Beyond Tongues: Into the Animist Language of Stone

Our latest Members’ post comes from artist Oliver Raymond-Barker, who I met at art.earth’s In Other Tongues conference in June. Here, he shares the talk he gave there, which I was keen to feature on ClimateCultures.

Stones that whisper, stones that dance, that play on pipe or fiddle, that tremble at cock-crow, that eat and drink, stones that march as an army – these unhewn slabs of granite hold the secret of the country’s inner life. 

– Ithell Colquhoun, The Living Stones.

Slate 3
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2017
http://oliverraymondbarker.co.uk

As a climber I have the visceral knowledge that stone is alive. Minutes, hours, days and years spent on rock have given me an opportunity to listen to its song. It crashes and rumbles, creaks and groans, whistles and hums. However, it lives and speaks to us on another level – a subtle yet altogether more powerful pitch – a language beyond tongues.

This animist language is what I am here to explore with you today – through looking at a range of literary references but also through an account of my own personal experience, as ultimately this is the only knowledge I feel I can truly trust.

Language and Technology

Curiously, for a symposium and a talk that is centred around communication in other tongues, I would like to start by talking about language! However, I feel it necessary to do this in order to trace a path to our current position and to give context.

I begin with some words by Narendra, an Indian writer who has spent many years living with and writing about the Adivasi people of Bastar in India. The quote is taken from a piece of writing entitled ‘The Language of Issues’. In it Narendra attempts to describe to his friend Nureti (an Adivasi local) the modern language of climate change; i.e. in terms of carbon emissions, carbon footprints, changing crop patterns etc. This is the response he receives from Nureti:

“Do not spread falsehood, it shortens the life of the earth. When our gods and goddesses were living they had vitality to shape the world and do good things for us. Now they are stones. The patient stone, however, speaks if we heed it speak. What you say are your words. Your word has taken away the vitality and the promise; but like our gods it is not living either. Now vitality and promise have left your living word too.”

Nureti’s words highlight the gaping chasm that has developed between older, so called ‘primitive’ understandings of the world and our own separatist world view. Nureti recognises the power of words and how their repetition can perpetuate a way of being that has no future.

Listening to a recent talk by the artist Sean Lynch, I realised how far we have travelled down this path towards a language of ‘malady and impairment’ (quoting Narendra again). Lynch has been researching mining in Cornwall as part of an upcoming commission. Of particular interest to him was the language employed by the mining industry; what he called a kind of ‘corporate mono-lingualism’. This modern day lexicon is used to legitimise the flagrant taking of profit from the earth whilst at the same time distancing us from the land that is being worked. One such term the industry uses is ‘overburden’, which generally refers to the surplus material that lies above an area of ground suitable for economic exploitation. For the industry this is a purely technical term to describe waste material and it makes no reference to any cultural or environmental loss that may be incurred.

The antithesis to this inanimate mode of perception can be found in Alan Garner’s book Strandloper. Based on the true story of William Buckley, an 18th century man from rural England, the novel charts his journey from England to Australia, whence he is banished for being involved in Shick-Shack day – an ancient fertility ritual. After wandering in Australia for more than a year he is adopted by a group of Aborigines who believe him to be Murrangurk, a great hero of their people. In the course of the book he is sent by his adopted people to talk with another tribe because of their need for stone. Billi-billeri, the chief of the tribe responds to his request thus:

“If at once all the world comes for axes,” said Billi-billeri, “they will eat until Bomjinna is no more, and the Wurunjerri-baluk, the Kurnaje-berring, the Boi-berrit are no more, and the land will die in its Dreaming. What will it matter then if the sky should fall? Answer my dream.”

Murrangurk cannot answer this dream (statement) by the chief. He knows the truth that when the mountain (Bomjinna) dies, the people will also die. The two are so inextricably linked through ritual, story and experience that it prohibits the aggressive exploitation of the stone. For the tribe there is no dichotomy between inner and outer worlds, all is unity and this is explained through their stories and dreams.

Returning to our contemporary use of language I would like to take a closer look at a word used earlier in this talk: environment. A frequently used term, I feel it be problematic and indicative of our move away from a unified whole. According to the Collins dictionary it can be defined as: the air, water, minerals, organisms, and all other external factors surrounding and affecting a given organism at any time. The issue here is once again the reinforcing of a separatist paradigm, I return to Narendra’s essay to further illustrate this point:

‘….it was probably in the 1970’s that language began taking its strident turns. Like capital, language too began to be modulated by the few. As an instance, when the word environment arrived sometime in the 80’s, it was difficult to explain to my father. He was an educated man….. Issues have replaced languages; they have guile and deception.’

Moving on from language I would also like to mention technology and its role in our anthropocentric understanding of the world. In her book The Re-enchantment of Art, Suzi Gablik makes the case that, “Since the enlightenment…our view of what is real has been organised around the hegemony of a technological and materialist world view.”

Instead of our actions being guided by daily, physical perceptions and experiences we are allowing ourselves to be driven by technology and progress, a rationale that is quantifiable and therefore seen to be more valid. Gone is the belief in story and myth as a way of being. However I am no Luddite! It would be rash to reject the opportunities that modern technology provides. The question therefore is – How do we reconcile these two worlds that seem so at odds? I guess that is one of the key reasons we are all here today.

Speaking from personal experience I also know that technology can be a useful tool in enabling haptic understanding. Climber Greg Child talks about this potential in his article Coast to Coast on The Granite Slasher:

‘A surfer planing down a wave or a biker leaning into a fast corner isn’t thinking of board dimensions or mechanics.They’re in there for the ride. Our intellect has given us technology, which has given us a specific variety of devices suited to escapism, which in turn stimulate our emotions. A full circle where man has used his intellect to stimulate that intellect. Technology is the conveyance to put one in these distant situations. On arrival the metaphysical becomes as apparent as the physical, and ideas, feelings, surroundings and events merge into a total experience that leaves one slashing for words.’

Over the years I have been drawn to the kind of extreme situations that Child describes. Technology, in the form of a climbing rope or surfboard for example, has often been the key to some of my most vital moments. Continued exposure to mountains and rockfaces, prolonged immersion in lakes, rivers and oceans; these elements have eroded some of the harsh corners of my intellect, allowing me the time and space to exist and interact in a different way.

It is one of these experiences that I would now like to relate to you.

Dali’s Hole
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2017
http://oliverraymondbarker.co.uk

Slate

I had never climbed on slate before. In fact this was one of my first climbs since arriving in North Wales. I had never climbed with Kenny before either – a hard, compact and quiet man, yet with a humour that glinted at you from under the surface. He gunned the small car down the pass, taking the sharp corners in a competent yet terrifying fashion. I craned my head up at the mythical faces – Dinas Mot, Dinas Cromlech, Clogwyn y Grochan – the fast beating heart of Welsh rock climbing. My palms began to sweat. Llanberis was past us in a beat – we wound our way up through the grey faced villages of Deiniolen and Dinorwig, rolling to a stop at the Bus Stop quarry, the gateway to the slate. Packs on, ropes slung across our shoulders like sleeping serpents we began the walk into the quarries, the old workings to our left and right greened over with pioneer species such as silver birch, the slate walls enveloped in moss and lichen, the atmosphere intimate and inviting. We emerged by the derelict cutting sheds and the true scale of the quarries imposed itself. Half of the mountain has been gouged away; a giant bite from a mythical creature. Yet on closer inspection I began to see the intricate madness of this hole in the hill – inclines, engine houses, levels…..my eye slowly panning across the years of toil and ingenuity that built this monument.

