Entrepreneurial thinker, practical activist and artist Nicky Saunter shares the Hope Tales project she’s working on to find creative ways to make sustainable futures and talk about the role of hope, imagination and story in facing climate change.
1,170 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes approximately
My work with the Rapid Transition Alliance is frequently a strange mix of dreadful fear and awe-inspiring hope. Our field is bang in the middle of climate change and therefore features a daily stream of reports, commentary, data and science on how poorly we tiny humans are doing in curbing our overconsumption and weening ourselves off our drug of choice that is fossil fuels. It is a veritable tsunami that threatens to overwhelm us every day: as wide as it is deep and moving faster every day. It can seem too large to approach with any purpose or clarity. Feelings of panic and hopelessness start to flutter in our bellies — you are probably feeling this already. What is more, climate change is now part of a ‘polycrisis’ — a perfect storm of catastrophic issues, from social division and isolation to pandemics and ecological breakdown.
Grim stuff indeed. But then suddenly in comes a story about yet another person or group who get together — often without much money to start with but a big idea — and do something that is simply brilliant and gives us hope for the future. And I can take a breath again.
Creativity for building change
The significance of this maybe lies less in the actual idea and the ‘fix’ that is being applied to a particular part of this vast issue. Instead, it lies in the inspiring way that single humans continue to work together in the face of impossible odds to cooperate, create and heal — often with surprising success. Despite what pundits would have us think Darwin said about the survival of the fittest and the drive for ruthless competition, we are excellent at cooperating and skillful at creative thinking. We are also capable of fast, practical action. The bit we find hardest is to stop either scaring ourselves witless or putting our fingers in our ears and waiting for all the horrible stuff to go away. How do we open our eyes, follow the science and use our creativity to design and build a new future together on this beautiful planet?
Our Hope Tales project focuses specifically on this feeling; looking at creative ways to make a sustainable future, and talking about the role of hope, imagination and story in facing climate change. Hope Tales is a collaboration between the Rapid Transition Alliance, the Centre for Public and Policy Engagement at the University of Essex and the New Weather Institute, using the power of story to investigate real hope for our future. The Rapid Transition Alliance is known for its research and publications on “evidence-based hope” — stories from the near and distant past that illustrate how real rapid change might be made. But the Hope Tales work has pushed further into the field of creativity, using fiction, poetry and art to stimulate both thought and action on potential new ways of living on Earth.
Air, Land, Water – Hope Tales in place
The concept is simple: to gather a group of people in a specific place for a few hours to share short performances of their work on a given topic. The overarching theme is Hope and each event looks through the lens of a further elemental subject. So far, we have looked at Air in a beautifully appointed vintage cinema in Crystal Palace, considered the Land in earthy Somerset in an old woollen mill, and felt the pull of Water in ancient Colchester as part of the Essex book festival. We have held a pinecone on our palm while telling the story of a tree planted by suffragettes, we have woven local plants into plaits in thanks, we have watched oysters clean river water of our filth, and we have listened to the tale of two plaice swimming the seas of Eastern England. We have met a lot of new people, shared spaces and tea and mince pies with them, laughed and gasped in equal share, wondering at the ideas of others and the beauty of their self-expression.
Once the event is over, the content prepared for this one-off performance is then compiled into a small and beautiful book, called a ‘chapbook’. Chapbooks were small, cheaply produced books widely sold and highly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sold by a ‘chapman’, they were used to publish popular or folk literature, almanacks, children’s stories, folk tales, ballads, political prospectuses, poetry and religious tracts. Our own chapbooks follow this tradition of broad subject matter, bite-sized pieces for easy reading and made to be shared and passed on.
Pandemic learning in action
There is something about the forming and sharing of creative work in an intimate space for a one-off performance that generates excitement, concentrated listening and a keen enjoyment of what others bring. It also reminds us how such interactive and collaborative forms of entertainment are so much more fulfilling to all than the treadmill of consumption we so often ride.
Part of the inspiration for this work came from the global pandemic, during which a flourishing of creative, homemade entertainment was shared and enjoyed worldwide without huge investment or any financial purchases being required. The Rapid Transition Alliance documented this flowering of generosity and creativity in a series of short reports that looked at examples of positive stories. Remember how nature returned and deer wandered through empty shopping malls? How ballerinas unable to dance on stage took to their kitchens and balconies for impromptu performances watched by millions stuck at home? How people of all skill levels took up pencils, paints and brushes, tried sculpture, made their own clothes, sewed and crocheted for each other? How we mended our old stuff, swapped it with others, cooked for those who couldn’t and planted seeds once again?
Hope Tales is taking the pandemic learning and putting it into action with a real focus on place. We try to choose towns that are not big, wealthy or famous for anything in particular. We are showing the diversity of the ordinary and the stories that lie around us in droves, just waiting to be heard and acted on.
