The climate crisis and the ‘happy museum’

17 05 2010

Tomorrow I’ll be contributing to a discussion about the Happy Museum, instigated by Tony Butler and co-ordinated by the New Economics Foundation. You will have seen from my last post that I’ve just read Clive Hamilton’s ‘Requiem for a Species: Why we resist the truth about climate change’. So, I’m trying to gear up to talk about happiness when what I’m feeling (beneath my habitual buoyancy) is despair at the picture he paints. I’m despairing precisely because this is not a fiction, cooked up with metaphor and catharsis, but because it is a scenario rigorously underpinned by scientific consensus. The truth is: the most likely future is one in which the planet will reach 4C by 2070, which will have catastrophic impacts for humans and many other species.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, more important than that we face the fact that we have made our planet unliveable by our fetish for things. And what is a museum, fundamentally, other than a monument to our fetish for things? If it is solely that, how can I feel happy working in the museum sector? How can museums themselves be happy in this context? How can museums contribute to wellbeing, not just of people but the biosphere?

If you look at it logically (without being too linear) it is not a simple task. David Cameron said the other day that he wanted to lead the ‘greenest Government ever. It’s a very simple ambition and one I’m absolutely committed to.’ It might be simple in concept (in a nutshell: stop exploiting the earth’s resources now, pursue a no-growth strategy, invest in geo-engineering, lead the world to follow suit at an urgent pace) but it is not simple in practice. That he believes it to be simple belies the fact that environmental problems are understood to be treatable with technocratic measures. He believes, like most politicians, that you can turn down the climate dial by investing in a bit of technology, enabling some making and saving of money in the process. Hamilton said that he’s certain that the future is going to be bad, that even if we take extraordinary radical action globally we must face the fact that things are still going to be bad, but that this mustn’t stop us aiming to take that radical action.

So, how can museums help push forward that radical action? The time has come for museums to:

-          stop focusing (quite so fetishistically) on their things and start focusing on complexity and contextual education

-          to shift focus somewhat away from the past to start looking more to the future

-          to stop being so slow as a working culture and to start behaving with urgency.

But what does this mean? Responding to the key causes/solutions in Hamilton’s books, here’s the start of a list of ways that museums can, and must, contribute to tackling this crisis.

Politics above all

Hamilton shares research that says the more people understand the climate crisis the less likely they are to take individual action to green their lifestyles (though many of course may be relatively careful). They understand that the solution will not be individuals (or small organisations) making small changes. The only solutions effective enough will be international political and large-scale industrial action. Museums can and should contribute with dialogue and narrative that helps us see a bigger picture, to see how big changes have come about due to decisions made by those with material and political power.

No growth
Hamilton shows how essential it is we resist the entrenched notion that the priority in politics and the purpose of work is economic growth. Museums have been complicit in this ethos because of their role in showcasing objects of wealth, the spoils of war and exploration, and regional or national growth fuelled by technology and exploitation. Currently, museums are attempting to maintain a sense of pride while admitting alternative narratives, for example, about diverse or demotic cultures.  However, they must take several steps beyond this to critique our growth-led values. However difficult this might be, museums can be an ideal resource for this because they contain the evidence of the damage caused by growth strategies.

Work less
Hamilton analyses economics to show that saving money only defers consumption and probably increases it. We actually need to earn less, so therefore we need to work less. Many people may feel that their lives would be empty without work but perhaps museums offer us a way to see different ways to live and be productive, by showing us how different cultures have lived in the past, by inspiring creativity, or offering opportunities to do voluntary work or informal learning.

Alternative to advertising
Advertising, especially to children, has played a huge role in the increase of consumption. In 1983 companies spent $100 million on advertising to children, but by 2007 they were spending $17 billion or more. He says ‘their capacity to moderate their desires has been systematically dismantled from birth’. So, it’s even more important now that that cultural & heritage organisations engage children with non-materialistic programmes. Also, it’s important for museums to rival advertising, which might mean they have to act like marketers, by using digital social media and games much more. Museums offer a safe, secular space to help resist corporate dominance.