We were heading for the heart of the quarry – dubbed California by climbers. Access to this inner sanctum of the slate is gained by skirting the side of Dali’s Hole, so named because of the surreal dead trees that appear from the blue lagoon in periods of dry weather. On the other side of Dali’s Hole lies a black tunnel entrance through which we must walk to reach California. The floor was littered with fragments of slate that chattered and chimed under our feet – a noise synonymous with climbing on the slate. Emerging from the darkness of the tunnel into the light of the quarry amplified the moment of wonder and awe: a heavy silence; tremendous grey blue walls heaving out of the shale all around us. Yet after a moment spent absorbing this eerie grandeur, I realised there was after all a soundtrack to this space: the dripping of water, the chink of sliding slate and beneath it all a deep hum; the hydroelectric plant that lives in the mountain; the sonic combination is unlike any other I have experienced.

Tunnel to California
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2017
http://oliverraymondbarker.co.uk

The route we had come to climb goes by the name of Central Sadness. A striking line that dominates the main wall – ascending over 200ft to the scree above. Kenny was to lead both pitches, of which I was glad – this climb was way beyond my capabilities. Without any fuss or pleasantries Kenny raced up the first pitch, dispensing it with an aplomb verging on disdain such was his efficiency. Soon I was forcing my way up the steep blank wall towards his belay – thankful of the rope above – wondering how he’d managed the protection-less wall and strenuous, bold climbing. On reaching Kenny, there was a quick exchange of gear, a mad grin from him; and he was away again, surging up the beautiful, silver wall above.

It is here that I reach the crux of my story. Kenny reached the top and I stepped out onto the head wall of the climb. Illuminated by the evening sun and with the tough first pitch out of the way, my body relaxed into its familiar rhythms and I began to pay attention to the rock…

I am climbing a perfect finger crack that cleaves the clean face of Slate like a bolt of lightning, the effort involved is intense yet somehow effortless, the rock seeming to envelop my hands. I feel a confluence of complex emotions: a fluidity and fire courses from the rock into my body, I feel as if bones and rock may fuse and become one. There is no space in my mind for thought only this stone alongside me; and movement, upwards, outwards, inwards. I am in direct contact with 500 million years of alchemy and I know in that moment, that this rock is not a dull, lifeless inanimate material. It has a life, buried far beyond our logical everyday comprehension but well within the ken of our veiled, intuitive selves.

Slate 1
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2017
http://oliverraymondbarker.co.uk

The way forward

For me the fact that there is a world beyond our normal modes of communication is a given – it is non negotiable. I know this because I have felt it. Not through thought or intellect but with my whole being. How therefore do we use this knowledge of unity to engender a better world for ourselves, those around us and dare I say it the ‘environment’?

I can only really answer this with any level of accuracy and conviction from a personal standpoint. I need to spend more time outside, not just while ‘doing’ extreme sports, but in all aspects of my life. Working, cooking, eating, sleeping and waking – it is only through being immersed in the outside world in my daily activity that I will gain more knowledge and vision. It is that simple for me. That is not to say I won’t read books or watch films; have long conversations and arguments; use my smartphone or digital camera. I have a family and am too embroiled in the intricacies of modern life to become an ascetic – yet we all have a choice on how to spend our time and energy. We can do both – it takes control, willpower and commitment but I believe it is possible to reconcile the old world and the new – indeed perhaps we can take a step forward, creating untold stories and new possibilities for ourselves.

On a national and global scale this seems a massively complex question. As I write this we are fast approaching a vote that will influence the future of this country. As I read this I imagine we will know the answer to who has won that vote!* We all have our political hopes and nightmares – without meaning to be cynical, will the outcome make any difference? Governments come and go, policies change, agreements are ratified then cancelled….I’m not proposing that we should not vote and that we should not fight – we must. Yet we should also focus on that which feeds us as individuals and remember the timescales implicit in this world in which we live. By engaging with deep time and the well spring of energy that exists therein I hope we will find ways to make this world of ours work.

I feel I know what I must do. But having the courage and conviction to fulfil these actions is tough when living in a society that – on the surface at least – seems opposed to alternative ways of being, particularly when working from a logical, rational viewpoint. But therein lies the key for me. I will not be logical. I will not be rational. I will not be bound by the self-imposed tenets of our language and technology. I will find my own truth. Within and without. That knowledge will be accrued over long periods of time: spent listening, feeling and then acting. I will live as the animal that I am; stripping away layers of culture and convention that occlude any real sense of self.

I know what I must do.

He felt the world was telling him to stop looking, for then he would see beyond; to stop thinking, for then he would comprehend; to stop trying to make sense of things, for then he would find the truest grace. – Ben Okri, Astonishing the Gods.

* Oliver was speaking the day after the UK’s 2017 General Election.

Find out more

Greg Child‘s essay, Coast to Coast on The Granite Slasher (1983), appears in Mirrors in the Cliffs (edited by Jim Perrin) published by Diadem (out of print). It is also available in Mixed Emotions: Mountaineering Writings of Greg Child (1993), published by Mountaineers Books.

The passage by Ithell Colquhoun is from his book (1957), The Living Stones, published by Peter Owen.

Alan Garner‘s book (1996), Strandloper, originally published by Harvill Press, is available from Penguin.

Suzi Gablik‘s book (1991), The Reenchantment of Art, was published by Thames & Hudson (out of print).

Narendra‘s essay (2013), Dispatches from Basta, is published in Dark Mountain Issue 4.

The passage by Ben Okri is from his book (1996), Astonishing the Gods, as originally published by Phoenix, and is available from Head of Zeus.

Questioning technology? Space for creative thinking... 

"Picking up on Suzi Gablik's observation, how do you feel your own experience of technology disrupts your view of what is real? How, instead, can technology act as your 'conveyance to ... distant situations' and direct experience, as Greg Child suggests?"

Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form

 

Anticipatory History

In the first of a series on “anticipatory history”, I review the book of that name. A copy went to Jennifer Leach for her recent contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Produced by an interdisciplinary research network, the book explores some of the thinking and possibilities involved in ‘looking back’ at histories of environmental change in order to help us ‘look forward’ to what futures might be in store, and which we might shape.

This 2011 book grew from the experiences of the Anticipatory History Research Network, a one year project within AHRC’s Landscape and Environment Programme. Led by Caitlin DeSilvey and Simon Naylor at Exeter University, the network brought together fellow scholars in humanities, social, natural and physical sciences, writers and artists, and environmental practitioners in wildlife, coastal, landscape and heritage management. I had the good fortune to be doing my MA Climate Change at Exeter at the time. So, although my involvement was at the latter stages of their research, I was able to contribute some work locally with the National Trust – on ‘storying adaptation’ – to the network’s final symposium. I’ll write more about my own involvement with ‘anticipatory history’ approaches in a later post.

For now, I want to introduce the book – as a process, a product and a provocation. It’s a slim volume but written in many voices, offering rewarding encounters on different levels.

