Progress is sustainability

30 05 2011

“They killed me when they took my land” Sinan Akçal

“…progress is about being able to sustain yourself…” Maura Harrington

The problem is an extraordinarily complex one. Human actions have already breached or still threaten the nine planetary boundaries, with climate change the biggest actor of ecological collapse. Climate change is not the single issue but a giant one in a dynamic set of interrelated issues, although it is one of the boundaries that is easiest to solve. Easiest to solve, but still, not easy. That it is easier to solve than the others shows what a mess we are in.

Emissions in 2010 were higher than ever despite the recession, prompting alarm that 2C stabilisation of temperature would be impossible, with a much greater likelihood of a 4C increase by 2100. Governments and media will continue to talk about averting future disaster while failing to notice that anthropogenic disasters have been hitting for some time and are increasing in severity. More food riots and conflict are predicted, but media and government responses focus on increasing the flow of money and curtailing tyrants rather than preventing damage of natural resources.

Why is there an increase in emissions? Because the response to global distress by almost every country that is not entirely torn by conflict or slowed by entropy is to effect a rapid ‘great leap forward. For one of many examples, Ecuador is champing at the bit to destroy vast areas of rainforest to extract only a small amount of oil. These examples mean yet more deforestation, extraction, power stations, dams, factories and city infrastructure, always in the name of looking after the interests of a nation’s people. But, the benefits for the majority of people are dubious. These ‘great leaps forward’ mean overlooking or promoting corrupt, exploitative, ecocidal and ‘culture-cidal’ practices in the interests of what is considered the greater good of ‘more jobs’ and GDP. Many of these countries are forgetting to ensure the stability of local agriculture (and/or productive wilderness) because of the belief that jobs means money to buy food and other land-based produce from elsewhere. However, as we breach planetary boundaries there is less ‘elsewhere’ that food can be produced. Add to this, growing inequality which contributes to the statistic that 50% of all food is wasted (if all aspects of the production cycle are accounted for, including losses because of food’s transportation from ‘elsewhere’). The myth that rapid industrial progress will  benefit all a nation’s people remains a very powerful one, despite the fact that corporate executive pay increased by 32% in 2010 while workers’ pay endured the most prolonged squeeze since the 1920’s.

Why is this myth so powerful? Individuals conform to social norms based on what they understand will be optimal for them. Never before has it been so hard for people to decide for themselves, based on concrete evidence, what is optimal for them. (For more about social norms see the work of Dr Cristina Bicchieri.) Worldwide, normative values have switched massively away from those where cultural stability is achieved by having the means to thrive with the land, towards values whereby individual or family security is achieved by having a job away from (or against) the land. Those who uphold the former values can often be described as backward, foolish and standing in the way of progress. Those who drive the latter values can often project themselves as progressive, smart and caring for people. Of course, it’s much more complex than this polarity suggests.

These two news stories about Ireland and Turkey show us people who for generations have provided food from their land but are now being ousted by government-commissioned industrial schemes. The long battle of the people of Erris against Shell has been narrated as a film, out now, called The Pipe. Maura Harrington, one of the activists, says: “This is about a sense of place and its people. We may not qualify as indigenous people, but we have our land and culture, to which we belong. All those people who emigrated from Erris through history, Erris never left them. They say we are opposed to progress, and laugh at us. But to me, progress is the ability to sustain yourself, and those who come after you. It’s nature and nurture: what we here call muinhin, which means of the place, and cointeann, which means to get a little awkward when that place and its people are about to be torn apart.”

I find these words very potent, an inspiration for those of us in the arts and heritage sectors. Museums have traditionally been about gathering and protecting the artefacts and knowledge of dislocated cultures and environments, as well as collapsed civilisations. We were trained with a normative mindset which said that this dislocation and ‘culture-cide’ had happened in the past. We accepted that the later 20th Century had settled into a state of post-modern multiculturalism, and we worked positively to promote tolerance of dislocated peoples. That was not wrong but we took our eyes off the ball: in the ‘great leap forward’ of the developed world we failed to notice the ongoing and escalating destruction of habitats.

