Near / Far

— approx reading time: 5 minutes

It's a great pleasure to share visual artist Rebecca Chesney's first post for ClimateCultures. Rebecca -- whose work is informed by her research into the protection of the environment, conversations with scientists and a desire to make work specific to chosen locations -- describes her experiences of environmental change in California while on a residency there and shares some of the images she produced.

I am a visual artist based in Preston, Lancashire. My interests lie in how we perceive the landscape: how we romanticise and translate our rural and urban surroundings; how we define, describe and categorise nature. I look at how politics, land ownership, management and commercial value all influence the environment we live in. Air pollution, water quality, invasive plant species, weeds, bees and weather are all subjects my work has dealt with previously, with the results taking the form of installations, interventions, drawings, maps and walks.

In 2016 I was invited to attend a residency at Montalvo in California. At that time California was experiencing one of the most severe droughts on record. Having just finished a winter here where storms Desmond, Eva and Frank had caused extensive flooding in Lancashire and Cumbria, I was interested in looking at extreme weather episodes and learning more about how climate change is affecting different geographical sites.

Split into two trips, my first visit in September 2016 was five years into the drought.

Bark beetle attack

Situated an hour south of San Francisco, Montalvo sits on a hillside surrounded by redwoods and oaks. The river running through the site had long since run dry; the warm air, sweet with the smell of the gigantic redwoods, was full of dust. My visit coincided with the run up to the presidential election, which became a frequent topic of discussion amongst the staff, other residents and locals alike with the majority agitated, nervous and deeply concerned about what the future might hold.

Dry river beds, reservoirs at historically low levels and the outbreak of wildfires nearby all revealed the extent of the drought, but it was the sheer number of dead trees on the hillsides in Yosemite National Park that I found completely overwhelming. I saw thousands and thousands of dead trees. The continued drought and subsequent increase of bark beetle attack had resulted in huge losses: the US Forest Service estimated a loss of 66 million trees in the Sierra Nevada in 2016, with the most vulnerable species being Ponderosa Pine, Incense-cedar, Sugar Pine and White Fir Trees.

Dead trees in Yosemite National Park, California
Photograph: Rebecca Chesney © 2018 (click image to link)

During my travels, I started to make drawings in my sketchbook of the exit holes of the bark beetles found on dead branches and tree trunks. I was drawn to the random patterns made of tiny holes, singly meaningless, but collectively devastating. And with these drawings I embroidered fabric with the patterns of dots, each individual mark taking time to create.

Near, embroidered cotton material.
Artist: Rebecca Chesney © 2018 (click image to link)

Returning from Yosemite National Park my journey took me through the vast agricultural Central Valley. The nation’s leading producer of almonds, avocados, broccoli, grapes, peppers and many other crops, this highly managed area is in stark contrast to the native forests of the mountains. Almonds are California’s most lucrative exported agricultural product: jobs and livelihoods depend on their success. However, almonds alone use approximately 10% of California’s total water supply. It was not difficult to see that thirsty crops in a time of drought can present difficult dilemmas and make us question our priorities.

Central Valley, California
Photograph: Rebecca Chesney © 2018 (click image to link)

The time between my first and second visit to California brought many changes. On my return in spring 2017 Trump, elected and sworn in as President since my first trip, continued to be the main focus of intense discussion and deep concern: he had already withdrawn from the Paris Agreement. The drought had been declared over, with above average rainfall and storms over the winter months resulting in numerous landslides and local road closures around Montalvo. Further south, the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge on Highway 1 was damaged beyond repair, with the extreme rainfall causing it to crack and sink on the shifting mountainside. With no option but demolition it is expected to take over a year to replace, and with no detour available it leaves communities and businesses cut off and isolated.

During my second trip I was invited to meet Ramakrishna Nemani, a senior earth scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center, and Professor Eric Lambin at Stanford University. Nemani’s research uses satellite and climate data to produce ecological nowcasts and forecasts, while Lambin’s research is looking at land use change using GIS, remote sensing and socio-economic data. Providing an insight into these complex subjects, both meetings helped me understand the complex layering of issues involved and the need for balance within ecosystems.

Sudden Oak Death

I was also able to attend a Sudden Oak Death bioblitz workshop with Matteo Garbelotto from UC Berkeley. Caused by the microscopic pathogen Phytophthora ramorumSudden Oak Death (SOD) is an exotic disease introduced from an unknown region of the world into California 20 – 25 years ago. During the workshop I learned how to ID the disease and was asked to collect leaves from Californian Bay Laurel trees. Although carriers of the disease, Bay Laurels don’t die of SOD; however they infect surrounding oak trees that do die from the disease. I enjoyed being involved in the bioblitz and learned a lot about the complicated relationships between humans and the environment and the consequences of tiny imbalances in nature.

Continuing on from my sketches and embroideries about tree loss in the Sierra Nevada, I used data supplied by NASA satellites to produce a series of prints. Showing tree losses caused by the drought, bark beetle attack and wildfires in the last four years, the resulting images look like maps of swarms: intense and dark in places, sparse in other areas. Where the embroideries (Near) show individual minute dots, the prints (Far) reveal kilometre upon kilometre of dead trees visible via satellite.

Far, print derived from Nasa satellite imagery of tree loss in Sierra Nevada.
Artist: Rebecca Chesney © 2018 (click image to link)

The small made large

Now back in Lancashire, I have had time to reflect on what I learned from my trip to California. Although different in so many ways, both regions are similar in facing increased pressure from the changing climate.

I saw how even the slightest shift in the balance of nature can have a huge impact on the health of ecosystems: seemingly minute actions we make have consequences. I saw how the economics of land influence decision-making and often take priority over the conservation of natural heritage. And the political uncertainty and upheaval added a new dimension from which to experience the situation. This amazing opportunity to visit some incredible places and meet world-leading experts all contributed to a fascinating trip that will continue to influence me and my work into the future.

