Super Wicked Problem – or, the Crisis Formerly Known as Climate

Farmer and author Paul Feather seeks the meaning of our planetary crisis, and names that can reflect its super wicked nature, in local spaces of resistance that serve as the wombs from which deeper understanding will be born.


2,000 words: approx reading time = 8 minutes


When we name our planetary crisis, it’s something like a birth. The problem is born into our dialogue and its umbilical cord is cut off from the organism that created it in the first place. When we name it the Climate Crisis, our dialogue is constrained by that name, and we respond to that crisis differently from a crisis named Runaway Capitalism or Mass Extinction. Even if we acknowledge that these other framings are relevant, naming the problem centers a particular way of thinking.

People have thrown names at the planetary crisis like it’s an indecisive couple’s new baby. We could call it the Anthropocene. And then there’s Patriarchy. How about Settler Colonialism, or maybe something with Justice in it? — so we sound woke. Sometimes I prefer broad, sweeping names like Polycrisis or Ontological Failure, but at the end of the day, we should probably admit we don’t really know what’s going on.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a science person. There’s a lot of carbon in the atmosphere; and while we can debate about where exactly to put the lines between species — there are about to be a lot fewer of them. These are things we can measure. But in between and all around the measurements there’s this thing that we’re all going through, and it’s hard to say exactly what it is.

So what shall we call this thing we have made together?

Super wicked problems - a more-then-climate crisis. Showing tree signs in Atlanta forest,Georgia, USA.
“Forest defense is self-defense.” Atlanta forest, Georgia, USA. Photograph: public domain.

Super wicked

In social planning, a wicked problem is one that defies solution because it is closely intertwined with other problems, and solutions are constrained by different stakeholders with different worldviews and values.1 Beginning in about 2007, people began to talk about the climate crisis as a ‘super wicked’ problem, because it had all these wicked traits of complexity and social divisiveness, and also additional difficulties presented by an urgent timeframe and by social injustice wherein the nations who have the most responsibility for climate change and the most power to affect it also have the least incentive to do so.2

There’s actually an added bit of complexity that this framework leaves out, because while it acknowledges that the legacies of colonialism and slavery have shaped the power structures that now make climate change ‘super wicked’, these scholars typically don’t question whether these power structures are the most useful tool for addressing the crisis.3 This is a social planning and social engineering approach: it’s easy to assume that something so big as climate change would have to be addressed by the multinational corporations and governments who hold the levers of power in our society.

In this respect, the wicked problem framework fails to address added epistemological and ontological legacies of colonialism (i.e. colonization of the mind) that have been explored by at least forty years of Western scholarship4 — and a far longer Indigenous awareness of that legacy — that implicate this rational, engineering-centered onto-epistemology with the origins and development of the global crisis.5 This added level of complexity questions the whole framing of the crisis as a problem in need of solutions, but fortunately rather than leaving us with ultra-wicked problems, it’s more like some of the variables cancel out, and things actually get simpler.

Baby gets a new name

If we acknowledge that social engineering is not really a viable approach — that not only do the complexity of the problem and unjust power relations (i.e. its super wicked nature) doom that strategy to failure, but that the whole engineering paradigm is built on colonial notions of power and control that further implicate us with the crisis — then the framing of the crisis changes. We are no longer invested in designing complex international legal interventions to bring down CO2 emissions, nor even controlling the power structures that would presumably do this. It’s not even clear that we’re still centering CO2, because coloniality of power and knowledge are now part of the dialogue. This new framing follows the umbilical cord of the climate crisis to better integrate the origins of that crisis: the baby gets a new name.

When we stop trying to engineer our way out of wicked problems, and when we frame the crisis to include coloniality of power and knowledge, we become participants in the crisis rather than the detached observers that engineers must always be. We are no longer debating how to optimize the behavior of billions of (other) people to soften ecological collapse; but rather asking, how do I personally respond to a crisis formerly known as climate change that increasingly defines the human experience?

This does not mean that our response is a solo act unconstrained by social norms and arising purely from personal experience. On the contrary, there is a great deal of meaning to be found by interacting with communities that are already establishing social norms that oppose the systems of power that continually enact the ongoing crisis.

Communities of resistance

Showing a sign in Atlanta forest, Georgia: "You are now leaving the USA."
Atlanta forest, Georgia – “You are now leaving the USA.” Photograph: Paul Feather © 2022

My personal experience is that communities who actively challenge the dominant systems of power and knowledge arise from local resistance movements. In my own search for meaning, I have found the most clarity of purpose when participating in defense of specific places and people from equally specific governments and corporations. I believe that these spaces of resistance are the wombs from which a deeper understanding — even potentially a name — for our crisis will be born.

I have most recently spent time in the Atlanta forest, where a community of forest defenders has been enacting an abolitionist society without police for over a year. This community implicitly rejects a socially engineered response to the more-than-climate crisis, because individual autonomy is a central value. This is both a strategy to ensure group security in a community that is consistently under attack, but also an anarchist conflation of ends and means wherein the resistance community is structured to reflect the values of the society we aspire to create.6 Nonetheless, even in such a community there are obvious social norms and expectations that constrain individual action — and, for me, development and understanding of those norms is arguably as important as defending the forest: they are one and the same. This experiment in abolitionist society has been consistently attacked: at this writing about twenty people have been arrested and charged with domestic terrorism, and one forest defender has been killed by police. The violent suppression of this movement is an unfortunate testament to its success and potential.

Previous conflicts have illuminated connections between power, policing, and climate: as for instance in the brutally repressed resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline,7 or Enbridge Line Three.8 In the Atlanta forest, these connections between hegemonic power and the more-than-climate crisis are particularly transparent. The forest is a key safeguard against climate instability for local communities, and the underlying conflict threatening the forest is the city’s agenda to expand policing with an immense new training center. This unique pairing of threats (climate and policing) explicitly connects climate agendas with abolitionist narratives that some scholars are already integrating into mainstream environmental justice dialogues.9 Finally, the movement’s centering of the site’s history and removal of the Creek/Muskogee Nation in the 1800s followed by forced labor on the Old Atlanta Prison Farm explicitly synthesizes decolonial, abolitionist, and mainstream environmental justice narratives. This ‘perfect storm’ of issues, place, and history situates Defend Atlanta Forest to make unique and lasting contributions to our mutual understanding of power, coloniality, and crisis.

Showing Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, who was killed while opposing the Atlanta forest police training facility.
Manuel Esteban Paez Terán was killed while opposing the Atlanta forest police training facility. Photograph: public domain.

The climate crisis is real, but it is exceedingly abstract. It does not feel easy for individual humans to find a meaningful response to this super wicked global problem. It lives in the atmosphere or in tiny molecules of CO2. It does not have a place. It is not a useful concept for orienting ourselves or making individual decisions — and in that sense it is almost meaningless.

