Curator and writer Veronica Sekules introduces her special essay for our Longer feature, using GroundWork Gallery’s recent exhibition to explore artists’ roles in helping change how we value what we discard, viewing our waste as art and heritage.
1,570 words: estimate 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.
In my essay, The Art and Heritage of Waste, I hope to counter the prevailing culture of extractivism by looking at how mobilising the creativity of artists can help us to rehabilitate waste as a transformative resource.
From March to July 2023, GroundWork Gallery’s exhibition The Art of Waste] featured the work of eight artists, all of whom were in different ways [bringing creative responses to waste that point to solutions, albeit on a tiny scale.
GroundWork Gallery — which I opened in 2016 — is situated in King’s Lynn, in Norfolk, UK, on the confluence of the River Purfleet with the Great Ouse. It lives in a converted little 1930s warehouse, a building we saved from waste, as the planners and heritage officials at first wanted it demolished “for something more suitable”. The gallery is dedicated to the environment and to the role of art and artists in helping us to rethink aspects of it, and to understand and treat it better, vitally urgent now in our times of crisis. I believe art can carry a powerful message or ‘voice’ to a much wider world than the narrow confines of the conventional art world, if only its audiences respond actively to it and communicate its innovative messages to wider publics, other disciplines and contingent professions. That is how we begin to achieve change — through bursts of inspiration, sudden insights, and above all through widening influence.
Environmentalists hate waste. This is the starting point for all the work I discuss in the essay, as artists hate waste too, and many of them are trying to find creative solutions to the way we think about it and literally view it. However, I’m proposing that we rethink the category of waste to include formally its relationship with art and with heritage, and think about the potential status of waste as both. The re-categorising and the status change involved will play a part in counteracting the extractivism which has contributed so significantly to the effects of climate change.
Artists working with waste for positive impact
Each of the artists in The Art of Waste used waste materials as creative resources, making use of surplus materials, implementing circular economies, being very economical in leaving nothing behind. As well as inventive practical strategies, the artists excelled in changing the status of waste, from that of detritus and ephemera, to be something precious and valued.
Jeremy Butler creates minutely detailed relief-assemblages which involve items that the artist has carefully crammed together to make complex formal architectures that hover somewhere between order and disorder.
Liz Elton makes large-scale draped fabric-like installations using compostable cornstarch, a material used in food waste recycling bags, which she colours with vegetable dyes made from her own kitchen waste, intercepted on its way to compost.
Caroline Hyde Brown makes work mainly in textile and paper, and is part of a bio-based collaborative group who are recreating textiles from Neolithic legumes, such as grass pea and more recently green manure crops such as Buckwheat and lentils.
Lizzie Kimbley works with woven textiles, natural dyes and basketry techniques, using principles of circular design to consider material sustainably in regard to its whole life cycle.
Kai Lossgott is a writer, filmmaker, visual and performance artist, and waste in his work has its own agency and is as much a metaphor as a physical phenomenon.
Eugene Macki is a sculptor whose work makes resourceful use of waste materials, often including food, and can be playful in making the most of the multiple meanings that result.
Jan Eric Visser creates sculptures from his inorganic household garbage, experimenting with new forms new materials, consistent with his own saying: ‘Form Follows Garbage’.
Rain Wu, whose conceptually driven work materialises in different forms and scales, works with waste and perishable materials to instigate discussions around our manifold relationships with nature.
The immediate impact of The Art of Waste was measurable to a degree from the visitor book comments. Responding to the exhibition, many visitors remarked that it was “inspiring, relevant and thought-provoking”. However, it was also “unsettling”, “bringing new perspectives on waste”. Some were moved to more action: “Interesting ideas, we need to reach out to everyone”, “WE NEED TO DO MORE”, “much needed”, “love being eco”, “we waste so much”, “educational and makes us aware of our industry and pollution”, “who knew waste could be so useful – makes you think”, “feels very dystopian”, “compulsory viewing for all politicians and their influencers”. One of the youngest visitors wrote: “Makes you think about waste. Awe inspiring”.