Find out more

Rebecca’s images of Near / Far have been published in Uniformannual Twentyeighteen, available from Uniformbooks124 pages with contributions from 24 writers, artists and researchers.

Rebecca’s trip was supported by Arts Council England and Lancaster Arts, and you can find more of her work at 

You can explore the work of the Montalvo Arts Center at their site.

The problems and management of Sudden Oak Death in California are described at the site of the California Oak Mortality Task Force. And the Firewise Madera County site has a well-referenced article on the dangers of Bark Beetle attack on the state’s trees.

You can explore the ecological forecasting (and nowcasting) work of NASA’s Ames Research Center at their Ecocast site.

Want to know more about ‘bioblitz’? Have a look at the European Citizen Science Association’s Bioblitz Group and the UK’s National Bioblitz Network.

Rebecca mentions Eric Lambin’s research; his 2012 book An Ecology of Happiness looks like an interesting read.

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #8

— approx reading time: 8 minutes

It's a pleasure to welcome science historian and writer Sarah Dry to the ClimateCultures blog and her contribution to A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Sarah's personal selection and the images she has chosen to illutstrate her objects strike a particular chord with the former astronomy student in me; and these three objects speak of the gap between seeing and feeling.

Looking was its own end – ‘Cloud forms that have been’

Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900) was a Scottish astronomer who travelled the world studying the heavens and the earthly atmosphere that so often blocked his view. He was an obsessive, spending long hours perfecting his observing technique with the telescope, the spectroscope and the camera.

The photograph reproduced below (left) is one of 144 photographs of clouds taken by Piazzi Smyth in his retirement, from the window of his home near Ripon, North Yorkshire, during 1892 and 1893. He printed the photographs and bound them together in a handmade book of what he called Cloud Forms that Have Been To the Glory of their creator and the wonderment of learned men. Alongside each photograph, he included a page recording the time, temperature, pressure and weather conditions when each photograph was taken. His aim was to render the ever-changing clouds into something fixed which could be compared and used to generate a fuller understanding of the atmosphere. This was a continuation of a project that had begun with Luke Howard’s innovation at the start of the century, a nomenclature that distilled the multiplicity of possible cloud forms to just three basic forms.

Pages from Charles Piazzi Smyth’s ‘Cloud Forms …’ Photographs: Sarah Dry © 2018 The book is held in the archives at the Royal Society, London

Smyth agreed with the scientific aim of reducing the clouds to ‘nothing but a few mechanical processes’, and he thought that instruments like the camera, the barometer, and the thermometer might one day help to bring such an understanding about. But what Smyth believed to be the ultimate purpose of looking long and hard at the clouds was more like devotion. As he described it

“the forms of beauty exhibited so frequently and prodigally before our neglectful eyes in clouds can only be reverentially looked upon by us. For are they not in truth and fact the perfect works of an all-wise, all-powerful and all-merciful though much to be feared, God.”

For Smyth, looking was its own end, and in looking he felt a connection with the divine.

What moves me about this book is how it embodies the deep ambivalence within the culture in which Smyth lived, with which he himself struggled. On the one hand, he was driven to try to reduce the complexity of the clouds to a set of physical laws. He achieved great success in this endeavour, becoming Astronomer Royal for Scotland at the precocious age of twenty-seven and demonstrating that mountain astronomy was possible by leading a daring expedition up the volcanic mountain at Tenerife. On the other hand, he was moved to a kind of desperate faith at the thought of the endless complexity and prodigality of nature, in the face of which even the best recording devices were impotent. His late-life cloud photography was less a quest to master the skies than a form of surrender to the ultimate unknowability of divine creation.

Today, we often try to separate science from emotion (to say nothing of science and religion), suggesting that to do good science is to be dispassionate. There may be very good reasons to try to carve out spaces from which emotion is explicitly excluded, but Smyth’s poignant book is a material reminder of the potential, within one individual, to embrace two very different ways of observing, and of knowing, the clouds.

An alien vision – CloudSat in the sky

Today, we can sit at home and look through the magical window of the computer at the clouds from space. This is not, strictly speaking, a new achievement. The first Earth-observing satellite program, named Nimbus after the Latin word for rain cloud, was launched by NASA in 1964. Since then, our vision of clouds from space has continued to improve, as instruments have gotten more sensitive and new satellites with new capabilities have been launched. Today, Nimbus’ successor, the less poetically named CloudSat, is part of the so-called A-train of six such satellites devoted to watching Earth.

Down to earth: CloudSat being prepared for launch in a clean room at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, 2005 Photograph (public domain): NASA Source: Wikipedia (click image to link)

The kind of vision CloudSat provides is gratifyingly intimate, but it is also alien. CloudSat uses radar to cut through the clouds, revealing their insides as a surgeon’s knife reveals the inner organs of a patient. An animation (see below) of the inside of Typhoon Dolphin on May 16, 2015, reveals the dramatic structure of the inner eye of the storm, but it remains removed from human experience. That is, in fact, precisely the point. CloudSat reveals what would otherwise be invisible, the interiors of clouds and the storms into which they sometimes assemble. For all its scientific intent, this is a voyeuristic and even transgressive kind of vision, transposing the stark lines of the penetrating radar with the soft billows of the clouds, replacing the familiar vision of the clouds from below with a God’s eye view from above.

Smyth made much of the portability and intimacy of the tools he used. He liked feeling the spectroscope in his hand and devised a special viewfinder to enable him to simultaneously look up at the skies and down through the viewfinder of the camera he used. My interface with the earth’s clouds is through my laptop, a portable but nevertheless impersonal device whose workings are opaque to me. Despite the grandeur of the vision it offers, my computer—and the vast network of technology it accesses—brings me, in fact, no closer to either the satellite which passes the earth’s equator every 99 minutes precisely, or the clouds it so relentlessly, and magically transects. I know what I am looking at but I don’t know how to feel.

