ClimateKeys – Moving Climate Conversations Centre Stage

— approx reading time: 11 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opportunities to imagine, to begin talking

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

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

“Fremd” (strange)
Exhibited at PowPowPower, London, November 2017
Artist: Frederik Marks © 2017
https://www.instagram.com/sh0tkiller

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

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

Local coverage by the Palm Beach Daily News, 4th November 2017 www.palmbeachdailynews.com

Necessary, desirable and achievable

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

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

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

Taking on procrastination

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

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

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

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

Moving out of the concert hall

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

ClimateKeys at Syracuse University London, 14th November 2017

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

Find out more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questioning Venue? Space for creative thinking...  

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

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

By Understanding COP23, We Can Help COP24 Succeed

— approx reading time: 3 minutes

One of the great benefits of working with TippingPoint on its final set of events over the past couple of years was meeting such a number and diversity of great people, all working in their different ways on the creative challenges of environmental and climate change. This is a theme which James Murray-White picks up in this joint Members' Post by him, Lola Perrin and Paul Allen. 

In their video, James and Lola discuss with Paul his experiences at the COP23 climate change conference in Bonn - which also featured in his recent ClimateCultures post, where he looked ahead to COP24 in 2018. As Lola says here, "it’s vital to know what happened at COP23 so we can make our strategies on how to work towards making COP24 a success;" and this three-way discussion - with others' questions posed via Facebook - is a valuable insight for those of us who couldn't be there in person.

One weekend in November, film maker James Murray-White and composer Lola Perrin travelled to the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales and met with Paul Allen, Project Director for CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain research. With live questions from a Facebook audience, the three discussed the highs and lows of COP23 and what is possible in the transformation to a post-carbon world. This is the short video of their conversation.

Lola Perrin

“I followed COP23 quite closely on Twitter, watching live video events, and reading blogs and Facebook posts from attendees. What could be possibly be missing from this list… Mainstream media? You’re right. Despite the very survival of our civilisation being at risk, mainstream media seemed not to care very much about COP23 during the whole two weeks of the event, with very little coverage of the work going on in Bonn. Yet it’s vital to know what happened at COP23 so we can make our strategies on how to work towards making COP24 a success.

“Holding a Facebook live Q&A with Paul was a good opportunity to find out more about what went on in Bonn and share that conversation with others. Before the interview started, we made the decision to keep it short. Although we could have spoken for an hour or more, by keeping the film to fifteen or twenty minutes, we felt more people would watch the whole of it, and perhaps we would take care not to be repetitive. This was a good decision; on listening back I think the conversation is concise and to the point. People sent in questions in advance or also during the live video feed.

“And as a bonus, we sat in my favourite room at CAT – although it was cold it didn’t matter much; there was an aroma of wood in the air, and gorgeous views of slate on one side and forest on the other – an inspiring environment for sharp, hopefully positive, thinking.”

James Murray-White

“I’m delighted that Doing Nothing is Not an Option – TippingPoint’s 2016 conference at Warwick Arts Centre – gave me the opportunity to meet inspiring creative activists. This recent weekend is just one example of a positive outcome from that gathering: travelling to Wales with Lola to interview Paul at the awesome Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth, and then hosting the video of that here on ClimateCultures – created by Mark, who was such a key part of DNNO’s organisation.

“The issue of climate change is tough and throws up daily challenges – in seeing its effects, trying to communicate ways to respond, and simply by carrying around the knowledge of human impact upon planet Earth. But here is a small example of a few folk coming together to discuss, dissect and communicate, and then using this platform to put our efforts into the world and explore practical, creative and positive opportunities rather than spreading doom and gloom. I’m grateful for it, and for the warm, committed people who I’m proud to call my friends in this shared effort.”

 

Find out more

You can read more about Paul’s recent experiences at COP23 at the Centre for Alternative Technology blog – and about the challenges for next year’s talks in his recent ClimateCultures post, The Beating Heart of COP24

You can download Zero Carbon Britain resources and sign up for the next Zero Carbon Britain training course.