This positive impact was gratifying but just a beginning. It showed to an extent the desire of people to be receptive to new creative ideas and how these can stimulate our societal needs to change. However, beyond the specificity of the timescale and place of the exhibition, there needs to be a whole lot more thinking about how we can mobilise the creativity of artists and these kinds of responses to it. Where does it get us and where can it lead? What does that kind of power enable and what and whom can it both connect with and lead to?
Revaluing waste as heritage
As I explore in the essay, recent thought on waste has proposed various paradigm shifts that involve changes in consumer habits, moving away from a throw-away economy of short-term use and of things ‘becoming useless’, to one of waste as asset creation. Some argue that waste as an entity ought to be entirely avoidable, or even non-existent, providing that materials, foods and resources are used by people with greater economy and efficiency. Within the framework of Discard Studies, the entire concept of waste is open to interrogation from all points of view. In sympathy with that interrogative framework, I suggest that a paradigm shift in the way waste is categorised will help us all to prioritise what and how and why we save the stuff of the earth. Increasingly, students of waste, entrepreneurs repurposing it and artists creating with it are recognising that waste needs to be rehabilitated as a transformative resource, not stuck with the shifting values of random commerce or the vilification applied to detritus.
In setting the framework for further discussion, I hope my essay raises in outline some of the issues in the definition of heritage and of the potential for waste as heritage. It touches on some of the enormous complexities of the subject of waste, such as how and where is waste accumulated and what are the problems of distribution. I touch on the subject of who the various categories of ‘we’ are who are creating the problems. Then, taking a lead from a series of artists’ projects, I take a look at two specific contentious waste subjects in more detail: landfill sites and plastics, and how they might be faced afresh. The ways these subjects have been tackled by artists, writers and archaeologists hold the key to the category shifts we need, from dumps and surpluses to treasure, from waste and trash to art and heritage.
The innovative ways in which artists are using waste materials can lead the way to a shift in values, potentially turning what is currently a burden into a heritage asset. Categories of definition matter and both art and heritage are relevant. Waste’s role as heritage, specifically, needs to be brought into focus more, in order that we give greater value and the right kind of longevity to all the earth’s material and how we are using it. Shifting values affect attitudes. Applied at scale, that is one way the idea of waste as bulk mess and detritus can end. Instead, if surpluses, leftovers and spent materials are sorted not only by reuse potential, but as categories of art and heritage, this re-categorising can turn a negative into a positive asset and environmental benefits and economic consequences can follow.
Find out more
Veronica’s full essay, The Art and Heritage of Waste, is the third piece in our Longer feature, where members share original works, or ones that haven’t appeared online elsewhere, and which don’t fit easily into the regular ClimateCultures blog; Longer provides space to explore in more detail creative and critical responses to our ecological and climate crisis.
GroundWork Gallery in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, UK, is dedicated to art and environment. It shows the work of contemporary artists who care about how we see the world. Exhibitions and creative programmes explore how art can enable us to respond to the changing environment and imagine how we can shape its future. The Art of Waste ran from 18th March to 15th July 2023.
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?
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
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.
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.
Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973) Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155–169.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Land C and King D (2014) Organizing otherwise: translating anarchism in a voluntary sector organization. Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organisation 14 (4): 923-950.
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
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.
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
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).”
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Climate Change, Mike Hulme’s book exploring how the idea of climate change is shaped and used in different ways and how its meanings help us navigate climate change as predicament rather than problem.
2,900 words: estimated reading time = 11.5 minutes
“Climate change is an idea of such size, scope, and imaginative power that it escapes the capacity of any one person to grasp and for political institutions to resolve.”
The very first words in Mike Hulme’s climate book are “Not another climate book!” We’ve all read (or read about) so many different works, from the IPCC’s periodic reviews of the state of our scientific knowledge through to the polemical treatises for one solution or another. Contextualising his own book alongside some of these — the popular guides “developed for specific audiences —‘dummies’, children, planners, or environmental lawyers — and innumerable ‘short introductions’,” Hulme doesn’t neglect the work of creative writers, mentioning both the increasing volume of literary and genre fiction and its academic coverage. So-called Cli-Fi has rapidly become so well established that by 2018 it already needed a volume called Cli-Fi: A Companion.
