The unextinction machine

24 07 2011
12 pictures for youcreatures 1creatures 2creatures 3creatures 4creatures 7
creatures 6creatures 8creatures 9creatures 10creatures 11the unextinction machine

unextinction machine, a set on Flickr.

My daughter Megan (aged 11) and husband Brian have created this amazing mural together. Megan had the idea of a machine that could accelerate evolution and combat extinction, through the power of creativity. The machine spews out new creatures at a rapid rate, as fast as species are going extinct. These new creatures can adapt better to a changing environment. Megan and Brian collaborated together to invent the new creatures, by drawing parts and then completing each others’ drawings. It can be seen from 24 July – 4 September, at the Hill Station, a cafe and cultural centre that is run by and for the community, in Kitto Road, Telegraph Hill, London. The Hill Station is open 7 days a week (excluding evenings).

You can follow updates on Twitter from @unextinctionmac – but please note they might be rather slow, as the machine will be rather busy. Over time, the more vocal and intelligent creatures may be able to start tweeting for it.

Look on the project website for more information. You’ll find out more about how you can get involved in two main ways:

1) You can name our creatures – we will be posting pictures on Flickr of each creature and in the comments you can suggest names for them, and maybe habitats, habits and so on, so that we can care for the creatures. The ones that get named will start tweeting.

2) You can create your own creature. Post a photo of your collaborative drawing or sculpture on the Unextinction Machine group on Flickr








The Sustainability Conundrum

20 04 2011

Today it is one year since the Deepwater Horizon accident, which filled my Summer of 2010 with anxiety for the people and wildlife of the Gulf, and anxiety for the effect of this and other spills on global ecosystems, as the oil gushed week after week into the sea.

Since then BP has been working hard. Working hard to fix its image and its bank balance. Supposedly it has a renewed focus on sustainability, but you don’t even have to read between the lines to see that this is pure greenwash. The headline of BP’s new sustainability strategy is this: “We are determined that BP will be a safer, more risk-aware business. We will deliver on our commitments from the Gulf Coast incident and work hard to earn back the trust in our operations. We will rebuild value for our shareholders by re-establishing our competitive position within the sector by playing our part in meeting the world’s growing demand for energy, as well as participating in the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

This says, quite overtly, that BP can only be sustainable by sustaining its own wealth, which depends on increased extraction, which depends on safer methods so they don’t lose share value. It is true that BP is also investing something towards renewable power. But how much? Over the next 5 years, it will spend only 25% of what it costs them to clean up after the Gulf incident. At the same time, it will spend vastly more on new techniques for tar sands extraction and fracking. The Albertan Tar Sands is the most destructive project on the planet. If it continues, it alone will contribute to a 2C temperature rise. BP’s Sunrise project is helping to expand the operation by enabling more and more extraction. As Bill McKibben reminds us, we have raised the temperature by 1C and look what impact this has had so far. Our actions look set to raise the temperature by 4C to 5C before the century is out, unless we outlaw fracking, deepwater drilling, tar sands, deforestation and other ecocidal tactics, and replace them with alternatives already proven or within our grasp.

I have to say, BP is not alone in its perversion of the concept of sustainability. There are 3,000 large companies causing $2.5 trillion environmental damage a year. Many organisations twist the triad of economic, social and environmental sustainability by isolating and diminishing the importance of the environment.  This is the ‘sustainability conundrum’: that it is possible to call yourself sustainable while actively destroying the planet or being implicated in its destruction. I argue that very few cultural organisations have really addressed this conundrum in order to put environmental sustainability at the heart of their mission. Tate has over 70 green champions across the organisation. Are they ever invited to address the ethics of sponsorship, as they work towards raising over £200 million in sponsorship for expansions to Tate’s London sites? There are two keys to an institution becoming sustainable: one is involving all staff (which Tate and BP have both done), the other is addressing the very core mission of its organisation (which BP has not done at all, and which Tate may still need to consider).

Knowing what we know now, cultural organisations can no longer continue to be consciously complicit with this ecocidal industrial
system. Humans are the only known animal species to destroy their habitat. How can we live with that indicator for humanity without seeking to change it? The only really sound function of a cultural organisation is to ensure the evolution of humanity to build its capacity to sustain life on the planet. This means working towards overcoming: infantilism, addiction to money, the lack of empathy and the hubristic competitive thrust that destroys life in its path to success. More positively, it  gives cultural organisations opportunities to help us imagine non-destructive ways of living, using new materials and smart technologies. To do this they can form partnerships with companies for mutual benefits, not just a simple transaction of money.

