A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #1

I set 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'. Here is my personal contribution to a History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

“The Anthropocene – the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated – has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you?”

Here is my personal contribution to a History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects

From the here and now …

I’d booked ahead for a B&B, so my only task here was to trawl leaflets and maps and get some local tips. Although it was the Easter holidays and as busy as I’d expected, two advisers were free, chatting behind the counter. Both turned to help me as I approached.

“I’d like to see the Scallop,” I said. “I know it’s on the beach; which direction from here?” 

I’d not expected this to open up an argument in a Tourist Information Centre, even a good-humoured one. But, smiling, the woman immediately responded.

”Oh, don’t start your visit with that. It’s very unpopular around here!”

I’d hardly had time to wonder if this was an unusual tack from someone paid to promote the local sights when the man butted in, equally cheery.

“Don’t listen! Lots of people love it, and not just tourists. I think it’s wonderful.” 

It was maybe unwise to reveal that Maggi Hambling’s famous sculpture was the main reason I was visiting the town, or that I’d heard it had helped “put Aldeburgh on the map”, but I think I said something along those lines. I’d already heard that this very public artwork had divided opinion quite starkly; that was part of its attraction for me, although from photographs I already knew which camp I was going to be in. As I discovered, however, the photographs don’t do Scallop justice. Its setting does (and is repaid in kind). Being in its presence was to experience very direct communication with both environment and history, and an unsettling encounter with the future.

Aldeburgh, like many Suffolk coastal settlements, has been disappearing from the map for centuries. On my way from Tourist Centre to Scallop that morning in 2007, I also had my first encounter with the town’s 16th century Moot Hall. Once both the geographical and political centre of the town, this is now right up against the beach. All the streets and buildings on its eastern side have long gone, the sea moving in by stages over the centuries. Where Maggi Hambling’s massive, 4 metre high stainless steel seashell stands might once have been fields; now it’s shingle. 

Aldeburgh is famous as the home of composer Benjamin Britten and the annual music festival he founded there in 1948. Scallop, a tribute to him and his legacy, is also testimony to coastal changes that have sculpted Aldeburgh. Britten’s opera Peter Grimes tells the story of a fisherman, the deaths of his apprentices at sea and his own stormy fate. It’s based on a 19th century poem cycle, The Borough, by George Crabbe. Carved into the giant metal shell – actually cut right through it, so the sky writes the words through the absence within the solid matter – is one line from the opera: “I hear those voices that will not be drowned.” 

Scallop, by Maggi Hambling, on Aldeburgh beach.
“I hear those voices that will not be drowned.”
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe, © 2014

Every time I see these words on my visits to Scallop or in my photographs of it, it has the same cold-heat effect on my scalp. 

The coast-eroding waters have taken so many lives, but still we are here. Part of the flux, and subject to it, we’re drowned in a natural history that’s also, increasingly, made by our species. The fears and anxieties that coastal change brings can split communities from each other and from the institutions charged with planning for the impacts of future change: landowners, heritage bodies, councils, coastal agencies, government departments. The divided response to Scallop somehow exemplifies this ever-present potential for conflict over our local places, and (evoked in the words cut through solid matter) conflict over our national responses to refugees from climate impacts around the world.

‘For Maggi Hambling, the phrase has universal significance: “”We all have voices inside us all the time, whether we’re awake or asleep.” She wants those visiting Scallop to “contemplate the horizon and the movement of the waves, and have a conversation not only with the sea but also with themselves. To listen to their own voices.”‘ – Text on Scallop from website of the Britten-Pears Foundation

Scallop therefore continues to resonate, ten years on from my first encounter. We’re able to experience the lives of others in distant times or places – to ‘undrown’ and hear their voices – through our inner voices and empathies. 

Through the Great Acceleration

When did the Anthropocene begin? The candidates for ‘trigger point’ cover such a broad expanse of our species’ time – from Neolithic Revolution 8,000 years ago to Industrial Revolution 250 years ago and its Great Acceleration in the 20th century, to the widespread nuclear weapons testing of the Cold War – that we have the luxury of choosing our own personal start-point. My choice goes back to the early 17th century: the onset of significant European expansion around the world and the scale of species changes this brought. The diversity of plants, animals and microbes introduced ‘over there’ or brought back ‘home’ — and the species lost – had direct and permanent impacts on humans and others across entire continents, as future archaeologists will know even if the historical accounts we have don’t survive. 