MOXIE – a Martian future

There are clouds of water on Mars. This came as a surprise to me as I researched this post. Only recently, scientists have realized that some Martian clouds are probably made of ice crystals, just like high clouds on Earth. Still photographs have been taken from the Curiosity Rover of moody Martian skies, ice crystal clouds brightening the glow of the setting sun. Even more remarkably, a series of photographs show thin stratus-like clouds in motion in the skies above the Curiosity Rover. Most clouds on Mars, however, are made not of water but of carbon dioxide, which makes up more than 95 per cent of its atmosphere (on Earth, it accounts for roughly 0.04 per cent). (Oxygen, on the other hand, is present at just 0.13 per cent, compared with 21 per cent on Earth). Most Martian clouds are, in fact, made up of tiny flakes of frozen carbon dioxide (no bigger than red blood cells) and they hover like giant foggy caps over the poles during Martian winters.

These clouds, and the carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere they float in, represents both a challenge and an opportunity to those who would explore or colonize Mars. Here is where MOXIE, the Mars Oxygen In situ Experiment, comes into the story. It is a desktop-sized prototype for a tool that could put the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere to human use. If all goes well, it will land on Mars sometime in February 2021 and start trying to produce oxygen at a rate of 10 grams an hour. The idea is that this oxygen could be used by human explorers both for breathing, and, critically, as a propellant for fuelling the return trip to Earth. The prospect of beginning to alter the atmospheric chemistry of Mars is with us.

MOXIE already exists in prototype form and is expected to be part of the 2020 Mars Rover launch. As such, this little instrument contributes to the ultimate in futuristic thinking, the idea that humans can colonize Mars. MOXIE is a cute name for a jaunty instrument with a seriously ambitious goal that once seemed nearly impossible and now seems, depending on how you look at it, eminently achievable or wildly misguided.

MOXIE & other science instruments on Mars 2020 Rover Image (public domain): NASA Source: NASA Mars 2020 (click image to link)

Either way, there is nothing cute about the prospect of exploring Mars, a goal for which NASA is preparing in earnest. More controversially, Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, has made much public hay of his ambition to go (at least) one step further: to ‘make life interplanetary.’ Musk frames his goal of colonizing Mars as one of outrageous optimism:

“You want to wake up and think the future is going to be great—and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.” – Elon Musk, CEO&Lead Designer, Spacex 

What would Piazzi Smyth say about both Musk and MOXIE, about the ambition of pushing out beyond our heavens and into the atmosphere of another planet? And what would he feel when looking at these images of Martian clouds? I am not even sure how they make me feel. Are they frightening, inspiring, or merely strange? I cannot decide and that inability to know my own feelings tells me more, perhaps, than any decipherable feeling would. The distance between me and the cloudscape of Mars is contracting at the speed by which data travels from the Mars rovers cameras and NASA’s Earth-bound computers. It will contract further as projects to explore and possibly colonize Mars proceed. Even as they seek, quite literally, to domesticate Mars, these technologies make me aware, as I have never been before, of all the things I cannot know about Mars. Piazzi Smyth’s cloud photographs, for all the hopes they represented of increasing our knowledge, ultimately left him feeling less enlightened and more reverent. As any good writer knows, what is not revealed often plays more powerfully in the imagination than what is. What we cannot see, in other words, we have to feel.

Back on the home planet, there is more to explore in the clouds at the Cloud Appreciation Society and the World Meteorological Organisation’s World Cloud Atlas. 

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. 

Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects as a post. 
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A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #7

— approx reading time: 8 minutes

Waiting for your next set of three Anthropocene objects, then six turn up at the same time? It was my good fortune to start 2018 with not just one contribution to our A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects series, but two. Following on from Veronica Sekules' offering last week, I'm really pleased to be sharing this post from poet Nancy Campbell. Nancy's choice of objects demonstrate how past and present elide as our environment changes and how, whatever choices lie ahead, travel is always forward. 

As we approach the half-way point in our collections, each of the seven selections so far illustrate how each take on the relationship between humanity and the more-than-human is personal, nuanced and powerful. There is more than enough Anthropocene to go around.

An Arctic past – bone kayak

The kayak is no bigger than the palm of my hand. It belonged to a child who lived north of the Arctic Circle in Ilulissat, Greenland during the 1930s. This little boy grew up to be a traveller, eventually settling in Scotland, but throughout his adult life he kept this tiny boat to remind him of his childhood by the waters of Disko Bay.  

Model kayak – Eastern Arctic (Inuit: Nunavimiut, 1900-1909, Ivory 3.2 x 2.1 x 13.8 cm) Photograph: McCord Museum © 2018

This kayak isn’t ancient – it was probably made by an artist in the early twentieth century. Yet the artistic tradition it represents dates back hundreds of years to the thirteenth century. Similar toy carvings have been found at archaeological sites across the Arctic, some as early as 500 CE. They were made by the Thule people, whose maritime skills enabled them to migrate eastwards from Alaska following the slow path of the bowhead whale. They throve in the harsh Arctic environments where they settled thanks to their knowledge of the sea, their advanced designs for tools and ingenious modes of travel.

The subjects these artists chose to carve were significant. Survival depended on kayaking or sledging to find food. Children would be taught to paddle young, when barely walking, and even before that they would be given toys representing boats and sleds to encourage their thoughts towards the sea and the ice. Play is after all the best preparation for life.