So Hulme rightly asks “What more possibly is there to add?”, and his response convincingly adds up to: ‘quite a lot’. Or, maybe, ‘everything’, because we’ll never run out of things to say about the subject. “Climate change is not ‘over’,” he reminds us: neither in the science that underpins our knowledge, nor in coming to terms with what it means for us and our current cohabitants on the planet and its future travellers; and not in the sense of being encompassed or contained within any one field of knowledge. “There is a ‘further beyond’,” he tells us: “Plus Ultra, the epigraph engraved by Spanish grandees on the Pillars of Hercules at the Straits of Gibraltar at the turn of the sixteenth century.” By analogy, collectively we’re all in the straits now, at the beginning of a new age of human experiences of what the world is becoming and what it means to be human within it. And so there will always be a need for new guides and their challenges to the multiple ways we have of grasping, and failing to grasp, these questions.
Climate change is best regarded not as a problem needing a solution but as a predicament. In contrast to problems, predicaments “can neither be solved through engineering nor resolved through politics. A predicament just won’t go away. What predicaments need,” Hulme suggests, “are stories. Interpretive stories — what some may call guiding myths — through which to understand the predicament and to come to terms with it.” Which doesn’t mean just accepting it, standing still. The stories we tell about our predicaments are ways to find our way through a shifting landscape, in ways that seek, sustain and generate hope. “To live with it — but also to move on.”
“It is possible to use the idea of climate change creatively to bring about desirable change in the world without remaining hostage to the impossible dream of subjecting the condition of global climate to human will.”
Geography — Mike Hulme’s own field of knowledge — is a useful discipline from which to start out, taking in its own traditions of both physical and human sciences and offering space to incorporate and adapt insights from many other disciplines. Both in the main text and in many informative and illustrative vignettes throughout, this book draws on what science historians, social anthropologists, environmental economists, political ecologists, indigenous activists, geohumanities and literary scholars, sociologists, and a range of sub-disciplinary and interdisciplinary geographers have to say about climate change. At the same time, Hulme admits this is a very different book to any that researchers from any of those disciplines might offer, or even other geographers from other cultures. It’s the partial and provisional nature of our knowledge that he emphasises. Knowledge, made through scientific or other practices, occurs in particular settings, from where “it moves between people and travels between places.”
“Climate change has today become a synecdoche – it ‘stands in’ – for the status and prospects of people’s changing material, social, and cultural worlds. And these worlds are always in the making … the meaning of climate change is never fixed, nor can it ever be exhausted.”
This book has as its focus our ideas of climate change, and how those ideas have been expressed in different times and cultures, shifting and mutating as they move between them, never settling forever. Climate change “becomes an idea used to different ends.”
The earlier sections provide historical-geographical perspectives through lenses of culture and science — especially cultures of science practised by empires, superpowers and global institutions that have constructed, expanded but also contained our understanding — to become a focus of public concern, debate and mobilisation. The relationships between public and expert understandings are critical to how debates, media coverage and shaping of policy all play out and affect each other. In the middle sections, Hulme sets out different positions within two broad camps, ‘science-based’ approaches on the one hand and ‘more-than-science’ ones on the other. A crude distinction, but “a helpful device for exposing how the idea of climate change becomes imbued with multiple meanings across diverse social formations”. Finally, he discusses the future: the ways it’s being imagined now and how different understandings of climate change are trying to direct our attention to making the ‘right’ future happen. We all have positions to take and world views at stake as we try to steer the planet into one future and away from others. What ideas of climate change will come to dominate?