Explore the official UN climate negotiations process at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

COP ClimateCultures Callout 

Were you at COP23 or related events here in your community? Do you have experiences, arts ideas or creative suggestions about what we can take from COP23 - or what was missing - and could help make COP24 what we need it to be? Use the Contact Form to send in comments or contributions for more COP-related posts and content here at ClimateCultures. And check out our 'Questioning the COPs' creative challenge with Paul's recent post, The Beating Heart of COP24

 

The Beating Heart of COP24

— approx reading time: 4 minutes

ClimateCultures welcomes a new voice to the blog, with Paul Allen sharing his reflections after taking part in the COP23 talks in Bonn - and looking ahead to the cultural challenges for COP24 next year. Paul is Project Director of the Centre for Alternative Terchnology's Zero Carbon Britain programme.

We humans live by our values, shaped through, communities, experiences and culture. Our communities and our experiences are increasingly compelled to engage with climate change, but can our culture also grasp it?

At the next year’s UN climate summit, we will have reached a point in the negotiations where all nations must raise their ambition if we are to deliver on the Paris Agreement. As we prepare, it is vital we recognise the influence of culture; in helping us grasp exactly where we are in the world and the scale and speed of the actions we must take. The arts and creative community, in many ways the beating heart of culture, has a powerful role to play in this.

From the bubble of forgetting where we are …

From shifting seasons to wild weather, communities across the UK now experience both the large and small effects of climate change in their own back yards. On top of this, as we watch the global news, we see increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as forest fires, floods, hurricanes and droughts, hitting communities in other parts of the globe. But then, as the news ends, and normal TV  returns, the characters in our films, soaps, dramas and reality TV series simply never discuss this. They never take any of the actions we know we must all take; they never discuss any of the changes we know we are seeing. This creates a bubble in which we have forgotten where we actually are in the world, where we can ignore what we know we need to do, and where we never witness the positive co-benefits that rising to our challenge could offer.

To make matters worse, every time contemporary culture tells a story of human interactions set a decade or two into the future, we paint it against a background of ecological collapse and zombie-ridden dystopia. Turning us into zombies works well to dehumanise society in ‘collapse’ scenarios, so making the mass-extinction narratives more palatable. Be it a novel, theatre, film, a TV or the gaming world, any future setting is dark – and a whole new generation is now growing up within this, transforming the way we think. We have shifted from that exciting 1960s vision of progress and anticipation, to a dark, uncertain and fearful future; which makes us easier to manage. If we only tell future stories set against chaos, collapse and devastation, no one can imagine positive solutions, so nothing happens.

So, as we move towards COP24, with its urgent need for ambition, it’s time to re-think the future. Evidence-based art, firmly rooted in the reality of where we are and what we must achieve, can bring to life exciting new stories. In stories of a future where humanity has delivered on Paris, and is enjoying the co-benefits – what would change and what would remain? What would we be doing, wearing or eating? How would we get around? Where and how would we spend our holidays or leisure time? What will drive our happiness in this new chapter of our story?

To visualising a climate safe future

A decade of Zero Carbon Britain research from the Centre for Alternative Technology has clearly demonstrated that we have all the tools and technologies we require. Powerful research is now emerging from across the globe at an accelerating rate, offering the hard data and confidence required to visualise what a climate safe future might actually be like. Rather than an unresolved technical challenge, it is increasingly accepted that what we actually face, is a mix of political and cultural barriers.

In the run-up to this year’s COP23 climate negotiations in Bonn, I was heartened to see Julie’s Bicycle working in collaboration with the UNFCCC to offer a weekly spotlight on arts and cultural responses  to climate. It is now time to build way beyond the scale of arts engagement achieved at COP21 in Paris. As we prepare for COP24, our cultural community needs to engage deeper with this process. This does not necessarily mean being on-site during the negotiations; ongoing engagement connecting local and community actions with the global process is every bit as important.

