Hacking the Earth

Showing cover of Skyseed novel on geonegineeringCurator and writer Rob La Frenais interviews scientist and fellow ClimateCultures member Bill McGuire about Skyseed. McGuire’s novel explores geoengineering — the ‘fix’ proposed by some as global heating’s global solution. What on Earth could possibly go wrong?…


1,930 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


As COP 26 in Glasgow approaches, there’s a new thriller, Skyseed by scientist Bill McGuire which is aimed at drawing our attention to the growing lobby of industrialists, fossil fuel producers, politicians and scientists who want to explore the idea of geoengineering — what is called in the novel the ‘Fix’ — using novel, large-scale, engineering solutions to global heating.

Showing cover of Skyseed novel on geonegineering
Skyseed, by Bill McGuire

In a tense drama set in 2028, the world’s scientific community — astronomers, volcanologists and climate scientists — slowly becomes aware there is a conspiracy of ‘bad actors’ who are secretly unleashing synthetic biology-inspired ‘nanobots’ to eat up the carbon in the atmosphere. Without spoiling the plot, there is an unexpected volcanic eruption during this process which sends the world hurtling towards a new ice age, where ironically we have to go back to dirty coal technologies like steam trains to try to reverse runaway cooling. This is probably the first thriller based on the climate emergency as it is unravelling right now and certainly the first based on geo-engineering. As the book’s cover suggests “hacking the earth might be the last thing we ever do”.

The ‘bad actors’ are — wait for it — Britain and the USA. It’s a story that mirrors the unthinkable alliance between Blair and Bush to launch an illegal war in Iraq based on non-existent weapons of mass destruction, based on a ‘dodgy dossier’. In the book, the UK Prime Minister has already bought a dodgy dossier on geoengineering from the US President, while at the same time testing the water with a climate scientist he had previously campaigned with before getting elected and back-pedalling on climate pledges, Jane Halliwell. Here she responds to his suggestion that a ‘fix’ might be possible.

Jane looked at the PM for a long moment, then shook her head. ‘Prime Minister, you know what needs to be done. Nothing’s changed. Our priority has to be slashing emissions, not (increasing) GDP growth. Nothing else will do…Kickstarting the stalled renewables and transport decarbonisation drives, a crash programme in energy efficiency. It’s the same old stuff. I’m afraid there’s just no silver bullet.

Moving from science fiction to reality?

Geoengineering with a space lens
Space Lens. Image: Mikael Häggström – Including the image ‘The Earth seen from Apollo 17’, also public domain licensed, Public Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_geoengineering#/media/File:Space_lens.png

Bill McGuire: “Extreme geoengineering measures include building colossal mirrors or lenses in space to cut the amount of solar radiation reaching the planet.”

McGuire knows his territory. When he’s not writing novels he’s Professor Emeritus of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at UCL, London and contributing author to the IPCC 2012 SREX report on climate change and extreme events. I asked him how he became aware of the dangers of geoengineering as portrayed in his thriller.

“Well the idea’s been around since the Cold War really, people like Edward Teller brought it up. So it’s always been at the back of my mind. Over the last couple of years, there’s been a UN moratorium of geoengineering; open-air experiments anyway. Despite that, people have started to bugger around, if you like, and try things out. It’s the fact that it’s growing in terms of credence and involvement that has sparked my interest in it. People are getting into it in all sorts of ways. For example there’s a project designed to brighten the clouds over the Great Barrier Reef. It’s aimed to preserve the Reef, but it’s pretty clear they are developing a technology that can be used around the world and make large amounts of money out of it. It’s moving from pages of science fiction to what potentially is reality.”

There are already documents circulating about a ‘soft’ version of geoengineering, for example a group led by Sir David King called the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge. What was his response to that? Was ‘climate repair’ also another excuse for inaction on climate?

“In Skyseed I talk about direct interventions that try and cut out incoming sunlight. Those are pretty drastic ways of doing things. The technology in Skyseed is actually a form of carbon capture. The ‘bots suck the carbon directly out of the atmosphere, which is that cause of the devastating cooling. However there are geoengineering techniques based on carbon capture which can be done in all sorts of ways. One that doesn’t sound too bad is spreading basalt dust on farmland. Basalt dust reacts with carbon — it locks it away and does a good job in that way. But when you look at these things, whatever they are, at scale they are huge projects. It would involve spraying basalt dust on half the world’s farmland, just to reduce the emissions by about a 20th of what we produce every year. This is the big problem with geoengineering, it has to be at a massively huge scale if it’s going to do anything at all.

“The other thing I have an issue with is, if you think geo-engineering is a solution waiting to be utilised, then you’re never going to spend as much time pushing as hard as possible for cutting emissions, because you’re always going to think: ‘doesn’t matter, there’s a backstop — we can always resort to that’. If, for example, you’re protecting a city with your loved ones you fight a damn sight harder if you’re in the last line of defence than if you’re in the second line of defence. This is a systemic problem with geoengineering as a whole.”

Geoengineering with iron sulphate
Photograph: NASA (Public Domain), 2006 http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Newsroom/NewImages/images.php3?img_id=17189

Bill McGuire: “This shows a plankton bloom off the coast of Argentina. Some geoengineers want to dump large quantities of iron sulphate into the ocean to promote more plankton growth, the idea being that more plankton will suck up more carbon dioxide.”

With regard to the speech by Jane Halliwell to the Prime Minister above, had he come across any politicians taking the idea of geoengineering seriously?

“I think the UK government is taking it seriously. There are people in government keeping up to speed on what’s going on. It’s certainly not being ruled out. Of course, the fossil fuel companies and others are pushing this. If they can keep temperatures down they think they can keep pulling oil and gas out of the ground. There’s a lot of lobbying in various countries.”

In his book, could the rogue geoengineering activity have been spotted from space, for example from the ISS?

“The sort of scenario I talk about in the book, which is extreme and which we don’t have the technology for at the moment, in terms of these self-replicating nanobots; firstly it was detectable because of the density of the atmosphere. The astronomers were complaining they didn’t have decent observing conditions in the Canary Islands. Certainly, if somebody was pumping, for example, tens of millions of tons of sulphur into the atmosphere, illicitly, that would be picked up, because there are monitoring instruments up there.”