Global emissions
Another issue is that of consumption measured at a global level. We should not rest on our laurels of reducing emissions within the UK when a) we outsource much of our production and b) global emissions are what matter overall. Developing nations such as China, India and Russia are some of the primary emitters. Although there has been a great stress on museums developing a sense of local or regional identity (in many ways a very good policy), we shouldn’t lose sight of the potential of museums to connect us to other countries. We can enhance this by stepping up dialogue, sharing heritage knowledge and an exchange of professional practices with India, China, Russia and other countries most likely to raise global emissions. (Flow Associates is developing museum & gallery learning programmes in India and Russia, in part, for these reasons.)

Ethical sponsorship

Hamilton says ‘the most immediate reason we now face climate disruption lies in the political power of the fossil fuel lobby’. We have seen how BP & others lobbied to resist regulations that would have prevented the Deepwater Horizon spill. Museums and galleries should be scrupulous about resisting sponsorship from companies such as BP and Shell. They should pursue this as a positive strategy because as oil spills from deep water and Arctic drilling get ever blacker and dirtier, and more people see how marine pollution is a major cause of global warming, their continuing reliance on such sponsors will significantly damage reputations. Only this weekend, activists carried out an oily protest at Tate Modern, calling for Tate to wean itself from BP.

Emotion to cognition to action

Humans have evolved to respond to immediate visceral fear, but the threats of climate change require us to rely on cognitive processing. Museums have developed powerful interpretive strategies so that there are closer links between our emotional response and our grasp of big ideas. There is a danger of the museum experience being so emotive and engaging that it becomes hallucinogenic, distancing us from reality, like the way films can make disasters seem cool. Museums should plan their learning experiences so that visceral emotion leads to cognition, and then crucially, leads to action, on a personal and collective level. We (in the UK) need to develop a new framework for planning and evaluating learning and social outcomes, one which takes account of the future we face.

There are many more points I could add here, also drawing these into the Framework for Climate Action. That’s my homework for the next few weeks as I’ll be finishing and expanding on the list for a book chapter I’m writing on Greening Museums.





Climate Science, Science Museum and the media

26 03 2010

If you Google ‘Science Museum climate change exhibition’ you get hundreds of results about two current articles in the Times and the Daily Mail. If Times Online had started charging £1 a day for its content today, as was announced in the news this morning, most of us wouldn’t have read their piece. That’s beside the point. The point is that the Times twisted the story, and the Daily Mail twisted it up further and chucked it in the gutter.

This is the story issued in a Science Museum press release. Though mainly I think the Museum deserves defending here, I could pick a few holes in this. My biggest hole is a big murky one, and that is the sponsorship by Shell. I heard from the Natural History Museum that Shell sponsorship had gone wrong for them, so it’s a mystery why the Science Museum accepted (or courted?) it. You’ll note that I link not to Shell’s corporate site but to Shell Facts, so you can get a quick rundown on why this might be an issue.

The second hole might be a hole that isn’t really there, that the exhibition purports to ‘answer questions’ and tell people about science, rather than overtly invite people to ask questions, discover, contribute, act and so on. Without knowing more about the interpretive approach in detail I wouldn’t like to judge on whether it will be more of a ‘telling’ or ‘active discovery’. To see what I mean by this more active approach you might look at Ontario Science Museum’s Challenge Zone. But I expect the exhibition will be lively, engaging and well-considered even if not radical in its educational approach.

The other hole is a bit more of a moth nibble, but still for me it ruins the cloth. I believe that the Science Museum should be developing an overarching public engagement strategy injecting ecology, climate science and future adaptation across its programmes and external channels. I believe this would be more effective and meaningful than a major climate science gallery. However, if any organisation is going to do climate science properly, it must be the Science Museum so I’ll pass a blind eye over that one.