People I met in Greenland were keen to tell me about the means their ancestors had used to survive in that harsh environment. The Thule, and later the Inuit, were dependent on sea mammals for food. Whales and seals would be hunted from the kayak. Nothing that was caught could be wasted. A whale carcass supplied meat for food, blubber for oil (used for both light and cooking), and bones to build structures and make tools. Seal skins would be stretched and dried, then used to cover new kayaks, or provide clothing for the kayaker. Seal intestines provided the sinews used to sew the skin onto the boat frames. (These ribbed, skin-covered vessels even emulated the shape of the mammals they would chase.) The hunter out on the sea was camouflaged, and even protected, by his own prey. His life was just as precarious as that of the animal he hunted.

Of course, the material from which this toy kayak is made also comes from an animal. In the century or so since it was carved, the power relationship between humans and other creatures on the planet has shifted dramatically, and our perception of the ethics of the use of animal materials in art – and even life – is likewise, rightly, changing. Now the majority of Greenlanders rely on imported house-building kits and clothing, rather than using animal products for their protection. You can walk into a supermarket in llulissat and buy expensive golden delicious apples and cans of baked beans, hot peppers in jars from South Africa and beers from Denmark. Participating in the global economy has given Greenlanders more choice, but not true autonomy; with the added disadvantage that a formerly sustainable lifestyle has been exchanged for one that is costly both to the individual and the environment.

In my travels in the Arctic I have met people who are determined to continue to hunt and live in traditional ways, and thus this object which I take to represent the ‘past’ elides with the present – but the environment which supports such activities is fast changing.

That young boy whose journey began in Ilulissat was the stepfather of the writer Nasim Marie Jafry, and when he passed away a few years ago, Nasim gave his kayak to me, knowing that I too loved Greenland. Each time I look at it I admire the frugal existence and respect for materials that it represents, and wonder at how objects can travel further through time and space than we makers might anticipate.

An England now – wooden paddle

After my first visit to Greenland I found it difficult to adapt to life back in England, so I sought something that would provide a sense of continuity – for me, this was forward motion on water. I began to kayak.

Kayak paddle Photograph: Pam Forsyth © 2018

The kayak was introduced to the UK soon after its adoption by Arctic explorers in the early twentieth-century; kayaking has subsequently become a popular sport around the world. These days most kayaks you see on British waterways are cast in brightly coloured polyethylene. But my friend Paul made his own, following a traditional Greenlandic design. He constructed a wooden frame, and stretched a nylon sheet tightly over it to form the waterproof hull. It took a long time. How did people do this, he wondered, without drill-bits and spirit levels – and lipstick? (See the link below if you’re curious where the lipstick came in.)

I was keen to try the Greenlandic techniques for myself, and last summer with Paul’s help I made a paddle. Like the boat, the paddle is made to personal specifications – you measure your height and the span of your arms, and calculate the length of the loom and the angle of the tips. A six-by-four plank of wood is marked up in pencil. The excess wood is gradually planed away, and the remainder sandpapered and oiled until it is contoured as finely as any aircraft wing. Paul and I adapted as we went along: realising the cedar was quite soft, we replaced the tips with white oak to withstand knocks and scrapes.

Compared to conventional ‘Euro blades’ with their broad faces, the Greenland paddle is skinny as the pole used by a high-wire artist. With it I move differently through the water: rather than spearing and scooping, I stroke the river away from me. Until you get the knack of this, it can feel as if you are paddling with almost nothing. It’s like being on a bicycle with no peddles. You learn to appreciate the nuances of the water, its flows and eddies. I admire – even more – the skill of those kayakers who first designed the craft and who navigated much rougher waters than those I travel.

I am in thrall to the kayak’s possibilities as a sustainable form of transport, although I rarely make a journey for anything other than pleasure. (My routes to the library and market and so on remain over ground.) Yet I’m aware that our relationship to rivers is changing. I see with increasing frequency reports in the media showing people escaping flooded homes with the aid of rescue teams in kayaks. As the climate changes, I have no doubt that my paddle may be called upon for new, less leisurely adventures.

A global future – metal islands

The rivers are not the only stretches of water that are changing. NASA calculates average sea level rise at 3.41mm per year, caused by the expansion of water as it warms and the melting of polar ice caps. There’s a conceivable risk of a sea level rise of greater than one metre by the end of this century. This scenario would see the Netherlands, Bangladesh and the Philippines, among other countries, lose significant amounts of land.

Many island nations are already experiencing the destructive force of new weather systems. Prime Minister Gaston Browne of the Caribbean state of Antigua and Barbuda has chided the industrial world. “The sadness is that these disasters are not occurring in these islands through their own fault,” he said in a statement to the United Nations in 2015. “They are happening because of the excesses of larger and more powerful countries, who will not bend from their abuse of the world’s atmosphere, even at the risk of eliminating other societies, some older than their own.”

The populations of some island nations are becoming climate refugees. In recent years the inhabitants of the Marshall Islands (a Pacific island nation which includes Bikini Atoll), finding their coastal homes no longer inhabitable, began to resettle in the US state of Arkansas. As an alternative to such tragic displacement, some countries are adopting new technologies, and imagining future floating cities inspired by boats. The Dutch, for example, are addressing the question of what to do when the water defence systems that protect the Netherlands become obsolete. “In these times of rising sea levels, overpopulated cities and a rising number of activities on the seas, building up the dykes and pumping out the sands is perhaps not the most efficient solution,” says Olaf Waals, project manager at the Maritime Research Institute Netherlands.

The solution? “Floating ports and cities,” says Waals decisively. Within the next few decades, the question will be not how to prevent the sea overwhelming the land, but how to best enable life upon the water – initially as an extension of existing territory, but eventually as an alternative for it. Waals and his team of engineers have designed tessellating panels on which new cities could be built. These floating triangles are resistant to the force of storms; they can be anchored to the sea bed or moored to the shore. At present the panels are few enough to fill the Institute’s testing basin, but the huge, flexible island could expand to support a city-sized settlement of homes, farms, parks, recreational areas, and ports.

