Culture and climate change: experiments and improvisations

 

Renata Tyszczuk & Joe Smith

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photo: Gorm Ashurst, Bullet Creative, http://www.gorminator.com/

[note: we post this essay to mark the conclusion of a body of work, expressed, among other things in an exhibition held at the RGS-IBG,  in June 2018: Culture and Climate Change. A further post will detail links to various digital forms of a number of new publications… This essay will appear as an afterword in revised form in: Feola, G., Geoghegan, H., Arnall, A. (Eds.) (forthcoming) Climate and Culture: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Knowing, Being and Doing in a Climate Change World. Cambridge University Press]

Introduction

This essay looks back on our experience of working at the culture-climate change join across twenty-five years. It is an opportunity to try to identify useful discoveries, unwritten rules and acknowledge some blind alleys as we look back on a variety of design, media, arts and other creative collaborations. To begin we offer some thoughts about the nature and role of this kind of work. We then describe some of our projects and reflect on what we have learnt along the way as we have sought to support, convene, catalyse and understand cultural work on climate change.

Mike Hulme’s observes that ‘however our contemporary climatic fears have emerged… they will in the end be dissipated, reconfigured or transformed as a function of cultural change’ (2009). However there are no blueprints for cultural work on climate change. Work in this area does not offer an instant remedy for public detachment or policy failures. But it can open up more expansive understandings of the many ways in which the world is being altered, or might be in future, not simply physically but also imaginatively. Moreover, climate change calls for new strategies of ‘deliberate transformation’ (O’Brien 2012) that recognize not only different understandings of agency and human-environment relationships but are an adaptive challenge in themselves (O’Brien 2016; O’Brien and Selboe 2015). These deliberate transformations are often latent with a political charge that requires or invites exploration and dispute. Cultural work can help to surface or support this.

Most climate research is rooted in the ‘cultures of prediction’ (Heymann et al. 2017), which pervade the science and cultural politics of global environmental change. Other forms of knowledge, such as indigenous understandings, and meaning-making, for example generated by the arts and humanities, struggle to achieve anything more than marginal status. Cultural work tends to be considered a kind of communications ‘finishing school’ for the prior work of the natural science and policy communities, or part of the psychological ‘rewiring’ that some suggest is required in response to climate change (Marshall, 2015). Nevertheless there has been growing recognition that cross-disciplinary, more culturally rooted, work will need to play a much more prominent role in shaping humanity’s responses to the risks associated with climate change. This has led Hulme, O’Brien and others to argue for more prominence for social sciences, arts and humanities contributions to climate change research. In our own work we have often argued that this should not be understood as some kind of resolution of communications challenges, or as a form of ‘completion’ of environmental research, but rather as an ‘opening out’.

A shift in the ‘intellectual climate’ would involve incorporating a range of environmental humanities writing on, for example, values, responsibilities, rights, perceptions, faith and care pertaining to the ‘human dimensions’ of global environmental change (Castree, 2016). There is plenty of work going on in the arts, in the media and in academia in this territory, and we don’t intend to claim exclusivity or any exceptional status for our projects – on the contrary. Indeed in the first in our series of Culture and Climate Change books (Butler et al., 2011) we attempted to place the range of cultural work on a timeline. Keeping up with emerging work was impossible and omissions embarrassing: we quickly gave up on this ambition. As the varied contributions to this volume demonstrate, this is now a vibrant field, both creatively and academically.

We come from two fields of study and practice, geography and architecture, which share much in common in relation to climate change and wider environmental research. They are deeply inscribed with multi and inter-disciplinary working, and are distinctive within universities in drawing together in one place insights and practices from across the humanities and the natural and social sciences. Both are concerned with space, place and processes of change – both social and natural. More recently these disciplines are also amongst the most prominent centres of research and practice related to global environmental change and economic and cultural globalization. Both architecture and geography are expected to respond to, and to some extent, to be responsible for, these issues. We have explored what this means in our own disciplines; in architecture, in terms of agency (Kossak et al. 2009) and provisionality (Tyszczuk, 2018); and in geography we also draw on the experience of working at the join between global environmental change issues and broadcast media (Smith e.g. 2000 to, most recently, 2017; 2018).

Our culture and climate change projects are rooted in collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches. They have also tended to be experimental and hence often risk taking. They have generally sought to support more plural and dynamic representations of global environmental issues rather than ‘communicate the facts’. The work has often been driven by the objective of bringing together different communities of interest and experience. Related to this, the work has tended to take a less settled view of the underlying issues surrounding climate change than many would. For example we are wary, and on occasions directly critical, of attempts to drive society towards specific objectives that might be derived from the natural sciences but are packaged into particular conclusions or directions by NGOs or the wider policy community. Instead, we are learning by doing: improvising.

If thought of in terms of ‘improvisation’, discussions around climate change might serve as a context for exploring the future, by opening up different possibilities and potentialities for living on a fragile – for humans – and dynamic earth. We could refer to this as ‘constructing for the unforeseen’ – acknowledging the root of the word improvise in the Latin improvisus, ‘unforeseen’ (Tyszczuk, 2011). The centrality of experiment and improvisation in our work is informed by how we understand the cultural politics of climate change. We argue that climate change has six distinctive yet often interacting elements. These comprise: its global pervasiveness, its inherent uncertainties, interdependencies (both social and ecological), the reverberations of history (particularly colonial and postcolonial), the centrality of interdisciplinary approaches in research, and a constantly shifting distribution of human vulnerabilities and responsibilities across time and space (see Smith, 2011, 2014, 2017). These distinctive features of climate change mean that it is present in every aspect of human lives, politics and culture. Indeed:

‘climate change is too here, too there, too everywhere, too weird, too much, too big, too everything. Climate change is not a story that can be told in itself, but rather, it is now the condition for any story that might be told about human inhabitation of this fractious planet’ (Tyszczuk, 2014).

All six dimensions are relevant in diagnosing why climate change is a difficult story to tell. These aren’t properties that are unique to climate change, but they are unique in combination, and are constantly being reconfigured by the generation of new knowledge, representations and events. The work we reflect upon here is all rooted in the fact that climate change is interesting as well as urgent and important. We have also developed our work with a clear understanding that our role as academics working from within arts, humanities and social science traditions is not to serve as adjuncts to policy or in the service of campaigners. Rather we feel it is our responsibility to experiment, learn and share what we find in prototyping shared futures. At the same time our practice, while sharing elements of laboratory practice in the natural sciences, above all ‘the time of the experiment’, enjoys some freedoms unavailable to those spheres of research.

This has allowed us to follow a hunch that experiments and improvisations may prove more effective tools for thinking in a climate changed-world than attempts to perfect communications strategies or polish change agency models. We suggest that researchers and their creative partners could invest their ingenuity, freedom and distinctive skills in cultural mediations, rather than in simply amplifying a particular brand of ‘approved thinking’. We have explored improvisation and experimentation in a series of projects under the banner of Culture and Climate Change, working in partnership with arts bodies, NGOs and charities, and also in RCUK funded projects, such as Interdependence Day, and Stories of Change.

Interdependence Day: An unruly mix

The Interdependence Day project, 2005-2010, amounted to a programme of experimental events, publications and other interventions that could test both different framings of sustainability thinking and innovate in the forms of engagement between academics, publics and creative and policy partners. The activities were designed to probe the potency of the concept of interdependence at a time when the density of relations between the ecological, the social and political were becoming so evident. Interdependence day was politically explicit but frank about its experimental and uncertain status. The ideas were shaped by conclusions of much earlier social research that had confirmed that publics had a good nose for authenticity when it came to government encouragement for everyone ‘do their bit’ in response to global environmental challenges (Smith et al. 1999; 2000). It was informed by work in human geography that addressed the ethical and political implications of ‘thinking space relationally’ and thus ‘geographies of responsibility’ (Massey, 2004) and also by radical traditions of participation, interactivity and co-production in architectural design teaching (Tyszczuk, 2007).