Process

Publication often seems the natural endpoint of research activity, but the group assembled around this network’s central question – what roles do “history and story-telling play in helping us to apprehend and respond to changing landscapes, and to changes to the wildlife and plant populations they support?” – found themselves creating this book almost as a byproduct of their discussions. Something that I’ve encountered when researching how large, multi-partner climate change projects successfully incorporate very different academic fields and societal stakeholders is that the new interdisciplinary teams very often spend 18 months – typically up to half the project lifetime – coming to terms with each other’s vocabulary and ways of seeing the world. They have to find ways to achieve that in parallel with ‘doing the job’. Often an ad hoc and iterative process, this frequently catalyses creative approaches to ‘getting to know each other’. One large network developed their own glossary for terms that engineers, sociologists, modellers and planners might have ‘in common’ but which had different meanings and usages for each ‘tribe’. 

It seems that Anticipatory history developed in a similar way:  

“Over the course of four meetings a number of people participated in an extended discussion about the meaning and efficacy of anticipatory history as a concept and a mode of engagement with the past. As we followed debates we noted down key terms on index cards – words or phrases that have a bearing on aspects of environmental change over time and in place, and our responses to these changes. We then went through a process of culling entries and drafting collective definitions. Lastly, participants were asked to adopt particular key terms and to produce entries. This book is then a work of many hands and can in no way claim to be the product of a single vision. It was never our intention to provide a definitive statement on the means and ends of anticipatory history, even if that was possible to do.”

At what point that exercise crystallised into a book for a wider readership, I don’t know, but it has been offered as a glossary or work of reference for those wanting to know more about … Well, what is “anticipatory history”?

“Looking to pasts and futures” – redundant lighthouse lenses at Orford Ness, Suffolk coast
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2012

The introductory essay that includes the passage above starts by noting that while reports of climate and environmental change are “the daily fare of a twenty-first century media diet” our ability to take in and respond personally to the implications or lived experiences of change’s impacts often disconnects from scientific data.

“Many of these changes … will register as subtle (or not so subtle) alterations in familiar landscapes: a lost section of coastal path, a favourite flower vanished, dwindling populations of waterbirds in a local saltmarsh, the removal of a customary fishing quay. But the range of available responses to these changes is limited – usually cast in terms of loss and guilt – and we often do not have the cultural resources to respond thoughtfully, to imagine our own futures in a tangibly altered world.”

As a clutch of the book’s entries explain, our personal sense of time and the ‘natural’ state of things is shaped by our generational timeframes: what one entry (Shifting baseline syndrome) calls “’generational amnesia’, due to relatively short life spans and memories” and another (Tempocentrism) describes as “the tendency to take for granted the premises, expectations and values of one’s own timeframe.” We struggle to acknowledge unwelcome changes in our environment (either locally or in places with treasured memories) – or, if acknowledged, to accept what is often the naturalness of processes we cannot halt. A third entry (Presentism) raises the risks of extending these mental frames into how we imagine the past, where we inevitably filter, select and assemble our own data on what that famously ‘foreign country’ was really like; “We make our stories about the past; we don’t find them fully formed … Do we have any chance of transcending our present point of view when we approach the making of history, and should we be pretending to?”

Our relationship with past and future, caught as we always are in the interval of uncertainty between the two, can be emotionally and culturally complex and unsettling. Anticipatory history offers ways to interrogate our uncertainties; the example of Orford Ness lighthouse suggests how impermanent features in our landscape can become stabilised in our imagination, and natural processes then threaten both the physical and cultural permanence which seems so natural to our tempocentric selves. The lighthouse, already at risk of erosion of the Orford Ness shingle bank, was also deemed redundant as coastal wayfinder: a combination which undermines the future of this 220 year-old Suffolk landmark. Indeed, the lighthouse has now been decommissioned and the sea continues its advance on the brick building. What was once an aid to navigation in space might slip into a new, symbolic role as navigational aid between past and future; there was a time with no lighthouse on the shingle, and this seems likely again. ‘Anticipatory history’, as conceptual framework, explores how looking back in a place might help us look ahead to its plausible futures. Highlighting the potential for Palliative curation as one approach to this predicament, Anticipatory history, suggests an end-of-life ethic of care and attention, taking our leave of loved but transient features. 

With these subjective, limited perceptions and judgements in mind, it can be tempting to see scientific and technical expertise as the prized location for all useable knowledge about historical and future change, the only reliable base for our policies. That, time and again, it still surprises us when this fails to deliver everything we expected is not an argument against expertise or evidence, but for a broadening of what we mean by these, and what counts. Picking up the book’s introduction again,

“History and storytelling … might seem a surprising place to begin an investigation into the potential consequences of environmental change … However, our argument is that the humanities have much to contribute to these debates. [Some forms of history,] guided by a concern for the future, [look] to the past to find intellectual, emotional, and spiritual resources to help us direct this concern towards sustaining specific communities – both human and ecological.”

‘Anticipatory history’ borrows that future orientation from the notion of ‘anticipatory adaptation’ to prospective changes rather than ‘reactive adaptation’ after the fact. Looking back can inform a more experimental gaze forward, exploring our imaginations and stories of environmental change, our different versions of ‘here and ‘now’ as well as ‘there and then’. The authors quote two historians:

“Our ability to project ourselves into the future, imagining alternative lives that lead us to set new goals and work toward new ends, is merely the forward expression of the experience of change we have learned from reflecting on the past.” – William Cronon

“We study the past not in order to find out what really happened there or to provide a genealogy of and thereby a legitimacy for the present, but to find out what it takes to face a future we should like to inherit rather than one that we have been forced to endure.” – Hayden White

Product

Book cover
Photograph: Shaun Pimlott / Colin Sackett / Uniform Books © 2011
http://www.colinsackett.co.uk/anticipatoryhistory.php

The book’s different authors were therefore engaging with the past(s) not out of nostalgia but out of a desire to see how “the stories we tell about ecological and landscape histories shape our perception of what we might call future ‘plausabilities’”, complementing the scientific study of climate change probabilities. As such, anticipatory approaches to history might “intersect with other areas of concern – including the communication of science, the pragmatics of land management and the practice of art.” Relying solely on any one of these approaches – or even a naïve combination of all three – in situations of contention, controversy and conflict over threats to valued wildlife, landscapes, heritage or livelihoods can be a damaging experience. When a partnership of agencies culled the ‘invasive’ rats on Lundy island in order to restore breeding populations of birds, they acted solely on scientific grounds and without public consultation. Recounting the outcry from animal welfare protestors wanting to “save the Lundy rats” , the book exposes the moral judgements that scientific justifications rested upon: “that introduced species should be removed to support indigenous species; that less charismatic animals should make way for more popular ones; and that people’s emotional responses to the killing of the rats were not relevant to the decision-making process.”

“Terms like ‘slaughter’ were used to describe the cull. The risk to other animals from possible ingestion of the poisons was highlighted. Protesters also noted that the rats had been on the island for over 400 years, and in doing so questioned the implication that the rats were recent interlopers – unwanted immigrants that disrupted a settled indigenous nature on the island.”

How different interests, communities and individuals “know the past in place” is as crucial and meaningful as the professional expertise informing our decisions on how we respond to change.

