Just popping in to share a fascinating series of short pieces from the blog Artists and Climate Change:
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.
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.
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.
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…!
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.
On to one of my favorite subjects: robots. I read an article in The Atlantic the other day, “The Robots Are Coming, but Are They Really Taking Our Jobs?” and it made me think of something I read in the Faber Book of Utopias a while ago. File this under One Man’s Utopia is Kate’s Personal Hell:
Plastic-Wood Paradise (pp. 228-230)
In 1833 a German living in Pittsburg, John Adolphus Etzler, published A Paradise Within the Reach of All Men, Without Labor, By Powers of Nature and Machinery. Printed in the same volume were letters addressed to congress and to President Jackson, urging them to adopt his plan which would, he prophesied, transform the then wild and sparsely populated United States into a heaven-on-earth, attract millions of immigrants from Europe, and ensure America’s ‘unparalleled glory and dominion over the world.’
I promise to show the means for creating a paradise within ten years, where everything desirable for human life may be had for every man in superabundance, without labor, without pay; where the whole face of nature is changed into the most beautiful form of which it is capable; where man may live in the most magnificent palaces, in all imaginable refinement of luxury, in the most delightful gardens; where he may accomplish, without his labour, in one year, more than hitherto could be done in thousands of years; he may level mountains, sink valley, create lakes, drain lakes and swamps, intersect everywhere the land with beautiful canals, with roads for transporting heavy loads of many thousand tons and and travelling 1,000 miles in 24 hours; he may cover the ocean with floating islands moveable in any desired direction with immense power and celerity, in perfect security and in all comfort and luxury, bearing gardens, palaces, with thousands of families, provided with rivulets of sweet water; he may explore the interior of the globe, travel from pole to pole in a fortnight; he may provide himself with means, unheard of yet, for increasing his knowledge of the world, and so his intelligence; he may lead a life of continual happiness, of enjoyments unknown yet; he may free himself from almost all the evils that afflict mankind, except death, and even put death far beyond the common period of human life, and finally render it less afflicting; mankind may thus live in and enjoy a new world, far superior to our present, and raise themselves to a far higher scale of beings.
Guerilla gardening, Freecycle and swap till you drop: how to live for free. An article from The Guardian, a couple months old. It’s absolute crap, written in a cheery voice that, as one commenter put it, “has the feel of someone who thinks they’ve slummed it at some point. Look at what the proles do to survive! How quaint.” I’m all for mainstreaming sustainable living practices, but not like this. I am posting it here solely to point you toward the comments, the majority of which are all sorts of hilarious.
I made this:
I’m going to go ahead and flatter myself: it was awesome. Maybe could have used a little more salt, but other than that I was very happy with it.
I baked it Sunday night and by last night it was all gone. But I have a confession to make — I cheated and used yeast instead of leaven. It was dried natural yeast at least. I used it in the interest of saving time and sanity. Oh well, we can’t be purists all the time.
I’ve also been reading this, which is what I really want to talk about:
Last week I spent an afternoon hanging out with Olivier, a farmer who grows ancient varieties of wheat and other grains, some of them existing since the time of the Gauls, in a little village outside Romont, Switzerland. I took the train out, he picked me up at the station, and we rode out to his farm to discuss wheat, bread, seeds and agrobusiness.
Olivier: So here we have a ton of pasta. I prepare packages of 400 grams. The pasta’s made by a friend of mine who does organic cultivation next door, and uses my flour for the pasta. I don’t have a mill at the farm, but he has a big machine that he bought for making pasta, and a mill, we can go see it, it’s part of the process.
(a huge racket made by pouring out the dried pasta into a big plastic bowl for measuring) And there you go, this is great. We have a finished product, and there’s no middleman, nobody between us and the consumer.
(speaking to the farm intern who sat with us at the kitchen table filling up bags of pasta while we talked) So you put the bag there on the scale, take the scoop and measure out 400 grams into each bag and staple it shut, okay?
Student: Okay, great!