One key problem is that we are distracted by arguments about the right approach. Aside from, or beneath, the technical arguments about nuclear, geoengineering, carbon tax and so on, I see two dimensions to the disagreement: Between people-centred thinking and systems-thinking; between transitional economics and growth-based economics. See this matrix for a visual version of the two dimensions. The disagreements between those who are closest in their views can be the most intense. The ‘growthers’ concerned about climate change accuse organisations such as NEF of being too weak, that solutions for social and environmental injustice depend on boosting economies to get people out of poverty. The ‘transitioners’ assert that economic growth must be decoupled from resource use growth, and that growth does not have to be measured in money. Growthers tend to see climate change as the big issue, which needs to be tackled rapidly with big engineering and social change projects. Transitioners tend to see ecological collapse and resource scarcity as the problem-complex, to be resisted gently but urgently by locally-scaled alternative tactics. It was in reading this post by Rob Hopkins (founder of the Transition movement) that I wondered if it is possible to reduce the polarities between them. As he says, everybody is choosing to act primarily for their families and communities. We all have common cause. On the whole, those of us who see our communities as including wildlife and who see the life-giving land as our home are more likely to take a longer view, looking further back to sustained traditions in places but also further ahead to ensure that they are sustained. We need to overcome the argument about growth by focusing on prosperity through advanced technologies (and revived practices) that restore the land’s capacity and we need to come together to be resilient in the face of runaway climate change.

Shared Horizons and New Stories

8 05 2011

Four things cropped up yesterday, to slow me down and make me reflect, on what was otherwise a fretful day. I was fretting because it was the day of the AV referendum and most people were voting against a small step towards better democracy. Also I had heard all the bad news, again, but this time worse than ever. (The Arctic melting faster than thought, higher temperatures predicted than thought, clearer realisation that time is running out…) The four arresting things were:

1. The Hot Science conference in Australia, about the role of museums in climate change communication; 2. George Monbiot’s article responding to Paul Kingsnorth about the role of stories in helping environmentalists find their way; 3. Finishing Keri Facer’s book ‘Learning Futures: Education, Technology and Social Change‘; 4. Ending up with late night discussion on the power of the media in influencing people’s political decisions.

So, I was reflecting on the role of: museums and heritage; the narrative arts (or all the arts, if you want to say art is all about stories in the broadest sense); education; and the media…in both their institutionalised and informal states, in dealing with the problem to end all problems, that of the planet’s state of health.

I was struck by how difficult it is for everyone, in each of these sectors, to tell a story that is big enough, and to bridge technology and imagination in ways that are nuanced and practical enough. In many debates about how to change attitudes towards the environment, too often we conflate all the contributing sectors into two sides: ‘science’ and ‘communicators’, and call for more interaction between the two. Will that be enough? Do we understand enough what that looks like? What might it look like in these four domains?  First, museums.

Hot Science Global Citizens is a major partnership project between museums and researchers in Australia of a scale that we can only dream of in the UK. It explores the agency of the museum sector in climate change interventions. In the UK, work in this area is patchy, small scale or specialised. Examples include the Science Museum in their planning of climate exhibitions, research by individuals such as Lucy Veale, the Happy Museum project (albeit with a focus on wellbeing) and some work by MLA/Renaissance including a training toolkit I’ve written called Museums for the Future (soon to be launched).

I was keen to follow the Symposium proceedings, which included two admirable UK speakers, Mike Hulme from UEA and Giles Lane from Proboscis. I could only follow by Twitter, trying to stay awake for their day/my night, so I can’t accurately report proceedings (while awaiting papers to go online). The talk was mainly about how to communicate the science of climate change, and how museums might need to broaden their horizons to help. I commented that the whole museum paradigm needs to shift from one of communicating knowledge to one of problem-solving. Elaine Gurian had said that our idea of museum communities needs to change from being place-based to ideas-based. I think the shift needs to be from ideas to problem-solving (in places, with ideas). Museums are the right places for situated problem-solving because of their unique three-fold function: 1) they are places to experience culture and to gather with others, 2) they expose us to knowledge beyond ourselves (increasingly, with digital culture, forming part of a global knowledge ecosystem), and 3) they conserve material heritage so that we combat destruction and promote learning and creativity.