“Anticipatory history may be capable of tapping into these meanings, in that it does not attempt to construct a singular, authoritative historical narrative. As an approach, it leaves room for expressing the ‘small stories’ and ‘lay knowledges’ that are layered in place, and then linking these to a hoped-for future.”

Provocation

So, back to the glossary. The 50 terms explored in this book range from the technical-sounding – ‘Acclimatisation’, ‘Coastal squeeze’, ‘Entropy’, ‘Equilibrium’, ‘Managed realignment’, ‘Monitoring’ – to the deceptively simple – ‘Birds’, ‘Ebb and flood’, ‘Living landscapes’, ‘Memory, ‘Museum’, ‘Place’ ‘Rhododendron’, ‘Tides, ‘Woods’ – via the playful or provocative – ‘Besanded’, ‘Dream-map’, ‘Liminal zone’, ‘Palliative curation’, ‘Rewilding’, ‘Story-radar’, ‘Unfarming’, ‘Zone of exclusion.’

When to let go? Coastguard cottages at Birling Gap, Seven Sisters, East Sussex
Photograph: © National Trust Images / John Miller
https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/birling-gap-and-the-seven-sisters/

You can move between these personal explorations guided simply by your curiosity, the convenience of the alphabetical ordering, the threads of different authors’ reappearances, an index map that ties each entry to a place in the British Isles – or by the handy signposting under each entry, pointing you to: (Erosion) “See: Art, Coastal squeeze, Cycle of erosion”, or (Equilibrium) “Do not see: Entropy. See: Shifting baseline syndrome”; (Entropy) “Do not see: Equilibrium. See: Aspic, Discontinuity”, and so on. It’s a book that calls you to explore, revisit and share.

The variety of voices, styles, genres, directions and intents found even within the confines of an academic and professional network makes for a very partial glossary, whose cumulative effect is to hint at alternative ‘meanings’ that could have found their way into these entries via different authors, and at the ghosts of other terminologies and common words which might just as easily have featured in the discussions sparking this work. Being partial but being open about partiality and to inviting in more seems to me to be one value of an anticipatory learning from our subjective histories and imagined futures.

In the next post in this series, I will look at some of the entries in the book and the themes these explore. Further posts will discuss examples of how the ideas explored by the research network have been trialled and developed, including some of the work I’ve been involved in; and investigate the creative potential that might be developed.

Find out more

Anticipatory history (2011), edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor and Colin Sackett, is published by Uniform Books. All the indented passages and unattributed quotations are taken from the book’s Introduction, which you can download as a sample. There is more information on the research network activities that produced the book at the Arts and Humanities Research Network programme pages.

The quotation from William Cronon is taken from his 2000 article Why history matters, (Wisconsin Magazine of History, 84, 2-13) available at his website.

The quotation from Hayden White is taken from E Domanska (2008) A conversation with Hayden White, (Rethinking History, 12, 3-21) and might be found through a web search…

Questioning a word? Space for creative thinking... 

"One of the entries in Anticipatory history is Enclosure. What does this word mean to you, in the conext of environmental change and how we imagine and discuss pasts, places and futures?" 

Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form

The Stories We Live By

I’ve been taking a new online course on ecolinguistics and it’s been fascinating to delve into how we structure and receive our various discourses – texts, dialogues, advertising and news reports – in ways that shape our attitudes and beliefs on environmental, social and economic issues. And maybe some of the learning here is helping me get past a barrier in my thinking about climate change…

The Stories We Live By is a free online course in ecolinguistics, created by Arran Stibbe at the University of Gloucestershire and a team of volunteers from the International Ecolinguistics Association. A programme that you can study at your own pace, with an optional online forum, it looks at how language structures our environmental relationships: stories as “structures in the minds of individuals … or across the minds of multiple individuals in society.”

“Ecolinguistics analyses language to reveal the stories we live by, judges those stories from an ecological perspective, resists damaging stories, and contributes to the search for new stories to live by.” – Arran Stibbe, course notes

There are many ways of viewing the environmental challenges we face – from the bright ‘can do’ optimism of ecomodernism to the darker ecology realms of ‘uncivilisation’ and beyond. But what they have in common is a recognition that the stories we’ve told ourselves to get to this situation – stories we’ve told ourselves into – have created an urgent for us need to find new ones, better aligned with environmental imperatives.

Those old stories include those our Book Club is discussing, in Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics: myths of the unquestioned need for endless economic “growth”, narrow indicators of “healthy” GDP figures, “free markets” steering us clear of the “tragedy of the commons”. But the ideological limitations of stories can also be seen in environmental world views that shape competing planet-saving blueprints – an area also discussed in Mike Hulme’s book Why We Disagree About Climate Change.

I’m about half way through, and enjoying the very clear notes, exercises and further reading on offer with each module: moving easily but with much thought through discussions on ideologies, framings and metaphors, with fascinating examples and questions. The course will also take me through how we use stories to evaluate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the world, the identities we hold as individuals and groups, our convictions about the way the world is, and how language makes some issues invisible.

‘Words from a Glossary’ #1, Image: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017  Glossary: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk

Ecolinguistics and our stories

This could all be quite heavy, freighted with all sorts of academic terminology (‘ecolinguistics’ itself, for example). Fortunately, the notes and exercises have a light touch, using clear everyday language in between the necessary (and interesting) smattering of technical stuff (a helpful glossary covers all those new words and phrases). The course is not about finding the “correct” way of talking about the natural world and our relationships with it; there is no single, “right’ story. Yes, ecolinguistics invites us to judge the stories we receive from media, government, businesses and campaign groups, use in our professional and personal lives, or tell ourselves. But “judging a story from an ecological perspective involves comparing it with [our] own ecological philosophy, or ecosophy” – and recognising in the process that ours is one of many; our judgements are always relative to that personal perspective. 

So what does ecolinguistics involve?

  • It focuses on discourses that help shape how we act towards human and other beings and ecosystems.
  • It looks for how linguistic features form our cultural codes: the values and norms that reflect our ‘common sense’ view of the world.
  • It reveals our own ‘ecosophy’ and how different discourses align with or contradict this.
  • It raises awareness of the role of language in ecological protection or destruction, through policy, education, news and entertainment.

Early on, ‘the Ecosophy Quiz” asks us to assess our own ecological philosophy, accepting or rejecting a number of statements on a spectrum from cornucopianism, sustainable development, social ecology, ecofeminism, deep ecology, transition movement, dark mountain project, deep green resistance, voluntary human extinction movement and beyond. Interestingly, there were no overtly religious or spiritual statements to dis/agree with, which seems a lack given the central position of faith in cultures, countries and personal lives around the world.

‘Words from a Glossary’ #2, Image: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017 Glossary: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk

The problem with problems

I’ll focus more on specific aspects of the course in another post, but one early point for me has been to get me to revisit my own position, that climate change is not a problem – in the sense that it’s not something with a ‘solution’. That perspective unsettled rather than shocked me when I first heard Mike Hulme suggest several years ago. It did shock many others in the room – a gathering of people with clear ideas of what the solutions are, and a drive to get them adopted. I came to agree with Hulme’s point pretty quickly, as it spoke to my growing unease with our failure to really get to grips with … the problem. His book gave strong pointers as to why framing climate change as ‘a problem’ is a problem – at least if you want to solve it. But what I’ve struggled with since is finding an approach that really improves on ‘problem’. ‘Wicked Problems’ is a good way to conceive the messy entanglements of cause–effect–side-effect–cause, but wicked problems still seem to trigger a ‘solutions’ mindset. I looked into that with my first post, where I picked up on ‘clumsy solutions’ as a way to address ‘wicked problems’, but I could see that something was missing; proposing the idea of ‘wicked cultures’ offered part of an answer.