The next Hope Tales event is at the fabulous Margate School on 31st October from 6.30-9pm. Join us.
You can explore the work of the Rapid Transition Allianceto share inspiring and varied examples of rapid transition and show what kind of changes are possible, how people can help to shape them, and what conditions can make them happen.
The New Weather Institute is a co-op and a think-tank, created to accelerate the rapid transition to a fair economy that thrives within planetary boundaries. The Centre for Public and Policy Engagement at the University of Essex supports academic communities build partnerships with policymakers and the public so that research and education at the University of Essex can improve people’s lives.
Artist Kim V. Goldsmith shares her work with Regional Futures in NSW, Australia, exploring people’s feelings for rural territories. We need to listen better to each other, ourselves, and more-than-human worlds for more collaborative approaches to the future.
2,600 words: estimated reading time = approximately 10 minutes + option audio pieces
Few of us in the ClimateCultures network would dispute that rural and regional territories across the world are on the frontline of climate change. In the past six years, south-eastern Australia has experienced severe drought (2017- 2019), described by our national weather bureau as “a situation with no clear historical precedent” , followed by the unprecedented bushfires of 2019/20 that burnt 5.5 million hectares or seven percent of New South Wales (NSW) , and just last year, record rainfall events resulted in floods across south-east Queensland and NSW considered to be in our top three historical natural disasters. These are not records to take pride in.
Listening to regional futures in New South Wales
In early 2022, when I was given the opportunity to delve into how people in the regions of NSW feel about the future, it was knowing I’d be working in the heartland of politically conservative Australia , where farming and other primary industries are heavily reliant on fossil fuels. I have lived and worked in this part of Australia for most of my life. Despite the devastating impact of drought, fire and floods on these communities, the majority in rural Australia will unfailingly continue to vote for conservative parties. As happened in May 2022, when the Labor Party returned to power in Canberra but little changed in regional electorates. This pattern of voting behaviour continued to result in a similar outcome in the 2023 NSW State election — where the political battlefront was Western Sydney not Western NSW. The only real change has been more conservative Independent candidates in the race against the parties they were once part of.
In her book, How to Talk About Climate Change in a Way That Makes a Difference, Dr Rebecca Huntley writes: “There is clearly a disconnect between what people say they are worried about and want action on and who, when given the chance, they pick to lead their country.” Huntley references Per Espen Stoknes’ book, What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, where he writes: “For those of us who find ourselves stuck in the moral conundrum of the climate doom story, passive denial offers an easy way out.” One might argue that voting actions are perhaps more active denial, as we’ve seen in regional electorates.
However, Huntley also talks about the constant repetition of climate change facts and figures as a familiar script that can leave us cold or, even worse, bored, creating a collective stupor. What the science tends not to recognise is our messy social realities — the rising cost of living, housing shortages, poor health services, personal safety, and mental health issues. The day-to-day chore of living tends to take priority over environmental concerns.
As an artist, my interest over the past decade has largely been creative interpretations of acoustic and social ecologies — the intersection of human and more-than-human species in often fragile and vulnerable rural and regional territories. When the opportunity to be part of a project called Regional Futures came up through the NSW Regional Arts Network — funded by the State Government — I was keen to develop a series of works that would give a voice to the voiceless in our regional environments, and provide a platform for under-represented individuals in the regions to share their fears, anxieties, hopes and dreams of the future — things we are not often asked about. My project is called Vaticinor (The Augur), a reference to predicting the future by observing natural signs.
Over several months, I spoke with 18 residents of the Central West and the Mid North Coast regions of NSW, in an inland/coastal conversation about how the transition to renewable energy sources might shape net-zero regional futures.
Aged 15 to 70, the storytellers in this montage all believe Regional NSW is a wonderful place to live but their stories and concerns are genuine and their messages urgent.
My home region of the Central West was the first Renewable Energy Zone (REZ) to be declared in Australia because of its potential (and proximity) to contribute energy to the national electricity market through large-scale solar and wind developments. It’s being billed as a power station of the future. The NSW Government is overseeing the development of the zone, including transmission projects, and expects up to A$5 billion in private investment to the region by 2030. The intended network capacity of this zone is three gigawatts, enough to power 1.4 million homes .
What this looks like on the ground is kilometre after kilometre of rolling hills or cleared flat, red soil country covered in black solar panels — shiny sun-seeking faces dominating the landscape; and giant, white wind turbines, blades gracefully arcing against blue skies, spread across thousands of hectares of farmland. Some of these developments sit on farming land while other parcels of land are dedicated to the cause.