Floating island: The Maritime Research Institute Photograph: Marin © 2018

Waals believes such a structure would also be an ideal setting for sustainable energy projects that require access to the sea. Offshore wind farms, tidal energy, wave energy and floating solar panels would power the artificial island. In the future, will water not be our way of travelling from place to place, but a permanent home? What will we take with us onto these twenty-first century arks? And will humans adopt a more responsible attitude to the environment when we are no longer on our element?

Find out more

Nancy was recently appointed Britain’s 2018 Canal Laureate and you can see more of her work at her website.

You can learn about the experience of making a Greenland kayak paddle at Kayak across the water and making a Greenland kayak at Oxford Kayak Tours.

The writer Nasim Marie Jafry gave Nancy her stepfather’s bone kayak; you can discover her work at Velogubbed legs – including her short piece, Coxsackie, in Nancy’s A Book of Banished Words  (from her Polar Tombola project), and the link between Coxsackie virus, the name of her website and her novel, The State of Me.

The Marin Institute (Maritime Research Institute Netherlands), where Olaf Waals is working on floating portsand cities, is holding a seminar ‘The Floating Future’ in Wageningen on 7th March 2018. And architectural firm Waterstudio and the Seasteading Institute – “a nonprofit think-tank working to provide a machinery of freedom to choose new societies on the blue frontier” – both also envisage a floating future.

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. 

Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects as a post. 


A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #6

— approx reading time: 5 minutes

After a Christmas and New Year break, ClimateCultures returns with our latest post in the series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. It's a great pleasure to welcome curator Veronica Sekules as a new Member. Veronica's personal contribution of three Anthropocene objects charts our species' shifting relationship with the planet. Art, artefact and accidental discovery mark our place in the world within a movement from a visionary symbol of eternity to the hubris of a transitory age and on to a time which will be witnessed by what endures after us. 

Cosmic Man – among the elements

My first personal Anthropocene object is Hildegard of Bingen’s image of Cosmic Man from her Book of Divine Works (1230 CE). It is a beautiful manuscript page, painted by her in reds, blues, white and gold, depicting a symbolic vision to convey some of the mysteries of Christian belief and devotion. It is full of complexity and for me equally prescient in the age of the Anthropocene as it was in the middle ages.

The Cosmic Man – published in ‘Liber Divinorum Operum’, by Hildegard of Bingen (12th century) Source: ‘Medieval Art’, by Veronica Sekules (OUP 2001)

At the centre is a naked man with arms outstretched among the elements, both demonstrating strength and vulnerability. He represents humankind equally dominating and subservient to the world. Around him, the concentric circles of the universe, moon, clouds, water, animals and creatures, are ultimately surrounded by God, who forms an extended flamelike humanoid figure encircling all, his face (and Christ’s) presiding over everything. Hildegard herself is shown seated, adoring and studious beneath this universe.

This represents a vision which is both humble and hubristic about both the power and subservience of human agency, placing man and god united in ultimate supremacy over the world and the creatures within it. For me this epitomises a major aspect of the genesis of the Anthropocene, and of its problems. Humans are both progenitors and victims, witnesses to the majesty of the world and yet main actors in its fate, good or bad. Even to a Christian believer like Hildegard, God’s flamelike presence seems to be double-edged, both guarding the universe and warning it.

Massey Ferguson TE20 – pioneering machine

My second Anthropocene object is a Massey Ferguson TE20 tractor, marketed in Britain and indeed around the world in the 1950s, as part of a ‘New Elizabethan age’ of innovation in farming. It had over 60 different attachments and was a pioneering machine in the burgeoning oil-fuelled, carbon-consuming history of mechanisation, which was seen then to lead to greater wealth, power, profits and plenty for all.

Massey Ferguson TE20 tractor Photograph: BJ Tractors © 2018

Very rapidly, the TE20 was superseded by ever more powerful and giant machines for land management, crop spraying and harvesting, but it was one of the first signs of all the panoply of tools and chemicals which changed post-war farming and have accelerated the devastating effects of climate change and been so dangerous for nature. Farming is still seen, even increasingly, as a global agribusiness in an intensely greedy and competitive way, and machines to manage greater stretches of hedgeless land are still seen as its future. The Massey Ferguson was an icon of its time and has now been consigned to history – or indeed heritage, making appearances at vintage tractor events, but it would be good if its oil-age descendants could join it. I still hope and believe that alternative, equally innovative, but less polluting farming futures are possible.

Loch Hourn stone – witness to change

My third object is a stone. It looks like a piece of complicated layer cake. Some years ago, we were on a family holiday in Scotland, playing games in a wonderful rich geological landscape. On one loch beach, we each competed to find the ugliest stone, the silliest stone, the most deformed stone, the most regular stone, the most beautiful stone.

Loch Hourn stone
Photograph: Veronica Sekules © 2018

My 10 year-old son Jack’s stone won the prize as the most beautiful. It was the one we wanted to keep. So we put it in a really obvious place ready for when we returned, while we went round the bay to continue our walk. On our return, could we find it? It took two hours of painstaking, detailed, careful scrutiny. For, distinctive as it was, it blended perfectly back into its landscape.

Finally, in triumph, we found it and once again it seemed so obviously the best of stones. Subsequently, it has become a metaphor for us, both for beauty, and for ordinariness, for how something distinctive can blend into the norm.

It is now removed from its natural habitat, so it has become more of a heritage phenomenon. But equally, as a piece of metamorphic igneous rock and originally from deep inside the earth, it is witness to enormous change, to heaving movement of the planet more than 2,000 million years ago. It has endured long before human history, and the cousins of this stone remaining in the environment will continue to do so, imperceptibly changing, long after we have gone. So for me, as an object of the Anthropocene, it is all about a world which will outlive us, no matter what damage we effect.