Places like the Atlanta forest are the crucibles where people and movements spill over into each other and where new movements and new meanings are born.10 We participate in this process — and to some extent we do shape it — but our understanding and language is equally shaped by the places themselves as they are uniquely situated in history and space. If we will find our way through these confusing times, we will need simple answers to wicked problems; and we will find them in the trees, in the deserts, on city streets. We will find them where other seekers have gathered to fight for something meaningful together and in doing so to create a community bound by something that no amount of policing can destroy.


References

  1. Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973) Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155–169.
  2. Levin, K., Cashore, B., Bernstein, S., & Auld, G. (2007) Playing it forward: Path dependency, progressive incrementalism, and the ‘‘super wicked’’ problem of global climate change. Paper presented at International studies association convention, Chicago, Il, February 28th–March 3.
  3. For example, see Lazarus, R. J. (2008) Super wicked problems and climate change: Restraining the present to liberate the future. Cornell L. Rev., 94, 1153. Although Sun, J., & Yang, K. (2016) The wicked problem of climate change: A new approach based on social mess and fragmentation. Sustainability, 8(12), 1312 does make some gestures toward less engineering-oriented approaches.
  4. e.g. counting from Wa Thiong’o, N. (1986) Decolonising the mind: The politics of language in African literature (republished 1991 East African Publishers). See also a decent literature review in Clement, V. (2019), Beyond the sham of the emancipatory Enlightenment: Rethinking the relationship of Indigenous epistemologies, knowledges, and geography through decolonizing paths. Progress in Human Geography, 43(2), 276-294.
  5. Davis, H., & Todd, Z. (2017) On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 2017, 16(4): 761-780.
  6. Land C and King D (2014) Organizing otherwise: translating anarchism in a voluntary sector organization. Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organisation 14 (4): 923-950.
  7. Burrell M, Grosse C and Mark B (2022), Resistance to petro-hegemony: A three terrains of power analysis of the Line 3 tar sands pipeline in Minnesota. Energy Research & Social Science 91
  8. Mittal P (2021) Extraction, Indigenous Dispossession and State Power: Lessons from Standing Rock and Wet’suwet’en Resistance. The Arbutus Review 12(1): 121-141.
  9. Pellow D N (2017) What is Critical Environmental Justice? Cambridge: Polity, and also Menton M, Larrea C, Latorre S, Martinez-Alier J, Peck M, Temper L, and Walter M (2020) Environmental justice and the SDGs: from synergies to gaps and contradictions. Sustainability Science 15: 1621–1636
  10. Perkins T (2021) The multiple people of color origins of the US environmental justice movement: social movement spillover and regional racial projects in California. Environmental Sociology 7(2):147-59.

Find out more

Defend Atlanta Forest, or Stop Cop City, is a decentralised social movement in Atlanta, Georgia, United States — where people occupying trees are being charged with terrorism. In Property ≠ Life, a recent piece he wrote for Resilience.org, Paul discusses the nature of violence and non-violence; “Stop Cop City is explicitly contesting the nature of violence, and this is profound for a society that is based on the violent exploitation of others: a society that doesn’t seem to know who it is without that violence, and whose customary language doesn’t differentiate destruction of life from destruction of property (or when it does seems to value the latter).”

In January 2023, The Guardian’s report, ‘Assassinated in cold blood’: activist killed protesting Georgia’s ‘Cop City’, covered the killing of Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, who opposed the police training facility, while The Intercept reported that The Crackdown on Cop City Protesters Is So Brutal Because of the Movement’s Success. Atlanta Community Press Collective provides A brief history of the Atlanta City Prison Farm.

In thinking about spaces of resistance, you could explore the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice, which documents and catalogues social conflict around environmental issues.

You can explore wicked problems in some previous content here on ClimateCultures, for example our About page on Ecological & Climate Predicaments, and Culturing Climate Change. For a discussion on super wicked problems, you can download the paper by Richard Lazarus that Paul cites above: Super Wicked Problems and Climate Change: Restraining the Present to Liberate the Future.


Paul Feather is an animist farmer and author whose artistic interests include the courtship of landscapes for food and seed and translating animist thought into the language of physics.

 

Ecoart Activities – Working With Place & People

Artists Claire Atherton, Beckie Leach, Genevieve Rudd and Nicky Saunter have joined up to review Ecoart in Action: Activities, Case Studies and Provocations for Classrooms and Communities. This first of three collaborative posts samples the guide’s ecoart activities.


2,900 words: estimated reading time = 11 minutes + optional: up to 26 mins video clips


ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe describes the context for this innovative review:

In Autumn 2021, researcher and producer Chris Fremantle and I discussed a review of Ecoart in Action. Chris had co-authored this practical volume with other members of the Ecoart Network to showcase a wide range of ecoart activities, case studies and provocations to use with classrooms and communities. My discussions with interested members suggested a ‘multi-voiced’ approach: a collaborative process, generating dialogue from different practitioners’ insights. This review approach is well suited to the nature of the book — and ClimateCultures is all about stimulating creative conversations. 

Our four artist-reviewers — participatory arts practitioner Claire Atherton; teacher and storyteller Beckie Leach; environmental community arts projects leader Genevieve Rudd; entrepreneurial thinker and practical activist Nicky Saunter — work in different contexts and practices around the UK, based variously in South East London, Wiltshire and Norfolk. They held an ‘orientation’ Zoom call to introduce themselves and discuss possible approaches, before coalescing around the idea of together taking the book’s three parts, producing a blog post for each section.

Ecoart in Action. Cover design: Kevin Stone

A collaborative review – orientation

Their initial conversation brought out the book’s value as an inspiration, a resource with stories of contributors’ different approaches to ecoart, and a rich reference book of examples, artists and theories; there are clearly many ways to approach it.

Claire: “It’s a book you can use to get inspiration from in terms of your own ecoart practice, but also to look at different people’s approaches. To me, it’s a reference book, one you would go to and say ‘I’ve got this project, I want to work with this group of people, what could I do?’”

Nicky: “I found it interesting with some of the theory. I tend to duck away from the theory, and sometimes it can be useful. It was interesting to see where some of those practices came from, even if you don’t really need that in order to ‘do it’. So it being a reference book is useful: there’s intellectual learning, and practical learning and experiential learning that could come out, and I liked that: you don’t have to take all of it but there’s quite a lot there to take.”

