The Art of Noise

Writer Mark Goldthorpe reviews Climate Symphony Lab. This lively and loud gathering of scientists, musicians, journalists, sound artists and social scientists was both fun and thought-provoking, and provided an overwhelm of data as raw material for creative thinking.


2,310 words: estimated reading time 9 minutes 


Climate Symphony Lab, Arts Admin 2017. Photograph by Mark Goldthorpe
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.” 

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 by Mark Goldthorpe
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 by Mark Goldthorpe
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 by Mark Goldthorpe
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.”


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.

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.

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

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." 

Utopia and Its Discontents

David Thorpe — one of the short story writers, poets and non-fiction writers commissioned from two Weatherfronts climate change conferences — explores the thinking that went into his story, included in the free anthology of the winning pieces.


1,300 words: estimated reading time 5 minutes


I have a story, ‘For The Greater Good’, in the new collection, Weatherfronts. Here is a tracing of my thought processes that led to me writing it.

Originating with Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia, the eponymous word literally means “no-place”, or any non-existent society ‘described in considerable detail’… as in his book. But over time it has come to mean an ideal sort of society in which everyone has what they need and there is peace and justice for all. Perhaps everyone has their own idea of what utopia would be like.

The Island – illustration from Utopia, 1516
Artist: Thomas More © British Library Board http://www.bl.uk/learning/images/21cc/utopia/large1678.html

Its opposite is dystopia, a term coined 352 years later in 1868 by the philosopher J.S. Mill, who used it to denounce the then government’s Irish land policy. Dystopian fictions became popular in the 20th century. Dystopian movies now seem to dominate our screens, all graphically and dramatically prophesying a dire future.

I fear that there is a danger that by populating our imaginations with pictures of a future of suffering by the masses, environmental despoliation, endless conflict and/or the dominance of machines, as in films like Metropolis and Blade Runner and novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four then we could end up creating the very world that we fear. In other words that these prophecies become self-fulfilling.

By contrast, what are the features of utopia? Should we instead be picturing this?

Are we living in Utopia but don’t realise it?

I started thinking that for people living 500 years ago, the way we live now would actually seem like a utopia.

Just think:

  • All year round we are able to eat an incredible variety and plenitude of food from all over the world.
  • If we get ill we are taken care of by doctors and nurses for free, and there is always a hospital nearby.
  • People increasingly live past 100 years of age. If no one can look after them they are looked after by carers in special homes.
  • There are no poor houses or workhouses, instead if you cannot work you are given money to make sure you have somewhere to live and can buy food.
  • If you are mentally handicapped or ill, you’re not shut away in an awful madhouse, you are given medicines or therapies to make you feel better or manage your illness.
  • People with disabilities are cared for and their special qualities understood and valued.
  • Human rights are recognised and protected in law.
  • We live in warm homes and can travel incredibly cheaply anywhere in the world in a few hours.
  • We can talk to people anywhere, watch movies, take photographs and videos, listen to music and find out almost anything we like using cheap gadgets that fit in our pockets.

This would all be considered incredible, even 100 years ago. Miraculous even. But do we think we are living in Utopia? No! We are only too aware of what is wrong with our society: injustice, environmental destruction, war, pollution, climate change, inequality….

Of the above list of benefits, the increase in life expectancy, the widespread availability of more than enough food, improved health, and the increase in wealth can all be attributed to the industrial revolution and to the widespread availability of fossil fuels. The downsides of this are climate change and pollution.

These downsides are what at the time were the unforeseen consequences of what was considered hugely beneficial.

Then what is it?

So I began to imagine: what if we created a ‘utopia’ in the UK, based upon the ideals expressed in Zero Carbon Britain and One Planet Living? What would be the unforeseen consequences?

In other words, what if we had a society which could feed everybody with food grown within the country and all energy was renewably generated? It would seem ideal to us, but what might be downsides?

