Pinning down the future

22 07 2010

Last week DECC, the Department of Energy and Climate Change, launched a Google Earth map that allows you to see the effects of a 4C temperature increase on the planet. So, now we can see how bad it’s going to get. It has helpful videos of Met Office climate specialists giving us weather reports from the future. This demonstration is essential because even with current plans for climate action (worldwide), we are heading for a 4C increase by 2100. At worst case scenarios if various tipping points escalate increases, it would be at a 5C to 7C increase by 2100, which potentially means a 3.5C to 4C increase by 2050. (You may have noticed my earlier posts stating that extreme scenario of 4C by 2050, which I realise now was focusing too much on the upper range forecast. But that upper range is still a very high risk. References for the latest models are given below, thanks to environmental researcher Robin Webster.)

So, this is serious. You might think then that we’re lucky to have a new Government which has crowed ‘we want to be the greenest government ever!’ Unfortunately, this week we hear that DECC must cut its already tiny funding by £85 million, that the Sustainable Development Commission will be axed and that investment in low carbon technology will end. A spokesman said “The whole of Whitehall is making savings; it’s only right that DECC plays its part in tackling the deficit.”

My eyes keep catching on that ‘only right’. It seems to me that our politics have not only lost all sight of ethics, they have lost all sight of logic. I’m also pretty distressed that Jeremy Hunt has asked the Department for Media, Culture and Sport to cuts its staff and operations by 50%. But why should this be a contest in which it’s seen as only fair that every department should make savings? Ministers are told that if they make their cuts quickly they get to sit in the star chamber to arbitrate on other cuts outside their own areas. So, it’s like a party game; knock down your own skittles then rush to the safe zone where you can point fingers at the losers. DCMS and DECC are both miniscule already (see if you can even find them on this visualisation) compared to other departments.

What do we know about the strengths of the UK economy and its potential for growth? We know that the financial sector is corrupt and that its inflated growth has come from the kind of exploitation of natural resources and people that causes starvation of millions of people and ecocide of forests and oceans. Lloyds is now telling us that future financial growth must take account of the security risks arising from environmental damage and scarcity of resources. We also know that the inflation of property values is unsustainable. The UK’s industrial production is increasingly being outsourced. What remains but two strong potential areas of growth, and both are about the UK playing a leading role in an emerging knowledge economy: Culture and Ecological Innovation, both of which need to be underpinned by technology, science research and education.

By ‘culture’ I mean enabling playful, imaginative practices in the media, in schools, workplaces and communities, not just the curating of culture in theatres or galleries. By ecological innovation I don’t just mean green energy, I mean new ways of knowing how to live on the land, how to manage sustainable communities, how to restore biodiversity, how to create products that don’t exploit or harm the planet. That kind of innovation relies on connection with cultural knowledge (what do people from diverse and past cultures know, what knowledge do we have of plants and materials that we can apply?) and creativity (how can we apply the extraordinary talents of our artists, designers and technologists to these innovations? how can everyone develop and apply these capacities?)

So, rather than withdraw funds from these two areas, the Government should be investing in them with gusto. Not just subsidising them but investing in them. It is impossible to pin down the future with certainty and we can’t hope to. We have to live with the uncertainty but at the same time we must strive as hard as we can to model the future, to look at the possible variants and to beg no questions. But moreover, we must act co-operatively and imaginatively to bring down each of these variables that are weaving such a frightening future.


Sokolov, A. P. et al. (2009). Probabilistic Forecast for Twenty-First-Century Climate Based on Uncertainties in Emissions (Without
Policy) and Climate Parameters. Journal of Climate, Volume 22, Issue 19, 5175 – 5204.)

MIT News, 19 May 2009 at:

Pope, V. (2008). The scientific evidence for early action on climate change. At:

Agency, belonging and the divinity of plastic

7 07 2010

I went to a fascinating workshop at the October Gallery yesterday with George Nuku, a Maori, an artist, a collaborator with museums and champion of young people. He was also the first contemporary Maori with a complete body tattoo. The trail that led me there started when I was wandering round Sheringham, my Norfolk ‘ancestral home’. I’d just visited the newly opened Sheringham Museum and seen a photo of my great great grandfather, who had been coastguard and promenade inspector. He had also been to Japan & the Pacific as a naval officer, training the Japanese navy in British ways. I was thinking about how I had his eyes and nose, about my belonging to that place, yet also my distance from the town now. My relative (‘the Old Chap’) must have felt an odd dislocation travelling East, and I was wondering what he saw through his eyes and what stayed with him, what knowledge he brought to Sheringham and how it infused the place. That led me to reflect on my husband Brian’s ancestors who went from Scotland to settle in New Zealand. I wondered about what changed in them, despite always looking Scottish, in becoming part of a place that was another people’s.

I was carrying my camera, as I have on and off in Sheringham for 30 years, looking for something different to photograph. As it happens I always find something different even in a small place like that: evidence of change, of erosion of the coast or evidence of moments in time like the 1st World Cup English game. But, then I saw George. I’d never seen anyone in Sheringham like it before. I was stunned because in a second I knew he was Maori, and realised the resonance with all my thoughts at that moment. So, that sense of interest led me to his workshop in London. He’d been working at the October Gallery with young people related to the EthKnowCentrix exhibition, which included his work, and the resulting Cut it Out exhibition can be seen there now. He’s a sculptor who brings traditional Maori forms into new materials and locations. For example, he reconstructed missing parts of a war canoe, using perspex rather than wood, for the National Museums of Scotland, and he loves to carve in polystyrene.There has been some criticism from Maori for this, that he’s not using proper traditional materials. He says to them ‘don’t worry, plastic will be traditional by this afternoon’.

The first words he spoke to us were in the tongue of his mother’s people, the Ngate Kahungunu from the Heretaunga region of the North Island. It was an incantation to draw in our ancestors to the meeting. I was reminded of the way that many indigenous people make decisions, consulting with generations of ancestors and successors, not just the living. Immediately I was struck that agency was a central theme for him. He talked about the relationship of his people with the British. The Maori were honourable and generous, to be in a position of agency, to give and ‘treat’ in order to be equal. They have been disenfranchised and alienated but he feels the story isn’t over yet, that having no hope for equality would make all that suffering in vain. When the ‘knives and blankets and tables and chairs’ started coming, Maori saw they must be part of that change, to see the value of those things and deal in them. ‘You had to be part of that change, to direct change rather than be directed by it. Nobody is more equipped to deal with these changes than yourself’.

He showed some images from a ceremony in which he performed, at the Pasifika Styles exhibition in Cambridge, associated with the birth of a child and he talked about how creativity and procreation are the same thing. He feels that men in particular have a longing to create, to be closer to the miracle of creation of people which women are blessed and pained with. Creativity  is an utterly human power, and human agency is all around our potential to convert materials and to ride change. One kind of material at the moment that is giving the planet a lot of grief is plastic and of course the oil that it’s made from. I asked if those who object to his use of modern materials most object to the use of plastic for reasons of marine pollution causing biodiversity loss and climate change. He said that plastic is from the earth, it is indigenous, and that through art we can give it its divinity. It was an optimistic moment for me, in a week in which I felt mired in worries about the unrepairable cracks in the ocean leaking millions of gallons of oil. I don’t know yet what reasons for optimism there are but I felt stronger for his example.

Tate cup

1 07 2010

tatecup, originally uploaded by bridgetmckenz.

A discarded Tate coffee cup lying in the Liberate Tate protest spill of oil (molasses) and feathers.


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