This is the challenge often put to me about my position: Isn’t it better for bad money to fund good things than for it to fund more bad things? I say, perhaps a little, but this is not really very much better than the bad. It is much better for ecocidal companies to be going through a root and branch transition towards zero carbon now, and we must all demand that they do so. If cultural organisations are sponsored by ecocidal companies through a transactional relationship, they are not in a position to make that demand. I’m extremely pleased to see that Tate has taken a vocal role in campaigning for the release of Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei from unjustified imprisonment, bravely posting the words ‘Release Ai Wei Wei’ to its walls. This shows Tate is prepared to be radical. Conceivably, they would they do the same if Ai Wei Wei was persecuted for resisting the tyranny of the fossil fuel industry, but where would that leave them in relation to their fossil fuel sponsors? My signature is on this letter to the Guardian asking Tate to rethink its relationship with BP. I feel anxious about being seen to take a radical position, especially given that my family’s income depends on bodies like Tate trusting me. However, longer-term reasoning overrides this. We need to think differently now about what it means to be radical. Bill McKibben said in his speech to 10,000 young people at Power Shift: “you are not the radicals in this fight. The radicals are the people who are fundamentally altering the composition of the atmosphere. That is the most radical thing people have ever done.”

National Trust consultation on forests

31 01 2011

I just posted this comment on the National Trust’s Outdoor Nation blog,

which is inviting views on the Government’s proposed sell off of forests:

Many thanks for opening up this conversation to help people articulate thoughts about the commercialisation and/or communisation of forest ownership.

I have a particular concern about the terms of the debate used to evaluate (or summarise the value of) forests. We now have a number of local, regional and specialist campaign groups (from Forest of Dean, Scotland, Woodland Trust etc) and now, it would seem that your helpful intervention is providing the platform for an alliance, a strong advocacy voice.

The terms used by the existing campaigns to advocate the value of forests focus on:
– the health/wellbeing benefits of amenity access
– economic value of tourism and other activities in forests
– conservation of local ecosystems
– the conservation of beauty and local character

By far the most important reason to protect forest on a global scale is that deforestation is a major cause of climate disruption. Although the UK’s forested land is relatively small, I believe it is vital that our Government shows leadership with other countries. They must do all they can to protect our forest assets as a global public good, to demonstrate to Indonesia, Brazil, Canada etc the absolute importance of forests in maintaining a life-sustaining planet. As some of the UK’s forests seem to be beset by species-jumping Sudden Oak Death and potentially other diseases and impacts of climate change, it is vital that the work of the Forestry Commission continues in this area. I just don’t believe that a number of distributed local trusts can step up to the required challenge of tackling climate impacts on forests (and increasing diverse tree cover to mitigate climate change). One might also ask the question, can we be sure of the commercial value of forests if they become increasingly beset by climate change-related problems?

In summary, I would urge the National Trust to first prioritise raising awareness of the global value of forests, and the changing responsibilities Governments have to maintain them in the face of climate disruption. Then, it may be appropriate to support moves to convert some forests into community assets. If the Forestry Commission is abolised, then bodies such as the Woodland Trust and National Trust and others (CPRE etc) would need to be resourced adequately to form a Forest Conservation Alliance, with greater capacity than the Forestry Commission ever had in order to face these challenges.

Celebrating UK Forests

4 01 2011

‘A culture is no better than its woods’  W.H.Auden

2011 is the UN’s International Year of Forests, celebrating people’s action to sustainably manage the world’s forests. This recognises the importance of conserving forests in tackling all the Millennium Development Goals, in particular mitigating climate change. Forests are the primary habitats for biodiversity. The sustainable management of forests helps tackle poverty. People need access to forests for their wellbeing and they are vital resources for outdoor learning. They are also important sites of cultural heritage too.

Unfortunately, the UK Government sees fit to introduce a policy of selling off all of the forests looked after by the Forestry Commission. This includes prime heritage forests such as the Forest of Dean, New Forest and Sherwood.

I’ve always loved trees, and am addicted to photographing them. There’s nothing that makes me feel happier and more well than a walk through a wood. That in itself is a good enough reason to visit forests but I want to learn more about their stories, their heritage and ecologies. So, as a kind of resolution for a creative project, I want to spend the year celebrating the UK’s forests. I’m going to plan one weekend a month when I (or we as a family) visit a UK forest, camping or staying in a youth hostel. I’ll advertise the dates here in case anyone wants to come with us and join in the celebration, photographing, filming and writing about the forests. In particular, I want to record the ways that people are sustainably managing the forests and also to explore how children feel about them. Do get in touch if you have suggestions for places to visit, places to stay, any great visitor centres or festivals, the best times to go, and people to talk to who have special knowledge about trees. In the meantime, I’m going to read Wildwood by Roger Deakin, as an inspiration for my own writing about forests this year.

And to end with a tiny bit more from another poet: “…And Forest, Great-Breathing-Spirit, rooting to the very end for the life of this planet.” Grace Nichols, From For the Life of This Planet.


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