Find out more

The life and work of Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179), Benedictine abbess, visionary, preacher, writer, composer and Saint, is explored in this Wikipedia page, and there is an interesting article by Mary Sharratt on Huffington Post, 8 reasons why Hildegard of Bingen matters now.

If you‘d like to know more about the innovation of the Massey Ferguson TE20, Farm Machinery website has a short article celebrating the 70th anniversary of the tractor that changed the world of agriculture. And taking the longer view, an episode of the BBC World Service series 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy discusses the impact of the Plough.

Among the wealth of stone-related materials you can find on the web (and the real things, outside your front door, on the beach, in the hills, fields or woods, and in town and city), BBC Radio 3’s The Essay recently broadcast Cornerstones, a series of five meditations on different stones around the UK from artists and researchers; and environmental humanist Jeffery Jerome Cohen has written Stone: an Ecology of the Inhuman (2015, Minnesota University Press). An excerpt – Geophilia, or the Love of Stone – is available at Continent.

You can read other contributions in the series at our page on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Each post in this series earns its author a copy of a book that’s 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. I’ll be revealing which book is heading Veronica’s way when I review it for ClimateCultures in the next few weeks.

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. 

Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects as a post. 

ClimateKeys – Moving Climate Conversations Centre Stage

— approx reading time: 11 minutes

Composer Lola Perrin returns to ClimateCultures with this round up of her own and many others' experiences of ClimateKeys - the major, global initiative she set up to bring together musicians, experts and audiences to engage in climate change conversations.

The latest ClimateKeys concert took place at the end of November in a candlelit art gallery under the arches in Waterloo as part of PowPowPower, a month-long series of arts events linked to climate change. Violin and cello duo, Fran & Flora, performed their virtuosic style of sonorous Eastern European folk music, at times bursting into truly beautiful acapella singing. Their set was followed with a talk by Nolan MacGregor whose premise was that the increasingly absurd system of commodity production is one of the chief factors in driving climate change. MacGregor then facilitated a conversation, with audience members sharing comments and ideas. Afterwards we were treated to a final piece of music before viewing the climate change art in the gallery and retiring to the bar where conversation about climate change, and the music, continued. 

Performers Fran & Flora with ClimateKeys guest speaker, Social Theorist Nolan MacGregor at PowPowPower

ClimateKeys is an initiative I founded that pairs concert musicians with climate change experts across the world to provide new opportunities for conversations. At the October gala launch in London ten pianists performed to a full house, with the music being interspersed with talks by Sir Jonathon Porritt, the Truth about Zane campaign and Hannah van den Brul. During October and November thirty-three concerts took place in nine countries. The speakers were scientists, policy experts, physicians, economists, radio journalists, legal experts, ecologists, psychologists and other specialists, all giving talks within the setting of a concert performance. Comments, photos, videos have been coming in to give a snapshot view of the concerts, for example;

“The audience members really wanted to talk and learn, and the discussion lasted longer than I thought it would … for me personally, this was incredibly rewarding.” (Political Science Professor Matt Hoffmann, who collaborated with pianist Erika Crino in Toronto.)

“Helping spark discussion and lay the foundation for civic engagement among my peers tonight made me feel like I was making a tangible difference in the world.” (Caroline, performer and audience member at a Syracuse University London ClimateKeys concert.)

“It’s important to think, talk and do something for future generations. The unusual blend of music and ecology is a good environment to make the audience think about climate change, everyday local problems (plastic bags, biodiesel, heating …). Thanks to ClimateKeys we have this wonderful collaboration of our Music and Technical Schools.” (Speaker Jovanka Vicentic, Ecology teacher, who collaborated with young pianists in Serbia.)

“One audience question was on how prepared we should be to compromise. If we choose to be vegan, does that mean we can continue to fly around the world?” (Extract from description of the conversation at Cynefin’s concert in London with guest speaker Julia Marques, climate change dramatist.)

“The general manager from the venue was very happy too and was also interested in more projects with us.” (Pianist Neslihan Schmidt, who performed with Dr Andrzej Ancygier in Berlin.)

Pianist composer Marija Ligeti Balint’s ClimateKeys concert in Pancevo, Serbia made the pages of local newspaper Pancevac, 17th November 2017

Excitingly, musicians responded in ways I hadn’t anticipated; creating inspired programmes around what climate change means to them and choosing works reflecting nature, the chaos of climate change and the constancy of the Holocene. Composer Alexander Schwarzkopf was inspired to complete and perform his work Liquid Piano, which “investigates evaporation, drought, flood, frost, birdsong and imaginary radio waves from outer space. Repetition is an important element of these compositions as it is integral to the processes of the natural and manmade world.”  Liquid Piano caught the imagination of local news media and triggered further climate change discussions.

New work is also emerging from the concerts. Florida ClimateKeys speaker, physician Dr John Strasswimmer, who collaborated with Duo Gastesi-Bezerra and artist Justin Guariglia, produced an imaginative video in response to both ClimateKeys and his research using spectroscopy.

Opportunities to imagine, to begin talking

The ClimateKeys concept grew out of my ninth suite, Significantus, for piano, a guest speaker (who gives a talk on positive response to climate change) and a conversation with the audience. Climate Outreach founder George Marshall kindly brainstormed with me and told me that “two thirds of people who are asked when they last had a conversation about climate change say they’ve never had a conversation about climate change.” This made me think that moving the conversation into the centre of whatever we do in life is vital, so I moved it into the centre of my concerts. I’ve been performing Significantus since September 2016 and have collaborated so far with nearly twenty speakers, reached around 600 audience members and possibly created over 1,500 conversations due to the ripple effect. Now that other musicians are using that same concert formula in ClimateKeys, many hundreds more climate conversations are taking place than I alone can achieve. 