Communities within the REZ are torn about the good these massive clean energy developments offer, despite the negotiation and distribution of community fund sweeteners. Some see solar panels and wind turbines as an eyesore — impacting the visual amenity some regions have come to rely on for attracting new residents and tourism; others believe it is poor use of productive agricultural land needed to feed and clothe us into the future.
The regions, particularly those inland, are doing much of the heavy lifting when it comes to energy supply in the form of food and power production. Cities and more densely populated coastal areas are facing critical land and housing shortages, with limited capacity to produce food or power for their growing populations; they will lean more heavily on the regions in years to come .
Investments into renewables is an opportunity for some who have fought to remain viable through droughts, floods and seasons of low productivity; solar or wind hosting arrangements are providing the financial security they need to remain on the land they love.
Karin Stark lives on a farm near Narromine — a particularly conservative rural community in the Central West, where she has driven the conversation around renewable energy in agriculture. With her credentials in environmental science and farming, she’s keen to see rural and regional communities empowered in the transition to renewables, particularly in areas where there’s large-scale development.
“It’s important that agriculture does continue to develop and adapt to different technologies, different weather events, to secure our food supplies. But I think really with energy and food we need to have a more interconnected or integrated way of thinking, so that we can do both in this region.
“There needs to be more focus on the distribution level of allowing farmers and regional communities to produce the energy themselves rather than (rely on) these massive solar and wind farms.”
Some are quietly fearful of what the future holds for rural communities despite the work being done to adapt. Fourth-generation Narromine farmer, Bruce Maynard won the prestigious National Landcare Award in 2022 for his agroecology work and advocacy, believing that broadening the on-farm biodiversity base also means broadening the productive capacity. He firmly believes people are the reason behind doing any of this.
“I do feel somewhat challenged and pessimistic about rural communities in Australia in particular, in that they continue to shrink. I put people first, landscape, and then business third as serving those other two main factors … for any of our efforts out here to be worthwhile, I believe it needs a thriving community.”
Conversations with discomfort and hope
Transitions to new ways of being and thinking don’t come without discomfort and a strong sense of inequity. For those not privileged enough to buy into the renewables revolution or who are simply more concerned about their personal safety and putting food on the table, the conversation about climate change and what that means is still abstract.
Having recently moved to the Central West for a job following tertiary study, 25-year-old Bageshri still has close ties to India.
“There are people I have grown up with that have way more complex issues to deal with, just regarding their safety or the place that they live.
“I definitely think people who can make change are people in positions of power, people with money, people with influence. We just need to really look at who we’re voting for, and elect people who actually think about the future.”
Stephen Callaghan moved to Dubbo in Central West NSW about six years ago, to an area of the city he describes as a low socio-economic area. To offset rising power costs, his family used a small inheritance to invest in a solar battery system. It’s something they felt they couldn’t afford not to do.
“I honestly don’t know, looking at our electricity bill, how some of our neighbours are coping.
“I can see a future where it’s not going to be survival of the fittest, but it’s definitely going to be the haves and have-nots, and it’s going to be related around power and energy.”
Net-zero targets by 2050 were described by 16-year-old high school student, Madelyn Leggett as being like a homework assignment. She has a very strong sense of her place in the world and is itching for the day she can exercise her vote.
“People procrastinate and procrastinate, and nothing gets done and then we reach December 2049, and we go ‘Oh! Nothing’s happened!’ We still haven’t changed enough, and there still hasn’t been enough policy or legislation passed to make an effective change or impact on the environment.
“I think the political push for a net zero world is there. And I think it does affect people’s outlook on how we see the future and I think it affects the way that people consider not just consumerism but voting and democracy, and how they consider their political actions.”
As parents of young children and living off-the-grid in a coastal forest on the Mid North Coast, Aliya Aamot and her partner are passionate about guiding their children through a more ‘self-efficient’ way of life.
“These children that grow up in the bush, with parents who are teaching them life skills, this is what the planet needs for the future.
“It’s very important for us, especially kids in cities to know this process of where the food comes from, how it’s been grown… There’s just so much nature will teach the children just by letting the children be in nature.”
Collaborative, more-than-human regional futures
It’s very easy to put humans at the centre of this conversation — we do it all the time. However, there’s a growing awareness that our future hinges on a more collaborative approach, where more-than-human species gain more rights  and a greater voice. This is what has really underpinned my interest in the Regional Futures project and the works I developed through Vaticinor.
I’ve observed the discord at the intersection of the human and more-than-human species across rural and regional territories, yet to be resolved. The multi-track soundscape composition, Humi, I created for the Regional Futures exhibition brings the sounds of the more-than-human together with the built structures and technologies we’ve created for our convenience, including renewables, weaving together a story around this uncertain period of transition between our past and our future. The work is accompanied by a haptic experience, reducing the soundscape to vibrations through 3D-printed hands, reminding us we are one with the sonic world whether we hear it or not.