Hulme had also looked at ‘clumsy solutions’ in his book, “as a way of escaping from the idea that, when faced with contradictory definitions of problems and solutions, only one definition must be chosen and all others rejected … Clumsiness suggests that we construct our problems in such a way as to make them fit our capabilities for solution-making …” But he accepted that even clumsy solutions won’t ‘solve’ climate change; they will be partial and contradictory in what they deliver, not just in their methods.

“We must recognise the ‘wickedness’ of climate change and we must appreciate that while clumsiness – with all its contrariness and messiness – is perhaps the limit of our human ability to respond, it will not deliver the outcomes we seek.” – Mike Hulme.

As he points out, the idea of climate change is changing how we understand and live in the world as much as the physical phenomena we call ‘climate change’. The idea works for us – doing different work for people with different world views. In identifying some common myths behind our world views, Hulme comes back to stories: myths that embody fundamental truths, “powerful shared narratives which may bind together otherwise quite different perspectives and people.” These myths might be lamenting the loss of our ‘natural’ climate and environment; or presaging the coming apocalypse as we crash through all our tipping points; or saving ourselves through our geoengineering/GM/nuclear/nanotech mastery; or a call for and celebration of justice for the dispossessed, exploited and marginalised. He ties these neatly to Judaeo-Christian Biblical myths of Fall, Armageddon, Babel and Jubilee; others are available, of course, and these are not mutually exclusive.

Landing on “climate change as idea” rather than “climate change as problem”‘ is perhaps in danger of leaving us high and dry with grand narratives similar to those that got us in here (and have so far failed to get us out again). I’ve been looking for something more … down to earth, more pedestrian. Less likely to appeal to our messianic tendencies.

‘Words from a Glossary’ #3, Image: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017 Glossary: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk

The predicaments we live with

The Stories We Live By is not an examination of the language of climate change; its scope is the full range of ecological issues. But it does explore different framings of climate change – for example, as ‘security threat’, as ‘violence’, as ‘business’, as ‘problem’, or as ‘predicament’:

Climate change framed as a security threat: “Instead of treating the climate crisis as an environmental issue, to be dealt with by environment and energy departments alone, we need to reframe it as the overwhelming threat to national and global security which it is.” (Caroline Lucas, Green Party)

Climate change framed as violence: “Call climate change what it is: violence. Climate change is global-scale violence, against places and species as well as against human beings.” (Rebecca Solnit, writer, historian and activist)

Climate change framed as business: “Let’s reframe sustainability as the biggest and boldest supply chain challenge yet, to give the 9 billion people we expect to see on the planet quality and sustainable lives. Business is good at giving customers what they want, so let’s get on with it.” (Alan Knight, Virgin)

Climate change framed as problem: “The best solution, nearly all scientists agree, would be the simplest: stop burning fossil fuels, which would reduce the amount of carbon we dump into the atmosphere.” (Michael Specter, science journalist)

Climate change framed as predicament: “It has been revealed that humankind’s activities giving rise to our present global warming and climate change predicament occurred during that extremely short 57 year period.” (Bob Robertson, author)

To my mind, the first three of these are usually examples of, rather than alternatives to, ‘problem thinking’,  reducing the overall complex mix of issues to a single dimension and expectations that a solution is at hand. But each could also be cast as ‘predicament thinking’. The course explains the distinction:

“Many things we’ve conceptualized as problems are actually predicaments. The difference is that a problem calls for a solution; the only question is whether one can be found and made to work, and once this is done, the problem is solved. A predicament, by contrast, has no solution. Faced with a predicament, people come up with responses.” – John Michael Greer

Solutions make problems disappear; responses keep predicaments in view. Solutions promise completion; responses offer coping. Guess which sounds sexier; admit which is more honest. So, if one response is to adapt to a climate that continues changing even when all the remaining oil is left in the ground (because the atmosphere and oceans respond slowly to past greenhouse gas emissions) then these stronger, adaptive communities will still have to deal with the impacts of a changing climate. And surely we know that ‘security,’ ‘violence’ and ‘economics’, which we also treat as problems, are more like predicaments which no ‘solutions’ are likely to make disappear? Better responses might help minimise the impacts and live more safely, justly and prosperously.

If ‘security’, ‘violence’ and ‘business’ framings (and many other ways of simplifying the idea of climate change) can be deployed in either ‘problem-solution’ or ‘predicament-response’ ways, then perhaps there is another level to our stories. But whether that is so, or ‘problem’ and ‘predicament’ are simply two framings among others, The Stories We Live By has already given me something I’ve been looking for: the extra step beyond my earlier journey from ‘problem’ to ‘wicked problem’ to ‘clumsy solutions’, but without leaving me in the slightly nebulous territory of ‘idea.’ Predicaments are what humans do, after all.

It’s refreshing to take a course that invites me to acknowledge my subjectivity, my own set of values and attitudes, and informs them with some new thinking on ecosophies, framings and, in particular, predicaments. The Stories We Live By asks me to acknowledge that this subjectivity is where I build my judgements of others’ views and actions as protecting or damaging to the environment. That stories, and not unquestionable facts, live in our heads and shape how we think, speak and act is not a new thought for me or for many people, but it’s one we need to come back to if we’re to avoid our own judgements taking on the same ‘natural’ force that the dominant narratives have assumed. Knowing our stories as stories can help us keep open the space we need for creative conversations.

Find out more

You can view and download all the notes and exercises for the course at The Stories We Live By. And if you register, you can also access the forum, additional reading and volunteer tutors. Everything is free and available to enjoy at your own pace.

The course draws from Arran Stibbe‘s book, Ecolinguistics: Language, Ecology and the Stories We Live By

The original essay from which the John Michael Greer quote above is taken can be found here, in the Archdruid Report archive. I am currently reading his book, Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush, which includes essays from that site.

Mike Hulme‘s book Why We Disagree About Climate Change, from which his quotes are taken, has been a key influence in setting up ClimateCultures, and there is more at his site.

Questioning Problems & Predicaments? Space for creative thinking...  

"For you, is climate change a problem or a predicament? How would your creative response change if you swapped these frames? How would you talk differently about it with others?"

Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.

The Art of Noise

A lively, loud gathering of scientists, musicians, journalists, sound artists and social scientists can be both fun and thought-provoking. But my biggest impression from the creativity that unfolded at Climate Symphony Lab was the sheer noise. Physical noise echoing in the studio, and the overhwhelm of data placed in front of us as raw material for our creative thinking. Later, unexpectedly, I found Hilary Mantel helping me make sense of my impressions. ‘History is not the past’, ‘the map is not the territory’ – and the review is not the performance. These are merely my highly partial impressions and reflections on a day making music with the Anthropocene.