Geoengineering - overview of the SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering) project
Image by Hugh Hunt, 2011: SPICE SRM – overview of the SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering) project. Creator. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SPICE_SRM_overview.jpg

Bill McGuire: “So-called solar radiation management includes mimicking a volcano by pumping millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere. This blocks incoming solar radiation leading to cooling of the lower atmosphere (troposphere) and surface. This is especially risky, as cooling due to large volcanic eruptions – e.g Tambora (Indonesia) in 1815 – is typically accompanied by extreme weather, reduced crop yields, widespread harvest failure and famine.”

Geoengineering — to what end?

With the Arctic ice melting at an alarming rate would that be a legitimate reason for engineering solutions, like re-icing the Arctic with giant mirrors, for example?

“It depends on your point of view. The natural way would be to allow it to heal itself, really. ‘Re-wilding the climate’, I call it. If we decide as a society that if we have brought emissions under control we now want to reverse things, you would use geoengineering schemes to refreeze the Arctic, etc. Or we might argue that we brought emissions down, let’s just let the Earth get back to where it wants to be. Before we started influencing the climate the global average temperature was on its way down towards the next ice age. If we talk about ‘repairing the climate’ we don’t even know what that means. Does that mean getting back to 280 parts per million carbon dioxide, which it was in the interglacial period, because if it is, we will end up in an Ice age again? At a higher level nobody knows. It’s not an issue that’s been addressed yet. Once we get emissions under control, knowing what we do next is a big issue.”

Photograph: Simon Eugster, 2005: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cirrus_fibratus_and_Cirrocumulus.jpg

BillMcGuire: “Thinning of cirrus clouds by means of spraying them with chemicals is proposed as a means of increasing heat loss from the Earth and human activities into space.”

Had he been in a room where people were seriously fanatical about geo-engineering?

“I haven’t been in a room with them, no, but I keep track of things and I know there are individuals who are fanatical about it as an agenda, certainly. There are people like that about. Not many so far, thank God.”

So for example?

“Well the chap (David Keith) who runs the SCOPEX experiment, for example, at Harvard. They already designed an instrument that will go up into the stratosphere and test, first of all spraying water, then calcium carbonate then sulphur dioxide as a means of testing pumping out millions of tons of sulphur. There’s also the Great Barrier Reef project I referred to before. People like Bill Gates are involved in these, they funded some of these studies. Tech billionaires need to have these big shiny projects, don’t they? They can’t keep their hands off. “

In the novel, the whistleblowers who draw attention to the effects of geoengineering (like him) get assassinated by dark forces of the State. How real was this? McGuire: “Well it’s a thriller isn’t it!”


Find out more

Skyseed by Bill McGuire was published by The Book Publishing Guild in September 2020, and you can read more about Bill’s work on the novel and thoughts on geoengineering in his piece for the ClimateCultures Creative Showcase — including a link to a podcast interview.

You can find out about plans for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021 and Pre-COP activities at the official COP 26 website.

In his article for The Guardian (16/4/20) — Scientists trial cloud brightening equipment to shade and cool Great Barrier Reef — Graham Readfearn describes experiments to use a modified turbine to spray trillions of nano-sized salt crystals into the air from a barge. And this article by Jeff Tollefson in Nature (27/11/18) reports on researchers’ plan to spray sunlight-reflecting particles into the stratosphere, an approach that could ultimately be used to quickly lower the planet’s temperature: First sun-dimming experiment will test a way to cool Earth.

Rob mentions the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge, which was founded and is chaired by former UK Chief Scientific Advisor Sir David King. The Centre’s research themes include deep and rapid emissions reductions, greenhouse gas removal and restoring broken climate systems, and it also develops policy.

Climate Emergency – a New Culture of Conversation, Rob’s previous interview with another fellow ClimateCultures member, discussed ClimateKeys, composer Lola Perrin‘s ground-breaking global initiative to ‘help groups of people tell the truth to each other’ about the ecological and climate emergency.

Rob La Frenais
Rob La Frenais
An independent contemporary art curator, working internationally and creatively with artists entirely on original commissions, directly engaged with the artist’s working process as far as possible.
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Celebrating Clean Air Day

Artist and writer Selva Ozelli marks Clean Air Day with a roundup of international art shows she has curated and participated in during this year of pandemic, spurred on by urgent connections between our environmental and health crises.


2,380 words: estimated reading time = 9.5 minutes + 2 mins video


It has been an unprecedented year, with 13% more large, uncontrolled wildfires around the world compared to last year — spelling dire consequences for carbon dioxide levels, health and biodiversity, as well as the economy. And human actions in burning down ‘Magical Forests’ — as depicted by my childhood friend artist Mehmet Kuran — are mostly to blame, according to a newly released report, Fires, forests and the future.

wildfires and clean air - showing art by Selva Ozelli
“Wildfires in the Age of Corona”, Oil 40 x 30 cm, Canvas Paper
Artist: Selva Ozelli © 2020

The year began with Australia’s record-shattering bushfires, burning down a forest the size of England. According to The Guardian, “On New Year’s Day in Canberra the air quality reading was the worst on the planet: 26 times levels considered hazardous to human health.”

In April, nearly 20% of the forested area of northern Thailand burned, and wildfires overtook Indonesia and Ukraine’s Chernobyl region, causing dangerous levels of air pollution. By June wildfires lit up the Arctic Circle, with Siberia registering the most extreme recorded temperatures, resulting in the severest Arctic melting. By August a government researcher told Reuters that Brazil’s Amazon wildfires were the worst in the past ten years. The West Coast of the U.S. slipped into an epic wildfire season, which is still ongoing. These wildfires raging across the world smashed last year’s records for CO2 emissions, according to scientists at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, and aggravated respiratory ailments amid the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic — the most devastating plague to ravage humankind this century.

This unparalleled year brought out the artist and curator in me for the first time in my life. The unprecedented global Covid-19 lockdown allowed me to allocate my time to expressing my thoughts and feelings about climate change and Covid-19 via paintings, in addition to my series of articles on digital technology adoption, solar energy and tax policies in jurisdictions with the greatest carbon emissions.