The hole that Ben Webster at the Times found is, to me, quite invisible, in giving the title “Public scepticism prompts Science Museum to rename climate exhibition”. He suggested there was a shift from a propagandist position to one of neutrality. The Science Museum response, reported on a must-read blogpost by Climate Safety, and not at this time via any official press release, is that: “After laying out our intentions for the new climate science gallery, the term ‘neutral’ has been adopted in some articles in the press, which is not an accurate description of our approach.” And which continues to affirm that it would uphold the scientific consensus of anthropogenic climate change. [Since I wrote this post, the Science Museum has responded with a press release, clarifying their intentions more officially.]

I can hardly bring myself to give you the link to the Daily Mail interpretation of the story, which includes sleight of hand with Chris Rapley’s own words. But as it’s out there in the wild you may as well see it. This uses the story of the exhibition to remind us again of Glaciergate and the UEA hacked emails and to suggest that public scepticism is emerging as some kind of restoration of enlightenment.

Within moments of these articles being read online, there were tweets twisting other tweets, reporting that the Science Museum was doing a ‘climate sceptic’ exhibition. Now, hmmm, thinking about it that could work.  Or it could just be very wierd and confusing. Whatever stand is taken, sceptical, pro or neutral, and whatever those terms mean, it must involve exposure to science and allowing people to discuss and debate as much as possible.

Update on Sunday 28th March:

I just saw a post about this story on the Third Estate blog. It’s criticising the Science Museum for welcoming climate deniers and for aiming to ‘satisfy the interests and needs’ of people of all convictions on climate change. I commented on it, which you can read on that blog or here:

My own blogpost on this story takes a slightly different, still critical, view. An answer to your ‘why a second exhibition?’ is that the first was a small temp display to coincide with COP15 and the one announced is a major £4m permanent-ish programme, not just a new gallery. They haven’t changed tack. Chris Rapley is passionate about communicating the urgent threat of climate disruption and gets a huge amount of stick for using public money for that. The phrasing you’re critical of is unfortunate but I know that they mean by it to fulfil their duty to engage with the widest public. They must welcome everyone, people of varying convictions. Moreover, they’re keen not to preach to the converted but to engage everyone in the science. Rapley’s words have been unfairly twisted by the press accounts, as you can read in my blogpost.





Learning from Australia

9 02 2010

While the media plays out the debate about denial and science in climate change, it is already reaping severe effects for the poorest people in the world. It’s been said that we have 82 months (at time of writing) to arrest the tipping point of irreversible climate change, but that doesn’t account for observations that melting at both the poles and methane emissions from tundra are accelerating faster than predicted. There are some mild causes for hope, such as the warmth speeding up forest growth, and confusingly, that aeroplanes create a cooling atmospheric barrier. But, a radical response is still needed and the causes for hope are either ‘offsets’ or potential ideas. So whilst it’s more urgent than ever to reduce the damage, it’s also time to think much harder about adapting to it. What is the role for museums and heritage in these two forms of action?  I think they can play an exceptional role in connecting and motivating professionals and the public to make positive changes, but that this has been untapped and unrecognised in the UK despite a number of initiatives.

The DCMS has a Sustainability Plan (2008-2011), with a working group and research by Arup on the impact of climate change. Alongside, English Heritage, National Trust, Royal Parks and CABE are developing research and public projects, and the Science Museum, Royal Academy and Tate are amongst others modelling sustainable operations.  However, given the situation, there is an inadequate breadth and holistic thinking in this response. For example, ARUP’s questionnaire assumes that all DCMS bodies are based in a physical site and focuses on local climate impacts.

We might learn something from museums in Australia, where there is more substantial and visible emphasis on public engagement.  They make good use of social media, with Powerhouse Museum running a blog called Free Radicals and the Museum 3.0 network running a climate change group. There have been some large-scale exhibitions such as Climate Change, Our Future Our Choice at the Australian Museum, supported by plenty of debate and media coverage. While these examples are science-based there have also been projects addressing cultural aspects of climate, such as the Adelaide Migration Museum showing the effects on the people of Tuvalu and National Museum of Australia supporting work on the cultural dimensions of climate change.