Climate Symphony Lab, Arts Admin 2017
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

In her BBC Reith Lectures for Radio 4, Hilary Mantel said “my concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims.” As a historical novelist, Mantel’s dead are from the past, but always present:

“St Augustine says ‘the dead are invisible, they are not absent’. I don’t claim we can hear the past or see it. But I say we can listen and look.” – Hilary Mantel

But the dead can be other things too. Things we’ve made invisible by not looking can become dead to our thoughts, our concerns and actions.

Of historical fiction, Mantel claims: “Done properly, it doesn’t say ‘Believe this’ but ‘Consider this.’” We need history and science to reveal the facts that are out there in the world – and art to explore the truths within it.

On a hot June Saturday, I joined the Climate Symphony Lab hosted by Arts Admin’s 2 Degrees Festival of art and climate change. It was one of a series of workshops organised by Disobedient, Forma and composer Jamie Perera to explore how turning data into sound can bring fresh engagement with climate change. Soundscapes can spark understanding in ways that tables, graphs and spreadsheets rarely can; sonification is a lively counterpart to the more familiar visualisation through pie charts, Venn diagrams, timelines and other infographics.

Why use sound? We’re so used to privileging our visual skills and understanding (‘seeing is believing’) that switching to other modes can reset and enhance our perception. Sound has a deep, ‘felt’ presence in our bodies. As a way of detecting and working with patterns, it can be both effective and affective.

But, like any representation, sonification presents dilemmas, risks misrepresentation. The workshop was centred on just such questions: Where does the desire to engage people end? Do we sacrifice accuracy for ‘accessibility’? What stories are we telling – and not telling? What makes a good story and who decides? How does this inform the type of data we use? Is this art, or journalism?

With these thorny issues in mind, Climate Symphony Lab offered an additional twist to the sonification process: participation. What happens when you bring scientists, journalists, composers, musicians, sound technologists and others into the same space, not just to discuss but to do?

To frame the possibilities and ground our experiment, we heard from a climate scientist, a design researcher, a political geographer and sound artist, and a researcher working at the intersection of music, computing and biology. From the mundane realities of collecting climate data (sometimes literally dragging it up from the sea in buckets), through ‘dark data’, ‘data wash’ and problems of scale, to the soundscape as diagnostic tool, the talks presented rich stories. But it was sound itself – specifically, noise – that made the event disturbingly meaningful for me.

The echo chamber

A strong memory from my TippingPoint experiences was early on day one of the first Weatherfronts event in 2014 – also a hot June day. 90 writers and researchers were standing quietly in two large concentric circles. Inner and outer rings of strangers faced each other close up, waiting for the instruction to stop listening to the facilitator and start talking to each other, one to one. The hall was full, right up to the limit. With its hard floor, high ceiling and walls of glass and stone, at the word ‘Go!’, the noise levels instantly rocketed from ground zero, echoing somewhere up beyond maximum. The sort of sonic environment I usually hate, but the shock of it had undeniable energy, a bodily force. The decibels just rolled on as one circle shifted inside the other, bringing new pairings into conversation. The image that came immediately to me was as if I’d opened a heavy door into a packed turkey shed and it had closed again with me inside. A surreal, animalian moment. I wish I had a recording of it.

60 people in a studio can also stage a pretty good turkey shed sound effect. When we split into two large teams and started grappling with what we’d been asked to accomplish, our conversations couldn’t help fragmenting into groups of twos and threes, each struggling to make headway under the cacophony of the whole. That, I imagine, was not part of the design here any more than at Weatherfronts, but it reminded me to look at spaces with cautious respect for what they can achieve through the obstacles they throw up as much as what we hope our plans for them will deliver.

So, what was being asked of us? For each team to take a selection of data on offer – mostly already visualised for us as graphs – and select the four datasets we thought might have a shared story to tell. Play with a simple visual musical scale, overlaying transparencies of a mini piano keyboard along the vertical axis of each graph, to decide how we wanted the changing data to ‘sound’. And have the workshop gurus do the technical bit of making that happen, using either our choice of ‘instruments’, other digital effects, or sounds we’d recorded ourselves.

Simple. Even someone unmusical like me could grasp the principles with no knowledge of what making music actually involves or how to go from paper (lots of paper) to performance in two hours. No problem.

Taking instructions
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

The animal in the room

No, other than the sheer noise, I was worried about something else entirely. We were all up for being creative in the face of the climate problem, but seemed unintentionally to be reproducing a big part of the problem. As one of the speakers had said, “To frame is to exclude,” and it turned out that the living non-human world had been framed out of our climate concerns.

It might just have been the noise levels jarring my sensibilities, but I was feeling uneasy that our data had nothing to say about more-than-human experience. It was all either physical (carbon, ice, sea levels …) or human (waste, migration, air quality …). And there was a lot of it – a stack of printouts showing this growing or that shrinking, and sometimes going all over the place in the process. Why had so much story already been cut out: species extinctions and marginalisations, habitat erasures and domestications? Where was the wild? This wasn’t a criticism of the process we were trying out, but a live critique of how we habitually see and shape only what we choose. The world is always bigger than that, messier, hopelessly entangled. Understandably, we exclude so much, needing to simplify what remains in our field of vision so we have something we can think with. But this demands self-awareness and questioning: that we lift ourselves out of our echo chambers.

I wasn’t the only one trying to make sense of the creative challenge and its limitations. Everyone brought their own interests, their own take on the ground rules, and a different plea for another view on what was meaningful. And the noise continued, seeming to swamp any signals….

Trawling data
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

And yet. Somewhere in all that, I gradually found that the noise became my signal. Something meaningful emerged, slow and uncertain. The process: messy, seemingly chaotic, definitely confusing. The data, even our small sample: overwhelming. The choices: full of conflict. The time constraints: ridiculous. It was all pushing us to compromise so as not to fail. We’d fail anyway, but you have to act. Sound familiar? We had become our own representation of the global ‘problem’.

Yes, all data attempts to ‘represent’ messy and complex realities that can’t be fully captured: constructing usable human-shaped containers for a world that’s always overflowing our efforts to order it; hiding our choices even as we make them, rendering some things invisible to highlight others. In our attempts to isolate a signal and reveal meaningful patterns of change, the excluded seeps back in as noise, distorting the filters. This east London studio, this mass of graphs and files, this intention to make music, were our own container, choice and filter. And for one afternoon at least, the world was going to work through these artefacts and be creatively distorted into something playful, representing and misrepresenting it all at once. Fun!

Dissonance and disciplines 

In one group, we tore up sheets of paper at the studio mic – the shreds snowing to the floor – to call up the spirit of London’s waste accumulating at our feet. Later, another group’s feet came marching towards the mic, bodies shuffling and gasping to channel the migrant Others from ‘there’ seeking refuge ‘here’. Whispered breaths became a questionable air quality. ‘Proper’ instruments became rising carbon dioxide levels or ocean acidity, or the projected scenarios of warming futures.

The shred
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

Then, sitting quietly again, listening to the final pieces our teams had thrown together, we heard for the first – and only – time what ‘our’ data had become, what we’d made of the world outside the studio.