We sought to test means of navigating present and near-future environmental challenges ‘in public and with publics’. Among other things, we were motivated to explore tones and approaches to publications and events that avoided both the monotonous ‘too little too late’ intonations of the environmental NGOs, but also avoided the hubris of other, in our view naive, responses that stressed the availability of sustainable solutions, and that emphasized the honing of ‘correct’ communications design. Our goal was to find ways of describing and responding to our state of global interdependence that respects but isn’t confounded by its complexity. The Interdependence Day project started from the assumption that ‘it is impossible to reach a viewing point from which we can fully account for myriad ecological and economic inter-relations: we are simply too enmeshed’ (Tyszczuk et al. 2012). The events and publications all sought to contribute to a collage of careful but purposeful responses to this complex state of ‘interdependency’ (Smith et al. 2007; Tyszczuk & Smith, 2009; Tyszczuk et al. 2012).

The Interdependence Day project acknowledged the complexity and seriousness of contemporary political problems, and the way they have served to leave many people feeling disempowered. We therefore sought to try out new kinds of public event that would be both interactive and participatory. The three sold-out events tested a range of experiments in participatory exchanges around global themes. The first two were held at the Royal Geographical Society and the third at Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank. These all included ‘unconference’ elements, collaborative writing groups, workshops, installations and exhibitions, as well as more standard (short) talks formats. The interactive workshops included the creation of a new ‘mappa mundi’ in the Map Room of the Royal Geographical Society as a ‘living’ and ‘provisional’ exhibition. Participants stitched their stories into a linen world map laid out on a table; their conversations were recorded and later transcribed and fed into publications (Tyszczuk, 2012). We also devised ‘Doctor’s Surgeries’ where small groups experienced and contributed to guided conversations about global themes ‘in the company of experts’ (academic researchers from a range of sustainability-related disciplines). The events revealed a strong and otherwise largely unmet appetite amongst attentive publics to talk through themes such as climate change, economic globalisation and biodiversity loss in the company of others.

The three Interdependence reports, co written and co published with the new economics foundation (nef) were another element of this strategy of testing new framings (Simms, Moran, Chowla 2007; Simms, Johnson, Smith 2007; 2009). The qualitative and quantitative research that had explored community and household perspectives on sustainability (Smith et al, 1999; 2000) had left us convinced that the ‘sustainability’ policy idiom had little purchase on the public imagination. Indeed it tended to encourage cynical responses about government and business failure to lead. Hence we sought to find easy ways to communicate some of the perverse outcomes of an economic system that failed to place a value upon natural resources and ecosystem services. With a focus on honing concise news-friendly phrases and images we translated complex arguments about perverse trade, low values on material and natural resources and future planetary-scale jeopardies into very contained narratives. The first report led BBC radio bulletins and also the ITN evening news, with giant gingerbread biscuits swapping places on a global map graphic. Our writing on off-shored carbon emissions in another of these reports, Chinadependence (Simms, Johnson, Smith, 2009), was the first time the concept had appeared in wide circulation. A further popular and policy-facing publication was the edited book Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth? (Simms and Smith, 2009). It included contributions from leading figures from all of the main UK political parties, as well as artists, writers, designers and others that gave their accounts of how strong environmental actions could deliver improvements in quality of life. Our editorial line and introduction and conclusion drove home arguments rooted in our academic research: that acting to mitigate climate change offered the best opportunity for generations to create a vision of better cities, work and everyday life. The themes of the book, following the design of the project as a whole, located action in visionary and strategic approaches to policy and politics, but framed these around the construction of mainstream cross-party consensus.

The extensive national broadcast news and print coverage for the reports, and the appearance of some of our concepts in political speeches was only possible on account of our investment in relationship building with nef, their skilled phrase making, and their work with media networks and designers. The Interdependence Day project demonstrated the centrality of generous, patient partnerships, full of give and take. It also demonstrated that a great deal can be achieved on very modest budgets indeed. We learnt from this work that the main currencies you need to invest in are ideas and collaborations. The main public-facing achievements of the project also required willingness to purposefully step away from ‘conference mode’, to stop worrying about academic reaction to the published work and behave like you want busy people, including government Ministers and officials, journalists, family and friends to engage with your ideas.

Our use of the term ‘Atlas’ to describe the main book publication of the project (Tyszczuk et al. 2012) – with all its implied completeness and dominion – was intentionally playful. Similarly the title allowed us to nod towards Atlas, the fated hero, doomed to carry the weight of the world or hold up the heavens, depending on your point of view. The book allowed a glimpse of the ideas, art interventions, expert witness stories and scientific responses to global environmental change of the project – what we characterized as an ‘unruly mix’. It was a collection of responses ‘for an unprecedented present and an unpredictable future’. Many of the contributions recognized that small, niche-based gestures and practices could be understood as deft responses to uncertain conditions, or as seed-beds for testing alternatives to an unsustainable status quo. Atlas thus highlighted the value of ‘tracings and probings of worlds which are currently in the making… a guide to journeys that open new pathways; connections that may become networks; practices that could become effective institutions and niche experiments which might nourish purposeful change’ (Tyszczuk et al, 2012).

Further insights from Interdependence Day – about the lack of continuity or short termism of most climate change related projects – led to an ambitious project based around tracking how understandings of environmental change evolve over time. The Creative Climate project comprised a time-series online and broadcast diary project generated by the Open University and BBC World/World Service. In addition to five TV documentaries and dedicated segments in 9 radio programmes a series of ten short films by young filmmakers were co-commissioned with BBC Comedy. The commissioned materials and the central device (diary keeping) were designed to also serve as higher level (upper school/university) teaching and learning content and activities. These materials in particular reached big global audiences, and also worked hard as teaching and learning materials. However the participatory media elements were of very limited impact. Creative Climate taught us to contain expectations of ‘the digital’ as a realm of mass participation without appropriate institutional investments and commitments to social media. We recognised the need to anticipate and plan for institutional limitations in this area, and to play to strengths. This led us to sharpen our resolve that our primary role as academics in much of this work, notwithstanding the news media and policy impacts of the Interdependence reports, or the direct value of the media seminars programme, was as incubators, experimenters and innovators rather than mass-communicators. These lessons directly informed the shape and purpose of our next collaboration on culture and climate change: Stories of Change.

 

Stories of Change: prototyping energy transitions

The Stories of Change project allowed us to focus on the use of stories, narratives and storytelling in energy and climate change research. The project took decarbonisation of the energy system as its central theme. Our starting point was the simple fact that the ways in which humanity has lived with energy in the past has often changed – and will change again. The question is: what changes do we want and how do we tell these stories of change? Stories can help us rehearse for change. ‘Stories do not just passively relate meaning– they create it, and they transform it. Ultimately they are like prototyping, a way of working out what to do next’ (Smith & Tyszczuk eds., 2018).

The project set out to support more dynamic public and policy conversations about energy by looking in a fresh way at its past, present and future. The project was shaped around the cross-party commitments to decarbonisation that sit at the heart of the UK Government’s Climate Change Act of 2008, and was further energised by the UN Paris Agreement of 2015. Research has shown that many people feel disengaged, disempowered or actively hostile to changes to the UK’s energy system required to meet the targets embedded in the Act. At the same time it is clear that there is wide acceptance that actions will be needed to reduce demand, decarbonise the energy supply system and prepare to cope with future environmental hazards. Stories of Change set out to experiment with novel ways to work through areas of concern and test shared ideas about energy system transformations.

By drawing on an unusually broad mix of history, literature, social and policy research and the arts, the project sought to encourage a more open approach to current and future energy changes and choices and to explore elements of a collective vision. Above all we have aimed to encourage a more imaginative and vigorous approach to future energy choices that takes much more account of the interests of people and places that are vulnerable to climate change now and in the future.

Stories of Change was organised around three research projects, or ‘stories’. The first, Demanding Times, gathered together a novel mix of communities with interests around energy policy, mostly focused on London, often seen as the world’s first ‘global city’. It has generated new accounts of energy and politics past, present and future. The second, Future Works was rooted in the English Midlands, unearthing fresh accounts of the long relationship between energy, industrial making and landscape, and exploring where it might go next. Everyday Lives examined the ways energy resources have continued to shape communities’ lives in South Wales. Within the life of the project we saw young Londoners with little prior experience of policy, the media or environmental issues gain the confidence to interview leading policy figures and hold these experts to account for their role in shaping the future. Student and apprentice collaborators in the English Midlands worked with a wide range of businesses and institutions to devise industrial energy strategies for ‘factories of the future’. A pop up storytelling studio in the South Wales Valleys helped reconnect people to their significant role in global-scale energy stories – whether coal mines or wind farms.