Australia’s collaborative or higher-level projects emphasise public engagement too. Australia ICOMOS held a public forum and symposium on climate change and cultural heritage. University of Western Sydney is leading partnership research (worth £766,645) on the agency of museums in tackling climate change. Early findings are that the public rate museums as trustworthy and neutral, that they have the authority to convey climate issues.

I can see a number of reasons for this emphasis. The Australian museums sector has a reputation for being pragmatic and responsive to the contemporary context, for example, by leading in digital innovation. The physical distance between museums means they need to use virtual tools to collaborate, helping multilateralism and openness. Collaborations between heritage and environment are aided by all being part of the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. More viscerally, Australians have direct experience of climate change, exposed as they are to forest fires and drought, and with 80% of them living in coastal areas at risk of rising seas. They also have an imperative to deal sensitively with the cultural rights of indigenous people in threatened lands.

I want to see the UK learn from this but going even further, for example, by:

  • Continuing to reduce emissions and conserve heritage sites, but shifting to prioritise community engagement, working more closely with agencies involved in natural environment, place-making, engineering and sustainable economics.
  • A drive towards contextualisation, so that artefacts and knowledge are more dynamically placed into an ecosystem of landscape, biodiversity and human economics.
  • A redefinition of audiences as communities of interest, groups of people who need to learn and solve problems.

This sounds difficult. It will be difficult. But there is a momentum building up here, with conferences and training coming up in March and June, including the Museum-ID event ‘Towards Greener Museums: Sustainability & Environmental Strategies’. Maybe we can pull together at this time to respond as the global situation demands.





Children as our teachers

20 12 2009

Frank Furedi in ‘Turning Children into Orwellian Eco-Spies’ warns that there are resonances of Stalinism in the new orthodoxy by which we use children to teach adults about climate change. I have concerns about the same phenomenon but I’m coming from very different perspectives on both education and the environment. I’ve also had qualms when meeting people who are convinced that the solution to climate change is to educate children. The reasons for my qualms are many: It’s too late to wait until children are running the world; they can’t vote until 18 so if we should focus on educating anyone it’s the late middle-aged and elderly, who make up the majority of voters;  it doesn’t seem fair to put the onus on children. The main reason I baulk is that The Government’s reductive and misguided response to every problem (the root cause of which is usually gross inequality or unchecked capitalism) is to add yet another subject to the curriculum. Firstly these expensive initiatives are based on a misconception, that children will learn by being taught a lesson, by teachers who have been told to deliver compulsory lessons. Secondly, every time a new lesson is added, the less time there is for learning that might help children adapt to a difficult future.

Furedi has written a book called ‘Wasted, Why Education isn’t Educating’ in which he decries the erosion of traditional disciplines by endless additions of trendy topics (for example in the Rose Review of the Primary Curriculum). In the article he says that environmentalism is infecting every subject, such as geography and history (as if they’re not utterly relevant to those subjects). I’m not concerned so much about the death of traditional disciplines in schools, but more that those in power are so wedded to the idea of subjects per se, old or new, that they continually add more to the diet. I’m not so concerned that the environment is infecting every subject, than that ecological systems thinking has been and still is so absent from education. Furedi conflates environmental topics with ‘scare-mongering’, but, on the contrary, effective environmental education is not about frightening people. It is about empowering them, helping them develop adaptive coping strategies. The more that is understood about a frightening scenario, the more people are able to resist and cope.