But my chosen object for ‘Anthropocene Past’ doesn’t date from so long ago. The first technology for recording sound was the phonautograph, patented in 1857. Although its recordings could not be played back, an 1860 phonautogram of Au Clair de La Lune was finally heard for the first time in 2008. I’m intrigued that this first replay of the first recording leapfrogged the entire 20th century; the century that made mass recording and consumption of sounds possible and enabled cultural forms that have enriched billions of lives over that time. As with other technologies of capitalism’s Great Acceleration, this benefit comes at its own costs in materials, habitats, energy, waste and pollution. It possibly facilitates other impacts and makes it easier to ignore them: with so much recorded sound within instant reach, not only does it add to the incessant ‘anthrophony’ surrounding us; it masks the erosion of the remaining ‘biophony’, seemingly ‘compensating’ us (but not the other species) for that loss. For me, this complex mix of pluses and minuses hints at the wider Wicked Problem of the Anthropocene.

And my actual object? In 1945 British engineer Marie Killick patented Sapphox, the first truly reusable stylus for playing gramophone records. The innovation of a bevelled flat with sapphire tip made it possible to ride the groove without wearing away either the record surface or the stylus itself. Before this, the gramophone stylus was essentially a ‘one use’ technology that soon became unusable as it wore away. Now a disposable item became a lasting one, produced far superior sound quality and was safer to use with the discs. This must have been part of what made the mass production and enjoyment of records possible after the Second World War. Led Zeppelin wouldn’t have been possible without it! But modern audio technologies, including records, cassettes, CDs and mp3s, have played their part in spreading not only music and spoken word but also the learning of languages and enjoyment of natural soundscapes from around the world, and from the past. Sapphox represents this progress, but also some of the pitfalls of the age.

Killick’s Sapphox – sales pamphlet
Text by Killick & Company, 1946
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe, 2017

I’m unavoidably biased in my choice, however; Marie Killick was my grandmother. I never met her. Born in 1914, Marie died the year I was born, 1964. Her patent was infringed and, although she won a famous court case, the infringement and the battle for justice left her impoverished and in ill health. After many years of dodgy dealings by her industrial opponents, she was forced into bankruptcy before the damages from her court victory could be awarded. ‘My’ object for our ‘Anthropocene Past’ therefore has many nuanced associations with my own life as well with the stories of the unfolding Age of Human.

And into the dark 

My choice of ‘Anthropocene Future’ object perhaps seems to bend a rule, because the thing itself is current, not something originating in the future. But I’m imagining it at some future time, an uncertain number of decades or centuries away, and at barely imaginable distances from where it started. Already, it’s so remote that for almost all of the tiny proportion of humanity that’s even aware of it, it’s practically an object only of our imaginations.

In 1977, NASA launched two Voyager spacecraft on journeys that would eventually take them out of the Solar System. 40 years on, Voyager 1 has passed that particular environmental boundary and is headed on into deep space and deep time. Voyager 2, not far behind, is yet to emerge from the outer edges of the heliosphere, where the solar wind is slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas.

Both Voyagers carry a specially commissioned gold-plated gramophone record and a stylus (descendant of sorts of Sapphox), in the hope that if any extraterrestrials ever encounter it they might decode the instructions and play the sounds and images of Earth, human and more-than-human.

“The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilisations in interstellar space. But the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet.” – Carl Sagan, Astrophysicist & member of the Voyager team

Or perhaps the aliens will just eat it. But in a sense it’s human thought that has gone with the lifeless spacecraft, and maybe there are other thoughts out there that can connect with it, thousands of years from now, light-years from here. Will we still be here, then? Will the other species captured on the discs?