Genevieve: “One of things I liked is there’s the practical examples and the process, that’s really important to me: it’s not just an activity that’s plucked out of nowhere, it’s grounded in something, and as you go through there’s the sense of people’s biographies, people’s stories — that it’s rooted. As a resource, it’s ‘dip-in-and-out-able’, because it’s not linear. You can flick it open and find something. And it’s introducing me to practices and artists I wasn’t aware of. For me there was a real sense of discovery, and now there’s so many wormholes to go down and people and projects to look up.”

Beckie: “I think there’s something important about how intangible ecoart is, and it’s not something usually you can go and see in a gallery or there’s not big shows of it because it’s not something that you can show in that way. And that makes it very hard to be aware of what’s going on and to experience it. So there’s something really valuable in seeing all the international practices and how it might be interpreted differently in different cultures.”

Settling on the post-per-section approach, the four decided they’d each scan the different entries in each section, share which ones grabbed them most to work with and then come together for a Zoom to compare experiences and reflect on the book. They’d then send in texts and images, with my role being to bring these together with clips from the Zoom recordings for added depth.

Discussing what use ecoart is in the world, they homed in on the Venn diagram from the book’s introduction, and how — as Claire observed — “It gave it a space in which it exists.”

Ecoart activities: showing a Venn diagram with Ecaort as the intersection of Art, Science and Community. From the book, 'Ecoart in Action'.
Three interconnecting fields of Ecoart practice. Image developed by the editors of Ecoart in Action © 2018

Claire: “It’s difficult when you’re moving away from traditional art practice; where do I sit, who am I? Am I a scientist, am I community worker, am I an artist? Well actually I’m all three of those things, to a certain degree. So that’s how I’ve looked at this book — it can help me to explore those three different facets within myself and bring those together in terms of my practice. … Arguing for its (ecoart’s) value, this book can really help in positioning that.”

Nicky: “We have a system that so clearly splits people between being scientists and being artists. Most people tend one way or another but use both, and can be very strong in both areas, and other areas as well. So I liked that, and it feels inclusive and therefore very positive. Sometimes even the word ‘art’ can feel quite exclusive in itself, to people who feel it’s not their space.”

Our reviewer-artists came at Section 1 with different needs, reflecting some of the diverse uses the book is likely to be engaged in. While Beckie wanted activities to try with her own toddler as an example of a non-formal teaching environment, and Nicky selected ideas to use spontaneously with a couple of young people in her own garden, Genevieve was looking for something to use with a set group of people in a session she already had planned, and Claire wanted the book’s help in creating a workshop she’d been commissioned to deliver in the New Year.

The immersion in Section 1, on ecoart activities, came just before Christmas. As it happened, Beckie couldn’t join in just yet because of family circumstances, so the first of the Zoom sessions went ahead with just Claire, Genevieve and Nicky, with Beckie then able to send in her reflections for this first post.

Planning ecoart activities

Genevieve

I purchased the book when it launched in 2022 and I was excited to have lots of inspiring ecoart ideas to draw from. As a community artist, I work with groups in an iterative way – the previous activity informs the next through reflective practice – so it has been refreshing to have external input to spark ideas. I was invited by a local arts university to run a talk with a workshop element to students, as part of an annual week-long programme encouraging students to try something new, explore different creative practices, and experience new ways of thinking and doing. This was the ideal chance to draw upon this book’s wisdom!

When I was flicking through the book, I found it really useful to have a ‘key’ to each activity in Section 1. For example, I knew I was looking at something suitable for undergraduate or graduate students, for a two-hour session and with an estimated group size of 10. The Perceiving Embeddedness through Collage activity by Cameron Davis stood out for me, as it fitted this context. Whilst the activity began with a walk as a core element for inspiring the activity that followed (which would be my own ‘usual’ format in my participatory arts practice), this wasn’t possible in the format I was delivering. The brief was for a talk with a workshop element, so I instead brought along a range of objects that had been collected in journeys from participants at previous projects and through my own arts practice.

Nicky

I started reading the book with an open mind, wondering which of my various groups might be up for participating in an activity. In the back of my mind, my criteria were: less than a day in timescale; something I could do in my local neighbourhood; low cost as I would not be using it in paid work.

Part 1 of the book is easy to read, with the consistency of layout meaning it is easy to find what each activity entails, how long it might take and what sort of audience it is suitable for. I quickly picked out a few activities that appealed to me and suited the criteria:

      • Award Ribbons for Places: making and giving awards to favourite places in a particular outside area, and sharing your reasons for your award. (This is the one I chose.)
      • Story Circles: people in a group each telling a story on a theme, adding to the overall richness and different points of view. (A bit too verbal and performative for my participants.)
      • Rethinking Fashion: exploring the footprint of fashion and making sustainable alternatives. (Too much time for my participants, but I would love to do this with our local XR group perhaps.)
      • Botanical Art Banners: studying local plants and painting findings onto banners for display. (I love this and think it’s a great way to appeal to different groups who might be interested in detail and science too.)
      • Lines of the Hand: using the lines on the palms of our hands as a starting point for patterns in the wider natural world. (This looks great.)

Claire

After initially being drawn to the activities Awards Ribbons for Places and Perceiving Embeddedness Through Collage, time commitments meant I wasn’t able to deliver either activity before our scheduled chat, so I used the book as a reference tool to provide inspiration for a forthcoming workshop I have been commissioned to deliver in January. Looking through the list of activities was simple and straightforward and I have chosen Story Circles as I feel this has the most relevance to my audience. I will report back on the delivery of this activity in future blog posts.

Showing 'Lines of the Hand', one of the ecoart activities in Ecoart in Action. Photograph by Claire Atherton
An example of ‘Lines of the Hand’, one of ecoart activities in the book that Nicky had considered using and both Genevieve and Claire had previous experience with: using the lines on the palms of our hands as a starting point for patterns in the wider natural world. Photograph: Claire Atherton, from a workshop led by Genevieve Rudd.

I spent a lot of time looking through all the activities to see the audiences, number of participants, duration etc in order to find one that fit the parameters of my commission. It would be helpful to have a grid at the beginning of the book that gives an easy way to drill down, based on audience type, ability (able-bodied / sitting activities), duration etc so that you can see instantly the activities, case studies and provocations that are relevant to your specific brief.

Beckie

I found this section of the book quite intimidating – it is dense and packed full of interesting ideas, but lacking pictures. Actually the premise of a lot of the activities was quite simple and accessible once I got into the text. I was drawn to Creating Rituals, Aborescence: a Score, and Cultivating an Ecocreative Mindset. I wonder if there is a way to format the activities so they are a little easier to read through quickly and adapt for different audiences?

It was challenging to adapt the activities to a non-formal teaching environment — but I think my particular context was also challenging as I wanted to find things I could do with my toddler and all of the activities in the book were designed for older participants and many required a much longer time frame. 

