danced in the trees in the hills of Ethiopia, over a thousand years ago.

Showing coffee beans and cup - search for perfection
Perfect beans
Photograph: S. Hermann & F. Richter (Pixabay)

The shepherd took these seeds to his local holy man, who chastised him and threw the seeds in the fire. Before long both shepherd and holy man noticed a particularly delicious aroma coming from the embers and decided to investigate.

Thus, coffee was born.

Another story tells that coffee came from a Sufi mystic who, while travelling through Ethiopia, observed the energetic behaviour of birds after feasting from a certain bush. A third story tells of an exiled Yemeni healer, who chewed the raw berries while in a state of starvation and desperation.

Whatever origin myth you choose to believe, coffee has been around for a long time, and has played an interesting part in the development and progression of human history. From the Middle Eastern qahveh khaneh or ‘schools of the wise’, where coffee (quahwa) would be consumed and venerated amid poetry, performance and passionate conversation, to the first European coffee houses in the 17th and 18th centuries, which helped to steer and fuel the Age of Enlightenment. However, it all pales to the shade of a weak flat white when you compare it to the role of coffee today.

A lot has changed since the days of the dancing goats. The narrative of coffee in the modern world is one of the most telling cues of the capitalist system. We fill ourselves with fuel to achieve as much as possible in the shortest span of time. We sacrifice sleep while in the worship and pursuit of our dreams.

This fuel is bitter and strong, or sweet and smooth. It comes in dozens of different styles and countless combinations. Crafted, blend, single-origin, filter, espresso, Java, Arabica, etc, etc. It’s a poison that’s been analysed and romanticised to such a degree that it now exists as a status symbol for the millennial generation.

For me it sits atop a trifactor of emblematic substances, together with hummus and avocados, that mark the pettiness of the Anthropocene generation. It has become the addiction of the 21st century, except that junkies have never before obsessed about the perfect pattern of a fern leaf in the smoke of their crack pipes. And that’s what gets to me. Somehow, there is a snobbery here which tastes bitterly of middle-class elitism and pretentiousness.

I wonder, in the world that is to come, when seas are rising and jungles burning, will we still care about the nominal difference between a macchiato and a manchado?

Search engine unconsciousness

We live in curious times. That much is certain. With Covid-19 making immense and frightening changes to all our lives and behaviours, it seems like a good time to talk about internet use and dependence. Apparently before the pandemic hit, in a seven-day period we would spend an average of 24 hours online. That’s a whole day every week looking at screens, clicking, typing and scrolling; existing in a space that is neither physical nor abstract, where attention spans are ephemeral, all knowledge seems available and very little wisdom is on offer.

Showing question marks in our search for truth
Search?
Photograph: Arek Socha (Pixabay).

There is a reason all cultures throughout history have a tradition of venerating their elders. Someone who has lived and survived longer than you, whether they be your relative or not, deserves your implicit respect because they retain the influence of wisdom.

Sure, you might be faster, stronger or healthier. But they can tell you which direction to run, which berries to pick; which fungus gets you close to the sky and which sends you deep into the earth. In the days when we were a tribe, our elders had something that was stronger than any human muscle. They had stories. Stories that would be told at important moments, ceremonies and rites of passage. Narratives that could guide us through life, and even a few that could guide us through death.

These days, we have search engines. Grandfather Google.

Most of us are blissfully unaware of the power that search engines have over our experience of the internet (and thus our experience of modern life). Usually, we think that they are one and the same. This is a mistake. They are very much not the same.

Let’s try this with a metaphor. If the internet is a safari park, crammed to the brim with ferocious animals, exotic plant life and all manner of interesting biodiversity, then your search engine is the little guy in a jeep driving you through the savanna, pointing your binoculars in the right direction and deciding which paths are unsafe to go down.

It’s a role not unlike the one once held by our elders. Except that it is inhuman, dominated by capitalism and driven by a specific set of data targets and an agenda. We all know that the same search made on two different computers will bring up very different results. Like everything these days, our search engines are highly customised to our experience.