The Twitter discussion also hovered around a question about the need for new climate icons, to draw attention to the potential loss of things that people really care about. I wonder though about whether we are already fatigued with too many icons. I suspect people believe they could actually bear the loss of things they might simply appreciate but don’t know that they need, such as birds, trees or coastal beauty spots. I think people need to know how the whole damn lot of icons is connected, how they all go down together in environmental collapse. Alongside that, people need to understand that climate change is not separate from other aspects of environmental disruption. The debate seemed a little limited by focusing on the role of science museums and on the challenge of communicating climate science. Engagement needs to broaden from climate to planet, but retain meaning in people’s lives by focusing on how we live in places.

On to the narrative arts…

George Monbiot wrote an interesting piece, responding to Paul Kingsnorth, the founder with Dougald Hine of the Dark Mountain project. Monbiot summarised the big problems tearing apart the environmental movement encapsulated in his point number 7: We have no idea what to do next. I feel his desperation sometimes, but I think it was interesting that he didn’t mention the adaptation, resilience and transition movements that are making positive headway in bridging technology and culture to know what to do next. However, I was heartened that he admitted the potential in Kingsnorth’s call for new stories, as the environmental movement is too led by numerical strategy. I felt, though, that Monbiot’s notion of stories needs expansion. Stories are powerful not so much because they give us answers but because the narrative arts, in treatments that are not too dogmatic or closed, offer opportunities for people to reach a shared horizon of understanding. So, this is stories not telling us what to do but being a way to work out what we should do. The call for new stories has to be for content that relates to this extraordinary crisis, and moreover for new forms of engagement. The forms of engagement have to be powerful enough to push against the mainstream stories that quietly or overtly endorse consumption, innerism and violence against the other. The Passion, by Wildworks, performed at Easter in Port Talbot, is a good example of the kind of participatory storytelling that could be powerful enough. Richard Kearney explains the role of stories in terms of mythos (plot), mimesis (recreation), catharsis (release), phronesis (wisdom) and ethos (ethics). If we can expand this to how narrative engagement might help tackle George’s problem:

– Mythos: using plotting to devise new futures, imagining ways that we might overcome conflict and resolve problems

– Mimesis: holding a mirror to the state of the world as it rapidly changes, showing us what we cannot see

– Catharsis: providing an essential therapeutic function to help us be resilient and calm

– Phronesis: recording and channeling deep knowledge, so that we might better know how to think in systems, make decisions and apply innovations

– Ethos: shifting our ‘deep frames’ from values that are self-enhancing to values that are self-transcendent and altrustic.

The other two domains (media and education) will have to be dealt with in a much more cursory fashion, but I have written about them in more depth elsewhere.

On media, while the BBC was covering the referendum and elections, there was some Twitter discussion with Dougald Hine and others about the need for new TV and radio formats that don’t reinforce political differences through antagonistic debate, but which enable more creative problem-solving. I like this idea very much. My Flow co-director,Mark Stevenson, is already focusing  his attention on some ideas for broadcast media to enable people to reclaim the future, solve problems in positive ways and take action.

On education, I will just urge you to read Keri Facer’s book on Learning Futures. This makes a very strong case for schools as centres for community problem-solving. She argues that we have been developing our vision for education with a far too narrow vision of the future, and that we should be embracing:

– The emergence of new relationships between humans and technology

– The opportunities and challenges of aging populations

– The development of new forms of knowledge and democracy

– The challenges of climate warming and environmental disruption

– The potential for radical economic and social inequalities

I entirely agree with her thesis but my only disappointment is that the challenges of climate warming and environmental disruption in particular were not actually addressed, albeit listed as not commonly considered. The book helped us imagine a future school, but it didn’t actually help us imagine the future. That is the challenge for us now, for new stories and learning structures, which help us imagine how bad the future could be whilst simultaneously imagining how we can work it around to provide the means to thrive.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.