Between facts and meanings
What does climate change mean? Hulme suggests that broadly ‘science-based’ meanings are espoused in ‘reformed modernism’, ‘sceptical contrarianism’ and ‘transformative radicalism’. Respectively, these seek to assimilate climate change into projects of progressive technological and political development; to contest the nature or significance of climate change as a ‘thing’; or to mobilise it as a vehicle for profound social change. And in the equally expansive territories of ‘more-than-science’ positions are ‘subaltern voices’, ‘artistic creativities’ and ‘religious engagements’. These seek to supplant or speak back to the dominant scientised narrative, to reimagine it, or transcend it. One of many ‘subaltern voices’ he references is the ‘trickster’ figure — for example, represented in North Pacific cultures in Raven — that “acts as a mirror for humanity by reflecting people’s relations with the environment. Raven challenges the illusion of control that is promised by scientific knowledge and geoengineering technologies.”
Whether “getting the science right’ is the fundamental prerequisite to policy, as each of the first three otherwise differing positions assert, or we hold that science alone cannot define our knowledge and we can foreground other forms of lived or derived environmental knowledge, the meanings these six positions enact are continually constructed, sustained and deployed in our various discourses. As Hulme points out, “actions are not determined by the facts in themselves”; our choices are guided by interpretations of facts. This is why understanding the different meanings we and others attribute to our changing climate is an important early step, although not an easy one.
“How do people make sense of something that on the one hand is both physically and discursively unavoidable in the contemporary world, but that – at the same time – exceeds human ease and the imagination? Earth system scientists and literary critics alike grasp at the intangibility of climate change.”
They grasp in different ways, and each is important. Exploring creative approaches and listening to marginalised voices can offer ways to make the abstract particular where scientific knowledge-making, of necessity, strives to derive global, abstract truths from the overabundance of specifics that the natural world presents us with. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a project like ClimateCultures, the second half of Hulme’s book resonates most strongly, for all the value of the earlier, clear accounts of dominant (although fiercely competing) ‘science-based’ positions on climate change. We need to go ‘further beyond’, while maintaining a commitment to data building, knowledge construction and world modelling, if we are to grasp the many meanings of climate change and the responses we can best enact. At the very least, we need to see that scientific knowledge itself travels and translates as it moves among different places, people and processes of making sense of change.
“What climate change means locally is not simply the result of downscaling global kinds of knowledge” for, as global climate science rubs up against local subjectivities, the multiple resists becoming singular. The three broad approaches Hulme outlines as ‘more-than-science’ have much to offer as we come to terms with, celebrate and harness the “mobility and the mutability of the idea of climate change.” And these multiple voices and ways of knowing merit being listened to on their own terms, rather than merely as an attempt to ‘improve’ data and modelling.
“If science is de-centred from accounts of climate change … then different possibilities open up for identifying the underlying causes, challenges, responses, and solutions to climate change. Resisting the assumption, instinctively made by scientists, that climate change is all about molecules of carbon dioxide, global carbon budgets, modelled predictions of future climate impacts, or even about local weather extremes, makes it possible to supplant the idea of climate change using very different assumptions.”
Governing the idea of climate change
As we move into the latest global negotiations at COP27 and reflect back on the milestones (or fractions of miles) of the previous COPs, it’s worth reflecting on the concluding section of Hulme’s book, Climate change to come. The first chapter here addresses the thorny question of governing the climate and the proliferation of actors involved. For 1988’s UN General Assembly resolution, which led the way for the Framework Convention at the 1992 Earth Summit, and thus the 2007 Kyoto Protocol and 2015’s Paris Agreement, climate change was “to be regarded as a pathological condition of modernity that threatened ‘the heritage of mankind’.”
As the global regime has developed, so too the regional, national and sectoral interests that translate, advocate for and supervise what and how policies are implemented. The “agents of climate governance” now reach well beyond formal, global institutions, taking in “building inspectors, venture capitalists, media producers, trades unionists, monks, aviation authorities, professional sports clubs, farming extension officers, public celebrities, and national energy regulators.” Every kind of human activity affects the climate, and is affected by ideas of climate change. And so the annual COP attracts more and more participants, observers and influencers.