We have shared the very varied outputs publicly with performances and events, exhibitions, a web platform and a free printed project book (Smith and Tyszczuk eds., 2018, also available digitally via Issuu). All of the material has been presented publicly, and was designed for easy sharing via Creative Commons licenses. The project book, Energetic, gathers insights and images from across all of the work. Indeed if the Stories of Change project were an exhibition then this would be its catalogue. Following our scepticism about the ‘openness’ of publicly available academic texts we followed the example of the Atlas of Interdependence in bringing together short approachable pieces, plenty of high quality illustration and design. Energetic expresses the mix of creative writing, songs, photos and portraits, interviews, short films, performances and museum and festival events that we co-produced in collaboration with our community, creative and research partners. A more comprehensive collection of material is held in the online Stories Platform. There it is possible to create new ‘stories of change’, by threading material together using the digital tools provided, browse individual items in the library or follow designed and edited pathways (‘stories’) through the collection.

Just as with the Interdependence Day and Creative Climate projects, the design and ethos of Stories of Change was heavily influenced by the example of the Mass Observation movement’s accounts of everyday life in mid-twentieth century Britain (Hubble, 2010). Their work combined a desire to give ordinary people a voice, radical innovations in social research and bold new ideas about documentary media and the arts. They took an innovative approach to valuing and supporting lay social researchers and developed a ground-breaking blend of arts, social sciences and media applied to goals of social change. Mass Observation also made novel use of documentary tools to create a mould breaking account of the life of people in the UK at work, at home and at play. One of the key members of the movement, Humphrey Jennings, had spent years developing a manuscript that amounted to ‘a collection of texts on the Impact of the Machine’. This was published posthumously under the title Pandaemonium in 1985. These were gathered in the first instances to support his regular Workers Education Association lectures, and their collaged nature as a collection of what Jennings called ‘images’ offered further inspiration for the design of our book, web platform and its devices. Pandaemonium and both our Energetic book and web platform assume active readers and listeners who participate in sense making and story-making rather than simply receive content. We designed many aspects of the project’s work in such a way that people would not simply engage with the narratives generated, but also see themselves as agents within them.

While energy systems change was a focus, our wider aim was to explore the degree to which playfulness, the imagination, and the sharing of stories, might play a profound role in preparing the way for the wider body of transformations that will be required if we are to respond to pressing environmental risks, from air pollution to climate change. All of this relates to the simple insight that one key feature of stories is that you can always change the ending. In other words stories were understood to have agency. Our ambition was to extend storytelling beyond being understood as a form of communication into a mode of understanding and acting in the world.

Our experience suggests that creative and experimental methods rooted in the creation of, listening to and telling of stories can play a powerful role in energising engagement in policy issues that are important, but also complex and at first glance uninviting. The approaches we have taken have drawn variously on fun, memory, emotion and connection to place, family, friends or work in order to expand the terrain of public conversations about energy systems change. It is not so much that stories in themselves drive transformations. Rather we propose that stories have the capacity to invite many more constituencies to engage in imagining change and consequently have the confidence to participate in it. The key thing about encouraging people to tell and share energy stories isn’t that there are transformative narratives waiting to be polished but rather that by being given the permission to participate in recalling the past or anticipating possible futures, participants feel they have both a stake and a potential role in positive transformations. Our goal has specifically not been to test and refine the ‘right’ transformative narrative and innoculate the population with it. On the contrary: we argue that, where a democratic system is faced with a complex or challenging topic such as energy transitions in spheres such as space heating, or personal mobility, the quality of public debate can be improved by anticipating and providing for people’s need to hear their own ideas and concerns represented in public narratives (Smith et al. 2017).

 

Culture and Climate Change Scenarios: ‘we are all climate researchers’

The Scenarios project has been carrying some of the same principles but in relation to climate-changed futures. It is our most recent project in the Culture and Climate Change series, and was launched in Paris at the UNFCCC COP 21 in December 2015 with the ambition of bringing greater cultural depth to public conversations about future climate scenarios. Scenario thinking has long been a prominent strand in the work of the IPCC and the UNFCCC, and draws on predictive scientific knowledge, based on computer models and simulations. Scenario and forecasting techniques have been widely applied in business and policy. Scenarios are essentially stories of change, and can thus be understood as collective acts of imagination about possible futures in human-natural hybrid systems. Moreover, their origins as a cultural form lie in the improvisations of çommedia del’arte street theatre in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The term scenario here indicated the synopsis of a performance that responded to the complexities of the everyday. Scenarios presented to describe future climates tend by their nature to invite contestation. Bearing in mind that the root of scenarios is in improvisation and trial-and-error, rather than in the pursuit or definition of a complete ‘solution’ or answer, we have argued that these fundamental characteristics of scenarios should not simply be acknowledged: they need to be embraced.

The project involved the appointment of four artists (Teo Ormond-Skeaping, Lena Dobrowolska, Emma Critchley ad Zoe Svendsen) who from July 2016 took part in an experimental model of ‘networked residencies’, which explicitly sought to both mirror and engage with the distributed but interconnected nature of climate research. The artists were challenged to explore and open up thinking on climate scenarios in the wake of the Paris Agreement. Across the year, their work on the residencies was detailed in monthly diary accounts and presented at public workshops and festivals (see Culture and Climate Change: Scenarios website).

The Scenarios project is another attempt to defy the widely held view of cultural responses to climate change that limit them to late-phase communications or engagement aids that come after the science and policy is done. The project started from the presumption that arts and humanities practices were not a response to, but rather an expression, and component of, climate research. The experimental and co-productive elements of the Scenarios residency centred on the structuring of a sequence of hybrid and experimental encounters with different researchers and between different modes of climate change knowledge making and sharing. Over the year the artists engaged with a range of approaches to climate scenarios – including the models of research scientists, the designs of urban planners and the forecasts of policy makers. At the same time, working with moving image, photography, installation, theatre and performance, they explored and extended the ways in which society might reimagine scenarios of climate change. The improvisational and reflexive intentions inherent in scenarios have served as a touchstone for the project. Our framing for the Scenarios residency was one of ‘collective improvisations’. This referred to both the origins of scenario making in improvised street theatre and the ‘collective experiments’ of climate change. It drew on Bruno Latour’s observation that laboratories had turned ‘inside out’ to become ‘the world wide lab’ such that ‘we are all engaged in a set of collective experiments’ in the ‘confusing atmosphere of a whole culture’ (2003). This aligns with cautions regarding how the predictive knowledge of climate research tends to set the terms for running a worldwide sociocultural experiment, that is, ‘bringing the worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases under directed management’ (Hulme, Mahony, 2010). With this context in mind we proposed, paraphrasing artist Joseph Beuys, that ‘we are all climate researchers’ (Tyszczuk and Smith 2018)

The Scenarios residency project gives an idea of the potential of a sustained collaboration between the natural and social sciences, arts, and humanities in the public spaces of climate research. The varied projects are ongoing and iterative and hint at the multiple possible ways of responding to the complexities of climate change (Tyszczuk and Smith 2018). Ormond-Skeaping and Dobrowolska explored the scenario mode of their documentary photography and film practice in their project provisionally called Anthropocenes. Their field-based research in Lao (PDR), Bangladesh, Uganda and the UK engaged with climate change adaptation in places where climate change is no longer a future scenario- and the impacts are intensifying. It explored the ways in which communities deemed most ‘vulnerable’ to climate change were also providing practical and intellectual leadership in demonstrating capacity to adapt to climate change. Their scenario making opens up a dialogue about a yet-to-be-determined-future, asking important questions about political inequalities as well as new modes of governance and inhabitation in unsettled times. Who decides ‘future scenarios’ (when climate change is already here) who is involved, how and for whom are liveable futures worked out?