The signs of what potentially lies ahead have been there for some time now, but as Stoknes suggests, ignoring them may have been a way of dealing with the discomfort. The cocoons we’ve woven around our lives in rural and regional Australia and beyond are unravelling in the face of extreme weather events, or as James Bridle puts it in Ways of Being: Beyond Human Intelligence: “…tiny moments of turbulent activity through which we can barely grasp an unseen, unknowable totality.”
As we come to terms with that totality, the challenge will be creating equity for all in the transition to a fossil-fuel-free world at the same time as developing a more connected and entangled life with those other species we share the planet with — those who remain mostly voiceless. We need to listen better to each other, to ourselves, and to more-than-human worlds. In the meantime, we shall continue to sit with the discomfort of our choices.
The Humi soundscape composition is a story of the discordant interdependence of human and more-than-human species against a backdrop of pressing time. Weaving their way through the composition are sounds of species not often heard by the naked human ear or those given little thought to in our daily busyness — earthworms, bats, fish, individual birds in choruses of birdsong reverberating through remnant forests on the edges or urban development and cleared farmland. Meanwhile, manmade structures click and thrum, boom and hum — solar arrays, wind turbines, dam walls, motorboats, and fossil-fuelled vehicles — designed for our convenience and enjoyment, creating around-the-clock noise within worlds we do not hear or see.
The first Soundcloud audio piece in Kim’s post is a 39-minute montage of 18 storytellers sharing their thoughts about the future, presented for exhibition as part of the ‘Regional Futures’ series of exhibitions in NSW Australia, in a vintage suitcase, upholstered in custom-printed fabric, with postcards of links and invitations to audiences to share their story.
The second Soundcloud audio piece is ‘Humi’ (in/on/to the ground), a 15-minute composition of field recordings, transitional tones and chords melding sounds of the Mid North Coast, Manning Valley and Central West of NSW into one story; a story of the discordant interdependence of human and more-than-human species against a backdrop of pressing time.
The sound and text works of Vaticinor will be shown in Sydney from 24th June – 24th September 2023 in Regional Futures: Artists in a Volatile Landscape, at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Western Sydney.
In the second of three collaborative posts reviewing Ecoart in Action, artists Claire Atherton, Beckie Leach,Genevieve Rudd and Nicky Saunter find plenty to discuss in a sample of the book’s rich collection of international ecoart case studies, complementing its earlier activities.
2,000 words: estimated reading time = 8 minutes + optional 18-minute video
The book Ecoart in Action: Activities, Case Studies, and Provocations for Classrooms and Communities has contributions from 67 members of the Ecoart Network, a group of more than 200 internationally established practitioners. This is the second part of a three-part review from four members of the ClimateCultures network, conducted as a set of conversations and short personal texts.
In their first post — Ecoart Activities – Working With Place & People — participatory arts practitioner Claire Atherton, teacher and storyteller Beckie Leach, environmental community arts projects leader Genevieve Rudd and entrepreneurial thinker and practical activist Nicky Saunter looked at some of the book’s 25 suggested activities and shared their experiences trying some of them. They’ve since met again on Zoom to share their thoughts on Section 2 of the book, which offers a wide range of 26 case studies from around the world.
As with the ecoart activities they discussed last time, part of the value of this conversational approach has been the different affinities and interests that our four reviewers bring to the exercise and the different access points they find in the case studies. The book’s intended audience is, of course, very diverse in terms of practices, backgrounds and areas of focus, and different readers will want to apply their learning from the case studies in different ways.
Free range conversation
While one of our artists read all the case studies to explore the range of theories and approaches, others flicked through, picking one or two case studies that most resonated with them. An early part of the conversation picked up on what is naturally a more theory-based quality to case studies compared with suggestions for practical activities, and how the book navigates the pros and cons of this. What Genevieve had identified as the ‘dip-in-and-outable’ approach of the activities in Section 1 is clearly an advantage here too.
Claire: “What I like about it is that it goes into a lot more detail and you’ve got some of the theory and some of the pedagogy behind it, in terms of why they’d done what they’ve done. And I liked the more academic approach [but] I wouldn’t read through all the case studies from the start, because they are long and weighty.”
Genevieve: “I was really glad that, like the first section, it wants you to read on; it’s been designed to be really accessible. It’s littered with these diagrams and graphics. For me, that kept my attention because big blocks of text, I just find that too much. I really value that there’s the same approach as with the participatory, ‘how to’, part — the same style of presenting it is in this more theoretical side. It feels more digestible to me.”
Nicky: “Some of them are quite text heavy but they are broken up very clearly… Being the ‘action’ person, sometimes I went straight to the outcome section and looked at that and thought ‘That looks interesting’ and went back and read it. And sometimes it was useful to read it in that order so I knew what they were getting at.”