Working with ecoart activities on the ground

Genevieve

To find flow with my adaptation to the Perceiving Embeddedness through Collage activity plan, I framed the exercise around stories: how we’re each guided by different stories, values and experiences, and how this feeds into community arts practice. In my introductory talk, I shared examples of the elements that inform my work (I talked about these as my ‘deep roots’), and shared a couple of case studies of community arts projects that have evolved from these ideas (these are the ‘emerging shoots’). I was inspired by Davis’s ideas in the activity introduction on “embeddedness within this dynamic living whole we call life”, and reinterpreted this with my own drawing and thought process about these relationships.

Showing ecoart activities in context and metaphorically as deep roots and emerging shoots. Image by Genevieve Rudd.
Deep roots & Emerging shoots. Image: Genevieve Rudd © 2022
Ecoart activities: showing a drawing created during the workshop, inspired by the objects used. Image: Genevieve Rudd © 2022
A drawing created during the workshop, inspired by the objects used. Image: Genevieve Rudd © 2022

What I found particularly interesting about working from Davis’s idea was voicing someone else’s ideas and considering my own connection with them. It was useful for me to experience, as a facilitator. The provocations that particularly stood out to me were: “do you feel, in any way, that your object chose you?” and “entertain the notion that your object has presence”.

The group were really responsive to the activity and, whilst collage materials were made available to the group, they all chose to work in drawing throughout. To warm-up, I also added in some extra short exercises, some simple drawing methods that celebrated the qualities of the objects. The group generated some really thoughtful and evocative ideas in response to the objects they chose, including childhood memories, noticing the details and enjoying the texture, and reflecting on how their ideas could find a place in the world. I will certainly be using this activity as a starting point in different contexts, and can also see how it could be adapted for different ages and settings.

Nicky

Within our given timeframe, I happened to have two teenagers staying with me who did not know each other, one of whom is very shy and not strong at communication. I wanted something with a very low entry point, involving minimal art skills and some physical outside activity. The length of time was given as one day, which gives time to delve into the historical and social background of a place, but I found the activity could easily be shortened if focused on a more basic “what do you love here” question. We took about two hours and used my garden, which is large and has wild and woody areas as well as more open traditional lawn spaces, many trees, bushes and sheds. I hoped there would be enough interest for them.

After explaining to the two girls what we would be doing, we walked around the garden, looking for places we particularly liked, making a few comments, touching trees and plants, getting a feel for the place. Having each chosen two places we particularly liked, we went inside to create our own ‘awards’. I also participated, so I wouldn’t be hovering over them too much. I had some basic card, ribbons and string for hanging and paints/pens for decoration or writing that would all be biodegradable and so could be left outside to disappear naturally. I made a sample label-type award to help and one girl copied this, while the other made her own shapes and hangers. They seemed to crack on immediately with an easy understanding of what they were doing, despite one of the girls often finding art activities very difficult as she is unable to think of what to do. The prescriptive nature of this was helpful here.

We then went back outside, circling round to each of our own chosen favourite places, gave our awards and said a few words about why we had chosen this place. It was interesting to see we had all chosen different places and that we all chose trees and shrubs of some kind rather than the built environment. There was an instant connection to nature and an appreciation of its beauty not noticed before.

The girls seemed to find it fun and participated in taking photos and I found it quite moving to see their direct connection with other living organisms.

Using Awards Ribbons for Places in a wooded place. Photographs: Nicky Saunter © 2022 [click on images for full size]

I only touched on the possibilities of this activity, which could include so much more about a place and would work with bigger groups and over longer periods of time. Its flexibility is impressive.

Beckie

In the end we spent some time doing the Creating Rituals activity – making snow rock trolls and feeding the birds and squirrels. This was really fun and feeding the birds and squirrels together has continued as a regular activity – and I am thinking a lot about everyday rituals. 

Ecoart activities: Showing a photo of 'snow rock trolls' by Beckie Leach
Snow rock trolls. Photograph: Beckie Leach © 2022

In the following clips from their Zoom chat, Claire, Genevieve and Nicky share additional insights into how they worked with the ecoart activities in the book:

Clip 1 (6 minutes): Example activity – Awards Ribbons for Places.

Clip 2 (9.5 minutes): Example activity – Lines of the Hand; the book’s value as something you can come at as a starting point, a detailed, theory-led instruction, or a source of interesting thinking to spark your own ideas for activities.

Clip 3 (6.5 minutes): Example activity – Perceiving Embeddedness through Collage; the book as a rich source of references you can follow up.

Clip 4 (4.5 minutes): Using the book as inspiration for planning your work; issues navigating the book for different contexts; example activity – Story Circles.


Find out more

Ecoart in Action: Activities, Case Studies, and Provocations for Classrooms and Communities, edited by Amara Geffen, Ann Rosenthal, Chris Fremantle, and Aviva Rahmani (2022) is published by New Village Press. It is compiled from 67 members of the Ecoart Network, a group of more than 200 internationally established practitioners.

This has been a review of the book’s first section, which offers 25 different ecoart activities. In their next post for this collaborative review, Beckie, Claire, Genevieve and Nicky will share their responses to Section 2, which offers 26 case studies.

Assembling the Raven’s Nest is Chris Fremantle‘s review of fellow member Sarah Thomas‘s ecological memoir.

Claire Atherton

Claire Atherton

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

Beckie Leach

Beckie Leach

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

Genevieve Rudd

Genevieve Rudd

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

Nicky Saunter

Nicky Saunter

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

Assembling the Raven’s Nest

Researcher Chris Fremantle reviews The Raven’s Nest. This ecological memoir by Sarah Thomas addresses love and loss and coming to belong in the Westfjords peninsular of Iceland, evoking human and more-than-human relationships to draw out stories of interdependence.


1,860 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


In The Raven’s Nest Sarah Thomas tells us a story of falling in love, moving to another culture and learning its ways. Many things have agency in the book, including all sorts of other living things as well as landscapes and even buildings. Daylight too is an actor. Nested within the book is a photo essay, a visual journey parallel to and intersecting with the words.

Showing the cover of the book, 'The Raven's Nest' by Sarah Thomas
The Raven’s Nest. Cover art: Carmen R. Balit, based on a photograph by Sarah Thomas

The raven’s nest — an improvisation

The raven’s nest itself, which provides the title, is found in a first-floor natural history museum above shops in Bolungarvík, a fishing village on the Westfjords peninsula in the very west of Iceland: it is an icon for a process of assemblage.