I suspect that if we framed school learning differently, whereby children had more involvement in deciding what enquiries are relevant, they would decide pretty quickly that the environment is pretty relevant. If we made clear to them that learning is about preparing for the future, that to live well in the future they would need to learn how to solve problems, co-operate, access knowledge and design new solutions, they would gravitate towards the biggest problems. Furedi’s position is that our current education philosophies undermine the authority of adults. I believe that adults (in affluent societies) have eroded their own authority by becoming infantilised, yet we form myths around the gravity and arduousness of an adult working life. We underestimate the ability of children and young people to think because we have forgotten how to think ourselves. We have progressed into a state of mature denial, treating problems too abstractly, too much in isolation and too much as issues for agonistic debate.





Letter from America

15 10 2009

I’m sitting in a hotel bar in Washington DC, a few minutes from Capitol Hill, writing this post for Blog Action Day. The theme for this Action Day is calling on Obama to tackle climate change at Copenhagen and beyond. I was going to blog about the reason I’m over here in Washington, working for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, whose vision is ‘understanding the natural world and our place in it’.  The museum is planning a fantastic new space and programme that aims to change people to take responsibility for our planet. But before writing about this I have to get something off my chest: I am really quite shocked by the unsustainable lifestyle here. I knew the facts about America’s consumption and emissions and I’ve visited twice before. I did think though, that there must have been some change in response to the climate crisis. Nope. Everyone looks blank when you mention environmental reasons for wanting less plastic, air con or paper, as if they haven’t heard the news. They pat their mouths with another paper napkin from their personal pile of napkins, rather than licking their lips, and ask if they can get you anything else, as you seem a bit dissatisfied. Because, really they are exceptionally warm and friendly people here in Washington and I’m not being sarcastic about that. This isn’t personal at all. It’s about the norms that people accept.

The food here can be relatively tasteless or crude tasting, and is always in vast portions, so that loads is wasted or causing obesity, and if it’s not hot it’s tooth-achingly chilled. It’s a society that finds it easy to complain about poor service but there are no complaints about this waste.  If the Americans had heard the news they would surely feel sick and at least show signs of wanting to change. But I see hardly any messaging in advertising, news, retail and hospitality services to be more sustainable.

They can’t have heard the news, not understood its meaning or just won’t believe it. Maybe they really haven’t seen the news. It is true I’ve seen no single mention of environment in two thick Washington Posts, delivered unwanted to my hotel door, which doesn’t appear to have any environment coverage at all judging by its website navigation, even as Obama is today involved in climate summits with India & China. Climate protests in Washington, such as Power Shift in February, seem more fully covered by The Guardian than Washington papers.

The news on one level is pretty simple. It’s as simple as a tiger leaping into your face. If you saw a tiger coming at you, you would panic, run and/or die. Unfortunately we don’t see it. We kind of see it, but we interpret it as something all cuddly, frozen in time or not there at all like the tiger leaping out of a display in the Museum of Natural History. We are so used to seeing the natural world as if in a diorama, threatening but safely distant. Actually, the news is worse than one tiger coming at us. It’s us going at all the tigers, and going at many 1000s more species of animals and plants, including our fellow humans. It’s us having become a ‘force of nature’ and accellerated geologic time, as Alan Weisman describes in A World Without Us.

Bill McKibben helps make it clear with his 350 campaign. The planet has never before seen more than 300 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. We are currently at 390 parts and rising. We need to get it down to below 350 to sustain some semblance of liveability on the planet. Above 350, as McKibben says ‘you can’t have a planet’.

So, Americans, you understand the concept of choice. What do you choose? Asking for a bigger portion of steak now or a liveable planet for your own future years and your children’s? We’re not talking about your descendants, we’re talking about you. Ask everyone who has any power, whether it’s the power to stop serving individual plastic bottles of water, or the power to change the law to reduce emissions, to make the change because you demand better service.