Visual and sound artist and diver Critchley’s Human/Nature project engages with the ‘frontiers’ or thresholds of human reach, including the deep sea and deep space. The feature length film she is making asks why these spaces, and by implication the Earth, are treated like frontiers of conquest, rather than home? Critchley’s scenarios are generated through collaborations with deep sea ecologists and climate researchers (Universities, of Southampton, Plymouth, Cornell, Washington and Cambridge with BAS). Part of her research has been about acoustic pollution and its impacts on cetaceans/ sound oriented creatures. Sound here is not just an indicator of global environmental change, but a powerful metaphor for climate change – something it is possible to be immersed in yet falls on different registers. Human/Nature considers the embodied and experiential aspects of change in the non-human natural world, but also aims to show the inseparable relationships between that domain and the distinctively human world of international politics, resource exploitation and territorial ambitions.

Theatre maker Zoe Svendsen used the residency to develop WE KNOW NOT WHAT WE MAY BE, a performance installation at the Barbican (September 2018). Zoe was drawn to the economic and related social and cultural consequences of a climate-changed future. Her investigations were rooted in a series of ‘research in public’ conversations with economics, politics, business and social science climate researchers who have been challenged to imagine what it might feel like to live in a society, and economy, designed in the best possible way to respond to climate change. The performance installation will involve audiences exploring these alternative economic futures, involving various economic measures (eg universal basic income, carbon tax), ideas about the future of food and land, the impact of robotics and AI and the changing relationships to work. Participation in the event will lead to the creation of a collective vision of an alternative future, shared live and online.

Our ambition with the Scenarios project has been to support future imaginings that might better reveal a world where multiple, differentiated and uncertain futures are possible.

The collaborations around climate scenarios between the artists and their climate research community co-researchers (including ourselves as both convenors and participants) recognised the diversity and contested nature of climate change research, with its porous thresholds and ‘indeterminate boundaries between science and its others’ (Hulme and Mahony, 2010). The ‘collective improvisations’ of the Scenarios residency explored ways of expanding the ethical, material and imaginative registers that living with uncertain climates might mobilise, and to explore knowledge making in climate research in collaboration with others. We argued that such collective scenarios could provide a ‘rehearsal space’ that might also result in more robust and considered responses in the near term to the prospect of surprising social transformations that are inevitably part of climate-changed futures (Tyszczuk and Smith 2018).

 

Conclusion

The projects described above had to be achieved ‘in the gaps’ between teaching and more ‘traditional’ academic publication and practice. Before terms like engagement, impact and interdisciplinarity were considered respectable, indeed desirable, dimensions of academic life, most of the projects described here were often considered by others to be dilettante or displacement activities: ‘quirky’. Conditions are changing for the better, and there is a much more substantial community of practice and critique developing around cultural work on climate change. This leads us to want to share a few headline conclusions as to what we believe this work can do, and how it can best be achieved.

We have characterized the complexities of climate change as an unruly mix of diverse knowledges, multiple framings, entanglements of human and non-human agencies and unsettling responsibilities and vulnerabilities. These are seemingly incommensurable and yet, as Latour observes, ‘there they are caught up in the same story’ (1993). Our responses however can only ever be partial attempts at what Sheila Jasanoff describes as the ‘reintegration between global scientific representations of and local social responses to the climate’ (2010). At the same time the unexpected nature of the process of engaging with climate change knowledges brings new skills, networks, insights.

Like prototyping our responses have been incremental and iterative, reflecting the processes of change as much as being involved with and within the change. And these changes are at once technological, social, political and cultural. Climate change understanding is itself evolving and changing. As Margaret Atwood opines, ‘It’s not climate change – it’s everything change’ (2015). Mike Hulme adds: ‘Climate is therefore becoming everything, but also nothing’ (2017). Prototyping shared climate futures in the current climate is therefore also about a commitment to careful risk-taking without guarantee, and to learning through trial and error.

Climate research and how we make sense of this unsettling terrain can take on many forms – and should not be limited to the domain of natural and physical sciences or social sciences or even be confined to the academy: we are all climate researchers now. Indeed wider professional and public participation in climate research – doing research in public and with publics (Smith, 2013) – isn’t just a device for increasing engagement and commitment: it is reciprocal, and changes the nature of the research. We propose that a diversity of perspectives, views and approaches is essential both to sense making, but also to meaningful debate and stable decision-making, particularly within democratic systems.

Finally we acknowledge the time of our experiments and improvisations. Some of the most lightly resourced projects described here have depended on investments of time and attention across many years. They were experiments that had to be left to run, and sometimes required patient watching in order to see when the conditions could be right to take a particular theme or idea further. The most recent projects will likely continue finding their way through the world, sometimes with our help, sometimes not, for years to come. Experiments and improvisations in the sphere of culture and climate change require generosity of both time and spirit, time to get things right, redundant time and time to let things unfold. This isn’t to suggest that the issue isn’t important or urgent. Rather, we want to suggest that insisting on one urgent fact, or one important figure is in danger of making it more difficult for many people to attend and respond to this difficult new knowledge. Our experience leads us to argue that cultural responses to climate change will be all the more energetic, and ultimately effective, by building over time, the many stories, of different voices, into waves of polyphony. Polyphonies are structures which support improvisation, yet still manage to bring many people together around a theme. The results can be moving, powerful and timely.

 

Acknowledgements 

The Interdependence Day project, in partnership with nef (The New Economics Foundation) was initiated by a network grant from the ESRC and NERC (Award Number RES-496-25-4015). It was further supported by The Open University’s Open Space Research Centre, the Ashden Trust and the Frederick Soddy Trust. The Creative Climate project was supported by the Open University as a means of piloting its Broadcast Strategy, and with Open University/BBC co-commissions. The Stories of Change project was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), (Award Number AH/L008173/1). The Culture and Climate Change series of projects have been funded by the Jerwood Charitable Foundation, The Ashden Trust, The University of Sheffield, The Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield and The Open University’s Open Space Research Centre. We also acknowledge our project collaborators and participants and the support of many people in the administration teams at our universities over many years.

 

Biographies:

Renata Tyszczuk is an academic and artist whose work explores the relationship between global environmental change and provisionality in architectural thinking and practice. She is Professor of Architectural Humanities at the University of Sheffield, UK.

Joe Smith is Director of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). He was formerly Professor of Environment and Society, and Head of Geography, at the Open University, UK, where his writing focused on environmental policy, politics and history.

 

References

Atwood, Margaret, ‘It’s Not Climate Change – It’s Everything Change’ Matter, June 27 2015; https://medium.com/matter/it-s-not-climate-change-it-s-everything-change-8fd9aa671804

Butler, R. Margolies, E., Smith, J., and Tyszczuk, R. (eds.) Culture and Climate Change: Recordings. Cambridge: Shed, 2011.

Castree N: Broaden research on the human dimensions of climate change Nature Climate Change 2016, 6.

Culture and Climate Change: Scenarios http://www.cultureandclimatechange.co.uk/projects/#

Heymann, M., Gramelsberger G., Mahony M., eds. Cultures of Prediction In Atmospheric and Climate Science: Epistemic and Cultural Shifts in Computer-based Modelling and Simulation London: Routledge, 2017

Hubble, N. (2010) Mass observation and everyday life: culture, history, theory. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hulme M.: Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity. Cambridge University Press; 2009.

Hulme, M. and Mahony, M. (2010) ‘Climate change: What do we know about the IPCC?’, Progress in Physical Geography, 34(5), pp. 705–718. doi: 10.1177/0309133310373719.

Jasanoff, S. (2010) ‘A New Climate for Society’, Theory, Culture & Society, 27(2–3), pp. 233–253. doi: 10.1177/0263276409361497.

Kossak, F., Petrescu, D., Schneider, T., Tyszczuk, R., and Walker, S. (eds.), Agency: working with uncertain architectures (Critiques series) (London: Routledge, 2009)

Latour, B. Latour B: Atmosphere, atmosphere. In The Weather Project. edited by May S. Tate Publishing; 2003; pp. 29–41.

Marshall, George, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (Bloomsbury, 2015)

Massey, Doreen, ‘Geographies of Responsibility’ Geografiska Annaler Series B Human Geography vol. 86 issue 1, 2004

O’Brien K.: Global environmental change II: From adaptation to deliberate transformation. Progress in Human Geography 2012, 36:667–676.

O’Brien K.: Climate change and social transformations: is it time for a quantum leap? WIREs Clim Change 2016, 7:618–626.