International art for global challenges

I took my first step as a curator with an art brochure for fellow ClimateCultures artist Rana Balkis’s Infinite Possibilities series. We are now entering what is known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but still fuelled by coal and fossil fuels — with adverse environmental effects. In this era, not only are we able to transmit our ideas and our art digitally around the world, but also the pollution from energising these digital technologies — as well as diseases affected by pollution. This triggered an urge in Rana to find a new way, through her art, to raise awareness of climate change and environmental consciousness. In Infinite Possibilities — with two paintings selected in the United Nations’ Covid-19 Artwork open brief — working in the style of collage, she intends her oil paintings to expand our curiosity and imagination so we better connect, understand and adapt to our technologically changing world by expanding our perception in the context of our stagnant values, behaviour and norms.

Since our atelier, led by Teymur Rzayev, is a space for many talented climate change artists and interesting artwork, next I curated Atelier Teymur Rzayev’s First Digital Climate Change Art Show, with five paintings that were acknowledged in six international art contests. As I reported for the ClimateCultures Quarantine Connection series, I initially planned our group show to take place at the Balat Culture Center in Istanbul. However, due to Covid-19 social distancing rules, it was cancelled at the last moment. Therefore, I had to quickly switch to launching a digital art show with the assistance of Cem Ustuner, the owner of Pinelo Art Gallery, so it could reach global viewers. Our group show was registered as UN Environment, Ocean and Desertification Days digital events and it received a favourable art review; it got ample international press and was published by the Jockey Club Museum of Climate Change, Hong Kong.

Clean Air

The good reception of this show encouraged me to continue curating ten, and participating in seven, climate change and Covid-19 themed art shows: four group, and three solo. These were published by the Jockey Club Museum of Climate Change Hong Kong, Climate Museum UK and over 160 museums, culture ministries and NGOs in over 40 countries around the world. I am pleased to share these art shows here today, to commemorate UK’s largest air pollution campaign: National Clean Air Day, which was launched in 2017. While this is normally celebrated on the third Thursday in June, due to Covid-19 this year Clean Air Day is celebrated digitally on 8th October in the UK.

Encouraged by the increasing interest of the international community in clean air, and emphasising the need to make further efforts to improve air quality, including reducing air pollution to protect human health, the UN General Assembly decided to designate 7th September as the International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies, which was celebrated digitally for the first time this year around the globe with the highest level of participation from the UN — and Turkey’s Ministry of Environment and Urbanization, where Professor Mehmet Emin Birpınar, Deputy Minister, explained that “the coronavirus pandemic has shown the importance of clean air all over the world.”

But the largest ever global Climate Ambition Alliance — launched in 2019 and representing 452 cities (including London and New York City), 22 regions in 120 countries, 1,101 businesses, 45 of the biggest investors, and 549 universities — is the ‘Race To Zero’ campaign. It rallies leadership and support from businesses, cities, regions, investors for a healthy, resilient, zero-carbon recovery ahead of COP26, where governments must strengthen their contributions to the Paris Agreement, achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest.

As part of the Race to Zero campaign, run in coordination with the UN and the City of New York, ex-Mayor of NYC Mike Bloomberg kicked off Climate Week in NYC on 21st September by announcing that Bloomberg Philanthropies and Sierra Club successfully retired 60% of U.S. coal-fired power plants — 318 out of 530 plants — via the Beyond Coal campaign. A day later, injecting new momentum into global climate action, President Xi told the UN General Assembly that China, the world’s biggest polluter of greenhouse gases, pledged to go carbon neutral by 2060 — only a week after the EU committed to increasing its emission-reduction target from 40 to 55 percent by 2030. On 27th September, the last day of Climate Week in NYC, the world’s first shipment of blue ammonia was transported from Saudi Arabia, which has the World’s second-largest oil reserves, to Japan — the World’s sixth largest CO2 emitter — where it will be used in power stations to produce electricity without carbon emissions.

“Desolate Tree”, Oil, 90 x 90cm, Canvas
Artist: Fatma Kadir © 2020

With world leaders taking important steps towards decarbonisation, I curated a group show Clean Air for Blue Skies and my solo digital art show Breathe Life with the theme of air pollution. These two art shows contain six paintings that were acknowledged in five international art contests of forest fires, lonely trees, gardens and portraits of artists who were economically impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic with their shows being cancelled.

My solo art show Breathe Life includes portraits of composer and singer Niall Horan (Heartbreak Weather – Human’s Inertia in the Face of Wildfires) and ClimateCultures artist Renan Kaleli (Pollution), who is working towards preparing an art show Climate Change to Corona, with five paintings selected in the UN’s Covid-19 Artwork open brief. These artists turned to launching digital concerts and digital art shows this year, so I have also included a portrait of Professor Erdal Arikan (Pollution 2), the creator of 5G technology.  

Urbanisation & Biodiversity

Serife Akkan explored the theme of urbanization and its impact on the environment and CO2 levels in her solo art show One Door One Hundred Trees. Serife wanted to bring attention to and set alarm bells about the destruction humans are making of their environment — particularly since she witnessed firsthand the rapid urbanisation in Istanbul during her lifetime and its impact on air quality.

One of the concerns associated with predictions of CO2-induced global warming is the claim that the number of birds and their habitat areas will decline. Conserving and restoring the ecological connectivity and integrity of ecosystems that support natural cycles are essential for the survival and well-being of migratory birds. Artist Fatma Kadir explored the theme of biodiversity in her two solo art shows Bird Watching 1 & 2, with sixteen paintings that were acknowledged in three international art contests to commemorate biodiversity in birds that are important plant pollinators and seed dispersers.