It’s not the climate itself that’s being governed here, of course, but the regulation of human technologies, behaviours and mechanisms to mitigate the causes of climate change and adapt to its unavoidable impacts. Hulme investigates and summarises these approaches to governance, including state-centric and polycentric models: the use of standards and certification, carbon markets, citizens’ assemblies, judicial courts and ‘climate services’ such as the ‘Forecast in Context Map Room’ tool developed by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies for decision-making in disasters.
“[G]lobal temperature is not an entity that is directly tractable to intentional human action. Governing temperature therefore requires governing the full range of human activities and technologies … and the imaginations that give rise to them… Governing global climate therefore becomes an exercise in governing the collective of human societies but where the power to do so exists in no central or identifiable location.”
Given climate governance’s “totalising reach”, as Hulme identifies it, paradoxically perhaps it’s a profound relief as well as an insurmountable obstacle that no human institutions can ever have the global power to understand, decide and dictate the scale and scope of response that’s needed. There is no governing ‘matrix’. As Hulme says, “far from … vision[s] of a coordinated and intelligent Earth System Governance framework, a more plausible metaphor for climate governance is that of a clumsy multilayered meshwork of overlapping and competing competences and interests.”
Hulme finally moves to the realm of realist and speculative imaginaries of the climate to come and how “events that have not yet happened in reality, happen in the imagination.” As such, now as in history, “future climate imaginaries wield extraordinary power over the present.” He reminds us of the totalitarian party diktat in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four — “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past” — and suggests that with respect to climate change, Orwell’s aphorism might come full circle: “Who controls the future, controls the present”. In this light, the “hopeful imagery offered up in the Paris Agreement”, of a global future climate to be kept under 1.5o to 2.0oC above pre-industrial levels is an especially powerful future narrative attempting to motivate and constrain human behaviour to a global pathway. But as such it “does not necessarily trump all other climate imaginaries … [and]prompts the obvious question: Whose imaginaries count most?”
Among the artistic responses to ideas of climate change Hulme references is The Weather Project. Olafur Eliasson’s 2003 installation in the Tate Modern’s cavernous Turbine Hall “reminded visitors that humans are unavoidably bound up in the making and experiencing of the weather.”
“Human activities are increasingly co-producing the vaster space of the atmosphere and the climates that it yields. Through his installation Eliasson was saying that there is no standpoint outside of the weather from which humans can stand and objectively observe, measure or manipulate the atmosphere … For humans to live culturally with climate is for climate to be inescapably altered.”
The different practices of ‘futuring’ — drawing on science, fiction, metaphor, modelling, myth, scenario-making, visualisation or other techniques — need to recognise that our futures are not reducible to climate alone but are many-sided; are produced and conditioned on different scales, not just the abstract global scale; and have geographies and histories. Also,
“imaginaries are not merely imaginaries. They are not simply inert figments of a fertile imagination. Sociotechnical imaginaries operate across the boundaries of the perceptual and the material. They can bring real worlds into being, for example carbon capture technologies, driverless vehicles, intelligent robots, or space tourism.”
Although discussed as a separate way of futuring the climate, along with models and scenarios for example, metaphor is perhaps something so intrinsic to human imagination and our faculty for language that it underpins the others as much as it stands out for investigation in its own right. As Hulme says, “metaphors help us grasp something new or unfamiliar by associating it with something more familiar and everyday.” Think of the ‘greenhouse effect’ or ‘carbon budgets’. Not intended to be taken literally, metaphors “help explain an idea, enable a comparison, or provoke a line of thought.” And metaphors are perhaps especially helpful in thinking through non-linear aspects of the complex and unpredictable world around us. Think ‘tipping points’, ‘planetary boundaries’, ‘runaway climate change’ — metaphors that Hulme picks up as phrases emanating from Earth Systems scientists. Or think ‘global thermostat’, ‘sunscreen’, or ‘insurance policy’ — metaphors deployed in the world of geoengineering. ‘Geoengineering’ is itself a metaphor, of course, one that projects as a solid science the risky business of presuming to tinker with the planet at its own scale. As Hulme says “metaphors can be hard to spot and can act as political Trojan horses” (and there goes another one), so it’s worth being on the lookout for them. Metaphors can also point in different directions, as he suggests with ‘The Anthropocene’.