O’Brien, K., Selboe, E. (eds.), The Adaptive Challenge of Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2015.

Simms A., Johnson V. and Smith J. (October 2007) Chinadependence: The Second UK Interdependence Report, London new economics foundation and Open University

Simms A., Johnson V., Smith J. and Mitchell S. (September 2009) The Consumption Explosion: The Third UK Interdependence Report, London new economics foundation and Open University,

Simms A. and J Smith (eds) (2008) Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth? Constable and Robinson, 277pp, ISBN-10: 1845296435

Simms A., Johnson V., Smith J. and Mitchell S. (September 2009) The Consumption Explosion: The Third UK Interdependence Report, London new economics foundation and Open University,

Smith J. (ed) (2000) The Daily Globe: Environmental Change, the Public and the Media, London, Earthscan, 263pp ISBN 1-85383-664-8 (100% contribution)

Smith J. (2005) Dangerous News: Media Decision Making about Climate Change Risk. Risk Analysis: An International Journal, 25:1471–1482.

Smith J. (2011) ‘Why climate change is different: six elements that are shaping the new cultural politics’, in Butler et al, pp. 17-22

Smith J. (2012) ‘Road Map: Other ways of thinking about auto-mobility’ in Tyszczuk et al. pp. 118– 123

Smith J. (2013) ‘Mediating Tipping Points’ in O’Riordan T. and Lenton T (eds.) Addressing Tipping Points for a Precarious Future, Oxford University Press, Royal Society/British Academy series

Smith J. (2013) ‘Public geography and geography in public’, The Geographical Journal, 179 (2) 188-192

Smith J. (2014) Communication and media: Commentary, in Crow D. and Boykoff M., Culture, Politics & Climate Change: How Information Shapes our Common Future London, Routledge/Earthscan

Smith J. (2017) Demanding stories: television coverage of sustainability, climate change and material demand. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 375:20160375.

Smith J et al. (1999) ‘Social learning and sustainable communities’, Local Environment, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 195-207 (Smith 90%) ISSN 354-9839/99/020195-13

Smith J, Blake J and Davies A (2000) ‘Putting sustainability in place: Sustainable Communities Projects in Huntingdonshire’, Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning, vol. 2 no. 3, pp. 211–223 ISSN 1523-908x

Smith, J. Clark N. and Yusoff K., ‘Interdependence’ Geography Compass Vol. 1 no. 3 2007, pp. 340-359.

Smith J., Hammond K, and Revill G. (2018) Climate Change on Television, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, online early

Smith J., Tyszczuk, R. et al. ‘Gathering around stories: interdisciplinary experiments in support of energy transitions’ Energy Research and Social Science 2017 31, 284-294

Smith J., Tyszczuk, R. and Butler, R. (eds.) Culture and Climate Change: Narratives Cambridge: Shed publications; 2014.

Smith J, Tyszczuk, R. and Clark, N., ‘Introduction: “A map they could all understand”’ in Tyszczuk et al. (eds.) ATLAS: geography architecture and change in an interdependent world (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2012); pp. 4-7.

Tyszczuk, R. Provisional Cities: Cautionary Tales for the Anthropocene (Routledge, 2018)

Tyszczuk R. ‘Cautionary Tales: The sky is falling! The world is ending! ‘ in Smith et al. (eds) Culture and Climate Change: Narratives (Cambridge: Shed, 2014); pp. 45–57.

Tyszczuk, R., ‘mappa mundi’ in Tyszczuk et al. (eds.) ATLAS: geography architecture and change in an interdependent world (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2012); pp. 10–15.

Tyszczuk, R.,(ed.) Architecture and Interdependence: Mappings and Explorations by Studio Six (Cambridge: Shed, 2007)

Tyszczuk R. and Smith J. ‘Culture and climate change scenarios: The role and potential of the arts and humanities in responding to the ‘1.5 degrees target’ Current Opinion on Environmental Sustainability (COSUST) 2018 31, 56-64; Special Issue on 1.5 C Climate Change and Social Transformation

Tyszczuk R, Smith J, Butcher M: Atlas: Geography, Architecture and Change in an Interdependent World. (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2012).

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Posted in climate change, culture and climate change, geography, media and environment, Uncategorized

Climate change: the kale smoothie of TV

This piece is based upon the attached report written by Joe on Climate Change and Television, published on December 1st 2016 by the International Broadcasting Trust and funded by the JJ Charitable Foundation.

Climate change has a reputation for being the kale smoothie of the television schedules: unappealing but also a somehow fashionable and even essential element of the diet. Disguise it in a fancy glass? Drink it down in one go and chase it down with something you actually like? Claim you want it but not actually touch it when it’s presented to you?

Over the last year I’ve talked to around forty producers and media executives about the responsibilities, challenges and opportunities that climate change presents to them. They tend to very consistently signal that climate change is an important but also thoroughly awkward topic for broadcasters. To paraphrase: ‘Everyone says we should make this stuff but no one except fanatics actually want to watch it’.

The Paris Agreement on climate change, signed in December 2015, marked a major global commitment to totally decarbonise economies and societies within a few decades. And yet there is a widely shared sense amongst experts that the penny hasn’t really dropped. They feel that the public and politicians don’t really appreciate what is at stake if we are to reduce the risks of climate change, and limit the damage it is expected to cause.

TV remains one of the most influential and accessible ways that people make sense of change in the world, and receive and respond to new knowledge. Yet climate change is an issue that seems designed to be ignored. It lacks the human angles and clear storylines that are so central to the majority of broadcast storytelling. Broadcasters also think that TV audiences are allergic to anything that could be construed as ‘preachy.’ But the last year or so does throw up of examples of climate change themes being engagingly presented to very diverse audiences. And important lessons are being learned about what works and what doesn’t.

One approach is to find the right places to plant relevant storylines within existing programmes. Natural history, travel, adventure and landscape shows all draw good audiences, and often have opportunities to weave in appropriate reference to climate change. This can be seen in the BBC’s Countryfile and Springwatch, and Channel 4’s Grand Designs and Food Unwrapped. Simon Reeve’s travelogue/current affairs hybrids for BBC Two frequently feature climate change related issues but manage to keep the audience tuned in. A recent body of ‘living off grid’ shows including Channel 4’s Eden can prompt questions about consumption and lifestyle. Sky has offered a package of popular rainforest shows that have clearly referenced the topic.

The right onscreen talent can make a big difference. Hence Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s Fish Fight (Channel 4) and Hugh’s War on Waste (BBC One) have taken a campaigning tone to raise environmental issues about consumption. Most recently, Arctic Live (BBC Two) has demonstrated that live event television can have a real impact. It showed how one charismatic place, and its human and animal communities, seem already to be experiencing the consequences of climate change.

Nevertheless TV coverage as a whole of this vital but tricksy topic still feels like a ‘5 out of 10’ performance. And this huge and sprawling story isn’t about to go away. New ideas will be needed, and innovation requires risk taking. So I recommend that broadcasters should make a clear invitation for new ideas, and each of them should put budget and broadcast slots aside to this end. TV producers have to work in a buyers market because successful commissions are one in a hundred. So these signals would incentivize producers to develop and pitch proposals.

But they shouldn’t be the only people taking risks: climate researchers should risk wasting some of their time by advising TV producers on long-shot prospects. They should be patient supporters of concepts for new shows or approaches. And of course viewers should risk wasting some of their time by actually watching them, and take a little more time to tell the media what they think. Have programmes changed their thinking or actions? If not, what would make a difference?

I’m not sure it matters precisely how climate change is added to people’s TV diets. But the latest scientific research and the Paris Agreement mean that it really has become an essential ingredient. Governments all over the world will now have to report on their progress on climate change actions every five years. We already know that climate change policy objectives have been a massive stimulus for innovations in design and technology. If I report back again in five years time I hope that I will find that this tough but vital topic has also inspired some of the best innovations in television.

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Posted in climate change, culture and climate change, media and environment

How do you *feel* about the European Union?

 

I have been spending time talking about the EU referendum with anyone I meet who is undecided or who disagrees with me. Indeed I spent a large chunk of Saturday in Cambridge marketplace talking ‘in-out’. For the record: I feel very strongly that the EU has achieved a great deal for my country, and also that it is a work in progress. Some of its key weaknesses need to be, but I believe can be, addressed. Voting to leave won’t mean that the Earth stops spinning but I feel it will be costly in many different ways, and for little gain.