This July, less sea ice covered the Arctic Ocean than in any other July since scientists began keeping track of it with satellites in 1979. This marks another step toward the devastating and planet-reshaping inevitability of an ice-free summer for the Arctic Ocean. Artist Semine Hazar explored the theme of Arctic melting in her solo art show Sea Watcher. The inspiration was her trip to the Antarctic in 2017 where she witnessed the ice melting and, with a great sound, crashing into the sea. This brought tears to her eyes. Semine’s late husband was a captain. Captains determine their sea routes based on the silent light signals of lighthouses. With her sea and lighthouse themed paintings, Semine wants to draw attention to the importance of oceans to our world and our ecology as the largest carbon sink, and the need for us to guard them. She wants the silent signals from the lighthouses to be visible to all of us, not only captains of our world.

Covid-19

The current high levels of air pollution around the world have contributed to increased rates of chronic respiratory disease and impaired lung function in people of all ages, making air pollution a major and increasing threat to public health according to a study published in the journal Climate and Atmospheric Science. Many of the diseases that are caused by long-term exposure to air pollution are the same diseases that increase the risk of severe illness and death in patients with Covid-19.

In my two solo art shows Art in the Time of Corona 1 & 2, with sixteen paintings that were acknowledged in five international art contests, I explored whether climate change caused by CO2 might be one reason for such a terrible global Covid-19 pandemic which spread around the world like a tsunami alongside heightened CO2, penetrating deep into our respiratory and circulatory systems, damaging our lungs to the point where we become highly vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“Corona Corona”, Oil, 30 x 30 cm, Canvas
Artist: Selva Ozelli © 2020

The unprecedented pandemic has put an enormous burden on health systems and professionals worldwide. So far, more than 27.9 million people around the world have been diagnosed with the coronavirus and more than 1,000,000 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University. Some 18.8 million people have recovered. The pandemic unveiled the challenges and the risks health workers face globally including healthcare-associated infections, violence, stigma, psychological and emotional disturbances, illness and even death. These frontline workers are physically exhausted and emotionally strained from the harrowing experience of serving on the Covid response with respiratory as well as neurological manifestations.

To commemorate their sacrifice I have included portraits of Covid-19 frontline professionals, including Dr Esma Akin, Chief of Nuclear Medicine at George Washington Hospital in Washington DC, USA; Dr Kalbiye Yalaz — the teacher of Dr Akin — who established the first pediatric neurology department in Hacettepe Hospital; Lale Baymur Vanli, a Pediatric Neuropsychologist who is the first psychologist to be hired into the first pediatric neurology department in Hacettepe Hospital and daughter of late Professor Feriha Baymur, who established the first Psychology department at Hacettepe Hospital and University.

Finally, climate change artists Fatma Kadir from her Bird Watching series, Resul Rzayev from his Mountain Air series, and I from my Art in the Time of Corona series donated artwork to the Portakal Cicegi Project, which will be on sale until 15th October 2020 to raise funds for the orphans of Covid-19 frontline health care professionals.


Find out more

Selva’s articles have been published by the world’s first Climate Change museum, The Jockey Club Museum of Climate Change in Hong Kong, as well as over 100 other publications around the world. She contributed Tsunami / Chasing the Quarantine Blues Away for Day 22 of our Quarantine Connection series, and in September 2020 art.earth published her piece, Acknowledging the true cost of climate change.

You can find out more about Clean Air Day in the UK and the International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies campaigns, where the UN has described air quality as a two-fold problem, with both health and climate impacts. WWF published its report Fires, forests and the future: a crisis raging out of control? in 2020. You can read 8 things everyone should know about Australia’s wildfire disaster, published in Vox about the start of the bushfires in January 2020, with the Guardian reporting how “for months, Australians breathed air pollution up to 26 times above levels considered hazardous to human health. The long-term impact could be devastating” in Inside Australia’s climate emergency: the air we breathe. In June CNN published Temperatures in an Arctic Siberian town hit 100 degrees, a new high. In September, Reuters reported Exclusive: Brazil Amazon fires likely worst in 10 years, August data incomplete, government researcher saysThis Nature Briefing from June 2020 suggests that Half the world’s population are exposed to increasing air pollution.

Artist Rana Balkis is also a ClimateCultures member. You can view Selva’s and Rana’s paintings for the UN Covid-19 art show at the Trvst website, and Selva’s brochure about Rana’s Infinite Possibilities series is published by Issuu. The international art show Atelier Teymur Rzayev’s First Digital Climate Change Art Show was featured in Coin Telegraph in May 2020, with a slideshow available in this piece from the Jockey Club Museum of Climate Change, Hong Hong. The Museum also has this slideshow of the Breathe Life art show Selva curated, and you can see slideshows of the Clean Air for Blue Skies art show, as well as the ‘One Door One Hundred Trees art show she curated for Serife Akkan, the Bird Watching series from Fatma Kadir, Semine Hazar’s Sea Watcher show, and Selva’s own show, Art in the Time of Corona.

Selva Ozelli
Selva Ozelli
An environmentalist working as an artist, writer, international tax attorney and public accountant, who has curated a Climate Change Art Show at Balat Culture Center, Istanbul ...
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In Time: Crisis, Care, Creation

Artist Margin Zheng felt moved to perform Lola Perrin’s work, Significantus, as part of their climate activism, and adapted the piano suite to new conditions when Covid-19 prevented public events, producing a unique online concert: Crisis, Care, Creation.


1,800 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes


It is often the most peculiar motifs of circumstance that make life and art — and the art of life — tremble beautifully, in truth unveiled.

I first learned of Lola’s composition by a chance Internet-search, motivated by a serendipitous moment of curiosity. I was creating a foothold for myself in climate activism, having led a climate rally in September at my college (Haverford College) and started a hub of Sunrise Movement on campus. I knew of — and also personally knew — composers who wrote politically oriented music, and I also was familiar with composers like John Luther Adams who wrote music evocative of the mysterious, mesmerizing powers of nature. So the question came to me — it might have been in November: had anyone written a piano piece about the climate crisis?

Someone had, in the UK: her name was Lola Perrin. Elated, I ordered the score and tried it out, and, entranced, I soon had the inescapable conviction that I would perform Significantus in public someday.

Lola Perrin’s ‘Significantus’
Photograph: Margin Zheng

After a few emails and conversations, including an email and WhatsApp exchange with Lola herself, and an application to a student performance fund offered by my college, I received in January the happy news. I had received the E. Clyde Lutton 1966 Memorial Fund. With the support of Haverford College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities, I was going to perform Significantus in a concert in Earth Week — with a personal spin.