Giving a Hand to Nature
Artist: Pedro Mazorati © 2017
http://pedromarzorati.com

Since the Paris Agreement, mainstream UK media has barely engaged with the COP process, so few are able to connect with what goes on. Surely progress in providing a safe niche for future generations is every bit as important as the latest X Factor or Bake Off? So, to help explore new approaches, in the run up to COP24 I am seeking collaborations across the creative community to build on our Zero Carbon Britain work, and have pulled together a short film to offer a glimpse into my engagement with COP23 in Bonn in November this year. 

Find out more

You can read more about Paul’s recent experiences at COP23 at the Centre for Alternative Technology blog.

You can download Zero Carbon Britain resources and sign up for the next Zero Carbon Britain training course.

Explore the official UN climate negotiations process at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

You can see more images such as Pedro Mazorati’s from the Art4Climate series at the UNFCC Climate Action pages.

Questioning the COPs? Space for creative thinking... 
 
Bali, Berlin, Bonn, Buenos Aires, Cancun, Copenhagen, Doha, Durban, Geneva, The Hague, Kyoto, Lima, Marrakech, Milan, Montreal, Nairobi, New Delhi, Paris, Poznan, Warsaw... We've had 23 'Conferences of the Parties', with next year's in Katowice, Poland. Where, when and how would you hold the COP where the world celebrates delivering on 'Paris 2015'? Why there? Sketch out a 'creative timeline', mapping out how you think we might get there... 

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

The Stories We Live By

— approx reading time: 8 minutes

I've been taking a new online course on ecolinguistics and it's been fascinating to delve into how we structure and receive our various discourses - texts, dialogues, advertising and news reports - in ways that shape our attitudes and beliefs on environmental, social and economic issues. And maybe some of the learning here is helping me get past a barrier in my thinking about climate change...

The Stories We Live By is a free online course in ecolinguistics, created by Arran Stibbe at the University of Gloucestershire and a team of volunteers from the International Ecolinguistics Association. A programme that you can study at your own pace, with an optional online forum, it looks at how language structures our environmental relationships: stories as “structures in the minds of individuals … or across the minds of multiple individuals in society.”

“Ecolinguistics analyses language to reveal the stories we live by, judges those stories from an ecological perspective, resists damaging stories, and contributes to the search for new stories to live by.” – Arran Stibbe, course notes

There are many ways of viewing the environmental challenges we face – from the bright ‘can do’ optimism of ecomodernism to the darker ecology realms of ‘uncivilisation’ and beyond. But what they have in common is a recognition that the stories we’ve told ourselves to get to this situation – stories we’ve told ourselves into – have created an urgent for us need to find new ones, better aligned with environmental imperatives.

Those old stories include those our Book Club is discussing, in Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics: myths of the unquestioned need for endless economic “growth”, narrow indicators of “healthy” GDP figures, “free markets” steering us clear of the “tragedy of the commons”. But the ideological limitations of stories can also be seen in environmental world views that shape competing planet-saving blueprints – an area also discussed in Mike Hulme’s book Why We Disagree About Climate Change.

I’m about half way through, and enjoying the very clear notes, exercises and further reading on offer with each module: moving easily but with much thought through discussions on ideologies, framings and metaphors, with fascinating examples and questions. The course will also take me through how we use stories to evaluate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the world, the identities we hold as individuals and groups, our convictions about the way the world is, and how language makes some issues invisible.

‘Words from a Glossary’ #1, Image: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017  Glossary: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk

Ecolinguistics and our stories

This could all be quite heavy, freighted with all sorts of academic terminology (‘ecolinguistics’ itself, for example). Fortunately, the notes and exercises have a light touch, using clear everyday language in between the necessary (and interesting) smattering of technical stuff (a helpful glossary covers all those new words and phrases). The course is not about finding the “correct” way of talking about the natural world and our relationships with it; there is no single, “right’ story. Yes, ecolinguistics invites us to judge the stories we receive from media, government, businesses and campaign groups, use in our professional and personal lives, or tell ourselves. But “judging a story from an ecological perspective involves comparing it with [our] own ecological philosophy, or ecosophy” – and recognising in the process that ours is one of many; our judgements are always relative to that personal perspective. 