Climate change begins at home: the world is our home

12 09 2009

Yesterday I was at a meeting at DCMS about how the cultural, tourism, heritage & sport sectors can adapt to climate change. Roger Street of the UKCP09 was there with a great set of maps showing flood risk across the regions. Heritage sites such as listed buildings, churches and museums were marked, many swamped by blue (flood water). Central London has thousands of these sites. The bluest region is East Anglia, and this region doesn’t have a flood barrier. I went up close to this map and saw the place I grew up in, my home, a tiny Broads village called Dilham, covered in blue. My mind lurched back to childhood, remembering the expanses of those Norfolk fields and broads, the dense wet woods that nobody walked in, exploring for miles on our bikes. My home was a vast space but on this map it was insignificant. If ‘managed retreat’ is applied in this area, it will also be gone for good not just damaged.

I was thinking about the concept of home throughout this meeting because the discussion was dominated by talk of tourists – visitors not being at home. Culture and heritage were seen within the paradigm of ‘pleasure and leisure’ (escape, fun, culture as commodity and so on) rather than ‘knowledge and learning’ (including ethics, science, community ownership of its heritage, media as educator and so on).  Tourism was probably the focus because it contributes so much to the UK economy (the sector is worth £114.4bn).

Much of the talk was about how a visitor attraction might cope with and make an opportunity from an extreme event such as drought or flood, with positive suggestions including ‘selling more ice cream’. Because we weren’t exploring specific situations we couldn’t articulate the risks and impacts with great clarity. It was stated that if UK has heatwaves and drought, it will be a less enticing place to visit, not taking into account that the UK will be less hot than other places. A key risk was noted to be that our organisations’ reputations will suffer if affected by extreme events, which doesn’t account for public equanimity when a crisis affects us all.

Like most Government departments, the DCMS doesn’t have an international remit, so its sustainability strategy focuses on ‘home’ and therefore only looks at the UK Climate Projections and focuses on regional or local effects. This is an echo of the problem with the DECC assessment of its GHG emissions, because it neglects to account for outsourced industry and so it puts a positive gloss on its own ratings. It is part of the same closed logic which obsesses about carbon trading rather than collaborating internationally to support alternatives and geoengineering solutions. The UK is amongst the countries likely to be least affected in physical geography terms by climate change. However, we are an exceptionally globalised country – our home is the world in more ways than one. We rely on non-domestic sources for our food supply and many of our raw materials and manufactured goods. As more countries suffer severe consequences of climate change, there will be pressures on our aid commitments, our investment in preventing terrorism and war and our management of mass migration. In assessing how climate change will affect the DCMS family, and what we can do about it, we have to take these global impacts into account first and foremost.

These (rather big) quibbles aside, I was really pleased that DCMS is doing this work and talking about adaption strategies (not just mitigation) and I did learn a lot.  I was also very thankful to be invited and hope my quibbling won’t prevent involvement in future. I think that my quibbling may be more effective if my insight can be sharpened by challenge and support from others so do please comment on this and on the Framework for Climate Action for the sector.  I need to know if I’m begging big questions because narrow logic is one of the biggest obstacles to effective action.





Time to get serious

1 09 2009

I just heard a BBC presenter stating that it is too late to reduce emissions to avoid dangerous effects of climate change. We’ve known this some years but the trusted voice of the BBC now confirms it. The topic was the Royal Society report on Geoengineering Climate, launched today with James Lovelock and others. Their point is that although we should continue to reduce emissions through industry and lifestyle, on a nation by nation basis using carbon trading as the basic mechanism, we also urgently need more radical and imaginative global solutions such as carbon scrubbing, carbon sinks and algal blooms in the sea.

The carbon emissions approach, termed ‘mitigation’ or ‘amelioration’ is vital but it needs to move into a new phase where we adapt to the effects of global climate disruption, which includes continuing to mitigate it. This balance of the terms ‘mitigation’ and ‘adaptation’ is quite complex, as you can see from this report on Scotland’s Climate Change adaptation framework. Can you separate the two terms? What do they both mean?