I’d wondered whether to push for one of our team’s tracks to be silence: a missing voice for all the species we’d locked out of the room, the habitats slipping away under a wake of data-churning human activity. Or maybe we could have their silences cut across the other soundstreams, polluting and disrupting our human-centredness… In the end, listening to our dissonant but surprisingly beautiful collage, I found my worries allayed. Maybe it was only my imagination – anxiety made artistic – but somehow the wild had its voice in the growling, creaking sounds I couldn’t identify. Was that the asthmatic air quality of civilised London somehow calling back others that had been here before and might be again, after? And the final, faint whisper from the last ripped corner of paper being torn down to its end, was that an insectoid rustling from the corners of the room? In my hearing at least, the excluded were back in: over the fence, regardless of us. Their refusal to be ruled out maybe points to a space for undisciplinary, not just multidisciplinary, working.

Early on, one of the workshop leaders had asked us to wonder if “we can or should make something beautiful out of tragedy?” And the answer is “Yes, somehow.” The tragedy remains, but picked out in a sharp relief that maybe helps us see how we should attend to it, care for it. I think everyone shared a sense that we’d organised enough of the chaos to make something ephemeral but with impact, for us at least. Whether that is art-representing-data-representing-reality or, more simply, science-informing-artists-making-art is a perennial question. And, somehow, misses the point.

“History,” Hilary Mantel continued in her lectures, “is not the past. It is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record.” We can and should have better debates about what we can ensure is left on the record of changing climates, so that this can inform our understanding of the different culpabilities, vulnerabilities, responsibilities. But however much we measure and analyse, we’re always bound into our own ignorance and will continually recreate it; so the urge and the need to organise ignorance through our art as much as our science and our history are urgent and hopeful.

Unexpectedly, Hilary Mantel has helped me think through my own impressions of an intriguing experience that required a bit of distance to make better sense of. So I leave the final thought to her, knowing her concern for the past also speaks of the future:

“When we imagine a lost world, we must first re-arrange our senses – listen and look, before judging. But we do rush to judgement, and our judgement swings about – at one moment we find the past frightening and alien, and the next moment we are giving way to nostalgia.” – Hilary Mantel

Find out more

You can read about Climate Symphony in this recent article by Alexandra Simon-Lewis in Wired. She talks to Disobedient’s Leah Borromeo, who highlights the importance of both peer-reviewed science and first person perspective, and transparency of process: “Opening things from the start so all the bones and blood of the thing are on display is important.” From the Wired article, you can also listen to Soundcloud tracks from Climate Symphony and from a previous Lab workshop at ONCA in Brighton.

If you’re quick, there just might be time to experience Climate Symphony at the East End Film Festival in London on Sunday 25th June. And there is another Climate Symphony Lab on 8th July, in Newcastle.

Hilary Mantel’s 2017 Reith Lectures are available at the BBC website.

Disobedient Films – “established by artist-filmmakers Katharine Round and Leah Borromeo to disrupt traditional documentary form and extract new angles and emotions around factual narratives” – has much more work for you to discover. Artists of Our Natural World includes a section on artists, Dan Harvey and Heather Ackroyd, who create a photographic photosynthesis work in response to the planned exploratory oil drilling on Leith Hill, Surrey. “By manipulating the natural processes that fuel life itself, these British artists blur the line between science, nature and art, all while drawing attention to climate change.”

This short clip from BBC World Service’s programme Click features Clare Malrieux talking about her climate sound artwork, Climat Général.

And there is also plenty to explore on up-to-date visualisation of climate change data, including animations by climate scientist Ed Hawkins on global temperatures, sea ice and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at Climate Lab Book. Ed was one of the speakers at the Climate Change Lab.

Questioning Representation? Space for creative thinking...  

"What is the soundtrack you'd like make to 'capture' something about climate change, and what technologies and sounds would you use? How would you acknowledge the 'missing voices' you'd have to omit?" Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form." 

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #2

I set ClimateCultures Members a challenge: share your choice of three objects that have personal significance for you and that say something of the past, present and future of the emerging ‘Age of Human’. In this post, artist Julien Masson offers an intriguing selection: his personal contribution to a History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

When worlds collide…

Clash of two worlds
Photograph: Julien Masson © 2017
http://www.jfmmasson.com

The first object I selected is an amalgam of objects that were given to me in the past. This 3D collage of disparate elements that I would compare to a melange of old memories that have merged into a sort of mnemonic chimera. The use of contrasting material such as mineral and the manmade industrial metal alludes to the clash of the natural world and the manmade activity.

A disposable present

Voltaic throwaway
Photograph: Julien Masson © 2017
http://www.jfmmasson.com

The ubiquitous battery has a limited life span and in many ways symbolises the transience of our contemporary lives… the battery is a container, a vessel to convey energy to devices. In this case, a camera. When its power is spent, it is rendered useless and is disposed of in landfills or recycled. Its shape is simple and functional and I often wonder at the technical codes on these objects. Their meaning is lost to me and they might as well be some long lost cabalistic language.

Offered up to the future

Votive artefact
Photograph: Julien Masson © 2017
http://www.jfmmasson.com

The third object represents our future. My selection suggests a dystopian vision of the future, where virtual experiences replaces our spirituality. What will future generation of archeologist think of such a device in centuries to come? Out of meaning and out of network, maybe it is some sort of votive artefact? An empty shell for the virtual ghost of our times…

Find out more

You can see a short animation Julien has made, Funland: An Anthropocene amusement park, and more of his artworks at macuse.com and jfmasson.com 

Each post that appears in the sequence of A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects earns its author a copy of a book that had an impact on my thinking about our topics here – whether fiction, poetry or non-fiction – and which I’ve recently rediscovered in a charity shop. (Delivery in the UK only, sadly!) For his post, Julien receives a copy of William Golding’s classic novel, The Inheritors, “a startling recreation of the lost world of the Neanderthals and a frightening vision of the beginnings of a new age.”

Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking...

"What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post." 

At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally.

Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question. 

Culturing Climate Change – Part 1: A Wicked Problem to Have

Climate change could almost define ‘Wicked Problems’. Unlike ordinary, ‘tame’ problems, these have multiple causes, produce a web of effects, entangle themselves in interdependencies, are riddled with complexities, uncertainties and contradictory interpretations and induce a sense of both confusion and urgency.

The serpent that eats itself

Climate change could almost define ‘Wicked Problems’. Unlike ordinary, ‘tame’ problems, these have multiple causes, produce a web of effects, entangle themselves in interdependencies, are riddled with complexities, uncertainties and contradictory interpretations and induce a sense of both confusion and urgency. In Dialogue Mapping, organisational collaborator Jeff Conklin talks about the “pain of fragmentation” caused by working on Wicked Problems “with thinking, tools, and methods that are useful only for simpler (“tame”) problems … a sense of futility of expecting things to be one way and repeatedly banging into a different reality”.

More often than not, ‘tame solutions’ for Wicked Problems reveal or create more problems; their frustration then compounds our urgency, inciting either a stronger desire to act ‘at any cost’ or a lifeless apathy. A self-perpetuating anxiety, climate change’s wickedness is both a call to in/action and the cascade of in/actions’ unintended consequences.