Olivier (to me): Anyway so I was saying there, there are 200 varieties of ancient wheat. We grow various kinds, and with them we arrive at a mixture of these different varieties to have a genetic potential that’s diversified. Mixtures are going to be more balanced because there are different sorts of wheat, each of which is going to contribute something. So it’s a question of letting nature do its thing. I don’t select, I don’t go looking for the stalks of wheat that I like —
Me: So wait, you don’t keep specific seeds from the year before — ?
Olivier: Exactly, I keep everything, all of it, seeds from the planting across the board. I’m not looking to make a particular selection myself. Let nature do the work.
Me: Letting it evolve on its own.
Olivier: Exactly. Of course, back in the day people chose seeds from certain stalks of wheat to keep, and that gave us the now established varieties. So now, I let it go on its own. The natural conditions are imposed — by the soil, by the environment, which is going to create a space that reinforces the conditions for growing, and for us. We live in this space, so we eat what grows in the region, which corresponds to our conditions of life. It’s a logic, a natural logic. That’s why I don’t intervene.
(taking one of the bags of pasta the intern was filling) That’s a good bundle, 400 grams. Pass me the stapler please? Voilà, finished.
Me: And you sell this in shops?
Olivier: Not at all. Not interested in being controlled. The best way to kill agriculture is with the law, specifically laws on hygiene. European laws are dismantling everything how it once was. (holding up the bag) You see, no labels, but there’s no need, this’ll keep for a year.
Me: You started talking a bit before about the story of how you got into doing all this …
Olivier: Right. And like I said, you need to know the story of where you came from in order to know where you’re going. The roots.
I read the above essay this morning and decided to post it here because it’s a question that fairly regularly comes up in my life, the degree to which we make efforts to avoid wasteful or toxic products, and by extension how “green” (whatever that means) we are. I’m one who believes that individual actions and desires are a big part of the web of reasons why we’re on the road to who knows what climatically. (By the way, I’m reading World Made by Hand right now and it is not helping my general level of optimism that the world will avoid such a scenario.) That said, the fact that you (the plural you) don’t compost, or even recycle, is not going to in itself cause global climatic catastrophe, though yes, the amalgamation of our actions does carry a massive amount of weight, toward the continued production of throw-away consumer goods, the destruction of ecosystems in order to meet the public’s demand for a certain way of life, combined emissions from cars, etc. But the bad guy is not just us, or even the guy who tosses beer cans out his car window and into a sanctuary for piping plovers, and so I believe it to be counterproductive to make environmental consciousness into a pissing contest to see who’s doing the most to save Earth.
I know a girl who’s vegan (well, I know several, but I’m talking about one in particular). This in itself doesn’t bother me at all because it’s her personal choice, she can eat or not eat what she wants. I don’t eat meat (for a variety of reasons) but I do eat dairy and eggs; however, I fully understand why someone would not want to. The thing I don’t understand is the angry judgement that some people project onto others who do not make the same choices. This person is someone who will crinkle her nose and look away when someone next to her is eating a chicken stir-fry, and should you inquire as to what she’s eating for lunch, she says “TOFU” and honest to god you can see her muscles tensing up as though preparing for a fight. Calm down. I witnessed this exact scene, and then the following day also witnessed her unloading a sack of groceries to start cutting up an avocado and mango salad. I can say with the utmost certainty that the mangoes and avocados we get around here come from South America.
So who’s living in gray zones of good and bad? I can’t say, but what I can say is that I have never once witnessed someone respond positively to a personal attack on his or her lifestyle. Maybe you have — if so, please do tell because the person behind the attack might have discovered the magic approach to forcibly changing another’s subjectivity. But I really don’t think that it’s helpful to our world’s problems at large if we the people argue among ourselves about the details of our daily lives. It creates rifts where we should be creating links.