In this, they function a little bit like the unconscious, and the whole internet itself can be compared to Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious — a worldwide conversation. A massive, never-ending, semi-incoherent, often very important but usually very banal, conversation between one box of data and the next. There is certainly poetry in that, and great terror also.

For me, there’s a beautiful irony in the way we use the internet these days. In one sense it’s the repository of all human knowledge, art and experience — and has the very real potential to elevate anyone with a wifi connection to near-demigod status. But of course, we squander it on cat videos and pornography.

It’s a sad and wonderfully human reality. And I for one am curious, terrified and a little bit hopeful for whatever the future holds for us bag-wielding, poison drinking, unconscious apes.


Find out More

Ursula Le Guin’s essay, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, is published by Ignota Books (2019) with an introduction by Donna Haraway. And you can read this article from August 2019, where Siobhan Leddy argues convincingly that We should all be reading more Ursula Le Guin.

You can explore coffee’s mysterious origins in this 2010 piece for The Atlantic by Giorgio Milos. And dip your toes into the more accessible waters of the collective unconscious via the collective consciousness that is Wikipiedia. Searchenginehistory.com has this … history of search engines (from 1945 to just before tomorrow).

Philip Webb Gregg
Philip Webb Gregg
A writer of fiction and non-fiction, focusing primarily on storytelling and eco-criticism to explore the complexities of nature in conflict with the human condition.
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Urban Resilience? Art, the Missing Link

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

 

2,600 words: estimated reading time 10.5 minutes


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

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

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

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

Citizen Science for urban resilience

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

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

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

Art as a pedagogic tool

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

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

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

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

From theory to practice

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

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

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

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

The fiction of Shakes

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

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

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

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

Yky to expert: Mother Nature obviously.

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

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

Expert to citizen 1: Probably not …

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

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

Citizen 2 to Yky: What do you mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Find out more 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yky
Yky
A citizen artist exploring urban resilience whose photographic works use argentic paper's response to light to highlight the challenges raised by climate hazards in urban spaces.
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‘Creations of the Mind’

creations of the mindFilmmaker James Murray-White reviews A Film-Philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment. In this scholarly work, Rupert Read advocates an ecological approach to film-philosophy analysis, arguing that film can re-shape the viewer’s relationship to the environment and other living beings.


1,830 words: estimated reading time 7.5 minutes 


It’s a real pleasure to engage with Rupert Read and this stimulating work – particularly as my previous knowledge of him was when he stood as the Green Party candidate for Cambridge, and more recently as an energetic advocate with Extinction Rebellion, where passions run politically high and our frustrations against climate inaction and political corruption are creating cultural shift.

In this new book, A Film-Philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment, creativity and imagination are at the fore, coupled with the author’s strict academic discipline. The opening line sets the agenda wonderfully — “film is the great form of our time” — while the concluding lines from the final paragraph of the introduction get to the heart of his enquiry: “The real question may be: can films help wake us up in time? What have we learnt or could we learn [from these films], have we learnt enough; and can the learning be shared quickly and deeply enough?”   

Read has selected a range of films to dissect — from Waltz with Bashir, Solaris, and Lord of the Rings, to Avatar — and touches many others, following strands and threads as he expands and deepens his theme.

The human journey

At a launch event for the book in Cambridge, he spoke of his life-long love of this medium, and mused on how best now to tell the younger generation about the existent and deepening climate crisis we are in: “through art you can get closer into the guts of a story.”

A Film-philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment, by Rupert Read
A Film-philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment, by Rupert Read

I resonate deeply with this last phrase, as for fifteen years I’ve attempted to dive into stories — mainly human, but always wrapped up in the theme of human/s within a particular landscape. I work principally through the genre of documentary, although with a background before that in theatre and the wonderful stories inherent in stagecraft. Finding the art in both the telling of the story, and the artfulness of the story itself, is always the issue to work on using lens-based media, coupled with the deep dive into the vast jigsaw of accumulated footage allowed in the editing room.

I haven’t yet met anyone who hasn’t loved Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films (2001-03), featuring the great Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf. Not having read the books when young, I came to the films fresh, with no expectations other than slight frowning at a big screen, big box office movie, against my preference for small arthouse indies.