So what does ecolinguistics involve?

  • It focuses on discourses that help shape how we act towards human and other beings and ecosystems.
  • It looks for how linguistic features form our cultural codes: the values and norms that reflect our ‘common sense’ view of the world.
  • It reveals our own ‘ecosophy’ and how different discourses align with or contradict this.
  • It raises awareness of the role of language in ecological protection or destruction, through policy, education, news and entertainment.

Early on, ‘the Ecosophy Quiz” asks us to assess our own ecological philosophy, accepting or rejecting a number of statements on a spectrum from cornucopianism, sustainable development, social ecology, ecofeminism, deep ecology, transition movement, dark mountain project, deep green resistance, voluntary human extinction movement and beyond. Interestingly, there were no overtly religious or spiritual statements to dis/agree with, which seems a lack given the central position of faith in cultures, countries and personal lives around the world.

‘Words from a Glossary’ #2, Image: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017 Glossary: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk

The problem with problems

I’ll focus more on specific aspects of the course in another post, but one early point for me has been to get me to revisit my own position, that climate change is not a problem – in the sense that it’s not something with a ‘solution’. That perspective unsettled rather than shocked me when I first heard Mike Hulme suggest several years ago. It did shock many others in the room – a gathering of people with clear ideas of what the solutions are, and a drive to get them adopted. I came to agree with Hulme’s point pretty quickly, as it spoke to my growing unease with our failure to really get to grips with … the problem. His book gave strong pointers as to why framing climate change as ‘a problem’ is a problem – at least if you want to solve it. But what I’ve struggled with since is finding an approach that really improves on ‘problem’. ‘Wicked Problems’ is a good way to conceive the messy entanglements of cause–effect–side-effect–cause, but wicked problems still seem to trigger a ‘solutions’ mindset. I looked into that with my first post, where I picked up on ‘clumsy solutions’ as a way to address ‘wicked problems’, but I could see that something was missing; proposing the idea of ‘wicked cultures’ offered part of an answer.

Hulme had also looked at ‘clumsy solutions’ in his book, “as a way of escaping from the idea that, when faced with contradictory definitions of problems and solutions, only one definition must be chosen and all others rejected … Clumsiness suggests that we construct our problems in such a way as to make them fit our capabilities for solution-making …” But he accepted that even clumsy solutions won’t ‘solve’ climate change; they will be partial and contradictory in what they deliver, not just in their methods.

“We must recognise the ‘wickedness’ of climate change and we must appreciate that while clumsiness – with all its contrariness and messiness – is perhaps the limit of our human ability to respond, it will not deliver the outcomes we seek.” – Mike Hulme.

As he points out, the idea of climate change is changing how we understand and live in the world as much as the physical phenomena we call ‘climate change’. The idea works for us – doing different work for people with different world views. In identifying some common myths behind our world views, Hulme comes back to stories: myths that embody fundamental truths, “powerful shared narratives which may bind together otherwise quite different perspectives and people.” These myths might be lamenting the loss of our ‘natural’ climate and environment; or presaging the coming apocalypse as we crash through all our tipping points; or saving ourselves through our geoengineering/GM/nuclear/nanotech mastery; or a call for and celebration of justice for the dispossessed, exploited and marginalised. He ties these neatly to Judaeo-Christian Biblical myths of Fall, Armageddon, Babel and Jubilee; others are available, of course, and these are not mutually exclusive.

Landing on “climate change as idea” rather than “climate change as problem”‘ is perhaps in danger of leaving us high and dry with grand narratives similar to those that got us in here (and have so far failed to get us out again). I’ve been looking for something more … down to earth, more pedestrian. Less likely to appeal to our messianic tendencies.