“Is the Anthropocene a way of drawing attention to the awesome – but unequal – powers and responsibilities people now have for shaping the climatic future? Does it provoke a questioning of the character and wisdom of the Anthropos – the human – who has given rise to this epoch and its unequal power relations? Or does the Anthropocene metaphor dissolve the old binaries of modernity that separate nature from culture and so recognises that climate is no longer natural and never again can be?”
The overall thrust of this book is how — given the diversity of human imagination and experience, and the ever-changing state of our knowledge of the world — there can be no single narrative of climate change. Certainly, no singular strategic narrative directing what ‘we’ must do or what ‘climate’ we must end up with. There are many present experiences and understandings of what a climate is and what climate change means; and therefore many futures at stake, and many practices for reaching out to them and making use of them today. But who, in the end, can resist a convincing and pithily stated narrative?
“An indefinite future of a physically changing climate, now brought about largely by human hands, has to be confronted. But also to be grasped is the fact that the idea of an unsettled climate is with us forever.”
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Climate Change by Mike Hulme (2022) is published by Routledge. You can read about Mike’s work and thinking on climate change over many years at his website.
Some of Mike Hulme’s ideas have helped shape previous ClimateCultures blog posts, including The Stories We Live By, where Mark discusses metaphor and other aspects of our discourses and narratives on our relationships with the rest of the natural world, as explored in a free online ecolinguistics course created by ClimateCultures member Professor Arran Stibbe and volunteers from the International Ecolinguistics Association.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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?”
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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-Wilsonand 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.
Writer Mick Haining discusses the role of stories in helping to bring about change to mobilise, not paralyse, the XR Wordsmiths group that he’s part of, and their call out for new Solarpunk stories that give us hope.
1,530 words: estimated reading time = 6 minutes
Stories form and change the way we think and therefore act. The ‘stories’ we are told as children by our family tell us about our relatives, our neighbours and the place in which we live and we form attitudes and behaviour as a result. Growing older, we read and watch TV — we may not fight in Vietnam or Yemen but the stories we swallow help us decide who the ‘good guys’ are. Reality at times makes us doubt the veracity of some stories but never all. There’s a difference, of course, between stories that constitute our communication of events to one another and stories that are deliberate works of art. It’s the latter I deal with here. (As an ex-teacher, I became used to student excuses that were clearly works of fiction but not intended as works of art…)
Clever stories can shake earlier beliefs — I was OK as a young man with capital punishment until I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Stories may be warnings about what to avoid. The 1966 film War Games by Peter Watkins showed graphically and horrifically what could happen in the event of a nuclear air-strike on the UK — it seems credible that it and two subsequent films, Threads and The Day After, have actually helped the planet avoid a nuclear conflict. Stories, though, can also show us not just what to avoid but a goal to aim at.
Promoting our bond with life
The human race, steadily and somewhat blindly, has been creating the conditions for a future about as bleak for the whole planet as a nuclear war would create. There’s a growing sense of how cataclysmically awful that might be from an increasing number of ‘stories’ in the media and in art. That in itself might prompt some to change their lifestyles — even from a sample of only 100 U.S-based readers, a 2018 Yale study found that climate fiction (‘cli’fi’) nudged readers “in a slightly more progressive direction”. However, the same study concluded: “From the emotions these readers described, it is clear that their affective responses were not only negative but demobilizing.” For us — humanity — to find a way to cope with and maybe mitigate the climate extremes that we have already locked in, we need stories that will not paralyse but mobilise. We need stories that will give us hope, stories that will not just ‘nudge’ but inspire readers to act in ways that show respect for the nature without which we could not possibly exist. We need stories to help us create societies that appreciate and promote our indissoluble bond with life in all its magnificence on the only planet we have.