Read goes right into the core of the power of the story and Tolkien / Jackson’s vision, interpreting it as “an exploratory allegory of serious mental suffering”; and yes, I can resonate with that. It is less about good and evil, more about the human journey, as those familiar with the ‘men’s work’ movement will know; in particular, Robert Bly’s book Iron John (1990), based on a German fairy tale, explores in myth the path to adulthood and fuller humanness that men must travel.

Read describes The Lord of the Rings as a “post-theological Buddhist world”, and as a call to go towards our demons (viz the right-wing governments of our time, Trump, the Brexit fiasco, and the oil companies and businesses that exploit this planet and all forms of life upon it). By facing them, we can then see them dissolve. But first we must go on the entire journey, as laid out within Lord of the Rings in a bigger mythological sense — leaving the Shire, into the heat, the battle, chasing the ring, and meeting Sauron — or the path of critical appraisal and engagement with the screen media oeuvre that Reed lays out within his book. And respond. And absorb. And re-feel the world.

Ancient stories 

My filmmaking was greatly enhanced by an eighteen month MA in Media at UWE Bristol, which balanced a light academic dusting with opportunities to explore our practice and to collaborate. My great joy was access to the archives of artists’ films that were the early meanderings in places: estuaries, and mountains framed in long slow shots and sudden effects, and the different ways of telling.

One of my favourite films remains the Inuit film Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) (2001), directed by Zacharias Kunuk, which shifts rapidly through time and dimensions within the frozen lands and mythology of Northern Canada / Independent Nunavut. It revealed to me new ways of telling: old, ancient ways and ancient stories, but using this newer medium to tell them in modern ways, layered in time, space, and snow. I am looking forward to new Canadian-Haida release from director Gwaai Edenshaw, SGaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife) (2018), which is based on a Haida myth about a man who, weakened by an accident at sea, is taken over by supernatural beings.

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, directed by Zacharias Kunuk
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, directed by Zacharias Kunuk

My personal recommendation for one of the most interesting makers working today — more on a theme of humans stranded within the time and space of a landscape than a directly ecological dilemma (although I’ll take this up in a review of his work at some later stage) is British artist Ben Rivers. Two Years at Sea (2001) and A Spell to Ward off the Darkness (2013) will both be seen as urgent films of our time — in years to come! In the Holocene, his current project (with Anocha Suwichakornpong), may well be the film we activist/artists get blown away by, due to its creative telling of predicament.

There is such a deep analysis and reflection within A Film-Philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment that it is challenging to fully do it justice within a short review. In an early chapter that analyses both Waltz with Bashir (2008) and then Apocalypto (2006), Read’s dissection cuts deep, and these beautiful lines I feel sum up his approach:

“One’s sense of safety and of complacent identification with the victims is swept away, and one is left with something much more challenging and unsettling, forcing one to think again about one’s place in the world — and about our responsibilities to preserving this beautiful place of ours.”

Building hope 

Read is a skilled ‘bringer together’ of different plots and themes in seemingly very different films, chewing them together — Never Let Me Go (2011) and The Road (2010), for instance. In one chapter, When melancholia is exactly what is called for, after presenting different interpretations of the films Melancholia (2011) and Solaris (1972) over the course of a few pages, he brings his reflections together to reach very strong conclusions and well-argued points. For example, that while Melancholia offers its audience an emotional means to transcend death where Solaris is bleaker, more pessimistic, they are both cinematic pointers to the immediacy of life as we live it.

We move from memory, and revisionism, acceptance of the ecological crisis we must accept we are within, and the grief that must flow from that, to hope. Although this must be a real sense of hope brought about by community and change, not by technological fixes or a rational-scientific approach, by reason alone, as is also demonstrated by The Master and his Emissary (2009), the dynamic work of Read’s academic colleague and friend, Iain McGilchrist; his book explores left/right brain consciousness and draws heavily upon the work of visionary artist William Blake. Read makes clear that these are key aspects — and importantly, as he says, “neglected aspects”.