‘Words from a Glossary’ #3, Image: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017 Glossary: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk

The predicaments we live with

The Stories We Live By is not an examination of the language of climate change; its scope is the full range of ecological issues. But it does explore different framings of climate change – for example, as ‘security threat’, as ‘violence’, as ‘business’, as ‘problem’, or as ‘predicament’:

Climate change framed as a security threat: “Instead of treating the climate crisis as an environmental issue, to be dealt with by environment and energy departments alone, we need to reframe it as the overwhelming threat to national and global security which it is.” (Caroline Lucas, Green Party)

Climate change framed as violence: “Call climate change what it is: violence. Climate change is global-scale violence, against places and species as well as against human beings.” (Rebecca Solnit, writer, historian and activist)

Climate change framed as business: “Let’s reframe sustainability as the biggest and boldest supply chain challenge yet, to give the 9 billion people we expect to see on the planet quality and sustainable lives. Business is good at giving customers what they want, so let’s get on with it.” (Alan Knight, Virgin)

Climate change framed as problem: “The best solution, nearly all scientists agree, would be the simplest: stop burning fossil fuels, which would reduce the amount of carbon we dump into the atmosphere.” (Michael Specter, science journalist)

Climate change framed as predicament: “It has been revealed that humankind’s activities giving rise to our present global warming and climate change predicament occurred during that extremely short 57 year period.” (Bob Robertson, author)

To my mind, the first three of these are usually examples of, rather than alternatives to, ‘problem thinking’,  reducing the overall complex mix of issues to a single dimension and expectations that a solution is at hand. But each could also be cast as ‘predicament thinking’. The course explains the distinction:

“Many things we’ve conceptualized as problems are actually predicaments. The difference is that a problem calls for a solution; the only question is whether one can be found and made to work, and once this is done, the problem is solved. A predicament, by contrast, has no solution. Faced with a predicament, people come up with responses.” – John Michael Greer

Solutions make problems disappear; responses keep predicaments in view. Solutions promise completion; responses offer coping. Guess which sounds sexier; admit which is more honest. So, if one response is to adapt to a climate that continues changing even when all the remaining oil is left in the ground (because the atmosphere and oceans respond slowly to past greenhouse gas emissions) then these stronger, adaptive communities will still have to deal with the impacts of a changing climate. And surely we know that ‘security,’ ‘violence’ and ‘economics’, which we also treat as problems, are more like predicaments which no ‘solutions’ are likely to make disappear? Better responses might help minimise the impacts and live more safely, justly and prosperously.

If ‘security’, ‘violence’ and ‘business’ framings (and many other ways of simplifying the idea of climate change) can be deployed in either ‘problem-solution’ or ‘predicament-response’ ways, then perhaps there is another level to our stories. But whether that is so, or ‘problem’ and ‘predicament’ are simply two framings among others, The Stories We Live By has already given me something I’ve been looking for: the extra step beyond my earlier journey from ‘problem’ to ‘wicked problem’ to ‘clumsy solutions’, but without leaving me in the slightly nebulous territory of ‘idea.’ Predicaments are what humans do, after all.

It’s refreshing to take a course that invites me to acknowledge my subjectivity, my own set of values and attitudes, and informs them with some new thinking on ecosophies, framings and, in particular, predicaments. The Stories We Live By asks me to acknowledge that this subjectivity is where I build my judgements of others’ views and actions as protecting or damaging to the environment. That stories, and not unquestionable facts, live in our heads and shape how we think, speak and act is not a new thought for me or for many people, but it’s one we need to come back to if we’re to avoid our own judgements taking on the same ‘natural’ force that the dominant narratives have assumed. Knowing our stories as stories can help us keep open the space we need for creative conversations.

Find out more

You can view and download all the notes and exercises for the course at The Stories We Live By. And if you register, you can also access the forum, additional reading and volunteer tutors. Everything is free and available to enjoy at your own pace.

The course draws from Arran Stibbe‘s book, Ecolinguistics: Language, Ecology and the Stories We Live By

The original essay from which the John Michael Greer quote above is taken can be found here, in the Archdruid Report archive. I am currently reading his book, Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush, which includes essays from that site.