Alvaro’s and my roommate is decidedly less interested and concerned about the sorts of things we talk about all the time, and the roommate and I were talking the other day about friendships that cross political lines. He’s right-leaning, loves buying stuff, takes airplanes all the time, and maybe one in three times does his plastic, metal and paper actually make it into the recycling bin instead of the garbage pail. This makes for occasionally interesting (read: heated) dinner talk. But he said to me when we were discussing our differences that he appreciates that I’m not like him and also that I don’t lecture him for the things he does, and that we can be friends despite it all. I agree, it’s nice to be friends — though he said that he feels we need people all along the scale of politics and beliefs and actions, the real bad guys included, because it makes the world more diverse and interesting. That’s where I don’t agree — I would really love it if everyone in the world lived lightly on the planet, and I want the bad guys to disappear. But in no way do I believe that we’re going to get there by strong-arming people to change.
How then? I am not for erasing guilt, for being like him and saying that we need all sorts of people living all along the spectrum of personal action (environmentally speaking), and that I should not feel bad about getting on an airplane every so often because I do this that or the other so it all equals out.
Corporations depend on our rationalizations: it absolves them of doing anything wrong and it creates guilt-free consumers. That’s why they run all the ads that tell us, “What, you worry?” Falling back on wasteful or toxic products not only has its perverse pleasures, but it can seem “natural,” especially if those products are featured in ads with wild animals and awe-inspiring landscapes.
My personal guilt over some of my choices makes me think critically about what I’m doing, and not having any guilt over how I live could very quickly lead to not caring about anything, planet and people included. My guilt forces me look for alternatives and test my comfort level for new ways of living, and I want that.
The question that follows is to get beyond the “me,” those mantras of “first change yourself” and “small actions lead to big changes” and to figure out what comes next….
In other news, Plantopic has invited an artist who yesterday evening did a workshop on mushroom cultivation. I’ve got loads of pictures and diagrams and explanations coming, but that’ll be for next time because right now I’m heading out to the countryside to see a guy about some wheat.
(My translation of an article I came across in La revue des Livres n°013 Sept/Oct 2013, p. 77-79.)
A STRAW HOUSE FOR ALL!
By Charlotte Nordmann
Collectif Straw d’la bale: La Maison de paille de Lausanne. Pourquoi nous l’avons construit. Pourquoi elle fut incendiée (The Straw House of Lausanne: Why we built it, why it was burned). Paris: La Lenteur, 2013, 210 p., 12 Euros.
August 2007, Lausanne, a public park in the middle of the city. In a few days, a straw house surged up from the earth, built illegally by activists. Four months later, after the municipality, directed by a member of the Green Party, had tried in vain to impose its demolition, the house was burned to the ground during the night in what could only have been a criminal act.
The story might appear to be anecdotal, a tall tale testifying at most to the audacity and inventivity of idle youth, but not suggesting any way to confront “real” societal and ecological problems; anyway, not everyone is going to go build a straw house on every street corner in the city. Of course not. But even so, there was something important that happened here.
At the beginning of the straw house project, there was an analysis of some of the major problems that affect our societies, and there was the affirmation that ecological questions are intimately linked to political and social ones. Coming from the squatter’s movement, the builders started off with a triple diagnosis.
The first diagnosis was the intentional organization of housing shortages in the capitalist city that allows for guaranteed profits for investors. Faced with capitalism’s intensive investment in urban space (1), we could try to go elsewhere — to go live in the countryside, in a collective house, for example — or we could also band together and look for ways to invest in the cracks of the city, picking up the tattered pieces. That’s the aim of squats — and it was also the aim of the straw house.
The second aspect of the analysis was the fact that the societal model that rules today is directly contradictory to the needs of ecology — needs that come from the fact that the natural resources upon which we depend are limited, and that their indiscriminate use has catastrophic consequences (with the major problem of course being climate change). In the domain of housing, this is shown in a flagrant way by the intensive use of cement, a main culprit in the disappearance of sand (2), for example, and also by the inefficient use of energy for heating buildings, and by the use of such a fundamental resource as fresh water for toilets.
The third was the fact that we are today in a relationship of heteronomy with the world in which we live, to use Ivan Illich’s words (3); we are “put up,” we don’t inhabit the space where we live; “they” provide us with a space in which to live (if we have the means to pay), which, it goes without saying, we don’t have the right to modify. “Please leave the premises in the same state in which you found them” seems to be the general principle, for the renter as for the passer-by (who of course shall not do anything more than “pass by”) in the street or in the neighborhood park. This rapport of heteronomy to our fundamental needs (to have housing, to feed ourselves, to move freely) results in a radical dependence on an ecologically non-viable system founded on exploitation.