The Voyager Golden Record
© NASA/JPL-Caltech
Further info: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/voyager/index.html

The future I’m imagining for the Golden Records is not an alien discovery, or what birdsong and human voices might mean to them, but a future where those recorded sounds are the last to escape from Earth. Not because of a final holocaust or natural cataclysm that might wipe us out, but because at some point humanity might well switch off the technology that has indiscriminately been broadcasting our signals into the universe. Signals that were only ever intended for us – radio and TV shows and adverts from the Great Acceleration – have been radiating outwards for the past 70 years, ever since Earth went ‘radio bright’. For everything else out there (and down here), our radio signals are just another form of pollution. At some time, when inefficient technology is superseded, this expanding signal sphere will start to hollow out at its core and a second, more subdued sphere of more-or-less radio silence will grow outwards into the polluted zone. Our radio brightness will go dark again. No doubt by then we’ll have new, more interesting ways of making our presence known. But at the moment that the inner surface of the old radio sphere passes the two probes, the Voyager Golden Records will for the first time be surrounded by an unhuman quiet, and the discs will remain to be decoded. 

“This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” – President Jimmy Carter’s printed message on the Voyager spacecraft.

An Anthropocene timeline

I didn’t expect to pick three objects linked by sound. But the technologies for capturing the sounds of different cultures and times, and mixing these into a new, global mesh of music and learning; a seashell – long used by human ears to imagine a distant sea, and now also the voices of those who will not be drowned; the real voices of people and species frozen in time and cast off into the ultimate deeps; the fading echoes of human technologies broadcasting to the universe; these pick up one small thread among an infinity of possible timelines from whenever the stories of the Anthropocene began to wherever they go. 

Find out more:

A past

A Sound Revolution – By Cynthia Killick: a personal history of Marie Killick, her life and invention of Sapphox, her struggle and legacy.

Mega Invention 6 – The place of Sapphox in the history of inventions?

The Phonautograph – The history of the first known sound recording device. This article also has a sound file of the first phonautogram recording to be played back; although it maybe sounds more like a disgruntled bee than a human reading Au Clair de la Lune, it’s still remarkable to hear a voice from 1860.

A present

Aldeburgh Museum at the Moot Hall – The history of Aldeburgh

Maggi Hambling – her site and her work 

A future

Voyager 1 & 2 Missions – The history of the NASA mission, its discoveries and ongoing journey.

Voyager Golden Records – What is on those records?

 

Interstice # 1: An Excursion Between Culturing and Climate Change

The birdish metaphor stuck with me, and slipped into the cracks where I was busy dividing up 'culturing climate change' into wickedness, uncertainty and navigation.

(On interstices…

See Interstices of Things Ajar)

When metaphors take flight

When I reread Mike Hulme’s article Why We Disagree About Climate Change for Part 1 of Culturing Climate Change, his repeated use of ‘circulating’ became ‘circling’. Memory carrying me to buzzards circling over my local woods quickly triggered an image of a bird high above a group of desert exiles. Oblivious, the humans are trapped in arguments about where they are, how they got lost and which way to go. A second bird joins the first. More gather, their shadows crossing and recrossing below. The arguing wanderers don’t notice until their patch of land is completely shadowed. Circling, birds wait for humans to … what? Fight themselves into extinction? Give in to weakness and fatigue? Finally act together? Fanciful, but the birdish metaphor stuck with me, and slipped into the cracks where I was busy dividing up ‘culturing climate change’ into wickedness, uncertainty and navigation.

These associations play off my fascination with a reference to ravens in Anticipatory History – a creative glossary on landscape and wildlife change. In one entry, Birds, writer and radio producer Tim Dee evokes the nearly supernatural skills that the power of flight gives birds in many of our myths:

“Two ravens tumble from the sky cronking and surfing towards the shoulders of Odin, the man-god. One is called Hugin, the other Munin. One whispers into Odin’s ears what it has seen; the other, what is to come. They fly with the world’s past and its future held in their black eyes. Later, ravens were thought able to predict the outcome of a battle because of their uncanny habit – it seemed – of coming around armies waiting to fight. How did they know? We read them as able to foretell what was to come; in fact, they read us based on their knowledge of how things had been in the past.”