ClimateKeys talks are given without projections or PowerPoint presentations, leaving the imagination free to roam. The audience may get a surge of images running through their minds, perhaps the lobster with a Pepsi logo tattoo, or the plastic islands in the seas, or the recent fire in California that burned an area larger than the size of New York City, or the millions of homeless Bangladeshis wading through floodwaters, or shrinking, low lying coastlines in the global South, or oil spills in Dakota, or Black Friday over-consumption, or Chinese smog, or children in the Democratic Republic of Congo mining minerals for our smartphones … the list goes on. Such overwhelm can create a catatonia, but the job of the guest speaker is to negotiate around our potential stupor and suggest positive directions in which to engage; for example, revising our rate of meat consumption, or re-designing our economy so that we live within nature and not at its expense, or putting renewable energy into place in developing nations to fight poverty without increasing warming emissions, or the role of digital innovation in environmental justice, or lobbying politicians around carbon pricing … The speaker synopses on the ClimateKeys website give an overview of the talks.    

“Fremd” (strange)
Exhibited at PowPowPower, London, November 2017
Artist: Frederik Marks © 2017

In every corner of the global effort is a myriad of features, responses, ideas, solutions, proposals, foundations, experts, schemes, charities, activist groups. Each day, if we choose to seek it out, and especially by searching on social media, we see more analysis, more reports, more research papers, more conferences, more expertise, more comment. Navigating around increasing flows of information on climate change, choosing what to focus on, trying not to miss the glaringly important, attempting to marry big solutions with individual choices: it is complicated.  

ClimateKeys concerts are opportunities to practice talking – or in some cases, to begin talking – about climate change. The first wave of concerts was timed to take place during COP23, to raise public engagement with Bonn. To some extent this was successful as several concerts got  local newspaper, TV and  radio features, including front page coverage in Trump’s local paper, Palm Beach Daily News (I understand that he  does read this one!). It was noticeable that there was no coverage by the BBC and UK press, despite numerous efforts. Two ClimateKeys speakers were COP23 delegates; Banja Luka’s Professor Goran Trbic and Berlin’s Dr Andrzej Ancygier.

Local coverage by the Palm Beach Daily News, 4th November 2017

Necessary, desirable and achievable

Ancygier is a policy analyst and a contributor to a new report, 2020 The Climate Turning Point, which took centre stage at COP23. I watched the livestream from the session, 2020: The necessary, desirable and achievable turning point to safeguard our climate. Chaired by Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, heavyweight panelists Christiana Figueres (former UNFCCC Executive Secretary), Johan  Rockström (Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre), Hans Joachim Schnellnhuber (founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research), and Kevin Anderson (Chair of Energy and Climate Change at the Tyndall Centre), made presentations on how, if global CO2 emissions continue to rise beyond 2020, or even remain level, the temperature commitments set in Paris and the Sustainable Development Goals the world agreed to in 2015 become unattainable. The speakers agreed on outcomes although there was some disagreement on methodology. Good questions came from the audience and online viewers.

I recommend watching this session in its entirety (see link below). But to briefly summarise the ten-minute presentations: 
  • Figueres spoke of 2020 being a critical turning point in which we reach peak emissions and thereafter drive emissions into a steadily descending curve to avoid a much steeper rate of reductions later on. In this latter scenario, the curve will look more like a cliff edge and in such a speedy transition society would not be able to support citizens; numerous, sudden job losses would make for social upheaval and unrest. Although she actively engages with an increasing number of corporations, not enough businesses currently work from this perspective.  
  • Anderson argued for mitigation (emissions reduction) to become a COP focus through the top 10% of individual emitters in the world (climatologists are in this 10%) reducing their emissions to the level of the average European and thereby lowering global carbon emissions by 33% straight away. He believes COP itself should “lead by example” and reduce its own footprint. Anderson suggested that the requirement of a zero carbon energy system is a lower total energy consumption (or ‘smart 21st Century energy use’ as Zero Carbon Britain describes this), and so fundamental systemic change is needed in which we all must start playing our part now.
  • Rockström detailed clear technological steps to keeping within the 1.5°C limit, and argued for the removal of fossil fuel subsidies as an immediate priority.
  • Schnellnhuber suggested new private-public partnerships to fund the transition away from employment in dirty energy, proposing that money in tax havens be put to better use and liberated into new investments in clean energy. Schnellnhuber is an adviser to Chancellor Angela Merkel and so it’s revealing to think that this type of debate might be happening in the German government.

Repeated themes ran through the session; “it’s all about Time”, “don’t be late”, “we’ve known what it is we must do”, “we’re saying we must start doing this by 2020”, and “the procrastination must stop.” So, what will happen if, despite COP outcomes, the procrastination does not stop?

Taking on procrastination

Shortly after signing the Paris Agreement in 2015, in a gut-wrenching moment, British Prime Minister David Cameron slashed subsidies for solar panels. In the Budget right after this year’s COP and its focus on the year 2020, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond announced tax incentives prolonging North Sea oil and gas investment. A month earlier, Brazil announced it was proposing a bill to give subsidies worth $300 billion to oil companies to drill off its shores. Given that the clear message from Bonn is that emissions need to peak two years from now and then go into a steady decline of 6% per year to stay under the carbon budget and have the chance of meeting the 1.5°C limit by mid-century, we don’t have time to sit around just in case, miraculously, in the next twenty-four months, the required amount of political will somehow shows up.  