A cluster of sticks in a cubic glass case catches my eye. It is both chaotic and coherent. I stroll over and look at it from above – a circular nest perhaps a metre in diameter. The perimeter, which makes up most of it, is a rough entanglement of twigs, driftwood, mussel shells, a strip of yellowing plastic container, a sheep’s shoulder blade, a wooden knife handle, a TV aerial, and the rusted head of a rake with four missing tines. It is perfect for its purpose – a hotchpotch of plant, human-made and animal detritus holding it together, weighing it down against the high winds. There are no big trees here for a large bird to nest in: the nest must be resilient alone on a cliff. Its centre is a small, intimate hemisphere – less than a third of the whole: a bed of intricately woven fine grasses and frayed blue plastic rope threads, lined with down. Inside this centre lie four small eggs, almost lost in the flotsam. The label reads: Raven’s Nest. The nest is ‘safe’ now, sealed in this moment against the high winds. It is safe, though these eggs will never hatch. How might it live again, contain life, out in the unknowable wilds of the future?

Showing a raven's nest in the natural history museum, Bolungarvík. Photograph by Sarah Thomas
Raven’s Nest, natural history museum, Bolungarvík. Photograph © Sarah Thomas

We know from the outset that a failing relationship is central, but we don’t know why. Much of the book is concerned with the process of becoming an inhabitant, someone who understands the habitat and is part of it. This process is episodic in life: understanding comes in moments and in our reflections on moments. This opens up the meaning of improvisation — making do with the materials at hand — both literally and as a practice.

This is beautifully captured in an exchange between the author and her partner:

In the distance, Hekla stands crisp and clear as a cardboard cut-out, the colour of a bruise. She is majestic.

‘So, we’ll be living beneath a volcano that is overdue to erupt?’

‘We can make sure the van’s always got enough petrol for an escape.’

Problem. Solution. Why is life in England so complicated? So full of prohibitions and protocols which do not allow for the cultivation of sense…

That the relationship between freedom and constraint is fundamental to improvisation is beautifully articulated, though the lurking challenge of coping with this becomes clearer as the book goes on. Whilst the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 does feature, it is everyday human and more-than-human ‘making do’ which is the central issue. Human improvisation is in the moment, but it can have longer-term ramifications.

'Raven valley', a photograph of Iceland by Sarah Thomas from her book The Raven's Nest.
‘Raven valley’. Photograph © Sarah Thomas

Dependence and interdependence

Behind this book is a PhD, another text, which discusses what it means to be writing in the Anthropocene and unpacks a critical literature on writing. In the PhD Sarah quotes Donna Haraway (who in turn is referencing Marilyn Strathern): “It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories.”

Stories create worlds. Stories are nested in stories. Icelanders live in a story — by way of an aside to illuminate this, the artists Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison say, “Every place is the story of its own becoming.”

Sarah Thomas’ story of becoming Icelandic is a story within stories of places becoming. Many relationships between humans and other living things are evoked in The Raven’s Nest. The narrative focuses on and draws out dependencies. Some are the result of human carelessness in the past. Some are ongoing and continuous since humans settled on Iceland. The former is exemplified by the experience of providing a temporary fish shop on the edge of a lake for the short summer season. Humans introduced Arctic Char into the lakes. The people who facilitate Sarah getting enmeshed in Iceland run the temporary fish shop. Walkers on holiday gravitate to the fish shop for fresh Arctic Char. The abundance of the invasive species is mitigated by the human visitors enjoying eating freshly caught fish. A new set of dependencies is invented.

Another ongoing dependency relates to sheep. The family Sarah becomes part of farms sheep, amongst other things. The sense is they have ‘always’ farmed sheep. Another, long-term, dependency is articulated in the annual slaughter, hanging the carcasses, the smoking of meat, the long winters.

But even the position of Iceland on the planet makes for dependencies:

My experience of the light’s absence has been less intense, but more protracted, than the total darkness I anticipated. I wish I had it in me to keep a record of the times of sunrise and sunset; there is poetry in such accuracy. But this being my life, I feel it as a whole reality, not a set of data to be recorded and analysed.

Interdependence has become a focus of the environmental humanities, but it is also critical to understand dependence. Isabelle Stengers articulates the relationship between the two, saying in her essay for the Critical Zones exhibition catalogue: “Nor should the intertwining interdependencies be confused with a network of interlinking dependencies. It is easy to understand why, without water or light, a plant dies. This fits the definition of ‘dependence’. But interdependence implies a way of being sensitive that is a form of venture.”

The Raven’s Nest sensitises us to difference and the process of becoming, moving in and out of difference. Her attention to difference, her own patterns and expectations, and the patterns and assumptions characteristic of Iceland, generates new sensitivities.

Showing 'Cold blushing', a photograph of Iceland by Sarah Thomas in her book The Raven's Nest
‘Cold blushing’. Photograph © Sarah Thomas

The stories we need now

It is a book about love, loss and also mental health. The PhD dissertation is its twin. Being asked to review The Raven’s Nest and being a practice-led researcher led me inevitably to reading sections of Sarah’s practice-based PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies. The latter talks about the Anthropocene in ways that are a current riff in the environmental humanities. She cites Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement because he asks the important question: do the arts need to question themselves in the extinction crisis? Yes, the arts are vital to the change of consciousness required, but the arts are part of the consciousness that produced the Anthropocene. Later she takes up Ursula Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction to deepen the point, questioning not only the form of the modern novel and its focus on everyday subjectivities, but to go further and question all stories with heroes. The question is, what might be the arts that we need now?

'Floating house', a photograph by G. Kristinsdóttir, in The Raven's Nest by Sarah Thomas
‘A Floating house’. Photograph © G. Kristinsdóttir

Reading her PhD enables me to understand the judgements she is making, the sensitivities she is alert to, in relation to the process of writing. It represents another layer of sensitizing. However, the PhD is not a substitute for The Raven’s Nest — reflections on the process of making stories is not a substitute for stories. The artwork is the artwork. The sensitivities and complexities evoked affect us. Early on Sarah talks about one of the key differences manifest in language:

I enjoy that these nouns I live alongside have a gender, even when Icelanders are speaking English. ‘It’ is easier to commodify, but ‘he’ and ‘she’ become beings I must acknowledge a relationship with.


Find out more

Chris Fremantle is a researcher and lecturer at Gray’s School of Art. He established ecoartscotland in 2010 as a platform for research and practice, a node in the network of ecoarts. He writes, mostly in collaboration: most recently, Ecoart in Action: Activities, Case Studies and Provocations for Classrooms and Communities (New Village Press, 2022).

Sarah Thomas is a writer and documentary maker with a background in anthropology. See more at her website. Here on ClimateCultures, you can read her post with fellow member Jon Randall, Óshlið: River Mouth \\ Slope — where they share a conversation about the ideas, stories and creative processes behind their film exploring an abandoned road in Iceland, accompanied by a slideshow of their images from this changing place.