Melancholia, by Lars von Trier
Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier

Ecology and Enlightenment

I have learnt from reading this work that this longer way of watching and cross-referencing films, and of course viewing them at different times of our lives, gives a deeper philosophical perspective; and Read’s deep grounding in Wittgensteinian philosophy takes us deeper still. I’m sure this book will in turn also make me a ‘better’ filmmaker, but more importantly than that, a better attender to, listener, reader, activist for the earth, a seeker of re-feeling and of a spaciousness in our world, in every moment.

Artists within the ClimateCultures network will, I feel, benefit from seeing how the academic eye can respond to what we do, and to bring philosophy into the viewing — and, importantly, into the feeling of engagement. In my own case, this book has widened my personal cinematic perspective. I’m sure it will transform my filmmaking and storytelling more widely, and help sharpen its focus into exploring transformative experience, although mine is a largely documentary eye. After all, however much we love the medium, the screen itself remains a medium, and the infamous Marshall McLuhan quote — from Understanding Media: the extensions of man (1964) — rings true: “The medium is the message. We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” Read suggests that “One might … risk saying that artists have too often largely only interpreted the world; the point, as any true philosopher or filmmaker will realise, is to change it.” 

And he asks, “So, who would make up stories as horrible as Never Let Me Go and The Road?”

Answer: Ones who wanted us to end our dogmatic, complacent or despairing defeated slumber. Both stories concern adults who tell children ‘noble lies’. They raise starkly the troubling question of what we ought to tell our children, at a time when their very future is being radically compromised. The only way to avoid such a predicament without evasion is to change the future.

In conclusion, A Film-Philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment is an erudite deep dive into the world of stories of the human/earth experience told visually through film: it has much to reveal to readers, be they practitioner of the art, scholar, viewer or activist keen to explore the genre or be rejuvenated by it.

I highly recommend this book, and thank Rupert for his skills and energy spent researching and writing. 


Find out more

A Film-Philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment by Rupert Reed (2019) is published by Routledge. Rupert Read is Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, UK. He is a renowned Wittgensteinian scholar, with research interests in political and environmental philosophy.

SGaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife) directed by Gwaai Edenshaw (2018) — which receives its UK premiere as part of the Canada Now film festival in London, from 24 to 28 April — is dsciussed in this recent Guardian article (28/3/19), Canadian film made in language spoken by just 20 people in the world.

The title of this post, ‘Creations of the Mind’, is from a quote in the frontspiece of the book and comes from Jetsun Milarepa, an 11th century (CE) Tibetan yogi and poet:

See demons as demons: that is the danger.
Know that they are powerless: that is the way.
Understand them for what they are: that is deliverance.
Recognise them as your father and mother: that is their end.
Realise that they are creations of the mind: they become its glory.
When these truths are known, all is liberation.

— Milarepa

James Murray-White
James Murray-White
A writer and filmmaker linking art forms to dialogue around climate issues, whose practice stretches back to theatre-making.
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“Attending to the world’s extraordinary surprise”

Filmmaker James Murray-White reviews Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky’s Learning to Die: Wisdom in the age of climate crisis — a book urging the cultivation of human virtues in a time of crisis and the rejection of lazy thinking.


700 words: estimated reading time 3 minutes 


This pocket-sized book arrived randomly, appealing to my curiosity with ominous images of two skulls on its cover — with a glowing blurb from Margaret Atwood, speaking of “truth-filled meditations about grace in the face of mortality”. Learning to Die has set my mind on fire, and its moral questioning and truth-telling project will rumble deeply on within me.

Learning to Die. Book cover by William Miller (human skull, engraving, 1818
Learning to Die. Book cover by William Miller (human skull, engraving, 1818 in ‘Engravings of the Skeleton of the Human Body’ by John Gordon).

The mind of the wild

In three short sections, 100 pages in total, Canadian poet-philosophers Bringhurst and Zwicky take us on a voyage beyond ancestral time, through the story of our planet and the biosphere. It makes use of recent science – for example, the life of the oriental hornet, vespa orientalis, which has a photosynthetic organ: the bright yellow band on its abdomen is the only organism known to man with this – and deep philosophy that skewers any cosiness or lazy thinking we might be deluding ourselves with.