But I also recognize that ‘laying out the facts’ isn’t enough in these conversations. Indeed one of the very striking features of the arguments and emotions displayed by online Brexiteers, and some of the people I’ve spoken to, is how closely they map onto climate contrarian views. Conversation, or social media, quickly reveals concerns about an encroaching state, a loss of control, technocracies, and exaggeration by experts and manipulation by ‘the establishment’. I can state with great confidence that trying to find ‘bigger facts’ will have no impact whatsoever, because its not about facts its about feelings.

There is nothing original in my analysis when I reveal that the underlying concerns I have found centre on fears: fears about migration, the economy, and the loss of identity and control. These are all part and parcel of experiences of economic and cultural globalization. This makes opposition to the European Union project of the last three decades somewhat ironic given that, in my reading at least, it can primarily be understood as a continent wide attempt to cope with and thrive within the conditions of globalization.

Perhaps the most striking comparison with climate change in all of this is the dismissal of expertise in the face of uncertainty. What other cause has so united leading figures from amongst economists; unions; big business; the Bank of England; faith groups; universities; medics and on and on. Yet the polls hang in the balance.

In the field of climate change the processes whereby a person’s prior ideology, or strongly held feelings, inform the way they respond to claims about climate science or policy have been widely researched and described. One of the things that some of us who are concerned to build a robust political foundation for action on climate change have learned from all this is that insisting ever more loudly on ‘killer facts’ or the scale of consensus amongst relevant experts has probably already achieved all that it can. Indeed it may now be counter-productive in relation to those constituencies that are undecided. ‘Rational arguments’ are unlikely to win doubters over on the basis of the scale of consensus on a topic.

Perhaps Tony Blair portrayed the strongest political instincts of any in the ‘remain’ camp when he argued the need for the demonstration of much more ‘feeling’ in the Remain campaign. So here is some feeling from me:

The EU has made me feel much safer. The collapse of state socialism in Central and Eastern Europe could have been far more traumatic and dangerous without the EU to give a stable framework for transition to democratic societies. Take a look at non-EU member states to get a sense of the difference. And with a slightly longer view: within my lifetime the European institutions have helped Greece, Spain and Portugal leave behind juntas and dictatorships and for most of the last forty years these countries have enjoyed secure freedom, and a large portion of prosperity. Closer to home the existence of the EU helped the Northern Ireland peace process and helped keep the UK together at the Scottish independence referendum. The grim facts of today’s youth unemployment, especially in southern Europe, can’t be simply pinned on the Eurozone – we are nearly a decade into the worst global economic recession in a century. This makes me feel more convinced rather than less that the best route lies in formal structured collaboration and debate within a community of countries. The alternative is to see two dozen plus competitors wrapping themselves in their flags and shouting for local short-term interests.

I feel pleasure and relief at the difference in the quality of the air I breathe and water I drink and swim in. These are things I have no control over, and pollution respects no border, but because of the EU my air and water is safer, both at home, but also if I travel to the East of Poland or the West of Ireland. I also feel glad when I stop to note that the EU has made almost all the gadgets in my house cheaper to run and less polluting.

I feel carefree delight at travelling across a great continent without having to spend time and money on visas and planning. I feel pleasure at being English in Europe as I travel unimpeded.

I feel some relief knowing that regulations in my workplace and also in the company I part own have made everyone safer and protected their rights. This is ‘red tape’ that saves and improves lives. Pass me another roll of it. Indeed some of the most annoying red tape I’ve come across derives not from the EU but from large corporations that want to pass legal liabilities down the line. The EU is one powerful mechanism for standardizing this stuff, with a chance of making life simpler and reducing transaction costs. We’ve seen that global corporations need taming by coordinated action, and I feel the EU offers me and my colleagues the best chance of protection from them.

I feel relief that the EU has slung a lifeline to some of the poorest and often most ‘peripheral’ regions of the UK. Renewal and investment projects have brought benefit to some of my favourite places including Cornwall and Wales. This has happened in a period when UK mainstream political parties have offered little in the way of regional policies. The benefits that have flowed show that our investments in the EU are just that: pay in to take out. I feel thankful that these parts of Britain are a little better off than they otherwise would have been.

I feel personally a little richer – both in terms of cash and culture – when I look back over my lifetime and reflect on the fact that goods and people have become ever freer to flow across that time. I sense that my life has been a little more interesting and a little more comfortable because of the EU. (and I feel more than a little baffled to hear Tories – Tories! – argue against the free movement of goods and people. It has long been one of the central planks of their ideology).

There are things I feel angry about too, and things I fear, so I’m sympathetic with some of the ‘Leave’ arguments. I feel that the pork barrel politics that brought the fisheries and agricultural policies of the EU into being have had serious environmental and social consequences that we’re only starting to sort out now after decades of damage. I also fear that the EU isn’t up to the task of protecting the UKs smaller businesses and public services from the might of global corporations (though I acknowledge the EU has a far better chance of standing up to unfettered corporate interests than a lone country).

My last feeling is of irritation at the EU’s failure to explain itself to Europeans, or to ‘matter enough’. One very smart ‘leave’ campaigner who was old enough to have campaigned in favour of joining the EC in 1975 tested me on my awareness of the Eastern region’s MEPs: I had to confess embarrassing gaps in my knowledge. This isn’t a democratic deficit – it’s simply a lack of interest – and that’s from someone that cares.

The EU’s greatest failure is in explaining the simple fact that its institutions are rooted in democratic decisions by EU citizens: the Council of Ministers is populated by our ministers; we vote for MEPs; the Presidency rotates around our elected leaders and the Commissioners are proposed by our elected governments. If we don’t like the results of democracy we have to engage, debate and vote with a bit more vigour. But to develop (mostly) workable and productive agreements across a large area we have to accept there will be give and take. The extent of European democracy and unity is an amazing achievement when you look at the continent’s often-terrible 20th century history. However I feel distress at how a lack of interest in these achievements (my own as much as anyone else’s) might result in a ‘leave’ vote.

Of all the EU’s failings, the failure to explain itself, and to generate a sense of trust in a constructive collective of nation states is perhaps the greatest, and could have dismal consequences for the great majority of people. I’m going to be spending more time talking and leafleting to try to convince more people to vote ‘Remain’. But I’ll start by telling people how I feel.

NOTE: Thanks to Jonathan Rowson for noting my incorrect use of the word ‘disinterest’, now corrected.

ADDENDUM:It has been striking to me since posting this that in exchanges in social media and old fashioned conversation there is widespread evidence of ignorance of the democratic basis of all the key EU institutions and processes. OK they’re not always that intuitive or lovable, but I find it odd that they are dismissed as undemocratic in a country that has an unelected second chamber and a hereditary (OK, kind of constitutional) monarchy. Here is a quote from an exchange with a Czech colleague whose very smart children have attended British schools:

‘…my children have either completed or nearly finished their school education in the UK. As both of them confirmed, they have never studied or learned anything about the EU in their 14 or 10 years of school attendance. Is anybody ever asking the question why this is the case? xxx studied politics for his A-levels. To my shock, it was one year of British politics and one year of US politics. Who makes these decisions? How relevant is US politics to British students? When I asked the teacher about EU politics, he replied: It’s part of British politics (in reality no EU politics was taught).’

Posted in risk, Uncategorized

Culture and Climate Change: Scenarios

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Photo: Roger Harrabin, BBC Environment Analyst announces our award winners at Jerwood Space, 23 May 2016.