Beckie: “I think I’m slightly torn between how theoretical they were, that theory side — and feel that reading all the case studies together would get very repetitive in a way, whereas dipping into one or two was really nice — but also, as case studies of things that happened with people in them, I didn’t quite feel like I got enough of the people and their stories and how they found it. Which maybe is coming from a different angle.”
That last point was important to Claire too, who as a community artist feels that knowing what the people involved got from the project would help her decide what and how to take from the case study: “At the end of the day, the reason that I do what I do is for the people that I’m doing it for.” And Genevieve took this further, reflecting on how some of the themes in the case studies address climate justice or violence in different contexts, which can be “a really personal, direct experience, and something more of that could have been amplified. That ‘humanness’ of it.”
As you will see in the video extract from their free-ranging conversation, as well as taking ideas from several of the book’s case studies and their personal impact, our four reviewers took these and the book itself as opportunities to touch on important questions: what is included in ‘ecoart’ and who decides, what remains accessible and for how long after a project has ended, what is the legacy, and how might this field of practice become more visible with funding for cross-disciplinary work? In some ways, this book is an embodiment of the value of these questions and current responses to them.
Ecoart case studies: creative activism
Each reviewer also offered a short text to say more about the case studies they picked out.
As I seemed to be drawn to case studies that focus either on broad community-wide projects or single engaging actions, I decided to choose one of each to comment on here.
Sick-Amour is the name given to Joel Tauber’s case study on a tree in a “sea of asphalt” in front of the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California. Over a period of time, Joel lobbied on behalf of this tree’s health, drawing attention to its beauty and the possibility that it could be propagated. Using film, community participative sculpture, and a local programme to take care of over two hundred of its “babies”. There is a reality and poignancy to this case study, as the original tree was chopped down some time later — a sad and shocking end to such a compassionate and inclusive piece of work. But the babies survive to make new trees for other places in the future.
Artist Residencies for Environmental Change is at the other end of the spectrum — a series of activities by a variety of artists along the thirteen kilometres of Plum Tree Creek in Taiwan, polluted by rapid industrialisation, high-density population and intensive agriculture. Together they engaged over 80,000 people over more than a decade. Five different local artist teams used participatory programmes to create a huge range of activities together with educational institutions, NGOs, professionals and local residents. The main idea was to re-engage people in this fairly new town with their environment through this single river, which had been artificially straightened and was struggling ecologically. Partnerships with international artists brought different perspectives and activities, ranging from puppetry to walking maps, story-led conversations to local business engagement.
These two examples — and there are many more in the book — give a flavour of the range and scale of the work described. Whatever your own practice and working environment, there is something here you might replicate or gain inspiration from.
The range of case studies in EcoArt in Action is exciting — there is such a variety of projects. For the purposes of this exercise, I have focussed on one (but it was very hard to choose). I was drawn to Kerry Morrison and Chrissie Tiller’s The Faculty of Social Arts Practice. This case study draws important links between socially engaged arts practice and Ecoart practice, looking at how both are collaborative and interdisciplinary. This is a boundary that my arts practice regularly walks and I found nuggets of gold in the suggested activities as an artist, and in their pedagogical approach as a teacher, particularly around the exploration of individual and collective identity and embodiment.
The case studies are short and I would have loved to see more depth — either from an artistic or pedagogical viewpoint (or both) — and heard more on the contents of the activities and experiences of participants. I can see beautiful ideas emerging about trust and risk, vulnerability and not knowing.
After reading this case study I am left wondering how I can find ways to let go of control in my practice — how can I collaborate more? Can I collaborate beyond the boundaries of species and discipline?
When we moved on to exploring the Case Studies section of the EcoArt in Action book, there was one image that stopped me in my tracks whilst flicking through the pages. Basia Irland’s Ice Receding/Books Reseeding is a fascinating case study of climate art. The image of a young child sitting on the bank of a river, ‘reading’ a book that — in the place where the words and images might be — sprouts lines of living seeds. The child sits with their legs crossed on the floor and their hands open, as if the stories of the living plants might be absorbed into their body from their still presence. I loved this example of climate art, which deftly balances expressing the melting and rising of sea levels with the quenching and reseeding of land.
This book carved from ice has, as Irland describes, been recreated around the world. In the way of water, my own imagination swells from the idea that each book melts and another book freezes from the same matter, flowing through the world’s water courses. For me, this case study is a beautiful example of an environmentally ‘light touch’ creative project, which is ephemeral in nature, whilst connecting with people and seamlessly communicating its rich complex message — I’m inspired!
It’s not enough to simply make art about the environment; as this book demonstrates, when you consider the lifespan and impact of the work beyond its installation or engagement, that’s ecoart in action.
I was drawn to Mo Dawley’s Wondering the Artist Book (an ecoinspiracy), as I am currently designing and producing a professional development and wellness support programme for Freelance Artists and this caught my attention. As it states in the overview, “the artist book [is] a consciousness-raising art form that conspires to question weary paradigms by inspiring wonder through multisensory connectivity”.
I was most interested in the different examples that are quoted throughout the case study and enjoyed looking up all the examples (although it must be noted that not all the links were active, which led to an interesting discussion about digital legacies and what happens when websites are no longer active or you leave a place of work and are removed from the website).
I totally resonate with Mo Dawley’s comment “At its essence, the artist book experience helps us to discover that our willingness to be open and engaged is ‘activism'” and I look forward to using the concept of Artist Books within my programme and await, excitedly, the outcome.
This has been a review of the book’s second section, which offers 26 different ecoart case studies. For their discussion on Section 1 — with 25 activities for artists to experiment with — see Ecoart Activities – Working With Place & People.
Geographer Martin Mahony introduces work with students using object-based learning to explore the material and intellectual challenges of thinking about human-environment relationships in our new planetary era — and launches a new ClimateCultures feature: Museum of the Anthropocene.
1,450 words: estimated reading time = 6 minutes
When I was first appointed to my teaching post in UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to develop a 3rd–year module on a topic of my own choosing. The only restrictions were that it needed to appeal to the School’s new and growing cohort of geography students, and broadly fit within the School’s long tradition of research-led and problem-oriented interdisciplinary teaching.
Given the groundswell of interest within geography and beyond in the notion of the Anthropocene, and the platform the concept has created for critical cross-disciplinary dialogue about the causes and consequences of global environmental change, I opted to build a module around this new way of thinking about human-environment relationships. I opted too to use the module to introduce students to three vibrant sub-disciplines which, in their different ways, have engaged with the material and intellectual challenges of the Anthropocene, and might be transformed by it: historical, political and cultural geography.
Object-based learning — making the abstract concrete
But even with that disciplinary scaffolding, I still faced the challenge of finding something for the students to grab onto; something around which they could focus their intellectual energies, which could situate the usually abstract debate about the Anthropocene in particular places, times and contexts. I hit upon the idea of collaboratively building a Museum of the Anthropocene, into which students would submit an object which they took to be particularly eloquent of the historical, political and cultural transformations which define this proposed new slice of geological time.
That lead me to read into the world of object-based learning (OBL)1, which has grown in popularity as a novel pedagogic practice of putting material objects, rather than texts, at the heart of the learning experience. For many of its proponents, it can transform student engagement with a topic by ‘grounding’ abstract knowledge and theory, and by awakening a wider curiosity about a topic.
Object-based discourse has risen to wider cultural prominence too – witness the preponderance of books and documentaries on a ‘History of X in 100 Objects’. In an Anthropocene context, objects can be a powerful way of grounding and situating an otherwise abstract and universalising discourse, of stressing the intertwining of matter and culture in human-environmental relations, and of helping audiences and students to cut a path through a thicket of historical and political complexity. The ClimateCultures series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects is a wonderful illustration of how objects can help in tracing the connections between the personal and the planetary, and was an early influence on my teaching practice.
My module, ‘Human Geography in the Anthropocene’, runs over 12 weeks. Students are invited to start thinking about an object in week 3, to confirm their choice by week 6, and to be ready to submit their object and some accompanying text by week 9 or 10. We then stage the Museum as a sort of pop-up exhibition, inviting other members of the School to come and interact with the students and their exhibits. Students then have around three weeks to turn their public-facing text into a formal academic essay about what their object tells us about the historical, political and cultural geographies of the Anthropocene.
Thinking our way creatively into the Anthropocene
While object selection is hard, and developing connections and insights into complex academic debates is difficult, students have generally responded really positively to the challenge. It gives them a freedom to explore something that is important to them. Sometimes that comes in the form of a family heirloom – a grandfather’s mining lamp, or a bank note from a Burmese PoW camp – or a person, social movement or work of art that allows students from groups that have been under-represented in Anthropocene discourse to explore the causes and consequences of environmental transformation from a deeply embodied viewpoint.
Other students get interested in the lives and afterlives of certain materials, like plastics, and how – in the form of ‘plastiglomerates’, for example – they represent the literal fusing of humanity with the stratigraphic record. Others home in on the material politics of oil and petroculture, or opt for new or emerging technologies around which new, more sustainable lifeworlds might be built.
I try to encourage students to think and write creatively; to explore the ‘scalar derangements’2 of the Anthropocene that take, for example, the banality3 of the suburb or the strip mall and redefines it as part of the ‘terraforming assemblages’4 that are remaking the planet with troubling consequences for human and nonhuman life. Sometimes the exploration of those connections and derangements can be deeply troubling, but throughout we emphasise – by leaning heavily on Bonneuil and Fressoz’s excellent The Shock of the Anthropocene5 – that the environmental crisis is not an accident. Nor is it the result of ‘human nature’ or even some inalienable nature of capitalism. The Anthropocene was not the inevitable outcome of human ‘development’, but was rather a product of political choices, made by people and collectives in particular places and times. We explore the politics of historical responsibility and blame6, but the overall point is the historical contingency, the non-inevitability, of the Anthropocene.
As such, to explore the agency of objects is to explore human agency too. To examine, for example, how a technology as seemingly simple as an oil barrel has helped shape economic markets, political movements, and even democracy itself7, is also to examine how our socio-material world has been put together, and how it might be remade. So while our Museum of the Anthropocene can sometimes resemble the wreckage growing skyward at the feet of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Angel of History’8, we emphasise throughout that the Anthropocene could always have been otherwise, and therefore that it still could be otherwise. To break the Anthropocene down into some of its constituent and material parts, we can begin to imagine how it might be put back together differently.
Philospher Walter Benjamin’s concept of the ‘Angel of History’ was a response to the artist Paul Klee’s 1920 painting ‘Angelus Novus’, which Benjamin referred to in section IX of his 1940 essay Theses on the Philosophy of History. The image is used with Benjamin’s full text here.
ClimateCultures is delighted to be working with Martin to bring a selection of his students’ work to our site. Visit our new Museum of the Anthropocene section for further information on the project and an introductory selection of objects from previous students on UEA’s ‘Human Geography in the Anthropocene’ module. We will be adding new objects from the current students very soon. And for Anthropocene objects suggested by our members, visit A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects series.
A human geographer interested in the contemporary politics of climate change, how future atmospheres are imagined, constructed, represented and contested and historical geographies of environmental knowledge-making.
Composer Stanley Grill shares his Music for the Earth project and how his feelings about climate change have a way of turning into music evoking connections with the natural world and our obligation to be caretakers, not destroyers.
1,880 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes
By nature, I’m a loner and a contemplative – not an activist. By practice, I’m a composer – and music has, since childhood, been a source of solace and a world more real to me than the world of people and all of their strange beliefs that strike me, by and large, as entirely unhinged from reality. I am not a religious person, but inclined to believe that most of the stories people tell themselves to explain the world are fantastical illusions.
The view of mankind as a unique species somehow granted dominion over the Earth, a view held by many of the world’s dominant religions, seems evidently false – an example of humanity’s limitless hubris and nothing more. It seems to me that for the entirety of our existence on Earth, we have told ourselves such stories in order to silence the sheer terror that comes with an awareness of our insignificance. Perhaps Rainer Maria Rilke said it best and most poignantly when he wrote, in the opening lines of the first of his Duino Elegies, “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angels’ Orders? And even if one of them pressed me suddenly to his heart: I’d be consumed in his more potent being. For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we can still barely endure, and while we stand in wonder it coolly disdains to destroy us. Every Angel is terrifying.”
Dating back to the very beginnings of human civilizations, our primary driver seems to have been the desire to subdue the terrors of that great Angel, the Earth, with its (incomprehensible in their vastness) forests, deserts, mountains, oceans, storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, and wild beasts. As our skills with technology grew, we walled ourselves in, we paved over the ground, we burned or hacked away at forest and jungle, we wantonly destroyed creatures we feared, and worst of all, abandoned our elemental connection to the Earth and its bounties, perceiving ourselves as somehow separate and apart from (and superior to) the myriad living creatures with whom we share the planet.
Our exact trajectory along that path is largely unrecorded and lost. What role did we play in the destruction of many long-extinct species as our species spread across the globe? How many once flourishing habitats did we transform into barren desert? Wreaking environmental havoc is not something new for us – it is a very ancient habit. Our relatively recent recognition of our role in climate change – and the fact that we’ve coined a new name for it – doesn’t change our past. We’ve always done this, even if the full extent of our impact on the planet is far from understood, remaining, perhaps forever, unknowably lost to time. The Anthropocene started a very long time ago.
The connectedness of everything
While our need to tinker with the world without comprehending the consequences and ripple effects of our actions has been in our DNA from the start, the speed of those ripples has grown exponentially in the past century, exacerbated by vast increases in our numbers and our technological capabilities. It was only recently that I learned about the disappearance of the Aral Sea, one of all too many examples of overly confident people setting out, perhaps with good intent, to change one thing, without having a clue as to the consequences. The connectedness of everything was understood, to some extent, by at least a minority of people since the beginning of time, but lost time and again. And occasionally rediscovered.