That’s where Solarpunk comes in. I am a writer with XR Wordsmiths and we are launching a showcase for writing stories in that genre. Some of you may be in the position I was in a few months back — despite shelves full of books and an age full of years, I had never heard of Solarpunk. To save some of you the trouble of looking it up on Wikipedia, their definition is that “Solarpunk is an art movement that envisions how the future might look if humanity succeeded in solving major contemporary challenges with an emphasis on sustainability problems such as climate change and pollution”.
I’ve personally never written anything myself in a purely Solarpunk style though I did write a series of short stories set in the quite near future where I imagined a small group living on a very small peninsula who were rediscovering skills that instant meals and supermarket shopping had eroded. Their names relate to what they contribute to the community — the central character is ‘Reader’ and there’s Little Crabber, Big Fisher, Cobbler, Wireman, Knotter and a pile of others. It’s a little like Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker though set much, much closer to the present day and thus the mutations of cultural conventions are in their infancy — the local bandits are called ‘vikings’ even though they know all about horses and nothing about ships. In the first story, ‘Easter’, the hero’s daughter sings a Christmas carol…
It isn’t that the characters have “succeeded in solving major contemporary challenges” but they have found a way of surviving that doesn’t just bring constant fear — Reader still finds time to read to his daughter and on the extraordinary day when snow falls for the first time in the lives of most of the inhabitants, there’s a snowball fight and a snowman built.
Solarpunk — writing as hope and defiance
For our XR Wordsmiths showcase, we say that: “whether you are totally new to the world of eco-fiction or a seasoned enthusiast, this contest is open to any adult, teenager, or child who wants to combine their passion for writing with getting the message out there about the climate and ecological emergency.”
Maybe, like me, you don’t quite have the nerve — yet — to be arrested at a demonstration. That’s probably why I’m with XR Wordsmiths. There are several dozen of us but only a small core of about half a dozen get together via Zoom every Sunday at 4.00 p.m. to work out ways of welding words that might move people to rise peacefully and effectively against the authorities that seem to move like sloths in relation to the climate and ecological emergency.
We were XR Writers for a while but there’s another group of XR Writers who are actually published authors so we gracefully changed our name to avoid confusion and better match our work — we write letters, slogans and we’re even on the verge of completing a book for publication, a gardening handbook, in fact. If that seems a little odd as a form of rebellion, our intention is not to teach people how but to persuade them to take gardening up as an act of hope and defiance — you don’t plant a seed in the belief that it will never germinate. If any of you reading this want to join us on a Sunday, you’d be most welcome!
But here, then, is your chance to rebel through the Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase. This is your chance to put pen to paper and to put people on the path to a better future than might be the case. You may not find many or even a single, complete answer to all of the problems we have been piling up but, as an Al Jazeera piece in 2014 declared, “this is a life-or-death situation now, one in which even partial solutions matter.” So — tell us a story. Transform our futures, one word at a time…
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You can submit as many stories as you like to the XR Wordsmith Solarpunk Showcase, there are three age bands and the word limit is 2,500. Submissions do, sadly, have to be in English at present but subsequent years may differ. The submission deadline is 14th September 2021.
The winning entries will be selected by a panel of judges that includes eco-poet, writer and ClimateCultures member Helen Moore (who wrote about her own writing practice in our recent post Wild Writing: Embracing Our Humanimal Nature), children’s climate fiction writer Gregg Kleiner, Ecofiction YouTube vlogger Lovis Geier, and Green Party politician Zack Polanski. Winners will have their stories published in the XR Global blog and on the Rapid Transition Alliance website. Other prizes include three £1000 scholarships to the world’s first global online climate school terra.do.
You can explore XR Wordsmiths via their site and blog (get in touch via xr-writers [at] protonmail [dot] com), and Mick also mentioned XR Writers, whose work is featured on the main Extinction Rebellion site, including a podcast.
There is also XR Creative, an evolving anthology of songs, fiction and poetry that’s inspiring, meaningful and original, and that reflects the principles, concerns and values of the Extinction Rebellion from a global, regional or local perspective. You can read three of Mick’s Tales from the Nab at XR Creative: Easter, The Journey, and The Flare.