First, how would it work? ‘Ecological Footprinting’ is the science of measuring the environmental impact of a society against its share of the Earth’s ‘carrying capacity’. The idea of an ecological footprint is that it is linked to laws of supply and demand. I will explore this in a later post. For now, though, on the supply side there is the availability of natural resources and the ability of the Earth to absorb the waste products and other environmental consequences from our activities. And on the demand side there is the level of population and its corresponding consumption level.

For the world to be sustainable the demand must not exceed the supply, or we are burning up the future to satisfy the present – as we are now. If the entire population of the planet lived the same lifestyle that we have adopted in the Global North, then together we would need the equivalent of at least three Earths’ worth of resources. Which we don’t have.

We are beginning to get used to the idea that sensors, meters and other monitoring equipment can measure in real time all kinds of things from energy use to traffic levels, productivity, resource use and so on. At the same time algorithms are becoming more and more sophisticated in the way that they analyse the results of all this monitoring and make use of the data processed, incorporating them in feedback loops.

If we extrapolate this tendency into the future we can imagine that a society which attempts to sustainably manage itself will use algorithms and monitoring extensively to model future supply and demand, and make corrections automatically along the way so that they’ll continue to be matched.

Where is this leading?

That was the premise for my story, ‘For The Greater Good’ in WeatherfrontsIt’s all very well being able to cater for an existing population with existing productivity levels. But what if the models forecast that a population increase and a simultaneous decrease in productivity would mean that the population would suffer?

Would we want to live in this kind of world? You’ll have to read the story to find out if my heroine does!

Weatherfronts cover design
Photograph & design: Sarah Thomas © 2017
https://journeysinbetween.wordpress.com

Find out more

You can read more about David’s fiction and non-fiction at his website and download a free ebook of the new anthology Weatherfronts from Cambria Books, featuring stories, poems and essays from twelve writers who won commissions from the two events that TippingPoint and partners held at the Free Word Centre in 2014 and 2016. 

In May 2017, ClimateCultures editor, Mark Goldthorpe, will be chairing a panel discussion between David Thorpe and three of the other 2016 authors – Justina Hart, Darragh Martin and Sarah Thomas – at the Hay Festival.

You can read about Zero Carbon Britain and download their new report. This article from the One Planet Council describes the work of the Welsh Government’s commitment to ecological footprinting. And The One Planet Life provides further information and resources.

For an interesting discussion of the history of Utopia and Dystopia, see this set of articles from the British LibraryAnd this article from Encyclopaedia Britannica describes ten literary dystopias (somehow managing to bypass Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four).

David Thorpe
David Thorpe
A novelist, scriptwriter and writer of comics and graphic novels, as well as a non-fiction writer on carbon-free energy and sustainable development.
Read More

Questioning Utopia? Space for creative thinking...

"What do you think are the best ways of reaching people who don't normally think about climate change? Does Utopian thinking help or hinder? How about humour, or other ways of bypassing the usual cognitive filters to touch our emotions? Share your ideas in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form." 

 

Spaces for Joy and Grief

WayraWriter Laura Coleman explores the urgent need for spaces where we can engage the emotions of environmental change — to hold onto our spaces, and create new ones — and shares two spaces with deep meaning for her.


1,120 words: estimated reading time 4.5 minutes


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

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

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

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

ONCA, Brighton.
Photographer: Debbie Bragg © 2017

Spaces for looking into the change

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spaces for the joy and the grief

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

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


Find out more

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

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

Laura Coleman
Laura Coleman
A writer and artist who cares for rescued wild animals in Bolivia and founder of ONCA, an arts charity bridging social and environmental justice with creativity.
Read More

Culturing Climate Change

Ouroboros - wicked problemsClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe explores climate change through the lens of ‘Wicked Problems’ and what ‘culture’ — a web of identities and practices that rub up against each other — means for how we might think about it.


1,570 words: estimated reading time 6.5 minutes


Climate change could almost define ‘Wicked Problems’. Unlike ordinary, ‘tame’ problems, these have multiple causes, produce a web of effects, entangle themselves in interdependencies, are riddled with complexities, uncertainties and contradictory interpretations and induce a sense of both confusion and urgency. In Dialogue Mapping, organisational collaborator Jeff Conklin talks about the “pain of fragmentation” caused by working on Wicked Problems “with thinking, tools, and methods that are useful only for simpler (‘tame’) problems … a sense of futility of expecting things to be one way and repeatedly banging into a different reality”.

More often than not, ‘tame solutions’ for Wicked Problems reveal or create more problems; their frustration then compounds our urgency, inciting either a stronger desire to act ‘at any cost’ or a lifeless apathy. A self-perpetuating anxiety, climate change’s wickedness is both a call to in/action and the cascade of in/action’s unintended consequences.

Age of anxiety

Ouroboros
Ouroboros
Artist: AnonMoos 2009
Public Domain: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ouroboros-simple.svg

Rereading Alan Watts’ 1951 The Wisdom of Insecurity, writer Megan Mayhew Bergman describes how Watts “believed that hyper-rationalising our desires creates a vicious and taxing cycle, a habitual state of tension and abstraction that is actually a mental disorder.” He saw a modern split between mind and body (“a war between … the desire for permanence and the fact of flux”). This produces a cycle of insecurity, which he likened to Ouroboros, the mythical serpent endlessly biting its own tail in a cycle of self-consumption. While it’s human nature to seek an “escape from the reality of the anxiety-producing present,” Bergman suggests that with climate change it’s the future that now seems fearful: “That sheer inevitability bewilders me … We can no longer afford the luxury of looking away.” 

Psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe has written about climate change anxiety inhabiting both the ‘reality-based’ and ‘narcissistic’ parts of our self. On one hand (or in one mind?) we face the loss of a reliable future, “our hope that we are generative … and rooted within long time” when “our sense of regularity and continuity as a species [is] threatened at such a basic level”. This depressive anxiety is compounded by our sense of dependence on global leaders and corporations to somehow overcome the short-termism threatening the planetary system. And on the other hand, the actions that we know are needed to reduce these risks threaten the part of our identity that’s tied into lifestyles that are implicated in the problems. Weintrobe suggests that “what we dread giving up is not so much particular material possessions or particular ways of life, but our way of seeing ourselves as special and as entitled, not only to our possessions but to our ‘quick fixes’ to the problems of reality.” The wickedness fills the gap between these minds.

But maybe, in an anxious, subjectivity-riddled world, the idea of wickedness at least offers a way to acknowledge this messiness, open a creative space to view it in and grapple with the extreme risk and uncertain force of the climate change we cannot look away from.

Culture – permission to disagree

In Keywords, cultural academic Raymond Williams introduces ‘Culture’ as “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” (and ‘Nature’ as perhaps the most complex word in the language: great news for anyone working on un/common grounds of NatureCulture). A word that’s rooted in colere (Latin: inhabit, cultivate, protect, honour with worship), fractured and evolved into cults, colony and couture, became a synonym for civilised in its antagonism with natural, and offers its own dividing line between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures, was destined to do lots of different kinds of work for different people. Culture has its own wickedness, perhaps. Can this help us with wicked climate change?

Climate change constantly draws people into different camps, each arguing passionately for one version and vehemently against the others. Can culture help us, if not to tame the untameable, then at least seize its contrariness, try out its meanings, and rehearse what cohabitation might offer us? We’re more used to diversity in culture and (in more tolerant moments) give ourselves permission to disagree; to incorporate this disagreement into culture itself. Maybe this offers a way to open discussions and imaginations to diversity in ‘climate change’.