For me, what matters is accepting that change is happening. Polar ice is melting. Wildfires are raging. It also means accepting that climate change is unpredictable, so we must not argue over the precise predictions for the future but plan for wide ranges of possibility. It means keeping a ‘both/and’ approach, that you must both hope and act for a better future and see the worst of what could happen if we don’t hope and act.

On Sunday, I went over to the Climate Camp at Blackheath. It was fascinating: quiet, focused and thoughtful, like a climate university (although perhaps missing some expert lecturers). The focus was ‘what are we going to ask for at Copenhagen? How do we get world leaders to aim for more ambitious emissions targets and look at alternatives to carbon trading?’ I discovered the tent of EcoLabs – with a display of artwork commissioned to illustrate the Future Scenarios in Mark Lynas’ book Six Degrees. MIT now believes that the likely temperature increase will be in the range of 3.5-7.4 degrees hotter by 2100 so it potentially exceeds the book’s 6th degree. It was hard to even face looking at the effects of the third degree increase. As I went out of the tent, a smiling dad with a little toddler on his shoulders came in.

I decided whatever I was doing wasn’t enough. So, what am I doing?

This afternoon I’m volunteering at the launch of 1010 at Tate Modern, a huge campaign to galvanise the UK’s businesses, schools, museums, households, councils etc to reduce emissions by 10% by the end of 2010. It is set up by Franny Armstrong, director of The Age of Studid, and is looking like it has the potential to captivate people’s imaginations. After today I want to focus on getting cultural and heritage organisations to sign up to the 1010 pledge.

This weekend I’m going to an event called Moot, to camp with a small group of people who work in museum, gallery and arts education who are concerned about ecology and climate change.

Next week I’m going to a small conference led by DCMS, who have commissioned Arup to develop an adaptation strategy for the cultural & heritage sector.

I’m continuing to work on a project, now called The Tide Clock, about the role of cultural heritage & creative activism in areas of coastal and fluvial flood risk.

I’m developing a framework for cultural heritage organisations to think about both mitigating and adapting to global climate disruption, looking at both their operations and their public engagement mission. I’m considering creating a network called ClimB for climate brokers in the cultural and heritage sectors, who work with clients or within their organisations to implement and improve this framework. I’d be very grateful for any feedback on this draft framework and from anyone keen to support a network of this sort. Leave comments here and/or email me on bridget.mckenzie@flowassociates.com





Coasting – book about rising sea levels and heritage

1 07 2009

sculpture shed, originally uploaded by bridgetmckenz.

I’m writing a book about coastal and estuary places that are threatened by rising sea levels, thinking about the value of the cultural heritage in these places, and exploring the role of cultural and creative activists in tackling the problem and helping communities cope with change. I’m taking photos for the book too.





Climate change and museums in France, by Marine Soichot

29 06 2009

I am a PhD student in museum studies at the national Natural History Museum in Paris (France) and my work is on how science museums and science centres can be a place to display climate change.  Bridget asked me for a short presentation of my work for this blog. After a long first draft, I split it into three smaller posts. Here is the first one, a short description of the climate change problem in the French context.

Although the scientific label of climate change is powerful, stakes in this problem largely overrun the traditional academic research field. There are many political, economical and social implications. The problem is all the more impregnating in all fields of society as the focus is on carbon and energy. Climate change has become a subject of public debate and authority interventions and now a full public problem as called by political science. A multiplicity of actors – scientists, politicians, think tanks, companies, journalists and media, NGOs etc. – takes part in the public debate and build together what we call climate change.  The final construction is different depending on who participates in it and on how they participate.