The Raven’s Nest (2022) is published in hardback and ebook by Atlantic Books and is available as an audiobook from Audible. Robert Macfarlane has described it as “A deeply thoughtful, vivid, enquiring, genre-traversing book, closely attentive to the people and the landscapes with which it dwells. It asks hard questions – and offers no easy answers – about what it means to belong to a place, and to live well upon a part of the earth. Sarah’s writing – crisp in its details, patient in its rhythms – draws its readers northwards and inwards upon a fascinating journey.”

Sarah was interviewed for Iceland Monitor on the book’s publication, and the piece – Hnífsdalur made her an author – includes interesting insights into her approach to the book: “I was trained in making movies in the way that the filmmaker is invisible, like a fly on a wall. But when trying to convey the experience of being a foreigner trying to adjust to a different culture, it somehow doesn’t make sense to pretend to be invisible. … Writing the book was a new way to re-take the movie. When writing you can position the camera elsewhere, or go back in time and reminisce. So I feel like I have made a movie with words.”

Chris mentions Ursula Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction — a work that features in other ClimateCultures posts, including Philip Webb Gregg‘s A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #12, On a Writer’s Imaginarium by Sarah Hymas, and Disciplinary Agnosticism and Engaging with Ecologies of Place by Iain Biggs. Iain has also discussed Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement in his post Five Notes on Thinking Through ‘Ensemble Practices’.

“It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories,” is from Donna Haraway’s Staying with the trouble: making kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016).

Artists Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’s suggestion that “Every place is the story of its own becoming” is a central metaphor in their ‘Future Gardens’ work, as explored in this Artist Statement

The quote from Isabelle Stengers on interdependencies comes from Critical Zones: the Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (MIT University Press, 2020).

Chris Fremantle

Chris Fremantle

A researcher and producer working across health and environments / ecologies, and creator of ecoartscotland.
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Open Deep Mapping: Conversations-in-process, Places-in-time

Independent artist and researcher Iain Biggs introduces a special new essay for our Longer section, reflecting on his practice of open deep mapping as an inclusive, creative approach to working with and in place, and moving beyond ‘Business-as-Usual’.


1,500 words: estimated reading time = 6 minutes


Longer is the place for works that don’t fit within the normal ‘short reads’ format of our blog. Longer is for essays, fiction or other forms that haven’t appeared online elsewhere and explore in more detail the creative responses to our ecological and climate crisis. With each new Longer piece, the author introduces it here with an original post, where they can reflect on the motivation or inspiration behind the work or the process of creating it.

***

Mark Goldthorpe and I have been having an exchange about open deep mapping and, as a result, he kindly suggested I write an introduction to this inclusive creative approach to place for ClimateCultures.The result is a longish essay called Open Deep Mappings today: a personal introduction — which is published today in the Longer feature of the site. Since that in turn needs an introduction on this blog, and because people understandably expect to know something about the relationship between what we do and what we say (perhaps the creative equivalent to being asked to “put our money where our mouths are”), I’ll start from an old blog post called Two dimensional aspects of deep mapping that shows just that and work my way forward into the essay.

As I say in that blog:

I’m interested in ‘polyvocal’ drawing that helps me explore ideas – often about landscape or landscape related issues – through combining different media and/or categories of sign. It’s an informed ‘playing around’ that aims to keep different elements ‘talking’ to each other, rather than to arrive at an aesthetic solution. However, aesthetic qualities remain indicative of imaginative ‘fitness for purpose’, like the goodwill that sustains a conversation between people who hold very different views on a single topic. 

Open Deep Mapping - showing A Hidden War by artist Iain Biggs
Fig. 1: A Hidden War (with and for Anna Biggs)
Art Iain Biggs © 2009

For health reasons, I’ve had to give up the extended fieldwork that was central to the open deep mapping I did between 1999 and 2013. That period of work produced a whole range of material, some of which appears in that old blog post, but also included everything from A Hidden War (with and for Anna Biggs) — a double mapping of Mynydd Epynt made as a result of a field trip organised by Mike Pearson [Fig. 1] — to 8 Lost Songs, an artist’s book and CD made in collaboration with the musician Garry Peters [Fig. 2]. However, my interest in open deep mapping as a process, and its influence on what is now primarily a studio-based, rather than walking-based, practice continues to this day.

Open Deep Mapping - showing 8 Lost Songs by Iain Biggs
Fig. 2: 8 Lost Songs, CD and Book cover
Photograph: Iain Biggs

The first thing to say about open deep mapping is that, although as a process it may result in the production of non-fiction books, art works, performances, artist’s books, even unorthodox maps, it’s best understood as generating conversations-in-process about a place-in-time. (Hence the section in the essay that’s entitled Why ‘deep mappings’, not ‘deep maps’?)

Open Deep Mapping – an inclusive orientation

Open Deep Mapping - showing Edge 2, Fluctuations bu Iain Biggs
Fig. 3: Edge 2 – Fluctuations (for Josh Biggs)
Art: Iain Biggs © 2009

Something of how my attempts to capture that ‘conversational’ element in recent two-dimensional visual form can be seen in the shift between two images – Edge 2: fluctuations for Josh Biggs [Fig. 3] (one of the set of three images made as a result of groundwork on the Isle of Mull and included in the Two dimensional aspects of deep mapping blog post) and Notitia 7: Tamshiel Rig [Fig. 4]. As one of a series of hybrid collage/painted construction pieces made since 2016, this attempts to convert my experience of deep mapping into a lyrical ‘micro-mapping’, one that evokes a condensed sense of the richness, the polyvocality, central to an expanded experience of place-in-time. Judith Tucker writes of this series of works that they provide:

the kind of levelling out, or lack of hierarchy of visual experience, that also occurs when walking. As when walking, it is up to us to consider what we are presented with. What is of the relative significance of a discarded wrapper, a stony outcrop, a rare plant, a dank smell, the sound of birdsong, of traffic or silence?

She then adds:

What is key in terms of environmental thinking is that Biggs is neither privileging the human view, nor is he writing himself out of the place… This kind of composite work with its constellation of viewpoints, montage, collage and bricolage does not allow any fixed reading of the landscape that is referenced. It is at times as if we are mapping from the inside of the land out.    

Open Deep Mapping - showing Notitia 7 by Iain Biggs
Fig, 4: Notitia 7 Tamshiel Rig
Art: Iain Biggs © 2018

As I hope this suggests, ‘place’ in the context of open deep mapping is best understood in Edward S. Casey’s sense, as: “an essay in experimental living within a changing culture”, and this notwithstanding “its frequently settled appearance”. But also as a space in Doreen Massey’s sense; that is as “a simultaneity of stories-so-far”. As the example of The Tahualtapa Project (concluded before the term deep mapping was first used) makes clear, open deep mapping is as much an inclusive orientation to the world as anything else.