In his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change, and in an article of the same name, geographer Mike Hulme examines it as a cultural entity, a kaleidoscopic “idea circulating anxiously in the worlds of domestic politics and international diplomacy… circulating with mobilising force in the worlds of business, of law and of international trade … circulating with potency in the worlds of knowledge and invention, of development and welfare, of religion and ethics and of public celebrity … circulating creatively in the worlds of art, of cinema, of literature, of music and of sport.” The scientific consensus on climate change is powerful and real, but we lack any comparable consensus on its meanings; it has so many that the hope for strong agreement on them is probably illusory. Hulme says:

“We need to understand the creative psychological, spiritual and ethical work that climate change can do and is doing for us. By understanding the ways climate change connects with foundational human instincts of nostalgia, fear, pride and justice we open up a way of resituating culture and the human spirit at the centre of our understanding of climate.”

On a parallel thought, literary scholar Benjamin Morgan investigates the origin and uses of the concept of extinction. Like climate change, “extinction has never been a purely scientific concept … [it] first came into being as a problem of human meaning” long before we came to identify our own species as a new driver of extinctions; the discovery of spectacular fossils in the 18th century revealed nature “possessed of the same self-destructive energy as human society.”

Science of all kinds is crucial for better understanding of environmental and climate change and the Anthropocene, but can only offer one kind of necessary enquiry: one of many routes to meaningful action. As part of the living matrix we’re eroding around us, we must also call on other aspects of our identity, other practices as well as science.

Multispecies scholar Deborah Bird Rose speaks of ‘ecological humanities’ as an interdiscipline, attempting to “build dialogical bridges between knowledge systems: between ecological sciences and the humanities, between Western and other knowledge systems.” But what is not needed, she says, is boundary crossings that aim to homogenise knowledge or “suggest that everyone has to do or think everything … Quite the opposite, we acknowledge that there are many abrasive edges between knowledge systems. We believe that rubbing those abrasive edges together enables something new to happen.” 

Identity and practice

And this is what ‘culture’ means for me when I think about climate change: a web of identities and practices that rub up against each other. It’s a rough sketch, but I start with:

  • Culture as identity: the different contexts that we inhabit and shape, and which inhabit and shape us; the forces that create, reinforce or challenge our personal and social values; an expression of and comforter for our particular world view.
  • Culture as practice: the making, sharing and responding to particular creative works and directions; visual, musical, dramatic, poetic, fictional, film and all the other artistic practices — and also research and educational practices, and the practices of collecting, editing and presenting.

Both these aspects of culture suggest that nuance and diversity are key, helping us navigate the complexities, uncertainties and interdependencies of climate change without immediately resorting to ‘tame’ solutions within hard-and-fast borders. As Morgan points out: “Drawing battle-lines is never an exercise in nuance … The avenue into these ethical and political dilemmas [of extinction] is culture, broadly conceived.”

Bergman retells Watts’ account of the response of a Chinese sage to the inevitability of human suffering: “’How shall we escape the heat?’ the sage is asked. His answer is unsettling: ‘Go right into the middle of the fire.’”

‘Wicked Cultures’ as a means at least of seeing and coming to terms with the dynamics of ‘Wicked Problems’, maybe acknowledging what might be untameable but worth living through and with?


Find out more

See the Wikipedia entries on Ouroboros and on Wicked Problems

Meeting Ones’ Madness by Meghan Mayhew Bergman’s appeared in Paris Review (15th November 2016).

Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems by Jeff Conklin was published by Wiley (2006).

Mike Hulme’s article Why We Disagree About Climate Change originally appeared in The Carbon Yearbook (2009), and his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity was published by Cambridge University Press (2009).

On the Origin of Extinction by Benjamin Morgan appeared in Public Books (9th March 2017).

The Ecological Humanities by Deborah Rose Bird appeared in Manifesto for Living in the Anthropocene, (edited by Katherine Gibson, Deborah Rose Bird and Ruth Fincher:  Punctum Books, 2015).

The Wisdom of Insecurity: A message for an Age of Anxiety by Alan Watts was republished by Penguin Random House in 2011 (originally 1951).

The Difficult Problem of Anxiety in Thinking About Climate Change by Sally Weintrobe appeared in Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives (edited by Sally Weintrobe: Routledge, 2013).

Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society by Raymond Williams’s was published by Fontana Press (revised edition, 1983).

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