Mike Hulme‘s book Why We Disagree About Climate Change, from which his quotes are taken, has been a key influence in setting up ClimateCultures, and there is more at his site.

Questioning Problems & Predicaments? Space for creative thinking...  

"For you, is climate change a problem or a predicament? How would your creative response change if you swapped these frames? How would you talk differently about it with others?"

Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.

The Art of Noise

— approx reading time: 8 minutes

A lively, loud gathering of scientists, musicians, journalists, sound artists and social scientists can be both fun and thought-provoking. But my biggest impression from the creativity that unfolded at Climate Symphony Lab was the sheer noise. Physical noise echoing in the studio, and the overhwhelm of data placed in front of us as raw material for our creative thinking. Later, unexpectedly, I found Hilary Mantel helping me make sense of my impressions. 'History is not the past', 'the map is not the territory' - and the review is not the performance. These are merely my highly partial impressions and reflections on a day making music with the Anthropocene.
Climate Symphony Lab, Arts Admin 2017
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

In her BBC Reith Lectures for Radio 4, Hilary Mantel said “my concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims.” As a historical novelist, Mantel’s dead are from the past, but always present:

“St Augustine says ‘the dead are invisible, they are not absent’. I don’t claim we can hear the past or see it. But I say we can listen and look.” – Hilary Mantel

But the dead can be other things too. Things we’ve made invisible by not looking can become dead to our thoughts, our concerns and actions.

Of historical fiction, Mantel claims: “Done properly, it doesn’t say ‘Believe this’ but ‘Consider this.’” We need history and science to reveal the facts that are out there in the world – and art to explore the truths within it.

On a hot June Saturday, I joined the Climate Symphony Lab hosted by Arts Admin’s 2 Degrees Festival of art and climate change. It was one of a series of workshops organised by Disobedient, Forma and composer Jamie Perera to explore how turning data into sound can bring fresh engagement with climate change. Soundscapes can spark understanding in ways that tables, graphs and spreadsheets rarely can; sonification is a lively counterpart to the more familiar visualisation through pie charts, Venn diagrams, timelines and other infographics.

Why use sound? We’re so used to privileging our visual skills and understanding (‘seeing is believing’) that switching to other modes can reset and enhance our perception. Sound has a deep, ‘felt’ presence in our bodies. As a way of detecting and working with patterns, it can be both effective and affective.

But, like any representation, sonification presents dilemmas, risks misrepresentation. The workshop was centred on just such questions: Where does the desire to engage people end? Do we sacrifice accuracy for ‘accessibility’? What stories are we telling – and not telling? What makes a good story and who decides? How does this inform the type of data we use? Is this art, or journalism?

With these thorny issues in mind, Climate Symphony Lab offered an additional twist to the sonification process: participation. What happens when you bring scientists, journalists, composers, musicians, sound technologists and others into the same space, not just to discuss but to do?

To frame the possibilities and ground our experiment, we heard from a climate scientist, a design researcher, a political geographer and sound artist, and a researcher working at the intersection of music, computing and biology. From the mundane realities of collecting climate data (sometimes literally dragging it up from the sea in buckets), through ‘dark data’, ‘data wash’ and problems of scale, to the soundscape as diagnostic tool, the talks presented rich stories. But it was sound itself – specifically, noise – that made the event disturbingly meaningful for me.

The echo chamber

A strong memory from my TippingPoint experiences was early on day one of the first Weatherfronts event in 2014 – also a hot June day. 90 writers and researchers were standing quietly in two large concentric circles. Inner and outer rings of strangers faced each other close up, waiting for the instruction to stop listening to the facilitator and start talking to each other, one to one. The hall was full, right up to the limit. With its hard floor, high ceiling and walls of glass and stone, at the word ‘Go!’, the noise levels instantly rocketed from ground zero, echoing somewhere up beyond maximum. The sort of sonic environment I usually hate, but the shock of it had undeniable energy, a bodily force. The decibels just rolled on as one circle shifted inside the other, bringing new pairings into conversation. The image that came immediately to me was as if I’d opened a heavy door into a packed turkey shed and it had closed again with me inside. A surreal, animalian moment. I wish I had a recording of it.

