Towards a Response to the Climate and Ecological Crisis

If you don’t hang on to that [1.5 degree highest global warming] goal, what you’ll achieve is a total disaster

– António Guterres, Secretary General, United Nations

No major advanced industrialised country is on track to meet its pledges to control the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

– David Victor (UCSD) et al, Nature, 1 Aug 2017

Committed emissions from existing energy infrastructure jeopardize 1.5°C climate target

Tong et al, Nature, 1 July 2019

This story isn’t over yet.  It’s wrong to tell it as if it’s over.

– Rupert Read

This article draws on a report I wrote for Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park, considering how one small arts organisation might respond to the climate and ecological emergency.

When I first began to examine this question, I was mainly thinking about practical solutions.  Should we have a net zero target date?  What could we do to reduce embodied emissions, i.e. greenhouse gases emitted in the manufacture and transport of artworks and merchandise?  What more could we do to encourage biodiversity?  I imagined a lot of spreadsheets.  If we could get the numbers right, we would have done our bit. But in order to think about what needed to be done, I had to do some research – to learn about the reality of the challenges facing us, and about current thinking on possible responses.  After going some way down that path, I ended up with a very different vision for the future.  The spreadsheets would still be important, I hoped, but they would be nowhere near enough. Because of the enormity of the climate crisis, there was an exciting role an innovative arts venue could and arguably should play, as host and participant in an evolving, creative climate conversation.

Compton Verney is interesting in this context for its track record of exhibitions which juxtapose the historical and the contemporary, and which are often deeply rooted in landscape. The park, in normal times, also plays host to activities which bring visitors close to nature, including its busy forest school. It has embraced green technology with more bravery than most stately homes, having for instance a reed bed for the treatment of sewage within the elegantly landscaped park.

The need for a way to address climate change on a different level became evident as soon as I began to research the subject, because at that point I needed to pause and take stock at the enormity of what I was reading.  I wondered: how can we engage in a positive and healthy way with escalating problems on such a vast scale, when it seems in our power to do so little?  In 2020, WHO estimated that 150,000 people were already dying because of climatic changes each year. There is creative work to be done in bearing witness to and communicating those experiences.

Some climate researchers are understandably wary of using language that induces fear, guilt and despair.   Others argue that it is important for information to be shared frankly

Environmental activist Joanna Macy runs workshops entitled In the Dark, the Eye Learns to See. ‘The most radical thing any of us can do at this time is to be fully present to what is happening in the world,’ she said in an interview for Truthout.

Philosopher Dr Rupert Read, founder of the think tank Green House, has spoken on similar lines, suggesting that alongside practical action, there is a collective task to do, of gently looking reality in the eye.  In addition, he suggests a need for creative work, including an exploration of the imagination, as we begin to engage with and prepare to navigate a very different future.  He advocates honest discussion, and stopping to pause as we absorb messages and information.

Miranda Massey of the Climate Change Museum in New York has spoken about the particular role art has to play:

When you’re engaging with art, no matter how dark the message of the art in question might be, you’re engaging with that message through an inherently inspiring medium … There is a fundamental collectivity that we don’t see in other areas of human endeavour, and that’s part of what makes the cultural terrain so important on climate … 

We don’t live in our frontal lobes – we live in our emotional selves and our communal selves.

We’re in an unprecedented situation that requires an unprecedented level of cross-sectoral collaboration; collaboration and partnership and amity …   There’s a kind of softness and compassion and gentleness that this incredibly acute, challenging moment requires. 

Miranda Massey, Climate Change Museum, New York

The human connection approach advocated by Macy, Massey and Read, as we negotiate the seemingly impossible, has echoes in, for instance, the Five Ways to Wellbeing (Connect, Take Notice, Give, Keep Learning and Be Active) – something that Compton Verney had drawn on for its Cafe Connect events, and an example of a framework that can enable arts venues to act as catalysts in helping us negotiate a challenging (to say the least) future together.

There are other influences that have changed the way I think about my own response. Mark Boyle, in his book The Way Home, talks about savouring the world rather than saving it. Saving the planet may be beyond us – or saving the biosphere in its present form anyway (the planet will be go on for a while yet, tough old rock that it is), but as we push the earth into shrugging off the ecosystem as we know it, I find myself feeling unusually attentive and tender towards the plants and animals around me.

Miles Irving, in his online talk Wild Thoughts: Finding our way back home, addresses ways to restore bonds between ourselves, the landscape and other species. In pre-industrial times, these bonds would have been constantly strengthened as we interacted with the landscape to meet our basic needs. The use of machines, however, severs them, since ‘machines don’t take on board feedback’. In fact, he suggests that machines have a psychopathic element, since ‘the fundamental nature of a psychopath is that they are unable to register or comprehend fear and pain on the face of another’ (29:12). Foraging for food directly in the landscape, without using machinery, is a way to tune back into two-way communication with the ecosystem and rediscover ‘our niche within the biosphere’.

As I ponder all this, the following quote is on my mind – consider it perhaps with a liberal interpretation of ‘praying’, and an absence of species exceptionalism (so that all of life can be in on the goodwill):

Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand, if there has been any slip or fall …

Isaac Pennington, 1667

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