The first section, Robert Bringhurst’s The mind of the wild, is spaciously captivating, inviting us to “let ourselves become enlarged” through ideas and rational truth both forming as poems within the mind. This is unified polymath-eism at its most sparkling, and writing that touches readers deeply because it is spartan in style and speaks to the heart: “The wild, you could say, is a big, self-integrating system whose edges are everywhere and whose centre is nowhere.”

Bringhurst makes some crucial points in the conclusion of this section. “Civil disobedience remains an important political and sociological tactic” – this as popular movements such as Extinction Rebellion are gaining great momentum here in the UK and now around the world, and we are all speaking truth to the corrupt political power that has emerged from our very human-systemic thinking. It is thinking that is not at all eco-systemic, or even engaging with the eco.

Learning to die

In section two, A ship from Delos, Jan Zwicky urges the cultivation of human virtues – awareness, humility, courage, justice, amongst others — to gain the moral virtue needed to face the breakdown that is underway, and that we have caused:

To be aware that death is imminent is not to wallow in despair; it is precisely not that. To be aware is to acknowledge what is the case … Pain must be used to turn the soul toward the real, to reform both action and attention: to love what, in this case, remains.

Zwicky — who suggests that “we attend also to the world’s extraordinary surprise: its refusal to quit, the weed flowering in tar, the way beauty and brokenness so often go together” — challenges us for simply preaching to the converted, and advises that the solution will be found within simplicity, cultivated through these values – be they Socratic, Buddhist, faith-based, or deep ecology focussed:

Thinking like an ecosystem – forms of life are also forms of meaning. When they are lost, meaning is also lost. We actively desire the health of the ecological community to which we belong. We want to do what it takes to be at home.

The final chapter, Afterword: Optimism and Pessimism, is a long and detailed take-down of American academic Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now (2018), in which the esteemed psychologist — who I’ve seen delight crowds across the UK with his finely honed public lectures on living in less violent times — puts forward a new humanistic and technologically-focused salve for thriving rather than survival or extinction. I hope we see Bringhurst and Zwicky debate with Pinker someplace soon!

Learning to die is a book of urgent brevity. I’d love to be buried with this back-pocket volume so that its inherent wisdom and my vegetable body may merge and decompose together, giving back to the ecosystem something of the planet that we have nourished from it. 


Find out more 

Learning to Die: Wisdom in the age of climate crisis, by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky is published by University of Regina Press, Canada (2018).

James Murray-White
James Murray-White
A writer and filmmaker linking art forms to dialogue around climate issues, whose practice stretches back to theatre-making.
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Conserve? Restore? Rewild? Ecopoetics and Environmental Challenge

ecopoeticsFilmmaker James Murray-White reviews a recent event with GroundWork Gallery and the British Ecological Society: a gathering of poets, academics, and ecological minds exploring our responses to environmental crisis through a day of ecopoetics, provocations and wild conversations.


930 words: estimated reading time 3.5 minutes 


Groundwork Gallery, run by powerhouse director Veronica Sekules, backs up its exhibitions of work focusing on the environment with events that deepen the discussion. This combination brings us in as participants, helping us to sharpen our understanding and to critically engage with the issues.

Conserve? Restore? Rewild? Arts and Ecopoetics Rise to the Challenge was one such bringing-together — the last of the 2018 season — with poets, academics, and ecological thinkers-and-doers gathering in a wonderful 14th-century building by the edge of the lapping River Ouse. This special event — organised with the British Ecological Society — gave us a day to dive deep, listen and engage with ideas of ecopoetics at the crossroads of conservation, restoration, and re-wilding. An opportunity to question all these options and find the best fit.