Climate activism under lockdown

The general format of the performance was to mostly follow the score: first seven movements of music, then a short talk by a guest speaker, after that audience participation in breakout groups, and finally the last musical movement, followed by a reception and informal conversation. But instead of focusing on sharing information on climate change for the audience to reflect upon, my event was to center on storytelling and emotional connection: the guest speaker was to share a personal story about how they became called to climate activism, and the audience was then to share in small groups their own stories of thinking, feeling, experiencing a world in crisis. The final movement was to be a collective improvisation, beginning with just me playing, then continuing as a duet with the guest speaker (also a performer), and finally expanding to the audience members, who were to contribute something of their own to the performance by singing, speaking, playing an ‘instrument’, dancing, whatever else they imagined, symbolizing the collective creation of a better future.

Logistics were a battle from the start, mostly because I was so unfamiliar with the challenges of planning a concert and thus approached the task too dreamily. It was not until spring break, in March, when I finally got my guest speaker confirmed, but by then all plans were in peril. The pandemic had penetrated the county where my college was, and soon after it spread all over the region. After a few weeks, what was increasingly likely became inevitable: classes were to be online for the rest of the semester, and all on-campus events were cancelled. Most students, including myself, were barred from returning to campus (exceptions including many international students and students without a safe home to stay in); I was to spend the rest of my semester at home.

I was devastated. I had such wonderful visions for a concert of compassion and creation, and now they were stolen away! The fund that was supporting the concert required performances to be in the semester the money was granted, so there was no chance for the concert to be postponed to the fall, when hopefully on-campus activities would recommence. Besides, there was intentional meaning in scheduling the concert during Earth Week, two days before the mass strikes that were to sweep the U.S. — it was the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, in a crucial year for action.

Crisis, Care, Creation

The concert was always about performing ‘in time’: not just tickling vague eternities with delicate trained fingers in hypnotic moto perpetuo, but contextualizing my performance — and generally my being — in the tensions of my times. In the great existential crisis of a humanity that seems so determined, to its own peril, to go on and on and on producing — but needs to stop and reflect and confront itself: whom is ‘business as usual’ hurting the most? (The already marginalized and oppressed: people of color and especially Indigenous people, poor and working-class people, people with disabilities, young people, etc.) And what are they saying, doing, demanding? 

I am a young, Chinese American, genderqueer person from a middle to upper-middle class background. I was born a U.S. citizen and am the child of immigrants. I was not raised in any religion, but I feel deeply spiritual, a Seeker. I exist with a particular combination of privileges and challenges, and though I cannot speak and act for anyone else, I must live with full intention as who I am, embedded in human and nonhuman space and time.

Before I sent the audience into breakout groups, I shared my own story of living in the climate crisis.
Margin Zheng

So when I realized that the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate emergency were really twin crises, both the result of governments caring more for concentrated profit and political power than for the health and wellbeing of people, I decided that my project — early on titled ‘Crisis, Care, Creation’ — had to continue, in whatever way it could. This was the gift I had for this moment, a gift I had to give.

The result was a Zoom-based concert on April 20th. The original format I had planned turned out to speak profoundly to the needs of the times and to require only a few adjustments: in lieu of a guest speaker/performer, I spoke my own story after the initial half-hour of music; audience members joined Zoom breakout rooms to reflect upon how they were emotionally processing the moment of multilayered crisis and to practice collective care; and the final movement still invited audience members to join me (while on mute) with their own musical, kinesthetic, or visual performances (some people even drew pictures) as I gradually broke away from Lola’s score and started improvising.

While performing, I felt thoroughly in a state of flow.
Margin Zheng

After the initial awkwardness of speaking to a Zoom audience (since my video was pinned onto the screen, I had to watch myself as I spoke!), the experience was for me one of intellectually, emotionally, physically, spiritually engaging flow. I took many artistic liberties in my interpretation, breathing through the music and dancing through its spirit. I embodied yearning, awe, sorrow, numbness, anger — every emotion a different subjective time, every movement in time like a river. I spoke the first words of my personal story — “This should be my time of dreams!” — with the final chord of the seventh movement (entitled ‘We are playing with fire, a reckless mode of behaviour we are likely to come to regret unless we get a grip on ourselves’) still resounding, and I still panting from exertion. After speaking, I then joined a breakout room myself, shared in heart-to-heart dialogue. Afterwards, I concluded with the last movement — a joyful part-planned, part-spontaneous performance despite my not being able to hear the audience’s own improvisations — and then some last words, though by then I found it hard to speak, how exhausted and elated I was from it all. 

Imagine better, create!

Throughout the performance, my body and spirit were spellbound, and — I am told — many in the audience were too. Even without the usual physical performance space enabling a palpable sonic resonance, there was communication, fellowship, spiritual reverberance. Many were stressed and lonely, and in music, conversation, and creation, they found emotional grounding and solace. As I read the messages people sent me afterwards, I felt joy, pride, gratitude. My ‘crazy’ idea worked! — and it meant something.

After the concert, one audience member shared with me the drawing he made during the collective improvisation as an expression of thanks. Image used with permission.

This was an event I shall always remember, as it brought people together, and it touched them deep.

I write this nearly two weeks after the performance, on May Day 2020, the International Workers’ Day, when many people in the U.S. and elsewhere — especially those deemed ‘essential workers’ during the pandemic — are striking, protesting, and otherwise mobilizing for urgent aid and protection: for safe working conditions, for accessible medical care, for rent and mortgage cancellations and an end to water shutoffs, for the release of those confined in unsafe prisons and detention centers, for a #PeoplesBailout: for the basic right to life. I stand in solidarity with the people who striked that day as well as with the people who cannot or do not strike but still call upon those with privilege to support them and to demand crucial change — both the immediate and the deep.