Age of anxiety

Ouroboros
Artist: AnonMoos 2009
Public Domain: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ouroboros-simple.svg

Rereading Alan Watts’ 1951 The Wisdom of Insecurity, writer Megan Mayhew Bergman describes how Watts “believed that hyper-rationalising our desires creates a vicious and taxing cycle, a habitual state of tension and abstraction that is actually a mental disorder.” He saw a modern split between mind and body (“a war between … the desire for permanence and the fact of flux”). This produces a cycle of insecurity, which he likened to Ouroboros, the mythical serpent endlessly biting its own tail in a cycle of self-consumption. While it’s human nature to seek an “escape from the reality of the anxiety-producing present,” Bergman suggests that with climate change it’s the future that now seems fearful:

“That sheer inevitability bewilders me … We can no longer afford the luxury of looking away.” – Megan Mayhew Bergman

Psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe has written about climate change anxiety inhabiting both the ‘reality-based’ and ‘narcissistic’ parts of our self. On one hand (or in one mind?) we face the loss of a reliable future, “our hope that we are generative … and rooted within long time” when “our sense of regularity and continuity as a species [is] threatened at such a basic level”. This depressive anxiety is compounded by our sense of dependence on global leaders and corporations to somehow overcome the short-termism threatening the planetary system. And on the other hand, the actions that we know are needed to reduce these risks threaten the part of our identity that’s tied into lifestyles that are implicated in the problems. Weintrobe suggests that “what we dread giving up is not so much particular material possessions or particular ways of life, but our way of seeing ourselves as special and as entitled, not only to our possessions but to our ‘quick fixes’ to the problems of reality.” The wickedness fills the gap between these minds.

But maybe, in an anxious, subjectivity-riddled world, the idea of wickedness at least offers a way to acknowledge this messiness, open a creative space to view it in and grapple with the extreme risk and uncertain force of the climate change we cannot look away from.

Culture – permission to disagree

In Keywords, cultural academic Raymond Williams introduces ‘Culture’ as “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” (and ‘Nature’ as perhaps the most complex word in the language: great news for anyone working on un/common grounds of NatureCulture). A word that’s rooted in colere (Latin: inhabit, cultivate, protect, honour with worship), fractured and evolved into cults, colony and couture, became a synonym for civilised in its antagonism with natural, and offers its own dividing line between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures, was destined to do lots of different kinds of work for different people. Culture has its own wickedness, perhaps. Can this help us with wicked climate change?

Climate change constantly draws people into different camps, each arguing passionately for one version and vehemently against the others. Can culture help us, if not to tame the untameable, then at least seize its contrariness, try out its meanings, and rehearse what cohabitation might offer us? We’re more used to diversity in culture and (in more tolerant moments) give ourselves permission to disagree; to incorporate this disagreement into culture itself. Maybe this offers a way to open discussions and imaginations to diversity in ‘climate change’.

In his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change, and in an article of the same name, geographer Mike Hulme examines it as a cultural entity, a kaleidoscopic “idea circulating anxiously in the worlds of domestic politics and international diplomacy… circulating with mobilising force in the worlds of business, of law and of international trade … circulating with potency in the worlds of knowledge and invention, of development and welfare, of religion and ethics and of public celebrity … circulating creatively in the worlds of art, of cinema, of literature, of music and of sport.” The scientific consensus on climate change is powerful and real, but we lack any comparable consensus on its meanings; it has so many that the hope for strong agreement on them is probably illusory.

“We need to understand the creative psychological, spiritual and ethical work that climate change can do and is doing for us. By understanding the ways climate change connects with foundational human instincts of nostalgia, fear, pride and justice we open up a way of resituating culture and the human spirit at the centre of our understanding of climate.” – Mike Hulme

On a parallel thought, literary scholar Benjamin Morgan investigates the origin and uses of the concept of extinction. Like climate change, “extinction has never been a purely scientific concept … [it] first came into being as a problem of human meaning” long before we came to identify our own species as a new driver of extinctions; the discovery of spectacular fossils in the 18th century revealed nature “possessed of the same self-destructive energy as human society.”

Science of all kinds is crucial for better understanding of environmental and climate change and the Anthropocene, but can only offer one kind of necessary enquiry: one of many routes to meaningful action. As part of the living matrix we’re eroding around us, we must also call on other aspects of our identity, other practices as well as science.

Multispecies scholar Deborah Bird Rose speaks of ‘ecological humanities’ as an interdiscipline, attempting to “build dialogical bridges between knowledge systems: between ecological sciences and the humanities, between Western and other knowledge systems.” But what is not needed, she says, is boundary crossings that aim to homogenise knowledge or “suggest that everyone has to do or think everything.”

“Quite the opposite, we acknowledge that there are many abrasive edges between knowledge systems. We believe that rubbing those abrasive edges together enables something new to happen.” – Deborah Bird Rose

Identity and practice

And this is what “culture” means for me when I think about climate change: a web of identities and practices that rub up against each other. It’s a rough sketch, but I start with:

  • Culture as identity: the different contexts that we inhabit and shape, and which inhabit and shape us; the forces that create, reinforce or challenge our personal and social values; an expression of and comforter for our particular world view.
  • Culture as practice: the making, sharing and responding to particular creative works and directions; visual, musical, dramatic, poetic, fictional, film and all the other artistic practices – and also research and educational practices, and the practices of collecting, editing and presenting.

Both these aspects of culture suggest that nuance and diversity are key, helping us navigate the complexities, uncertainties and interdependencies of climate change without immediately resorting to ‘tame’ solutions within hard-and-fast borders. As Morgan points out: “Drawing battle-lines is never an exercise in nuance … The avenue into these ethical and political dilemmas [of extinction] is culture, broadly conceived.”

Bergman retells Watts’ account of the response of a Chinese sage to the inevitability of human suffering:

“’How shall we escape the heat?’ the sage is asked. His answer is unsettling: ‘Go right into the middle of the fire.’”

‘Wicked Cultures’ as a means at least of seeing and coming to terms with the dynamics of ‘Wicked Problems’, maybe acknowledging what might be untameable but worth living through and with?

In Parts 2 & 3 of Culturing Climate Change, I look at Living with Uncertainty and Navigating Complexities.

Meanwhile, between Parts 1 & 2, an Interstice

Questions:

  1. How do you think “Wicked Cultures” might help us address “Wicked Problems”?
  2. What other aspects constitute culture, in addition to identity and practice?

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Find Out More:

Meghan Mayhew Bergman, Meeting Ones’ Madness, Paris Review 15th November 2016

Jeff Conklin, Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems, Wiley 2006

Mike Hulme, (article) Why We Disagree About Climate Change, originally published in The Carbon Yearbook 2009

Mike Hulme, (book) Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Benjamin Morgan, On the Origin of Extinction, Public Books, 9th March 2017

Deborah Rose Bird, The Ecological Humanities, in Manifesto for Living in the Anthropocene, (edited by Katherine Gibson, Deborah Rose Bird and Ruth Fincher) Punctum Books 2015

Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity: A message for an Age of Anxiety, Penguin Random House 2011 (originally 1951)

Sally Weintrobe, The Difficult Problem of Anxiety in Thinking About Climate Change, in Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives (edited by Sally Weintrobe), Routledge 2013

Wikipedia, Ouroboros 

Wikipedia, Wicked Problems 

Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (Fontana Press, revised edition, 1983)