Ecopoetics and provocations

Ecopoetics - Judith Tucker and Harriet Tarlo talking about their work at a previous GroundWork Gallery event
Judith Tucker and Harriet Tarlo talking about their work at a previous GroundWork Gallery event
Source: www.groundworkgallery.com

Curated by poet Harriet Tarlo and artist Judith Tucker, whose collaborative project on the disused Louth Canal is on display at Groundwork, the day divided into discussions on rewilding and on art or eco-poetic contexts. Andrew Watkinson, Professor of Environmental Sciences at UEA, offered a provocation in his ‘reflections upon a changing environment’, reminding us of the ‘environment as natural capital’ approach that is so favoured by politicians and business leaders. He referred to the schism of thinking on this, as exemplified by leading green writers George Monbiot and Tony Juniper; it reminded me of a debate between the two men that I filmed at the New Networks for Nature conference in 2015.

What was refreshing about this presentation was Professor Watkinson’s deep engagement with poetry as a source of inspiration and knowledge, which he wove through his scientific explanations of the processes of change and the interactions within an ecological framework.

By bringing into his talk Cambridgeshire-poet John Clare, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrew gave a range and breadth to the provocation. And this came after renowned ecocritic and writer Richard Kerridge delivered a polemic on the world of ‘new’ nature writing: “Why is it difficult to write about environmental crisis?” he asked us; and “Where is climate change? Everywhere and tangibly no-where”.

Andrew Watkinson
Andrew Watkinson
Photograph: Pippa Lacey © 2018

Richard ranged from unpicking ideas of ‘adaptations of scale’ through to exploring the stories of ‘new materialism’, which (to quote Hannes Bergthaller, writing on Limits of Agency) “dissolves the singular figure … into the dense web of material relations.” Skilfully, he both beguiled and shocked his audience in this exploration of a new and uncharted territory and discipline, leaving us with the remark that ‘new nature writing’ “offers a refuge from modernity and the narrow social space.”

Wild conversations

Jonathan Skinner, an American poet, ecocritic and academic at Warwick University, sought to find a middle way in his ‘poetics of the third landscape’: a gentle meander into and out of the edgelands. To those of us that walk them, these liminal spaces suggest exciting possibilities and subtleties. His description of the “intelligence of the weedy, where lifeforms, rhizomes or rooting plants exist for co-created futures” resonated with me. And his introduction of the phrase ‘entropology’ brought to mind a recent exploration of the Blackwater estuary in Essex where, alongside the decommissioned nuclear power plant, I discovered the old electricity generating station, now completely overcome with wild nature, trees and scrub of all description topping out above the metal and phantasmagoric shapes.

Richard Kerridge
Richard Kerridge
Photograph: Pippa Lacey © 2018

These three presentations in the morning set the scene for the day. Following on, artist Iain Biggs explored ecopoetics and art as ‘wild conversation’ through his work in deep mapping, and in explorations of the artist as “first and foremost, a deep listener”. This melted beautifully into writer Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s sharing of some of her projects, taking us into deep elemental knowledge, in Swims (2017) — poetry inspired by and written during wild swimming — and The Grassling (2019), a deep mapping memoir of three Devon fields that she and her family are connected with.

Her work — and then the subsequent session with readings from the featured writers — came as a refreshing tide of words that uplifted and delighted the audience. Down with the seals in the depths of the estuary flow, amongst the eco-poetics embodied in this day in Kings Lynn, in the deep county of Norfolk. 


Find out more

James Murray-White is GroundWork Gallery’s filmmaker in residence and you can see some of his films of artists at the gallery on their People page.

GroundWork Gallery in King’s Lynn shows the work of contemporary artists who care about how we see the world. The gallery’s exhibitions and creative programmes explore how art can enable us to respond to the changing environment and imagine how we can shape its future. 

Jonathan Skinner — one of the speakers at the event — has a short piece on What is Ecopoetry? at eco-poetry.org 

The event was organised with the British Ecological Society. The Society and Norfolk Wildlife Trust also sponsored Regarding Nature, GroundWork Gallery’s photographic exhibition (23rd June – 16th September 2018). “Regarding Nature is an exhibition which tells some big stories about landscape. Through the eyes of French photographer Chrystel Lebas and her scientist predecessors in the early 20th century, it focusses on the plants and landscapes of the North Norfolk coast.”

James Murray-White
James Murray-White
A writer and filmmaker linking art forms to dialogue around climate issues, whose practice stretches back to theatre-making.
Read More