The climate crisis is not just about nature, and the pandemic is not just about a virus. They are both manifestations of the greater plague of capitalism and of money-run politics: life-devaluing systems that if we — the united peoples of Earth — do not soon uproot will only cause even more death and irreversible destruction. Can we act — in time? Connected with our identities, our personal and collective histories, our individual and shared longings for the future, can we move the rhythms of our world and dance a variegated, syncopated, yet more harmonious tune?

Showing Margaret Zheng's performance, Crisis, Care, Creation on Earth Day 2020
At the end of Crisis, Care, Creation, I departed from the score in partly planned improvisation, synchronously performing with each audience member.
Margin Zheng

I would like to end with the words with which I concluded my virtual concert. Let them resonate with you, my fellow human being, a being in time:

So long as we live in a world of crisis, we must continue to practice care for ourselves and other living beings and to day by day strive to create a thriving, more beautiful future. Thus I leave you with one more question, to be answered in contemplation and in action:

How do the crises of the emerging world compel us to live anew?


Find out more

Signicantus composer Lola Perrin is a fellow ClimateCultures member and creator of the  ClimateKeys global initiative.

Sunrise Movement is a movement in the USA to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process.

‘Crisis, Care, Creation’ was performed for Earth Day 2020. Growing out of the first Earth Day in 1970, Earth Day Network aims to diversify, educate and activate the environmental movement worldwide.

Margin Zheng
Margin Zheng
A philosopher, artist, awakener, and spiritual intellectual, formally studying music and mathematics, informally learning voraciously about our world in transformation, involved in actions promoting climate justice.
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A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #12

Writer Philip Webb Gregg explores being human in the Anthropocene, using three objects that offer to carry, fuel or guide our search for experience and meaning, but whose less subtle qualities have great power to lead us astray.


1,670 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 minutes


The challenge: the Anthropocene — the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated — has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions aA History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

Necessary baggage

A sling made from dry grass. A basket, woven from cut saplings. A sack, sewn from the skin of a caught animal. A pair of cupped hands. A leaf a shell a gourd a pot. A womb. A story.

Showing a basket as a universal carrier
Universal carrier
Photograph: เอกลักษณ์ มะลิซ้อน  (Pixabay)

In her essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin explores the idea of the bag being the oldest human tool. In doing so, she is able to show how the stories we’ve been told our entire lives have deceived and misled us.

You know the stories I mean, the ones stuffed end-to-end with guns, knives, sharp-hard-phallic things and blood. The ones that sell well in the box-office. The ones with a handsome hero and an ugly, linear plot. Begin at point A, then proceed straight and with maximum force to point B. WHAM. Somewhere in there there will be conflict, and inevitably, death. But what if there was another way? What if we could cradle our narratives? Not slashing or throwing, but holding.

Le Guin writes that “before the weapon, a late, luxurious, superfluous tool; long before the useful knife and axe; right along with the indispensable whacker, grinder, and digger (…) with or before we made the tool that forces energy outward, we made a tool to bring energy home.” That ‘bringing home’ is something I’m intensely interested in, both from a storytelling and a human sapiens perspective. I find myself coming back, again and again, to the idea of necessary baggage.

Bags surround and shape our lives and society. Without them we would be a very different species, for better or worse. They have carried us, both physically and metaphorically, out of the empty-handed dark and into the world we now inhabit. A world of boxes within boxes. And sometimes these boxes look like progress and sometimes they just look like a cage.

Recently I was moving house. And part-way through I became increasingly aware of the things I was moving. With arms full of bags — full of books — I reflected that books were just bags full of words, and words were just further containers for narrative. And that perhaps the ideas and lessons held within these narratives were just another kind of vessel for holding perspectives on an existence that is too huge to ever be properly perceived from any angle? And would we be better without any bags at all? Maybe the spirit is the only thing that can never be bagged? But then, what is the body if not a bag full guts and bones, possibly accompanied by a soul?

My point, I think, is that necessary baggage is something we need to accept and embrace if we wish to remain human and sane. Whether it’s pent-up ideology, miss-spent emotion or simply too many possessions, we must all learn the subtle art of holding.

Perfect coffee pettiness

It began with goats — so the story goes — who ate the little red cherries and danced in the trees in the hills of Ethiopia, over a thousand years ago.

Showing coffee beans and cup - search for perfection
Perfect beans
Photograph: S. Hermann & F. Richter (Pixabay)

The shepherd took these seeds to his local holy man, who chastised him and threw the seeds in the fire. Before long both shepherd and holy man noticed a particularly delicious aroma coming from the embers and decided to investigate.

Thus, coffee was born.

Another story tells that coffee came from a Sufi mystic who, while travelling through Ethiopia, observed the energetic behaviour of birds after feasting from a certain bush. A third story tells of an exiled Yemeni healer, who chewed the raw berries while in a state of starvation and desperation.

Whatever origin myth you choose to believe, coffee has been around for a long time, and has played an interesting part in the development and progression of human history. From the Middle Eastern qahveh khaneh or ‘schools of the wise’, where coffee (quahwa) would be consumed and venerated amid poetry, performance and passionate conversation, to the first European coffee houses in the 17th and 18th centuries, which helped to steer and fuel the Age of Enlightenment. However, it all pales to the shade of a weak flat white when you compare it to the role of coffee today.

A lot has changed since the days of the dancing goats. The narrative of coffee in the modern world is one of the most telling cues of the capitalist system. We fill ourselves with fuel to achieve as much as possible in the shortest span of time. We sacrifice sleep while in the worship and pursuit of our dreams.

This fuel is bitter and strong, or sweet and smooth. It comes in dozens of different styles and countless combinations. Crafted, blend, single-origin, filter, espresso, Java, Arabica, etc, etc. It’s a poison that’s been analysed and romanticised to such a degree that it now exists as a status symbol for the millennial generation.

For me it sits atop a trifactor of emblematic substances, together with hummus and avocados, that mark the pettiness of the Anthropocene generation. It has become the addiction of the 21st century, except that junkies have never before obsessed about the perfect pattern of a fern leaf in the smoke of their crack pipes. And that’s what gets to me. Somehow, there is a snobbery here which tastes bitterly of middle-class elitism and pretentiousness.

I wonder, in the world that is to come, when seas are rising and jungles burning, will we still care about the nominal difference between a macchiato and a manchado?