When political processes fail, the next step is to turn to the law. Perhaps that next step has already arrived. More and more, we see litigation around the world: the UK government being sued for illegal pollution levels; the US government for stealing a stable climate from American teenagers; 47 countries for not protecting Portuguese schoolchildren from climate change. In a brand new case, Plan B (co-founded by a former government lawyer) is suing the UK government for climate inaction, in a move that has recently drawn support from leading doctors who published a letter in the British Medical Journal on 7th December 2017. Helpfully, Plan B has also made its website into a source of litigation information for the international community. And at the Cambridge Literary Festival in November, ClientEarth founder James Thornton spoke of how the Chinese government is currently training lawyers to sue the Chinese government (yes, you read that correctly!) if it doesn’t meet its own targets.   

The day after the M2020 presentation in Bonn, climatologist and founder of the innovative televised Global Weirding series Katharine Hayhoe was in conversation with George Marshall at University Church of St Mary in Oxford. Hayhoe was there to talk about her work communicating climate change to ‘dismissers’ (her preferred term for deniers) in the heartland of Republican Texas. I attended and was glad to bump into fellow ClimateCultures member, author Deborah Tomkins, as well as Cardiff ClimateKeys speaker, environmental psychologist Dr Stuart Capstick. Deborah and I had a conversation a few days later. We discovered we’d both been inspired by Hayhoe’s account of having been invited to present a one-hour talk to an oil company in Texas; after two and a half hours they still didn’t want to let her go, asking what they should do to become part of the solution rather than remain part of the problem.

This Texan tale, along with the need to stop the political procrastination and immediately remove fossil fuel subsidies described by the panel at COP23, and the role of litigation are four guides to lead my development of ClimateKeys into 2018.

Moving out of the concert hall

After such a strong start, courtesy of the many musicians and speakers who gave concerts in October and November, ClimateKeys is set to carry on initiating more such collaborations in 2018. However it was always the plan, once ClimateKeys was established, to add new types of concerts. Inviting musicians with portable instruments means that concerts can be performed anywhere, not just in music spaces. This has started to happen quite naturally, for example with musicians such as Fran & Flora performing ClimateKeys in an art gallery. So, why not follow Hayhoe’s lead and aim for a concert in the Shell Building in collaboration with their Chief Climate Change Advisor, perhaps with a performance by a string quartet? Or in Tesco’s head office with their packaging planners? Or at the British Museum in partnership with board members to discuss fossil fuel subsidies, their own link with the industry, and climate change? Perhaps such cultural events are opportunities for new leaders to emerge within companies, and this will inspire new collaborations with ClimateKeys.

ClimateKeys at Syracuse University London, 14th November 2017

It’s widely recognised how the activities of the high carbon world cause climate change and how the impacts are greater on the low carbon world. Tragically, recent statistics suggest that around four environmental defenders in indigenous regions are killed each week. When Pope Francis states in his Encyclical that we “have to save Creation”, he is surely including those courageous activists standing up to the causes of climate change and being killed in the process. All who are standing up, from the indigenous defenders, to the Pope, to treehouse dwellers in Germany preventing an expansion of lignite mining, to Mary Robinson and the M2020 panelists, to school children taking governments to court, to authors of climate change novels, to climatologists speaking to communities, all are in the same wide mass movement I increasingly see as a form of international service (that I, for one, wish was compulsory). ClimateKeys hopes to play a part in bringing more corporations to this service. They are urgently needed.

Find out more

You can catch up with the speaker synopses and other news from the performances so far, and with new developments, at the ClimateKeys site.

There is a video from the ClimateKeys concert in Istanbul on 14th November, where guest speaker Ömer Madra, former lecturer of humanitarian law and co-founder of Açık Radyo” (Open Radio), said “As an academic, a writer, a broadcaster and a grandfather, I humbly feel that it is my utmost duty to ‘take arms against a sea of troubles’ and fight with this ‘ultimate absurdity’ to the end. This is the demand which originates from the responsibility of the intellectual.” Pianist Birsen Ulucan said “The people who surround me in Istanbul, where I will perform ClimateKeys, are not actually aware of the consequences of climate change.” 

Check out PowPowPower for more on their recent climate change arts events.

You can read about the Truth about Zane campaign, which is calling for an Independent Panel Inquiry into the death of 7 year old Zane during the February 2014 floods in Surrey, UK, and to protect the public.

You can watch the video of the COP23 seminar, 2020: the necessary, desirable and achievable turning point to safeguard our climate, on the Uppsala Centre for Sustainable Development website – and read about and download the 2020: The Climate Turning Point report at the M2020 site.

You can read about Plan B and their actions to sue the UK government, as well as other legal actions and resources, at the Plan B site. There is an article, Leading doctors back legal action to force UK government to cut carbon emission, at the website of the British Medical Journal.

Katharine Hayhoe’s TV series is available on the Global Weirding YouTube channel, and you can watch a film of Katharine talking with George Marshall at the ClimateOutreach site – where, of course, there is loads more about COP23 and communicating climate change.

Visit the Palm Beach Daily News site for their coverage of ClimateKeys – as possibly read by Donald Trump. The article states that “the concert ties in with Earth Works: Mapping the Anthropocene, an exhibition featuring works that evolved from artist Justin Brice Guariglia’s flights over Greenland with NASA scientists studying the effect of melting glaciers on sea level rise” and that local ClimateKeys presenter Dr John Strasswimmer “is a dermatologist who is researching a tool that could be used to detect skin cancer using spectroscopy, a technology employed by NASA to measure the contents of the Earth’s atmosphere.”

The Guardian reports on Environmental defenders being killed in record numbers globally and you can watch a film, “Keep It in the Ground”: As COP23 Ends, Activists Protest at Europe’s Largest Open-Pit Coal Mine, at the Democracy Now website.

The full text of Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Laudato ‘Si, is available at the Vatican site.

Questioning Venue? Space for creative thinking...  

Where would you take ClimateKeys to engage a new audience? Be specific -- choose your venue. Would it be at a company, a council, a call centre, a cultural hub, or a countryside location? And who would be your local expert, and your preferred musician?

Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link!