A strange alchemy – working with/in place

Following on from that section I have included another, simply called Further examples, which includes links to eleven very different types of open deep mapping. That in turn is followed by a further section that explains my use of that term, called The ‘openness’ of open deep mappings. For those who want a better understanding of how open deep mapping sits in relation to other cultural concerns, I’ve included two sections, one on Contexts and consequences and the other called Open deep mappings as ‘partial’.

Throughout the Introduction I’ve tried to stress that open deep mapping is, as Judith Tucker notes of my Notitia works, based on the articulation of a constellation of viewpoints; that it does not allow any fixed or settled reading of place to take a once-and-for-all precedence over any other.  I’ve also tried to stress that open deep mapping is not a strictly bounded ‘genre’ but bleeds almost imperceptibly into other approaches and practices.

The example of this I end with is the Irish poet Eavan Boland’s book of photographs and poems called A Poet’s Dublin, which I see as a ‘close cousin’ to an open deep mapping. In that book Boland says, in conversation with the poet Paula Meehan, that at a certain point she realised that: “a city could be mapped, not just by cartography or history, but by instinct, memory, passion”. It’s something of that impetus, that same alchemical working out of wonder, listening, poetic insight, fine-tuned attention to what is, and a depth-soundings of deep memory, that inform both a work like A Poet’s Dublin and open deep mappings. And I believe that it is with that strange alchemy that we need to work in and with place, whatever we then choose to call the process involved, if we wish to help develop an understanding capable of moving us on from the mentality of ‘Business-as-Usual’ that now threatens not only our own psycho-social wellbeing but, in all probability, the ongoing survival of the entire biosphere.


Find out More 

Iain’s full essay, Open Deep Mappings today: a personal introduction, is the second piece in our new feature, Longer. 

Iain’s post on his own blog, Two dimensional aspects of deep mapping, appeared in May 2013 and includes many more of his artworks. 

The quote from Judith Tucker is taken from ‘Walking backwards: Art between places in twenty-first century Britain’ (Judith Tucker, 2020) in David Borthwick, Pippa Marland & Anna Stenning (eds) Walking, Landscape and Environment (Routledge, p. 137). 

Other quotes are from:

Edward S Casey (1993) Getting Back Into Place (Indiana University Press p. 31).

Doreen Massey (2005) For Space (SAGE Publications p. 11).

Eavan Boland 2014 (Paula Meehan & Jody Allen Randolph eds) A Poet’s Dublin (Carcanet Press p. 106).

‘Business-as-Usual’ is the term used by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone to denote a mentality predicated on such mainstream contemporary ‘progressive’ economic values as ‘getting ahead’, and a ’view of life’ in which “the problems of the world are seen as far away and irrelevant to the dramas of our personal lives”. See Macy and Johnstone (2012) Active Hope; How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy (New World Library p. 15). You can read an excerpt, How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy, at the NEL blog.

Mynydd Epynt, the subject of one of Iain’s deep mapping works included here, is a former community in the uplands of Powys, Wales, which the UK Ministry of Defence evicted in World War II and remains a military training zone. You can find out more at the Abandoned Communities site.

Iain Biggs
Iain Biggs
An independent artist, teacher and researcher interested in place seen through the lens of Felix Guattari's ecosophy, working extensively on ‘deep mapping’, other projects and publications.
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Moving With the Word ‘Transitions’

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe shares participants’ reflections from a workshop exploring the word ‘Transitions’ – the final Environmental Keywords discussion from the University of Bristol – and the sense that we need better words to capture our imaginations.


2,100 words: estimated reading time = 8 minutes


Although it was a smaller group that gathered in the St Philips area of Bristol than for the University’s previous two workshops in their Environmental Keywords series, it was as full of experiences and ideas. This final event followed the same format as the others, beginning with a walk around the local area so each person could place their own thoughts on the word ‘Transitions’ in the context of their encounters there and their conversations together while walking. And, as before, this process of exploring ideas through local explorations of place proved fruitful in the discussions that then took place at the workshop.

The tricky thing

One participant reflected on the difficulties in applying a word like ‘transitions’ within the social contexts of environmental issues when compared with the seemingly simpler patterns in the natural world. “Ecological transitions are something which are much easier for me to grasp. I can see seasons progressing and [on the walk] I took images of the flowers and the blossom coming out. I know that species are migrating and then migrating to different parts [e.g. with climate change], but that’s a more gradual transition. For me, transitions become really difficult as soon as humans are involved. Humans are just so complicated.” 

It’s a complexity that often seems to get reduced to quick fixes, to a reliance on technology and its promises to shift us away from a problematic state and towards a desired, improved one. But “it’s not just about these technological solutions. It’s about the really tricky thing. It’s about demand, right? And how much energy we’re using. And you can’t just magic a problem away through net zero, right? Or through electric cars.”

Indeed, one contribution suggested that “to achieve net zero targets, we need to transition to a lower energy-consuming society using about 20% of the fossil fuels we use currently and 50% of the total energy. The hope that we can transition to 100% renewable energy under the current energy demand just doesn’t add up. Also, the net zero scenarios considered by policymakers include technologies that are not ready for deployment and they may never be. So, things like green hydrogen and carbon capture and storage.” 

In fact, of course, transitions — in technologies, economics, business and consumer behaviour — are also what drive our current direction deeper into ecological and climate predicaments. Seemingly small and gradual shifts ramp up our resource use. One person illustrated this, asking “are we missing out on observing some changes that are happening and then waking up and thinking ‘Oh, no. Something changed. And I haven’t noticed that transition process’? … So for example, you know, thirty years ago you would have a weekly bath and now you have a daily shower and we know norms of convenience and hygiene change because of the materials around you, and so on.”

As someone else commented, this failure to grasp the scale of the issue and the nature of the required response can quickly lead to frustration with ‘official’ models of transitions. “When people use the word, it feels like they’re just tinkering around the edges when what we need is something much more fundamental. And the tinkering around the edges of things gets quite irritating. I don’t mean the small-scale, say, small communities who make something work and then how does that scale up? I mean the imposed transitions.”

Transitions - showing broken windows in an abandoned building
Photograph: Workshop participant © 2022

But another participant offered a more nuanced view of how transitions can take shape in the more autonomous cultural sphere, beyond policy and technological supply and demand, for example in how refugee and immigrant families respond to new surroundings and circumstances. “So I think that transition is countries, languages, cultures. I see it firsthand and it’s fascinating to me how and what rules are bent, where tradition is pulling and where, you know, modernity is pulling and just the meshing of culture and language and all that.”