To build oneself a home
One response to these problems is to build oneself a home, without administrative authorization and without having “legitimately acquired” the land on which one builds, and to build in a way so as to have minimal impact on the environment and reduce one’s dependence on infrastructure. That is a conclusion drawn from the diagnoses, to become aligned with one’s principles. From there the choice was progressively made to build with straw: a light material, easy to handle, that permits one to build quickly and with only a few helping hands; whose production demands little energy and whose materials are produced locally; which employs a mode of construction without lasting impact on the land (no need for cement foundations thanks to piles); insulated, conserving heat and permitting one to reduce the need for heating systems. If we add dry toilets and a natural waste water filtering system, the dependence on city infrastructure is minimal — which, in the case of an imbalanced power relationship with the mayor’s office, isn’t a negligible issue.
The approach here is the same as in the squat movement from which the initiators of the straw house came; collectively take that which we need and which capital refuses us, and organize in order to better resist attempts at reappropriation by the powers that be. To this may be added something that is in fact already present in squats, but less visible and above all less developed: the capacity to acquire know-how, to transmit it, and to accumulate it. The book (La maison de paille de Lausanne) participates itself in this diffusion of knowledge by indicating a number of resources (web sites, books, films) about DIY(T) building, and in attempting to explain in detail the construction of the straw house, thanks to which we might learn a whole vocabulary, useful and poetic — from “pisoir” (note: I’ll let you decipher that one) to “l’enduit de corps” (can’t figure this one out… something spackle??) by way of “chaux aérienne” (whitewash?). The construction of the straw house was in this way preceded by the experiences of autonomously run spaces, Lausanne squats, and notably the organization of a squatted garden in the same park where the straw house was built (an experience that itself led to a new relationship with the spaces we inhabit) — but preceded also by several “learning by doing” house building/teaching sites, as well as the experiences of the “temporary villages” of climate camps and anti globalization movements.
Too much collective power?
The efficiency with which the project got going is clearly remarkable — to build a solid and livable house in a space of two days, out of recuperated material and bales of straw, was quite a feat in itself. What this shows is at once the value of know-how acquired by the people who conceived of and carried out the project — know-how that was partly of traditional techniques, today considered to be outmoded — but also their capacity to work together, to coordinate, and most of all the power of the collective intelligence called for by this project. (One might make the connection between this and the Transition Town (4) projects with their techniques of empowerment and mobilization of group intelligence.)
We can therefore say that, in a sense, the straw house was a rousing success — and at the same time, we must add that it was as well a failure, and a failure to be expected. The attempt to create something long-term — several years at least — in which to live, and in particular to live in an alternative way, and to have this space be a long-lasting center for discussion, exchanges, and knowledge sharing: this attempt failed. The allowance taken by “the power of the people” from capitalism’s investments in space, from grid-like compartmentalization, is always precarious and in this case was, without a doubt, too visible — right in the heart of Lausanne! — to be tolerated for long. Such an example of reappropriation of public space clearly must be erased right away; it suggests that there might be an alternative to the privatization of space and the wholesale delegation of its management to a power supposedly catering to the interests of the general public (5) — a power that, on the contrary, makes clear each and every day that its goal is to guarantee the continuance of the capitalist system. Projects of the sort of the straw house also without a doubt show too clearly the lack of grounding there is in the belief that we are incapable of meeting our needs in a more autonomous way.
The straw house sustained three sorts of attacks.
The first — and the most clever, as it seemed at first glace to be friendly support — was when certain media outlets contrasted the straw house to the squat movement; on the one side, a constructive project, inventive and “positive,” and on the other side, the “antiestablishment,” without respect for the well-being of others. In artificially isolating two sorts of action, and in disappearing the critique of the capitalist city, which was the very grounding for the house’s construction, we see sense being turned upside down.