Appearing in the 13th century Norse Poetic Edda, Hugin translates as “thought”, Munin as “memory”: twin abilities (or afflictions), bringing both futures and pasts into mind. Such troubling powers, perhaps, that myth puts distance between them and mere humans, gifting them instead to gods and animals…

Raven Banner
Artist: Skydrake 2014
Public Domain: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raven_banner#/media/File%3ARaven_Banner.svg

Over the next few days, birds kept cropping up. Browsing the BBC archives for late night listening, I found Radio 3’s Is Birdsong Music? What is the relationship between what the 4,000-or-so species of songbirds produce and what we think of as music? Are they ‘simply’ speaking, or actually singing? As presenter Tom Service says, “This is all territory that skirts boundaries of language, music and anthropomorphic wish fulfilment.” Many composers have tried to capture the sound of birdsong in musical notation; an attempted translation that’s doomed to fail, but fails beautifully. Birdsong is too fast, too high and uses notes that don’t exist on anyone’s piano, operating “in a different scale of time and meaning than any humanly produced system of sounds, whether we’re taking about music or language.” Meanwhile, in 1889, 8 year old Ludwig Koch recorded his pet Indian Shama onto a wax cylinder: 128 year old birdsong.

The Great Animal Orchestra by sound recordist Bernie Krause has featured as Book of the Week on Radio 4. He chronicles how human sound (anthrophony) drowns out the biophony and geophony of the (rest of the) natural world. Maybe a small part of that deluge is recordings of long-dead birds… Krause also appears in Is Birdsong Music?, explaining how we should always hear the sounds of any species in the context of what else is going on in the local soundscape: “birds fill the niches left empty by other species in that particular habitat … where there’s no other acoustical territory being occupied by other creatures.” He suggests that humans learned the art of orchestration from the structure of sounds in the animal world, where each species has to find its niche in the overall “animal orchestra”: Nature as “proto-orchestra.”

He was there again, in The Listeners, a series about people whose professional lives revolve around listening. Krause’s work reveals a different facet to extinction than ‘simply’ eradicating the species: “Of the 4,500 hours of marine and terrestrial habitats that I have recorded, 50% are altogether silent or can no longer be heard in their original form.”

In Raven, presenter Brett Westwood and bird rearer Lloyd Buck go blackberrying with Brann the raven. Lloyd takes Brann for a flight every day and likens him to a “flying dog”. In the Mabinogion, Bran The Blessed, a Celtic king associated with ravens, was killed by invaders and his head buried on a hill, facing south to defend the land from further invaders. Clearly, he fell asleep on the job, as that hill became the site for the Norman invaders’ White Tower, the Tower of London. Bran’s association with ravens has led to the legend that if they ever disappear from the Tower, England will fall (a legend revisited in White Ravens, a Second World War re-interpretation of the Mabinogion tale from novelist and poet Owen Sheers).

Raven also told how when sound recordist Chris Watson saw a woodcut of Odin in Reykjavik’s Sagas Museum, there were Hugin and Munin on the Raven God’s shoulders, whispering in his ears. Remembering his own encounters with the call-and-response of roosting ravens, he says “I was struck by what I’d heard in that forest in North Wales, because I really felt as if I’d heard some of these conversations that Hugin and Munin must have had with Odin in the halls of Valhalla.” Watson later created a raven-based sound installation, Hrafn: Conversations with Odin, in Northumberland’s Kielder Forest: a twenty channel speaker system in the forest canopy. When he led his audience through the darkening forest to hear the sound of 2,000 ravens returning to roost, everyone was silent, the ravens’ conversations with their god the only sound.

Psychologist, and Scientist in Residence with the Rambert dance company, Nicky Clayton studies how ravens and other corvids “think in terms of movement rather than words.” She’s interested in the ‘mental time travel’ abilities of Hugin and Munin:

“the ability to remember the past and to think about the future. So you could see this as being memory and forethought. You might think that these are different skills but actually the two are interlinked. Specifically, our ability to remember the past, to project oneself in time to remember what happened where and when, that kind of memory really evolved for the future. So these are memories of the future, memories of tomorrow, and that’s why they’re linked to forethought. Ravens and corvids in general have absolutely stunning memories of past events, and they are one of the few animals other than us who are known to be capable of forethought, of being able to plan ahead.” – Nicky Clayton

But ravens can’t remember everything. They cache many small food hoards across their territories, to return to when food is scarce. But some is never recovered, and seeds take root. In Corvids Could Save Forests From the Effects of Climate Change, journalist and fiction writer Annalee Newitz summarises recent research on how this rather haphazard behaviour might help forests survive climate change, given the inconvenient fact that trees can’t up sticks and move themselves. “Over millennia of evolution, this arrangement has become mutually beneficial” and now conservationsts make use of this ‘ecological silviculture’; encouraging corvids to cache seeds in areas needing reforestation.

“Corvids have unwittingly become a key part of a virtuous cycle. By planting seeds, they lay the groundwork for entire ecosystems. Many plants thrive in the shade offered by trees like oaks and pines, and animals flock to the area as well. Finally, forest floors are excellent carbon sinks. Scatter-hoarding corvids are, in fact, guardians of the forest – or, as the researchers put it, geoengineers.” – Annalee Newitz

When I started seeing birds circling in my mind, I was thinking back (and ahead) to Hugin and Munin and their ability to help Odin navigate past and future. Ever since I first read Anticipatory History, this has struck me as a hopeful metaphor for our potential to cast ourselves back and forth in time and geography, to imagine ourselves beyond the impossibilities of climate change. So it was a natural bridge between the Wicked Problems of Part 1 of Culturing Climate Change and what was going to be Part 2: Navigating Complexities. Somewhere in my nighttime podcasting, I’d heard someone mention that Vikings used ravens to guide their ships far from shore: birds as real navigational aid(e)s, not simply metaphorical ones. But, listening again while I made my notes, I’ve failed to find this reference. Maybe I saw it somewhere else, or dredged up some other association, or just missed it on the second hearing? Memory has let me down, appropriately enough. But Wikipedia did offer a brief reference; Flóki Vilgerðarson, the first Norseman to (deliberately) sail to Iceland, took three ravens with him. When the first flew back to the Faroes, Flóki knew he wasn’t yet halfway. The second bird circled and returned to the ship. When the third raven headed northwest and didn’t come back, Flóki followed it to Iceland.

The search for whatever reference I’d heard before but missed second time got me slightly lost in my thoughts on navigation. But this did help me see that in fact it’s the uncertainty that I need to address in the second part of the series. So, the birds got me somewhere…

Question:

No one said metaphors had to be cheery, but it must be possible to find ones that suggest better ways to see the issues and possible ways ahead. What metaphors do you tend to use for environmental or climate change or the Anthropocene? What new one can you suggest?

 

Find out more:

BBC Is Birdsong Music?  The Listening Service, Radio 3 19th June 2016

BBC The Listeners, Series 2 Episode 2, Radio 4 18th August 2014

BBC Raven – Natural Histories, Radio 4, 14th November 2016

Tim Dee – Birds, in Anticipatory History (edited by Caitlin deSilvey, Simon Naylor & Colin Sackett) Uniform Books 2011

Bernie Krause – The Great Animal Orchestra – Book of the Week, Radio 4 April 2012, rebroadcast on Radio 4 Extra February 2017

Annalee Newitz – Corvids could save forests from the effects of climate change, Ars Technica, 8th February 2016

Owen Sheers – White Ravens, Seren Books, 2009

Chris Watson – Hrafn: Conversations with Odin

Wikipedia – Bran the Blessed

Wikipedia – Flóki Vilgerðarson

Spaces for Joy and Grief

Our first Members' Post at ClimateCultures is from Laura Coleman at ONCA, on the two spaces in the world that she thinks about every day. 

There are two spaces in the world that I think about every day

The first is a small piece of the Bolivian jungle. I have watched it grow, flood, burn, and grow again. The creatures that live there – rescued, sheltered and cared for by Bolivian and international staff and volunteers – have, over the last ten years, threaded through me, to the point that I dream of them. There is one in particular, a puma. Her name is Wayra, and she is one of my closest friends.

Wayra, puma in the Bolivian jungle.
Photographer: Laura Coleman © 2017

The second space is a building, in Brighton, England. It has four floors, a basement and a cave (tunnel included). It has been a hairdresser’s, a Middle Eastern food store, a mod bar, an Internet café, and an empty shop. Five years ago, it became ONCA. ONCA is an arts and performance venue that I started after coming home from the jungle, having no clue what to do with the stories I found now sitting at the base of my stomach. I didn’t realise that ONCA would be radical, or important. I just wanted to find a way to tell stories like Wayra’s.

ONCA, Brighton.
Photographer: Debbie Bragg © 2017

Spaces for looking into the change

After five years, ONCA has developed a life of its own. It has become a beautiful venue, providing more support, solace and community than I could ever have imagined. That makes me proud, not proud to have had the idea but proud to have had the opportunity to watch it become what it has. Proud to be part of the community that has shaped it. Because I believe that spaces like ONCA are important. There are a few arts venues that are trying to acknowledge the urgency of the times that we live in, and attempting to provide a framework for creatively engaging with those times, and ONCA is one of them. ONCA was set up to explore and raise awareness of environmental issues through art, but since environmental change and human culture are so inextricably linked, we find ourselves exploring immigration, human health, happiness and economics, just as much as plastic pollution, flooding and species extinction.

‘Do You Speak Seagull?’ – Private View of an exhibition at ONCA, November 2016
Photographer: Laura Coleman © 2016

I have thought a lot about what arts venues need to, and can, be, since starting ONCA. So much so, I am now researching a PhD on the topic. Although they are worlds apart, quite literally, it is possible to find similarities between spaces like ONCA and spaces like the refuge I go to in Bolivia. One of things that ONCA does so crucially, I think, is embedded within our mission. We do nothing in the building, or outside it, that doesn’t touch on environmental and social urgencies. One of the major barriers to environmental communication is the ease with which we, as a society, look away from things like climate change. ONCA, by its very nature, looks – or at least we try to. We try to practice what Donna Haraway so eloquently calls ‘staying with the trouble’. “It is not possible,” she says, “to stay with the trouble among us without the practice of joy. That the practices of joyful, collective and individual pleasure are essential to the arts of living on a damaged planet.”

As is, simultaneously, grief. This is something that both she, and others like Joanna Macy for example, have argued for a long time. Staying with it then, through joy and grief both. This is what we try to do, at ONCA, through such arts as play, craft, enquiry, DIY ritual, dialogue and creative action.

What I found in the refuge in Bolivia, I believe, was similar. For whatever reason, I ended up spending a lot of my twenties all day, every day, in a very small piece of the Amazon rainforest, with a puma. Making sure that she, above all else, was as happy as she could be. And she wasn’t particularly happy most of the time, if I’m honest. She was scared and confused. Due to her history, she could never be released. She would always live in a cage, and she would always have to be dependant on people like me.

Despite that, she trusted me. She trusted me and even, at times I thought, was happy to have me around. Despite the fact that her life had been irrevocably damaged, when her mother was shot, when her trees were cut down, when her jungle burned, her capacity, I believe, to feel joy, and to bring joy to other lost ones like myself, was staggering. That, in turn, gave me a clue about how necessary it is to grieve for what she, and other creatures like her – humans included – have lost, and are losing every day.

Spaces for the joy and the grief

Spaces where the joy and the grief of this is made real, is made possible, is made communal, are so urgent. I don’t think it matters what kind of space – a little camp in the jungle for lost creatures, a bricks and mortar art gallery in central Brighton, an online blog, a community centre, a sports club, a church. As the earth seems to alter more rapidly each week, this is a cry to hold onto our spaces, and to create new ones, to step through the door, over the gate, across the river, into the screen, through the glitter curtain, and look our ruins honestly in the face.

I am about to go back to Bolivia for half a year. I am balancing the impact of the air miles with my need to see Wayra again. She was three when we met, she is thirteen now and getting older by the day. Before, I thought that being in Bolivia meant leaving ONCA behind. I don’t think this is the case anymore. ONCA and the jungle are two spaces, on opposite sides of the world. Somehow they have become entangled. I am not sure what this means yet, maybe I will never be sure. Maybe I’ll spend the next six months trying to find out.

Find out more

Find more about ONCA at www.onca.org.uk

For more than 20 years, Communidad Inti Wara Yassi in Bolivia has been working for the benefit of wildlife rescued from illegal trafficking, giving disadvantaged youth a sense of purpose through involvement with wildlife care, and educating the Bolivian public to respect wildlife. Find more about CIWY at www.intiwarayassi.org

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)