Empathetic transitions

Holding each of these three workshops in different areas of the city has given the series a strong identification with the challenges and the opportunities involved in negotiating social responses to environmental change, and how change often cannot be imposed from above. “So I naively believe that you can’t implement any change if you don’t take the people who live there on board. … I think otherwise it’s like colonialism. You’re coming, you’re plonking your view onto the world on it and you’re thinking that that’s what’s wanted.” Another expanded on this: “The only way to do that is really to spend a huge amount of time talking to people and to find out how people want to use the space, how they depend on that space, how they perceive ownership of that space, and what are they willing to give up to protect that space. And those discussions are usually not happening.” Of course, these conversations are also not simple things to hold open and to engage every voice in.

Transitions - "If you want to know more about moving to Bristol ask a Bristolian."
Ask a Bristolian
Photograph: Workshop participant © 2022

Picking up on the nature of conversations and what they offer — even short explorations such as this series of half-day events — another participant observed, “You can’t just expect transitions or transformations or change to be easy. Like there will be that conflict always. And people have their own priorities and their own interests. So it’s crucial to really understand other people’s worlds, really put yourself in someone else’s shoes. That’s why we like this sort of exercise, you know, because you don’t have to agree with someone else’s interest, but it makes you realise that we could all be more than a single issue person. … That’s why I like these sort of empathetic activities.”

We begin to see here, of course, the links between ideas of ‘Transitions’ with those of ‘Justice’ and even ‘Resilience’ — how these work with or against each other, and that would be a fascinating area of future exploration. One person offered an example from South America, of changes as a nation continues to emerge from a long heritage of dictatorship and how its constitution now “recognises explicitly the different indigenous relations to the ocean. …. So there’s a change here where this has been written into a constitutional framework. Now what that then looks like in terms of how does that become concrete actions, we don’t know. But there’s a high-level political change here.” 

Often, the space between formal, top-down approaches to transition and more local, autonomous change is experienced as a gap, where change fails to take shape or lead to the desired outcomes. “The risk is you end up with the gap in the middle between the small scale community initiatives and the kind of discourse, the well-meaning discourse, from the top.” 

Reaching to transformation

Maybe it’s also where it’s hardest to visualise the difference that can make the difference. As one participant put it:  “So if you look at climate change and transitions, people are talking about energy, people are talking about food, people are talking about cities and with some of those I could imagine transitions, but in some of them it’s so complex that I can’t envisage what a city of the future might look like where we have had a transition. … And I find that is my intellectual challenge. I just can’t imagine. I just lack the creativity to think about how crazy this could be. … Is it that I’m just so embedded in this society where I have found my space, my niche … that I can’t see transitions.” 

Another person offered an almost rueful observation: “I’m just wondering whether transition has become such a gentle word and maybe we need a less gentle word?” And a point that came up more than once was how an early experience of the Covid pandemic was the sense that change was not just inevitable — a dramatic ‘push’ on how we live — but that change is also always possible, and can be turned into something positive; but there is also always the risk of it being lost, of it fading into a return to ‘business as usual’. “It is something which forces us. But we’ve had a global pandemic, that is a pretty big push. And what we’re coming to is back to living the way it was before, with variations — we might not go into the office every day, but ultimately, it is still very much the society it was before. So if that doesn’t push us, what will make us live differently?“

As one person put it, a word like ‘Transitions’ seems to speak of a smooth process and something that’s maybe linear and inevitable: something people must move with. “You’re either going forwards or backwards. It’s either a yes or no, and it doesn’t do justice to that range of different experiences that we end up thinking about in these activities. And I do really worry because there are signs now that some of the arguments about transition, and net zero as it is so often framed, are becoming really polarised.” 

Another contribution emphasises the ‘real world’ nature of change that lies behind a simple word like ‘Transitions’.  “In the whole engagement debate, there is not enough being taught about how conflict arises and how you can’t make everyone happy. And especially for environmental transition, the expectation that there are some standards of living which we cannot continue: how do you have that conversation …. You won’t have a low traffic neighbourhood that will satisfy everyone because it involves some sacrifices. It involves making roads one way from two ways, taking some parking space. The new cycle lane is seen as someone else taking parking space and there are the trade-offs and everything.” 

Transitions - showing a car lane becoming a cycle lane
St Philips Causeway approach
Photograph: Workshop participant © 2022

Ultimately then, the conversation returns us to the adequacy of the words we use. One person summed it up by saying that ‘Transition’ is probably not the right word. “And I feel like that this exercise has really reinforced that, I think, precisely because it is so embedded in the language of the kind of top-down government initiatives. … So I think we need another word. What word would that be? I don’t know. ‘Transformation’? …. Because I think there’s stuff already happening that we can draw on and it captures a bit more of a sense of human agency. It’s actually a bit more hopeful. …. And I think ‘transition’ sounds a bit like ‘transition is happening whether you like it or not’. The word ‘transformation’, for me, means that it sounds like more of an opportunity, a kind of intention.” 

One participant shared with me that they didn’t have strong feelings about the word, as “I don’t use it much in my own work, my own life.” And maybe that is part of the issue, that it has little everyday purchase.

And another contributor offered a further alternative: “So should we be talking about transitions or should we be talking about revolution?” 


Find out more

Do contribute your responses below to be part of the conversation! See the Leave a Reply box underneath the existing comments.

Environmental Keywords is a short interdisciplinary project at the University of Bristol, investigating three keywords — ‘Justice’, ‘Resilience’ and ‘Transitions’ — that are common in the environmental discourses that shape how we think of, talk about and act on the ecological and climate predicaments facing us.

With funding from the Natural Environment Research Council, the project is led by Dr Paul Merchant, Co-Director of the University’s Centre for Environmental Humanities, and involves colleagues from different departments and disciplines, as well as local community groups, ClimateCultures members and other creative practitioners.

The project focused on three workshops in Bristol, facilitated by Anna Haydock-Wilson and complemented by online content here at ClimateCultures:

‘Justice’ — Wednesday 16th February 2022
‘Resilience’ — Wednesday 9th March 2022
‘Transitions’ – Thursday 24th March 2022

Anna has created this short film from the series, with contributions from Paul and the different participants who joined the conversations.

We have four previous posts in the Environmental Keyword series. ‘Justice’: Walking With the Word ‘Justice’ by Mark Goldthorpe and Permeability: On Green Frogs, Imagination & Reparations, a response from writer Brit Griffin. ‘Resilience’: Growing With the Word ‘Resilience’ by Mark Goldthorpe and A Nature More Resilient, a response by psychotherapist Susan HollidayAnd the main Environmental Keywords section has pages with other creative responses to these words from a number of ClimateCultures members. Look out for the ‘Transitions’ page, coming soon!

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
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