While his books may now collect dust in libraries, Alexander von Humboldt discovered it for himself in the late 18th century, writing that “in this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation,” becoming perhaps the first explorer with a modern scientific outlook to acknowledge and document human-induced climate change. Those who tinkered with the Aral Sea would, one wants to hope, have thought better of their plans if they had read some of Humboldt’s books describing the impacts of deforestation he witnessed during his journey through South America. But, perhaps not, especially if profit is the driving motivation.
As I write this, struggling to frame out my thoughts, trying to piece together into a coherent whole the bits and pieces I’ve picked up without any organized study over the years, I always wind up face to face with the reality that, as bleak as our prospects may look from today’s vantage point, I am entirely powerless to do anything about it. For sure, all of this was beyond my ken as I was growing up. The inventions of our age all seemed so exciting and the future so filled with promise. Looking back, the repercussions of our actions seem evident, but then, we are all far more ignorant and stupid than we ever think we are. But, one fact stands out – the planet and the life on it is all one interconnected web and we tug and pull or tear any strand of it at our peril.
Music for the Earth
Which brings me around to where I started. Whatever my feelings and thoughts are about this subject don’t really matter much. I can do little or nothing about it. But I am a composer – and while notes and ideas have little intrinsic connection, my feelings about climate change and the bleak future we’re careening towards at an ever more rapid pace do have a way of turning into music. We humans have always told ourselves stories to explain what we don’t understand or can’t control – and, guilty as charged, I tell myself stories for the same reasons.
I started a Music for the Earth series a few years ago, with the idea that perhaps, through music, I could have some small influence on any who heard it. Putting small black dots on paper that transform into vibrations in the air might serve to evoke in others a feeling of connection with the natural world and of our obligation to be caretakers, rather than destroyers, of the life that everywhere surrounds us. A story I tell myself…
Over the past several years, the series has grown – and more recently, I’ve started to get the music recorded. And I’ve created videos, either on my own or in collaboration with others, with music from Music for the Earth. These include Canciones de la Tierra, settings for mezzo soprano and viola of seven bucolic poems by Federico Garcia Lorca about the Andalusian landscapes that so inspired him. I find myself repeatedly drawn to Lorca’s poetry in connection with my thoughts about climate change and, more particularly, with my conviction that a corollary to our disconnectedness from the natural world is the ease with which we accept environmental catastrophe and human-caused mass extinctions without feeling a deep sense of shame and loss.
Lorca’s poetic and passionate essay The Theory and Play of Duende often comes to my mind when composing music. “The duende … Where is the duende? Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odour of a child’s saliva, crushed grass, and medusa’s veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.”
We cannot really feel unless we are elementally connected to the life of the Earth. And, the corollary to this is that we will be unable to change our relationship with the Earth and all of the life on it unless we understand and feel duende. For Lorca, the spirit of duende was to be found in the Andalusian countryside, and so I turned to his poems of Andalusia for Canciones de la Tierra.
“Remember, you are this universe…”
Remember is a video collaboration with dancer/choreographer Mariko Endo (previously showcased on ClimateCultures) with music for viola and piano, intermezzi with themes inspired by poems of the Earth. The music in this video comes from the fifth and final intermezzo in my composition Remember – which is based on a song from my The Whirr of Wings composition – to a poem of the same title by poet laureate Joy Harjo: “Remember, you are this universe and this universe is you.”
Sea & Sky, for two violas, is a collaboration with violist Brett Deubner, the music inspired by and composed on walks along Cape Cod bay.
And, for the future, time and resource availability permitting, will be recordings of Gaia’s Lament for violin & orchestra, Gaia’s Song for piano and orchestra, Ode to Thea and Sulla Natura for string quartet, The Whirr of Wings for chorus, flute, viola and cello, and A Single Thorn for soprano, French horns and string orchestra, setting poems by Canadian poet Meg Freer.
Best wishes for a greener planet.
And for any reading this, musicians or not, if curious about the Music for the Earth project, do browse through my website and, even better, if any others active in ClimateCultures want to collaborate on a project, please reach out. We can tell that story together.
Find out more
You can explore more of Stanley’s Music for the Earth and other projects at his site and his YouTube channel, and two of his works have featured in the ClimateCultures Creative Showcase: Remember, mentioned above, and Ahimsa.
The image “Endangered World: Life Wall” shows the work created by artist Xavier Cortada. “Cortada created “Endangered World: Life Wall” using 360 red bricks along with stones deposited in the Netherlands by glacial forces during the last ice age. The work is a 2.1m x 8.5m wall created near the nation’s largest neolithic gravesite at the Hunebed Center in Borger. The 360 bricks represent 360 animals struggling for survival across 360 degrees. On each brick, Cortada painted the longitude where each animal lives. When a species dies out, the number is painted black. The animals are part of an interconnected web that includes humans. How many bricks can be removed before the wall of life comes tumbling down?” You can explore Cortada’s work at cortada.com.