The second attack was carried out by the municipality and consisted in demanding — nearly at the same time as its construction — the demolition of the illegally built straw house. It was enough to call up the all-powerful specter of anarchy — “Imagine if everyone started building his own straw house wherever he wanted!” — and to invoke the importance of the rules of urbanism, “the sole protection against an excess of real estate developers,” to make the situation understood. As we’ve already mentioned, the municipality of Lausanne is led by a member of the Green Party, the head of a pink-green coalition. (Note: “pink” refers to the Socialist Party.) In this case as in many others, their position well illustrates what we can expect from a party upholding the ideology of “sustainable development,” which defends a “balance between ecology and the market economy” (in the words of one elected official). We need not further explain the deception inherent in an “ecology” that has among its goals an allowance for the pursuit of “growth” (pardon us — “green growth”) in a world with finite resources.
This sort of reappropriation of ecological issues goes hand in hand with the growth of individual dispossession, of their heteronomy vis à vis their conditions of existence. Thus it happened — and this is the third attack that the straw house sustained, this time after its destruction — that the city of Lausanne inaugurated in 2011 its own “straw house”: a construction that claimed to be a “model” in the domain, built at a cost of 1.8 million Swiss francs! Built by professionals, with cement foundations, it was meant to show that the city of Lausanne is itself a model for “sustainable development” (no argument there, even if we still doubt the concept), and was but a cover for business as usual.
(The city of Lausanne’s straw house)
To return to the sense and value of the straw house, it’s clear that it is not on its own a “solution.” It will not be thanks to a proliferation of straw houses that we will halt the continuation of the capitalist system and the destruction it perpetuates. The idea that such projects can have ripple effects, that they might grow in number and send out shoots, is not enough to resolve the problem, because the temporality of this extension is not on the same scale as what is necessary to respond proportionately to ecological problems. Never mind that the capitalist system does everything it can to limit the multiplication of these alternatives, helped if necessary by regulations zealously imposed by the State (such as, for example, those who oppose the creation of local currencies, or who obstruct the development of CSAs.
Conversely, the importance of the straw house, and what continues in its own way in the book that came about from the experience, is that it created a margin in a space that tends to be saturated, by creating a space that, in addition to offering a roof to all those who lived there, allowed for knowledge sharing, experiences, discussions, and exchanges. The choice to build in the city, importantly, came from the desire for this sort of place, even if its continuation was of course much more difficult than it would have been had it been built elsewhere.
This place existed, as the book, photos, and sketches testify — and it existed for a lot of different kinds of people, evidenced by the variety of stories scattered throughout the book — as the incarnation of a place in which to live differently. I said further up that this place demonstrated the power that can come from a collective, that it contradicts the belief in our individual and collective impotence. But the demonstration of power here is not only directed toward the outside. This power is important for those individuals — and I count myself among them — who believe in it and yet at the same time don’t, and who therefore need to have the experience in order to believe, and to act. Such a place demonstrates what we are missing by not living collectively in the spaces where we live, and what we have to gain through inventing new ways of being and doing.
(1) Described in detail by David Harvey in Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution.
(2) See the recent documentary by Denis Delestrac, Enquête sur une disparition (2013).
(3) Ivan Illich is a major reference for the collective. At a 2007 protest, a squatter’s movement in Geneva reedited one of his texts, “Tools for Conviviality.”
(4) See also my (Nordmann’s) review of the Manuel for transition by Rob Hopkins (Ecosocieté, 2010), which appeared in La Revue internationale des livres et des idées, “L’après-pétrole; survivre ou vivre autrement?” Article available online (in French).
(5) Contradicting the idea of the “tragedy of the commons” (Garrett Hardin, 1968), according to which a resource used collectively is fated to disappear due to its over exploitation by all the people who use it.
I’ve disappeared this week — Mas and I hosted a workshop on Guattari’s The Three Ecologies for a group of master’s students from Swiss art schools. Awesome week, there has been so much sharing and good conversation and learning. I’m coming away from this awed and inspired, and will have so much to say …. once the week is over and I wake up from a very long nap. For now, here’s the collective blog that the group started, which is already being rapidly filled with articles, videos, DIY projects and recipes: