Climate Journeys

Just popping in to share a fascinating series of short pieces from the blog Artists and Climate Change:

Climate Journeys n° 1: Living Inside an Egg

I lived in character as the Beaulieu Beadle for twelve months from July 14th, 2013 until July 13th, 2014 in a six-metre long, floating Egg sculpture in the Beaulieu River on the fringe of the New Forest National Park in England. It was an innovative and energy efficient, self-sustaining capsule, providing a place to live as well as a laboratory for studying the life of a small tidal river in a protected Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Climate change is already creating new shorelines here, as established salt marsh is eroded by a combination of rising sea levels and falling landmass, and the entire littoral environment is in a state of flux. Sea level is predicted to rise by 114cm from today’s levels by 2115, with the loss of over 760 hectares of salt marsh.

 

Climate Journeys n°2: Sailing the Southeastern US and the Caribbean

I live in nature. Surrounded by it, I experience every subtle shift and change. I witness an amazing array of species as they inhabit the same place, and I am exactly where I want to be. I never could have predicted this would be my life. I never thought I’d give up my studio, my workshop, all my tools and supplies. I loved being a full time studio artist. But at some point, as an environmental artist, it wasn’t enough. As my ideas grew, the studio felt too confined, too removed, so isolated and incapable of adequately experiencing and expressing (incubating and containing) what I needed to say. Being more visual than verbal, that’s really what art is to me; another means of expressing a concept or idea.

Having sold the bulk of our possessions, my studio now fits in eight small drawers and paints live in a tiny bin. The sailboat is impossible to keep tidy and organized, and mold is a constant problem. But when I step out of the cabin into the cockpit, I see dolphins and egrets. I see pelicans and sea squirts.

Climate Journey n°3: Creating a Map of Coastal Climate Change Adaptation

Many island nations of the Caribbean and coastal regions of the Eastern U.S. are particularly threatened by damaging climate change impacts like sea level rise, increased storm surges, and loss of local aquatic ecosystems. Many adaptation measures could be taken to spare life and property in these threatened areas, but climate change skepticism and a poor understanding of the science remain a major barrier to meaningful action. In order to address this gap in understanding my partner, hydrologist Zion Klos, and I are embarking on a year-long sailing expedition, and art and science collaboration called Climate Odyssey.

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In other news, my research activities have been reduced to reading, sewing (a new discovery) and watering the garden in the midst of a nasty (for Switzerland) heat wave. The forecast is calling for 100° starting tomorrow and continuing at least through the weekend. All activities involving ovens, stoves and wool are therefore on hold at least until Monday-Tuesday, when I’ll be giving a bread baking workshop at a kids’ summer camp. Had I know we would be hit with this kind of weather, I would have proposed a popsicle workshop, but oh well, what’s done is done…!

What to do

Janis and I are organizing a group project on climate change (I could be more precise, but it’s not the point of this post) for the first-year master students at CCC, and we picked Mike Davis’s “Who Will Build the Ark” (New Left Review) as a first assigned text. An aside: when searching for the text online just now so I could link it — you need a subscription to the NLR to read it on their site — I came across the blog of an urban planner who posted it on his blog with the intro “New Left Review article that nobody has the time to read right now (even me). But I’m posting it anyway.” I don’t even know how to respond to that.

Anyway, I did read it, as did Janis, and we thought it would be a good text for everyone to read for discussion, not because it contains any astonishing facts about climate change (besides, it was published in 2010 so many of the statistics noted have changed) but rather because of the sentiments Davis expresses regarding being “realistic” and being “optimistic”:

[T]his essay is organized as a debate with myself, a mental tournament between analytic despair and utopian possibility that is personally, and probably objectively, irresolvable. …

In the first section, ‘Pessimism of the Intellect’, I adduce arguments for believing that we have already lost the first, epochal stage of the battle against global warming. …

The second part of the essay, ‘Optimism of the Imagination’, is my self-rebuttal. I appeal to the paradox that the single most important cause of global warming—the urbanization of humanity—is also potentially the principal solution to the problem of human survival in the later twenty-first century. Left to the dismal politics of the present, of course, cities of poverty will almost certainly become the coffins of hope; but all the more reason that we must start thinking like Noah. Since most of history’s giant trees have already been cut down, a new Ark will have to be constructed out of the materials that a desperate humanity finds at hand in insurgent communities, pirate technologies, bootlegged media, rebel science and forgotten utopias.

I really needed to read this essay when I did (last week). Davis isn’t optimistic per se, but our reason for choosing this essay to kick off the project can be summed up in its last sentence:

If this sounds like a sentimental call to the barricades, an echo from the classrooms, streets and studios of forty years ago, then so be it; because on the basis of the evidence before us, taking a ‘realist’ view of the human prospect, like seeing Medusa’s head, would simply turn us into stone.

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Susan Sontag, “The Imagination of Disaster”

published 1965

Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters. For one job that fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors, real or anticipated—by an escape into exotic dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another one of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it. In the one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralizes it.

The fantasy to be discovered in science fiction films does both jobs. These films reflect world-wide anxieties, and they serve to allay them. They inculcate a strange apathy concerning the processes of radiation, contamination, and destruction that I for one find haunting and depressing. The naïve level of the films neatly tempers the sense of otherness, of alien-ness, with the grossly familiar. In particular, the dialogue of most science fiction films, which is generally of a monumental but often touching banality, makes them wonderfully, unintentionally funny. Lines like: “Come quickly, there’s a monster in my bathtub”; “We must do something about this”; “Wait, Professor. There’s someone on the telephone”; “But that’s incredible”; and the old American stand-by (accompanied by brow-wiping), “I hope it works!”—are hilarious in the context of picturesque and deafening holocaust. Yet the films also contain something which is painful and in deadly earnest.

Science fiction films are one of the most accomplished of the popular art forms, and can give a great deal of pleasure to sophisticated film addicts. Part of the pleasure, indeed, comes from the sense in which these movies are in complicity with the abhorrent. It is no more, perhaps, than the way all art draws its audience into a circle of complicity with the thing represented. But in science fiction films we have to do with things which are (quite literally) unthinkable. Here, “thinking about the unthinkable”—not in the way of Herman Kahn, as a subject for calculation, but as a subject for fantasy—becomes, however inadvertently, itself a somewhat questionable act from a moral point of view. The films perpetuate clichés about identity, volition, power, knowledge, happiness, social consensus, guilt, responsibility which are, to say the least, not serviceable in our present extremity. But collective nightmares cannot be banished by demonstrating that they are, intellectually and morally, fallacious. This nightmare—the one reflected in various registers in the science fiction films—is too close to our reality.

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