60 people in a studio can also stage a pretty good turkey shed sound effect. When we split into two large teams and started grappling with what we’d been asked to accomplish, our conversations couldn’t help fragmenting into groups of twos and threes, each struggling to make headway under the cacophony of the whole. That, I imagine, was not part of the design here any more than at Weatherfronts, but it reminded me to look at spaces with cautious respect for what they can achieve through the obstacles they throw up as much as what we hope our plans for them will deliver.

So, what was being asked of us? For each team to take a selection of data on offer – mostly already visualised for us as graphs – and select the four datasets we thought might have a shared story to tell. Play with a simple visual musical scale, overlaying transparencies of a mini piano keyboard along the vertical axis of each graph, to decide how we wanted the changing data to ‘sound’. And have the workshop gurus do the technical bit of making that happen, using either our choice of ‘instruments’, other digital effects, or sounds we’d recorded ourselves.

Simple. Even someone unmusical like me could grasp the principles with no knowledge of what making music actually involves or how to go from paper (lots of paper) to performance in two hours. No problem.

Taking instructions
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

The animal in the room

No, other than the sheer noise, I was worried about something else entirely. We were all up for being creative in the face of the climate problem, but seemed unintentionally to be reproducing a big part of the problem. As one of the speakers had said, “To frame is to exclude,” and it turned out that the living non-human world had been framed out of our climate concerns.

It might just have been the noise levels jarring my sensibilities, but I was feeling uneasy that our data had nothing to say about more-than-human experience. It was all either physical (carbon, ice, sea levels …) or human (waste, migration, air quality …). And there was a lot of it – a stack of printouts showing this growing or that shrinking, and sometimes going all over the place in the process. Why had so much story already been cut out: species extinctions and marginalisations, habitat erasures and domestications? Where was the wild? This wasn’t a criticism of the process we were trying out, but a live critique of how we habitually see and shape only what we choose. The world is always bigger than that, messier, hopelessly entangled. Understandably, we exclude so much, needing to simplify what remains in our field of vision so we have something we can think with. But this demands self-awareness and questioning: that we lift ourselves out of our echo chambers.

I wasn’t the only one trying to make sense of the creative challenge and its limitations. Everyone brought their own interests, their own take on the ground rules, and a different plea for another view on what was meaningful. And the noise continued, seeming to swamp any signals….

Trawling data
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

And yet. Somewhere in all that, I gradually found that the noise became my signal. Something meaningful emerged, slow and uncertain. The process: messy, seemingly chaotic, definitely confusing. The data, even our small sample: overwhelming. The choices: full of conflict. The time constraints: ridiculous. It was all pushing us to compromise so as not to fail. We’d fail anyway, but you have to act. Sound familiar? We had become our own representation of the global ‘problem’.

Yes, all data attempts to ‘represent’ messy and complex realities that can’t be fully captured: constructing usable human-shaped containers for a world that’s always overflowing our efforts to order it; hiding our choices even as we make them, rendering some things invisible to highlight others. In our attempts to isolate a signal and reveal meaningful patterns of change, the excluded seeps back in as noise, distorting the filters. This east London studio, this mass of graphs and files, this intention to make music, were our own container, choice and filter. And for one afternoon at least, the world was going to work through these artefacts and be creatively distorted into something playful, representing and misrepresenting it all at once. Fun!

Dissonance and disciplines 

In one group, we tore up sheets of paper at the studio mic – the shreds snowing to the floor – to call up the spirit of London’s waste accumulating at our feet. Later, another group’s feet came marching towards the mic, bodies shuffling and gasping to channel the migrant Others from ‘there’ seeking refuge ‘here’. Whispered breaths became a questionable air quality. ‘Proper’ instruments became rising carbon dioxide levels or ocean acidity, or the projected scenarios of warming futures.