Climate change was first introduced in the scientific and diplomatic sphere (first international discussion in the late 1970 and creation of the IPCC in 1988). Then the problem was developed at a national scale. In France, different actors converged. There was no strong opposition to climate change such as the skeptic movement in the US. Climate change was early recognized as a true problem by scientists, media, politicians and NGO (that is not to mean that there was an early political action to deal with it). In a simplistic way, the following points structure main discourses about climate change in France:

  • We observed a rise of average temperature over several decades. This increase is caused by human activities and first of all by fossil fuel consumption. Indeed, more and more green house gases are released making the atmosphere warmer and warmer.
  • This rise of temperature will cause climate modifications whose consequences are various: sea level rising, ice melting, species extinction and biodiversity loss, storms and flooding.
  • It will affect human society in many ways. It is an emergency. We have to act now and cut off our green house gas emissions at any level.
  • Everybody has a share of responsibility in this problem and has to act at his own level. We all have to change our way of life and become an eco-citizens.

Climate change is also strongly linked with sustainable development and the idea of a new green way of life. It is becoming a cause without opponent such as road safety or genetic diseases.  That is not to say there are no oppositions or controversies but they are limited in specific fields and given low publicity in the public sphere. This situation is quite different from the way climate change was developed in other countries. Indeed, a public problem is different in each country because of the history and the culture.

Marine Soichot

www.soichot.com/home





The sea, the sea

3 06 2009

Slaughden lost to the seaMIT have developed a new, more accurate model for predicting climate change. Using it, scientists now have strong evidence that there is a 90% chance that the global temperature rise will be in the range of 3.5-7.4 C degrees temperature increase by 2100. The emissions reduction policies of the world’s powers are based on a notion that the temperature increase will be around 2C. John Holdren, President Obama’s environmental advisor  tells us that 30 million years ago, when it was 3C warmer than it is now, the sea levels were 30 metres higher than they are now. That doesn’t mean that a 3C increase will result in similar sea level rises, but it shows us how Earth is not a stable place but capable of massive disruptive changes.

Many scientists have previously warned that the official prediction of a 2C warming is highly conservative, and also Stern’s report makes clear that urgent reduction of carbon emissions is necessary to avoid the devastating effects of 2C, so this new prediction may not come as a great shock to some. But it should be a shock to Governments and corporations who have put economic growth ahead of sustainability.

One of the most important elements in this scenario is the sea. Here are a few reasons why:

The well known reason that melting polar ice caps cause rising sea levels.

Climate disruption leads to more violent and unpredictable storms which cause erosion and flooding of coastal and river areas.

If the sea runs out of edible fish stocks, we will eat more farmed meat. This will lead to more forest clearance. Farm animals emit more carbon emissions globally than flying.

Phytoplankton in the oceans acts as a greater carbon sink than any terrestrial vegetation. Pollution and plastic deplete the quantity of phytoplankton.

The more we develop coastal wilderness, the less resistant is the land to flooding and erosion.

There are many more reasons why we should pay attention to marine and coastal conservation.   That’s why I went to lobby Parliament on May 13th to make final adjustments to the draft of the Marine Bill. This Bill includes ambitions  to create a single authority for UK Marine and Coastal management and to ensure more ecologically significant sites are protected. I was lucky enough to meet my MP, Joan Ruddock, who is also the Under Secretary for Climate Change and Energy. She has held ministerial offices in environmental policy for some years and is a botanist by training so is extremely sympathetic to the ecological cause. She talked about the work they are engaged in with Obama and the UN to combat climate change. From that level, the conversation managed to get onto museums. I said I was concerned that the DCMS sector was responding to the climate crisis in a rather unco-ordinated, slow and unrigorous way. She said that she loved the Horniman Museum and Kew Gardens but rarely had time to enjoy them. I pointed out that museums, heritage bodies and botanical gardens have a much greater role than providing leisure activities, but she immediately agreed that they contribute in very serious ways to scientific research, to environmental conservation and to archiving knowledge that might be lost in any kinds of collapsed society or environment. We should be doing more to increase public understanding of that role, to raise the credibility and sense of purpose of the cultural sector.

I’m writing a book on threatened coastal heritage and the role of culture (artists, museums, creative community activists) in protecting that heritage and helping us cope with the loss of it. This is one way I can help to raise awareness of the value of the cultural & heritage sectors in that respect.








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