This week we announced the Award Winners of our Culture & Climate Change: Scenarios networked artist’s residencies. We gathered at the Jerwood Space, reflecting the fact that the Jerwood Foundation is one of the core funders of this innovative work (along with Ashden Trust, the Open University and Sheffield University). This is the latest phase in our work at the culture-climate join. We have been working to create an open and discursive space via events, workshops, podcasts and publications since 2010, building on the team’s varied experience in this field across twenty five years.  After a welcome from Jerwood’s Shonagh Manson the initiative was introduced by project leader Renata Tyszczuk, whose current research on scenarios shapes the work, and project producer, Clore Fellow, Hannah Bird, who has worked at the climate change research-arts join for many years. The BBC’s Roger Harrabin provoked the crowd with the complexity of ‘decisionmaking under uncertainty’ with just one (imagined) domestic scenario about waiting for his brother to come out of the shower. After the three artists talked about their first thoughts in response to the brief poet Nick Drake  concluded the evening with a reading from his book Farewell Glacier. These poems were inspired by his Cape Farewell organised trip to Svalbard. It is available to purchase here. Here is the press release announcing the winners:

We are delighted to announce Emma Critchley, Lena Dobrowolska & Teo Ormond-Skeaping and Zoë Svendson as the selected artists for Climate Change in Residence: Future Scenarios.

Working with artists’ moving image, photography, installation, theatre and performance, the chosen artists will undertake a new kind of residency programme which embeds them within climate research and policy knowledge networks, rather than within one institution. They will engage with climate scenarios, and explore and extend the ways in which society engages with the range of possible future climates.

Announced at Jerwood Space last night, Shonagh Manson, Director of Jerwood Charitable Foundation said “These networked residencies will put culture and artistic practice at the heart of conversations about our climate futures. The artists selected have demonstrated a keen hunger for dialogue and exchange around these issues, which passionately inform their work. These residencies will harness the imaginations of talented artistic individuals for the benefit of the scenario planning network whilst simultaneously providing a unique research environment in which each artist can further their own practice and projects.”

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Emma Critchley is an award-winning underwater visual artist working with photography, film, sound and installation who has exhibited internationally and nationally. Concerned with the human relationship with the underwater environment, She has recently undertaken residencies in New York, Barbados and Singapore. Critchley will use the residency to explore the psychological impacts of sudden flooding and how seismic events shift people’s perceptions of the world, especially within the scenario of the Anthropocene.

“This residency is a fantastic opportunity to collaborate with a diverse reach of climate researchers, using scenarios as a way to distill the complex and multi-faceted research involved in climate change and create imagined spaces that allow room to stop, reflect and invite challenge and debate.”

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Lena Dobrowolska & Teo Ormond-Skeaping are a Polish-British artist collaboration working with conceptual documentary photography and artists’ moving image who have won many awards and prizes, and exhibited across Europe. During the residency they will investigate their interests in glacial recession, climate induced migration, drowning islands, the psychological pressure of climate change and the prognosis of a difficult future scenario, amongst others.

“We are working with the Anthropocene and climate change as a cultural paradigm of our time that shapes the way in which we imagine our future. Over the course of the residency we intend to utilise current climate, environmental, geological, economic and socio-political phenomena to illustrate the visceral reality of different hypothetical future scenarios.”

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Zoë Svendsen is an internationally renowned theatre director and dramaturg who creates research-driven interdisciplinary performance projects exploring contemporary political subjects. She has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic, New Wolsey Theatre where she is Associate Artist, TippingPoint and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin amongst many others. Following her recent performance project, World Factory, Svendsen will use her residency to further explore the relationship between ethics and action, the economics of climate change and the tragic absence of real action against it.

“I am very excited by the residency – both by the idea of the ‘network’, and also by the chance to think more fully about the future, and the implications for human interactions that are implied in climate change scenarios, but which often are not fully fleshed out.”

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Hats off to Frederick Soddy

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Photo: Frederick Soddy, Lindau 1952. Source: The Frederick Soddy Trust

Here are my notes for a talk at the 60th Anniversary celebrations of a Trust set up by a Nobel Laureate to support (mostly) human geography projects. The event was a great celebration of the generosity of the Trust and all the people who give plenty of time to making it work, not least Soddy’s solicitor Peter Bunker who set it up in the first place. Peter shared very entertaining memories of the man, and of the extraordinarily diverse projects that the Trust has helped to set in train.

Hats off to Frederick Soddy, and indeed to all those grant giving trusts whose generosity and creativity help researchers and teachers to expand all of our horizons.

We are gathered to celebrate the work of the Frederick Soddy Trust. In other words we are here to celebrate creativity and generosity. There is the creativity of the people that started the trust (comprising Soddy and his solicitor, Peter Bunker) and of the people that it invests in. There is the generosity of the original founder, but also of the trustees and reviewers who give their time to create new opportunities for others. All of us who have been funded by The Trust owe thanks to both Soddy and all of the people who have served across sixty years.

In my case the Trust invested in a bundle of activity that included publications, a website and events, all coming under the heading of the Interdependence Day project. The work was founded in a partnership between myself, based at the Open University Geography Department, Renata Tyszczuk of the University of Sheffield architecture school and Andrew Simms, researcher and campaigner, together with his colleagues at the new economics foundation. We held two sell-out events here at the RGS that made great use of the varied spaces in this wonderful building.

In particular the Trust supported, and – notably – released matched funding, for our ATLAS of Interdependence. (editors in addition to me and Renata were Nigel Clark (Lancaster) and Melissa Butcher (Birkbeck), both formerly of OU Geography).  Matched funding or contributions in kind came from the Geographical Association for learning materials on the theme of interdependence, and also from the Open University and Sheffield University.

Full accounting of the value of Frederick Soddy Trust investments would also have to acknowledge the fact that the achievements of the Interdependence Day project have helped to build the confidence of other funders. In different ways, the project has sown the seeds of 2 million pounds of investment by the AHRC in our Earth in Vision and Stories of Change projects, both of which are inspired by the sense of ambition, experiment and risk that the Trust backed with the Interdependence Day project and its ATLAS.

The Frederick Soddy Trust was established just as the International Geophysical Year was being planned. The IGY of 1957/58 created the foundations for a new view of humanity’s place in the world. The IGY sparked the launch of the first satellites, and a truly global investigation of the atmosphere, geosphere and more, and the interactions between them. It started in motion collaborative global research that has revised our understanding of what it means to study ‘the whole life of an area’, to borrow a phrase from the Trust’s founding principles.

The ATLAS allowed us to draw together the varied threads of thought, debate and creativity that had made up the interdependence day project into one volume. It brought together geographers, architects, economists, artists, writers, campaigners and others to explore new ways of making sense of the dense web of interconnections generated by globalisation and global environmental change. The support of the Trust was vital in practical terms, but just as valuable was the less tangible sense that someone else thought that you might be onto something. One senior colleague described our venture with a raised eyebrow as ”quirky”, and didn’t mean it, I think, in a good way. Certainly it is an eccentric mix. But we aren’t about to apologise for that, particularly at an event that celebrates a founder who made an important contribution to the journal Nature in the form of a poem, the Kiss Precise (Frederick Soddy, The kiss precise, Nature, 137 (1936) 1021. 2.).

I am delighted to report that one publication coming out of our risky venture led BBC radio programme bulletins at the beginning of the day and the ITN Six O’Clock News at the end of it, provoking fresh thought amongst audiences about the ecological perversities of particular forms of trade. (The ITN graphics team who produced the giant animated gingerbread man leaping across a digital map may have helped us in this…). Another report was the first widely published discussion of the off shoring of UK carbon emissions to China, a theme that from that point on became a prominent element of debates about national carbon accounting. All this is suggesting that the world might need more rather than less ‘quirkiness’. We need to invite and sustain more sideways, provocative and fresh thinking. And this means creating well prepared seedbeds for diverse disciplines and professions to progress the difficult work of interdisciplinary collaboration. The Soddy Trust tends one such seed bed.

But it’s not always easy. When editing and managing a collective volume, decisions about the cover image can take as long as writing the book. Happily this was not the case with our ATLAS. NASA’s Earthlights image, a composite of photographs of the Earth at night, nicely summarised our story. On the one hand it is a magnificent expression of human achievement and ingenuity. Billions of electric lights are extending human capacity to talk, read, write and in so doing make better sense of the world. This illumination leaves us all better equipped to cope with events, come what may. But geography perhaps above all other disciplines has also told stories about inequality, suffering and waste. The nightglow portrayed by the Earthlights image is by no means equally distributed.

And of course knowledge of climate change, and biodiversity and habitat loss, also alters the way we read the image. No longer an uncomplicated celebration of human ingenuity, we have to recognise an uneven distribution of responsibility and vulnerability in a global environmental system that is being transformed in dangerous ways by humans.