The shred
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

Then, sitting quietly again, listening to the final pieces our teams had thrown together, we heard for the first – and only – time what ‘our’ data had become, what we’d made of the world outside the studio.

I’d wondered whether to push for one of our team’s tracks to be silence: a missing voice for all the species we’d locked out of the room, the habitats slipping away under a wake of data-churning human activity. Or maybe we could have their silences cut across the other soundstreams, polluting and disrupting our human-centredness… In the end, listening to our dissonant but surprisingly beautiful collage, I found my worries allayed. Maybe it was only my imagination – anxiety made artistic – but somehow the wild had its voice in the growling, creaking sounds I couldn’t identify. Was that the asthmatic air quality of civilised London somehow calling back others that had been here before and might be again, after? And the final, faint whisper from the last ripped corner of paper being torn down to its end, was that an insectoid rustling from the corners of the room? In my hearing at least, the excluded were back in: over the fence, regardless of us. Their refusal to be ruled out maybe points to a space for undisciplinary, not just multidisciplinary, working.

Early on, one of the workshop leaders had asked us to wonder if “we can or should make something beautiful out of tragedy?” And the answer is “Yes, somehow.” The tragedy remains, but picked out in a sharp relief that maybe helps us see how we should attend to it, care for it. I think everyone shared a sense that we’d organised enough of the chaos to make something ephemeral but with impact, for us at least. Whether that is art-representing-data-representing-reality or, more simply, science-informing-artists-making-art is a perennial question. And, somehow, misses the point.

“History,” Hilary Mantel continued in her lectures, “is not the past. It is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record.” We can and should have better debates about what we can ensure is left on the record of changing climates, so that this can inform our understanding of the different culpabilities, vulnerabilities, responsibilities. But however much we measure and analyse, we’re always bound into our own ignorance and will continually recreate it; so the urge and the need to organise ignorance through our art as much as our science and our history are urgent and hopeful.

Unexpectedly, Hilary Mantel has helped me think through my own impressions of an intriguing experience that required a bit of distance to make better sense of. So I leave the final thought to her, knowing her concern for the past also speaks of the future:

“When we imagine a lost world, we must first re-arrange our senses – listen and look, before judging. But we do rush to judgement, and our judgement swings about – at one moment we find the past frightening and alien, and the next moment we are giving way to nostalgia.” – Hilary Mantel

Find out more

You can read about Climate Symphony in this recent article by Alexandra Simon-Lewis in Wired. She talks to Disobedient’s Leah Borromeo, who highlights the importance of both peer-reviewed science and first person perspective, and transparency of process: “Opening things from the start so all the bones and blood of the thing are on display is important.” From the Wired article, you can also listen to Soundcloud tracks from Climate Symphony and from a previous Lab workshop at ONCA in Brighton.

If you’re quick, there just might be time to experience Climate Symphony at the East End Film Festival in London on Sunday 25th June. And there is another Climate Symphony Lab on 8th July, in Newcastle.

Hilary Mantel’s 2017 Reith Lectures are available at the BBC website.

Disobedient Films – “established by artist-filmmakers Katharine Round and Leah Borromeo to disrupt traditional documentary form and extract new angles and emotions around factual narratives” – has much more work for you to discover. Artists of Our Natural World includes a section on artists, Dan Harvey and Heather Ackroyd, who create a photographic photosynthesis work in response to the planned exploratory oil drilling on Leith Hill, Surrey. “By manipulating the natural processes that fuel life itself, these British artists blur the line between science, nature and art, all while drawing attention to climate change.”

This short clip from BBC World Service’s programme Click features Clare Malrieux talking about her climate sound artwork, Climat Général.

And there is also plenty to explore on up-to-date visualisation of climate change data, including animations by climate scientist Ed Hawkins on global temperatures, sea ice and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at Climate Lab Book. Ed was one of the speakers at the Climate Change Lab.

Questioning Representation? Space for creative thinking...  

"What is the soundtrack you'd like make to 'capture' something about climate change, and what technologies and sounds would you use? How would you acknowledge the 'missing voices' you'd have to omit?" Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form."