Search engine unconsciousness

We live in curious times. That much is certain. With Covid-19 making immense and frightening changes to all our lives and behaviours, it seems like a good time to talk about internet use and dependence. Apparently before the pandemic hit, in a seven-day period we would spend an average of 24 hours online. That’s a whole day every week looking at screens, clicking, typing and scrolling; existing in a space that is neither physical nor abstract, where attention spans are ephemeral, all knowledge seems available and very little wisdom is on offer.

Showing question marks in our search for truth
Search?
Photograph: Arek Socha (Pixabay).

There is a reason all cultures throughout history have a tradition of venerating their elders. Someone who has lived and survived longer than you, whether they be your relative or not, deserves your implicit respect because they retain the influence of wisdom.

Sure, you might be faster, stronger or healthier. But they can tell you which direction to run, which berries to pick; which fungus gets you close to the sky and which sends you deep into the earth. In the days when we were a tribe, our elders had something that was stronger than any human muscle. They had stories. Stories that would be told at important moments, ceremonies and rites of passage. Narratives that could guide us through life, and even a few that could guide us through death.

These days, we have search engines. Grandfather Google.

Most of us are blissfully unaware of the power that search engines have over our experience of the internet (and thus our experience of modern life). Usually, we think that they are one and the same. This is a mistake. They are very much not the same.

Let’s try this with a metaphor. If the internet is a safari park, crammed to the brim with ferocious animals, exotic plant life and all manner of interesting biodiversity, then your search engine is the little guy in a jeep driving you through the savanna, pointing your binoculars in the right direction and deciding which paths are unsafe to go down.

It’s a role not unlike the one once held by our elders. Except that it is inhuman, dominated by capitalism and driven by a specific set of data targets and an agenda. We all know that the same search made on two different computers will bring up very different results. Like everything these days, our search engines are highly customised to our experience.

In this, they function a little bit like the unconscious, and the whole internet itself can be compared to Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious — a worldwide conversation. A massive, never-ending, semi-incoherent, often very important but usually very banal, conversation between one box of data and the next. There is certainly poetry in that, and great terror also.

For me, there’s a beautiful irony in the way we use the internet these days. In one sense it’s the repository of all human knowledge, art and experience — and has the very real potential to elevate anyone with a wifi connection to near-demigod status. But of course, we squander it on cat videos and pornography.

It’s a sad and wonderfully human reality. And I for one am curious, terrified and a little bit hopeful for whatever the future holds for us bag-wielding, poison drinking, unconscious apes.


Find out More

Ursula Le Guin’s essay, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, is published by Ignota Books (2019) with an introduction by Donna Haraway. And you can read this article from August 2019, where Siobhan Leddy argues convincingly that We should all be reading more Ursula Le Guin.

You can explore coffee’s mysterious origins in this 2010 piece for The Atlantic by Giorgio Milos. And dip your toes into the more accessible waters of the collective unconscious via the collective consciousness that is Wikipiedia. Searchenginehistory.com has this … history of search engines (from 1945 to just before tomorrow).

Philip Webb Gregg
Philip Webb Gregg
A writer of fiction and non-fiction, focusing primarily on storytelling and eco-criticism to explore the complexities of nature in conflict with the human condition.
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A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #11

Writer Kelvin Smith‘s three objects — electric lighting, symbolically living money, once-and-future reefs — question what is fundamental to human presence on Earth, what’s been taken from the land and what new creations might arise in future seas.


1,900 words — approximate reading time 7.5 minutes


The challenge: the Anthropocene — the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated — has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions at A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

The electric Iolanthe

My mother used to tell the story of how electricity came to her village. It must have been some time in the 1920s, when she was a little girl. One day work on the village transformer had been completed and a single light bulb was lit up on the top. Everyone in the village danced around it.

Bear in mind this was not an isolated spot deep in the country, but a village no more than ten miles from the huge mass of mill chimneys in Central Lancashire. This was a major European industrial region, but one in which her village, Woodhouses, had had to wait many years for the ‘new’ power source to be introduced. Not perhaps that anyone felt the need. In the century recently ended the house where she was later born had been built with large windows to let in the daylight for the silk weavers who then lived there. Sunlight and gaslights were good enough for the schools, churches and other aspects of village life. They were not hampered by the lack of electric light and power, and it would be many years until labour saving electric and electronic gadgets entered the home.

electric performance: showing Jessie Bond as Iolanthe in 1882
Jessie Bond as Iolanthe at the Savoy Theatre in 1882

One of the major social cultural activities of the village was the Woodhouses Church Amateur Operatic Society, and its annual staging of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. My mother was a regular performer and her high point was an appearance as Iolanthe. I later learned that Iolanthe was the first work to premiere at the Savoy Theatre on 25 November 1882, and it was the first new theatre production in the world to be illuminated entirely with electric lights. Radio, films, music performance and recording, television, and all the wonders of the Internet would follow over the next 140 years using the miracle of electricity.

electric heritage: showing the plaque at the Savoy Theatre in London, commemorating the first public building in the world to be lit by electricity..
Savoy Theatre, London: Plaque commemorating the first public building in the world to be lit by electricity.
Photograph: Mick Lobb © 2011 (CCL) www.geograph.org.uk/photo/3010211

Electricity has been as the core of our lives since then, and I wonder, even with generation of electricity by solar, wind and other renewables, if it is right to think of electricity as fundamental to the future of the planet. Can the continued generation, transmission, and storage of electricity really be the only option to maintain a human presence on Earth?

The colour of money

Like many people who have travelled I have a stash of unused currency, coins and banknotes, mostly now invalid, but kept for the feel and smell and for the memories they contain.

The coins are brute metal, the same metal that makes bombs and bullets, the metal of shrieking transportation, the metal of blades that cut crops and butcher beasts.

There is metal in the earth and on the earth, in the skies and in the air, in the water and under the water. It is dissolved and discarded, the metal of industry and the metal of war, the metal of sport and the metal of experimentation. It rusts and decays, but slowly, colouring rocks and leaving sediments, making acids and colourful salts, changing appearance and behaviour, causing trouble and making things go off-kilter. The base metals, the precious and workaday minerals come from all continents. Where do we find our iron, copper, nickel, platinum, silver, gold and more; diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and all the parts that decorate bodies and badges of power, crowns and cutting tools? The same places where coal, asbestos, oil is brought forth from the earth.