A note on geography – and I should say I speak with the dangerous zeal of the convert, having jumped ship from social and political sciences (where they couldn’t even spell the word environment in the early 1990s). Geographers have a disproportionate opportunity – no obligation – to explore these responsibilities and vulnerabilities. In the last couple of decades this institutional meeting place of the natural and social sciences, and humanities, has played a particularly constructive role. It is the primary context within schools where teachers and learners address these issues. Of course many disciplines in universities are playing a big part, but these are challenges that require openness to varied insights and traditions. They require acceptance of imperfect syntheses. Geographers are natural synthesizers, and tend to be more comfortable than most working in intellectual and physical borderlands.

I’ll close with reference to one quietly charismatic example of this. It is another project that received Frederick Soddy Trust support, and also an RGS Neville Shulman award. One of my Open University colleagues, Johanna Wadsley, was one of the team leaders. Again, significantly, these awards helped unlock other institutional backing. The Hugging the Coast project was a research expedition of six women researchers, including two young Indonesian researchers. Taking to Kayaks, they investigated all dimensions of seaweed gathering in an Indonesian archipelago of the coral triangle: ecological, economic, cultural. This kayak based expedition had all the ingredients of the classic Boy’s Own Paper Edwardian expedition but with the moustachio’d gentleman amateur’s places taken by professional women. They conducted innovative social science research and public engagement work and came back with some great teaching case study material. This is just one more example of how the generosity of founder and trustees can unlock the creativity of others’ to make better sense of ‘the whole life of a particular area’. Thank you from all of us.

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Who is the next David Attenborough? You are.

 

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Some of us need to work on our camera presence and thousand yard stare… me, Sir David and my OU and Earth in Vision colleague Kim Hammond on probably the most fun day at work I’ll have for a very long while. (photo Jeremy Bristow)

David Attenborough has left more tracks across the broadcasting landscape than any other human being, and his 90th birthday is a good moment to reflect on what makes him special,” says Dr Joe Smith, OU Professor of Environment and Society, who is leading a research project entitled Earth in Vision, exploring environmental change through the BBC archives from 1960 to 2010. In this article he uncovers some of the traits that help assign David Attenborough the title of ‘national treasure’ and looks at what the future holds for environmental TV programmes and presenters…

David Attenborough’s 60-year career has built up an astonishing archive of footage and sound, but also a vast stock of public trust. This has been sparingly deployed, often to the frustration of environmentalists. For decades now broadcasters and commentators have been trying to identify ‘the next David Attenborough’. However, it’s not as if the job has become vacant: in recent years he has been as busy as ever. Nevertheless his birthday prompts us to offer a new and provocative answer to the question. Changes in the media mean that you can be. We all can be. But you will have to sign up to some simple principles that we share below.

Earth in Vision: 100 programmes, 50 years

Our answer to this playful question is derived from work on an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project Earth in Vision that has seen us working with 100 programmes from across 50 years of BBC environment and natural history programming, and interviewing 30 programme makers and presenters, including the man himself.

When the question is put to David Attenborough he tends to point out there are plenty of other presenters, and viewing figures for the Desmond Morris shows of the past, or for new formats such as the ‘Watch’ programmes (Springwatch etc), with team-based presentation, bear him out.

Secondly, he notes that he was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and that for most of his career he has not had to compete with such an array of channels and media platforms. Gone are the days when you could literally fit all the big household names in television in your own front room.

‘Living national treasure’

And he adds that natural history film making has long been a big team effort, and that he is primarily the front man who depends on sound and camera crew, specialist advisors, editors, producers and many more. Of course his care in making these points only adds further lustre to the badge of ‘living national treasure’.

But David Attenborough, and natural history media producers more generally, have long been criticised by environmental researchers and NGOs for their failure to tell the truth about environmental harm. Film makers get excited by a close-in shot of a fascinating behaviour by an engaging mammal, perhaps caught for the first time with great technical virtuosity and determination. But they might neglect to show that a wider angle on the same scene would show a habitat diminished or threatened by human actions. Attenborough and many of his colleagues have consistently replied that ‘you cannot care for what you don’t know’ and that great storytelling about the natural world can help to build awareness and concern.

Bad box office

Furthermore, channel controllers and commissioners remain convinced that ‘bad environmental news makes for bad box office’. They get and keep their jobs by having strong gut instincts about what audiences want, and they have been almost universally of the view that climate change is a ‘creative challenge’ that generally needs to be ‘smuggled in’ rather than presented head on.

There have, however, been some key moments when the boundary between ‘natural history’ and ‘environmental’ programming has been dismantled. In 2000 he fronted State of the Planet which for the first time threaded together and updated a body of his past natural history programming in order to summarise humanity’s environmental impacts. In 2006 he invoked his – and our – responsibility to future generations when explaining to popular newspapers his decision to make a two-part series that sought to summarise the threats, and available actions, related to climate change. The blockbuster OU/BBC co-production Frozen Planet series that followed found a more natural integration of climate change and other challenges into the main script of what was outwardly a ‘traditional’ blue chip natural history series. But in the case of all of these series Attenborough has been careful to ensure the sound academic footing of the script. In the case of Frozen Planet the OU’s Mark Brandon was the academic advisor, and the climate change two parter drew on experts from three faculties, including me, Mark and climate leadership specialist Stephen Peake.

Another of David Attenborough’s consistent qualities is his technological prescience and commitment to innovation. When he made his very first programmes as presenter, Zoo Quest, he was ordering his own safari suit and heading out with a skeleton crew to film the capture of exotic animals to bring back to London Zoo. Files in the BBC’s paper archives show that he was determined that they be filmed in colour, even though the UK was still years away from colour transmission (an event driven by Attenborough when he held the post of BBC Two Controller). He badgered colleagues until the extra film stock costs were accepted. Those films will now be screened for the first time in colour on BBC television to mark his 90th birthday.

‘Because he tells the truth’

Our recent interviews with other producers and presenters as part of the Earth in Vision project (find out more on the blog) suggest that the natural history community is now far more willing to tell more complex stories – including the sharing of ‘difficult’ news and the posing of direct challenges to audiences. And it is also clear that digital and social media make the notion of ‘audience’ somewhat dated. Most 15-year-old children will be carrying a record and edit suite in their pocket, and have the capacity and opportunity to communicate insights and awareness of change amongst peers. The next phase of our work plans to explore these.

There is no need to wait for the post to become vacant to apply to be the next David Attenborough. Anyone equipped with a smart phone can fill the boots. You just need to be curious and honest, be open to innovation and work hard at your storytelling. We have held a series of workshops to explore what citizens, teachers and learners might want to do with digital broadcast archives. In the course of one workshop we asked what made David Attenborough special. One of the mums present said ‘his voice’ but her 10-year-old simply said ‘because he tells the truth’. Sharing well-told stories about our fascinating but threatened world is a job we should all be taking up.

Note: versions of this piece will also appear in shortened form here and there.

 

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Culture & Climate Change: Scenarios residencies – audio from event at Arts Admin on 27-1-2016

Please follow this link to a dropbox folder holding a recording from this event that forms part of our Culture and Climate Change: Scenarios programme, and particularly our pilot programme of three ‘networked artists residencies’:

This will allow those that couldn’t attend to catch a good portion of what went on. Note that recording was limited to my iPhone being pointed at a too-distant speaker. I apologise, but you should be able to hear everything bar some of the questions.

Project lead Renata Tyszczuk of the University of Sheffield School of Architecture talks on the origins of scenario thinking and why that history matters today; Mark Maslin of UCL outlines the science-policy relationship; Kate Fletcher and Dilys Williams of the London College of Fashion Centre for Sustainable Fashion point to the ways in which culture, climate change and the future come together in their work and project producer Hannah Bird also answers questions about how our experimental network residencies will work. I’ve edited out Tony White’s reading of his provocative short story The Holborn Cenotaph because the emphasis here is on the background context and practical information about the residencies, and because Tony will want to choose when and where he shares that.

Thanks to the contributors, visitors and of course Arts admin for hosting the evening. Thanks also to the Jerwood Foundation, Ashden Trust, The Open University and University of Sheffield who are supporting the residencies.

 

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