There are images and icons on the coins, but I am most struck with the images on the notes. There are, of course, leaders and other famous faces, but there are also birds and animals (elephant, water buffalo, armadillo) and crops (tea, tobacco, maize), tractors and people carrying sacks on their heads. All represent what money can buy, but they also hold the secrets of what money can do.

A collection of banknotes left over from my travels
Photograph: Kelvin Smith

In this Earth we have forced living things to come to us for profit or pleasure, living things made dead for commerce: animal skin clothing, nostrums and potions made of teeth, horn, internal organs and sexual parts. People have turned land into plantations of commercial crops: tea and coffee, coca and cacao, tobacco and bananas, flax and sisal. All of this was done with no concern for the people who were there, who were shipped out, enslaved or indentured, beaten and burnt. Now, converted to foreign creeds, they may make a living from folklore and foreigners, smiling and selling to cruise ship crowds and other travelling charlatans.

The metal and paper tokens remind me of what has been taken, what impoverishment has been caused, what degradation of people and place, what stripping of surface soils and deeper sediments. The people, the creatures and the things that have been taken from the earth now lie on its surface, in its waters and in its air. They will not go back into the land they came from.

A new coral reef

The future is in a piece of coral found on a faraway beach, now covered with mould and mosses in a Suffolk garden. It comes from a period when I would regularly fly to that part of the world, passing over the peak of a dead volcano, noticing each time that there was a little less snow. On the way back north, looking into the dark from high above, I would often see flame lines across the wide semi-arid top of the continent.

This coral came from a beach where it had washed up, already dead, but still carrying the delicate marks made by its creators, small repeated patterns discernible now as the matter crumbles under the pressure of green growth and northern weather. The beach where it came from was, we heard, earmarked for development by a foreign hotel company, but at the time it was clean uncluttered sand, and the only sign of human life was what remained of an abandoned sisal plantation on the hills above. This large expanse was crisscrossed with abandoned small-gauge railway tracks, unseen mostly but felt as a judder whenever the vehicle bounced over them. It was a paradise beach, the remains of a colonial exploitation, from which I took a single piece of dead coral.

electric life - showing a piece of dead coral comes alive again
A piece of dead coral found on a beach in Southern Tanzania in the 1990s comes alive again in Suffolk in 2020
Photograph: Kelvin Smith

Why is this a sign for the future? It is a message of the calm before the next storm. This coral’s reef home, the place where it had lived and died, is unrecorded and unregistered. The other sea creatures are unremembered too.

The white rocklike thing that decays in the English winter is a lost thing with no connection to its origins or to the future. But in the future there may be another reef, not coral now (that is all long dead), but made of constructed things, a reef framed on waste and redundant manufactures, artificial, self-evolved or bioengineered, destined to eat plastics, dung and multifarious detritus, taking on a life and a purpose of its own. Covering the flooded foreshores and coastal cities, cleaving to the metal and the concrete, collecting life from oils and plastics, assaying them for edibility, and beginning the long munching and mulching, the centuries-long work of realigning the chemical and biological structures of the planet. I imagine that these creatures will make colours too, and magical shapes, will evolve pattern, and rhythms to support new forms and adaptation of an earthly life.

Some beings may see these wonderful creations but they will not be us. If there are people still, they will not live near these new oceans and estuaries. They will protect themselves from further damage. They will have no memory.

Survivors will stay far inland, on high points, collecting precipitated liquids, adapting to a diet of who-knows-what organic matter. Humans will breed at random but with difficulty. We will not know a past and will stop imagining a future. We will not have stories to tell. We will look down the slopes and valleys and fear the shifting surfaces of the coral’s realm. We will not try to be powerful again for a very long time. We will have lost the world and our souls, but the new reef will carry on growing.

***

To return to my mother. Her appearance as Iolanthe was often spoken of at home and I particularly remember the story of one young village lad who was asked what he thought about the performance. “It were all right,” he said, “until that bugger came up all covered in seaweed.”

So it might be when the first human plucks up courage to go down to the new shoreline, test the waters around the new plasticised reef, enter the liquid morass and come up covered with … what?


Find out more

You can read a short account of the first use of electric lighting in a public building, at the Savoy Theatre in 1881, at the Read the Plaque site: “Sir Joseph Swan, inventor of the incandescent light bulb, supplied about 1,200 Swan incandescent lamps, and the lights were powered by a 120 horsepower generator on open land near the theatre. [Richard D’Oyley] Carte explained why he had introduced electric light: ‘The greatest drawbacks to the enjoyment of the theatrical performances are, undoubtedly, the foul air and heat which pervade all theatres. As everyone knows, each gas-burner consumes as much oxygen as many people, and causes great heat beside. The incandescent lamps consume no oxygen, and cause no perceptible heat.’ … Carte stepped on stage and broke a glowing lightbulb before the audience to demonstrate the safety of the new technology.” Jessie Bond’s own reminiscences include an unexpected reference to another electric innovation at the Savoy: “The improved stage fittings and increased space of the Savoy Theatre made it possible to present ‘Iolanthe’ much more effectively and elaborately than any of the previous operas. There was a great sensation when the fairies tripped in with electric stars shining in their hair – nothing of the sort had ever been seen before …”

As the Engineering Timelines site explains, the public supply and use of electricity was initially quite slow to take off in Britain: Michael Faraday discovered the principles for generating and transforming electricity in the 1830s, but it was several decades before this took over from the established technologies of steam and gas. “It was clear from early on that the investment and infrastructure required for an electrical industry would make electricity a very costly commodity compared with the other well-established technologies. Indeed once it did start, progress was slow.” The first town to have electric street lighting was Godalming in Surrey, also in 1881.

Kelvin Smith
Kelvin Smith
A prose and poetry writer presenting imaginative perspectives on the climate crisis, and encouraging book people to change what they do and how they do it.
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